FAITH: SECURITY & RISK
Chapter 4: Literal Faith
Those who have the faith of children will also have
the troubles of children.
(Robert Hugh Benson, The Light Invisible)
If there is something to be said in favor of the simple faith or trust that is held to be typical of early childhood, Benson's warning should make us rather cautious when it comes to this next stage, which is most apt to occur in middle or late childhood. Fowler terms this stage "mythic-literal faith" but I prefer to call it (along with Richard J. Sweeney) simply "literal faith". Since these are the years that, roughly speaking, are covered by primary schooling, they are also important years of transition. Although the psychological changes corresponding to this faith stage are more or less automatic, there nevertheless are apt to be certain difficulties which, if not dealt with correctly, can greatly obstruct any future maturing of faith. When this happens, the resulting faith is more likely to turn out to be childish rather than "childlike". Further development into the stages that should normally follow becomes difficult if not impossible.
However, anything resembling a total blockage would only rarely happen in the case of the passage from "intuitive faith" to "literal faith". If there is any conflict here it is more likely that unresolved problems from the intuitive stage will pass into the later stages but will disrupt the chances of an orderly development. The result will be that certain aspects of these later stages will be bent out of shape. For example, the old problem of a neurotic scrupulosity, with its roots in the intuitive stage, will often recur in various forms in the stages that follow.
In much the same way, certain aspects of the literal faith of childhood will sometimes reappear in conventional faith, or, even more often, in some forms of the more individual or personal faith that we associate with "born again Christians" and other related types. In that case, what we often run across is that form of faith that is sometimes called "fundamentalism", and which often appears to be a regression to this earlier literal stage -- a perplexing situation that might make one wonder if the whole faith development scheme proposed by Fowler is valid in the first place.
However, I feel that once Fowler's findings and his conclusions are understood in the light of Frankl's thought, not only is this seeming regression understandable, but it is even highly predictable under certain conditions. But before we attempt to understand this phenomenon, and the kind of "fundamentalism" it occasions, we have to first understand "literal faith" in its natural setting, which is childhood or, more specifically, the primary school years.
Myth and Belief
As we have seen, Fowler speaks of this stage as "mythic-literal faith". Unfortunately, the word "myth" has acquired an unsavory connotation in modern speech, generally equated with some sort of elaborate form of lie. But this should not excuse us from trying to understand the vital place that "myth" in the proper and original sense of the Greek word mythos (meaning a story, especially a sacred story) plays in religious consciousness and the evolution of human culture. And to do this we must reenter the world of the child, for the evolution of religious consciousness and consequently of human culture is in some way -- if we are to follow the great British historian Arnold Toynbee who believed all human culture has religious roots -- the childhood of the human race.
The thinking of the typical primary school child at first still operates much like that of the pre-school child. It is very much on the concrete, "apples and oranges" level. However, it has become much more realistic as opposed to magical and the fantastic. But abstractions-integers instead of apples still are grasped with some difficulty, and story, whether fictional or historical, forms the matrix as well as the major vehicle of truth. The child cannot easily absorb abstract principles, but he or she can readily identify with the heroes and heroines of the past when they are presented not as part of the dry data of history but as living personalities within a panorama of colorful deeds. The child may not easily grasp the abstract principles of moral reasoning, but can readily identify what seems right or wrong in terms of loyalty and basic fairness.
The same is very much true of the "childhood" of whole civilizations or cultures. Stories are the preferred means of handing on cultural values. The Homeric epics of ancient Greece, the Bardic poetry of the Celts, the Norse sagas, the Kalevala of the Finns, the earliest Vedas of the Hindus -- all of these are highly mythological, combining fanciful tales of gods and demons, legends about ancient heroes, vague memories of natural disasters, fateful battles, epic migrations, and genealogical pedigrees mixed with the anecdotes, both sad and joyful, that mark each people as special and give them a sense of their own destiny and self-worth.
