It should not be surprising, in our scientific, technological world, that faith has been subjected to empirical studies and analysis. Hold onto your hat: it turns out that both people and communities of faith develop through a predictable series of stages… or find a comfortable level and stay there.
James W. Fowler, a minister in the United Methodist Church, wrote “Stages of Faith” in 1981 while a professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. Additional research has followed. Here is a summary of the results.
Preschool children often confuse fantasy and reality. Their mix of ideas are picked-up, but not fully-developed, from those around them. They may believe in God and the Tooth Fairy, but already know that the guy at the mall is not really Santa.
School-age children begin to use logic and take things very literally. They may strongly and stubbornly hold onto ideas that come from trusted authorities. Their parents may still be insisting on the details of Santa’s visit to every home on Christmas eve.
Teenagers become aware of multiple, conflicting belief systems, but often associate strongly with a single institution and its doctrine. These staunch believers tend to “double-down” against any challenge to the anchors of their faith. They are easily persuaded that exposure to other ideas is dangerous so that they are determined to remain isolated within their community of support.
In young adulthood, with continued exposure to other peoples and their beliefs, some begin a period of critical re-examination of the elements of their faith. They may become disillusioned with their former community and move forward to independently search for a new foundation. Paradoxically, this progressive movement is often criticized as “backsliding.” Many men, especially, become “spiritual but not religious” and stop worshiping in a church.
In mid-life, it sometimes occurs to people that much about life is conflicting, unknown, or even unknowable. Neither faith nor logic fully satisfy. Much has to be taken, at any given time, as a paradox or mystery. Sacred stories and symbols may be a comfort, but not a foundation. Their spirituality may merge with their intent to “live a good life.”
A few older folks reach a point where they feel that life and gratitude, day by day, is sufficient blessing. There is no need to agonize over doubts, carry guilt from past mistakes, or dread what may happen in the next year, or the next moment. These folks may open themselves, within their remaining capacities, to take full satisfaction in the love of, and service to, others. These people may still embrace the formal worship of a specific divinity, but their capacity to love is no longer dependent on any given doctrine.
No developmental stage that serves the needs of the individual and their community is necessarily bad. Still, increasing tolerance always accompanies increasing spiritual development.
© 2012, David Satterlee