Faith, Security & Risk
Chapter 6: Personal Faith
Faith means battles; if there are no contests, it is
because there are none who desire to contend.
This observation was made at the end of the age of martyrs, over fifteen hundred years ago. Those who joined the church were no longer in much danger of being thrown to the lions, but the official political recognition of Christianity had brought an even greater danger to the life of faith. For if faith is to be anything beyond merely conventional conformity to the prevailing culture, it will demand personal struggle. When faith ceases to be clearly in opposition to the world at large, the danger is that any real desire to commit oneself will be either co‑opted by alternative countercultural movements or all but swallowed up by sham religiosity.
This challenge to become fully authentic in one's commitment is the call to achieve what James Fowler calls "individuative‑reflective faith", and what I, along with Richard Sweeney, call "personal faith". Even though we will take a more careful look at why Fowler uses the words he does, this level of faith is most of all, in my estimation, personal not only because it represents one's personal choice, but because it is deeply involved in the process of our becoming an individual in the sense of being the unified or undivided person that each of us should be.
Although I would prefer to reserve the term “individuative” to the next stage (the "conjunctive") for reasons that I will explain in the next chapter, this stage is highly individual not just because it is a product of one's individuality, but also because it actually contributes to the personal identity of the maturing person. Just as, on a biological level, "we are what we eat", so also on the level of our psychological and spiritual being, we tend to become what our convictions and commitment urge us to be. The world‑view that we hold to, the meanings that we have for our existence, and the particular role that we assume for ourselves in life: all these are part of the unique individual that each of us is. True, there is apt to be a lot of trial and error in this process, especially when it comes to adjusting the particular limitations that are "givens" in our life to the grander ideals and schemes of meaning. But even here, it is the particular adjustments or even compromises that each individual makes in this process that establish one's personal identity.
Such a process, of course, cannot take place without considerable thought or reflection. However, there is not only an increase in the amount of thinking, but even more it is the quality of that thought which makes this stage truly "reflective". The person begins to think in more strictly structured logic, often dichotomizing issues in either/or propositions. One's picture of the world takes on more explicit, definitive form, and symbolic patterns of thinking
tend to be scorned. As a result, for many who are educated in our modern schools, the beginning of this stage of life is marked by a rejection of belief in religious "myth" in favor of a new belief in "scientific" reasoning.
So, too, moral reasoning undergoes a similar process -- indeed, sometimes with all the vehemence of a reflex reaction to the moralisms of earlier stages of religious development. Morality, which tends to emphasize the stress on obedience to divine commands, finds itself challenged to become a more systematically reasoned ethics. This process begins particularly when a person becomes more aware of cultural differences in moral thinking and begins to develop more relativistic point of view. The young person is not so much shocked by people who have abandoned all morality as he or she is puzzled by persons whose sincere ideas of what is right or wrong seem to be very different, yet just as conscientious, as his or her own. The challenge here, is, of course, to see beyond the particulars and to develop a more universal ethic in keeping with a broadened world‑view.
Here it should be cautioned, however, that a significant difference should be noted between women and men when it comes to moral reasoning. Researcher Carol Gilligan has faulted the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, who (like his predecessor Jean Piaget) based his stages of moral reasoning almost exclusively on studies made with boys. Women, according to Gilligan, seem to exhibit a more "relativistic" style of moral reasoning due to their tendency to emphasize personal relationship over abstract principles. In this sense women also are less likely to succumb to the rigid "law and order" mentality that accompanies conventional faith as well as naturally anticipate the perspective‑taking flexibility that characterizes a more advanced "conjunctive" faith. (See Carol Gilligan's "Woman's Place in Man's Life Cycle," reprinted from The Harvard Educational Review, and further refinements of Kohlberg's theory by John Michael Murphy and Carol Gilligan in Margaret Gorman's Psychology and Religion: A Reader, pp. 203‑214.) One would expect that due to a more intuitive style of thought, women are less likely to reject symbolic patterns of thinking at this stage as well.
Still, whatever development takes place, whether in young women or young men, is still apt to be biased, not just in favor of their own ideals, but even more by the social class or group that embodies these values. So while inherited authority figures may be viewed with suspicion, there remains a strong need for self‑chosen role‑models who become new authority figures for the person moving into this stage. In fact, some studies have shown that the more idealistic a person is at this stage the more he or she is susceptible to being attracted to various so‑called "cults", particularly those led by a charismatic personality.
