FAITH: SECURITY & RISK
Chapter 5: Conventional Faith
Some make the world believe that they believe what they do not believe. Others, in greater number, make themselves believe it, being unable to penetrate what it means to believe. (Montaigne)
What the great sixteenth century French philosopher Montaigne was criticizing fits, to a large extent, what is called by Fowler "synthetic-conventional faith." It is not called "synthetic" to indicate that it is phony or hypocritical -- although the first type described by Montaigne is so. Nor is it synthetic in the sense of being artificial, but in that it is generally reached after something of a personal "synthesis" or coming together of diverse elements.
But this stage is also "conventional" in the sense that it is much the same combination of beliefs, attitudes and customs held by one's parents and friends. And because this stage of faith tends very much to be the level on which many persons remain, often for the rest of their lives, I will more often use the second half of Fowler's designation and simply refer to it as "conventional faith." I do this even though I'm convinced that in modern society more and more people are struggling to move beyond this stage, and that probably most people who read this book have already gone beyond it in many aspects of their religious life. But unless we try to understand this stage very thoroughly, we will easily overlook how many elements of it remain, even in those who have passed a stage or two beyond.
In some societies, like that of the American "Bible Belt,” the conventional level of religious faith may be very well "literal" in the sense that we discussed "fundamentalism" in the last chapter. On the other hand, in that same area, the "conventional" level of faith-practice may involve a higher proportion of persons who are more personally committed than is usual-something that we may consider more than conventional by our standards, and that we may well envy or attempt to emulate.
Thus we should not overlook the fact that what is conventional for one society may not be very conventional at all for another. But on the whole the kind of picture given to us by Montaigne still holds true, despite three great revolutions-and here I'm not just referring to the American, French and Russian revolutions, all of which repudiated "state religions," but also of the three great upheavals in human thought and attitudes: the scientific, industrial, and psychological revolutions, each of which was supposed, at its time, to lead to the obsolescence of religious faith. They affected it to be sure, but not nearly as radically as predicted. For the most part, for better or for worse, "conventional faith" remains secure.
Our tasks in the examination of conventional faith will be four: first, to take a good look at the characteristics of this stage as they develop in the adolescent; second, to examine these same traits as they become, as they so often do, embedded in the general culture; third, to look into the causes of why this stage so often seems to persist and interfere with further spiritual growth; finally, we'll take a look at the phenomenon of "Catholic traditionalism" as our main example of an attempt to preserve this level of faith.
Adolescence and Conventional Faith
Beginning in the early teen years, the thinking process takes on a more explicitly logical form. The young person, testing various role models, is able to project his or her thought into the roles of others. Human relationships, particularly in the ethical sense, begin to be thought of in terms of mutual responsibility and concord or "getting along with each other". Our perspective also opens out to take in a wider world, at least in symbolic ways. But at the same time, this expanded horizon is necessarily constricted by the still limited life-experience.
For this reason the "synthesis" in this stage remains a rather tentative one. The components of this synthesis are more or less a combination of family beliefs, influences from school, the surrounding community, and especially from friends. Because the young person is still in the throes of self-discovery, the process at this stage is not so much matter of balancing one's own inclinations against the lures of the surrounding world as it is using the influences or models presented by the outside world as a means of testing out various roles in the effort to arrive at some provisional idea of oneself. So the result of this "coming together" of various influences, models, roles, etc. is that the young person's faith is very much dependent on participation in various groups -- which is why Richard J. Sweeney calls this; stage "group faith".
It should be particularly noted that there can be, at the beginning of this stage, a deep religious awakening, but on that is at the same time apt to be greatly confused and inter woven with the search for role identity and the stabilization of emerging sexuality. It is a time of great uncertainty an challenge. The problems involved in confronting and over; coming this uncertainty are equally complex. The central issue is that of emerging individuality and to that extent anticipates something of the next stage. But this entails the whole problem of one's relationship to the group (or groups) family, peers, economic and social class, church, even nationality.
It seems that young people, in their efforts to become their own persons, especially need other persons to act as role models, mentors, or even heroes. In a world that increasingly lacks these -- would-be candidates, especially in public life, are quickly destroyed by the exposure of the media -- the role of the group or class or even "gang" becomes even more exaggerated. The only individuals that seem to stand out these days, at least for long, are such anti-heroes and heroines as the current rock stars. (The late John Lennon's outrageous boast that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ was not without foundation.)
