April 1, 2009

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)



  1. Chris said,

    Robin, I am happy to see you address this subject. I have really enjoyed the points that you have made and look forward to where you go with this. I don’t want to hear anymore apologies for the length of your blogs. I appreciate the effort that you put into them. If someone thinks that it is too long or to intense of a subject they can check in another time. I feel this important. I’m a huge fan.

  2. Pmom said,

    I enjoyed this post, Robin. If what you describe is true and true for most everyone then it seems to follow that it is essential to follow our doubts out and find answers for them. In other words, if you are a person who finds reading the Old Testament or Doctrine & Covenants difficult because it challenges your testimony and raises more doubts then it quiets, on this theory you need to do more reading, more research, more thinking, so that you can get beyond that transition stage to a point of peace. (Do you think that’s right, or am I misinterpreting what you’ve said?)

    Interestingly, many of us do not do this. Sometimes it is because we do not yet have enough faith and are afraid of what we might find out. We want to believe. We want to be good members of the Church. So when we come across something that bothers us–in the Old Testament, the Doctrine & Covenants, or Church History–we try to bury it, forget about it, and not think about it any more, as we cling to the elements we know (or hope?) to be true.

    What you described is interesting because to me it seems that the person who takes what I have described as the bury and forget it approach, is also a person of faith, and working very hard to maintain their belief, but according to what you have said, not ever able to achieve the full faith and peace he might enjoy if he followed his doubts until he found a solution for them.

    I think that in one of your other posts you described the “put it on the shelf” method of handling doubt. I have also heard this espoused by now emeritus BYU prof Chauncey Riddle and also by Ann Osborn Poelman in her excellent book, The Simeon Solution. I was always impressed by their “put it on the shelf” counsel and felt that this was the right way to go. I am wondering how the “put it on the shelf” counsel differs from the bury it and forget it process I described above.

    Is “put it on the shelf” second best to following out your doubts (as is apparently bury & forget it?) Why or why not?

    Did I make any sense or is what I said totally confusing?

  3. Robin said,

    I think what it boils down to is what exactly are putting up on that shelf? Are you putting controversial doctrines up there that may have been mentioned by early church leaders? Or are you putting off examining basic doctrines that are an essential part of the gospel? Are you procrastinating putting prayer or tithing to the test? Or are you putting a question up for storage because the church basically has received no further revelation on that subject?

    There is a difference between completely ignoring a topic because it is uncomfortable or hard to understand, and “putting it up on the shelf” because there really is no answer to it at this time because we have not received that revelation.

    In my summary of the stages, I mention that approximately 60% of people stay at what I call the adult plateau stage for the rest of their lives. This doesn’t make them stupid or ignorant or bad. Some people are content with the basics and some people are always striving for more. It is important to remember however, that if you are one of the 40% who are striving for more answers, that you ground yourself in the basics before you go on to explore the greater “mysteries”. That is where many intellectuals go astray, I think. But that is a topic for another post!

  4. anonymous said,

    I still struggle with this response. I am open to the possibility that I do not fully understand the “back shelf” approach but please allow me to express why I am not totally satisfied with it.

    When concerns arize about the church and you have to reconsider your current view several alternate possibilties will come to mind. For example you might consider that Joseph Smith was not inspired all the time but still had many valid revelations. One other consideration might be that he sincerely believed he had special experiences but that he really did not. Another might be that he was a fraud and intentionally decieved people (I personally do not accept this). The point is that I would think a proposed way of dealing with troubling information would include the possibility that it could be the latter. Does that make sense?

    Let me give an example. Currently there is a South indian guru named Sathya Sai Baba who claims to be a literal god on earth. He has performed every miracle that Jesus performed with thousands of eye witnesses. He currently has at least 6 million loyal followers. This is half the size of the LDS church and the actual size of the church before I was 10 years old. You can watch some of his miracles on you tube. My favorite is when he vomits up golden lingums (here’s a link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwOecpMkHH0). This man also has multiple cases of sexual misconduct and child molestation that have been raised against him.

    Now, in my opinion Sathya is a fraud. He uses magician slight-of-hand tricks that seem obvious to me but I guess not to millions of Indians. It should be understood that the works and message of Sai Babba’s religion are unquestionably positive. He has built many hospitals, helped the needy and preached a message of love and service (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sathya_Sai_Baba).

    Obviously we should expect to see an emphasis on faith and a censoring of outside source information within his religion. Sai Baba has told his followers to avoid the internet and to not entertain contraversial ideas posed by his enemies.

    Imagine a follower of this religion discovering that there are cases of sexual misconduct being raised against his leader, or suppose they see the video that I attached that demonstrates how Sai babba’s miracles could be fraudalent. Would we as an outsider (with a larger perspective) encourage a “back shelf” approach for this person? This person might then ask themselves “How can I make the claim that Sai Babba is a fraud if I have not been entirely obediant to his commandments? I could become vulnerable to evil.”

