Since I’ve started this blog, half a dozen people or so have respectfully asked where I am in my faith. The following is an account of how I even begin understand that question. 

Stage 1: Images (Intuitive-Projective Faith)

The hole on the other end of the bathtub glares at me, taunting me. He laughs a gurgling, sucking-laughter as the water retreats in fear, leaving me defenseless.

I don’t know what hell is, but I know this hole is the portal to it.

The Sunday school teacher gently rakes her hands through the sand in the plastic box on her lap. She is telling us a story about the ancient desert world of the Bible. She talks about a man named Abraham, and how he is my father. I don’t really know what that means, but I like the sound of the sand and the shape of the wooden figurines she places in it.

Sunday school is filled with laughter, graham cracker snacks, colorful characters on a felt board, sandboxes, and shiny gold gift-boxes that the teacher calls “parables.” Church is when I lay on the wooden floor and army crawl beneath the pews. I like when they sing, because that’s when I can let my Ninja Turtles battle. If I ever have to sit through a sermon, I will tell my dad that I really need to go to the bathroom. If I concentrate I can make sure that’s not a lie, and then I’ll be free to take a walk and play among the coats in the hall way. Most of the time he assures me that I can hold it, so I plug and unplug my ears for the eternity of the pastor’s sermon and listen to a strange undulation in the his voice.

My mom asks me after McDonald’s if I want to ask Jesus into my heart. It sounds like a good idea. She tells me how to do it and I feel loved and safe. Jesus would never let me go down the drain.

Stage 2: Narratives (Mythic-Literal Faith)

Every morning, the teacher invites us to share prayer requests and whenever I could remember I would ask my teacher to pray for my grandpa who wasn’t a Christian. One day when I forgot, a friend across the room raised his hand and said, “I would like to ask for prayer for Chris’s grandpa, that he would become a believer.” True friends pray for the salvation of each others’ grandpas.

In the dimmer light of the evening Sunday service the pastor would pass the microphone to anyone who wanted prayer. Some prayed for work as they had recently been laid off. Others shared about parents battling cancer. Some had lost a home to a fire. Others shared thanksgiving for an unexpected conversation about Jesus with their next-door neighbor. Feeling like I understood the context enough, I raised my hand. The pastor passed the mic and out poured the cry of my soul: “My lips hurt” (pronounced “mwai lipth hwot”).

Having shared my soul with mic in hand and lips on fire, as usual, I didn’t know why everyone was laughing. My dad took the mic and explained to the congregation that I had a nervous habit of licking my lips, causing me a significant amount of discomfort.

By the time I made it to 1st grade, I knew what to pray for. I would pray that Sally would fall in love with me, that I wouldn’t get in serious trouble during the school day, and that I wouldn’t– please, for the love of God!– poop my pants.

Stage 3: Concrete Symbols (Synthetic-Conventional Faith)

Bible camp before I enter into 8th grade: I win camper of the week. I am kind and caring to everybody. I don’t join in on the crude jokes of my bunk mates (confession– I would have been the leader of the crude jokes if my middle-school friends had been there with me), and not only do I know the narrative of Jesus and his sacrifice, I believe it and I own it.

I joined our PCA church that year, and I knew nearly every question in our fill-in-the-blank communicant members’ packet: I could define sanctification, justification, and propitiation; I could provide a defense for the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible; I knew what I needed to know about the Trinity, that it was mysterious and that that was very important to understand.

Instead of making out, I prayed with my first girlfriend on the soccer field, and I led a worship band at school. We sang reformed songs, theologically rich hymns from the 1800s set to folksy guitar chords and catchy melodies. I made sure I always had my capo. I prayed that God’s will would be done even if I couldn’t understand it, and I wrote letters to my next girlfriend about the “peace that surpasses understanding.”

I dreamed of God as a straight steel beam extending either way into eternity. Nothing you did could bend the beam, tilt it, or move it. Perfectly straight. Perfectly fixed.

The symbols of my faith were all fixed and concrete– concrete fixtures in a concrete fortress without any cracks. My calling was clear: now that I know the fortress, my job will be to protect it. Only pity the person whose fortress falls apart.

Stage 4: Disassembly (Individuative-Reflective Faith)

Where does a crack come from? Concrete is heavy, strong, and fixed, but even it can’t resist morphing and flexing when the temperature changes.

Was it the countless unthinking comments that well-meaning Christians gave in response to our longing for what seemed natural? So many reminders of the faithfulness of the Sarahs, the Hannahs, and the Rachels in the Bible. Why would God command us to be fruitful and multiply if he made us infertile?

Was it the thought that maybe God would send people who are living in hell into a worse hell because they didn’t have a White Western middle-class upbringing like me?

