FAITH: SECURITY & RISK
Chapter 3: The Beginnings of Faith
To live is to change, and to live perfectly means to have changed often.
(John Henry Newman)
Although it is commonly said that "the faith" remains timeless or changeless, the way or the life of faith is a process — it is a living, moving thing. Like so much else in life, faith that fails to develop and grow soon atrophies and perhaps even dies. This is not simply true of our individual commitment to the life of faith, but it is also true of the understanding of faith's contents or our doctrinal convictions.
There is nothing new in this. The fifth century monk-scholar St. Vincent of Lerins, whose ideas greatly influenced Cardinal Newman, had written on the "growth," "development," and "progress" of doctrinal understanding. And Newman's famous 1845 Essay on the Idea of the Development of Doctrine, in turn, greatly influenced the Second Vatican Council which clearly affirmed the idea of "a growth in understanding of the realities and words which have been handed down" ("Constitution on Divine Revelation," section 8, paragraph 20).
But we can trace this notion of growth back even further to the New Testament itself. Not only do admonitions for a greater faith, in the sense of loving trust, fill the gospels and the epistles, but we also have direct appeals for a growth in the knowledge and understanding of the faith. In the epistle to the Colossians the apostle speaks of his prayers "that through perfect wisdom and spiritual understanding you should reach the fullest knowledge of his will . . . until they [you] are rich in the assurance of their [your] complete understanding and have knowledge of the mystery of God in which all the jewels of wisdom and knowledge are hidden" (see Col 1:5 and 2:2-3). Obviously, then, the idea of growth and development in faith, both in one's understanding and commitment, as well as in "assurance" or confidence, should be a major concern in Christian life.
Yet, oddly enough, while much has been written down through the ages on the stages of growth of Christian love and holiness, little has been done precisely on the idea of growth in or stages of faith. Recently, to our good fortune, the situation has changed.
The Stages of Faith
Among the most well-known studies on the subject of growth in faith have been those of the American theologian and religious researcher James Fowler and his colleagues. (See James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, New York, Harper & Row, 1981.) Fowler tested his theories by means of a series of exhaustive interviews of persons from many walks of life. Since then, The Religious Education Association of the United States and Canada commissioned further testing, first (as mentioned in the previous chapter) through The Gallup Association by means of a telephone survey of over one thousand persons, and again through exhaustive interviews, similar to those used by Fowler, of forty-one persons who were selected as being representative of the range of variations found in the larger poll. (See Constance Leean, Faith Development in the Adult Life Cycle, Module 2, Religious Education Association of United States and Canada, 1985.)
Fowler divides his stages of faith development into six or seven, depending upon whether one counts the earliest, beginning level as involving "faith" in any meaningful sense. In his first book he assigns numbers from 0 through 6 to what amount to seven stages, while in his more recent book Becoming Adult: Becoming Christian (1984) he speaks of seven levels, but avoids assigning numbers, although in a few other places the Roman numerals I-VII are used instead. Also, in this later book, Fowler changes the names of two stages, calling "undifferentiated" faith "primal faith" and "paradoxical-consolidative" faith "conjunctive faith." Frankly, I'm not too happy with most of his designations, and in time we will consider more simple labels. But for the meantime, I will list Fowler's stages (with both sets of numbers) as follows:
0 (I) Undifferentiated (or Primal) Faith
1 (II) Intuitive-Projective Faith
2 (III) Mythic-Literal Faith
3 (IV) Synthetic-Conventional Faith
4 (V) Individuative-Reflexive Faith
5 (VI) Paradoxical-Consolidative (or Conjunctive) Faith
6 (VII) Universalizing Faith
We may well ask: What is the basis for saying that a person is in this or that stage of faith? If one studies the charts that accompany much of Fowler's work, one can see what he uses what amounts to seven basic criteria. We may at first wonder what they have to do with faith life, but it will become more evident as we look at each stage. To get an overall idea of what signs Fowler was paying most attention to, I've listed them as follows with a few comments (see also the chart in the Appendix):
a. Form of Logic (kind of thinking processes used)
b. Perspective Taking (how one relates to others)
c. Form of Moral Judgment (or why behave?)
d. Bounds of Social Awareness (who's going to care?)