Should we be at all surprised if the composition of the Bible has much in common with all this? Hardly not! For if it was to speak effectively to the people of the time in which it was first written, or to the people that came long before -- realizing that much of the biblical material was passed on by means of an oral or spoken tradition long before it was written down -- it had to be in the form that best reached them, that is, in the form of sacred story or myth. Can you imagine, for example, the confusion that would have happened if the author of the book of Genesis had attempted to describe the creation of the world in modern evolutionary terms? Not only would he have been trying to write in a modern scientific language which would have been completely unintelligible to his readers, he would have ended up in missing the main point of the whole story to begin with.
And that is the crucial question we must face: What is the point of these stories? To give information about the shape of the earth, which the Bible takes for granted is flat, with the sky or "heavens" like an upside-down bowl covering it? Or is it to tell us about how they were created? Genesis combines two stories to tell us about that. Or to tell us what exactly happened that long day when Joshua won his battle? (The Bible says the sun stood still -- so do we have to conclude instead that the earth stopped spinning?) If we think that the Bible is trying to give us such information, we are missing the whole point. To quote a pun made by a very wise cardinal] who was unfortunately not much listened to when the churchmen condemned Galileo for his revolutionary ideas: "The Bible was written to tell us how to go to heaven, not to tell us how the heavens go."
Unfortunately, many people continue to make this same mistake. Why is this so? To understand this, we have to understand something of how our minds work. All language -- and language is the tool or the way by which we structure our thoughts -- is analogical, that is, everything is, to some extent, compared to something else. If, for example, I was from the arctic tundra or some other treeless region and had never seen a tree, and asked you what a tree was like, you might answer that it was something like a bush, only a lot bigger. Or if someone asks what is meant by a "family tree", we press the analogy even further and compare common ancestors to a "trunk" and speak of "branches" of the family. So it is, to some degree, with all language. Another way of saying this is that all language is symbolic. Something, a word, a sound, a combination of letters (each letter itself is a symbol derived from a system of simple pictures of things), always stands for something else.
The more difficult it is to describe something or to think about it, the more we must employ analogy and symbol. Now what could be more difficult to describe than God? We may think that this should be simple to do, but the fact is that all the religious thinkers, philosophers, and mystics, while they claim that God is supremely simple, also admit that all the human language in the world is incapable of describing God, or even of describing our relationship to God. So what do we do? We turn even more to symbol, and particularly to that kind of symbolic story that is called "myth".
But the reason for myth is not just because we are trying to describe the indescribable. Story, as I already said, is more easily remembered, especially by people who can't read. But stories also often turn out to be a more effective way of getting a point across. Thus Jesus himself made up little stories (parables) which by their frequent surprise endings were all the more effective in teaching a moral lesson than any rote memorizing of a commandment or law.
Finally, sometimes myth or story, by the sheer force of exaggeration, is all the more memorable. St. Jerome, the first officially appointed translator of the Bible into Latin, suspected that the book of Jonah was just such a fictional tall tale, a really "big fish story" in almost modern short-story form designed to teach a profound lesson about obeying God, even while it delights its audience. (It is my favorite story in the whole Bible-one can imagine the author's struggle to keep his sense of humor in check lest he scandalize his reading public who by that time probably thought all sacred literature had to be solemn. )
However, delightful and natural as this all may be, myth does present problems, especially for modern people. Although children are most able to delight in story and not worry too much about whether or not all these things are factually "true", as we begin to lose the innocence of childhood-and this loss seems to begin ever earlier in modern times-we begin to question about the factualness of these tales. Did these things really happen? Or did they happen in the way they are described? In a word, are they really true?
of the best, even if rather flippant, definitions of "myth" is
"a truth that never happened". That is to say these stories contain
profound truths about the nature of things, about ourselves, and about God, but
do so in story form without pinpointing a time in history or a location where
we could expect to find hard evidence-unlike the people who keep looking for
the wreck of Noah's ark. The clue very often is an almost timeless time frame
often expressed as "In the beginning . . ".
