Stages of Faith – Introduction

At some point I wish to discuss transitioning from a “mythic-literal” stage of faith toward later stages, involving reflection and conjunction (and ultimately unity). But first we have to come to a broad understanding of what comprises a stage of faith. This post is intended as an overview or introduction to the topic.

I wish to discuss the idea of stages of faith because I believe it offers a means of better understanding the depths of our own religious-spiritual practices, as well as opening us to an appreciation of the faith practices of others. I also believe it offers a perspective from which we may better relate to others. I feel each of these aspects is important.

So what is meant by a “stage of faith”?

I find one way of grasping the ideas underlying developing stages of faith, is to think of a parallel series of “stages” with which we are all familiar: we all grow through “stages” as we mature from infants, to youths, to young adults, to mature adults, and as elders in our community.

In fact, observation of our normal psychological developments as we age and mature is in part responsible for the theories of faith development as described by Dr. James W. Fowler in his book, “Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning” (which I enthusiastically recommend).

As children we are sponges, soaking up our surroundings, stimulating our neural networks causing these to expand, grow, and become more complex. As a result of this process we are provided the mental tools we require to understand and make sense of the world in which we live. And one of these tools is our faculty for faith. In this sense, “faith” need not be religious. (Fowler explains this in his books. Although, in my blogs I expect I will usually be speaking of the religious-spiritual aspect of faith development.)

The core of the idea involves perception.

First as we develop awareness of ourselves as an individual. Then as we (often unconsciously) learn the behavior, beliefs, and practices of those nearest to us; and later, of those in the wider community in which we live. As you can see, each of these phases expands our perception of ourselves and the world in which we live – our circle of awareness grows larger and larger.

As we grow older and develop more sophisticated means of understanding the world, we begin to consciously adopt “lenses” through which to view the world. Sometimes we evaluate the behaviors and beliefs we “inherited” and choose to modify them. Sometimes we use what we inherited as a foundation upon which to build.

And, some people never seem to consciously adapt their view of the world. From a certain perspective, such people can be said to live their lives unconsciously.

Another aspect of our psychological development is the “direction” of our awareness.

In the earliest stage we are learning to identify ourselves and how we are separate from our surroundings. Then we begin to take on a view of the world very much like those taking care of our daily needs. These early stages are generally one-way views of the world: it is “us” looking out “at” the world in which we are immersed. Like a fish living in water, we don’t at first appreciate we too live “in” our surroundings; we do not at first discern that others see us as if we are an outsider.

But at some point, we “see them seeing us.” We can imagine seeing the world -and ourselves- through the eyes of another. As our faculties of perception become more refined, we “see us, seeing them, seeing us.” We are learning to see the world “reflectively” and with increasing appreciation for detail, perspective, and depth.

Theories quickly multiply and become complex, yet are based upon simple human needs.

Theories of what is happening to us, and how directly we effect our own development, and at what point in our psychological development we are able to effectively do this quickly becomes complex. There are a variety of theories, each with its strengths and weaknesses. None of these theories is perfect.

As you sort this all out for yourself, remember the root of all these systems is quite simple. We are discussing how we each perceive the world. And we are discussing from how many angles we are able to view the world. Some of these may appear to be mutually exclusive. Yet here we are, sometimes believing six “impossible” things before breakfast!

What is next?

I think the next logical step to take is to take a brief look at a few of the more popular systems, or stage development models. Some only model four categories, and some a dozen or more. Some deal more directly with our personal psychological development, and others deal more directly with our sociological development. Some are primarily secular and others are more concerned with our spiritual development. Each has its place and may or may not be the better tool for any given situation. I switch between models, using whichever tool -or “lens”- I believe is most practical for each occasion.

It is up to us to choose the pair of glasses through which we view ourselves and the world. And we may change glasses from time to time!


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