Thursday, 15 October 2015

More Stages of Faith

My first year of studying theology, I came across James Fowler's Stages of faith -model in pedagogy class. My initial reaction was ”Wow, this really fits into what I've been thinking too” but that was it back then. I had just started writing a story about two characters whose faith and communication problems could be described very well with Fowler's model but I guess at the time I felt there wasn't really anything new to learn from it, the model just helped me organize my own thoughts better and I was satisfied with that. So I forgot about Fowler for about two years.

As you can probably guess, I found the theory again recently. It's even a bit ironic because apparently I had been using the note sheet about it as a book mark in my Greek grammar book. I hate Greek, but it was a pleasant surprise to re-encounter Fowler when I had to start studying for another Greek exam.

Fowler identified 6 stages that describe the developement of faith in humans. What one believes exactly is irrelevant, the focus is on how. Also, it's not supposed to only apply to ”religious faith” but also to more ”down to earth” kind, any kind, the experience of faith in general. Certain characteristics and crises are associated with each stage and seem to be somewhat supported by other theories about psychological developement. I haven't actually done that much research on this topic yet, but I feel like writing about my understanding of it now because I'm inspired. Heh.

It is possible that I left the theory alone because while I agree that it describes people's developemental processes well, I prefer to use communicational tools that don't so clearly define people by how mature they are or aren't. And since I think (and it seems to be commonly understood) that people don't always go through Fowler's stages the way he has described as common, and people often express characteristics from more than one stage, it is better to treat it as somewhat rough framework. Some people can be analyzed with it better than others. While I can think of people who seem to fit very well into one stage, there are also people who seem like they've skipped some stages altogether or partially fit into all of them. However, I'm not going to evaluate the whole theory based on that right now, I'm mainly interested to use it as a tool to reflect on my fiction. So I will just shamelessly use it where it works. :D

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective Faith

Fowler describes this mainly as the stage of pre-school children. I understand this to be the stage where all ”faith stories” you hear don't really have a differentiated meaning. It doesn't matter whether parents are telling their children stories from the Bible, from a picture book, or about Santa Claus, they're all taken as more or less ”the same stuff” and fantasy often mixes with reality. Around this age most children also have imaginary friends and can't sometimes remember whether something really happened or if it was a dream, so I think the theory fits well.

Fowler also says that this is the stage where the most basic ideas about possible God, or some other kind of center of faith are usually formed from what the closest adults represent to the child. I think it has very little to do with what they might explicitly teach about their own faith and a lot to do with how their relationship is with the child, how love and trust are present.

Religion is rarely the focus of my fiction but these elements of faith are certainly found in family relationships I write. For example, in my current project there's a character who took an exeedingly long time to realize her parents are not the representatives of ”the absolute truth”. Even though she doesn't believe in any consciously defined form of a deity, her parents definitely were exactly that to her untill she realized there was something she knew was true for her, and nothing her parents said could make it untrue.

2. Mythic-Literal Faith

This would be the stage most children move into around school-age, because they start thinking in a more logical manner; separate fantasy and reality. Fowler also notes that some people remain in this stage through their life. Stage 2 is characterized by focus on the stories that represent faith and those are usually accepted from one's faith community. The stories are understood literally, what matters is what happens in the story, and when some lesson is internalized from it, it comes from what the story explicitly teaches. There isn't much collective understanding of the meaning of those stories. Their importance or truth is not questioned because everyone acknowledges their importance and that gives the person a sense of belonging but it also separates them from people of different faith communities, different customs and traditions. A person in this stage tends to view those people as ”strangers”, somehow fundamentally different from them and their community.

Basically these are the people who are the most strict about the details of their faith and they often experience the later stages of faith in others as lack of faith. This is probably the most mundane example but it comes across well in the discussion of the interpretation of scriptures: The people in stage 2 don't see the literal interpretation as an interpretation at all. They think it is objective and that's why they're often unwilling to give room for any discussion about other interpretations. These people are also possibly the most devoted to the customs of their faith community and they practise their faith in the most concrete manner. The ”practise of faith” often more or less seems to equal faith for them, or at least has a significantly bigger part than it does in other stages.

This doesn't seem to be an uncommon stage to encounter in everyday life, so I obviously have a ton of characters who represent it too, but there's one whose story is particularly characterized by the crisis that will eventually enable her to reach stage 3. In the beginning of the story, her aversion to any expression of ”wrong faith” and the repression of her own ”impure” feelings is so strong she feels nauseated and dizzy whenever she comes into contact with something that would require critical thinking to face. However, coming into close contact with people she first views as strictly ”faithless”, eventually makes her stop covering her ears from other people's experiences bit by bit, because she starts to view these people as important to her. As she matures, she starts to accept that her faith is not something that should alienate her from people she's began to love.

Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith

This stage is characterized by the need to find some kind of balance between different ”faith groups” that one associates with. It often comes along in adolescence, because the person has become a part of a bigger social cirlce than just their own faith community. The teachings of that community are still more or less taken for granted and not something the people in this stage would examine critically or reflect on deeply, and anything that suggests contradiction in their beliefs is still often seen as a threat, something they should not even look at. However, they become more willing to see what they have in common with others and don't focus on what separates them as much as they used to. To relate to other people's experience better, they may also become inclined to give room to some ”loopholes” in their community's teachings which they previously saw as absolute. This may also be the first time they realize that not everyone inside their community has exactly the same understanding of every belief.

However, stage 3 people also need their social circles to be genarally supportive of their faith community, and if this isn't achived, they're likely to encounter a crisis which makes them completely reject the people who reject their faith. If, however, the teachings of their own faith community are seen as ”cruel” towards the people in one's circles outside their own faith community, the stage 3 people may reject their faith community instead. This kind of crisis may lead to developing to stage 4 but supportive social circles will probably make that growth less extreme and the people in stage 4 probably won't seem as radically opposite to what they were in stage 3.

In Fowler's theory, stage 3 is where most people remain. I suppose I agree, since it's evident that most of my fictional characters are in this stage, at least for the biggest part of their stories. My main characters often grow further though, because I'm a huge fan of growth. One character in my current project seems to illustrate some of the stage 3 behaviour particularly well. He's generally a friend to everyone and will even accept anyone intimately close but he becomes up-tight and passive-aggressive in front of anyone who he feels offends his sense of right and wrong. Sometimes he even expresses noticeable "holier than thou" attitude towards people who behave against his beliefs. He also acknowledges that he has feelings that are considered improper in his faith community and that he sometimes fails and does things that aren't accepted. He's probably uncommonly hard on himself though, when he does something wrong, and keeps very strict rules for his own behaviour, to the point of punishing himself. However, he doesn't feel the need to deny those things and he usually feels no conflict between him and people who do things differently. He doesn't feel the need to push his way on others even though he still thinks he's right and the others are wrong. He's willing to ”let people make their own mistakes” as long as they don't do wrong against him, and as long as he has the freedom to cover his eyes from things he deems "unholy".

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith

When I read somewhere that people in stage 4 are typically considered less mature in faith by the people in stage 3, a metaphor I wrote in high school in creative writing class came to my mind. It was something along the lines: ”When you're a raw apple in a tree you look down on the ripe apples on the ground but when you fall down yourself, you realize you didn't rise from there”. It seems to apply to these circumstances pretty well. I think it might be the most apparent between these two stages because it's the leap from 3 to 4 where what one beliefs might change the most dramatically. It's no wonder if someone in stage 3 tends to see a stage 4 person as someone who has ”abandoned” their faith, since stage 4 is pretty much characterized by critical thinking and a tendency to look down on the beliefs one used to accept without question. Stage 4 is mostly the faith of adulthood, though it is noted that some people might enter it significantly earlier and some very late in their life.

In this stage people begin to approach the hard questions they have avoided in the previous stages. They reflect critically on beliefs they've taken for granted and "demythologize" them. They often express impatience towards people of earlier stages, who don't have the same standards for examining their beliefs or don't really examine them much at all. I understand this to be the point where people become less stubborn about their beliefs being the right ones, but rather their method to be the right one to determine the beliefs. They can be accepting toward other people's faith and may even start viewing any kind of belief system as right as long as it brings meaning to the believer's life but they're unlikely to support beliefs that aren't critically examined because they see no ”sense” in doing something that isn't deeply understood, or somehow ”consistent” with some principles, like the person's other beliefs.

I have a character who is pretty much an exemplar of this ”stage 4 pride”. His need to grow to stage 5 becomes so great exactly because he becomes too sure of his own judgement over everyone else's and can't understand other people truly from their own viewpoints. It's true most people around him are at ”less mature” stages of faith, there's quite a bunch of 2's and 3's to make him go crazy but as he views his judgement to be superior to some of his closest people who are already at stage 5, he begins to feel completely alone in the world. He is, however, able to contribute a great deal to the self-criticism of people who like to deny their unpleasant feelings and not reflect upon their flaws. He's able to solve many problems because he's such an independend thinker, but once it goes too far he begins to create more problems by solving them and he becomes unable to be critical of himself.


Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

This is sometimes the last stage included in critical examinations of Fowler's theory, because the 6th stage is viewed as too ambiguos. It is mostly the stage of middle to late adulthood, though most people never reach it and some may reach it much earlier. In this stage the elements from all the previous stages seem to come together, and the earlier stages are not seen as opposing anymore. It could be said that the stage 4 skeptic sort of calms down and accepts that they will never have the answer to every question, and that the things people in stage 3 and 2 take for granted are not neccessarily meaningless. They may find new, more abstract and multidimensional meaning in symbolism, religious practice or other things that seemed to lose their value at stage 4. Stage 5 people have also become more certain of their own beliefs. Because they no longer feel the need to question everything, but are not stuck in a box either, they don't feel threatened by truly exploring other belief systems.