    In this situation wouldn’t such a question be a distraction from the real concern? Similarly within our church will we not always be able to find some sin in ourselves (if nothing else than the sin of doubt) that could distract us from the truthfulness of our religion’s message?

    I question this “back shelf”approach because it does not seem to include the possibilty that the concerns are valid. I am not confident that it could be applied to other situations. Would it help a follower of Sai Babba to ever understand if he was being mislead?

    Putting these conflicting ideas on the back shelf might be the right thing to do if our religion’s claims are true. I would never want to be so easily swayed. Anytime someone makes an extraordinary claim there will be other people who want to disprove it. I see the value in it but how do I trust in such an approach and eliminate the anxiety I feel that the concerns I have developed are legitimate?

  5. Robin said,

    First of all, I am not recommending the “back shelf” approach in regards to basic fundamental doctrines. If you question some things that Joseph Smith has done, and wonder if he is truly a prophet, then you need to come to terms with that issue as soon as possible. Do not put an essential part of your testimony on that shelf. The things that can be put up on a shelf are questions that are not essential to our salvation, and/or that we do not have a fulness of truth revealed to us, such as “What’s up with the dinosaurs?”

    Whether dealing with a basic issue or a “mystery”, any time you have a spiritual question, you CANNOT rely on any other source than the witness of the Holy Ghost to tell you for sure if something is true. You can hear a persuasive speaker from any religion, you can see things that look like miracles, you can read something that appeals to you intellectually, but only the Holy Ghost can help you distinguish between truth and deception. Use the gift you were given at your confirmation to guide you when you are unsure of the way. Do those things that will bring you closer to the Spirit and more aware of that still, small voice. That voice will not lead you astray.

  6. anonymous said,

    Spiritual experience is one of the most remarkable and complex things to make sense of in this life. It is a profound blessing that it exists and helps us discover who we are.

    It is important that we recognize certain basic principles and approaches that we, as Latter Day Saints, are shaped to accept. The idea that a spiritual feeling is a measuring rod for absolute truth is a very distinct LDS approach to interpreting spiritual experience (which could very well be true). It’s viewed as being god’s stamp of confirmation. When we read the book of Mormon we pray for an experience or confirmation that it is true. If you get a buzz that means yes. If you get a…..well…the absense of yes might mean no or it might mean try again later. I hope you understand my point.

    The whole world has different “takes” on the term we coin “the spirit.” Even many Buddhists use suprisingly similar language when describing Satoris and brief states of enlightenment. To them these feelings are a state of mind and not a clear confirmation of absolute historical truth.

    Our approach leaves a lot of questions unanswered. I have been watching a movie before and had strong spiritual feelings come over me during part of the film. I personally have experienced this the same as the feeling when I have read the scriptures. There are different ways to interpret this experience. Was the spirit confirming that a certain principle was “true” or was it confirming that the movie itself was “true?” What does that even mean? That the story depicted in the movie is historical fact? If I am moved by an inspiring story in the Book of Mormon how do I know that this time it means it really happened?

    Another concern is the inconsistencies in a message that is supposed to be consistent. When I first read about many Buddhist ideas I felt “the spirit” as powerfully as anytime when I had read the Book of Mormon. The first time I meditated I was overcome with the same beautiful feelings and clarity of mind that I have ascribed to the spirit. Maybe it was the holy ghost. So what was it telling me? That Siddartha was a true historical character? I can’t say I know that.

    For years I said with conviction that I knew the Book of Mormon was true but when I did my personal inventory of beliefs I realized I know no such thing. Many people would want me to try to remember spiritual experiences from the past (assuming of course that I don’t have them anymore). While searching for a time when I did know I realized that I never knew. I was placed in a context where there was someone right there to help me interpret my experience.

    It’s kind of silly when you think about it. Someone explaining to you “What you don’t know yet is that what you experienced was the holy ghost letting you know that you now “know” something to be true. I could say my experience was very positive. I don’t know what other people experience but after thorough self-evaluation I feel like there are very few things that I can say that I know. If we really mean to use weaker words such as “I am convinced of..” or “I feel strongly that..” or “I hope that..” I think we should use the appropriate words.

    My point here is that for most people within the church the conversation about truth ends with the spirit as a spiritual proof or miracle. In my opinion that is where the conversation begins.

    My observations cause me to doubt that only baptized members are privy to special spiritual communion that is consistently with them. I feel the concept of the “light of Christ” causes us to overlook other people’s experiences and assume that they all just overlap with what we already know.

    I am not rejecting the LDS approach but I am weighing it and contrasting it with other methods.

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