Accordingly, the question of moral authority, in particular, takes on new and very serious dimensions. For a young person, the "locus" of authority is no longer so directly connected with this or that authority figure -- indeed, there may be a real reaction against all parental or parent-like authority - Instead it more and more becomes focused on the opinion or the conventions of the surrounding society. If you have any doubt about this, just try enforcing an eleven p.m. curfew on your teenager when his or her friends are allowed to stay out to midnight or even to one in the morning. Obviously, even when they are not allowed to prevail, peer pressures are of extreme importance.
At the same time, more directly in terms of faith convictions, the emotional force of symbols, which now take on a multidimensional quality, becomes greatly increased. At this stage persons seem less worried about "literal" meanings than before, and while it may sometimes appear that this is for no other reason than that their friends don't seem to be having any such problems, they see no reason why they should worry about such matters. But, at the same time, there may be an opening up to a deeper appreciation for symbolic language, even when it isn't recognized explicitly as such. Under the facade of a kind of blithe cynicism, there actually may be a budding idealism-in fact, the overlay of the tough exterior is usually an instinctual defense of the more vulnerable core.
To understand this phenomenon more thoroughly in its normal development, I turn for help from a somewhat older source, Pierre Babin's The Crisis of Faith: The Religious Psychology of Adolescence (New York, Herder & Herder, 1963). This study by the French religious educator (first published as Les jeunes et la foi in 1960) has become something of a classic. Despite the passage of the years, much of what it has to say appears to apply very much to American youth. Babin, even more than Fowler, will be our guide in understanding the particularly adolescent elements of the dynamism at work through this stage and even more during the next, even though we will go back to Fowler to assess what it means for faith to become stuck on either of these levels.
At its earliest stage or, better, sub-stage (for as we shall see, Babin distinguishes three phases to adolescence), the reserve ego-strength of the young person is usually not equal to the individuality he or she craves. Hence peer-conformity is generally the outcome. Just how far this conformity takes one toward rebelling against the past depends to a large extent on the same peers on the one hand, and home environment on the other. As any youth counselor knows, the various mixes of influences, and the complications they present, seem endless. But on this level, within this substage, what security is available is purchased almost entirely at the risk or price of conformity of one sort or another. This can be either through conformity to peers which offers a kind of pseudo self-identity or else through a caving in to the demands of one's parents-often with a feeling of loss of self-identity.
During adolescence proper (Babin's second phase) the same factors as the above may still be present, but a certain stabilization, or even truce, between the warring elements occurs. Then the risk becomes one of having achieved peace through some compromise that undermines the basic integrity of the person. In this case security has been achieved by the sacrifice of authenticity. It is not for nothing that young people today criticize so many of the older generation for being what appears to be to them "unauthentic" or "phony" -they fear this in themselves above all! But as we shall see in the next chapter, these early and middle phases of adolescence are really only a threshold to the real challenge of (to use Fowler's words) "becoming an adult, becoming a Christian ' ' and none of this can be accomplished without undergoing, in some sense, a "crisis of faith."
The adolescent believer is a very difficult subject to accurately describe and is very much a person still in the process of becoming himself or herself. No wonder there seems to be great inconsistency. Yet despite the sketchiness of this description of adolescent faith, the fact that these same characteristics are shared by a large number of American adults should give us pause to think. The fact that most TV entertainment is purposely geared to the mentality-despite its supposed "adult" subject matter-of the early teens may disgust us. And when sloganeering replaces any attempt to engage in reasoned persuasion, as we have seen in recent election campaigns, we should be alarmed, but not entirely surprised. Little real thinking is involved in conventional attitudes. Much the same is true for conventional faith.
