One of my favorite subscriptions is a weekly called The Spong Newsletter. It’s distributed by ProgressiveChristianity.org, which I suspect is on the Forbidden to Read List for some Christian sects.
On March 9, David Felten, a Methodist pastor with a congregation in Fountain Hills, Arizona, published “How to Repeal and Replace Christianity’s Addiction to ‘Fake News’ and ‘Alternative Facts.’” He lays out the problems and then suggests a solution that quotes from James Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith (Harpercollins, 1981). I find these six stages very interesting because they answer some basic questions for me, such as why so many people, many well educated, seem stuck in fundamentalist thinking about Christianity.
Fowler suggests that the six stages of growth in our lifespan are similar to the stages of our spiritual development, but they don’t necessarily happen concurrently. For instance, it is possible to be thirty-five years old—or any age—with only Stage Two growth as a believer.
In Stage One, preschool, basic ideas are shaped primarily by parents and authority figures. My Roman Catholic (RC) priest friend tells me: “Give me a child before five years old, and I’ll give you a Catholic for life.” I find that true. Even though a Catholic might come to our church (because they are divorced, excommunicated, or a member of the LGBTQUI community), RC doctrine is deeply engrained in their beliefs.
During Stage Two, kindergarten through sixth grade, logic starts to develop, but children still have a tendency to look at life through very literal eyes. If the Bible says Jesus walked on water, then Jesus walked on water, even though it defies gravity and the laws of nature. Because fundamentalists take everything in the Bible literally, they never have a chance to grow in their belief system. Getting stuck in Stage Two can also happen to Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and members of other Christian sects. I find it extremely difficult to have a discussion with fundamentalists unless they break away and start to think on their own. At that stage, they are usually shunned by their previous community.
Stage Three is comparable to teen years when belonging is often more of a factor than the doctrine of a specific church. During the early stages of my teen years, I believed what the church told me to believe, and it worked because I wanted to belong to that church. When I went away to college, my belief system changed radically. I then believed that all the beliefs of the church were silly, and I threw the baby (Jesus) out with the bathwater (the dogma of the institutional church).
Stage Four is when our critical thinking skills confront our belief system. In my case, my critical thinking skills won—temporarily. Then, during a very trying time in the Marine Corps (it’s called “foxhole religion”), I realized that I had thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Not only did I do an about-face but I also had this burning desire to go to seminary to see if I could blend my critical thinking skills with my beliefs. It seemed to work until my second year in seminary, when events moved me into the next stage.
Stage Five, comparable to midlife chronologically, began for me when that fire engine broadsided me and killed my buddy Brad instantly. A priest asked me, “What did you and Brad do to deserve this?” I asked that priest to leave my hospital room immediately and to take his theistic god with him.
I then started Stage Six, which is a rare opportunity to continually search for truth while at the same time being able to serve my fellow humans in every way possible.
I have two questions for you:
- What stage are you in?
- Is this where you really want to be?