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There are two systems of thought I have found in recent years, and indeed in recent weeks, particularly interesting. Those are the Kübler-Ross model of Grief and Fowler’s Stages of Faith. As someone who, like most people, has been through both of these things (that is, grief and a faith journey) – I can relate to how they work and largely would affirm them as valuable and indeed accurate assessments of the human psyche.

Something dawned on me earlier today. What if they’re the same thing? What if our journey of faith is simply an overly-complicated (by both the frame of reference we exist within and indeed our own conscience) grieving process – the slow but sure realisiation that perhaps, just maybe, this is all there is – and there is nothing we can do about it.

Let me take you through the stages of faith, briefly. This is lifted verbatim from Wikipedia:

  • Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.

  • Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. [1] Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.

  • Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.

  • Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.

  • Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.

  • Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.

  • Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment.” The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.

And now the KR model of grief:

  1. Denial — As the reality of loss is hard to face, one of the first reactions to follow the loss is Denial. What this means is that the person is trying to shut out the reality or magnitude of their situation, and begin to develop a false, preferable reality.

  1. Anger — “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”
    Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Anger can manifest itself in different ways. People can be angry with themselves, or with others, and especially those who are close to them. It is important to remain detached and nonjudgmental when dealing with a person experiencing anger from grief.

  1. Bargaining — “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…”
    The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow undo or avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Other times, they will use any thing valuable as a bargaining chip against another human agency to extend or prolong the life they live. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just do something to buy more time…” People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can we still be friends?” when facing a break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it is a matter of life or death.

  1. Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
    During the fourth stage, the grieving person begins to understand the certainty of death. Much like the existential concept of The Void, the idea of living becomes pointless. Things begin to lose meaning to the griever. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and sullen. This process allows the grieving person to disconnect from things of love and affection, possibly in an attempt to avoid further trauma. Depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the ‘aftermath’. It is a kind of acceptance with emotional attachment. It is natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through this stage. Feeling those emotions shows that the person has begun to accept the situation. Often times, this is the ideal path to take, to find closure and make their ways to the fifth step, Acceptance.

  1. Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
    In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. This stage varies according to the person’s situation. People dying can enter this stage a long time before the people they leave behind, who must pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief. This typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable mindset.

It seems clear to me now that these are indeed instances of the same thing. Let me propose a new model for us to understand our faith journeys with. An amalgamation of the two models above:

Stage One: Primal, Undifferentiated Faith (aka “Belonging”) 

At this stage in our faith journey, we very quickly pick up a bent towards one way of believing or another. We are surrounded by people who affirm a particular way of seeing the world. Either we come to find extremely high levels of comfort in this, or we find it wanting and reject it. Grief is not yet relevant.

Stage Two: Intuitive-projective faith (aka “Experiencing”) 

At this stage we begin to learn that our faith has depths, complexities, and difficulties associated to it. We experience our faith or lack of (because we are predisposed by stage one to do so either way) in a tangible manner. Grief is not yet relevant here, either.

Stage Three: Mythic-Literal faith and Synthetic-Conventional faith (aka “Denial”) 

This is the first stage at which the two previous models truly meet. There is a strong belief in justice and the reciprocity of the universe. This is the “This isn’t fair, God” stage; or the “that isn’t right” stage. Literalism is often king and the Fundamentalist will live here. Exposed to the real world, the no-longer-infant mind is forced to deny the loss of the concrete world built up around them by their parents and instead chooses to continue on in the fantasy of a religious faith.

As the person grows older, they simply choose to harden their beliefs one way or the other – further spiraling down into the world of denial rather than being capable of embracing the reality around them.

Stage Four: Individuative-Reflective faith (aka “Anger”)

The person at this stage is anxious, struggling, and takes on their beliefs for themselves. In reflecting upon them, they begin to see the cracks in the wall; the fallacies and the problems in what they believe. This often manifests itself as anger – as the denial is unable to continue any further, frustration becomes the primary sentiment. The world around them is changing and it is a deeply unsettling process.

Stage Five: Conjunctive faith (aka “Bargaining” and “Depression”) 

Here, the paradox of reality is acknowledged and conflicts are resolved by a complex understanding of thins -often a paradoxical one or one in which paradox is simply a paradigm by which the universe can be understood; this, in my mind, is a suspension of belief in reality and is an attempt to bargain with that reality – e.g “if I choose to see my faith in this particular way I can still keep it rather than having to let it go altogether”.

The person will move back and forth between the bargaining approach and a depression that things are simply not the way they want them to be.

Stage Six: Universalizing faith (aka “Acceptance”) 

Some would call this “enlightenment”. It is the stage whereby we realize that nobody can have a right answer about faith. If we assume the natural progression of the model then we are left with Acceptance. This sounds like pretty much the same thing! One crucial thing here is the choice that the individual makes at this stage – faced with the uncertainty do they allow this to remain a tension, or do they embrace the abandonment of faith as the full human journey? Arguably the former is in fact a step backwards through the stages to denial.

I don’t know what I make of this. I’m just putting it out there. If you have any thoughts then please add them below!

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