Was it from wondering what is so good about the gospel in the church play where Jesus stands center Stage aglow with glory ready to receive the shrieking daughter whose mother is dragged off by ravenous demons stage left?

Nwoye from Things Fall Apart had the image of mutilated babies in the bushes. I had the consistent and telling silence in response to my questions: questions about when is the Bible metaphorical and when is it to be taken literally? Why do some churches care so much about keeping women out of leadership, but do not require them to wear head coverings? Why are we so intense about Leviticus 20:13–about men lying down with men–and yet care so very little about Leviticus 20:18 (are pastors ensuring that they don’t schedule weddings during the bride’s menstruation?). And why, of course, are we not selling all that we have and giving to the poor?

It’s the suspicion that what is being said and what is deeply and truly believed are completely different things. The thought that maybe the Christianity I thought I knew was all along either one big chauvinistic power move, or at least an ignorant and naive prop in the hands of chauvinists who care nothing for unborn babies, their mothers, or the teachings of Jesus.

The thought that behind all of this bullshit there is really no God, there is no righteousness, justice, or peace–just rapacious political power or selfish psychological comfort. This, with the dismay that many evangelicals since November have had no intention of proving me wrong.

Stage 5: Dialogic Resurrections (Conjunctive Faith)

Just how far does the arm of resurrection reach? Do you see the ruins of my faith? A once imposing concrete fortress now a heap of ashes and dust. The death of a body. The death of belief. The death of God himself.

Some believe that the material bodies of the deceased stay dead forever, completely gone from this world. “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die.” Instead, their spirit floats to heaven, no longer imprisoned in our weary world. Cold comfort for the grieving, if you ask me.

So Lazarus, a question for you: What did you think Ezekiel in the valley meant when he described sinews and flesh collecting on the dry bones? A metaphor for your people’s political power? An image of the end times? A symbol of your personal salvation? Did you ever imagine you’d enflesh the vision, that you would be living proof that spilt water, under rare circumstances, can return back to its vessel?

Please stop asking me what it is I believe. You do believe in the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible, though, right? You do believe in Jesus, right? You still believe in the need for the forgiveness of sins– you do believe there is such a thing as sin, don’t you? 

I haven’t really surveyed all of the rubble to know what’s survived. Like the dove’s olive branch to Noah when his world was laid waste, I find a scrap of scripture that God (who may or may not be who I think he is) spoke to Ezekiel (who also may or may not be who I think he is):

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.”

“Okay,” I say to the Lord who may or may not be the Lord, “I’ll hold you to that.”

Stage 6: The Apostle Paul (Universalizing Faith)

The Apostle Paul– God love him– sometimes comes across as rather arrogant, sometimes dangerous, and often downright obnoxious. The whole “women ought to keep silent in church” thing feels a little icky, even for many conservatives. “Therefore,” Paul has the audacity to write, “I urge you to imitate me just as I imitate Christ.” And it can make some rather nervous that Paul says, “hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

In his defense, I think Paul’s rough edges are cast in the worst light when we assume that Stage 3 Faith is the pinnacle of spiritual maturity. Paul, it would seem, never stopped being a pharisaical bigot; he just converted his bigotry to “the right team.” When people use Paul’s words as mortar for their concrete fortresses of faith, there is no end to the terrorism they can justify.

Others may see Paul as a man writing from the vantage point of Stage 4, deconstructing his pharisaic fortress, unmasking the legalism and rigid structure of all things Jewish. He searched the doctrines of circumcision, dietary laws, and sabbath observance and found them wanting. Dismantling all the superficial trappings of law and ritual, Paul calls for an authentic Christianity of the heart.

But Paul, despite what some may believe, probably wasn’t such an anti-Semite. But to solve the inconsistencies here, some see Paul as a Stage 5 relativist. Romans 14 seems to conclude that those who want to honor the sabbath on a particular day, go for it– those who don’t, feel free not to. If the pinnacle of spiritual maturity is Pauline relativism, then it’s very difficult for some to know what concepts, if any, have real meaning. If circumcision, dietary laws, and sabbath observance were up for such relativistic interpretation in Paul’s day, then one wonders what might be up for reinterpretation today.

I don’t think a charitable and attentive reading of Paul can place him as just a deconstructionist or a relativist. I definitely don’t think it can place him as a concrete-fortress-believer. Paul, I think, is read in the best light when we consider that he may have something to teach about Stage 6 faith. James Fowler (1981), who constructed this Stages of Faith paradigm, writes that Stage 6’s are “heedless to self-preservation,” incarnations of “absolute love and justice,” they engage in “spending and being spent for the transformation of present reality in the direction of a transcendent actuality.”

They are ‘contagious’ in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity. Living with felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world, Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance. Many persons in this Stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change. [. . .] Life is both loved and held to loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other Stages and from any other faith tradition” (200-201).