(in other words, before all time began) or
alternately "Once upon a time . . ". (which means that it could have happened, or still can happen, anytime). In still
others, the time reference is to a particular point, maybe a crisis point in
history, but one that is defined more by human development rather than by the
passage of years for example, the "
All this may be very interesting, but the point is this. Although the "mythic" component of this faith stage is a very natural one, it also presents a major problem. Initially, there is generally little or no difficulty with myth because the small child has no need to distinguish between the story element and the truth it contains -- or as Marshall McLuhan put it, "the medium is the message". But send a child to school and what happens? The effect is much the same as when a child is driven downtown in mid-December and sees a red-suited, white-bearded man on every other street corner, and the parent has to begin to separate the truth (the spirit of giving) from the "Santa Claus" myth. And the task is not always easy. It may be of some help to know that there once was an actual St. Nicholas who was known for his generosity to poor families, but very little historical data is available and our best efforts are frustrated by the crass commercialism that lays great store on keeping visions of reindeer and "sugar-plums" dancing in children's heads.
We are faced with a similar problem when it comes to the myths found in the Bible. The story of creation in Genesis is vivid and attractive, and highly effective in getting across the main point -- that God is the creator of everything there is and everything God created is good. But schools soon teach us that the earth is round, that it circles the sun, and that the earth is at least five billion years old, and that most likely human life began evolving from lower forms only a few million years ago. So most likely the clash between evolutionary science and the natural, naive literal understanding of the sacred stories will precipitate at least a minor "crisis of faith" even long before junior high. So unless a child is prepared by his or her parents and teachers to see the major point of these stories, some real difficulty may be experienced in separating the factual content from the story forms that the ancients found to be the most expressive way of conveying the deeper truths. Failure to do so may set the stage for a much more serious crisis of, or even loss of, faith in later years. The theologian Karl Rahner even went so far as to suggest that some of these biblical stories which form the grist of many Sunday school classes not be told to children until they are of sufficient age to distinguish between truths and the mytho-poetic story forms that contain them (see The Practice of the Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality, New York, Crossroad, 1984, pp. 1 24-25).
Either that, or a person may be driven into an arrestment of faith development that will lead to a kind of religion that is almost certain to be "fundamentalistic" in the most literal sense. When this happens, a person takes nearly everything written in the scriptures at face value as the literal truth. The most obviously mythic literary forms in the Bible, such as those in the first ten chapters of Genesis, are taken as historical and even quasi-scientific accounts in a way that most likely even the original author(s) and editors would have found puzzling, if not ludicrous. This is not to say that the first hearers and readers of these stories might not have taken them literally, but one may suspect that people in these early civilizations also had a certain sixth sense that made the main point of these tales obvious and that they didn't worry much about the details of the story line. (We can sense this from the way that the various stories, often with conflicting versions, are set side by side or dovetailed together in the Bible-for example the two versions of the story of "Noah's ark".) Your modern literalist is very different. He demands that the scriptures be simultaneously history in the modern critical sense and in substantial agreement with all branches of modern empirical science, as well as God's saving word, and as such ends up burying the deeper truths of faith under a bushel of accumulated "facts" and other beliefs.
Fundamentalism and Biblical "Inerrancy"
The reason I have focused primarily on this "literalist" aspect of this stage of faith is because it also best uncovers the security-risk tension as well. The basic problem here is not really the supposed conflict between religion and science or even about the authority of the Bible and how it is to be interpreted. It is much more a psychological problem at its root. Where children in this stage generally have the trust in their parents and teachers that enables them to separate truth from fiction, it seems that older persons who are caught in this stage seem to have a strong need, above all, for the security that authority provides.
