Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter E - ERIKSON, ERIK H.

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

Erikson became professor emeritus at Harvard University in 1970. During his retirement from teaching, he was able to flesh out his concepts of generativity and integrity with further detail. Having found Gandhi's life to exemplify generativity, Erikson examined the life of Thomas Jefferson with a continued focus on the moral ethic of care in Dimensions of a New Identity (1974). In the 1980s, turning his attention to the last stage of the life cycle, integrity versus despair, Erik and Joan worked together on Vital Involvement in Old Age (1986). Erikson generally emphasized the connected cycle of generations in his last works as he described linkages between the eighth stage and the first stage. Finally, Erikson considered the reality of death and how the sense of "I" was renegotiated at the end of life. Though the search for identity is most tangible during the adolescent age period, Erikson's life confirmed that the task of identity should never be seen as a completed project. Erik H. Erikson died in Harwich, Massachusetts, in 1994 at the age of 91.


Erikson understood the importance of organized religious traditions and doctrines, but he never centered his work on them. Rather, in his studies of Luther, Gandhi, and Jesus, Erikson carefully examined religious experience as it related to identity formation, ethical choices, and the life cycle. In a sense, he was more interested in what many now call personal spiritual development, which he saw occurring at the complex intersection of individual life histories and the life histories of religious institutions. His intuitive approach, so helpful in psychoanalysis, proved to further his vigorous reflections on God, the "Ultimate Other," in relationship to one's vital inner core. Erikson saw different religions as social centers of meaning that aided people through the life cycle and helped them find identity and healing.

Many of Erikson's concepts lend themselves to the interpretation of religious experience, that is, to theological interpretation. Erikson's psychosocial theory embraces what many theologians value in seeing the individual in relationship to a larger social community. Added to this, Erikson's focus on generative care and the connectedness of generations is fruitful to religious constructions of personal and congregational values. Erikson noted, furthermore, that the primary "developmental virtues," which arise across the eight stages of life (e.g., hope, fidelity, and care), are not dissimilar to the primary "creedal values" of Christianity (e.g., hope, faith, and love).

Spiritual Development Grounded in Life-Cycle Stages

Overall, Erikson's greatest contribution to the study of religious development in childhood and adolescence is his life-cycle theory and its eight stages. His framework provides a foundation with which to better understand how it is that children and youth develop in their religious attitudes and behavior. With five of the eight stages occurring before young adulthood, Erikson skillfully delineated the psychosocial crises that each child and adolescent faces. Each of these stages has a biological base in an individual's physical maturing and cognitive development, as well as a sociological base in the society's role expectations.

Erikson used the term epigenesis to describe the organic quality of this developmental model. Borrowed from embryology, the word describes the way in which fetal organs normally develop in a careful sequential priority with each other. Each stage of organic development is necessary for a good healthy life. Likewise, each of Erikson's psychosocial stages is built upon the other, as a resolution to a particular psychosocial crisis, and is, in turn, favorably balanced. Erikson's stages are described below, with particular attention to the first five, which occur during childhood and adolescence, and to their correlated spirituality.

1. Trust Versus Mistrust (infancy). Erikson relates psychosocial development during the first year of life to the infant's task of developing a favorable balance of basic trust versus mistrust. The infant's apparent question, "Can I trust again?" builds on the infant's biological preoccupation with, "Will I be fed again?" Consistent, trustworthy parental care enables infants to attain a favorable balance of trust over mistrust, which, in turn, helps ensure that the strength of hope will become a fundamental quality of the person in later stages of the life cycle. Parents who relate to their infants and children in a consistent and trustworthy manner promote their offspring's sense of faith in life itself. Such trust also undergirds religious faith.

2. Autonomy Versus Doubt (early childhood). Beginning around the second year of life, the child becomes preoccupied with autonomy versus shame and doubt. This tension is engendered by the toddler's growing motor control and ability to differentiate between self and others. Achieving a favorable balance of autonomy over shame at this stage enables the child to develop the strength that Erikson calls will, as in will power or courage. As children listen to stories of heroes of the faith, for instance, they are encouraged to become more willful and confident in their own early sense of God.

3. Initiative Versus Guilt (play age). In Stage 3 of Erikson's scheme, initiative versus guilt, new levels of physical and intellectual maturity allow children to broaden their social world beyond the family and to increase their curiosity and ability to explore this new world. If the preschool child completes this stage with a sense of initiative that outweighs his or her sense of guilt, purposefulness will be an enduring strength. This sense of purpose enables children to become religious actors as they embody their family's religious story.

4. Industry Versus Inferiority (school age). Around the age of 6, children generally join up with society and receive some systematic education. With a favorable balance of industry over inferiority, the child achieves the strength of competence-the enduring belief that one can begin a project and also complete it at an acceptable level of quality. Children explore their mastery of their community's religion during this time. They ask who is God, what does God do, and how does God do it. They delve into the stories of their tradition's sacred texts and the techniques of reading them with an uncritical acceptance of their religious tradition's teachings.