Stage Coach II

Let’s look at the word itself, “Stagecoach.” It’s a coach – that is, a conveyance for carrying us along – and, in particular, a conveyance for carrying us along between stages on a longer journey. The stagecoach got its name from making regular trips between stages, or stations, which were places of rest provided for stagecoach travelers as well as places for changing to fresh horses. The sense of “coach” that has grown more common these days – a person who “coaches” an athlete or a sports team -- derives from the first sense of a conveyance for carrying us along. This sense of coach first appeared around 1830 as Oxford University slang for a tutor who “carries” a student through an exam.

So now I ask: What carries you along through the stages of life? How are you coached – instructed, guided, carried – so that you will reach the next stage safely? Who or what or where is your coach from stage to stage? And whom are you coaching?

Our image of top competitive sports coaches, figures like Vince Lombardi, is that they do a lot of afflicting -- though they sometimes must comfort. What kind of coach are you? What kind do you need? And what is the next stage to be coached to?

James Fowler has laid out what the stages of faith development are.

Stage 1: typically age 3 to 7. During this time of the first awareness of death and sex and encounter with the strong cultural and family insulations of those powerful areas, the child’s intuitive-projective faith is filled with both unrestrained fantasy and imitation. It’s a very fluid time, for the child frequently encounters novelties that have to be accommodated. In the child’s imagination, bits of stories are combine. It was a child at this stage who delightfully said that Easter is when Jesus rose out of his tomb, but if he sees his shadow, then we have six more weeks of winter. She draws unpredictable extrapolations from the stories she hears. Long-lasting images and feelings emerge. Later on in life, we’ll want to get in touch with those images from childhood and draw new meaning from their symbolic power for us. Late in the stage, the emergence of concrete operational thinking, and the child’s growing concern to know how things are provides the impetus for transition to the next stage.

Stage 2 (typically pre-adolescence): mythic-literal faith interprets beliefs literally and symbols one-dimensionally. Morality is black-and-white, and fairness is based on reciprocity. The child better grasps the coherence of stories, takes those stories literally, and stories become the structure that gives unity and meaning to experience. The child is taking on the stories that symbolize belonging to her community. The deities are anthropomorphic, and their primary job is moral regulation: to punish the wicked and reward the good.

I remember being in fourth grade and thinking that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounded fair. Did you have a phase like that? If Fowler is right, we all did.

Stage 3 (typically adolescence): As the child becomes aware of different stories, tensions among the stories create uncertainty. Things might not be as black-and-white as they had seemed. Cognitively, the child’s more abstract reasoning ability begins to emerge, and this leads to stepping back from the flow of stories to reflect on their meaning. Previous literalism breaks down. It’s often a time of disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings occurs. In adolescence, our sphere of concern is not so centered on the family -- if you have adolescents at home, then you know what an understatement that is.

Our adolescents are negotiating family, school, possibly work, peers, multigenerational community, and media representations. Their faith reflects their attempt to build a coherent framework for the many complex spheres they now must coordinate. At this stage, autonomous judgment has not yet emerged, so there is a strong desire for conformity to expectations of others. Peer pressure is a big deal.

The person at this stage has an ideology, but is unaware of having it – for her, it isn’t an ideology, it’s just the way things are. She’s aware that others have different viewpoints, but they are a different kind of person. It’s like the bear who said, “Bears are bears and leopards are leopards, and yellow-naped Amazon parrots are yellow-naped Amazon parrots, and aren’t we glad that we’re lucky enough to be bears and not one of those other species?” Not until a later stage can a person grasp the idea that our own views, just as much as others, are the result of accidents of background and experience.

Some people never progress beyond Stage 3. Clashes among valued authorities may spur a move to the next stage. If a respected leader changes policies or practices that previously been presented as eternal and invariant, that may precipitate a crisis of faith that leads on to the next stage.

Stage 4: The individuative-reflective stage involves taking up the burden of responsibility for one’s own commitments and facing such tensions as: individuality vs. group membership, strong-but-subjective feelings vs. objective evidence and critical reflection, self-fulfillment vs. service to others; relative vs. absolute. This is a stage of young adulthood, though a lot of folks don’t enter this stage until their 30s or 40s, and some spend their whole lives at stage 3. The person’s identity is no longer defined exclusively by roles and meanings to others. We see ourselves as more than merely the sum of the ways that others see us. The person experiences her world view as being a world view, rather than as objective truth itself. So she has a capacity for critical reflection on her outlook and on her very identity. Along with that comes overconfidence in rational thought and an overestimate in the extent to which such thought has apprehended reality.

She’s like the bear who said, “I’ve always been a bear. All the other bears and all the other animals see me as a bear. But maybe it would be better to be a vulture: scavenging what is already dead instead of having to kill. That would be more ecologically conscious.” You can see there that ability to abstract outside ourselves, to look at higher principles that might call us to be different from what we’ve always been. And you can also see that over-reliance on the cognitive, the rational: after all, a bear can’t think herself into being a vulture.