e. Locus of Authority (who's in charge?)
f. Form of World Coherence or "World-view"
g. Role of Symbols
Some of these items may appear to have little or nothing to do with faith, but if we were to study developmental psychology as Fowler has, we would find some of these things extremely revealing. For example, take the first — our "form of logic" or thinking process. In the earlier stages of childhood, reasoning, if it exists at all, has to be presented in very concrete terms, on the level of "apples and oranges" so to speak. Or take the last criterion, the role played by "symbol." It is obvious that the ability "to see through" the familiar term "Father" as applied to God is a critical factor for many persons, particularly during this period when many Christians are searching for a more comprehensive or inclusive understanding of God.
Several other things also should be said at this point about Fowler's "stages." One is that there can be a considerable amount of overlapping from one stage to another and that a person 's ideas and attitudes in one or more categories may exhibit the characteristics of a faith stage that is either earlier, on the one hand, or more advanced, on the other, than the stage where he or she seems to generally be. Still, on the whole, it is typical of people to fall more or less consistently into one stage or another across the whole range of criteria.
Another thing, which should be obvious from his beginning attention to the type of reasoning and kind of world-view a person has, as well as the final consideration of the role that symbols take, is that Fowler's focus, although much concerned with the element of "commitment" in faith, is first of all focused on the intellectual contents or "convictions." And although he is not doing this to rate this or that set of beliefs — the Christian faith, or the Jewish faith, or whatever — still, it is clear that when such elements are considered along with those such as our understanding of authority, our view of our role in the world, and bounds or limits of social awareness, together all these factors have some bearing on our ability to relate to and cope with the world as it really is.
Put into other words — and we must try to make this as clear as possible — Fowler's stages do not claim to judge the sincerity of a person's faith, much less his or her moral goodness or holiness. One can, theoretically, be in an early stage of faith development, and still be a saint. This is particularly true when the person lives within a society that is predominantly operating within the same stage or level of faith. Holiness, which also can be described in terms of "human authenticity before God" or an "intensive" quality, can at least theoretically remain a "constant" through all faith and life stages. (See especially chapter seven of Daniel A. Helminiak's Spiritual Development: An Interdisciplinary Study, Chicago, Loyola University Press, 1987). Nevertheless, it can be strongly argued that the quality of this holiness suffers unless one's faith development is appropriate to one 's life stage.
Finally, another problem exists regarding the typical age or level of maturity that these stages seem to imply. Fowler tries to avoid assigning appropriate or typical age brackets, yet it is quite obvious that the first three or four stages are quite predictable in terms of child development. Nevertheless, the "mythic-literal" faith that typifies schoolage children, although it seems inappropriate to older persons, is quite common in certain segments of our population, especially in the "Bible Belt." In the next chapter we will have to pay particular attention to this peculiar American phenomenon.
But this in turn raises questions about the next level, the "conventional-synthetic" stage, which by definition, in that it is conventional, appears to be the norm (in the sense of "average") level of religious consciousness throughout the rest of American society. Typically, this stage begins in the early teenage years, and, if we are to believe the researchers, is apt to continue for the rest of most persons' lives. The fact that this "conventional" stage often persists is taken by some to be an indication that Fowler's whole idea is off-base, especially when it comes to the idea that there are "higher" forms of faith. But this objection hardly seems worthy of serious consideration unless one ignores the whole tradition of spiritual development and thinks of faith as some kind of take-it-or-leave-it "package deal" coming down to us out of the blue — obviously, I don't.
Aside from that, I think it is also clear that the progression through the higher stages of faith has a lot to do with one's psychological growth, but that maturity in this area often lags far behind one's chronological age. And conversely, the most that can be said here is that the more advanced stages are rarely, if ever, possible before a certain age is reached. Or if certain aspects of a more mature faith show themselves early on in life, one can hardly expect all the criteria of that stage to appear across the board. They rarely do so even in genuinely mature persons, so what can we expect when a younger person shows some of these characteristics except to say that this or that aspect of his or her thinking is "precocious" or even, to some extent, "premature"?
