Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Exit Stage Three

Earlier this year a friend of mine introduced me to James Fowler's theory about the different stages of faith. Fowler views faith as a dynamic process that takes on different forms as we enter different life stages. My friend's summary of Fowler's work can be downloaded in Word format here. It's been very helpful to me as I've sought to understand why I no longer fit in with the majority of Christians (in general, not just in terms of my personal life issues).

In a nutshell, Fowler lays out six developmental stages that people (regardless of their specific belief system) move through over the course of their life. Few ever reach Stage Six, and many never progress beyond Stage Three.

Stages One and Two are reached early in life as a child learns how to interact with the world around him (or her). Although a few individuals go through life stuck in Stage Two, the vast majority eventually move on into Stage Three.

In Stage Three, individuals develop their own worldviews, but those beliefs are still heavily dependent on the values and expectations of those around them, and tend to go largely unexamined. These beliefs are nonetheless very strongly adhered to, and people in Stage Three tend to be very loyal to the organizations they affiliate with.

Some additional features of Stage Three faith:
-The world is viewed largely in black-and-white, either/or terms.
-Individuals are primarily concerned with living up to the expectations of God and other authority figures, and with conforming to the norms of the groups they are associated with.
-One's identity is derived from one's affiliations and can't be fully conceptualized apart from those ties.
-Conflict and disagreement are seen as threatening and dangerous.

Having moved into Stage Four in my own life (more on that in another post), I find it very frustrating to try to communicate with Stage Three individuals. It's very helpful to realize that this is simply where they are in life, and that it's neither bad nor good - it just is. Unfortunately that understanding is almost never reciprocated, since few people in Stage Three can conceive of the need for a Stage Four, much less view it as valid or as anything less than a direct attack on everything that's good and proper. The best I can do is maintain relationships where I can and pray that they eventually move on to Stage Four in their own lives (and that they don't go off the deep end when they do).

For the same reason, I can barely stand to set foot in most churches anymore, since all but a few cater to the Stage Three majority and have very little tolerance for questions that can't be satisfied by the simple, pat answers they provide to their congregations. I've been fortunate to be situated in contexts where I can question and challenge without being branded a heretic, but far too few people in Stage Four have that luxury. Most leave the church altogether, and I really can't say that I blame them.

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