Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

A Sermon At My Church

The following sermon was delivered at my church this past October:
A Question of Faith

Theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith was one of the first to note that, while there is considerable diversity in what people believe--in the content of people’s faith--that actually there’s remarkable similarity in the ways people do their believing. In their “faithing.” Actually, it was a few years later that James Fowler started talking about the importance of understanding the distinction between belief and faith--the distinction between what you give intellectual assent to, what you’re willing to say is the content, the tenets you’re willing to hold--and the way you live those in your life, the way you understand them.

What Smith said was that faith is deeper, richer, more personal than belief. It’s an orientation of the entire personality, an orientation to oneself, to our neighbors, to the universe. It’s a total response, a way of seeing whatever one sees, of handling whatever we have to handle. It’s a capacity to live at more than a mundane level, to see and to feel and to act in terms of a larger dimension.

Well. The nature of our faith.

Fowler, a theologian and sociologist of religion at Harvard, was the first one that I found who encouraged us to think of “faith” as a verb rather than a noun. Think of ourselves as “faithing.” We are faithing creatures, faith-filled beings.

And what he says is it doesn’t really matter whether a person even identifies with a religious tradition, that all humans have to engage in the central process of faithing, of forming beliefs and values and meanings that give some kind of coherence, some direction to our lives. That link us in trusts and loyalties with other people. That ground our personal stance and communal loyalties in some sense of relatedness to a larger frame of reference. That enables us to face and deal with the fact that we will all die. And to understand that in a context that gives meaning.

James Fowler, over twenty years ago now, was the first to help us understand that, like learning to walk, to talk, to read, to communicate, to love, faith development is a process with discernible movement and steps. It’s a process that we participate in from life until at least death. And, like all developmental tasks, our growth in our faithing is largely determined by what kind of nurturing we’ve received, by the nature of the relationships that we have with families and friends and society, the nature of our experiences, our opportunities, the communities in which we live, as well as our innate abilities.

So, just as there are distinct stages of development in psychosocial, sensory-motor, intellectual development, and Kohlberg and Gilligan demonstrated there are distinct stages in the development of moral judgment, James Fowler added stages of faith development to the list of human qualities that are currently understood to be developmental tasks. Have you ever thought of faithing as a developmental task? Hey, it is.

Faithing, says Fowler, is not only a central and necessary human activity, there are six identifiable basic stages of faith. And, just as intellectual, psychological, physical, emotional development can be arrested or delayed at many junctures by a wide variety of factors, so also faith development doesn’t automatically progress through all six stages. And being in the same faith community does not guarantee being in the same faithing stage. People can believe the same things and do their faithing very differently. Think of pro-choice nuns, for example.

And so, when we look around a congregation, let’s not assume that we all faith in the same way. Even though we may all espouse the same values and very similar belief systems.

The first stage is actually not one of sticks, because it’s called a “pre-stage”; it’s a primal stage, the infancy stage. It’s a prerequisite to all of the others, though, because it’s in that pre-verbal time that children develop a disposition, or don’t, toward trust, courage, hope, and love, and that’s largely based on their relationship with their caregivers.

The developmental dangers in this stage are twofold, as is true in most stages. It’s a failure of mutuality in either of two directions: excessive narcissism, in which the understanding of being the center of the world never leaves; and, on the other side, experiences of neglect or inconsistencies that can result in patterns of isolation and failed mutuality and will affect faithing throughout life.

The first verbal stage is early childhood. At this stage, children are not yet able to coordinate and compare two different perspectives on the same object--so they simply assume that whatever their personal experience is, whatever their perceptions are are the only ones. It’s the first time of self-awareness. Children are verbal, but they don’t separate magical thinking and dreams from reality. What’s logic got to do with it?

See, at this early stages of development, children can’t figure out cause and effect. We’ve all either been children or had children, right? Children at this age, in early development, may not only believe in Santa, they will believe that Santa literally comes down the chimney, and they may be very upset that you don’t have a fireplace. Seriously.

