Stages of Faith

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Whenever I meet a new client, after they’ve told me about the problem that brings them to see me, I’ll ask if the problem has a spiritual dimension. Often, this gets us to the heart of the matter.

Most people answer by telling me the name of their religion, or lack thereof. I’m more interested in how they talk about it than what they say. How they talk about spiritual matters reveals the stage of development of their faith; and faith, broadly speaking, affects everything.

Faith changes and matures, just like everything else. If your understanding of God is the same now as you had in Sunday school, when He may have been presented in a cartoonish, oversimplified way, then you’re arrested in your development, whether you believe in that cartoonish, oversimplified god, or not. The old, bearded man in a cloud, strictly enforcing rules, and punishing your enemies may be a meaningful image for first graders, but it’s a problematic one for adults.

In the beginning, when you’re a newborn, you don’t know the meaning of the words God or Torah or church. All you know is whether you’re cared for or not. To the extent that you’re cared for, that becomes the basis of any faith that follows. Folks in this stage of spiritual development who are not infants have no language or symbols to speak about spiritual things, but they have a degree of trust or mistrust in themselves and others, and everything they get from being trustful or mistrustful.

As you get a little older and begin to understand language, the stories you hear create powerful images that you’re unable to process in any logical manner. Fantasy is not distinguishable from reality for a four-year-old. When religious images are introduced at this time, they acquire a numinous quality, a deep emotional resonance. Adults operating in this stage may feel themselves drawn to and stirred by songs or symbols or rituals, but have no words to describe what they experience.

When you start to go to school and are around other kids who are not in your family, you begin to care about being accepted. You want to know if the other kids will play with you and not tease you about the way you look. Since you’re primarily interested in belonging, you’ll accept most of the teachings of people you belong to without reflecting deeply on them. Adults in this stage have a tribal religion. Any questioning of God to them seems disloyal; a challenge is equated to a betrayal.

Then you become a teenager and start to question everything. I encounter many adults in this next stage. They may say they’ve stopped believing in God; but, they’ve only stopped believing in a primal, tribal god and are struggling to conceptualize a God who is over all of creation. They might turn towards science. Discovering the intricacies of the design of nature is like a religious experience for them, independent of the existence of the designer.

Many people believe this is as far as it’s possible to get in spiritual development, but it’s really the gateway to a mature faith. You can remain a perpetual questioner, or you could begin to question questioning. Folks in the next stage embrace polarities, enjoy paradoxes, and accept multiple interpretations. They make room for mystery.

You don’t replace one stage with the next; you accumulate them. When you mature, you still have an infant or a young child in you who is stirred by numinous images beyond words. You still have a part of you who questions, while you have another part that doesn’t need answers.

You can always tell when a person thinks they must do away with the old way of thinking before adding a new. They’re having a crisis of faith. The old ways of thinking no longer work, but they want to cling to them because they don’t have anything better. This angst and despair comes out in other ways. That’s when they look for a counselor.

They should probably see a spiritual counselor, rather than a shrink; but they may not know it’s a spiritual crisis they’re having. Also, they really need someone in a stage of faith more advanced than their own, who can show them the way. That’s not so easy to find. It’s not as if, when you pass from one stage to another, you get a diploma from theology school you can hang on the wall.

51t5H-IaQHL._AC_UL115_I didn’t come up with the idea of the stages of faith by myself. I got it from James Fowler, in his book called Stages of Faith. You can get his book here, if you want. People who know about Erikson’s stages of ego development, or Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, or Kolberg’s stages of moral development can see that Fowler was influenced by them. Fowler would say that ego, cognition, morals, and faith all develop in step with each other. He would add that faith is faith, whether it’s in God, in yourself, or in others, and say that you can’t have one without having another.

By the way, there’s one more stage: saintly faith. If people in all the other stages can be seen as learning to have faith; in this stage, they’re an example of faith. Their faith has grown to such an extent that they no longer need to be cared for, like a baby; they care. They no longer need to belong; they accept. They no longer need to have things explained to them, they understand. They no longer even need to keep it all together; they pour themselves out freely because there’s no limit to the love they’ve found.