I think my first encounter with Shakespeare was in grade school, when we were required to memorize the oft-quoted passage from "As You Like It" on the seven stages of life:
"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. As, first the infant, mewling and pewking in his nurse's arms. And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school. And then the lover, sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then the soldier, full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice in fair round belly with good capon lined, with eyes severe and beard of formal cut, full of wise saws and modern instances; and so he plays his part. The six age slips into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side; his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide for his shrunk shrank; and his manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
From this vantage point, Shakespeare's view seems somewhat cynical and one-sided in its descriptive imagery for impressionable young children. Contemporary views, while less poetic, are certainly more realistic in their approach and present the potential for mature adults in a much more favorable light.
The psychoanalyst Eric Erikson, who was also trained in Montessori methods, opted for eight stages of psychosocial development - five of which optimally take place before the age of 21. Erikson's theories have their basis in Freud, augmented by his own clinical observations. His most profound observation, in my opinion, was that the trust bond developed between infant and parent is the crucial factor in life. Without that strong sense of trust, transition to subsequent growth states will be, at best, incomplete.
Jean Piaget's contribution to the field focused on the four stages of cognitive development, which he believed could be precisely demonstrated by scientific method, in contrast to the theories of Freud and Erikson. Cognitive development is sequential and invariant, and comes about through accommodation to new experiences. Lawrence Kohlberg built on the work of both these pioneers, plus Maslow's hierarchy of values, in his theory on the six phases of moral development. Carol Gilligan has also made an important contribution to this field in his studies of the gender differences in moral choices: men tend to be more legalistic in their concerns, while women emphasize the relational.
This is a field which would take many classroom hours to demonstrate fully. I do have a chart which outlines the parallels in these differing views of humanity, which I'll pass out in a few minutes. For our purposes today, however, I'd like to make two major points. First is how uniform they are (in contrast to Shakespeare) in acknowledging the growth potential and wisdom of older adults - something too often overlooked in our society. The second is to acknowledge their influence on the theologian James Fowler in his landmark work on faith development.
Unitarian Universalists, in our non-traditional approach to faith, may at first wonder what all this has to do with us. Quite a lot, in the opinion of UUA: faith development is required study for all our clergy and religious education professionals. Gabriel Moran has amplified Fowler's theories to focus on age-appropriate guidelines for religious education, which is strongly reflected in UUA curricula generated in the last decade or so. But there is also much in Fowler's theory that bears on the religious practices of adults - in some cases, UUs in
Fowler is also indebted to the writings of Protestant theologians Paul Tillich and Richard Niebuhr in his definition of faith. For Fowler, faith is not the same as belief or religion. Faith is, simply, that ultimate concern which gives meaning to one's life. It may be one's religious community, but it could also be one's family, nation, profession, or a host of other concerns. Up until the Enlightenment, belief in God was a given in Western Europe. Subsequently, however, faith has been truncated to a variety of belief systems. Further, Fowler sees faith as inherent within all people, and notes that it is always relational: how we view ourselves against a background of shared meaning and purpose.
Fowler doesn't define his six stages of faith by the theology they embody, but rather by how an individual perceives and reacts to a given theology. He makes a further distinction of the "polytheist" - the passionless dilettante with no real center who tries to deny death, vs. the "radical monotheist" (a term coined by Niebuhr) who identifies with a universal community. Like Erikson and Kohlberg, Fowler's stages are not necessarily permanent, but interdependent, changing with life's circumstances. Thus a crisis might cause one - especially one not fully differentiated - to revert to an earlier stage of faith.
Fowler sees faith development as beginning about age two. Prior to that time, the child's all-important sense of trust and love is being established. Lacking that, the child may become isolated and narcissistic. The beginning of language and symbols marks the child's transition into Stage One faith - or Intuitive-Projective, where thought and language converge. The toddler has a vivid imagination, and thus fuses fantasy, fact and feelings. Children that age also internalize family taboos and prohibitions, and have excessive fear of large animals, monsters and death. Rather than shield children from such subjects, Fowler concurs with Bruno Bettelheim that fairy tales and myths (including Bible stories) can help young children externalize their fears. This is also the age when self-awareness begins - a period of narcissism.
Stage Two - Mythic-Literal faith - begins about age seven. Catholics, if you recall, call this the age of reason, when a child can first distinguish and make clear choices about basic moral issues. Fowler, however, is more impressed that these children can now separate fact from fantasy, yet they are not yet ready to stand back and reflect on the meaning of events. The stage two child has learned to narrate experience, and will describe a film or TV show in lengthy and exquisite detail, since he has not yet learned to summarize. Children this age enjoy biographies and adventure stories, and myths give coherence to their experiences. At this age their discussions about God and the cosmos are highly anthropomorphic, and closely mirror what they've been taught by significant adults. Children in this stage have developed a sense of a natural law and reciprocal justice. Theirs is very much an Old Testament God. Persons who never leave this stage can become over-controlling perfectionists as adults.