One can predict, from all these tensions, that the movement into personal faith is not always a smooth one. If nothing else, it will usually be punctuated by conflicts with persons who are content to remain in the conventional stage and are apt to be threatened by the questioning that the movement into a more mature faith demands. But even without this environmental static, the person struggling to move into this faith level will often experience an inner turmoil caused by the strong tendency to think in terms of over‑generalized opposites. Things tend to be either black or white, right or wrong -‑ there seems little room for shades of meaning or degrees of truth. All this tends to produce a crisis situation, a turning point in one's faith life. So crucial is this period for one's further growth that we must examine it more in detail.
Crisis and Conversion
As we saw in the previous chapter, Pierre Babin had already traced back in the 1950s what he believed were the adolescent "stages in the growth of faith" and even suggested that despite the important formative influences of the earlier stages (childhood, pre‑adolescence, and pubescent adolescence), it is only beginning in late adolescence that anything like a true act of faith is possible. All that has gone before ‑- the essential relationship of the infant toward its parents, the socialization of the child into the life of community and church, the first questionings of pre‑adolescence, and even the sometimes passionate religious quest that characterized early and mid‑adolescence ‑- is only, as Babin sees it, "a beginning and a call". But all this adds up to something more as well, both a risk and a challenge:
a risk; but . . . also . . . a privileged moment because of the intensity of the search and the questions . . . the religion of childhood which was accepted unquestioningly does not suffice. Man must come to a personal religion, in which he knows himself by his own proper name in the body of Christ (Babin, p. 99 ‑- emphasis mine).
Describing the process by which the young person comes to a personal faith, Babin writes of an ". . . evolution that follows a triple rhythm, like waves that overlap; a state of doubt and deep insecurity; a state of reflection and intellectual deepening; a state of decision, commitment, emphasizing the direction chosen" (Babin, p. 101 ‑- emphasis mine). He then goes on to speak of the young person, at age seventeen, despite the stabilization of biological drives as being "-‑in certain respects especially ‑- more insecure, more distraught than ever. . . . At the same time his insecurity, which had until now been affective, becomes more and more intellectual and reflective" (Babin, pp. 102‑103 ‑- again, emphasis mine).
Babin then reflects a little further on this. The crisis is not specifically intellectual as such; it is only partly so -‑ and less so than it will be later. But it is brought about by a lethal triad of "emotional shock" (often following a failed love affair), "remorse," and "deep affective and intellectual insecurity." Babin sees also that often this affective and intellectual insecurity ". . . frequently takes on symptoms of moral insecurity", and that together, all this leads to a crisis where the young person either gives up the practices of Christian life or else will lead to a decision that opens up to grace. "The necessity of a choice becomes clear: either a greater depth of faith, or lapse from the faith" (Babin, p. 104).
Despite the insistence of this challenge, the choice can be put off. Babin sees this often happening, partly because in our age there is such a range of options that commitment to any one choice becomes increasingly difficult. It is almost as if the almost unlimited range of possibilities at the same time brings with it a paralysis like that afflicting the fabled donkey of Greek philosophy; standing between two piles of hay and equally attracted to both, the beast eventually starved to death. So for many, especially the young:
Between these two paths of evolution ‑- the one positive, the other negative ‑- there remains a third, an incomplete path. Many young people never make the transition from childish or adolescent attitudes to maturity, whether through dissipation, evasion, cowardice, fear, or general lack of maturity (Babin, p.115).
So we see from this analysis that this crisis of late adolescence can lead to one of three outcomes. According to Babin there can be a real deepening of faith, or else even an outright refusal of faith. But all too often there can simply be an arrestment, a refusal to move on.
When Babin speaks of "conversion," as he does in the second chapter of his book, he distinguishes three types. The first, "explicit conversion", he describes as
...the act or event in which the young person gives his life a direction and meaning in relation to transcendent values, with a depth of consciousness and decision that put an end to the vacillations of his adolescence and profoundly affect the moral and religious sense of his adult life (See Babin, 1959, p. 60).