Society and Security
some ways, what we call "conventional faith" represents a synthesis
of many "faiths," that is, it represents a combination of beliefs and
ideologies belonging to one or another of the many groups to which we belong,
all at the same time. This is particularly true of the combination of religious
identity and the ideals of society. Just the very day that I began a revision
of this chapter, I heard a sample of this on the radio in the campaign song of
a candidate for the
wrong in this, we might say. But have we pondered the implications of too close
an association between these two values of religion and patriotism? Should not
all the bloody wars fought in the name of religion, even when religion was
being only used as a mask for racial, ethnic, or even just economic privilege,
make us suspicious of such a close association between the two? Abraham
Lincoln, when asked if he thought that God was on our (the
What kind of faith then is "conventional" or typical of our society? I think we need only listen to our politicians when they are running for office to get a pretty good idea of what Fowler means. We hear frequent references to the American heritage and its values, particularly its respect for "freedom", "integrity", "individual responsibility" and "honest work", and often, in the same breath, to the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. Recently we have seen examples of political leaders or government agencies and policy setting departments making theological pronouncements as to what is the meaning of the scriptures when it comes to setting economic policies, or, on the contrary, bitter criticism of the churches when they suggest that the present order of our society violates some of the basic standards of social justice.
All this is symptomatic of what sociologists often call "civil religion" -- a confusion of patriotism, religious institutionalism, and the status quo. But what inspires these confusions between patriotism and religious faith? No doubt our security needs have a lot to do with it. To know that "God is on our side", or even to be sure that we are on God's side, has a tremendous potential for reassuring ourselves in a hostile world. This is readily understandable -- but is it defensible?
One of the hallmarks of conventional thinking is its insularity. It is more than just a curious fact that when one goes back far enough into the history of human language, almost inevitably a people's name for themselves turns out to simply be "the people" as if other peoples were not quite human beings. Typically too, as the late anthropologist Margaret Meade pointed out, you can almost infallibly measure the degree of ethical advancement of a civilization in terms of the extent that it applies the commandment or idea "thou shall not kill" to people other than those of one's own tribe or race. The record of the world's great cultures, despite Toynbee's contention that all the great civilizations had their beginning in religious roots, has not been inspiring in this regard. Instead of helping to extend the understanding of the sacredness of life as applying to other people as well as one's own, too often the politically tainted theologies of conventional faith have been used to justify the killing of those of other religious beliefs.
Another sign of the arresting of faith at the conventional level is its emphasis on the "law and order" concept of morality. We have already seen, when we discussed "biblical morality" how literal faith tends toward a very superficial grasp of ethical principles. For the literal-minded, the essence of something being a "law" is simply that God has "ordered" or commanded it to be so. There is little grasp of why or how such a command fits into the greater scheme or order of things. But for the conventional "law and order" mentality, the reasoning is only slightly more advanced and in one aspect even slightly retrogressive. Unlike those of literal faith, they now begin to see how this or that command contributes to the right order of things in the world, but on the other hand they seem to have lost the sense of the divine freedom or prodigality of grace.
is this so? It is probably because such an idea of God's freedom to forgive
threatens our individualistic concept of justice. Our conventional morality of
checks and balances is as neatly ordered as
Finally, the crucial moral test which shows the inadequacy of conventional faith is not so much in the matter of ideas of justice, but in the scope and practice of Christian love. The so-called "golden rule" is typically touted by conventional faith as the epitome of Christian morality when in fact one form or another of it is found in almost all the world's religions and ethical systems-for example, the Confucian dictum "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." To "love one's neighbor as oneself" is no big step forward in the evolution of morality, unless one can extend, as Jesus did, the concept of "neighbor" to include all human beings, particularly those who are most unfortunate. Even more beyond the scope of this limited sense of justice is to "love your enemies, and to do good to those who persecute you." It is this distinctively Christ-like love -- "By this all will know you, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:35) -- that distinguishes a committed Christian faith from conventional religiosity, that separates mature or maturing faith from merely adolescent ideals.
Oddly enough, in this last aspect conventional faith often fails to measure up even to the faith and generosity found in many adolescents. Why is this so? The difference is, I believe, 'n the fact that during the adolescent phase, although faith may be very "conventional" in style, being as it is, a synthesis of the many values and standards to which the young person is exposed, it is nevertheless part of an ongoing process in which everything is being continuously sorted out and rethought and which -- as we shall see -- must sooner or later confront one crisis after another. There is little time or opportunity to become complacent in one's faith. Faith at this growing stage of life is seen as part of the armament one will need to fight the battles to come. The situation is quite different for the supposedly "mature" adult.
