I ran an elective workshop today called Losing My Religion at Insane. The session was aimed at 18-25 year olds who often have a high drop out rate from church life. There's a lot of reasons for this, but the area I was most keen to focus on (and probably the only one I am really competent to lead) was based around stages of faith.
For a long time, the major work on this subject has been James Fowler's 1981 book which suggests 6 distinct stages. Fowler acknowleges that the stages represent snapshots and therefore the reality of people's lives is that they move between them more fluidly than a simple linear progression. He also emphasises that the stages are not sotierological - that is, you don't get closer to salvation the more stages you conquer. Over the years, my regard for Fowler's model has waned a bit though his basic ideas still have much merit.
My preference is for a three stage model of faith. Stage 1 is the stage we all begin with in childhood. It emphasises creative imagination over critical analysis. In Stage 1 we are open to all sorts of fantasy, tale and myth without concern for historical veracity. Santa is great because we get gifts at Christmas and we really don't need to know any more than that. Noah can get all the animals into the ark because we don't know more than 20 different species.
We usually enter Stage 2 before we realise it. We don't get to make a choice about it, it just happens. An older sibling lets loose about the Easter Bunny. We learn about dinosaurs at school and start to wonder where they fit into the biblical account. Reading the Bible makes us question what others once told us about it. In Stage 2, our beliefs are challenged by critical thinking. Stage 2 is uncomfortable for many, if not most, but is a critical time and cannot be ignored. It also provides a number of pathways that can determine how a person's faith will be affected in the future.
The first possibility is that someone will stay in stage 2 for a prolonged period - for some people, this could be all of their lives. A second possibility is that they react against the doubt and uncertainty that characterise this stage and return to some form of stage 1. This is the path sometimes taken by people who find fundamentalism attractive with its black and white perspective and reaffirming certainty. The third pathway is the way out of religion. For those who cannot go back, who can't remain perpetually living in doubt and who also are unable to find another way forward, the only solution appears to be to leave. I believe that there is a fourth pathway and it leads to what I see as a third stage of faith.
In stage 3, people begin to come to terms with reliquishing certainty. Those in this stage no longer feel the need to fight against science or protect their religion against reason. They don't give up because their experience validates the meaning that they are finding in faith. They search for new ways to articulate faith and experience that make sense in the modern world. They have a renewed appreciation for the power of myth and the meaning in metaphor that doesn't rely on one particular interpretation of history.
This isn't a 'stairway to heaven'. I move regularly between stages 2 and 3, though I spend more time in the latter. I gave the analogy today of stage 2 being like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years. Stage 3 isn't the promised land but it is perhaps a greater level of contentment about being on the journey. Those in the wilderness may thirst and sometimes suffer from the heat, but we cope best when we accompany one another along the way.