The second and third forms of conversion, which Babin terms "implicit" and "conversion through the ratification of a given situation", are allied to the first, but less directly so. Much here hinges on temperament and circumstances and we will have occasion to reflect on these variant forms later in this chapter. But for now, I think we must focus on explicit conversion which not only illustrates the biblical sense of the word "conversion", or metanoia (translated literally, the "change of mind" or of manner of thinking) but also because it best emphasizes the kind of commitment that is involved in the passage from conventional to personal faith.
This original biblical meaning of the word is very important for our understanding of this critical stage of faith development. "Conversion" has too often become associated with the idea of changing religions or switching churches. As Fowler points out, such a change can occur along with the movement into this more personally reflective stage of faith ‑- but not necessarily. Quite the contrary, a change of church or religion could be in many cases a strategy for avoiding any deepening of faith (See Fowler, 1979, pp. 281‑82).
At the same time, the kind of religious "intensification experiences" (a term borrowed by Fowler from R.M. Moseley) brought about by revivals, retreats, or other such religious exercises often can be the catalyst that helps one move into a more personal faith, but they should not be confused with the actual stage change itself. Likewise, the moral renewal that often takes place along with these experiences also can be a part of a genuine conversion ‑- but such a renewal also can represent only a minor change in attitude within the same faith stage. For example, a person may simply decide it's more in his or her self‑interest to tread the "straight and narrow path" than be a "sinner" yet persist in the same kind of selfish thinking that led him or her into the life of sin.
It is important that we understand these distinctions, because without them we will not have a really clear idea of what a truly personal faith demands from us. The result, as we shall see, can be fatal to our spiritual development. As Babin warned, the challenge of personal faith cannot be ignored. True, we can either accept the challenge in its entirety and advance, or flatly reject the summons. But too often, compromise of some sort prevails. But even to understand these, we must first examine the more obvious examples of the underlying psychological patterns that are involved.
Excesses and Regressions in Personal Faith
At first glance, there may seem to be a contradiction in terms involved in grouping excesses in faith along with regressions in faith, but on closer examination we will see that the two occurrences are usually closely related. What often strikes us most negatively about persons who have undergone conversion or even simple "intensification experiences" as described above is their tendency to become fanatic and intolerant of all others who do not agree with them. It is probably safe to say that this trait is more often the cause ‑- or at least the excuse ‑- of others turning away from religious faith than all other reasons combined.
This phenomenon has several causes. One is the sheer overwhelmingness of the conversion experience. A person often does feel really as if he or she had been "born again". True, such feelings may vary widely in intensity and expression depending on temperament and other circumstances, but, generally speaking, we could say that a conversion, especially when combined with an intensification experience, can be not unlike falling in love ‑- one's entire world seems bathed in a whole new light.
Another cause of this tendency is often rooted more directly in the psychological dynamics of youth. Young people, who can often seem unmercifully judgmental toward others, especially toward older people and their institutions, are often really projecting on others their own intolerance toward themselves. This tendency toward self‑perfectionism, accompanied by severe criticism of the imperfections of others, is, of course, the flip side of what is otherwise the admirable idealism of youth. Yet this situation is not restricted to youth. Persons, at any age, who undergo a genuine moral conversion are likely to be hard on themselves, and to the extent that this process is unconscious, to that extent they tend to become all the more judgmental toward others.
We are all too familiar with the ex‑smoker syndrome, but often the problem goes deeper than just a revulsion for one's former way of life. More like the reformed alcoholic than the ex‑smoker who no longer can stand the stench of tobacco, the newly born‑again Christian may still be battling strong attractions and temptations to return to his or her old haunts. What may on the surface look like an excess of faith and confidence is often just the opposite ‑- a mask hiding, even from himself or herself, what is really a very insecure faith, or even an outright lack of faith at least as far as confidence is concerned. This is the point where an apparent excess of faith is really the occasion of a regression back into some of the most striking features of what are earlier stages of faith.
One of the most common examples of this danger in the movement into personal faith can be seen when religious "conversion" involves an outright reversion to the literal stage, sometimes mixed with the more negative elements of intuitive faith. As we have seen, much of American "born again" Christianity exhibits these traits. Not that these Christians are not sincere, or even that their faith commitment is not a personal one. But this genuinely personal commitment is mixed up with certain security needs that have taken on the literalistic and fundamentalistic approaches to biblical interpretation described in Chapter 4.
