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Stages of Faith

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Apr 23 2017


I have preached – and heard preached – more sermons on doubt than I may ever have on faith. Reflections upon this Eastertide lesson, in our liberal churches, mainly celebrate Thomas as something of the patron saint of critical thinkers and the skeptical minded. To an extent, this is as it should be. For one thing, the scripture hardly lends itself to heavy-handed exhortations to believe-or-so-help-me: Thomas distrusts not Christ, but the other disciples, whom no one would say had demonstrated themselves to be pillars of faithfulness in the unfolding of Jesus’ final days. Why should Thomas accept the reports of those whose credibility as reporters was compromised? And anyway, he asks for no more by way of proof – if you want to call it that – than was already provided to those in the upper room; Thomas wants to see the risen Christ as all the others had seen the risen Christ. So it is a bit of stretch to find fault with him, though, of course, historically, a stigma has attached to so-called ‘Doubting Thomas’ all the same. Fundamentalists and those sorts do use this story to shame folk with questions into keeping quiet – which is perhaps another fine reason for making and making again the point that, to the contrary, questioning does one’s Christianity good. As it has been said, ‘doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.’1 They make us lively of soul. 

So I am on record: doubting, wondering, questioning, wrestling, pushing back against some or other received truth that to you does not have the ring of truth – yahoo! That being said, I wonder: what about belief? Is there – as Nick Kristof of the New York Times has been asking prominent religious personalities – is there a bare minimum one must believe in order to ‘count’ as a Christian? Should we strive to come to peace with the constellation of ideas called orthodoxy? Are these ways of thinking about God that have been handed down to us by the Church good for anything? Or can doctrines and the like only ever be constraining? Do they necessarily confine us and deny our spiritual imaginations their full power? Would we all be better off if we did not bother with creeds and dogma and catechisms and whatnot? In mostly dodging (!), but maybe gesturing toward an answer, I want to suggest that there are better and worse ways of believing, as also there are better and worse ways of doubting. How we believe and how we doubt matter more than the fact that we believe or that we doubt. Beliefs and doubts both can open us up or close us off, can enlarge or diminish religious life. Believing and doubting alike can be acts of worship or acts of unfaithfulness. Which it is depends a great deal on who we are and where we are on our journeys with God. 

James Fowler taught for many years at Emory University. He applied categories from developmental psychology – the ‘roadmaps’ that describe how humans mature, how we move through fairly predictable phases of change: infancy with its attendant cognitive and social challenges, childhood with its attendant cognitive and social challenges, so on and so forth – he applied this thinking to faith: how we come to have it and how we grow in it. Three of what Fowler calls ‘the stages of faith’2, that is, three of the fairly predictable phases of change we might move through as religious people, feel helpful to me here. In the first stage I will mention, ‘conventional faith’ as he puts it, our work is to situate ourselves in the broader world of spiritual experience, to answer the question, who are we?, to know ourselves as being this and not that, as believing that and not this – basically, to form a durable religious identity. Because the work of knowing who we are requires, in part, knowing who we are not, often in this ‘stage’, we are mainly concerned with conforming to the standards and expectations of our communities. It is made clear what being ‘one of us’ means. We must hold tight to ‘our way’ of being church and believing, or else ‘our way’ of being church and believing will never take hold. Divergent and conflicting viewpoints cannot be accommodated because there is not yet a developed conceptual infrastructure capable of accommodating them. Conservative religion does this stage really well. Some might say that conservative religion does this stage too well, that conservative religion puts all their eggs in this one basket, and that their sometimes inflexible attachment to moral and theological norms hold people back from journeying onward to the next stage, what Fowler calls ‘reflective faith.’ Think of this phase as something like spiritual adolescence. Our work is to differentiate ourselves from the families and families of faith which formed us. We are answering the question, who am I? Nothing quite makes sense anymore. We seek our own way. We react, we rebel against what we had always taken for granted. We question and we doubt, and if our questions and doubts find no welcome, we rage. (In all this, remember: what might feel like a loss of faith can be, quite the opposite, a sign that our faith is maturing.)