If the quotation from Montaigne, at the beginning of this chapter, seemed harsh, the judgment of the great turn-of-the-century Russian novelist and religious and social thinker, Leon Tolstoy, seems even more critical.
... the vast majority,
poor, uneducated, but for the most part truly sincere, remain
under the hypnotism of the Church, and therefore think they believe and have faith.
But this is not really faith. . . . (Tolstoy, What is Religion? -- emphasis mine)
that conditions in twentieth century
We should particularly focus on Tolstoy's harsh words about the role of the churches in this matter. Granted that Tolstoy was an "anarchist" who believed that governments were only a conspiracy of the rich to enslave the poor, and that the official church -- in this case, the Russian Orthodox Church -- was only a willing co-conspirator in this plot, still, Tolstoy's words, no matter how exaggerated, bear some truth, especially when the authority and prestige of religions are used to sanction the status quo, as was the case in imperial Russia, by means of crowning the tsar, blessing his wars, and assuring the downtrodden peasants that heaven would be their reward for being obedient serfs. Marx and Lenin rightly called such use of religion "the opiate of the people". But how about less extreme cases, particularly in the more democratic and pluralistic west?
Looking back over the policies of the Christian churches in our culture, there can be no doubt that what organized religion has generally expected from its members has been, to a large extent, this synthetic or conventional faith. The emphasis on the education of the young almost had to be, by design, aimed at this level of development. Once inculturated into this level, young men and women, most of whom would receive no further education of any sort, could be expected to fit nicely into the communities of family, civil society, and church. Further growth in commitment and in "holiness", of course, was encouraged. But other aspects of faith development were generally discouraged, precisely because they were deemed to be "dangerous to ones faith".
Despite the obvious advantages it affords, particularly from the institutional viewpoint, the price paid by such a policy has been enormous. Speaking as a Roman Catholic who grew up before the Second Vatican Council, I think that I, with so many others of my generation, can see now how completely unprepared the bulk of American Catholics were for the changes brought about by the council. I say this not so much about the liturgical changes (mass in the vernacular, communion in the hand, etc.) but about the general atmosphere of freedom and especially its accompanying responsibilities. If so many Catholics, including some of the clergy and professional "religious", began to carry on like a group of adolescents, it was probably because they had never experienced what it was like to be treated as an adult.
Has the situation changed in recent years? Although I'm convinced that the statistics have probably changed, I'm sure that "synthetic-conventional" faith remains predominant. This is not just because what is synthetic and conventional is, by definition, an amalgam of what other people generally hold. If, since the enlightenment, the reformation, the scientific revolution, and the like, the conventional level of faith has shifted from "mythic-literal" to a more "synthetic" mode of understanding, this does not necessarily mean that the amount of personal commitment has necessarily increased along with this shift. One can be just as much one of the "sheep" by following not so much the leader as just following the rest of the flock.
Similarly, if since Vatican II most American Catholics now seem more open to ecumenical sharing, less dependent on authority figures, less threatened by secular society, none of this necessarily translates into gReater commitment. The flock on a whole, with some notable exceptions, has moved in these directions. On the other hand, because this general drift has seemed to bring with it a lessening of rigid adherence to church directives, one must be careful about not taking the statistics from studies limited to those who are still active Catholics. I would suspect that an in-depth study (like those done through Fowler's interviews) would show a higher degree of personal commitment among regular weekly church-going Catholics today than thirty years ago. But if one were to poll all those who still call themselves "Catholic" to some degree or another, I suspect the degree of commitment might be considerably less, even less than that of thirty years prior.
I will not attempt to make similar guesses regarding members of other Christian denominations. Even if I did, I suspect that the results would vary greatly depending on whether a person identified with the so-called "main-line" churches (here one would expect to find results similar to Catholics taken across the board) or with a more "evangelical" or even "fundamentalist" group -- where I would expect more commitment, but a bit less development in other aspects. However, if one simply looks at the American public in general, the prognosis for a general breakthrough in faith development is not promising. In our society of instant communication, it seems even the "born-again Christian" movement toward a more personal faith easily degenerates into a fad.
