Misusing Fowler’s Faith Stages: An Object Lesson

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith has been a staple in certain seminary courses since the 1980s.  While subsequent scholarship has criticized and refined the theory, it continues to exercise wide impact.  Unfortunately it also has been misused, with dreadful results.

Fowler’s theory involves six stages, from childhood forms of faith (intuitive and mythic), to adolescent and emerging adult forms that call for moving from belief on the basis of external authority to critically considering, sorting and “owning” one’s faith.  In later stages (conjunctive and universalizing) generally more middle age or older folk become possessed of the deep mystery and are able both to hold firmly to their particular commitments and remain open – the virtue of epistemic humility –  to more expansive expressions of faith.   Each stage is generally associated with a certain segment of the life course, but these transitions or “conversions” are not automatic, nor tightly restricted to a particular chronological age.

Fowler’s stages 3 and 4 are of particular concern because so much of the misuse has happened here.  Stage 3 is labeled “synthetic-conventional” faith.  It is described as sincere but unreflective reliance on “what I was taught” by authority figures: parents, teachers, pastors, youth leaders.  If a person settles for conventional stage 3 faith (Fowler calls the settling”equilibrium”) it means that a person’s system of beliefs and values, though sincerely held, remains tacit, unexamined. (p. 161)  The growth challenge is to make the uncritically-accepted system of beliefs “the object of reflection.” (p. 162)

As a person becomes aware that she or he has never seriously reflected on the conventionally-held belief system, she or he is challenged to “leave home,” so to speak.  (Going off to college is both a literal and metaphorical leaving home, which is why the college years are understood to be so important.  Enlisting in the military is also a big leaving home.)  “Leaving home” provokes critical reflection and the opportunity for growth toward stage 4, an “individuative-reflective” faith, which leads to more adequate (critical) awareness of one’s beliefs and taking responsibility for refining them and making them truly one’s own. (p. 182)

Stage 4 faith, therefore, is considered a more mature version of faith than stage 3.  And precisely here the insidious, corrosive misuse of Fowler’s theory starts.  I would bet that almost all of us who received instruction on Fowler in mainline seminaries picked up the idea (whether we agreed or not) that traditional Christian doctrinal beliefs are “conventional,” suggesting that those who maintain traditional, orthodox beliefs are stuck in stage 3.  They have “foreclosed.”  They refuse to grow to a more mature faith.

The first mistake in this sincerely held, usually gently put, but still condescendingly delivered viewpoint is of the category kind.  Fowler’s theory is about psychological processes, not theological reflection per se.  (Fowler had his theological commitments, which I’ll get to momentarily.)  As James Loder pointed out and as Fowler himself said, this theory is about ego development.  It uses the word “faith” phenomenologically, not tied to any specific theological or religious viewpoint.  Everyone needs to move  from stage 3 synthetic-conventional to stage 4 individuative-reflective faith, not just traditional Christians.  Modern, mainline Protestant theological education is rife with the bias that somehow traditional, conservative, evangelical, orthodox students especially (solely?) need to do this work. There is an appropriate word for this prejudice, which I won’t use here, but anybody hanging around cattle knows what it is.  Worse, it is a terrible disservice to students, maybe even abusive.

Yes, traditional students need to do this reflective work toward stage 4 because everybody needs to do this work.  Linda Mercadante’s book on the spiritual-but-not-religious, mentioned in a previous post, provides examples.  She discovered a significant number of people who grew up in atheist or agnostic homes who, by Fowler’s theory, are classic examples of stage 3 faith. (Remember, “faith” does not have to be tied to religion.)  In my nearly twenty-five years of working with college students, faculty and staff, I have encountered many people “stuck in stage 3” and their “stuckness” had nothing to do with their theological viewpoints.

One particularly egregious scenario is of the student (or a college-educated person) who “took a class” in religion and “now knows” that the Bible is full of fairy tales and textual corruptions.  Or that the Council of Nicaea was little more than a political grudge match among bishops.  How did they come to this conclusion?  Perhaps a few on the basis of careful engagement with a range of ideas, but far more because the professor (or the book) said so, probably not overtly, but by means of suggestion and inference.  This person, now thinking that she or he is well-informed because of the class (or the book), has simply shifted allegiance to the new point of view on the basis of the new authority.  They have traded one version of “what I was taught” for another.

