Every now and then, a really important ideas comes about and provides us with a brand new way of looking at things. In the last year I have been exposed to one such idea. In January 2010, my wife and I started attending the Greater Boston Vineyard church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since then, we’ve become involved in helping plant another Vineyard church on the south shore of Boston. But my point here is that through the Greater Boston Vineyard, we were introduced to Pastor Dave Schmelzer. Appreciating his take on things as expressed through his sermons, my wife and I opted to pick up a little book he wrote by the title, Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist (Illinois: Saltriver, 2008), in order to learn a little more about where he’s coming from. Both through his preaching, and through the chapter in his book titled, “How M. Scott Peck Saved My Life,” I was exposed to what may be referred to as “Stage 4 Theology.” And this idea has rather intriguing and far reaching affects, I suspect. So, I would like to take a moment to explore this a little more here as it related to the stated objective of CeaseFireStrategies to encourage positive Christian interaction with media and culture. Please note that all page references are to the above mentioned book by Schmelzer.
As Schmelzer explains in his book, M. Scott Peck is known as an eighties pop psychologist most famous for his book, The Road Less Traveled. But it wasn’t until a followup book by Peck, that he formulated this idea of the four stage theory to explain human emotional and spiritual development (pgs 17-18). The first three stages, as explained by Schmelzer, are as follows (pg 21):
In short, Schmelzer explains that we’re born into the first stage. As infants, we have only one concern in the world, ourselves. This stage lasts for a while, as we gain more communication skills and mobility. Yet we remain primarily focused on our own desires and needs. For the stage one toddler, if she wants a toy another toddler is playing with, she just takes it. The thought never occurs to her that she might be upsetting the other toddler.
The reason for calling this stage “criminal” is that in essence, isn’t selfishness the inception of all crime? I want more money, so I go and rob a bank. Never mind that this money is not mine, that by doing so I am harming other people, and the very act of performing the theft is likely quite traumatic to others present--potentially even deadly should a shoot-out with the police ensue. Schmelzer points out that “stage 1 folks can often be quite effective businesspeople (or politicians or, God forbid, pastors), because they’re relentlessly focused on winning, on getting what they want, whatever it takes (pg 19).”
State 2 is all about the rules. Schmelzer draws from his own experiences as a father observing his boys grow up. As his oldest son entered stage 2, his other boys remained strongly in stage 1. The result? His oldest son, as anyone in stage 2, became obsessed with the rules and correcting his younger brothers. Even when assured by his parents that this was not his responsibility but theirs, he remained determined to set his brothers straight (pgs 19-20). Peck notes that the military and the church seem to be natural places where stage 2 people can thrive. After all, these are places most often displaying clear boundaries and rules that must be followed. Schmelzer makes the following observation about Peck’s affirmation that the church seems to be an easy fit for stage 2:
Stage 3 seems to correspond to those rebellious teenage years. Its as if growing tired of stage 2, we move into a period of life were we need to wholly and thoroughly rid ourselves of all the rules that have held us back. So we question everything. Why do the rules exists? What’s the point of following them? And it seems too often the answers presented to us for such questions are not satisfactory. So the more frustrated stage 2 becomes, the more stage 2 tries to just force the rules on stage 3. But the more the rules are forced onto stage 3, the more stage 3 rebels!He [Peck] takes great pains not to judge this. He emphasizes that whatever spiritual things happen at these churches are undoubtedly completely real and that, to his mind, the teachings there are effectively true. The heart and soul of America and most countries are right here in stage 2. These are the good people who get things done and raise strong families. The larger point rests, rather, in how this and other stages interact with each other (pg 20).
Schmelzer goes on to write:
The institution that seem to best support stage 3 is the university. Periodically we hear cries of alarm from conservative circles that universities are monolithically liberal. And according to Peck’s theory, of course that’s true and always will be true. Universities are filled with eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds, who--as a group--are transitioning into stage 3.
Whole societies, at the broadest level, can also reflect these stages. So, stereotypically at least, the Bible Belt might reflect stage 2. And, meaningfully to me, Cambridge, Massachusetts--dominated by universities--would be stage 3 central (pgs 20-21).
Schmelzer then goes on to explain what it is, specifically for Christians, that is so important to grasp about the interaction of these first three stages. For the stage 2 church going Christian, it can appear as if anyone outside of the church is in fact in stage 1. In other words, if you’re not part of the church, you’re a criminal, in this view. In fact, it can be hard for people in this position to even see that there is a third stage (pg 21). For a die-hard stage 2 person, the world can appear to be divided between those who obey the rules, and those who break the rules. It’s as simple--as black and white--as that.