While many other criticisms have been leveled at Fowler's ideas, I don't think this is the place to deal with them. Most of them apply specifically to one or another of the stages, and we will consider each of them when the most appropriate time comes. What I would like to emphasize, however, is that my concern is not so much to familiarize the reader with each stage in all its details but rather to use each stage as the occasion to examine a typical example of the faith dynamic or process at work and to point out how and why the process of growth in faith can often be arrested or thrown off the tracks completely. To some extent Fowler's "stages" are merely like rungs on a ladder. I'm much more concerned with the upward movement of the feet of the person than I am with either the order or the number of the rungs. But first we must look at the first two steps.
"Undifferentiated" or Instinctive Faith
Fowler at first numbered this "undifferentiated" faith as "0" on his list, not regarding it as "faith" in any meaningful sense. Later on Fowler speaks of it as "primal faith," seeing it as more significant after all, and at least one chart outlining his stages counts it with the Roman numeral "I." This change, I think, seems to indicate a switch from a theological to a more psychological outlook on Fowler's part. But, as we shall soon see, these two aspects are very closely connected.
First, looked at from a theological perspective, "faith" at this stage is without any intellectual conviction or commitment as far as the infant is concerned. At most, the infant's "faith" is a feeling of confidence that is indistinguishable, hence "undifferentiated," from infantile trust. It is also, to this degree, "instinctive," at least in the broad sense of the term, since it grows almost automatically out of the initial experience of parent-child bonding — hence my preference for this latter term.
For these same reasons it is hard to see where we can speak of the infant during its first months or years of life as having "faith" in any real sense of the term — unless, of course, we appeal to the existence of some type of "infused" grace or potential faith held to come along with the sacrament of baptism. But this theological perspective carries with it certain psychological implications. This strong sacramental emphasis is based on the idea of God's "predestinating" grace, along with the idea that it is the church, as represented by the parents and "godparents," that supplies the faith commitment that cannot, at this stage, be given by the child.
this explanation may deepen our theological appreciation of the gift of
faith, in other ways it only seems to further complicate the question. How can
the personally chosen "rebirth" which baptism is supposed to signify
(according to the theologies of
...our first birth took place without our knowledge
or consent. . . . So if we were not to remain children of necessity and
ignorance, we needed a new birth of which we ourselves would be conscious, and
which would be the result of our own free choice.
(First Apology in Defense of the Christians, Chap. 61).
Theologically speaking, the problem has never been fully resolved. The early church took some centuries to reach the point where infant baptism became widely accepted, and often it seems that the theology to explain why only appeared sometime later. As often happens in history, and as the saying goes, "lex orandi, lex credendi" (the "law of prayer [is] the law of belief"), or, to put it another way, theory follows practice. Aside from the earliest times, when most people came into the church by way of adult conversions, the majority of Christians down through history have baptized their infants, but many others, finding the theological justifications at best shaky, have repudiated the practice.
For myself, I must say that while I believe the tradition allows for valid infant baptism, the theological teaching that a sacrament is an effective sign raises the question as to whether or not such baptisms are desirable under many situations, which is to ask if under some conditions the granting of baptism to an infant does not turn out to be a barrier instead of a help to future faith. Indeed, Roman Catholic canon law itself deems such infant baptism illicit when certain conditions, like a stable Christian home-life, or an acceptable substitute for it, cannot be met.
So the real focus of the conflict at this stage revolves perhaps not so much around the child as the parents and other concerned persons. The sacramental induction of the child into the Christian community, along with a poor understanding of scripture and a resulting theology that often was distorted in its popular presentation, too often has been seen as a guarantee of salvation that was so automatic as to relieve the parents and godparents of any further obligations or serious efforts toward bringing the child up in the faith. Baptism has been too often thought of as a "ticket to heaven" instead of a vocation to Christian witness and responsibility. This mentality has had its major expression in the almost automatic conferring of infant baptism, often against the regulations of church law. A new caution, derived from long-standing practices in the mission fields and adapted to the situation of "cultural Christianity", has recently worked its way into enlightened pastoral practice and revised liturgical rites.
Leaving aside the question of the desirability of baptism at this stage in life, even at this "undifferentiated" level there is an important factor affecting the growth of faith in the infant soon to become a young child. If we are to believe developmental psychologists there is a critical factor of "faith" — in the sense of trust — that has to be considered. Most authorities seem to agree that unless, during these critical months of infant development, the child can consistently depend on the parents' expression of love and care, there will later appear in the child's psychological makeup a profound lack of confidence in persons and in the world at large. A baby who cries for help, for food, or simply to have its diapers changed, and whose cries bring no response, could very well grow up to become a distrustful and suspicious person — a person who has little or no instinctive foundation for belief in a loving God.