A second significant problem serves as an important object lesson for our United Methodist battles.  Because Stages of Faith is scientific and descriptive, it is generally understood as not suffering the problem of bias like traditional Christian doctrines supposedly do.  After all, Fowler’s work is based on thousands of hours of clinical research.  It is rigorously empirical, which purportedly gives it privileged epistemic status.  However, as one quickly realizes, even empirical work is based on theory, on background belief(s).  Fowler’s views were shaped by Immanuel Kant’s critiques.  (See Stages, p. 44.)  I won’t take the space here to detail Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena, but it bears directly on how many mainline Protestants, including Fowler, think about Christian doctrine.

Therefore, if you “buy” Fowler’s work uncritically, you are also “buying” his Kantian biases.  They predispose people to think of “faith” as a universal human phenomenon that is primary and all theological systems of “belief” as secondary constructions, subsequent to the experience of faith.  Yes, belief systems are important because we use them to “make meaning,” (a ubiquitous phrase, or is it an ubiquitous phrase?), but all belief systems stand in a dependent relation to “faith.”  This bias privileges “spirituality” over “religion” and downplays the epistemic value of religious dogma or doctrine.  Notice how Sharon Daloz Parks, Fowler’s famous PhD student and an enormously influential writer in higher education, characterizes “dogma” in her widely read Big Questions, Worthy Dreams

Serious reflection on Fowler’s faith stages theory should help us see both its value and its limits.  His theory instructs all of us regardless of our theological identity.  Anyone can be unthinkingly tied to a set of beliefs.  It is not the special problem of Christian traditionalists.

A United Methodist Magisterium

A couple of weeks ago, I shared my view that a future United Methodism, whatever form(s) it takes, will still need clear doctrine, strong teaching, and effective measures of accountability.  Let me try to extend that thought by suggesting that, with regard to clarifying what we believe and teach, we United Methodists need something like a magisterium.

By using this term, “magisterium,” I allude to the Roman Catholic Church’s body tasked with this teaching authority.  I do not mean that we simply borrow the structure, but we need something like it.  Maybe our standing committee on faith and order can develop into something comparable.  It remains to be seen.

Perhaps, some may think, I’m just being sensationalistic, seeing a problem where there isn’t one.  Consider this example.  For a writing project I’ve undertaken, I just finished a book by Professor Linda Mercadante of Methodist Theological School in Ohio (METHESCO).  She is an expert on the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) and this book shows that expertise.  She brings to light some of the common beliefs and sensibilities that she surfaced during interviews.  For instance, the SBNR generally believe in an impersonal energy or life force rather than a personal, interactive God.  They are monists (e.g. all reality is one, no God distinct from creation).  They privilege the individual self as the “locus of authority” rather than a community.  Even though they in principle value community, they are suspicious of groupthink and of being “pinned down” to any one tradition.  They also exhibit a utilitarian sensibility about ethics, with happiness and “what is beneficial” as the supreme good.  There is much more, but hopefully this little bit shows that, on examination, SBNR looks more like a “religion” than practitioners probably want to admit.

One of the other noticeable features of Mercadante’s book is how often her interview subjects grew up with no stable religious background or in mainline Protestant congregations that tended to avoid the “exclusivity” associated with doctrinal particularity.  Here we get to the rub.  I winced at the number of times the book mentions a SBNR person talking with a United Methodist pastor who seemed to affirm the SBNR path:

Jack Campbell was another especially articulate interviewee.  As a child he had been a very active and conservative Catholic.  But now he was trying to live “hybridly,” considering himself “a decent Buddhist” but also involved in a United Methodist Church.  When he told the pastor about his dual allegiance, the pastor told him it did not matter, saying, “It’s a broad tent, and you decide.  I don’t decide.” (p. 105)

What, exactly, “does not matter?”  In what sense, does a pastor “not decide” the doctrinal leanings of a congregant?  Of course, no one can make a person believe a belief, but should a pastor abdicate the authority of the teaching role by this allegedly democratic reply?  I am aware that people explore affinities between Christian and Buddhist practices, but the implication that “all faiths teach basically the same thing” (i.e. the “broad tent”) – a point Professor Mercadante criticizes – is one a United Methodist pastor should not encourage.

This example raises another question.  Does a United Methodist clergy have the freedom to adopt this approach to pastoral ministry?  To teach in her or his parish or place of ministry doctrines that she or he thinks are true and good, even if they go contrary to United Methodist teachings?  (The Book of Discipline says no, but my purpose at this point is not to get into matters of accountability.)  I’m curious how this pastor got the idea that it does not matter that a member is both a practicing Buddhist and a United Methodist Christian and, further, that both systems fit within a (single) “big tent.”