In my understanding, this is the stage where ”real” dialogy between people who believe differently first becomes possible. In the earlier stages people are still pretty much stuck in their own viewpoint (they don't realize they think in a box), so discussion is often seen as undesireable in the first place. (They may think they want to discuss but actually they only ”discuss” as long as they agree with the person and when they don't they either cover their ears/refuse to fully try to understand or push their own agenda.) What people in earlier stages lack, is basically the willingness to be uncertain or truly open their mind to ”what if's”: the feeling that understanding other viewpoints doesn't make theirs less valid but enriches it instead. While stage 5 people are actually more grounded in their beliefs than people in earlier stages, they also seem like they are less. That's because they have a more holistic understanding of beliefs and have internalized the ”basics” of them. They see what connects seemingly separate views and they're not blind to their own unconscious processes either. Because of this, people in earlier stages often see stage 5 people's attitude as ”sloppy” and the willingness to give space to alternatives and other people is seen as lack of dicipline or critique.

Stage 5 people may also start feeling ”smaller” than before because they realize the limits of human judgement. Basically, stage 5 people can embrace their inner child again: they're no longer fearful of including unexplained things in their life, and even being wrong/ clouded in one's judgements is not always seen as bad, but an opportunity to grow.

I suppose most of my main characters reach stage 5 at some point in their story and it's usually where I leave them be too, because they're no longer in the midst of those ”us vs. them” and ”me against the world” battles. (I guess stage 3 is the other stage where a person is most likely the feel a similar kind of peace, even though it may be more superficial in some sense, so it's probably the second most common place for me to leave characters.) Sometimes my characters move to stage 5 because they meet someone who they have to admit has more wisdom than them, which makes the stage 4 person ”admit defeat” and start feeling wonder, rather than suspicion about the world again. Some other characters move forward because they end up witnessing the life of 3's and 2's so closely that at some point they start forgetting to question everything and start relating to their experience instead.

The main character in my current project is mostly at stage 5. Because of this she has more patience towards other people's short comings than most, and she cares virtually nothing about who is ”right”. She's basically an embodiment of the ”Live and let live” attitude but her problem is that she begins to like things too simple, and reaches the point where she's trying to become too impartial and tries to hold on to that freedom by never choosing any answer: just experiencing and wondering about things. She reaches the crisis that will ultimately make her develop to stage 6, when she realizes that instead of all the difficult ”right answers” she could choose, there is only one thing that is absolutely wrong to her, one that will both cancel out all other possibilities and embrace them at the same time. When she realizes that, her faith and course of action become unshaken.

Stage 6: Universalizing Faith

According to Fowler, it is very rare to reach this stage of faith: it's basically where doubt dissapears and the person becomes an embodiment of their faith. Everything they have learned from the previous stages no longer demands constant attention or conscious work, they instinctively live their faith true. Their relationship to the ”supreme” or their ”center of faith” is no longer related to any particular circumstances. Instead, they feel one with it, it's always present to them in everything, and they don't have to look for means to connect with it: it simply is. Their experience of faith is no longer self-centered and they live their faith for the service of others in the best way they know.

The demeanor of people in this stage is described as noticeably loving and welcoming of others. They make people in their presence feel important and worthy, because their love and acceptance are unconditional: nothing anyone could say can shaken that acceptance. They basically take anyone's ”sacredness” for granted. There's no ”tabu” to them and there's no matter that is too small or too big for them to discuss and be willing to understand. In their community, they're probably known for their empathy and wisdom.

I have some characters who reach this stage through similar crisis as the character I described earlier and (oddly enough?) some who seem like they where born with this kind of faith. Pretty much all of the examples Fowler gives as representative of stage 6 are famous religious leaders he apparently had never met (because he couldn't find any representatives among people he interviewed) which may be the reason why some people are so skeptical about stage 6 altogether. I think the idea of all the stage 6 people being like Mother Theresa or Jesus himself is misleading, so I'll describe a character of mine who's very low-exposure and unambitious instead: definitely not destined to save her country or fight poverty or go around the world teaching her wisdom to people. (I also don't think that such acts require the person to be at stage 6.) This stage 6 character is a servant girl who lives very quiet and peaceful life, indeed in the service of others. She doesn't seem to have abilities to do much else, one can hardly praise her intellect, physique or even memory. Instead, her power is to inspire trust, love, hope, faith and the like in others by simply being with them. She seems incapable of experiencing desperation or depression, she's unconditionally trustful that life is meaningful and everything will always prove to be in their right place again. She seems endlessly patient and loving because whoever she's talking to, really is the most important person in the universe to her, and so is the next person: anyone's value is simply intrinsic.