When we speculate on the origins of the security needs that so often cripple growth in faith, we can hardly overlook the effects that may be caused by frustrated security needs at this earliest stage of life. If, in some sense, the life of the young infant is a continuation of that experienced in the womb despite the traumatic interruption of being born, in the same way the faith that should someday appear in the developing person is also the continuation of the trust engendered during these earliest months of life. If the child without trust is, in some way, a child who has never been fully born, who has not yet successfully negotiated the course from the complete dependency of the womb through the incipient independence of birth, so too the "man of little [or no] faith" may have the roots of his inadequacy in the absence or breakdown of infant trust.
As for the risk factor in this stage of faith, I think we are caught between the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, how do we cope with the risk that infant baptism will become practically meaningless to the person who has received it at this beginning stage of life or that its impact will actually turn out to be negative should the fact of one's having been baptized become too closely associated with a less than Christian example given by one's parents?
On the other hand, the growing tendency of parents to put off their children's baptism has its risks as well-both for parent and child. Too often the argument that "we believe it is best to wait till our children can decide for themselves" masks indifference on the parents' part which will surely rub off onto their children as well. The fact is that children will sooner or later decide for themselves, but, in the absence of any religious concern by the parents, the children's "decision" will be to consider faith irrelevant to life. To send children off on this course is to deprive them of any deep sense of meaning in life and to pave the way for future unhappiness. The "existential neurosis" that Frankl deemed endemic in the modern world is first and foremost the product of a culture that has lost its religious foundations. I would suggest that Fowler's elevation of this stage from 0 to I is a sign of the seriousness of this risk.
This is another reason why I prefer to think of this same stage as instinctive rather than "undifferentiated" faith. This older term of Fowler's is too close to suggesting the word "indifferent," and I think that our brief discussion of the importance of infant "trust" — as well as the tricky issue of infant baptism — indicates that indifference to this risk is the last thing we can afford.
Like the earliest "instinctive" faith, the "faith" typical of the next stage, that of the pre-school child, is also, to a large degree, "undifferentiated" from simple trust in one's parents or other significant persons in one's life. But the small child does begin to differentiate in the sense that the concept of God as a significant other begins to appear in the child's consciousness. True, the child's ideas of God may be highly magical or greatly confused — what pastor has not had the experience of being identified as "God" by a small child, especially after being told by parents that the church is "God's house" and the pastor dramatically appears in front in flowing robes? At best, the young child's views of the world at this stage are still somewhat disconnected and episodic, causal relationships are fuzzy, and morality is apt to be strictly a business of simple punishment and reward.
We should pay particular attention to the fact that at this second stage, certain words may take on very special, even "loaded," significance. To call God "Father" is certainly a matter of grave importance, particularly when we realize that to do so will almost automatically cause the child to look to his or her father as the model for his or her ideas of God. This should make us very careful about our word choices, for example, what is the small child who views Saturday morning's animated TV cartoon to make of some people's habit of referring to God's Holy Spirit as the Holy "Ghost"?
At this stage, we might say that "faith," besides being confused with trust in the parent and largely a projection of that same trust toward this super-parent called God, may also manifest certain "totemic" qualities. Security, as is to be expected, continues to be primarily invested in the presence of the parent, but sometimes it becomes also identified with certain objects — a teddy bear or other toy, maybe an old blanket or certain piece of clothing.
Maybe it is a bit harsh to unduly criticize the foibles of adult believers that seem to mimic or prolong such behavior, but the persistence of totemistic elements in otherwise more sophisticated stages of belief is disconcerting. Granted that symbols play an important function in all stages of religion, still it is obvious that certain symbols or objects, particularly when they are this or that particular medal, cross, rosary, etc., and not simply one similar to it, can be looked upon more as good luck charms or amulets instead of reminders to lead us to prayer, although certain sentimental attachments may explain part of this situation. But similar attitudes sometimes attach themselves to certain prayer formulas; they become invested with the qualities of incantations used to ward off bad luck or disaster. In this respect I can't say I've been much impressed with those boxers who make a sign of the cross before embarking on their mayhem. Too often such rituals, in particular, become a compulsive matter, an either/or proposition — either I do this and I will be OK, or if I don't I'II be punished. So-called religious "chain letters" are instructive in this regard; rarely are they simply requests for prayer, but often betray their obsessive-compulsive characteristics by ending with a threat.
