Friday, January 16, 2009

Losing My Religion

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.


Graham Roberts said...

Fowler's Stages of Faith has been a helpful model for me. I wonder whether organisations/churches can also fall in the categories he describes, and thus produce conflict with those who do not share the same 'stage'.

While I cannot recall Fowler's actual stages the black and white/right or wrong stage seems very comfortable and assured for many people. We are in or out, people are for us or against is. Everything is clear. For some people, perhaps many this is fine...but it does not satisfy us all. Because the organisation/church (aka TSA) often operates this way (or seems to) those who question are not always at ease within the church - and it seems to me that at tis stage they opt out of the church, and perhaps lose their faith as well-your third pathway out of stage 2

The ability to live without certainty, to wrestle with the questions and embrace paradox while coninuing this journey of faith is not something to be feared.

I would like to think I am at that stage most of the time, but confess to needing a little 'black and white' for my feet at times.

Liam said...

Jason, what was the reaction to your workshop?
I ask because, especially in our own division, the age range you were speaking to seems to have a large conservative/fundamentalist group. Was their acceptance of the ideas you presented? Was there discontent?

JDK said...

Thanks for your comment Graham - I hereby promote you to stage 5 ;-)

Liam, I didn't get any negative reaction in the workshop. The few that interacted seemed genuinely interested and positive. I'm not sure the fundamentalist groups are as big as we think, I suspect that they are just a dominant, noisy minority. I'm also increasingly convinced that those in the middle appreciate an alternate voice most times.

Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

Hi Jason,

I've been reading your blog with interest for the last few months after my mum came back from Zambia. She mentioned that she got a long well with you and i came across your blog, and have been checking it ever since. I enjoy your perspective on the different issues we face and its refreshing to find someone else who isn't so black and white in what they believe is right and wrong.

I went to INSANE last week and saw that you were leading the 'Losing My Religion' elective and thought i'd come along to hear what you had to say.

Just like your blog, i found your knowledge and insights very interesting. I was also very pleased with the response to what you had to say. It seemed that many of the youth there were open to discussion and not all fundamentalists as Liam asked.

I am growing quite tired of the "dominant, noisy minority" of fundamentalists in TSA youth today. As they seem to get the rest of us lumped in the same group as them, when really we all think and believe a large variety of things.

So, i guess i just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for showing me that there are other people around who don't judge and condemn people, who don't see everything in black and white, and who reach people through relationship not threats of death and eternal punishment.


JDK said...

Thanks Caitlin for your kind comments. I think there's a challenge for those of us who don't see everything in black and white, to be able to articulate an alternative point of view without being drawn into petty arguments that denigrate all involved. I also think we need to create more opportunities for people to express doubt and question openly without being rebuked - this is a real challenge to our culture. I've mentioned it before, but I highly recommend the 'Living the Questions' material as a good basis for group discussion like this. If anyone wants to know more about it, feel free to contact me.

Regards, JDK