We have also seen (in Chapter 5) that something similar often happens with persons in the more outspoken wings of Catholic "traditionalism" ‑- although many who identify with this movement in some way may be simply stuck in the "conventional" stage of faith. Yet there can be no doubt that at least some of these traditionalists, like many of their fundamentalist counterparts, are genuine "converts" in the biblical sense of the word, having undergone a real change in thinking, perhaps involving a moral conversion as well. At the same time, their inner insecurity drives them to fall back to reliance on certain aspects of a less mature stage of faith, most typically the familiar certitudes of what was once a comfortably "conventional" faith, if not occasionally to some of the worst compulsive aspects of the "intuitive" faith of early childhood.
Many of these same traits are
seen in the example that I have put off discussing until this moment ‑-
the "charismatic renewal". This movement has become popular among
many Roman Catholics and members of other major Christian "main‑line"
denominations, sweeping through these churches, particularly in
Soon after, when the same movement spread to the parish, some disturbing new phenomena appeared. One was the almost constant preoccupation with the extraordinary, especially with glossolalia or "the gift of tongues", "prophecy", "healings" and other demands for new signs of the miraculous. Coupled with this was a growing division, not only between those "baptized in the Spirit" and those who felt no need for this, but among the charismatics themselves, particularly when it came to questions of leadership. Yet one could honestly expect that such difficulties can afflict, and usually do, any movement, particularly one that was challenging Catholics to move from conventional to a more personal faith ‑- which was exactly what this movement was most effectively doing. As we have seen, such either/or thinking and its attendant polarization are to be expected at this stage.
But something else began to occur that was not to be so readily expected. Some Catholic charismatics, feeling an ecumenical kinship with charismatics of other churches (and sometimes sensing a cold shoulder from their own leadership), began to drift into the more openly "pentecostalist" type denominations or others largely given over to fundamentalist‑literalist biblical interpretation. With some, there was even a rejection of what they now deemed to be charismatic emotionalism for a new‑found scriptural certitude. Not that a combination of the two tendencies is not often found. For example, both fundamentalists and charismatics occasionally resort to "divining" scriptures -‑ that is, of finding particular answers to personal problems by opening up the Bible at random to find a passage that seems to give a specific answer. In any case, what often happens represents, to a large extent, a type of reversion to "literal" faith, one prompted by a need for security -‑ the intellectual security that a charismatic outpouring of pentecostal charisms couldn't fill.
If, in some ways, the results of what seemed a promising movement have been disappointing, it is because what began as both a challenge and a means toward developing a personal faith too often ended up in a retreat into pietistic isolation and biblical literalism. But I do not think this has been due to lack of generosity and the desire of persons to commit themselves. If anything, the failure has been due to an excess of this willingness without solid enough leadership or astute guidance. But even more, the failure is due to a lack of a more balanced and dynamic concept of faith.
In any case, these examples of a more positive desire to grow in faith that have in some fashion gone astray have at least a strong potential for rehabilitation and reorientation upon a more solid path. The spirit is still willing, even if "the flesh" -‑ the form this openness to the life of faith has taken ‑- has taken some strange turns. The same, I think, cannot be said about those whose failure in commitment has to be characterized more as a simple refusal of faith.
The Refusal of Faith
So far we have concentrated on contrasts between as well as combinations of the first and the last of the three possible outcomes of the faith crisis -‑ namely, genuine conversion as contrasted to various compromises or evasions that may cause a regression into certain earlier stages of faith. But there is another possibility according to Babin's view -‑ an outright refusal of faith.
Is it possible to lose one's faith? Typically, young persons in churches that attempt to protect their members' faith are often warned against the dangers of this happening. Yet somewhat contradictorily we are sometimes assured that one cannot "lose" the faith -‑ that one can only "throw it away".
How true is this? Recently I saw another variation of this same contention in the question and answer column of a Catholic newspaper where the priest‑columnist claimed that "No one has ever left the faith over doctrinal reasons." His explanation of this sweeping generalization seems to have implied that since "the faith" was practically self‑evident as "the truth", there are inevitably moral reasons behind anyone's falling away from Christian belief and religious practice.