The reward/punishment level of morality that continues into this stage also manifests its pathological potentials when it is extended later into life. The condition known as "scrupulosity," a sort of religious hypochondria, probably has its psychological roots in this level of thinking. Things are perceived as right or wrong not so much because of some intrinsic reasonableness, but because rewards and penalties appear to have been arbitrarily attached to certain actions. The scrupulous person finds himself or herself constantly condemned by his or her conscience almost regardless of inner intention, just as for the hypochondriac, the world is filled with germs waiting for the chance to do them in. We might find here also a kindredness between various food and health fads and religious neurosis, so much so that one suspects that the hygienic obsession is partly a manifestation of suppressed religious consciousness. So too for the scrupulous, the world, even the religious world, and, even more, their own minds, are filled with thousands of temptations, sins (either acted out or imagined) that leave them in a state of mental anguish and exhaustion.
I focus especially on this particular miscarriage of the faith process not because it is common — although it was more common when morality was taught exclusively in terms of commandments and church regulations — but because it illustrates more dramatically than the other characteristics of this faith level the struggle involved between security and risk. Scrupulous persons, despite their religious preoccupation, seem to be persons of very little faith. Even if they were guilty of even a fraction of the sins they imagine themselves to be, they really do not trust God to forgive them. They are unwilling to take the risk of faith and leave their salvation in the hands of God. Instead, they hanker after an impossible ritual purity (it is not insignificant that most such persons worry principally over sexuality) and rarely, if ever, will take a pastor's words of forgiveness or assurance to heart. They have to not only know — infallibly and without any doubt — that they are forgiven, but, even more, they have to feel forgiven as well.
The cure for such a condition does not come easy, either for scrupulous persons or for the unhappy pastor who tries to help them. It begins with trust, and most often, along with it, an authoritative command from someone they have begun to trust. In other words, it demands taking the risk of believing someone almost as unconditionally as if they were meeting God face to face. Only then, once such trust begins to bear fruit, can they be gradually brought around to a more reasonable and a more profound understanding of morality and religion. Whatever the hidden root cause of this condition — and it generally goes deeper than poor religious education — it is one hundred percent certain that ultimately its cure is to be found in faith. Erik Erikson, who in his psychobiography Young Man Luther (New York, W.W.Norton, 1958) depicts Martin Luther as having suffered greatly from this affliction, leans toward blaming Luther's overbearing father for his condition. In any case, Luther comes to mind as a good example of a religious leader who was driven to find his own answer in, and indeed to go on to expound a whole theology based primarily on, faith and trust in God's grace.
As for the other symptoms of faith being arrested at this level, I suspect that the corrective lies, to begin with, in correct religious education and perhaps even in liturgical reform. Superstitious use of religious objects and symbols has been an age-old problem, as the Hebrew scriptures well illustrate. But the current residue of such practices figures greatly where basic instruction in religion is inadequate and where there remain strong cultural overlays of former non-Christian or even polytheistic religions. The mentality seems to be that although one may believe in Jesus and the God of the Bible, still it never hurts to be on the safe or extra secure side by also placating whatever other gods, demons, or whatever may still be around. One can never be too sure about such things.
It should not surprise us that such mentalities still exist. Whole cultures still exist that practice religion in this frame of mind, and some of these cultures are even nominally Christian. The reasons are more fundamental than theology.
In primitive or largely sustenance-oriented cultures and economies, the main preoccupation in life is having enough to eat — an unpredictable business under such conditions. Religion is naturally centered, in its day to day prayer and ritual aspect, on making sure that there is food on the table. As a consequence, the practice of religion takes on a certain "manipulative" quality. Prayer is primarily a coaxing of the god or gods who tend to be stingy at times, and the intercession of other holy beings, demi-gods, angels, and saints is much cultivated. Charms and totemic objects are venerated. Taboos are feared and respected, and moral standards rarely apply when dealing with those outside ones own tribal group.