However, that’s not at all the case. According to Peck, there’s a natural progression out of stage 2, as if just obeying the rules eventually doesn’t satisfy us like it used to. There has to be more to this life, right? Out of this questioning comes stage 3. And contrary to what stage 2 might have to say about those stage 3 people, I would argue that this questioning is only a natural part of life. In fact, in order for any of us to actually be able to think for ourselves, to formulate a worldview, to discover true ethics and morality, we need to question everything handed to us by our society. It’s just part of being human and growing.
The problems really arise as stage 2 and stage 3 fail to get along. They can engage in hateful rhetoric against each other, frustrated at how the other seems to undermine what they hold dear. This is a two-way-street. The insults go both ways. But Schmelzer goes on to note that central to Peck’s whole theory of these stages is that in fact stage 3 is an improvement, spiritually speaking, over stage 2 (pg 22). Here are people in stage 3 that might be rejecting a rules-based Christian faith that they were brought up in. In this sense, they are actually echoing the exact thing that frustrated Jesus so often during his earthly ministry. Pharisees had effectively made the whole idea of connecting with God a game of complex and idiosyncratic rules. This still happens today in some profoundly stage 2 circles, effectively reducing Christian faith to some sort of Fantasy Deity League one takes part in and agrees to play by the rules for the sake of ... well ... playing by the rules. Meanwhile, God, a very real person, seeking a very real relationship with each of us, is shoved aside as if the rules are more important than him. In effect, deep stage 2 people end up picking system over relationship. In this sense, yes, stage 3 is spiritually more mature in its recognition that its not about blind obedience to rules. However, Schmelzer cautions us with this:
Stage 3 folks are indeed spiritually advanced in one limited sense, but not in all senses. Let’s say a godly, faith-filled, stage 2 seventy-year-old, someone who has given her life to loving God and loving others, was walking through one of Cambridge’s many town squares and ended up in a conversation with some snarky, stage 3, nineteen-year-old. Who is more spiritually advanced? Obviously, in any meaningful sense, its the older, godly woman. But Peck’s point is that there is, nonetheless, a sense in which it’s the cocky kid. Hold that thought (pgs 22-23).
He goes on to point out that what stage 3 can forget, or never become aware of the fact that there is a fourth stage. Merely questioning and rejecting rules is not the end of the line in spiritual development. So what is next? What is this fourth stage?
Schmelzer says we can call stage 4 the “mystical” stage. He writes, “Here, one suddenly realizes that most of the things we were taught in stage 2 are, in fact, true, but in a much richer and more mysterious sense than we would have, or could have, imagined (pg 23).” So stage 4 sees life differently than stage 2, but in many ways chooses to abide by the same rules as stage 2. The rules have new significance. But it is important to note that one does not arrive at stage 4 directly from stage 2. This is why stage 3 is in fact a step in the right direction, a step towards a more complete and healthy spirituality.
But arriving at stage 4 doesn’t mean all conflict is resolved. From the perspective of stage 3, stage 4 can look like stage 2. Was that confusing enough? What I mean is that from the perspective of someone rejecting Christian faith as nothing but a bunch of mindless rules that doesn’t do any good for anyone, someone who is a Christian and in stage 4 may look a lot like those rule-obsessed stage 2 Christians. But the fundamental difference between those two types of Christians is that one holds on to the rules for dear life as a burden they must endure to earn passage to heaven, the other sees those rules freeing and helpful guidance for the good life God longs to give them both now and for eternity.
Schmelzer and others use the analogy of God as a doctor to help explain this. A nutritionist may indicate to me that I need to exorcize more and eat significantly less ice-cream. If I have a disease, a doctor will likely prescribe medicine for me. Taking the medicine may, at face value, seem unpleasant. And of course, who wants to cut back on eating ice-cream? But my doctor, if she’s an honest doctor, is not prescribing me some drug for no reason. Just as my nutritionist is not trying to deny me something delicious, ice-cream. In the case of both the good nutritionist and the good doctor, these are principles that will lead me to a better, healthier, happier life. It’s actually all for my own good!