And more to the point, should the denomination as a whole, represented by a qualified group tasked with clarifying and upholding United Methodist doctrine, have a stake in this pastor’s response?  I think the denomination does have a stake in what an individual United Methodist clergy teaches.  And I think we need a qualified body to help us clarify and promulgate United Methodist teaching, with the authority to say, “X is (or is not) what our church teaches. To be a member in good standing, one must accept and live by this teaching.”  We need more than mere assent to statements, of course, but, for starters, we need to (re)gain some clarity about what we believe and teach.

We have resources.  We have the ecumenical creeds.  We have the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.  We have the General Rules.  We have Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament.  And we have the Social Principles and, more distantly, the Book of Resolutions.  We have many resources to hand. What we don’t have is clarity with integrity.  We need help.  We need to extend beyond the Articles of Religion, etc. to get at other topics.  What are beliefs and practices that inhere in, that logically follow, from our doctrinal standards?  Not only what they are, but also how to rank them, so that we have some guidance on the relative importance of any given teaching, somewhat along the lines of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.

This undertaking will take time.  And patience.  And the fruit of the Spirit evident in those tasked with the job.  And Christian charity from the rest of us.

I wonder how the past forty years might have gone differently, had we had such a body in place.  I’m not talking about study commissions or committees.  We’ve had plenty of them.  I’m talking about something much more stable and long term, with people qualified in character and content.  Given the kind of polity we currently have, we won’t be a truly mature, mission-focused church until we also have something like a magisterium.


What We Would Still Face if United Methodism Holds

The Council of Bishops have gathered in Dallas for the latest round of discussions about United Methodism’s future.  We eagerly and anxiously await a word.  Many United Methodist are praying for wisdom for our leaders, for good outcomes, for unity.  In my daily prayer time, I pray for our bishops and other leaders.  As I was praying this morning, a thought came back to me.

Let’s say that, by some dramatic move of God, The United Methodist Church remains united. We come through the fire with new life.  Where would we stand in general?  What challenges would we face?

First, we still will need a core of doctrinal unity, a core that matters to all of us.  There is a deep reflex in United Methodism to downplay doctrine for the sake of mission.  I sometimes put it facetiously this way, “Yeah, we all know we love Jesus.  Let’s just go do something (good for the world).”  We should know by now that we cannot trade doctrine for mission.  They are inextricably bound together.

So, which doctrines?  Take Easter, for example.  What do we celebrate on Easter Sunday (and every other Sunday)?  The bodily resurrection of Jesus?  Do we believe – as a denomination – that Jesus “did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature…?”  (Article III of the Articles of Religion)

Either Jesus rose bodily from the grave (by the way, I’m NOT talking about resuscitation, but resurrection) or he did not.  If he did, then we think in radically new ways about the world, about human life and destiny, about reality.  If Jesus did not rise bodily from the grave, then we may have reason to honor his memory and teachings, but a dramatically different religion emerges than one proclaiming that God Incarnate died and rose again.

Yes, there is overlap in activity of course.  If you believe that Jesus rose from the grave, you still take his words to heart, “Just as you did it (or did not) to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40)  If you do not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the grave, but nevertheless came to show us the reign of God, you take these words to heart.  But the motive for doing so is different and the envisioned outcome – what we think we’re bearing witness to –  is entirely different.

Think of how the bodily resurrection affects our understanding of atonement.  How does the cross look if Jesus did truly rise from the dead or if he did not?  Is it God Incarnate hanging on a cross and dying for the world’s sins or is it the heroic death of a human filled with God consciousness?  Think of how this belief affects how we structure worship?  How we talk about all manner of faith questions.

There can be real value for people in a religion that does not understand Jesus to have risen bodily from the grave, but, whatever else it may be, it is not the faith once delivered to the saints and it is not in keeping with United Methodist doctrinal standards.  A future United Methodism will have to get very clear about basic points of dogma like this one.  Otherwise, we will repeat a very sad history.

Which leads to a further point: if we stay together, we still will need effective means of accountability and discipline for when we wander from our core beliefs and mission.  Any organization that does not have a good accountability measures is not worth joining.  If we want to win young people, we had better show them that we take our own stated beliefs seriously enough that we are willing to bench people for not keeping faith with our mission.  Otherwise, they won’t bother joining us, and why should they?  In a new United Methodist future, we will need to face this challenge squarely, courageously, lovingly, effectively.

Can we be flexible and generous?  Of course!  Accountability does not mean that we’re hellbent on kicking people out.  It means that we prove in practice that we believe what we say we believe.  If we really believe we serve God’s transforming mission, then discipline in light of that vision is a necessity.  It is too important a task to wander from it and act as if wandering doesn’t matter.  If we are lax in discipline, we bear witness to the world that we really don’t believe what we say we believe.  And that makes us not worth listening to.