This is a stage, though, in which children come to understand that death exists, and that there are dangers in the world, and they be concerns about safety, security, power, powerlessness of the people that they rely on for protection. Start feeding into their understandings of universal power, powerlessness, and rules in the universe.

And long-lasting emotional orientations are formed in this stage. It’s the time that children undertake their first understandings of God, and generally their first images of God will be infused with all of the powerful forces that they have experienced from their caregivers.

The second stage, middle childhood and beyond.

We’re now entering stages, by the way--I didn’t tell you this little part, but it’s important to know--virtually every religious tradition has a modal stage, has a stage that they expect their adults to achieve and maintain. And different pressures are exerted for that to happen. Well, people will also join because that’s their way of faithing, the modal way. But there are huge layers of discomfort for people who profess the same beliefs but faith in different stages. Hold that.

So the next stage that normally isn’t developed ’til middle childhood and beyond is called “mythic literal.” A new thing happens in the brain at this age. (Our abilities, of course, tie in with everything.) Linear logic is added to children’s skill base. And for the first time children can think backwards, so cause and effect can be linked. You can’t link cause and effect unless you can think backwards. Okay?

So, also in this stage comes a real concern with fairness. Anybody got any eight- or nine-year-olds in the room? “It’s just not fair,” right? If God is anything, God is gonna be fair--he better be--somebody’s gotta be. No kidding.

And so, lots of other things may or may not be true. You may have some serious questions about Santa Claus really having to come down a chimney, but you know that Santa Claus is still real because the cookies get eaten. It’s true.

And so, at an adult stage, an adult operating from this stage of faith might know that there are lots of myths--but there’s no question about the literal truth of Mary’s virginity or the star or the stable or the inn or the wise men or the shepherds or the angels. It’s in the Bible.

So children might know that Santa didn’t purchase or wrap or actually deliver the presents, but he did eat the cookies. And creates a safe world--creates a safe world, folks; that’s what God does.

And Fowler coined the phrase “eleven-year-old atheists” for the children who have had to come to terms with the fact that bad things happen to good people and God does nothing about it. And that good things happen to bad people and that’s not fair. And if there’s not help in getting through that stage, children are at a place where the plates have shifted, folks, right underneath their living room.

Well, many fundamentalists and evangelical congregations do approach religion from a mythic-literal, Stage 3, perspective. Where there is logical thinking, but there is no lateral transition between the stories. Stage 3 faith is probably… Um, that was Stage 2, I’m sorry.

Stage 3, “synthetic-conventional,” usually happens in adolescence and beyond, and this is the modal stage for most mainline religious traditions, across belief systems. It’s the faith that is most commonly developed in adolescence.

At this stage, people begin to work on understanding and articulating the content of faith. They can use, now, abstract concepts, and young people begin to think about their thinking, and to reflect upon their stories, and we see an emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective. “I see you seeing me. I see the ‘me’ that I think that you see in me.” Interminable discussions. How long can an adolescent telephone conversation be? Deep meaning. Powerful peer interactions. New ways of understanding mutuality. An identity and belief and values are so strongly felt, even when they contain contradictory elements, and the ideology and the worldview is lived--is it lived, oh my God, is it lived--and it’s not a matter of critical and reflective articulation.

Authority still tends to be external, but the evaluations of others in the peer or faith groups are major determinants of our behavior and our faithing. This stage is dependent on others for confirmation and clarity, and the danger of this stage is what’s called “the tyranny of ‘They’,” of denying personal experience to maintain group identity.

But the emergeoning strength at this time is the formation of a personal myth that brings past and future and hope together. And people from all faith traditions operate from all faith stages; there’s communal pressure in most religious traditions to operate from this stage of faith.

But when you leave home, figuratively or literally, there’s often a catalyst, a shifting of tectonic plates right underneath your living room floors, and what you thought you could trust, you can’t trust anymore.