Typically, at this stage, faith is seen primarily as submission to authority -- one "submits" to God and "accepts" Jesus as his or her personal savior -- and morality is primarily conformity to God's law. There seems to be a striking parallel between Christians caught in this stage and the crisis being faced by the Islamic world. Islam means "submission", and a Muslim is "one who submits" to the law dictated letter by letter, word for word, to Mohammed in the Koran. For the fundamentalist Muslim, like the fundamentalist Christian, life becomes a holy war against the hostile modern world.
Curiously, such literalistic fundamentalism seems to be a phenomenon of more recent times. One might argue that it is a counterbalance to the insecurity of the modern world with its threat of nuclear disaster and all that. But are these times any more insecure than the plague-ridden past with its almost continual warfare and invasions? I'm not sure that this is the case. But what I do see is that the question of religious authority has become paramount since reformation times.
Most medieval Christians seem to have trusted the authority inherent in the church's tradition even though they may have argued vehemently over the claims of those who would occupy the decisive positions. The reformation destroyed what little semblance of unity there was along those lines and instead attempted to substitute the authority of the Bible alone, to be understood in what the reformers blithely took to be its obvious -- but not necessarily literal -- meaning.
But the "solution" turned out to be part of the problem. What seems obvious to some seems less so to others. Hence, the trend was established toward appealing more and more to what is claimed to be the "literal sense" of scripture, which in turn was invested with the claim of absolute "inerrancy". The Bible, in effect, became a "paper pope".
addition, theologians and sociologists of religion point out that Christian
fundamentalism is almost exclusively an American phenomenon, and that, where it
is found in other places in the world, it is almost entirely due to American
missionary efforts, This is not surprising, because where else did
Protestantism become more unglued from its European theological, cultural, and
political foundations but on the American frontier? Indeed, most of the
English-speaking American colonials were religious "exiles" from
too with many immigrants from other countries: it is no accident that even some
forms of the official state religions, like the Lutheranism brought by
Scandinavian immigrants, took on a more Protestant "free church"
guise on the frontier. Even Catholicism in the early days of the
of this wealth of names, descriptive or outright derisive, I think it is
important that we get a few ideas and terms straight. The title
"evangelical", which derives from the Greek word for
"gospel", is widely used today to denote a Bible-centered religion
and is still used in
(1) the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, (2) the divinity of Jesus Christ, (3) the atonement accomplished by his death, (4) his actual resurrection, and (5) the future coming of Christ. These are the "fundamentals" that were deemed necessary by these evangelists for salvation.
While most traditional Christians would agree to the centrality of these truths, two of them in particular set the tone that associates "fundamentalism" with the literal interpretation of the Bible. One is the claim of "inerrancy" for the scriptures. Few of the major "mainline" churches insist on this literal kind of interpretation, and instead settle for a belief that the scriptures are an inspired guide to religious truth, but do not hold to the idea that they must be scientifically or even historically accurate on all counts. Where there has been a movement in the direction of claimed "inerrancy", some of the major churches have suffered splits -- as that which rent the Missouri Synod Lutherans a some years back.
The other "fundamentalist" emphasis that has caused much dissent is that on the "return of Jesus". Mainline Christianity has tended in recent times to take this belief in the "second coming" in less imminent and sometimes more figurative terms. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the closeness of the end-time or the end of the world and the general judgment that will follow. This is obviously a very conversion- and revival-oriented emphasis, and, paradoxically enough, has often depended on a more or less figurative or even symbolic reinterpretation of the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation. Certainly, Garner Ted Armstrong's prophecies are not based on strictly literal interpretations. On the contrary, he shows great talent in interpretative innovation. Yet the lure of literalism remains.
To take things further, the mixture of apocalyptic fundamentalism with rigidly "literal" interpretation of the Bible reaches its zenith with the Jehovah's Witnesses. Despite the fact that they attempt to be the most literalist of all fundamentalists, they are not consistently so-a good example being their name for God which is based on a misreading of the Hebrew text ("Jehovah" for "Yahweh"). To accomplish this as such, they have tried to disassociate themselves from all traditional Christian doctrinal formulations. Hence, the Witnesses repudiate the doctrine of the Trinity (they don't find that word in the Bible), and while for them Jesus is "divine", he is not God. Nor do they accept the Holy Spirit as anything but divine power-but here they refuse to take the "he" (referring to the Holy Spirit) passages in the gospel of John literally, but only as a mere personification.