I think it’s safe to say that not only was Paul heedless to self-preservation, but he also preached a message of absolute love and justice. He spent and was spent to transform his context for the sake of what he believed was the Kingdom of God. Paul was contagious, spreading this love and justice across the Roman world, liberating “true-believers” from the shackles of religion, and Roman citizens from the shackles of oppressive government. He was seen as subversive in his day, and challenged the structures of religious thinking. He died at the hands of people who needed his message most, and he both loved his life and let it go. And, far from that bigoted Stage 3 Paul I used to imagine, I think he was always ready to fellowship with people at different faith stages and different faith traditions.


James Fowler notes that many people remain at Stage 3 their entire lives. The symbols of their youth that they have come to know and love have frozen and ossified. They–the symbols– are absolute and complete. The goal in life at that point is to maintain the fortress, protect it from threats. And I have it on good authority that many faith communities would kill to protect their fortresses of faith– Paul did.

I don’t blame people who fight like hell to avoid entering into Stage 4, where all they know and love would come crumbling down. But to be so safe does come at a cost; It’s lonely to be absolutely right while most everyone else is wrong. It’s difficult to manage the anxiety that comes with the fact that there are billions of humans–past, present, and future– who are too dangerous to engage, who are diseased, contagious and ultimately doomed. And, frankly, its exhausting to keep shooing away the nagging questions, and the glaring tensions. Some people may have the patience to arrest all faith development at Stage 3; but not everybody can afford to do that.

I don’t know if anyone in their right mind ever chooses to dive into Stage 4. Nor do I think it’s easy to climb into Stage 5. I think it’s vital to have examples, mentors, friends who can guide post-Stage-3-ers as they navigate the rubble of their fallen symbols. And frankly, I don’t think it’s common, but it would be nice if Christian churches aimed their faith trajectories as high as Stage 6. I think Paul did. I don’t know what it looks like, but I think it wouldn’t hurt to begin talking about it.

(Did you find this post troubling? Please see the dialogue in the comments section between me and a reader.

Also, for a brief description of the Stages of faith, see Justin Cook’s article in Christian Educators Journal: “Learning in the courtyard of the gentiles”. )


3 thoughts on “But you still believe in … Right?

  1. A dialogue for the dismayed:

    Joe: This made me feel sick a little bit.
    I’ve read it three times now and felt a little better each time I guess though.
    The reason people ask the questions of you is twofold. I’d like to believe first and foremost that they just care about you, both on a personal level and an eternal one. But from a more selfish perspective, they want to know whether to take what you say with a grain of salt. I know that might sound like it goes against the whole ethos of the blog, but the reality is it’s got “Christianity” right in the name. Is it really too much to ask you to identify as a Christian? A support group for expectant mothers shouldn’t care what I have to say. British parliament shouldn’t listen to my thoughts on UK policy.
    I have doubts and struggles like anyone else, and the American flavor of Christianity is a big reason for that. But I saw this blog as a place to openly discuss the struggle and challenge one another. Now it seems like the rug is pulled out.
    You aren’t being particularly charitable to your own experience either. Citing only the most insincere and embarrassing moments in your faith journey doesn’t give a true picture, endearing though the self-deprecation may be.

    Chris: I really appreciate such sharp and direct feedback Joe! There are some gaping flaws in the post, I’ll admit. One of those in my opinion, is the difficulty I have articulating a healthy stage 5. I think I’ve had healthier stage 5 experiences in my life, but they were not as easily accessible to my immediate memory of this past week, or they may have felt rhetorically ineffective when I tried them out. I regret that the post might also seem defensive (there is that paragraph where I say “Please stop asking me. . .”). I do want to make a comment on that. Each of the stages was my best attempt (self-deprecating as some of them may be) to articulate honest feelings from the vantage point of that stage. The “please don’t ask me . . .” line unfortunately sounds like a direct plea to readers, when it’s more of an attitude about faith: faith in stage 5 is not about belief. Belief in unbelief? yes. But firm beliefs are always complicated at stage 5. A healthier version of stage 5 is to say “I believe in Jesus” knowing full well that there are different definitions of what that means, and being okay with it. I do regret that the stage 5 in this post wreaks heavily of the deconstruction in stage 4.

    And, It’s okay to ask me (if I’m a Christian) even if I don’t like it: I hope the post articulates that I hold fast to future resurrection promised in Jesus’s life work and resurrection, and also that I deeply respect Paul and what he says about Jesus. To me I don’t know whats more Christian than that?

    Joe: Your second comment here seems less cagey than anything in the post itself, and I appreciate that. Thanks!

