Stages of Faith

I am very conscious of the need to recognise that only some committed Christians are being called outside the walls of traditional Christianity at this time. The journey is often referred to as a time of detox or a wilderness experience. You will have seen in “What is ‘Church’?” that I was really influenced by the work of Alan Jamieson who had himself been influenced by Fowler’sStages of Faith“.Many people have attempted to describe how faith changes, matures and develops through life. Fowler uses ‘Stages of Faith’ (that tends to suggest a logical hierarchical approach), others have referred to styles or zones of faith (less rigid and allowing for overlap).
For many people their experience of faith changes with adulthood – sometimes radically and unalterably transformed as they move into new ‘phases’ of faith.

The great majority who attend church regularly could probably be described as in a ‘conformist stage’ where they are acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and where there is the security of being part of a like-minded community. I see this as a valid position for many church-going Christians that should not be disturbed.
Many are committed workers with strong loyalty to their church community, often with deep but unexamined convictions. They often focus on relationships with God and the important people in their lives – a strong sense of the church as an extended family – there to support each other.
Because of this, they tend to find conflict and controversy threatening to them.
They tend to see opposites such as good and bad; sacred and secular; Christian and non-Christian; saved and unsaved. They don’t have an independent perspective.

(This seems to be a reasonable starting point although it is certainly open to discussion – perhaps it is particularly true of some Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches).

Problems are thought to arise when some (possibly prompted by the Holy Spirit) become dissatisfied or disillusioned. Because of the ‘walled in’ secure feeling, it often takes a major upset for any transition beyond this stage to take place. Alan Jamieson identified four such groups of people (plus some who have transitioned to a different faith):

  • Displaced followers – those who are hurt or angry – they have what he calls a dependent faith based on external authority – they have an unexamined faith – a bold faith – often using scripture to justify their position.
  • Reflective exiles – who have feelings of unease and irrelevance – questioning deep rooted foundations. They are seen as counter dependent – engaged in a ‘deconstruction’ of their previous faith. There is an ongoing reflective process that involves re-evaluation of each component of their faith – they have a hesitant and tentative faith – which they may have ‘put down’ for a time
  • Transitional explorers – who have an emerging sense of ownership of faith – moving from deconstruction of the received faith to an appropriation of some elements that have been tested and found to be valid and worthy of being retained – plausible beyond reasonable doubt (but what is plausible varies considerably from one individual to another)
  • Integrated way finders – where the reconstruction work has basically been completed – but still open to refinement – a more rounded faith that seeks to integrate all aspects of life – aware of some of the deeper issues that lie within.

Jamieson later suggested that the crucial adult faith-shifts involve a move from conventional faith into a period of faith dislocation, exploration, self ownership and expression and on into a new embracing of faith and life as intimately entwined and inseparable, a desire for mystery, ritual and symbolism and a relishing of the paradoxical nature of truth (the move from pre-critical faith through a period of hyper-critical reflection to a post-critical faith).

The earlier boundaries become less fixed – a greater awareness of paradox and better able to accept it – allowing different perspectives to co-exist – more open to ambiguity, mystery, wonder, and apparent irrationalities. People at this stage become less dogmatic, more willing to listen and less inclined to label those who disagree with them.

The changes that are occurring in global culture encourage a shift from conventional to post-conventional faith – but there is also an opposite response into religious, political and ideological fundamentalism!

The following table seems to be a good summary of the differing perspectives:

Conventional faith expression
Post-conventional faith expression
Focus on a black and white, right and wrong faith
Focus on the greys of faith and life
Focus on all shades of faith and life
Answers accepted
Searching and questioning, doubt and critique
Understanding and relishing of mystery, paradox and wonder
Primary sense of relationship with God is hierarchical e.g. God’s servant
Primary sense of relationship with God is relational e.g. God’s friend (John 15)
Primary sense of relationship with God is intimate e.g. God’s lover (Song of Songs)
Socially constructed identity and roles
Formation of self identity and roles
Giving of self for others
Want someone to lean on – e.g. a mentor or discipler
Want someone to encourage and legitimise their personal exploration – e.g. a facilitator or sponsor.
Want a co-discerner of God’s will and leading – e.g. a spiritual director
Focus on external authority of leaders, the Bible and my community of faith
Focus on internal authority of self-understanding, experience and self-truth.
Focus on an integration of internal and external authorities of faith
The Bible, faith community or leaders are the authors of my faith and life. A need to listen to the external voice(s)
I am the author of my faith and life. A need to listen to the internal voice(s)
The Spirit of God within me is the author of my faith and life. A need to integrate external and internal voices.
Status quo confirmed
Status quo challenged
Status quo integrated into larger canvas
What and how
What is my contribution?
Specific personal examples
Hearing and telling our own stories
Working with metaphor, art and poetry

Those with a post-conventional faith will be able to be open to people who think differently.

The nature of pastoral care needs change over time – the need to understand the differing perspectives – we can all be vulnerable at times – the need for patience! There seems to be a need for Safe Havens – especially for older people?. A need for ministry at many levels – beware of the risk of concentrating only on those in the earlier stages.
For many people faith or belief is something you either have or you don’t have (faith and belief are often seen as synonymous). Others see faith as a dynamic, changing, evolving process which sometimes means changing or abandoning previously held beliefs and commitments – part of a less radical maturing process! Such people have:
  • The ability to hold together several unmistakable polar tensions
  • The ability to cherish paradox and apparent contradictions of perspectives on truth – living with ambiguity, mystery and wonder
  • A post critical receptivity and a readiness for participation in a reality brought to expression in symbol and myth
  • A genuine openness – knowing that a grasp on ultimate truth needs continual correction and challenge.

The next post is here.

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