Although I do not doubt the frequent influence of moral challenges and psychological factors in the so‑called "loss of faith", my own feeling is that it is rash, if not outright insulting to many persons' integrity, to insist that all departures from the faith or from the church involve moral failure or perhaps even mental illness. The opposite may be true: a person's remaining in the church, even though that person's intellectual judgment -‑ although we may consider it erroneous ‑- dictates otherwise, can be a form of dishonesty, "bad faith", and hence hypocrisy. The regressions in faith that we spoke of in the preceding section could be a good example of the results of such compromise taking the place of honest doubt.
In this connection, the saying of Cardinal Newman is often cited, that "a thousand difficulties do not equal one doubt." True, if we mean by "doubt" a deliberate refusal to be open to faith, then we have to condemn such doubt. Nevertheless, the kind of persistent skepticism that many think of as "doubt" may paradoxically hide a deeper faith, in the existential sense of the word -‑ a profound sense of commitment even in the face of intellectual uncertainty. Having faith does not mean avoiding tough questions, nor is holding to "the faith" identical with conforming to this or that school of theology.
If the Second Vatican Council admits that unbelievers, even atheists, are not excluded from God's saving grace, providing that they live according to their consciences (see Lumen Gentium, "The Constitution on the Church," Section 16) , it seems logical that a former believer, particularly one whose faith had only reached the conventional stage, might reach the personal stage of self‑commitment only in an apparently atheistic or humanistic form. This would most often occur in an environment where mature reflection on the faith was discouraged as being a dangerous questioning ‑- a situation often found among communities that take refuge in a ghetto mentality. Or else it might happen where a supposedly progressive and scientific philosophy like Marxism seems the only alternative to what appears to be a corrupt and self‑serving Christianity.
Part of this tendency, of course, is traceable to the old phenomenon of the grass appearing greener on the other side of the fence. Not only are the failures of organized religion down through the ages all too evident. It is always easier to appreciate the good points of another faith or system from afar and to compare them unfavorably with the defects of what one knows first‑hand. We often see this in persons who idealize the eastern religions while rejecting their own western traditions.
In this regard it is also important to realize that the type of perfectionistic thinking that often inspires fanaticism as described in the previous section also has its role to play in the apparent loss or rejection of faith. Here the role of conscience remains critical.
In the wake of parental and ecclesiastical warnings, an over‑developed and censorious conscience is apt to raise havoc, particularly when religious prohibitions against questioning belief and repeated admonitions to "take it on faith" have discouraged all serious reflective thought. Too often what is mistaken for conscience in the true sense of the word, an informed judgment leading to responsible action, is confused with the Freudian "super‑ego," which is the internalized projection of the authoritarian parent. True conscience ‑- understood in terms of its Latin roots meaning "with knowledge" or "awareness" -‑ is something much more reasonable than these disturbing feelings that are often mistaken for the real thing.
Unfortunately, many people fail to make it through the transition to a truly personal faith because of this false or bad conscience which they suffer whenever they find themselves questioning some aspect of their old conventional faith. This leaves them caught between either irrationally holding on in what some ways amounts to bad faith or else giving up their faith altogether.
Those who would attempt to help people who are facing this critical stage must be ready to encourage and reassure them through this difficult process, as well as having achieved this level themselves. They must be ready, particularly if they in any way represent the authority associated with the previous stage, to be able to accept and absorb the ambivalence that the person is likely to display in the process. Such searchers after truth must not only be assured that questioning their previous faith is not sinful, but even more, be encouraged to continue asking questions. The antagonism that so often characterizes those whose claim that they have "lost the faith" is most often traceable to their having only asked enough questions to justify, in their minds, their disbelief. What they have often failed to do is to follow through enough in their questioning to rebuild a faith of their own.
In some ways, terms such as "loss of faith" or "defection" from the faith are much too relative to be particularly helpful. What we should ask is whether such questioning or readiness to change beliefs represents a deepening of commitment. Here things are not always what they seem, and what sometimes appears to be an advance in faith may turn out to be, upon closer inspection, just the opposite.
Likewise we should be aware of the danger that "personal" or "individual" commitment might be confused with having a private religion. There is a distinct tendency, particularly because of modern individualism, to see one's faith commitment as a strictly private matter, between oneself and God alone. But this attitude, although readily understandable in the climate of American life (see particularly Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life), and as a reaction to the "group" or social dimension of conventional faith, ignores some of the most obvious facts of basic psychology.
