This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
Several years ago, a colleague in the States shared something M. Scott Peck wrote in his book Further Along the Road Less Travelled, which was a follow up to the much more successful The Road Less Travelled. I have found it to be a helpful way of seeing spiritual development….especially since coming to Ireland.
I apologise in advance that I won’t be able to do justice to Peck’s idea here. If you would like a deeper dive into this than I am going to provide, simply search “M Scott Peck The four stages of spiritual development’, and you will have a whole host of info.
So here is my brief summarization:
Stage One would correlate to a toddler. Life is a bit chaotic and the person they are most concerned about is themselves. “I want food.” “I want my diaper changed.” While it is natural for very young children, people who get stuck at this stage tend to be criminals (although we might think of politicians or CEO’s who find this description as well.) Organizations that provided a very structured existence (like the military) are often helpful.
Stage Two is like an older child. Our one daughter was a great example of someone in Stage 2. She was a rule follower. It drove her insane when her younger sister was always looking for creative ways to break the rules. “The rules are there for a reason!” At stage 2, we place faith in some authority figure…a parent, a religious leader, the Bible, etc. Peck states that many religious people are at stage 2.
Stage Three is the adolescent stage. This is where the individual starts to ask questions like, “Why are those the rules?” “How come they get to decide what the rule are?” “Who put them in charge.” This is the sceptical stage, where questions and doubts must be addressed. It seems there are three major outcomes at this stage…1) if expressing doubts is seen as threatening, the person may be pushed back to stage two. 2) They remain with their faith but tend to move away from overly simplistic answers. 3) they leave faith behind because it doesn’t deal with their questions.
Stage Four, which tends to occur more gradually than the other stages would be more of a mystical stage… or a time of life transformation. There remains a healthy scepticism, but also a willingness to embrace mystery. Beliefs are held, but no longer because of fear, manipulation, or simply because an authority figure says so.
Allow me to again state that I am providing an overly simplified explanation here. Most of us are some combination of each stage most likely…but we do tend to live in stage or another.
Here’s a brief example that I think is a helpful way of seeing the difference between Stage Two faith and Stage Four faith. Psalm 37:4 says “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (NIV).
A person at Stage Two reads that verse and thinks, “God you say you will give me the desires of my heart…please provide me with a spouse, a good job, and…“ You get the idea.
A person at Stage Four, would look at that same verse and ask God, “Please help me desire the things that you desire…align my heart’s desires with yours.”
There are so many verses of scripture that we read one way…or are told it means one thing, but as we mature…as we spend time listening to the Spirit, we begin to see a depth that we never could have seen before. You can likely think of your own examples.
So what’s my point?
I think up until about the past 40 years or so, Ireland would have been a Stage Two nation. The church (and the local Priest) exercised a great deal of authority and power, and it is no secret that it frequently did not exercise them well.
Yet, over the past 40 years, there has been a major shift taking place. The two recent constitutional referendums, (marriage and abortion) which passed overwhelmingly despite church opposition, illustrate this. Ireland has left Stage 2 and become a Stage Three nation. (And keep in mind, in Peck’s theory, Stage 3 is more mature than Stage Two*).
Ireland has left Stage 2 and become a Stage Three nation.
note: (*clearly I would argue that a person is better off as a Stage Two follower of Jesus than as a Stage Three atheist….but I hope you grasp the point. )
In the States, there is often a romanticised idea of the good old days. (Although, “good for who?” is the obvious response). However, in Ireland, these are the good old days (David McWilliams said this recently, but I can’t remember if it was on his podcast or in an Irish Times article…and Google is not being helpful).
In Ireland, the economy is doing better than ever (This was written pre-Coronavirus). People are no longer emigrating because they can’t find work (although one of my kids did leave because she couldn’t afford to live in Dublin.) Things are not perfect, but there would not be a desire to go back to how things used to be. There can be a debate as to how much responsibility the church bears as to how things used to be, but in the mind of many when the church lost its hold on Ireland…that is when Ireland became a better place to live.
For most Irish people returning to church means going backwards. Leaving Stage Three, and going to Stage Two. Returning to a time few would desire to return to. For many, (both at Stage Two and Stage Three) a Stage Two faith is the only kind of faith they can imagine. And, as you’d guess, that goes over like the proverbial lead balloon.
The challenge for the church is to present a way forward…not backwards. Often people in Stage Three, don’t recognize there is a Stage Four. The question is what does that look like in an Irish context, and how can we communicate that in a winsome way to people whose only concept of “Church” is Stage 2?
That is what I’m wrestling with. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
[the photo is from our first visit to Ireland in 2010]