Thus opens Stage 4, which will not probably surprise you to know, is the modal faith, faithing position for Unitarian Universalists, according to Fowler. I tend to agree with him--I see it shifting.

What happens is that two important things must occur for this stage to open to people. First, the previous tacit system of beliefs and values and commitments has to be critically examined. And second, the self that was previously constituted and sustained by its roles and relationships must struggle with questions of identity and worth separate from those previously defining connections.

This is when people take responsibility for their own commitments, their lifestyles, their beliefs, their actions--both as separate from everybody else and as part of a community that’s larger than our immediate circle of church or family.

This is the stage of demythologizing--do you remember it? Do you remember taking apart things that you used to know were true, absolutely?

This is the stage of excessive reliance on cognitive functions and the conscious mind. This is the stage of
[growled] rationalism. People in Stage 4 faith development tend to find that the symbols or the words that evoke memories of a non-literal religious truth to be actually offensive--because a story is either true or not true, and if it’s not true, i.e., historically factual, then it shouldn’t be told. That’s pretty simple, isn’t it?

And people in this stage often exhibit frankly overt hostility when they are exposed to religious symbols, rituals, myths, stories, or religious language. They often experience religious trappings as dangerous weapons that are used to lure the un[w]ary into illogical and sometimes damaging beliefs--the beginning of a slippery slope.

And so, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of friction between people in Stage 3 and Stage 4. How was it for you when you went home and explained to, many of you, your families that you were a Unitarian Universalist? They see it as a betrayal, and intentionally hurtful.

Well, I’m going to quote Fowler directly, so that this can’t be blamed on me:
These persons are often unaware of the sharp limits of their empathy and their abilities to construct and identify with the interior feelings and processes of others. Religiously, these persons are often drawn to the rigidities and seemingly unambiguous teachings of fundamentalism--and there are liberals and radical fundamentalist spirits. As spouses, parents and bosses, such persons are, at the best, insensitive, and at the worst, rigid, authoritarian, and emotionally abusive.
And this is the modal stage that we expect our adults to attain.

That’s at its worst. At its best--at its best we understand things in a new perspective. At our best, we bring our critical minds, and we bring them together in community, and we are self-correcting and loving and in our differences.

But that’s Stage 4; there are two stages left to come.

“Conjunctive faith,” Stage 5, as the name suggests, implies a re-joining, a union of much that has been suppressed in the previous stage. Things that we have not recognized in the reliance on critical thought and the attendant self-certainty.

I want to point out at this point that Stage 3, the modal stage for most religions, can be seen as a pivot point, because the rigidity fundamentalism that outsiders perceive in Stage 4--absolutely unwarranted, of course--looks very much like the certainty of the fundamentalisms that we see in Stage 2.

What happens in Stage 5 is that the confident clarity about the boundaries of self and faith that we worked so hard to achieve have to be relinquished. Faith learns to maintain tensions between multiple perspectives and doesn’t collapse them in one direction or another. It marks a movement beyond demythologizing--what Paul Ricoeur calls a “second” or “willed naiveté.”

People in the conjunctive stage of faith are manifesting a readiness to enter into rich dwellings of meanings that symbols and ritual and myth offer. An openness to the truths of other religious and faith traditions. I quote Fowler again when he says that this transition begins with:
what ... feel[s] like anarchic and disturbing inner voices. Elements from a childish past, images and energies from a deeper self, a gnawing sense of the sterility and flatness of the meanings that one [is] serv[ing] .... [And s]tories, ... [and] myths, [and] paradoxes from one’s own or others’ traditions insist on breaking in on the neatness of the previous faith.
There’s a reclaiming, a reworking, a new kind of faithing. And logic becomes dialectic--it results in “both and” rather than “either or” answers, and commitment to justice transcends boundaries of race or class or nationality. And people in this stage develop an ironic imagination that grasps a vision of what can be but isn’t yet. It lives in an untransformed world and tries to maintain both--the simultaneous view of many facets of all issues. The universe is understood as organically related, and people look for patterns and relatedness rather than trying to force-fit data into a previous mindset.