Because of these first two reasons, we need, thirdly, to re-assert the critical role of the teaching office in the church.  In theological education, we need to teach rising pastors how to be good teachers.  Jesus was called “Teacher.”  Notice how often the Gospels refer to his teaching.  The pastoral letters remind us, as do others, that the teaching office is crucial for the health of the body.  Our pragmatist bent in United Methodist culture has been devastatingly bad for our members. My heart breaks when I teach about United Methodist beliefs and structures and hear someone say, “I’ve been a Methodist all my life and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”  If a rising pastor is not a dedicated and effective teacher (and there is a wide range of effective teaching styles and venues), that person should not be ordained to the office of elder.  We cannot dodge or delegate this responsibility.

I am praying for the healing of The United Methodist Church.  If we divide, I honesty don’t know what I’ll do.  Whether we split or don’t, we will still be left with the need for clarity about core beliefs/teachings/dogma and for courage in effectively holding ourselves accountable to the vision we believe God gave us.

The Sneaky Problem of Loving the World: A Lenten Meditation

We’re familiar with Jesus’ focus on motives as much as behavior in a number of his sayings in the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not enough that we don’t kill our brother or sister.  It also matters how we deal with our anger toward them.  It’s not enough not to hate an enemy.   We are commanded to love the enemy.  It’s not enough not to commit open adultery.  If we have lust in our hearts…

1 John 2:15 gets at a similar point:

Do not love the world or the things in the world.  The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world–the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches–comes not from the Father but from the world. (NRSV)

Motives matter.  Motives inevitably produce action.  John knows this.  He is dealing with a difficult pastoral situation.  There are antichrists in the neighborhood.  “They went out from among us,” (2:19) making their loyalties clear.  There is a clear moral dualism at work in the text.  We can love God or we can love the world.  Which we love will move us one way or another.

John 3:16 says that God so loved the world.  In John 15:18, Jesus reminds the disciples: If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  John 16:33 shows Jesus saying, “I have conquered the world.”  What is going on here?  The world (ho kosmos) is understood as a system of relationships and power that valorizes appearance over substance and a “get mine first” mentality that ironically makes people vulnerable to subjugation and control.  “The world,” therefore, is something that we don’t want to emulate or promote.

Christians are as prone as anyone to this problem.  “The world” is in the church.  Whereas we want to give ourselves a pass (“It’s really not as bad as it seems…”), the moral dualism of this scripture hauls us up short: If the love of the world, with all its lusts, is what controls our life, the love of the Father is not in us.

The sensitive souls among us start to worry about whether or not they actually love God.  They rifle through their ready-to-hand catalog of sins in order to figure out how they might be offending God.  I bless them and pray that they not worry overmuch, though I appreciate the sensitivity and responsiveness.

As usual, our concern is more with complacency.  The problem with complacency is that we can’t see our own problems.  Complacency is moral turpitude. I worry that we have so emphasized God’s love that we find it extremely difficult to recognize the power of sin at work among us.  We slip into a sleepy state of a sort not easy to recognize in our Christian subcultures.

Let me offer an example for the sake of discussion, one that I know personally.  Many years ago (the 1970s and into the ’80s), I participated as a young man in lay witness missions.  Eventually, a dear friend who became a real model to me – George Tittsworth (Tal, I’m thinking of you!) – asked me to serve as the leader of the youth section of the missions for which he was the director.  I did several such missions while I was a college student and they were indeed a blessing.  I learned from watching George lead his team.  He was a great role model.

So, what is a lay witness mission?  A local church decides they need spiritual renewal.  They ask a team leader (e.g. George) to bring a group of people to the church for a weekend of singing, worship, fellowship, small group sessions and testimony.  People on the team take turns sharing their stories of conversion, salvation, sanctification, healing, whatever, with members of the local body.  The point of the weekend is catalytic for revival.  There is no preaching, only sharing, to speak plainly and openly what God has done, is doing, in one’s life.  Most weekends resulted in great moments of joy, release, forgiveness, cleansing and renewal.

I began to realize that it was actually very easy to live for the exalted experience of these weekends, while in between them, one settles for sinful lassitude.  One can crave the experience (I was sometimes guilty and saw others guilty) over the actual work of God, who sparks the experience.  One seeks the high of the weekend, to get another boost, another spiritual “shot in the arm.”  Ironically, fixating on the experience competes with “taking up one’s cross daily,” making the weekend a stand-in for real discipleship.

