Stages of Faith

Another of my faith journey mentors has passed on to the next stage of faith.  The news came in an obituary shared by a colleague on Facebook: James W. Fowler III, Prominent Practical Theologian and Ethicist, Dies at 75.

I discovered the work of James Fowler through his 1981 book, Stages of Faith, when I was working on my doctorate in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s.  His research and writing on the stages of faith development resonated with my own faith journey from a very concrete-literal understanding of faith to a more universal and inclusive theology and became a central focus of my dissertation on a narrative of moral discourse.  That paradigm for how preaching and teaching can promote moral and faith development has been the foundation of my ministry and teaching for the past 35 years.  I invite you to read the brief descriptions of Fowler’s 6 stages of faith development at the link below.

http://www.psychologycharts.com/james-fowler-stages-of-faith.html

In the multi-cultural global village we live in today, the need for a more universal and inclusive faith has never been more needed.  I especially like this description of Stage 4, the Individuative-Reflexive stage:  “This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes”. They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.”

And when we despair about those who seem de-churched or “post-Christian,” Fowler reminds us that a mature faith comes only with life experience.  This is what he says about stage 5, Conjunctive Faith:  “It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. This is the point when people begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box.”

Faith is a journey, not a destination.  It is not a straight line but a maze of twists and turns, highs and lows.  It is a dynamic adventure.  The faith stories we live by are never the same when we read or hear them again because we are not the same people we were yesterday or yesteryear.  I am so grateful for sages like Jim Fowler who teach us that we are shaped by our past but we are not defined or confined by it.

When I saw the news that he had died this week I was saddened.  Many of the mentors who shaped my understanding of myself and the divine are no longer present on this earth.  But their legacy lives on in me and countless others who have and will continue to benefit from their wisdom.  We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.  My cloud includes saints like Jim Fowler, Fred Craddock, Paul Tillich, Van Bogard Dunn, Bob Browning, Everett Tilson, Jeff Hopper, Bill Croy, Bob Chiles, my mother and grandparents, and far too many more to name.

When someone important in my life passes on, I try to take time to give thanks for his or her contribution to my life and the larger world.  And I also ask God to help me be worthy of that legacy and share it with those who are learning and growing and searching for meaning in their own faith journey at whatever stage or phase they are.  My job is not to preach or lecture or insist on my way or any particular way.  My job is to come along side others and share the journey with them.

Thanks be to God for people like Jim Fowler who have been my companion on the way.

James W. Fowler, distinguished Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, was Director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics, and also served as an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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Maturing Faith

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (I Corinthians 13:11)

Those words of St. Paul came to mind as I was reflecting on changes in my life. I do that a lot these days as I look back on my 67 years of life experience. One particular reflection was sparked by a friend’s post on Facebook about the great hymn, “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” which is one of my favorites. The prophetic words by S. Ralph Harlow are as relevant today, if not more so, than when written in the early days of the great depression (1931). It’s not a popular hymn with most congregations because it hits too close to home when it says things like, “we betray so quickly and leave thee there alone;” or “help us stand unswerving against war’s bloody way, where hate and lust and falsehood hold back Christ’s holy sway.”

And it gets better. Verse three concludes with “forbid false love of country that blinds us to his call, who lifts above the nations the unity of all.” And verse four says, “Stir up in us a protest against our greed for wealth, while others starve and hunger and plead for work and health; where homes with little children cry out for lack of bread, who live their years sore burdened beneath a gloomy dread.” Those are words that would make both the Hebrew prophets and contemporary ones proud.

What’s that have to do with I Corinthians and thinking like a child? You see I never heard about the prophets or the social gospel in the churches where I grew up. My favorite hymn as a child was at the other end of the theological spectrum, “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war.” It pains me to admit that, but it also gives me a sense of hope that change and conversion are possible. I believe Paul is reflecting on his own amazing conversion in that verse about childish and adult faith.

I know some people would call it back sliding rather than a conversion, but I am constantly amazed and grateful when I remember where I came from and where I am now on my faith journey. My entire high school received propaganda from the John Birch Society, and I had been taught no critical skills to even question the truth of such a hate-filled world view. If you aren’t familiar with the Birchers they were, as a friend of mine describes them, “somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.” Think of them as the Tea Party on steroids. For me, to travel from that place to a more liberal and universal understanding of God and the world, thanks to many mentors, is one of the richest blessings of my life. My former self was fearful like a child, and while I have a long way yet to go in my faith walk, my current trust in a tolerant and merciful God is a more adult faith that I thank God for daily.

What that says to me is that a God who took a childish Christian killer named Saul and transformed him into the greatest missionary the church has ever known can also take a small-town kid like me with a narrow view of the world and of the Gospel and broaden my horizons. A great God who can do that can also bridge the seemingly hopeless divisions between the political and theological factions in our divided nation and world today.

To “put an end to childish things” means to mature in our faith, a life-long task for all of God’s people, individually and collectively. It means growing beyond a self-focused concern for my own personal salvation to a universal faith that demands justice and mercy for all of God’s children, not just people who look and think like me. That’s not a new thing. Deutero Isaiah described it 500 years before Christ when he said, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6)

The Hebrew people loved thinking they were God’s chosen people, and they were; but the prophets and Jesus challenge them and us to re-interpret what it means to be chosen. God’s people are not chosen for special privilege. We are chosen to be God’s servants and messengers of a grown-up Gospel that is inclusive, not exclusive; that cannot rest in material or spiritual comfort as long as there is suffering and injustice for any of God’s creation.

My own faith journey is perhaps best captured by the contrast between the militaristic imagery of my childhood theme song, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and another great hymn, “Lead On, O King Eternal.” The latter by Ernest W. Shurtleff includes these powerful words: “For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”

As we, let’s hope, near the end of the longest war in American history, my prayer is for an adult faith that will ask hard questions about what we have gained in the war on terror and at what cost. To ask such questions is in no way to dishonor the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served in that war. I would argue that the greatest honor we can bestow on those who have suffered and died in the service of our country is to rededicate ourselves to the peaceful ways of Christ. Harlow’s prayer is our prayer today, as the hymn concludes this way: “O young and fearless Prophet, we need thy presence here, amid our pride and glory to see thy face appear; once more to hear thy challenge above our noisy day, again to lead us forward along God’s holy way.” May it be so.