Stages of faith…

I was listening to a discussion about ‘adult faith’ the other day- Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolheiser.

They were talking about how faith develops and changes over the course of a life, suggesting that most of us are pretty black and white (‘conservative’ in Americanese) at first- and in fact, we ought to be. It is important to decide where we stand, what we believe and who we are going to journey with.

But if spirituality is a journey home- then what? What do you do when you have formed your place of home? Do you just relax and play spiritual golf?

Or do you constantly replay the first-half-of-life journey? Rohr suggests that many Christians and many churches do just this- we play the same cycles of guilt/angst/truth/significance games. We continue to get caught up in comparing ourselves to others to find our own place of ascendancy- both as individuals and groups.

Rohr told a story of some old priest who said that he spent the first half of his life wrestling with the Devil- all that struggle with sinfulness- but as he got older, he described spending the second half of life wrestling with God, which was much harder. He started to ask questions, and encounter those things called mystery and doubt.

All this reminded me of many recent conversations with friends- including Paul, who told me about Fowler’s stages of faith development. The account as described on this link is all a bit mechanical- Paul told it better, so I am going to create my own version made up a bit of a mixture- some of Fowler, some of Paul and a lot of my own experience.

So, it goes something like this. I am not sure however that I would regard these stages as necessarily linear and progressive in nature, I wonder if we all move between different ones, whilst operating mostly out of one. Neither would I necessarily see these as a hierarchy, with the last one being superior to the others- although ultimately, we are all pilgrims, going home (wherever or whatever that might be.)

Primal faith

The world is a big and scary place- and if our primary need is for warmth, shelter, food and the security. The need for God is almost like a need to believe in the coming of spring during winter. So we make the God we need-from wood and stone if need be, or from individual portable components taken from the understanding of others. God is an invisible puppet master, or fairy god-father; mostly benign, but sometimes unpredictably wrathful and punishing. So we look for rhythmics patterns in the world about us, and transmit our hopes and dreams onto what we see.


Literal faith

The world is full of things that are RIGHT, and things that are WRONG. God is the bringer of justice- and is commissioned into a kind of faith that is made up of clear black and white boundaries. We, his followers, are active in our mapping of these boundaries, and in categorising those who lie outside of them. We then set up brightly lit gatehouses and invite those on the other side to travel through- in order that they might become just like us (right.)


Conventional faith

Safe within our boundaries, the question is- what next? We are ‘right’, but are some righter than others? Our task then becomes to conform. To homogenise. Faith as a journey is less important than faith as a process of ‘maturing’ spiritually- measured in terms of external conformity to the conventions of the religious institutions we belong to.


Reflective faith (crisis of faith?)

Is that all there is? Many of us find ourselves struggling with old certainties- re-examined by life. Faced with people whose experience challenges ours, or circumstances of suffering and loss, what had seemed so concrete is now revealed to be full of cracks and holes. Some seek to fill in these holes with remixed plaster- to make the whole seem whole again. Others pick at the cracks and overeemphasise them, alongside all the solid stones that they are embedded within. Some lose faith entirely. Others decide that the boundaries that seemed so secure need to be transcended.


Universal faith

By this, I do not mean necessarily faith that has no boundaries, no certainties- but for many, once the old ones become undermined, we have a reluctance to build new ones. We become captivated by the open, generous possibilities of the God of Mystery. Some call it enlightenment, but I think a better description is ‘being open to the falling of new light’. WHAT we believe becomes less important- as does the need to defend and protect what we once held as being ‘right’. Rather, let us become pilgrims again- heading towards as much as ever arriving. Grateful for company, and givers of hospitality.





2 thoughts on “Stages of faith…

  1. I agree with these theories. Think we do change because we have to overcome more as we get older, raise children, face struggles, illness, death, sacrifice and injustice, we reflect and wonder. Many wonderful things but also terrible injustice. In my faith, (but anyone will draw from what they need in their own) my comfort is to read and remember that the wonderful man who lived and died in agony for us (whether your faith calls him the Son of God or not, or whether you beleive in a different person), personified the struggles with injustice. The Bible still lives and this is amazing.

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