Update the scenario and we find the same problem.  There is no shortage of opportunities to have this kind of experience: rallies, retreats, “Christian” cruises, you name it.  The rest of the time we’re OK with mediocrity.  Obviously, I’m not saying these events or opportunities are in and of themselves the problem.  No.   The problem is how we use them for ourselves, the opposite of what God wants.

Now, let’s see the problem clearly.  In the name of a holy God we turn something good into something evil, obviously not evil in the normal ways we think about “evil,” but in much more subtle, dangerous, ways.  We prey on holy moments for spiritually narcissistic ends.  As I ponder this problem I’m not sure I could find a better description of evil – to use the holy things of God for self-serving ends.

Do my words sound too harsh?  Judgmental?  Perhaps.  But I think a good dose of humility and hunger for truth is called for.  We should not be deceived and we desperately need to remember that God is not mocked.

It is a most salutary exercise for us to lay our motives before the merciful, holy God and ask for truth.  Just how much do we Christians love the world in the 1 John 2:15 sense and not the John 3:16 sense?  How much do we really love God rather than ourselves?  It takes some honesty and humility to get to a true answer.

The Peaceful Fruit of Righteousness

(I’m posting here my homily for today’s Ash Wednesday service at Southern Methodist University. It is based on two verses from Hebrews 12.)

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline (paideia). God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7)

“Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Her. 12:11)

I do not go to a concert to listen to the performers play scales, nor, I’m guessing, do you. But practicing scales for musicians is an essential part of their discipline. Practice of this sort frees them for the goal, which is, in one obvious sense, the performance, but in a larger sense, it is the music itself. We don’t go to concerts to hear performances. We go to hear music. Something ineffable, something transcendent happens, as we experience music.

Case in point: Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion singing “The Prayer” brings me to tears just about every time I hear it. If you know the song, there is a bridge in which the music rises and swells in crescendo while the singers voice these words, (which they sing in Italian):

“We dream a world without violence any longer, a world of justice and hope, every day near your hand, symbol of peace and fraternity.”

Of course, it’s much more beautiful in Italian and the force of the rhyme comes through:

Sogniamo un mondo senza più violenza
Un mondo di giustizia e di speranza
Ognuno dia la mano al suo vicino
Simbolo di pace, di fraternità

The skill of Bocelli and Dion is beyond question. Their discipline in developing their technique would be interesting to observe, but it’s the music that is their goal. Listening to them make music takes us out of ourselves to something more, something bigger.

We may be tempted to focus on the Lenten discipline, perhaps, too much as an end rather than the means, as if, like going over the scales again and again, the point of practicing was the practicing itself. We don’t practice the Lenten discipline for the sake of the discipline, crucial though it is. We observe Lent for something bigger, for, as this text calls it, the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

How do we bear this fruit?

Discipline. Discipline is the means. The end is righteousness. The Greek term for which “discipline” is the translation is a word familiar to educators. It is the word paideia, well-known in Greco-Roman culture as the education an aristocrat’s son would undergo to prepare to govern. The young one enters into paideia, undergoes the process, endures it. In a quite literal way, one suffers this discipline, using that word in the same sense as the one who does not suffer fools gladly. Paideia can be difficult and stressful, pushing the student beyond her preconceived limits.

Likewise with Christian discipleship. Paideia in our scripture, applied to the Christian community, keeps the basic meaning of the word and aims it toward God’s comprehensive will. Our paideia, our training, is for something bigger than just our own personal, spiritual benefit. As daughters and sons of God, our aim in the Christian life is perfect love, love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. The goal is love of God and neighbor, holiness of heart and life. The goal is conformity to the image of God for the sake of God’s purposes in the world.

In short, the goal of our Lenten discipline, indeed all our spiritual disciplines, is the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Righteousness is not just for us; it is intended as a blessing for others. Our keeping the discipline of Lent is as much for the world as it is for ourselves.

Discipline, though it is sometimes, even often, painful, is essential to the Christian life. Divine grace is the source of our strength, the reason we can stay faithful, but the discipline is essential. We are, as Saint Paul says, to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in us both to will and to do for God’s good pleasure, not ours.

And so, as you keep the Lenten discipline:

Perhaps as you fast from eating a meal, OR
If you abstain from some other activity (some of my friends “fast” from Facebook)…

…when you feel discouraged by the hassle of the Lenten discipline, when the way grows wearisome and you are tempted to break it, take the opportunity to pray for our campus. Pray that our students who undergo the paideia we create for them, would flourish. Students, may your keeping this discipline be a blessing to others.

May the goal of this scripture – the peaceful fruit of righteousness – be ours in abundance as we journey toward Easter’s victory.

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