April 1, 2009

My Interpretation of Fowler’s Stages of Faith

Posted in Deep thoughts, Mormon life tagged , , , , , at 11:44 PM by Robin


If you happened upon this post separately, please see my introduction and conclusions to the subject first, or it might not make a lot of sense!

I will try to briefly describe the stages and my interpretation of how it relates to my LDS perspective, but I apologize if someone is more well-versed in these theories and understands the psychology jargon better than I did. It’s kind of confusing anyway, since different sources have anywhere from five to seven stages, and it gets a little murky where one stage ends and the other begins. Just remember it is the process that it interesting, not what number the stage is assigned (in case I mess them up!).

The first stage begins as a very small child is taught the beginning precepts of a worldview or religion. This child accepts whatever his or her parents and others teach them as truth. They become acquainted with the ritual and tradition of their particular faith. This would be like teaching your two-year-old to take the sacrament. They learn the ritual, but they have no idea of the meaning behind it. They become familiar with the primary songs and what you do when you go to church. The second part of this stage expounds upon the first as the child develops more verbal skills. They learn the scripture stories and central characters of their religion, and develop their concepts of God. These characters are very real to them and they learn to love them almost as if they were people they were personally acquainted with. This is what we mean when we talk about childlike faith.

The next stage comes as the brain becomes able to process logic and causality (consequences). I’m pretty sure this corresponds with the ability to take responsiblity for your actions. Interestingly enough, this stage occurs around age 8, when LDS children are baptized, and continues on to age 11 or 12. During this stage, children begin learning how to glean additional meaning from stories and narratives. That means that when you teach them a scripture story, they understand that this is story, not about someone they might bump into on the street, but they can also understand a lesson taught through the story and be able to apply the situation of the story to situations in their own lives. In effect, this is the age when they begin to be able to actually “liken the scriptures” unto themselves.

The next stage begins in early adolescence, when the mind becomes capable of abstract thought. It is here you can look back on past experiences, see patterns within them, and gain meaning from them. Perhaps this can be related to a young person realizing that they feel a certain way whenever they are at church or reading the scriptures. The ability to have abstract thought also leads to another part of this stage, in which the person for the first time begins to question their beliefs as an individual, separate from their parents.  Youth strive to know for themselves whether they believe in the church. Many have spiritual experiences that convince them the church is true. Others at this age rebel against their parents and what they were taught and fall away from the church. Anyone who works with the youth can see this happening in both ways. It is also at this age that you begin to identify yourself with the community of your faith; it becomes as much a social attachment as a spiritual one.

The transition to the next stage comes as a person seeks a more personal relationship with God, and begins to spend a good deal of time in personal reflection and meditation (or prayer). I believe this is the time when an independant testimony is solidified. For me, I can see this transition occurring in my first couple of years at college, when there was no one looking over my shoulder, telling me to go to church, when I was separated from my closest friends, had a hard time making new ones, and really had no current social reasons to go to church. I did a lot of soul searching and praying during this time, and had several strong spiritual experiences which provided the basis for a solid testimony.

Like me, many people make the transition to this stage  in mid to late adolescence.  It is characterized by a firm, independent belief in the truth of the religion.  For a majority of people, this becomes a sort of plateau state in which they remain throughout the rest of their lives. One source estimated that perhaps 60% of individuals stayed at this point in their spiritual development. This group regularly attend meetings and serve within the church, they have a firm testimony and strive to keep all the commandments and live righteously. They are good, faithful people, but they have a hard time comprehending that anyone might question the beliefs they have come to accept as fact. They do not examine the paradoxes within their religion, and shy away from confronting some of the harder issues. For the remaining 40%, however, there comes a time when events in their life cause them to doubt the validity and strength of their convictions.

According to Fowler, while many late adolescents move quickly through the last stage and into this transition, it is much more common to find people in their thirties and forties struggling through it.  This transitionary period is the most difficult of all stages, usually marked by disillusionment and confusion–the mid-life crisis, so to speak. This transition is often prompted by situations of tension or adversity: conflicts or betrayals in personal relationships (which could be interpreted as anything from divorce to an argument with a fellow member of the church), apparent clashes between authority sources, changes in policies and practices (polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, etc), and encounters with other influences outside of one’s own past experience that lead to critical reflection on where you gained your values and how relevant they are to your current situation. Basically, any emotionally-charged situation that prompts you to call your faith into question could spark this transition, which can go on for several years. It is rare to find someone completing this transition and fully moving on the next stage before their mid-30s.,

However, once the transition is made, this next to last stage is characterized by what seems to be a deeper understanding of spiritual things.  Symbolic meanings are more fully comprehended, such as things taught in Isaiah or in the temple, and there is greater ability to be guided by what some sources called your “deeper self,” but I interpret to mean the Spirit. People who reach this stage understand that others have differing “worldviews”, and can handle conflict between opposing views with equanimity. I think this means that during this stage you have a greater surety within yourself of your personal beliefs. You are not threatened by others who believe differently than you do, but can understand and relate to people at all stages of faith. This is when your testimony becomes truly unshakable.

