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January 30, 2012

Stage Theory as Sequence, but not Progression/ Vince

VinceThis may only appeal to a few of us on the blog (sorry if that’s not you!). And it may just be a vain attempt to rehabilitate a paradigm that will always be imperfect because it’s just a paradigm, BUT… maybe it’ll be helpful, so what the heck?

I’ve been reading Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace, which aside from being brilliant and challenging and practical and amazing is also an excellent tutorial on Premodernism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. One voice Volf brings into play is pre-WWII modernist Norbert Elias. Volf paraphrases Elias’ logic of the “civilizing” process:

Exclusion & Embrace“The more people are interdependent, the less spontaneous they can be, and the less spontaneous they are, the less aggressive they will be because their behavior will be regulated by a plethora of rules and regulations. The state now has a monopoly on the violence with which people previously fought for their positions in society. A ‘continuous, uniform pressure is exerted on individual life by the physical violence stored behind the scenes of everyday life,’ which diminishes unpredictable physical violence. As a result, [Elias] argued, modern societies are more peaceful and therefore more civilized than premodern ones.”

VolfVolf is quick to point out the obvious irony: A state monopoly on violence does not necessarily mean a reduction in violence, just a reduction in a certain type of violence: the spontaneous, overtly aggressive type characteristic of chaotic premodern society. He writes, “One may have good reasons to prefer the ‘civilized’ violence of nation states to the ‘uncivilized’ violence of ‘tribal’ wars with its massacres and the rule of terror, but one should not mistake it for nonviolence.”

All of this got me thinking about Stage Theory and, specifically, some of the dissatisfaction with it as a “progression” that arose when, on this blog, the stages were applied to an understanding of history. One can interpret in the above history (the move from the premodern era to the modern era) a move from what we understand here as Stage 1 to what we understand here as Stage 2, signaling there is some accuracy to the sequence of Stage Theory. But Volf (helpfully to my mind) corrects the false notion that this sequencing necessarily means progress, even as one stage may be preferred to another.

Axial Age
Maybe Stage 4 is the only stage that really stands apart, and Stage 1, Stage 2, and Stage 3 are all on the same level – just different manifestations of the same unmet need for connection with God. They play out very differently but the first three stages are all systems of self-reliance and each inevitably leads to its own brand of aggression and dissatisfaction. Only Stage 4 is truly God-reliant and leads to actually getting our needs met. Maybe as we go through Stage Theory’s sequence we’re not so much getting nearer to Stage 4 as we are exhausting the options that are not Stage 4.


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