I paint this overdrawn and somewhat negative picture of so-called "primitive religion" not to come down hard on other societies and cultures — they also have their positive religious qualities, like a deep respect of nature as sacred — but to caricature what religion tends to become even in a modern civilization when there is an arrest of faith at this intuitive-projective level. The basic problem, aside from neurotic causes, as with severe problems like scrupulosity, or cultural limits (whether regional or educational), more generally lies in a basic lack of trust or faith in a loving God. In place of this God, we idolize whatever best insures security, whether it be the observance of a ritual, the superstitious and not just sentimental reliance on a medal, a prayer, or a vigil light, or, again, the scrupulous observance of misguided conscience. So too the religion-substitute projections of diet-fads and other hygienic obsessions — or we might add, the latest in personal protection (concealed weapons and other security devices) designed to reassure the fearful, even in places where no real threat exists.
The cure for such an arrest of faith development is, obviously, more — and more authentic — faith. But of course this is easier said than done. I have already prescribed some remedies for the scrupulous. And when it comes to primitive societies, I suppose one could always call for conversion to true religion and more education. But here I think we would miss the more obvious point. Missionaries for years now have realized that a Christian life or any life of real faith also demands a human life. "Grace builds upon nature" as the old theological adage has it. Today we see these same insights in a much more sophisticated and radical form in "liberation theology" — the only real difference is that the hungry people are now risking everything to bring this about. They are tired of waiting for our benevolence.
what is the risk demanded of us? On the whole, especially when we are dealing
with faith problems that have their origin on this
"intuitive-projective" level of faith, but which I prefer to simply
call "intuitive faith," our primary challenge is to overcome the
false or distorted images of God or other aspects of religion which we
may have acquired as a child. Indeed, so pervasive is the influence of our
"images" or "pictures" on our faith life that Richard J.
Sweeney calls this stage "Imaginative Faith" (see "How God
Invites Us To Grow" in the Catholic Update series,
The risk then, for many, involves the pain, and sometimes the real trauma, of confronting often very distressing memories of childhood and allowing these to be healed. Often this can turn out to be a rather lengthy process, occasionally even involving the help of professional psychotherapy. But however one goes about it, the most essential ingredient of all will be the very risky feeling of "letting go" of our long-standing habits of self-insulation from or self-protective defenses against confrontation with these threatening images.
serious, but perhaps even more pervasive in its influence, is another
"projection" from early childhood on our faith as adults. Here I am
referring to the often repeated admonition that our faith should be as that of
"little children" — trusting, accepting, and, most of all, it is
claimed, unquestioning. Not only is this attitude a real hindrance to the growth
of faith; it is, I venture to claim, a real distortion of the gospel as well.
As we have seen, "faith," in the gospel context, means primarily a loving
trust. Nor are we talking here about the existential commitment of
faith, which demands real maturity. Here we are speaking about our appreciation
for and understanding of the convictions of faith, which, as we have
to take another variation of this same problem — that caused by wrong or false
religious teaching. Of course, this can happen at any age, but again the danger
is greatest when false images and ideas are given to the small child.
[A]s usually happens, the person who has tried a bad doctor is afraid even to trust a good one; so it was with the health of my soul, which could not be healed save by believing, and refused to be healed that way for fear of believing falsehood (Confessions, VI, 4).
If, in this introduction to the concept of "stages of faith," I have emphasized what is, especially in the case of the first stage, hardly faith in the proper, or at least full sense of the word, it is to underline the importance of good beginnings. The security needs of the infant and small child are demanding, and the corresponding risks and responsibilities fall primarily upon the parents and other educators in the faith. But what if these exemplars themselves are lacking in understanding or in consistency? If we are to "believe that we might understand", we need just as much to know how we come to faith as we understand our beliefs as such.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
At what point in your life was your faith most challenged? Did your faith grow
diminish as a result of that challenge? How and why?
2. Does the idea of "stages" or "levels" of faith strike you as strange or not?
3. What were your earliest images of God? What most influenced these images?
4. What attitude were you taught regarding your own questions about faith?
Proceed to Chapter 4
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