Can one imagine any healthy person born with the ability to form full sentences who next becomes restricted to speech in disjointed words, followed by uttering syllables only, and then for the longest part of his or her life, to babbling? Or can anybody imagine that somebody just born solves all sorts of problems creatively in the head, then moves on to only look for solutions through manipulating concrete things, and finally spends the longest part of his or her life simply playing with things and observing what happens? Perhaps we can image such sequences, but we recognize they are mostly absurd. The indicated developmental logic seen in structural stage sequences presumably has to do with a developing, more powerful brain and the accumulation of experiences acquired in various interactions. A conclusion drawn from this state of affairs is that stages are (1) qualitatively different, (2) follow an invariant "logical" sequence, and (3) are ordered in a way that their order is irreversible. Of course, we all share features such as physical bodily changes, metabolism, adaptation to circumstances, and dying. In these ways, all humans are alike. Humans differ from other species, for instance, on account of the sophistication of our communication skills, imitation skills, record-keeping skills, and planning. However, some individuals are more like certain people than they are to others. For example, adolescents may share commonalities in cognitive or social development that infants and the elderly may not share. As individuals, we all differ from each other as a result of our individual, unique capabilities, experiences, interests, and views. As a result of our unique characteristics and experiences, no two humans are alike. It is, then, a matter of choice to focus on similarities that define the structural stage approach.
EARLY STAGE THEORIES OF ST. AUGUSTINE AND OTHERS
Stage theories of religious or spiritual development have historical models. The Christian church father Saint Augustine (Aurelius Augustinus, 354-430), Bishop of Hippo, described six degrees of inner growth, which were later taken up by others, such as Meister Eckhart and Margerite Porete (at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century). The gist of Augustine's degrees of religious and spiritual maturation is as follows:
Degree 1: The novice (whatever his or her age) develops best through spiritual nourishment from helpful narratives about role models such as saints, loving persons, and Jesus.
Degree 2: The path leads away from human authority and toward divine authority with its unchangeable commandments.
Degrees 3 to 6: The good sense of what is real and matters most has pacified bodily needs, and the soul and mind unite. Henceforth, the individual increasingly does the right things of his or her own accord so that temptations and negative occurrences no longer have an impact. The concerns of earthly life fall away as the individual strives to honor the privilege of having been created in the image of God.
The developmental path, then, goes from getting to know role models, to internalizing critical attributes, to transforming the self thereby, and finally, to live in peace.
In a similar vein, St. Bonaventure (1221-1271), St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), all provided stages to describe the spiritual journey having the comparable outcome of inner peace and equilibrium between worldly aims and activity on one hand, and spiritual aims and activities, on the other. Resulting as they do from their authors' praxis as spiritual counselors, these stage descriptions have their usefulness, and the corresponding exercises are still practiced today.
However, the underlying assumptions correspond more to the second type of developmental theory (starting from an empty slate) than to the third type (starting from a structured natural endowment): at least at degrees 1 and 2, the emphasis is more on socialization than on the development of an "autonomous" psychic structure by way of appropriate interactions with the outside world and one's own reflections. We now turn to more recent type 3 theories that involve empirically researched structural changes.
How does the forgoing relate more closely to a structural approach to religious development by stages? First, all depends on what is understood by religious development. If religious development is restricted to an understanding of sacred texts and the like, then one theory fits all to some extent. Ronald Goldman, a British educator, offers a theory that models well the structural stage approach to describing an evolving religious understanding based on Piaget's stages of logicomathematical thinking. Goldman (1968, pp. 52-64) interviewed children and adolescents about the Burning Bush story in Exodus 3:2-6. He questioned "Why was Moses afraid to look at God?" The youngest children gave answers such as "God had a funny face," "Moses was frightened of the rough voice," and "It was because he hadn't spoken politely to God."