Personhood is largely a relational affair -‑ one does not become a person apart from interaction with others. We may speak of different levels of the "self" and point out that "personhood" is largely a function of the "social self", but this does not mean that the so‑called "ideal" or even the "real" or "higher" self can exist apart from our relation to others. But the illusion that one can have a strictly private faith or individual religion all one's own is a distinct danger, one that is similar to that facing persons who find themselves resisted in their attempts to grow -‑ as families and societies often do resist change and those who attempt it. Often people will isolate themselves in an attempt to protect their own integrity. Again, this attitude is understandable in many young persons who feel the need to cut the apron strings that seem to bind them too closely to family and the society in which they were raised. Looked upon as part of the movement into personal faith, this rugged individualism in the growth of the life of faith is even excusable. But as a fixed or permanent state, it is unfortunate, and all too often represents the end of any further growth in faith.
When this happens it is a tremendous loss, not only for the society or community that needs to be prompted toward further growth precisely by individuals such as these, but also for the individuals themselves. The lack of personal commitment that so often arrests further spiritual growth frequently takes this form and in doing so violates the whole process of indirect fulfillment upon which growth depends. For if we are committed only to our own spiritual growth, how, in effect, are we to transcend ourselves? Frankl has warned us that the only meaning that can possibly ensure our happiness is bound up in a commitment to something or someone who is greater than ourselves, that goes beyond our selfish concern to have everything our own way.
As we shall see when it comes to our discussion of the higher levels of faith and spiritual growth, the greatest obstacle to progress is precisely bound up with the false idol of the perfect self. The image of the self‑made saint, like that of the self‑made millionaire, has a strong attraction for the person emerging from the cocoon of a conformist society and the womb of conventional faith. This temptation must be resisted. Not that we must not make our own choices, carry our own burdens, and trudge along our own path. No one else can do these things for us. But on the other hand, we must not shun our fellow pilgrims along the way, nor ignore the traditions and the wisdom of those who have gone before us. To do so would be to forget the most fundamental truth of all growth, that "unless the seed fall into the earth and die, it shall not bear fruit." Our isolated concern for self‑perfection must first be dissolved in the earth of concern for others. Only then can it bear fruit "tenfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold."
The Risk of Commitment
This dimension of involvement in the lives of others brings us back to the question of "implicit conversion" raised by Babin in his book (pp. 65‑70). Not all conversions are as explicit as the formal, conscious decision made either for or against God. Instead many people do not live under circumstances in which they are forced to deliberately make such a choice. Yet sooner or later, most people are confronted with some other choice in life that demands personal commitment; this choice usually revolves around some issue of social or interpersonal involvement, marriage, a particular vocation, or the like. And implicit in this involvement are (according to Babin) four elements:
(1) Allegiance to a creed and morality;
(2) Adherence to certain practices;
(3) Loyalty to certain structures, institutions, people;
(4) Adherence to certain deep‑seated principles. (Babin, p. 67)
On the surface, such a cluster of loyalties could represent no more than simply the practice of a merely conventional faith. But appearances may be deceiving. What may appear to be simply a "conventional faith" in the sense of mere conformity to the socio‑cultural patterns of society may still involve a real element of personal commitment that raises it above mere conformism. We must not be too quick to judge. "Good faith" in the sense of personal integrity may often co‑exist with certain elements of "bad faith" as understood in the existentialist sense or with a faith structure which alienates the believer from authentic involvement in life.
The weaknesses of faith that are bound up with such implicit conversions are of two kinds, according to Babin (p. 69). One is the result of implicit conversion "without adequate reflection", which may lead to a strong commitment but defective understanding of that to which they are committed. In such a case there is a strong element of moral determination but an intellectual shakiness ‑- probably a major factor in the kinds of regressions described earlier in this chapter.
On the other hand, Babin also describes implicit conversions that lack "a vital and deliberate decision." All the knowledge and understanding are there, and they do seem to have some effect on the believer's orientation to life, but they never seem to make a really decisive difference. The commitment itself seems less than total, and, as Babin adds, such implicit decisions, with the same flaws, are often seen in the case of a lapse from faith. (Here one is reminded of the warning in the New Testament book of Revelation 3: 15‑16 against being "neither hot or cold" and its consequences.)