The only tradition the Witnesses don't seem to question is that which is rather illogically common to all fundamentalists -- the list of books composing the Bible. As is the case with all "inerrantists" they seem to assume that the scriptures came floating down from heaven fully bound with a divinely dictated table of contents. I exaggerate, no doubt, but it is noteworthy how often this obvious gap in reasoning and the ignoring of the history of the biblical canon (the first official Christian lists date from the middle of the fourth century) are all but ignored in fundamentalist circles. To raise the question of how the Bible actually came to us, much less who decided what books belong and which don't, obviously raises too many unsettling questions, especially when one seeks absolute certainty about one's own rightness before God and man.
All this is not to criticize the sincerity of fundamentalist and/or literalist Christians. These churches often elicit a degree of commitment from their members that other Christians would do well to emulate, except for one thing. The risk that these people undergo in their commitment is too narrow, too selective. They are willing to risk the scorn of "unbelievers" (all who don't agree with them) but they are unwilling to tolerate much less any interior risk, the ambiguities of or the real tensions of faith within themselves. Instead they demand rock-solid certainty at all cost. That such absolute certainty and security is impossible in this life should be obvious. If nothing else, this should be clear from the continual breakups and schisms among these churches and sects, yet something in their makeup, in their religious psyche, demands this illusory security at whatever the cost.
may say: Why bother worrying about these people, as long as they seem more or
less happy in their fancied certainty? The problem, as I see it, is that they
play up directly to the insecurity of so many believers with exactly the wrong
motive based on a defective understanding of faith. While beckoning to the
hesitant to take a "leap" of faith, the faith they promise is more of
a narrowing than a broadening of vision. What should release us to live more
fully too often ends up as a straitjacket of sorts. Rather than the Christian
freedom from the "law" as proclaimed by
Yet there is more. I suppose it is cruel for me to say so, but what disturbs me about them is that they, in their claim to represent pure Christianity, tend to cause all Christians to be tarred with the same brush-something that I consider to be most unfortunate, particularly when it comes to the task of strengthening the ethical foundations of society, a task in which every committed Christian, as well as every sincere citizen, should be engaged. Let me explain.
Faith and Morality
When we look at the child in the "intuitive" stage of faith, we find that morality at this level is really more a question of mere "behavior". We do not, or at least should not, hold the child below the age of reason as having true moral responsibility, or fully deserving of merit or guilt. What we do is really try to shape their habits of conduct in a way that will lead them toward moral and ethical goodness in the future. We do this mostly through techniques that modem psychologists call "behavior modification", that is, through employing rewards and punishments. All this is fine and appropriate, providing it is done wisely, with consistency, and with sensitivity. But wisdom dictates that we do not mistake the results with morality. Morality at this level is more in the parents and the teachers than in the child.
However, once a child really begins to exercise reasoning powers we can begin to speak of the child's morality as such. Behavior at this stage continues to have its foundation in persons such as parents, but because it is a behavior that now has truly moral content, the child is naturally going to look for the real moral content in the conduct of the parent. So increasingly parents and other authority figures have to be themselves inspiring of trust. Yet it is only natural in this stage that this trust tends to extend no farther than to the larger "family" community -- those of similar class, ethnic, or religious background. So it tends to be a morality that is rather restricted in its scope.
In addition, in its logic, this literal stage morality tends toward "instrumental hedonism" -- a more sophisticated, as well as manipulative, form of reward and punishment ethic. Things are seen to be wrong not just because you might get punished, but even more because this or that authority said so. But why the authority said so is not very clear. And although the security of having this commanding authority now becomes the principal factor, the promise of God's ability to reward (often lavishly) leads all too easily to manipulation and corruption.
