Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes in Parabola magazine, “When you speak about faith, what do you really speak about? Is faith an emotion? If so, what kind of emotion? Is it a state of mind? Or is it just a matter-of-fact? ‘Here I am and I believe in something.’ In Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen says to Alice, ‘Why I’ve believed in six impossible things before breakfast.’ So is faith believing in impossible things? ... There are people of different religions; each of them has faith. How do I treat the faith of somebody else? … Is faith something concocted with something I cannot prove? Are faith and trust the same? I have never been to Mt. Everest, yet I still believe it is the tallest mountain on Earth. Is that faith? And if it is faith, can it be compared to the belief in God, and devils, and angels?” (Parabola, Spring 2007)
It’s hard to wrap our minds around faith, so let’s settle one definition, at least for this moment, before we consider ‘are there stages of faith?’ James Fowler, author of Stages of Faith, defines faith as: “a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relationships that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing him-or-herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.” What do you have faith in? What do you hold as true that gives life coherence and meaning? How do you see yourself in relation to others in this world?
Individually, our faith may be based on in a specific set of beliefs, which might include a belief in God, Goddess, Gods, humanity, or mystery beyond understanding. Our faith may be based on a specific spiritual text, words of prophetic women or men, direct experiences, a specific religious tradition, humanistic teachings, or earth-centered traditions. Our faith may find expression in specific rituals or practices—meditation, prayer, dancing, movement, or chanting. Our faith gives us direction, helps us find meaning and purpose, and/or connects us with something larger than ourselves. Our faith helps us to understand ourselves better/deeper, understand others better/more, gives life some coherence. At least that is what we hope for, what we work toward, what we rely on.
So if we have faith, what are these stages of faith? Fowler’s theory posits we go through certain faith stages as we develop cognitively and emotionally; and some stages, later in life, we can choose to work through. He suggests that we go through stages of faith during which we have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of this concept of faith, and thus deepen or strengthen our commitments to that which we have faith in. It doesn’t matter if you are a Buddhist, humanist, Christian, pagan, agnostic, or atheist; these stages still apply. These stages are progressive in the early years of life, but later in life are more about experiences, readiness, openness, choices, and responsibility. A person can live a deep, meaningful, and happy life at any of the later stages of faith development—the later stages are not progressive in the sense that you are not as spiritual as the next guy if you choose to stay at, say, stage 4 rather than go on to stage 5. This is not a faith development competition. The reason to explore these stages is to intentionally consider choices about what we have faith in and how we express our faith.
From birth to maybe 18 months, the only concept of faith a child has is based on whether their caretaker will meet their needs—for food, touch, attention, safety. This is based more on their attachment to their parents than anyone else. People can come out of this stage with a basic trust or mistrust that their needs will be met and that they can depend on others.
As the child matures through age 6, everything is real and has power as far as the child knows. And since the child doesn’t have a broad experience or knowledge of the world, their imagination fills in the gaps in their understanding of how things work; thus, magic is possible. There is a Santa Claus; if you step on a crack you break your mother’s back. If there is an image of God, it is probably very much like one’s parents—everything a parent does—how they care, protect, and punish.
From age 6 to pre-pubescence, faith and beliefs are more literal and less magical. Life is mostly black and white. Children accept that people--parents, teachers, preachers--have power and authority over them. Children at this age have a strong belief in justice and in the reciprocity of the universe. God, if there is an image of one, is anthropomorphic—like the bearded white guy in the clouds.
As one moves into puberty, cognitions and understandings are possible that have not been in existence in a child’s brain before (e.g. metaphor, abstraction). There is more questioning, breaking away from authority figures and more focus on peers and communities, identifying with and conformity with certain groups or subgroups. Faith is more about what people you identify with have faith in.
Now we move into the later stages of faith development. These last three stages are based on experiences, readiness, openness, choices, and responsibility. None of these later stages are “bad” or “good”, they are just descriptors of how we face life, the choices we make about our faith, and what needs our faith meets for us. Again, it is important to remember that people can live a fulfilling, happy life in any of the stages of faith development. There is no later stage that is the better or best, just as the color blue is not better than the color yellow. Some people move through different stages, while others find a stage that fits them and they choose not to leave it—perhaps to help them cope with an ever-changing world, perhaps to help them feel less afraid with all the tragedies and traumas in one’s life, perhaps to help them feel more self esteem in a world that often marginalizes them or discounts their efforts. These are stages that people can intentionally choose to explore, although a person might find that they need more from life than a stage might offer, or they may need more life experience to be ready to move through another stage, or they just might be too overwhelmed, stressed, tired, or busy to consider one more thing in their lives.
