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”. )