What I have just described is, of course, a normal stage of faith or level of religious comprehension which is appealing in its simplicity, even if its ethical dimensions remain narrow. Unfortunately, at this stage, children's moral vision may be limited more from the example they get from their elders than by any inability to put themselves in the shoes of others -- what is called "simple perspective-taking". So if their elders, in turn, have failed to pass beyond a merely literalistic understanding of morality and pass this attitude on to their children by the way they command -- as in "Do this and do that . . . don't ask me questions; just do it!" -- the result will be to gradually form a society of non-thinking conformists, or, in reaction, just its mirror opposite, non-thinking rebels.
I draw attention particularly to this last point because it appears that a large proportion of the American population if not the majority -- but a larger proportion than just those under age thirteen -- operates on this pre-ethical level. There is a widespread confusion, especially among the less religious, between what is legal and what is moral, along with a corresponding tendency to think of what you can get away with as being quasi-legal. Either that, or, if a person is more explicitly religious in outlook, moral standards are viewed "nominalistically", which is to say that things are judged either right or wrong simply because "God says so". There is little or no concept of a "natural law" or a divine Logos or inherent reason permeating creation.
The result can be seen when it comes to weighty public issues like abortion. On one side we seem to have a supposed "Moral Majority" who want the law to command absolute conformity to what they see as "God's law" against "murder". On the other hand you've got radical "Pro- Choice" people who are rebelling against what they see as a "patriarchal", male-God dominated society by insisting on "control over their own bodies". The real question, as to whether there is really human life at stake, is totally begged by the first group and generally avoided by the latter. Add to this mixture a fair number of "liberal" politicians -- among whom are quite a few Catholics -- who think they can avoid antagonizing the public by saying: "Personally I'm against it [abortion], but I don't think anyone should foist one's own religious beliefs on the rest of the public, particularly in a pluralistic society such as ours." Now I'm inclined to agree with them, especially the part about dealing with a pluralistic society. I do not think you can really legislate morality as such. But I think abusive behavior can be legislated against (just as we do against child-beating) and that the question of abortion has to be approached first of all from the viewpoint of the natural rights of all the parties involved.
In turn, such problems require a more subtle grasp of the relationship between revelation and reason, between the Bible and science, between morality as understood as a religious code of conduct binding the believer, and ethics as a carefully reasoned philosophy of guiding human society for its own best interests. But for those immersed in the literal stage of faith, such an approach is difficult if not impossible.
a similar vein, we often hear it said that the
a way, societies reproduce the stages of individual human growth. We Americans
were often described as an "adolescent" nation. This may still be
largely true. But if so, then our long childhood as offspring colonies of a
parent European civilization had a certain "mythic" quality about it
-- take for example our national myth of the first Thanksgiving Day in
So too with the progression of faith in our lives. A return to religious childhood is not the responsible way to go. The myths that sustained it may well retain their intrinsic value, but only if they are "broken open" so as to reveal their inner meanings. The problem with the literal faith stage is that while it may be an easy way to believe, it is seriously lacking when it comes to faith in the full sense of the word. It is a way that not only fails to come to grips with the intellectual challenges of adulthood, but fails to effectively contribute to the ethical qualities that responsible adulthood demands. In its simplistic appeal to "biblical morality" -- usually poorly understood -- it is counter-productive of any advance toward a mature and ethically responsible society as well. Literal faith is to be expected and even valued in children. But in adults, particularly in those who had once passed beyond it, a literal faith too often represents the evasion of the greater risk that genuine faith demands.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Who were your childhood heroes or heroines and what religious or moral values did they typify?
2. Describe your childhood social and economic world. Did you feel like an "insider" or an "outsider" in school and society?
3. When did you first begin to make a distinction between biblical stories, historical facts, and universal truth?
4. In your opinion, to what extent do you think biblical or Christian morality should be the standard of public ethics? Why or why not?
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