The later stages might begin as early as late adolescence, but can last a lifetime. In the next stage you have settled down into one subgroup and have become somewhat of an absolutist and a critic—believing you know the best way, critical of others who don’t believe the way you do. There is only One Right Way, my way—some members of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party express this kind of absolutism; also some Theists and Atheists--there is a god, there is no such thing as a god—can have this kind of black and white thinking; and some parents express this kind of thinking—“The only way to raise a child is the way my parents raised me’ or “I would never raise a child the way my parents raised me.” I have it all figured out and nobody, outside my group, can tell me otherwise. I am either a scientific rationalist or a religious absolutist. For some Unitarian Universalists at this stage, the Christian cross, as an example, is a symbol of a belief system to be rejected, rather than a symbol that represents a connection to the holy.
I have been an absolutist. When I found Unitarian Universalism, and found humanism, I felt my childhood beliefs—Christianity, belief in God and the Trinity—were stupid, irrational, and possibly even destructive. And I felt the way that Thomas Jefferson did: that the whole country would eventually become Unitarian. But both Jefferson and I have been proved wrong on this point. And gradually my absolutism began to fade, particularly as I began to explore Buddhism.
There are two more stages and most people do not move into them. The first being the stage of both/and, rather than either/or. In this stage one can, for example, reject the Christian cross as a symbol of a specific belief system that you reject while simultaneously accepting the cross as a symbol of connection to the holy. This is a stage of paradoxes and openness, a time of embracing all experiences and of being ready to be whole, to choose to be all of who you have been and who you are, and accepting all those, outside your skin, are. A person moving into this stage might describe themselves as having multiple belief systems—like being a Buddhist and a Christian.
I began to move into this stage when I attended my 20th High School Reunion. I attended Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, a Catholic Jesuit High School. Having rejected my Catholic upbringing long ago, whenever I attended Catholic services with my parents or friends, I would not say the prayers or participate in the Communion. I felt these were meaningless, tired old rituals that people did because they didn’t take the time to question the deeper understanding of life; they just accepted the religion of their childhood without question. But something happened as we began the worship service at my reunion; I felt something different. I said the “Our Father”, and it felt right in my heart—not that it meant the same to me as it did when I was a child, but I did not have that physical sense that this prayer was somehow wrong for me in my spiritual journey. For some time before this experience I had been feeling that there must be more to life than I can see, smell, taste and touch. I had wondered about a spiritual practice. I had not changed my humanist mindset, but I chose to embrace the universal meanings of the prayers and rituals of my Christian upbring, despite the inherent paradoxes between my humanist beliefs and my blossoming panentheism.
Since then, I have tried to embrace the universal in all faiths. I am not perfect at this. I met with some Evangelical ministers a couple of years ago and found myself reverting to a more defensive stance internally because they seemed very absolute in their faiths, what they believed was right, rejecting all other beliefs; for them atheism as wrong and evil. They felt that their call was to convert all people to their form of Christianity. My response was not wholly productive; I made small talk, and got away from them as soon as I could. But I also talked with friends, peers, and colleagues about my experience to process it. I want to keep in contact with my Evangelical peers, and not let my reactions and their absolutism get in the way of our being able to work on projects to make this world a better place. I need to accept that we will not resolve our different beliefs. I feel strongly that we need not believe alike to love alike.
There is one more stage that Fowler describes. This stage is one that very few of us will ever choose or reach. This is a stage of a larger understandings of the needs and justice for all humanity and all creation. This is a stage some might call enlightenment. The self is less important than the greater good for others. In this stage all faith positions are valued and appreciated and cherished. This stage overcomes the paradoxes of the previous stage. The people in this stage trust in the power of the future and in making this world heaven on earth, or at least a much better place. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages of faith development and from any other faith tradition. And yet some persons in this stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to help. Some examples of people at this stage are Martin Luther King, Jr, Ghandi, and Mother Teresa; people who put aside their own welfare for the greater good of humanity and creation.
Are you ready for being truly open to paradoxes, universals, differences that carry with them the possibility of having to work through emotional baggage—like being pushed out of a church due to your beliefs or your sexual orientation or your reproductive choices? Are you ready to be open to setting aside absolutes to include in your life some things that may not always make rational sense—a language of reverence, mystical experiences, rituals or spiritual practices? Are you ready to set aside self-need for the greater good of all creation—maybe even putting yourself at risk like Unitarian minister James Reeb did when he walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma? Some people may want to explore their absolutes, pushing against them, looking beyond them, and some may not. Some may want to explore universals, larger understandings of meaning and purpose, and consider re-connecting with aspects of their religious past. Which stage are you at right now? Which stage do you want to explore?