Back in the summer of 1981, I was at Princeton Seminary chasing a degree in New Testament. I finished my 7th course and realized I was just one course short of graduation. I called down to the chairman of the Elders at Fries, who I think was John Rutledge, and asked if there was any way possible for me to stay an additional three weeks in New Jersey. After consulting with the board, John said, “Go for it.” What a gift! So, I signed up for a course entitled “The Stages of Faith.” It was taught by the late Dr. James Fowler, a United Methodist from North Carolina, who was on loan to Princeton from Emory Theological Seminary in Atlanta Georgia. That course was one of the most important experiences of my life. By taking it, I discovered that faith is not a luxury or even a choice but a universal necessity. We can’t live without it. Faith is not only the proud possession of Christians of yesteryear like Billy Graham and Christians of today like Pope Francis, and Christians like you and I, it is the common possession to people of all religions, and to people of no religion at all. It is found in the life of the youngest child cradled in its mother’s arms and in the final gasp of the most skeptical agnostic on the planet. We all have faith of some kind.
Jean Piaget gave us the stages of early childhood development, and Jim Fowler, who studied under Piaget, gave us the stages of faith. There are six:
The first stage of faith is Incipient Rudimentary Faith. That means that a newborn child trusts their mother and all the other big people who populate their world to do them good and not harm. A stanza of a poem by the Scottish poet John Banister captures his situation beautifully.
Baby has no skies but mother’s eyes,
no God above, but mother’s love.
His angel sees the (Heavenly) Father’s face;
But he the mother’s, full of grace.
An ancient Jewish proverb declares that God could not be everywhere, so he made mothers. I question the theology, but second the emotion of the saying. The child who never knows a mother’s love—or the love who steps in to love the child like a mother, never overcomes that loss.
The second stage of faith is Mythic Literal Faith. Fowler says that in the Mythic Literal Stage of faith, the meaning of a story is trapped in the story itself.
For instance, if we tell our 2, 3, or 4-year-old that we are going to church to worship God, and do not also inform them that God is “immortal, invisible, God only wise,” the child sometimes expects to see God in a physical form. This was powerfully demonstrated to me in my first tour of this church. One Sunday morning not long after my arrival I was walking along the downstairs hall, when I met a young man who was just about knee high to a grasshopper. He greeted me like he was an adult with a wave and a smile. I said to him, “You are an impressive and communicative young man. You ought to be on Television.” He smiled and nodded. That day at the dinner table that same young man looked over at his parents and said, “Guess what, God is going to put me on TV.”
Later, his parents and I decided he thought I was God, because, in our church, the whole congregation including the choir faced this-a-away, and I faced that-a-way. And, when we stood up to sing hymns, I was the one people to whom people were singing. So, too, when we presented our offerings, the ushers brought it all to me.
When children are in a Mythic Literal stage of faith, they are highly impressionable. If we tell them there are monsters in their closets, and that the bogeyman will get them if they aren’t in bed by 8 o’clock, they believe us. When our children are in the mythic literal stage, they are especially open to the Biblical stories that were addressed to humankind in humankind’s early childhood. For this reason, I had no problem teaching my children and the children of the church the Genesis chronology of creation in which God creates the cosmos in six days and rests on the seventh. At the same time, as they grew older I made sure that they understood that, as we know from 2nd Peter 3:8, and 8th grade science, “With God, a 1,000 years is as a day, or a day is as 13.7 billion years.” (Or, more correctly perhaps, at least in the case of Genesis, 1/6 of 13.7 billion years).
The third stage of faith is Synthetic Conventional Faith. Most people pass into this stage as a pre-teen and live with it until they reach young adulthood. In this stage, we uncritically accept our parent’s values and world view. We trust all the people, organizations, and things our parents trust. If we are a part of an extended family or a well-loved and trusted religious community, we adopt its views, too. These views range far and wide. When I was growing up, my dad pulled for the Yankees and the Redskins, so I pulled for the Yankees and the Redskins. My dad voted for General, later President Eisenhower, and I wished I could, too. My dad said voting against Eisenhour was like voting against Santa Claus. Later, I would disagree with my dad—and become a National League Fan, but before I could, I had to learn to stand on my own two feet and make my own choices. This is a good time for me to say that I believe in Covenant Theology. I have been a pastor in the Moravian church since 1977 and a member of a Moravian community of faith since 1949. In all my years I have never known a child whose parents took them to Sunday School and church, who then chose to participate in Confirmation and Youth Fellowship, who did not turn out to be A-okay. Not a single one, who met all four of these qualifications, to my knowledge, went afoul of the law or became addicted to drugs, etc. Those children can say, as I can say, “The faith of my parents has done me good, not ill, all the days of my life.”
