God is a Mystery
Stage 5 does not lend itself to a clear-cut description. Since more than half the population never reaches this stage of faith development, such a description is made more difficult because it is beyond the experience of the majority.
The transition to Stage 5 is made hard by the seemingly neatly-packaged, coherent, complete description of life’s mysteries in Stage 4 which offers an over-confidence that Truth can be encompassed in one finely-crafted belief system. In order to move on, one must realise life is far more complex than even the most profound rational understanding, and enter once again into the uncertain and uncomfortable world of doubt and mystery.
Fowler provides some analogies to help understand the transition from stage 4 to 5, including:
- Looking at a field of flowers simultaneously through a microscope and a wide-angle lens;
- Discovering the rational solution or explanation of a problem, that seemed so elegant, is but a painted canvas covering and yet an intricate, endlessly-intriguing cavern or surprising depth;.
Stage 5, as a way of knowing, moves beyond the ‘either/or’ of Stage 4. It sees both (or many) sides of an issue simultaneously, even when they seem to be mutually exclusive. The ‘Conjunctive’ faith suspects every thing is related organically to every other thing, and attends to this pattern of inter-relatedness, trying to avoid force-fitting to its own prior mindset.
Stag 5 is willing to let reality speak its word, regardless of the impact of that word on the security or self-esteem of the knower. Conjunctive faith involves going beyond one’s ideological system and boundaries of identity, which Stage 4 constructed so well.
With regard to religion, Stage 5 brings a realisation that the stories, symbols, doctrines and liturgies offered by its own and other traditions are inevitably partial and incomplete. Hence, one becomes open to significant encounters with other traditions, expecting that Truth has disclosed, and will disclose, itself in ways that may complement or correct one’s own tradition.
Stage 5 acknowledges the powerlessness of anything it can control or understand to transform and redeem its myopia, and can discern the powerful residues of meaning that escape our strategies of interpretation. Indeed, rational understanding becomes a pale idol of any meaning we honour.
Symbolic power is reunited with conceptual understanding, and one is opened to the voices of the deeper self, including a recognition of the myths, images and prejudices built into our social class, tradition, et al. We become alive to paradox and to the truth in apparent contradictions.
The new strength of this stage is the ‘ironic imagination’; a capacity to see, and be in, one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognising them to be relative, partial and inevitably distorting. The danger lies in a paralysing passivity or state of inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal due to this stage’s paradoxical understanding of Truth.
Persons at stage 5 can appreciate symbols, myths and rituals because they have been grasped by the underlying depth of reality to which they refer. They also see the divisions of the human family very vividly, because they have been caught by the possibility (and demand) of an inclusive community of being. Yet such persons are divided, living between an untransformed world and a transforming vision. In some very few individuals, this division yields to the call of radical actualisation that Fowler calls Stage 6.