Liberal religion, religion like we practice it at Old South, does this stage really well. Some might say that liberal religion does this stage too well, that liberal religion, religion like we practice it at Old South risks freezing people in a spiritual adolescence where we become a bit too comfortable with discomfort, where we indulge and cherish and coddle and indeed protect and defend our doubting and our not knowing with – ironically – a dogmatism of non-dogmatism. It is easy for us to see how conservatives’ clinging to beliefs it is high time that they outgrow closes them off; it is not so easy for us to see how liberals’ clinging to cynicism and skepticism it is high time that we outgrow, closes us off. But it can, reveling for too long with too juvenile a delight in our rebellion against moral and theological norms, continuing on with the combativeness and self-assertive air of a teenager forever and ever amen can close us off to what awaits us in the next ‘stage’, what Fowler calls ‘conjunctive faith’ – where, again, we are asking the question, who are we? This phase is, as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur might say, a sort of ‘second naiveté’; it is what the poet T.S. Eliot described in his wonderful line – ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ A ‘conjunctive faith’ pulls together the assurances of spiritual childhood and the uncertainties of spiritual adolescence and integrates this, the whole of this, the deep longings and learnings of our lives, into a generous, strong, adult Christianity unthreatened by mystery and paradox, by the confounding, astounding ‘both/and’. The universe is re-enchanted as we live with wonder and awe, finally incapable as we are of assimilating the vastness of all that is into our own small minds. We again come to feel humility – humility before the very God in whose face we have shaken our fists.

As a congregation and as a denomination, we have taken it as our mission to help people transition from the first to the second of these stages; all the while, though, we must be accomplishing our own transitions from the second to the third. Because we spend a lot of time together in worship on the former, on accompanying those who need fresh air after often heartbreaking experiences with mean-spirited, toxic religiosity, I want to close with a word – more of an image, really – that I hope might speak to those of us at a different place on the Christian pilgrimage, those of us who may be drawn to reengage the more earnest, trusting, heartfelt, homey faith we set to the side some time ago. Doctrines and creeds and ‘official’ church teachings – all the stuff, although it is rarely said so baldly, all the stuff we are or think we are supposed to believe – this just feels oppressive. The perceived ‘supposed to’ and ‘have to’ quality of some beliefs can be enough to make us dubious or nervy or resentful right off the bat, you know: rules, rules, rules! In the United Church of Christ, there is a saying that doctrines and creeds and such are not tests of faith but testimonies of faith. That is, they relate not what you should believe but rather only what some have believed. It is all subjective; you can take them or leave them. This is right, but do you see how it addresses primarily the spiritual concerns of those just moving into the second stage who need permission to question and space to differentiate? And how it has little to offer those looking ahead to the third stage, those who are beginning to imagine that capital-T Truth might be out there, beyond us, yes, but actually communicating itself to us? I leave you instead with the image, the metaphor (not perfect by any means) of doctrines, creeds, beliefs, what have you as medicines.3

Certain ideas about God will make you sick; they are poison, and we know this. People die because of them. But other ideas about God bring healing and alleviate suffering – as in medicine, not always, not for every last one of us in every situation irrespective of circumstance and particulars – but often and predictably enough that we commend them in confidence. You might be allergic to an idea about God, an idea about God that is otherwise known to be a comfort and a balm; it would be unwise and dangerous to push that on you. I would not do this. Even so, the widespread, saving benefits to others of that idea about God mean we cannot abandon it altogether. This would be equally unwise and dangerous. And I would not do this, either.4 There is a ‘soft objectivity’ here, there is more than the merely subjective: some ideas about God do their curative work – regularly, reliably, as anticipated, as tested across time; because of these ideas about God, spiritual wellness and flourishing occur. We see this. We can be said to know this. But fidget too much with too many of these ideas about God at too inopportune a moment, and, 9.9 times out of 10, the possibility of a vibrant, healthy religious life starts looking less likely. We see this. We can be said to know this, too. The Church takes such great care with its ideas about God because they are powerful remedies for what ails our spirits, because they can be the difference between life and a living death, because, on the whole, again, granting that there are always exceptions, the Church’s ideas about God are good for us, because, through believing, as the scripture from John concludes, through believing we may have life. 

1 From Frederick Buechner, in his Wishful Thinking.

2 For those familiar with Fowler’s work, it will be clear that I have omitted mention of three other of his stages; discussion of them will have to wait for another sermon!

3 The medicinal or curative power of doctrine is an idea developed by my teacher and friend Ellen Charry; two of her books, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine and God and the Art of Happiness were very influential in my own thinking.

4 What appeals to me about the analogy from medicine is that a progressive, ever-evolving, forward-looking orientation is counter-balanced by a kind of conservatism, a cautiousness, a great care to subject our ideas about God to ‘rigorous clinical trials’, so to speak. For human souls are complex things, and we should take whatever time it takes to ensure the ‘side effects’ of our theological innovations are not themselves inappropriately harmful. As with FDA trials for radical new treatments, this intentionally slowed-down manner of proceeding will, of course, feel to those in direst need too much so. Nonetheless, it does seem to me the most prudent and sustainable course.