Similar to these forms of implicit conversion ‑- or is it perhaps just another way of looking at the same thing? ‑- Babin describes "conversion (or lapse) through the ratification of a given situation" (pp. 70‑72). People often make choices in life without the full awareness of the consequences. Babin uses marriage and its effect on religious practice as the most obvious example. Immaturity, naivete, or the lack of preparedness for the demands of marriage or of one 's chosen profession or vocation will occasion a crisis. And out of the confrontation there are (again) three possible resolutions: outright rejection of the situation (divorce in the one case or apostasy in the other), running away or withdrawal from the conflict (putting off the decision, distraction, denial), or, finally, ratification or recommitment.
All this brings to mind Gabriel Marcel's existential distinction between "choosing" and "willing", again with marriage as an obvious example. A couple falls in love, and they choose each other as an intended life partner, but it is only in the course of time, after they truly know each other, as well as become more fully aware of the other options they might have had, that they can be said to truly will their fidelity to each other. Is not the same true of our faith commitment? Anyone can choose a "faith" in the sense of a series of beliefs, but it is only in the face of a test of willed commitment that a person is forced to finally confront the ultimate meaning of one's life and to act upon it.
This is not to disparage so‑called "implicit conversions" or those that have come about mostly through force of circumstances. Indeed, most choices in life are probably made this way ‑- including those involved in an "explicit conversion." In some way, because of the immediacy of their practical consequences, such implicit conversions underline the necessity for the existential commitment that characterizes a truly personal faith. The levels of intellectual understanding, moral reasoning, and the other criteria that are built into Fowler's depiction of the faith stages are all important, often vitally so for consistency in each stage, but above all it is the component of decisive commitment on which the claim to have a truly personal faith stands or falls. Without it, we may have a sophisticated religious worldview, but we really don't have "faith" in the full sense of the word. And where there is this commitment, we have the real nucleus of faith, no matter how theologically naive or otherwise misshapen this commitment might be.
This of course brings with it tremendous risk. And with the growing awareness of the risk comes a growing sense of insecurity. What appears to be "a bridge over troubled waters" turns out to lack handrails, and what seemed easy at first -‑ as long as one kept one's attention on the opposite shore -‑ becomes unnerving as soon as one is forced to turn one 's attention to what lies beneath. No wonder that many retreat in panic or else cling as one paralyzed to whatever consoling plank or other handhold that is available, even if it points back in the wrong direction. Babin (p.133) cites psychiatrist Karen Horney's diagnosis of "anxiety [being] the disease of our time."
This observation, along with Frankl's opinion that over fifty percent of all mental illness could be termed "existential neurosis" -- traceable directly to a lack of "meaning" in a person's life ‑- should make us doubly aware of the crucial necessity of faith as an essential foundation for human life. It should also make us aware in our times of the particular susceptibility of religious faith to various forms of distortion, particularly by those who use it to exploit people's sense of insecurity.
After looking at these problems connected with the emergence of personal faith, we may well wonder if it is worth the struggle and the dangers involved. If the dangers, particularly of the excesses of fanaticism on the one hand, or of apparent loss of faith on the other, are so great, one may well dread the possible outcome. We are reminded of the gospel warning that "having swept out seven devils . . . the last state may become worse than the first" (Mt 12:49; Lk 11 :26). Religious leaders down through the centuries have been only too well aware of these dangers, and more often than not have been tempted to restrict growth in this direction lest, as they say, "the faithful be scandalized."
So let there be no doubt about it, there are genuine risks connected with the emergence of truly committed, personal faith. But the greatest risk, by far, is not that the process of achieving a personal faith will go astray in some such manner, but that it will never begin at all.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Your college sophomore returns home on vacation. He or she announces to your shocked family that he or she is convinced that religion is a lot of superstition and that the only honest position is to be an atheist. How do you handle this one?
2. At what age did you first experience difficulties or doubt about "the faith"? What doctrine(s) were they about? How did you resolve them?
3. Knowing what you do now, at what age do you think the sacrament of confirmation should be received? Give your reasoning for your position.
4. Have you had anything like a "conversion" experience in your life? In what sense of the word (conversion)? When or how did it occur?
5. In what way do you see faith as a risk?
Proceed to Chapter 7
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