"Conventional" faith, then, remains the slipperiest of the faith stages, to a large extent because of its "synthetic" characteristics; it tends toward an amalgam, a blend of one's own personal tendencies and quirks with that of the society in which one lives. So a great amount of compromise is involved.
For this reason Daniel A. Helminiak borrows the term "conscientious conformism" from Jane Loevinger's 1977 study on Ego Development (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1977) to describe this latter part of the conventional faith stage, particularly when it becomes constant in a person's life. Where early adolescence tends, in its insecurity, simply toward mere, unthinking conformism, later adolescence moves on into a conscientious or more personally reasoned or rationalized conformism. Fowler, in fact, admits that there is a kind of "stage three (or four) and a half " that more exactly describes "synthetic-conventional" faith, especially when it becomes the fixed state in an otherwise adult believer.
If one were to describe this "stage and a half," it would look something like a recipe for a lemon meringue pie: whip together equal parts of family tradition, childhood religious education and civil religion. Add one tablespoon of personal ambitions and pour the mixture into the pre-shaped crust of peer pressures. Top with a layer of pious practices and sprinkle with some of the latest ideas from Vatican II and some more recent "in" things, and half-bake until more or less fixed enough to resist upsetting if tipped!
If the above recipe seems a bit silly or even harsh, I suggest we take a good look at ourselves. How did we arrive at where we are when it comes to our faith? Too often we seemed only to take what appeared to be the bottom line demands of our faith, adjusted the limits a little here and there to fit our own personal ambitions, added some extras to please God and other onlookers, and probably ended up thinking that we were being reasonably "religious"-not fanatic, mind you, but respectably "devout." It is sad that this accommodation can still turn out to be the average level of commitment in even a "renewed" post-Vatican II church; but how else can we explain the phenomenon where hundreds of thousands can turn out to see the pope make a personal appearance, but totally ignore his teachings on justice and peace , much less risk putting them into practice?
If the "conscientious conformism" of the conventional post-Vatican II Catholic can be described as something like the above, how can we describe the would-be pre-Vatican II Catholic "traditionalist"? How can we explain a church where, having finally confronted the challenges of the modern age, and having decided to meet them head-on, a significant minority now decides that things have gone too far in the direction of modernization, and now, if they had their way, would retreat to the "certainties" of the past, to a "fortress-Catholicism" that idolizes the "Christendom" of the high middle ages, or appeals to the "irreformable" doctrines of Vatican I and Trent as being the norm and ideal of Catholic understanding and culture?
We have already seen, in the last chapter, how literal faith, while it often naturally remains strong among people who have a little educational background, very often has its greatest appeal to those who have found their security threatened in some way or who have become alienated from society in general. In some ways literalistic fundamentalism is a throwback made up of a rejection of merely conventional religiosity and, at the same time (as we shall see), a step that reassures many in the throes of coming to a truly personal faith.
Although the reaction of some Catholics to the changes introduced by Vatican II shows many of these same traits, including widespread ignorance of what the council actually said-indeed some polls at the time showed that many lesser educated Catholics were not even aware that Vatican II was taking place-I suspect that many self-styled Catholic "conservatives" are really fleeing the risks of acquiring a personal faith, rather than consciously undertaking the task of forging out a new synthesis and renewing their commitment on this basis.
Of course, some people of this mind may see such a retrenchment -- which they see simply as a "return" or "restoration" -- as a risk that must be taken in order that Catholicism may get its house back in order. But I can't avoid thinking that such a tactic is really an attempt to buy back the security that these people feel that their religion no longer provides. The loss of the sense of security (or what was thought to be the security) of the old ways may be, in some way, regrettable, but this does not justify this impossible effort to turn back the clock.
Oddly enough, some of the changes that have been most objected to were, in effect, an effort to recover some of the most ancient values and authentic ways of Catholic worship and tradition. For example, what was most "traditional" about the use of Latin? Was it that it had become a "dead language" which sounded familiar but which very few understood, or was it instead that it had once been the vernacular which was adopted only after Greek ceased to be the most widely understood language in the Roman Church? In other words, the authentic principle that stands behind the ancient tradition is to use the vernacular of the people. It was all but inevitable that a misunderstood "traditionalism" which had attempted to arrest the natural evolution of belief and practice had to give way to what seemed a veritable revolution in Vatican II in order to effectively address the needs of the times. True, "opening the windows" of the church, as Pope John XXIII put it, involved the risk of polluted air entering, even while the stale air had become increasingly unbreathable within. But -- to change the image somewhat -- the situation had become like a pressure cooker with a stuck valve. If the internal pressure for reform, which had been largely frustrated since the counter-reformation four centuries earlier, had not been given vent, it is more likely that the whole pot would have blown up. That there has been a lot of steam and some boiling over instead was only to be expected.