God is like this good nutritionist or good doctor! He actually wants what’s best for us. He only wants good things for us! And stage 4 is about grasping this truth. With this in mind, many of the “rules” ascribed to Christian faith take on a new level of significance. But it also means that breaking these rules also takes on a different significance. Now, the stage 4 Christian understands that while its not God’s ideal for their life that they break such rules, God is also keenly aware we’re all human and prone to sin. Here is where God’s grace is so important. So in this way, stage 4 Christians do all they can to live out a life devoted to God, out of love, because the guidelines God has provided are for our own good and his deepest desire is to give us good things, the best of which is a relationship with him! But this can still appear from the outside-looking-in (from stage 3) like it’s based on rules. But, as the stage’s title would suggest, it’s much more mysterious than that.
While stage 2 can be consumed with checking items off a list or saying “the sinner’s prayer,” stage 4 is focused on drawing closer to God, hearing him speak, and continuously being transformed by the lordship of Jesus in one’s life. For the stage 4 Christian, salvation and becoming part of the Kingdom of God is a life-long journey, and not something that happens in a moment by uttering certain words or walking forward during an alter call. Again, faith is much more mysterious to them. Not mysterious in that it can never be grasped, but mysterious in that grasping it is a life-time endeavor. For the stage 4 Christian, faith is about relationship over system.
Now the other conundrum I see here is that for the stage 2 Christian, stage 4 Christianity can look like stages 1 or 3. I know, confusing again, right? What I mean is that to the rules-based stage 2 Christian, someone who says things like I just did above that Christian faith isn’t about techniques like saying “the sinner’s prayer” (which in fact can’t be found in the Bible) or walking forward during an alter call at church, is just a rebellious liberal or a spiritual criminal.
In fact, such people can be seen as rebellious liberals or spiritual criminals for other reasons well. As stage 4 Christians examine Scripture, they’re bound to see things in a very different light from a stage 2 Christian approaching life as a careful game of Operation, where should they even touch the boudoirs where what is “holy” and what is “secular” meet, they will be instantly zapped by a disapproving God. So when a stage 4 Christian poses a legitimate question, or does something outside the norm of what is accepted as “good Christian behavior” according to stage 2, it can be easy for the stage 2 Christian to label stage 4 as rebels (stage 3), or worse yet, criminals (stage 1). Clear as mud?
What does this mean for the culturally relevant Christian?
Well, first of all, I hope it means we’re all working our way to stage 4. Schmelzer indicates that this is a longer process than just deciding one is stage 4. I hope we’re all longing for a true relationship with God and recognize that he really longs to bless us. And not in a Gospel of Prosperity way, either. I mean that he wants to fulfill us in more profound and mysterious ways that reach right down to what it means to exist, to be alive, to be human, to be you!
I also believe God is actively interested in redeeming everything about this world. So for the stage 4 Christian, going to work takes on a new significance not just as a witness of the Gospel, but as a means to see God’s redemptive work in the task at hand as we take on our work as worship, rather than a burden. Much as Brother Lawrence practiced the presence of God, so too the stage 4 Christian seeks to exist at all times in close relationship and open communication with God.
For those of us connected through media, addressing the issues of media, and even finding God’s whispers in media, it means God wants good things for media. He wants good things for everyone. And should we ask him, he will gladly give us wisdom and discernment (James 1:5).
But all of this also means something else. It means that while we are busy seeking to speak God’s love to the broader culture through media, we may find ourselves attacked from within the Christian subculture. Stage 2 may, and often does, look at what Christians in secular media are doing and dismiss it as wasted time, or far worse, publicly denounce it and call those Christians terrible things. It happens all the time. And I’m sure it will continue to happen. Sadly. The point is, now that I have this four-stage theory in mind thanks to Peck and Schmelzer, I also have a much better perspective and appreciation as to where those attacks come from. In this way, I am learning (by no means will I claim I’ve mastered this!) to differentiate the “stage-two-ness” of such attacks from the person I am called to love as my sister or brother in Christ.
If we are to cease fire, as this blog’s name suggests, than we are not only to cease fire against the secular world and seek to engage it in dialogue, we’re going to need to do the same thing with fellow Christians who might be stage 2. That’s no easy task! It requires much love and much patience. And sometimes we’ll need to quietly lose the argument so as not to lose our heads, for the bull-headed stage 2 combatant is often not interested in true dialogue, but merely informing us of what we’ve done wrong in their view. In such cases, I find it best to simply understand where the attack is coming from and letting it go at that. But it doesn’t end there. When such attacks happen, it means we pray for those who attack us, be they stage 2 or stage 3. And we love them regardless of what they say. It means that while we might be hurt by such attacks, we do not give up. Instead, we turn to God, asking for his strength, his peace, his love, his joy, and his forgiveness to fill our hearts, and his wisdom to flood our minds as we persevere down the road he’s called us to walk.