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)

March 29, 2009

LDS and Struggling?

Posted in Deep thoughts, Mormon life tagged , , , , , , , , , at 8:49 PM by Robin

This is a subject that I have been pondering over for some time now.  I have been hesitant to write about it, partly because I don’t know if my blogging audience wants me to write about something this serious, partly because I don’t want anyone to think that I am setting myself up as a religious authority of any kind who has the definitive answer to anything, and partly because I am a little afraid of the response I will get from the internet at large. But, nevertheless, I have found over the last few months that I have become increasingly aware, through conversations with friends and family, or comments written by people online on message boards or Facebook, of a number of people, some who I know well, and many who I don’t, who are active members of the LDS church that are silently struggling with their faith.

WorryMost of the people who fall into this category are longtime members who still attend church regularly, but who, for whatever reason, have started to question whether they truly believe everything this religion is asking them to accept.  Some are struggling with church structure, or have heard some disturbing  facts about early church history.  Some have gone through difficult trials that praying doesn’t resolve. A few have given into temptation, secretly experimenting with pornography or drugs or alcohol. Some have lost their faith entirely, but can’t imagine leaving the church completely because of the social and familial ties it would require breaking.  Many feel conflicted that they are questioning their faith in the first place, as if that act alone were a sin.

To you who find yourselves in this situation, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts and experiences on this struggle.  I don’t do this in a condescending way, as if I am the eternally faithful one who is so much more spiritual than you, but as one whose faith has also waxed and waned at different times.  It’s a little scary coming out and saying that, since I know that there are members of my ward that read this blog, and I am the wife of a member of the Bishopric.  Mormon culture discourages us from showing any external signs of doubt, especially if you are in a highly visible position within your ward or stake, but I think that does us a disservice, by not giving us a chance to help strengthen our fellow Saints who are feeling lost and confused.  If we express our doubts to friends or loved ones, we are often met with fear or concern for our spiritual welfare, or with answers that just don’t seem to resolve anything. Although we are encouraged to discuss concerns of this nature with our Bishop or other church leader, many are reluctant to do so, afraid of being judged as not worthy or even apostate.  Often, they turn to sources outside of the church to find their answers, but what they find only serves to increase their confusion.  I want you to know that I have had occasions when my faith has been rock solid, and times when I really doubted whether any of it could be true.

Basically, what I want to do is open a forum for discussion where members can help strengthen each other, where they can share their thoughts on subjects that they have been struggling with, and hear experiences of others who have gone through the same thing and who have actually come out the other side stronger in their faith.  There are far too many sites on the internet created by those who have begun questioning their testimonies and have fallen away from the church.  I want this to be a place where people can find that you can question your testimony and actually end up strengthening it.  Obviously, this is not a forum for anti-mormon arguments coming from those who have already closed their minds to the church.  If I receive any antagonistic comments, they will be immediately deleted.  But those who are honestly seeking answers about their concerns are always welcome to join the discussion.

Obviously, I don’t think I will be able to express all my thoughts on this subject in one post, so I will probably be making this subject into something of a series.  So much for lightening up the content on my blog!  I apologize if this is too deep for anyone, however, I just really feel that I need to get this out there.  There are things that I want to say that I never have to opportunity to say to those who really need it most.  I hope that the things discussed here will help someone else out there.  I promise once I get this off my chest I will start being funny again.  Or maybe I’ll be funny in between serious posts.  We’ll see!  Thanks, all!

October 3, 2008

Getting Kids to Listen to Conference

Posted in Days of my life, Family life, Mormon life, Something exciting! tagged , , , , , , , at 3:38 PM by Robin

Well, folks, it’s General Conference time again, and I don’t know about you, but I’m girding up my loins to face the epic battle ahead.  Is it finding a parking spot in downtown Salt Lake City over the weekend, you ask?  No, I believe I have only once actually attended conference dowtown in person, sometime during my BYU years.  Is it trying to figure out how to stay awake during the second half of the Sunday afternoon session?  No, although that will probably be a minor skirmish.  No, my friends, the battle that lurks on the horizon is that of getting my kids to sit still and watch at least some of conference without claiming that their parents are the minions of Satan and are taking away their free agency by forcing them to be righteous (yes, Parley has actually tried using that argument, if not in those exact words). 

Now, I’m a realist.  I know that a seven-year-old’s attention span does not last for the duration of a thirty-minute talk by a member of the First Presidency, and I realize that the majority of what’s being said will exceed their listening comprehension abilities.  But Andrew and I are still determined to get them to listen and understand at least a portion of the words of our prophet and other leaders of the church.  Does anyone have any suggestions that have worked for you with your kids?  Do you remember something your parents did that helped you enjoy conference more?  For now, I’m going to search online for some sort of worksheets (there’s got to be something out there), and employ good ol’ bribery. I’m going to try getting some Halloween candy, and giving them one piece for every talk they sit through.  Hey, we’re operating on a pre-telestial level here, right?  There is that saying about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar (we’ve tried the vinegar, i.e. commands and threats, and it doesn’t produce the desire effect).  Anyway, I’m open to your good advice here, folks!  Help me out!

January 30, 2008

Blogging about the Church

Posted in Deep thoughts, Just thinking..., Mormon life tagged , , , , , , at 12:23 AM by Robin

gordon-b-hinckley.jpgI’ve been spending a lot of time the last couple of days reading blogs about President Hinckley.  What a wonderful blessing we have in the internet in being able to share our thoughts and feelings about him and the church with so many people.  It is so much more personal, so much more uplifting and inspiring, to hear other people’s thoughts on his life, than it is to just read a press release and its accompanying biographical sketch.  There was remarkably little about President Hinckley’s death on the main media outside of Utah.  I didn’t get a chance to watch the national news yesterday—does anyone know if they actually mentioned it there?  I saw some brief headlines on MSN.com and Yahoo, but they were quickly replaced by more breaking news on whether or not Mary Kate Olsen would be interviewed concerning Heath Ledger’s death.  Shows you where the rest of the world places their priorities, right?  Not that I really blame them.  I mean, seriously, if you weren’t a member of the church, you probably wouldn’t have any idea who the mormon prophet was, if he’s not that guy who was arrested for polygamy. 

Anyway, I have found it to be a fitting tribute to President Hinckley to read the many memorials posted about him.  Many of them quote his testimony from his conference addresses, many share their own personal witness of his calling and his effect upon their lives, many express their sadness that he is gone, but their joy that he is reunited with his beloved wife.  One began hers with a link to a talk given by Elder M. Russell Ballard  (excellent, please read) at BYU-Hawaii at their graduation last December in which he urged us as members of the church to use the internet and our blogs to share our testimonies and information about the church.  My favorites are the experiences of those who met him in person, like this essay written forty years ago, and this post by a young man who was a missionary companion of his grandson, and this one, who posted some wonderful, informal pictures.

This has been a great reminder of the blessing that technology can be when used correctly.  It makes the world a smaller place, as I can share in these deeply personal thoughts and feelings of members of the church on the other side of the world.  It’s almost as if we were all in one big room, having a sort of informal wake, sharing our memories of this man who has blessed so many lives.