Relatively few people ever go past this stage 4. Some people though find themselves with a growing disillusionment with their compromises. They begin to recognize that life is more complex than the logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts can comprehend. They begin to experience a deeper self underneath the veneer of the rational. They sense images and energies within them that make rational meanings seem sterile and flat. If that happens, they may be spurred on to stage 5.

Stage 5: What Fowler calls the conjunctive stage. Where the rational mind at stage 4 had suppressed ambiguity, the person now relishes ambiguity. There is recognition and delight in the multiple meanings of metaphor and symbol. Here is where a person might go back to those powerful images from childhood fantasy and, instead of dismissing them as old memories of a pre-rational age, reclaim them and rework them as a source of wisdom that is uniquely one’s own, yet at the same time also a doorway to the universal. The voices of one’s deeper self warrant attention, though they speak in ambiguous metaphor rather than clear rational distinctions.

Stage 5ers recognize that control is an illusion woven by rational mind’s hubris. They seek not control over things, but harmony with things as they are, unfolding according to their own nature. A Stage 5er is able to have her concepts, her opinions, her values without them having her . . . so much. She recognizes that concepts, opinions, and values are radically contingent accidents of background and experience. They are not the universal truth, yet at the same time, they are hers, and so they are the path for her toward the universal. People at this stage seek to “discern their calling,” which takes into account objective indications of talent and interest but goes beyond them to listen for nonrational resonances and intuitions about whom one most truly and deeply is.

People at this stage are alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions. As the Buddha is quoted as saying in the Lankavatara Sutra: “Things are not as they seem. Nor are they otherwise.” At earlier stages, a line like this is either merely perplexing or merely funny. At stage 5, it is still funny. It’s also profoundly wise.

It is unusual to reach this stage before mid-life, if we ever reach it at all. Ironic imagination manifests in making commitments to group meanings while simultaneously aware of the limitations of those meanings. Here the bear says, “I’m not in control of the fact that I’m a bear. I can’t think my way into being a vulture instead -- that wouldn’t be being true to who I am. I can trust in the universe that there is a place in the order of things for my bear-ness. Bear-ness also belongs. Bear-ness doesn’t belong any more or any better than leopardness or vultureness or bunny-rabbit-ness, and I didn’t choose to be a bear – it feels more like bear-ness chose me, even though I also know that there is no me apart from being a bear – but being a bear is simply what is mine to do. Let the salmon be salmon and the crows be crows. It’s not my job to figure out which one I should be. It’s my job to realize what I am – both in the sense of “to become aware of what I am” and also in the sense of “to make real what I am.”

Stage 5ers can embrace their shadow-side, instead of suppressing it. The shadow, too, is a part of who one is, and if one is a thing with substance, then one necessarily casts a shadow. A Stage 5er is aware of his own ridiculousness, his own tragedy, as integral to his gift and his beauty. At this stage, people develop a sense of universal justice not limited to tribe, class, or nation.

Stage 6, according to Fowler, is very rare. Here, the felt sense of an ultimate environment inclusive of all being produces a person with a special grace that makes her seem more lucid, more simple, yet somehow more fully human than ever. Stage 6ers are incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community. Often seen as subversive, they may be killed by those to whom they offer transformative possibility. They love life deeply, let hold it loosely. Far from disparaging persons at earlier stages or from other faith traditions, they are ready for fellowship with all.

Where are you? At what stage of faith development?

And how can we be stage coaches – coaching each other to the next stage, held together in this conveyance through desert territory, surrounded by dangers, carrying each other from where we are, wherever we are, to the next stage?

I recognize that our faith lives are more complicated than any simple linear progression through stages. For one thing, we may show ourselves to be at different stages depending on the subject under discussion. For example, I know some folks who, when it comes to Santa Claus, are perfectly able to be metaphorical and say, “Yes, Viriginia, there is a Santa Claus.” They affirm belief in Santa Claus as the spirit of generosity, and can quote the famous Baltimore Sun editorial of 1897, “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.” But when it comes to stories of Jesus’ miracles, some of these same folks suddenly become metaphor impaired. They can relate only at the earlier, literal stage. Sometimes we rise to different levels depending on the subject.

For another thing, though we may respond at Stage 4 or 5 when we’re relaxed and affirmed and secure, under stress we may regress to Stage 3 or even 2. Stress makes it hard to be magnanimous with others or with ourselves, so we retreat to arguments of reason, or to conventional standards.

Despite those caveats, James Fowler’s description of stages helps give us a general indication of what spiritual maturity looks like and a rough map for getting there.

We arrive at the moments of our lives afflicted, seeking comfort. We may be less aware of it, but we also arrive comfortable, seeking affliction, seeking a challenge to transform ourselves, to outgrow what we have been. For it is from affliction – the dim yet needling awareness of more things in heaven and earth than have been dreamt of in one’s philosophy so far – that our ultimate comfort comes.

Which stage are you in -- most days, most of the time? What do you do, on a regular daily basis to help yourself grow toward the next stage? How can others help you, how can they be a better coach for carrying you forward? How can you help others, coach them?

As John Wayne might say, “Good questions there, Pilgrim.”

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This is part 2 of 2 of "Stagecoach"
Beginning: Part 1: "Stagecoach I"