Either way, these efforts are not without risk, for life cannot be effectively lived in the past, whether it be ancient times or merely the immediate past. A living faith, like life itself, must be a growing thing -- it cannot be effectively preserved under glass or pickled in formaldehyde. The attempt to arrest growth at any particular stage, or to fix its expression in the customs and trappings of any one era, does not result in simply a suspension of growth but more often in death and decay. Too often what were only temporary weaknesses sooner or later become permanent disabilities. Or as we see in the case of both biblical fundamentalism and Catholic traditionalism, there may even be a reversion to an earlier, less developed and less adequate stage.
As David Viscott's list of cautions, at the end of his book Risking (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1977), indicates, not every risk is a wise one. And a risk that is motivated primarily by a nostalgia for the past is a folly of the highest order, for the past, as such, no longer exists. Faith may indeed call us back to the fidelity of the past, but it can only do so in the context of the present and with a vision of the future. Conventional faith fails, particularly when it takes on the form of "traditionalism," not in its sincerity, and especially not in its sense of solidarity with the past. Instead, it fails precisely as a lack of faith to the extent that it tends to retreat to these relics of past security and to seek refuge in them.
In sum, we must admit that despite all its strengths and especially its sense of solidarity, conventional faith for the most part not only is a rather immature faith, but in some ways is not real faith at all. There is a certain confidence, to be sure, born of convictions to which real commitment ha! been given, yet, as is so obvious when held up in comparison to the demands of the gospel, something essential is missing. What is it?
To answer this, we will be compelled not only to look beyond, but also to look deeply within and to confront ourselves with some very searching and perhaps uncomfortable questions, not just about the contents of our faith, but ever more about our motives. Truly committed belief or genuine faith may not be really possible until some "crisis of faith" has been undergone.
we have called "conventional faith" should really be seen as no more than
what is a way-stop encountered in the midst of adolescence. Yet, it continues
to be the stage lived by many, if not the majority of,
"believers"-even in modern
If, according to Frankl, religion is "the search for ultimate meaning," then it follows that however much faith -- in the sense of confidence -- we already have, genuinely living, growing faith cannot give up commitment to the continued search. And while we all crave the security that faith alone can give us, this security is a grace that can only come to us if we are willing to undergo the risk of moving forward in a committed effort to deepen our experience and understanding of God. Where the synthesis in "conventional faith" is entirely natural in the searching adolescent and still-searching young adult, it is too often, for those who have given up the search, a compromise that is something less than genuine faith. It becomes -- to put it in existentialist terms --"bad faith" or "bogus faith", a "cheap grace" for which we have paid with very little risk of ourselves. No doubt there is real risk in moving forward, but as has often been pointed out, in many life-threatening situations, the greatest risk is in doing nothing at all.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion:
1. List, to the extent that you can, the various elements or components of the faith you had as a young person of high school age. Did the various elements harmonize well or not? Give examples.
2. Who were your heroes (or heroines) during your teenage years? Were they the same or different than those of childhood? Why?
3. At what point in your life was your faith first challenged? Did your faith grow or diminish as a result of that challenge? How and why?
4. Can you see any possible conflicts in your own life between love of God and love of your country? If so, how do you think you can resolve them?
5. (For Catholics or ex-Catholics) What did you find most attractive about the "old" (pre-Vatican II) church? What was least attractive? How would you evaluate your present faith stance?
6. (Bonus Problem) You have a sixteen year old daughter who refuses to attend Sunday church services and demands to stay home to listen to the recordings of the latest popular music stars instead. How do you think this should be handled? Or you have a nineteen year old son who refuses to register for Selective Service -- what will you say to him? What will you say to the neighbors?
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