At this level of faithing, people can enter into virtually any tradition’s religious festival with an openness to receive whatever truths are convincing and comfortably leave behind the parts of the tradition that don’t speak to truth or to their conscious or unconscious mind. There’s a readiness for significant encounters with other religious traditions.

Ah--but. From a Stage 4 perspective, Stage 5 and Stage 3 look the very same. People moving into Stage 5 faithing patterns sing old hymns, use “God” talk, are comfortable with symbols and myths, and for all the world they “look like backsliders to me.” “We left all that stuff behind.”

And so what we’re experiencing specifically, I want to say, in Unitarian Universalist congregations everywhere, when the passions rise about “language of reverence”--or “may the love of God surround you”--is the fact that Stage 4 was a needed and progressive faith for the modern age. The advances in technology and life and caring and justice required that kind of critical acumen. But folks, the dawning of this millennium has made clear that the modern age is already history. We’re in the postmodern age. And what’s needed in this age, and where people’s faithing is moving--I’m here to tell you it’s moving, folks, did you not recognize us in the larger embrace, the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part; come on, what kind of a myth is that?

What’s happening is we are in transition. From Stage 4 modal faith to Stage 5, and I’ll tell you, this world is hungry for this, and are we. It’s a time for gentleness and care.

Oh, you want to know what Stage 6 is? Most of them get killed. It’s called “universalizing faith.” What happens then is they’ve broken through the bonds. For all the world, they look like Stage 1 faith. They’re beyond what anybody can tell them about what is or what isn’t because they know, they know in their hearts, in their souls, in their bodies, and they’re not afraid. And they become martyrs. They’re the Martin Luther King Jrs. of the world, they’re the Jesuses of the world, the Gandhis of the world. There aren’t many of them. We have a way of doing away with them.

Like all developmental tasks, transitions in faith development are seldom smooth passages, folks. There are awkward times when our knowledge has grown, but our emotions haven’t been able to adjust to our new understandings. There are times when we just want to stay where we are--where we are comfortable. And all of these darn new ideas keep breaking into our consciousness, and it feels like we are being dragged into a new world that we never asked for and that we will not enjoy.

Life has been compared to a book with many chapters. And sometimes we’ll put a book on the shelf before we’ve finished reading it, and other books we’re going to rush through without allowing time for reflection or appreciation, and some books we’ll just skim or only read specific selections, and some books are so delicious, we will savor every page and return to that feast time and time again. And the normal progression in a book is from beginning to end, but it’s unlikely that any two people ever read the same book with exactly the same understandings.

Our faith development is never purely a private affair, folks; we live in our faithing in community. We set our modal stage of faithing. We decide what our expectations of normal adulthood faithing look like. And it’s difficult to grow beyond, and yet remain part, of a group that sets a limit on our faithing--especially one that “affirms and promotes spiritual growth in our members and our congregations.”

And many of us come from traditions we felt that we had outgrown--and those communities were not the least bit distressed to see us leave, were they?

Well, at what point have people gone too far in our communities? Each stage of faith has a developmental nature of its own. Newcomers bring their inner struggles from a previous stage, and they’ll exhibit hostility toward all reminders of that stage and to people engaged in that stage. And in the later parts of stage, it’s common for people to show dissatisfaction in the limitations of the stage they’re outgrowing.

Remember: People of differing religious traditions, operating from the same faithing stance, have more in common than people in the same religious tradition operating from different faithing positions.

Do you ever think there might be a fault line passing underneath your living room, that your life, already spilling over at the brim, could be invaded, sent off in a new direction, turned aside by forces that you were warned about but not prepared for? And when the great plates slip, and the earth shivers, and the flaw is seen to lie in what you trusted most, look not to more solidity to save your fractured order. Trust more the tensile strands of love that bend and stretch and hold you in the web of life that’s often torn but always healing, for there’s your strength. The ground on which we walk together.
I'll put my written reaction to the sermon in my next post.


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