This is actually where the reason I got interested in Fowler's theory again becomes relevant: I don't think that stage 6 is the ”pinnacle” of human faith. You might have noticed that the stages seem to move in cycles where ”absolute” and ”relative” approach to faith take turns at being more prominent. 2 is more absolute, 3 more relative, 4 absolute and 5 relative again. Stage 6 is merely the next form of more absolute approach and the people in stage 6 are not free from problems, or incapable of growing further. I think labeling stage 6 faith as "saintly" or the people as "holy" (which I've seen around the internet) is a problem because one should never forget that stage 6 people are every bit as much human beings as the rest.

The next crisis is when the stage 6 faith becomes depersonalizing. It happens when the person takes their willingness to live for others to a too great extend. What they need to realize is that they are not their faith themselves. They need to grow to feel the need to find balance between their connection to the ”supreme” and being a separate individual. Basically, they need to extend the love they give for others, to themselves.

I'm sorry if this seems exclusive, but I'm going to use some very christian language to illustrate my point better. This is just an example and it should be understood analogically. So a person at stage 6 is basically someone who lives for what they believe is the actualization of "the Kingdom of God": they bring it to reality. But the crisis happens when they realize that the only person they have excluded from that "Kingdom of God" is them. When they realize that they are an outsider, that they're someone who brings faith to others but in the end has no part inside it's actualization.

I've found that most sources don't mention any possibility of a crisis that would make people at stage 6 move forward, and that's basically why I propose:

Stage 7: Whatever-you-want-to-call-it Faith

I'm not even trying to claim that this is where the developement of faith would end. I'm simply trying to identify what I think is the next significant change in worldview that is caused by the negative aspects of the previous stage taking over. There could be an infinite number of stages and the ones that Fowler identified could of course be divided into more specific ones, or ”substages” and the like. For now, I will not attempt to take this theory further because I don't think my analysis can extend this ”seventh step” in a meaningful way, at least for now.

Of course, the person in stage 7 would not lose the intrinsic ”oneness” with their faith, or the unconditional love and openness to other people. At this stage the person becomes ”more than their faith”. At stage 6 they might have been the embodiment of their faith for other people but in this stage they are so for themselves as well. Their faith will include more personal approach without losing the universal qualities: they are as much in service of themselves as they are of their faith, and others. They no longer forget that they have the same intrinsic value as everyone else does. They don't experience their own individuality as something implicit anymore, but fully embrace it. Their faith now manifests as an unconditional love for oneself the same way it manifests for others. They are no longer detached from themselves for the sake of their faith, which makes them not only a ”tool” which actualizes the faith, but also one of those who benefit from it.

This is where the stage 6 servant girl is heading in her story. She encounters the crisis when she realizes she's only able to express detached and depersonalized love for other people: She loves everyone the same way. Even if she's able to embrace everyone else's individual qualities and love them for those, her love is never characterized by her own desire to be close to anyone. Eventually she has to admit the hard fact that she has been neglecting herself without having any idea about it. She has to recognize she has feelings that can't be fulfilled by simply living for other people, that she can't neglect herself forever, or she'll become hollow and lose the ability to bring meaning to other people's lives too. Eventually she internalizes an unshaken faith in her personal significance as well as others' and only after that she's able to form truly personal relationships.

This is as far as I can clearly see right now, but that doesn't necessarily mean I don't know any people or have any characters who might have developed further. After all, we do a lot of things intuitively without understanding exactly how, and I don't think it's possible to ever stop finding new viewpoints to my characters, or other people's, or real people for that matter.

To wrap this up, I'd like to say that I think any stage is a good stage to be in. The crisis that will make one develop further, only occurs when the negative aspects of the stage overpower the good ones. So, whether your stage is 2 or 6, or feels more like a blend of many, if you ”own” it, it's all good. You can't develop unless you feel the inner need to, and once you do, it can't be stopped. Nobody ever stops growing completely, and no one is ever ”ready”, so I think it's meaningless to pursue the idea that any stage is truly above another. After all, one wouldn't necessarily think that being a hundred-year-old is ultimately better than being a three-year-old.

I wrote this mostly for my own reflection, but who knows, maybe someone else will find something useful from it too. I might come back to this topic to correct myself once I've read more about it or found a new interesting angle but I guess I've rambled enough for now. :D

Just for feels, you can take a look at how happy these stage 3 and stage 5 persons are together:

Yes, the other one's an owl. Yes he can talk. Yes that's not very original. Don't worry, it's not meant to be.

Have a nice day! :)