Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Enter Stage Four

So, having reached a place in life where things no longer fit neatly into nice, simple black-and-white categories, where does that leave a person? Being pushed out of the comfortable insularity of Stage Three faith can be so disquieting that some people choose to take a step backward and forgo further growth in favor of holding onto the security of clearly-defined boundaries and allowing those in authority to provide the answers to life's difficult questions.

But is that really a life worth living? Moving on into Stage Four may be optional for most, but the consequence of rejecting growth is a life of wasted potential. God will work with us wherever we're at; if we cannot function without being told exactly what to do with no room for ambiguity, he'll oblige us, just as a parent will give a five-year-old a different set of instructions than she'd give to a twelve-year-old. But the twelve-year-old will get opportunities to experience life and interact with the world that the five-year-old could never conceive of.

Not that an individual in Stage Four really has any basis for feeling superior to those still in Stage Three. We're all still children in our own way, and just as prone to error; we simply have a different set of pitfalls to work our way around. Stage Four can be a wilderness of uncertainty and doubt. God can seem very distant and unattainable at times, and the promises that once comforted us can seem cold and empty.

The process of establishing one's identity separate from the groups that used to define it can lead to further estrangement as others still in those groups react with fear and hostility. Stage Four brings with it a desire for authenticity and independent decision-making, and a drive to integrate the different faces that one used to put forward in different settings. Such a push for autonomy and nonconformity tends to go over poorly in most groups, and so Stage Four individuals often find themselves largely (if not completely) on their own.

I feel very fortunate to have friends that I can express my questions and doubts to as I've begun the process of coming out of the closet and questioning the church's stance on homosexuality (among other things). Even so, there's coming a point where I will probably have to let go of certain relationships, including some that have been a part of my life for a very long time. I have no idea what my life will look like when I emerge from this season of redefinition, and that quite frankly scares me.

All the same, I can no more go back to what I was (has it really only been a year and a half?) than a butterfly can crawl back into its cocoon. All I can do is continue putting one foot in front of the other until I find out what lies further down the road.


Anonymous said...

I'm at a similar stage in life, having entered 'stage four' earlier this year. The few months around making that decision were somewhat traumatic, but I feel more settled now.

I have had similar awkwardness with those I know who are still in the church. On the whole, most don't want to know the details of why my faith has changed and why I've dropped my involvment with numerous church activites. They'd rather I just got back to where I was, but I know that a return to 'stage three' just isn't going to happen.

Of those who know I'm gay, a few assume that I'm leaving my former faith because I'm gay. I can't deny that the acrimonious debate in the church on 'gay issues' has been one of the prompts to reassess my wider faith, but my changes in faith have stemmed from other doubts - and it is sometimes difficult to make them understand that.

It is more difficult to explain my faith changes to my gay Christian friends, as they have been so supportive in my 'coming out' phase. I've no wish to undermine their faith, but (as with being gay) I think I'm getting past the phase of covering up the truth of who I am, and what I think, merely to make others feel more comfortable.

I read about Fowler's faith stages in the book 'Churchless Faith', and the related New Zealand group Spirited Exchanges is doing a bit to raise resources for those venturing into stage four and beyond.

They are hoping to get groups going in the UK too, and I'd probably go if I could find one. I'm not sure if there's anything like that in the USA yet?

Eugene said...


Thanks for the link. Spirited Exchanges looks like it was inspired (at least in part) by the emerging church movement that's continuing to grow in the United States. That movement is still in its infancy, but it gives me hope that I'll be able to find a place in the church when all of this is over.

Good luck in your own journey!