Faith Stages

One of the most interesting developments in recent times has been the interaction, or one might even say the "marriage", that has taken place between psychology and religion. Not that spiritual guides of the past were unaware of the delicate interplay that takes place between God and the human need for meaning or purpose in life, but never, until the study of what is called "developmental psychology" came along, have the stages or levels of faith — or sometimes the lack of it — become so well understood, as well as the possible reasons for it.

According Methodist theologian James W. Fowler, six or possibly (if one counts, as Fowler did in his second book, the earliest beginnings of an infant’s sense of trust) seven such stages have been identified. But since three of these stages are typically found in childhood, and since the very last stage is rarely found (probably only in those rare people whom we consider to be saints), then for all practical purposes we might say that basically there are three levels of faith even though we might distinguish different stages within each of them.

First, we have the childhood level of faith, which involve different forms of trust in ones parents and their opinions and explains a lot of the confusion that results when both parents are not together in their religious loyalities.

The next stage of faith is generally reached in early adolescence (about age fourteen) and just as we might expect, tends to go beyond the beliefs of ones parents and tends to become more like those of ones friends and society in general. Indeed, a follow-up poll taken by the Gallup organization to test Fowler's thesis showed that most persons seem to be quite content to remain at this entirely "conventional" stage or level of religion. However, it is equally clear that remaining in this "conventional" stage has become increasingly difficult, especially in a country like ours, where not only different Christian denominations, but even entirely different religions, are in competition with each other. It is no wonder then, that in attempting to move beyond this stage toward a more adult level, a very critical step has to be negotiated. It is critical for two reasons.

First, because religion is, at its very heart (as psychiatrist Viktor Frankl once described it) "the search for ultimate meaning", it follows that advancing in faith necessarily involves a lot of questioning. And because questioning is always unsettling, the temptation is to fall back on a rigid adherence to formulas or articles of belief whether couched in fundamentalist or traditionalist terms they seem, at least if not examined too closely, to give rock-solid, certain answers to those questions.

which if they were as certain as the believer would like to imagine they are, would make faith, real "faith" in the Gospel sense of that term, practically unnecessary. Why does this happen? My own guess is that the need for security or more exactly, a sense of security, is what discourages any real growth in faith. In fact, I suspect that it is this same need, this time in the form of a demand to find security in their own sense of self-identity or self-sufficiency, that also drives some to reject religion altogether. Either way, such an attitude, I believe, is the direct opposite of faith, which, at least in the Gospel sense of the word, involves placing our trust in Someone greater than ourselves, or, at the very least, if faith is to ever mature, means taking the risk of seeking Something greater than our own security.

R W Kropf 5/13/07 FaithStages.doc 07-05-13.html