    As to the self-deprecation, I think that my son, who is 4, shows a lot of the same church behavior you mentioned in stage 1. It’s hard to sit still, the “servon” (as he calls it) is boring, he doesn’t know all the words to the songs. And yet… at other times I see real applied faith in his life. The way he gives up a toy or snack that I know he wants because “I should think of others before myself” or how he insists on giving his own money to help people in need whenever he sees a toy drive, food drive, etc. I imagine you could cite similar things from your own stage 1, but instead, at every stage but 6 you seem harshly critical of yourself. No one’s faith is ever perfect, no matter the stage. And no one starts at 6. So give yourself (and anyone else at pre-6) a little charity.

    Chris: Joe, I’m actually a bit surprised you found the tone so deprecating. I can understand why, though. The language does expose itself to that reading, but in all honesty the examples I present of each of the stages, while I think they are open to critique and maybe a bit of ridicule (though I hope not too much), I meant them to be sincere. Accepting Jesus in my heart after McDonald’s still warms my heart to remember. And in fact, that Jesus that my mom introduced me to is the Jesus that I still claim to believe in today. The narrative of prayer, while my take is kind of ridiculous, is intimately true: her name wasn’t Sally, of course, but those were my concerns, and they were deep insecurities where God met me in real ways. My stage 3 may have gotten the worst wrap, but I’m finding that my faith being tied up in musical worship, girlfriends, and systematic theology captures a big chunk of what was most meaningful to me. My stage 4 is embarrassingly angry, but it’s embarrassingly honest. Stage 5 like I mentioned above may barely have snuck out of Stage 4, but I think the “epistemological vertigo” (I think I read that term in the Fowler book) one experiences in stage 5 is there. Stage 5 is described by Fowler as being much more joyful and worshipful than I described it. But the idea of resurrection conjures in me a quiet and sincere worship. Stage 6 I don’t talk about myself because I don’t see myself there. But anyway, I do hope in maybe a fourth reading you can see a gentle kind of humor that also takes my faith journey very seriously. But, it’s a good reminder, I probably shouldn’t be smirking (even if it’s out of affection) at the very real sincere places people are in their faith. Doing it to myself is like saying “I look so fat”– a self-deprecating comment that can make anyone else in the room really insecure. I’m sorry to you and anyone else who may have felt that kind of a tone in this piece.

    Joe: You nailed it here I think. Even the McDonald’s story I read with kind of a “what-a-naive-idiot-I-was” tone. So that’s probably more on me than on you. I see a lot of “likes” from people of faith, and it felt weird to see them liking what I initially read as a ridicule of the less intelligent or less enlightened faithful, or perhaps even a celebration of a journey towards intellectual apostasy. So I think ultimately maybe I was the one being uncharitable in my reading, not so much you in your writing. Thanks for clarifying!
    [… But] would have loved to see your comments about the warm fuzzies and “still the same Jesus” in the article itself.


  2. Chris,

    Thanks for posting this dialogue — it was helpful for me as I thought through your post and tried to figure out what my reaction was.

    For myself and Ryan, and obviously for a lot of people commenting on this on Facebook, the stages seem helpful in processing our own journeys of faith and seasons of doubt and questioning. At the same time, I want to push back a bit….dialogue, and all 🙂

    The stages are, of course, progressive, and so my impression is that those in later stages would be considered to be more mature/advanced. Especially from your comment at the end that “Some people may have the patience to arrest all faith development at Stage 3…”

    Here’s what I’m worried about: myself. I already go around categorizing everyone I meet. I like to put people in my ideas boxes. And I like them to fit. Especially my family members, most of whom I know better than anyone else I know, and so I like to think I have them pretty well figured out. I can tell you right now who among my family and friends I’d place in stage 3. Those are the ones I pity, because they just don’t have the intellect/courage to let go of their fortress that has already crumbled. Thank God I’ve moved beyond that.

    Those thoughts are uglier than I’d like to admit, but I’m admitting them because I think I’m probably not alone here. We all like to think we are the stronger brother that Paul talks about, and that we need to be careful that those who don’t have as liberal an understanding of Christian freedom don’t try to limit us.

    All of that to say, these stages are a temptation to reduce people to a number. They’ll help me understand myself and where I am, but using them to categorize other people is risky business.

    And what about those who *can’t* intellectually move beyond a certain stage, especially those with disabilities? How do we fit them into our understanding of Christian growth and maturity? Is having questioned and doubted our faith a prerequisite to being mature? I’m not sure about the answers to those questions.

    Honestly, these stages seem like a postmodern critique of modernism. Which I wouldn’t disagree with, but what I am hesitant about is how for many, a postmodernist/deconstructionist way of thinking about faith is the height of Christian maturity. I’m not accusing you of that, just making an observation about our culture in general, and voicing concern.

    Thanks for your work on this blog; we are enjoying reading it.

    Laura & Ryan


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