The fourth stage of faith is Individuative Reflective Faith. This is the faith of adulthood. It is the kind of faith that sits down on the riverbank of life and contemplates the flow of the river. It is the kind of faith that challenges and tests all that has gone before. This is the kind of faith that stands on its own two feet and says, “I love you Daddy, but though you may think this way, I think that way. You zig and I zag. You are all Mozart. I like Mozart, but I am also a little bit rock-and-roll and a little bit country.” I believe that St. Paul was attainting to Individuative Reflective Faith when he wrote in Philippians 3:
If anyone thinks they have reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord …
When children attain stage four faith, they are not rejecting the faith of their parents; they are building upon it. They are like the midget standing on the shoulders of a giant who manages to see the future down the road than the giant ever could. This is as God intended. One generation should stand on the shoulders of the last. There are no grandchildren in the kingdom of God God will not judge us in the same light as our parents; God will judge us in the light that we ourselves have received from God. Thus, concluding the passages from Philippians 3, St. Paul wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” The hymnist wrote, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, we must onward still and upward, who will keep abreast of truth.”
The fifth stage of faith is Conjunctive Faith. We enter the fifth stage of faith when we realize that there may be multiple ways of arriving at the same truth. There was a time when Conjunctive Faith meant Christians accepting other Christians in spite of our denominational differences. Peter Cartwright was a Methodist Circuit Rider who once ran for Congress against Abraham Lincoln. He used to tell the story of encountering a fellow Methodist and a Baptist engaged in a fruitless argument about baptism and salvation. Cartwright hooked them both, and corrected them, with a little play-acting. He called out to St. Peter saying:
“St. Peter! Those who are in heaven—by what name are they called? Are they called Methodist?”
“Are they called Baptists?”
“Are they called Episcopalians, or Presbyterians, or Moravians?”
“No! No! No! A thousand times No!”
“Well then, by what name are they called?”
“They are called Christians and they have conquered by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, and by the word of their testimony.”
Today the stakes are higher. Even though the culture wars are splitting Christian denominations all across America, Christians are being forced to live in an increasingly pluralistic world. Now, as never before, we must learn the wisdom of the New Testament scholar Kirster Stendahl who said, “We are not ready to share our own truth until we are willing to be converted to the truth of another.” For instance, Muslims and Christians will never agree about Jesus. Muslims believe Jesus to be a great prophet. Christians believe him to be the express image of the Invisible God, yet both can agree that he is a teacher and an example without peer. This may be a non-issue for most of us who live in the USA, but for Moravians living in Tanzania, it is a matter of great consequence. A professor at our seminary there told me that the nation is almost equally divided among Christians and Muslims and people of both faiths do not show respect for one another—they risk bloody conflict. Thus far, Tanzania, the Christians there, and the Muslims there, have been up to the task. We salute them and pray for them!
The final stage of faith is Universalizing Faith. Fowler says that Universalizing Faith is the kind of faith that puts one’s own faith and life completely at the service of others. It is the kind of faith that Jesus had when he said, “The son of Man came among you not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. It was the kind of faith that Gandhi had when he spoke to the English rulers of his native India and said, “We Indians will match our capacity for suffering against your British capacity to inflict suffering, and we will win.” Later, Gandhi’s followers would opine that even this statement was ultimately a complement to the British! He could not have said the same of the Nazis! Universalizing Faith was the faith of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “I have a dream that someday, blacks and whites will sit down on the red clay hills of Georgia and judge one another not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Later he said, “I have seen the Promised Land! I may not get there with you, but you will get there. I have seen the Promised Land!” Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, like all true prophets, his word was proven. He died, but his truth goes marching on.
Dr. James Fowler said that those who attain Universalizing Faith are often imprisoned, crucified, shot, and the like. No one aspires to the final stage of faith, but those who are used by God don’t always have the luxury of choice. They are driven to it by a vocation thrust upon them by God and the circumstances of the time and place in which they live. Like Jesus, they know they have a fiery baptism with which to be baptized, and they are constrained until it is accomplished.
In conclusion, what then can we say about the stages of faith? Well, not everyone will pass through them all, and not all will pass through the stages of faith in regular order. Some people are stuck in stage 2, Mythic Literal Faith. Their faith is strong, but because of its content, they deny science, and ignore facts, and their faith is ultimately destructive, to themselves, to their community, and often, to many of those who come into contact with them. Likewise, some people are stuck in stage 3 Synthetic Conventional Faith. They are afraid to stand up to the authorities in their lives. They cower before traditions when they ought to be making traditions of their own. I believe that I attained stage 4, Individuative Reflective Faith when I went off to college, and then the service, and then married. But when I was converted, I reverted to stage 3, Synthetic Conventional Faith to avoid religious conflict with my parents, especially my father. It was not until I took Fowler’s course that I was able to stand before my father as my own man, and say, “Dad, I love you, and we serve the same Lord; but I disagree with you on this and that.”
And some will say, “Worth, did you ever reach stage five, Conjunctive faith?” I like to think I reached for it for I would like to think myself that broadminded, but I will tell you, that when I have tried to preach stage five faith, I have been accused of being a backslider and a traitor. You needn’t aspire or attaint to stage 6, Universalizing Faith to suffer for your faith. Jesus said, “If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you.”
So, let me end with two questions: 1) What stage of faith are you in right now? And 2) What stage of faith do you think you ought to be in right now?
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.