According to Fowler, the final stage is exceedingly rare. He calls those who reach this stage “Universalists”. These are great spiritual and religious leaders, great teachers, who have a huge impact upon the world they live in and the people they meet. They have an awareness and love for people of all walks of life, all races and religions. Often, Fowler points out, they challenge existing rules and ideas, and in so doing, make a lot of people uncomfortable. As a result, those who reach this stage often are martyred. They are often honored more after their death than during their life. As a Mormon, the first people who come to mind who would have reached this stage are Joseph Smith and many other we believe to be prophets. Some would claim that the Savior himself is the ultimate example of this ultimate stage of faith.


Stages of Faith

Posted in Deep thoughts, Mormon life tagged , , , , , , , , , at 11:43 PM by Robin

All right, this will the first official subject in my series for those who are LDS and struggling. It is rather complex, so I have been working on this for several days in order to fully cover the topic.  Most of the other subjects I will be writing about in the future will not go on for so long, so don’t get too scared off!

As I mentioned in my previous post, because of some of the social pressure within our church (although, I would assume that such pressure is not limited to being LDS, and I’m sure manifests in other denominations), often those whose testimonies are wavering feel isolated and alone and unable to find positive support as they work through their confusion.  They feel ashamed that they are having doubts even as they struggle to overcome them.

What I would like to discuss is the idea that not only is it perfectly normal to confront your beliefs, it might actually be a step on the path to a higher level fowlerstagesoffaithof faith. I recently became acquainted with James Fowler’s theory on the stages of faith.  For a brief summary of his work, check out this site, or just Google it–there are plenty of other sources.  I will admit that I have not read the actual book, just heard a couple of podcasts and read some websites, but the concept intrigues me.

From what I understand, Fowler was analyzing how people related to their faith, whatever faith that might be–Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or possibly even Atheist–throughout the course of their lives. After conducting hundreds of interviews and surveys, he found a common pattern that occurred all across the board, corresponding with certain times of life and, I assume, brain development, and categorized this pattern into several stages.

The descriptions of each stage is very complex, with a lot of psychological/ philosophical jargon that is difficult to understand unless you have training in this area.  I do not have training in this area, so I just did the best that I could.  I tried to write a simplified description of some of the primary traits of each stage as I understood them and how I related them to my LDS experience, but it kind of made this post ridiculously long, so I decided to post that description separately.  It might be just as much reading material, but at least it’s broken up a bit!  (And you won’t have to read through the whole thing to get to my point)

I gained a lot of insight from each stage description. One thing I noticed is that the transition from stage to stage is pretty tense.  These transitions are a time of soul-searching, meditation, and truth-seeking.  Each transition moves us from one important stage to the next, from a child’s unquestioning acceptance, to a teenager’s quest for independent belief, to an adult’s strong faith in the precepts of their chosen religion.  Each transition is an opportunity to strengthen faith and progress in our understanding of spiritual truths.

The part I find most interesting about all this is that the most difficult transition Fowler describes is characterized by disillusionment, doubt and confusion after the stage where a firm, independent, adult testimony is obtained.  This transition can be brought on by exposure to conflicting ideas, betrayal within a relationship, or an issue with authority figures within the religion, among other things.  I was surprised that these were specifically mentioned, because aren’t these problems the basis for many people’s loss of faith? Acceptance of anti-mormon arguments, a grudge held against a bishop, a difficult divorce, or feeling unaccepted by a ward or branch are often leading causes for members to question their faith.

The amazing thing is that the next stage is one of peace and greater spiritual understanding.  Those who make it past the stressful transition period reach a stage when they are firm and secure in their beliefs and find deeper meaning in the scriptures and in temple worship.  This is the point I think we are all trying to reach,where we have truly examined our belief system and found that it holds up, after all. However, we cannot reach this stage of unshakable faith without the trials faced in our transitional stage, whether that transition was marked by physical, emotional, or intellectual struggles.

I think this is why these stages of faith speak to me so much.  I have come to believe that each of us must face an Abrahamic trial of some sort in our lives. It might not be as obvious as a one-time test of our obedience to a one-time commandment, as Abraham’s was. But then again, it might be! This “test” is different for every person. It could be a medical problem, the loss of a spouse or child, recurring financial stress, intellectual conundrums, not being able to get married or have children, or any other number of earthly trials.  In effect, it is any situation which shakes you to the core and makes you firmly examine whether your faith is built on a foundation of stone or of sand.  It might be something that is over within a few weeks, or it might be a lifelong problem.  Those whose faith cannot stand up to the test fall away.  Those who realize that their faith is strong enough to carry them across that gulf rarely need to question it again.  It makes me think of the story of the Martin-Willey handcart company, and the lore that not one of the people who went through that terrible experience ever left the churchstumbling-block1.

I have often shared the analogy of the stepping stone in lessons and talks I have given.  If you are climbing a mountain, and you come across a large rock blocking the path in front of you, you have two options: you can either see that rock as a stumbling block that will cause you to fall or stop your progress, or you can see it as a stepping stone, which, if you go to the effort to climb it, will bring you up to higher ground.  The nature of the rock itself does not change, only the way you choose to see it.

Personally, I don’t think I have gone through this kind of trial.  I’d say I’m somewhere in the solid testimony stage with the occasional glimpse of that transition period.  I can’t say that I’m really looking forward to it!  But I hope that I can pass the test, when the time comes.  My main purpose in sharing all this information with you who feel that you are full-fledged in the middle of that period of disillusionment and confusion is that you will remember that if you can just get through this difficult time, there is peace waiting on the other side.

“My peace I leave unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)