Fowler's Synthetic-Conventional stage three of faith coincides with the critical period of adolescence. He candidly admits that a great many individuals and even entire congregations never develop beyond this stage. This period turns on the expectations of others. For the teenager, that is usually an intimate group of peers from whom they can get feedback on all the changes in their lives - teens can talk almost forever about their worries, fantasies and feelings. They are at once idealistic and highly judgmental. While they can hypothicize and step outside a situation and observe it, they are not yet capable of serious examination.
The adolescent's opinions on God and authority are still mainly derived from adults. Yet they have a strong acceptance of mystery, and find the demythologizing of religious and even secular symbols to be threatening: "My country, right or wrong." Teens raised in traditional religions may hunger for a God who will accept them as they are, frequently imagining God as their significant other. It's at this age that many young people desire a religious vocation, or experience the awakening of a social conscience. TV evangelists appeal to many in this stage, in that their approach is centered on vicarious interpersonal warmth and meaning. Stage three is a safe place - it is only by literally leaving home that a young person is forced into the risk of self-examination and discovery.
Fowler's theories are supported by lengthy interviews with persons of all ages and stages. He reports on an interview with a young Unitarian - our typical bright, questioning teen. While the boy's beliefs obviously mirror the teachings of our liberal faith, Fowler acknowledges that this has prepared him well for the transition to Stage Four Individualistic-Reflective faith - that stage in which Fowler notes that most UUs settle.
This is the period when childhood values and authority have to be re-evaluated. Authority now resides in the self or "executive ego" - I'm in charge of my life now. With the move to self-identity comes a consequent shift of worldview. Symbols are demythologized in favor of more concrete concepts. Rather than rules to govern every aspect of life, stage four people think in terms of rules that govern social roles, leading to a more highly developed social conscience. The early twenties are the ideal time to enter stage four. Encountering this stage later in life can result in far greater pain and conflict. Fowler sees the danger in stage four as an overconfidence in the conscious mind, and a return to narcissism.
The instructor I had in seminary was somewhat dubious about Fowler's stages five and six. Admittedly, that level of development is far less common and hard to define. Yet Fowler holds that the multi-level complexities of life are not adequately addressed in stage four just by logic. Fowler uses analogies of parallels and juxtaposition to typify Stage Five's Conjunctive approach. The ability to finally view your parents as more than just your parents. The acceptance that light is simultaneously wave and particle. The ability to see many sides of an issue he calls "dialogical knowing." Interestingly, Fowler cites a onetime UU-turned-Quaker as his primary example. In stage five we come to terms with our dark side. We're less ego-driven; we think in terms of mutuality. We want a full range of experience, open ourselves to the spiritual, and are alive to paradox. We recognize that all symbols and doctrines are incomplete, so feel free to appropriate and reorganize them. This stage has its dangers, in that one is caught between the awareness of injustice and the need for self-preservation.
There is one final stage in Fowler's hierarchy of faith development - he calls it Universalizing. The rare individual who reaches this point makes real the imperatives of absolute love without concern with the consequences to self or institutions. They are often martyrs to a cause and therefore are considered by some to be subversive. You know them: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dag Hammerskjold, Mother Teresa. These are the self-actualized people who make a real difference in the world. The people who inspire us to do our personal best. They give us hope. They are not perfect; they are not gods. As much as Erik Erikson admired Gandhi, he took him to task for the way he treated his wife. Yet each in his or her own way transcends the narrow confines of dogma and self-interest.
James Fowler has had his critics, of course. Primarily, I imagine, those who find that the shoe pinches quite painfully at Stage Three. For the most part, Fowler avoids mentioning denominations. Thus his references to Unitarians are all the more significant. Yet can we be satisfied, as a religious body, with staying mainly in Stage Four, when with a bit more effort - a bit less rigidity - we could move on to Stage Five? I even have one nomination of a Unitarian Universalist who achieved Stage Six: the late James Luther Adams. While his may not be a household name even among some UUs, he was beloved and respected by his colleagues in all denominations. Adams is surely deserving of a sermon all to himself. But I'll leave you with the words of a Lutheran theologian in recalling this remarkable individual: "May his tribe increase." Perhaps the next James Luther Adams is here among us today. Amen