Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
How God Invites
Us to Grow:
Six Stages of Faith Development
With obvious concern etched upon his face and an anxious
tremor in his voice, Frank looked across the table at his 42-year-old
friend. He had not seen Tom in seven years. At the end of a two-hour
conversation he searched for the right words: "I don't know
how to say this, Tom, and I don't mean to hurt your feelings...but,
you've changed! You're not the same person I knew before. You
don't seem to believe in the things you used to!" Tom calmly responded,
"Well, thank you. I consider that a compliment. And I hope I keep
changing and growing in what I believe the rest of my life."
Frank and Tom represent two very different views of
adulthood and faith. According to Frank's view, religious faith
should remain constant and unperturbed. According to Tom's, faith
like every other aspect of adult life should always be evolving.
Should our faith change throughout adult life? Most
adults now say, "Yes." According to a 1985 Gallup organization
survey, 65 percent of U.S. adults believe a person's faith should
change throughout life just as one's body and mind change. This
is certainly the prevailing view of spiritual directors and counselors
today. Yet several questions remain. How does faith change? How
do we know whether we are losing our faith or actually growing
within it? Will the faith we learned and practiced in our youth
be enough to get us through the challenges of later life? What
are the common stages of faith most of us can expect to go through?
What are the signs of a mature faith?
Roots of faith
We can begin to seek some answers to
these questions by acknowledging, first of all, that faith in the
broadest sense is our way of understanding God and God's action
in human life. Just as our understanding of ourselves, our society
and our world inevitably changes as we proceed through life, so
too our understanding of God's presence and activity in human life
can be expected to change. Faith does not grow in a vacuum but sprouts
from the seedbed of our life experience.
It can be shaped by all kinds of personal
experience: of parental love and correction, of teaching received
in school or church, of answered and unanswered prayers, of unanticipated
joys or heart-wrenching failures, of discussions and disagreements
with friends or colleagues.
And the experience, more than any other,
that often signals a shift or change in faith is the experience
of conflict or confusion. The conflict may be caused
by a prayer that receives no clear response, or by disillusionment
with a respected authority figure, or by the breakup of a marriage
or cherished friendship, or by an encounter with persons whose faith
and values seem vastly different from our own. In each instance,
the moment of conflict and confusion challenges us to rethink a
previous view of God.
It is no surprise then that Jesus once
told his followers: "Do you think I have come to establish peace
on the earth? The contrary is true: I have come for conflict and
division" (Luke 12:49). Conflict and confusion are often the avenue
to a fuller faith. Such experiences may tell us that our previous
faith is inadequate to deal with some new dimension of life. That
earlier faith must now be reshaped, just as St. Paul's highly legalistic
faith before his conversion from Judaism came into conflict with
and was reshaped by his encounter with the early Christians.
In the same way, the inability of our
previous faith to enable us to cope with or make sense of some life
experience may signal the need for a change in our faith. I recall
the father of a family whose faith was substantially changed when
his son was in a tragic automobile accident. "How could God let
this happen?" he asked over and over again. The absence of any immediate
answer forced him to a new understanding of how God is present in
the world. Or, there was the Catholic senior high student who went
to a small Protestant college and suddenly found that she didn't
have answers to the questions her dorm mates posed. The old responses
proved unconvincingeven to herself! Deeper searching and questioning
ushered her into a new level of faith.
Researchers guided by the important work
of Professor James Fowler of Emory University have been conducting
interviews on the faith-lives of men and women for nearly 20 years.
Currently they have identified as many as six different stages of
faith people seem to exhibit. In each case the movement to the next
stage occurs when some life experience invites a person to a new
understanding of God. The new stage of faith imparts a fuller, more
adequate insight into life and makes possible more responsible and
more truly loving decisions.
We're now ready to take a closer look
at these stages of faith. We will be focusing on the most noteworthy
features of each stage as well as the kinds of experiences that
often signal movement to a new stage of faith. Keep in mind that
what we will be looking at is not really a "road map" detailing
the straightest and surest route to union with God. It is more a
description of the "road signs" that many people have encountered
on their journeys of faith. Knowing what road signs to look for
may help prepare you for especially difficult parts of the journey
and may guide you through some of the more unexpected turns of life.
Spotting certain landmarks and milestones along the way can reassure
you that you are progressing in the desired direction. And recognizing
that there are different phases of the journey may help you to understand,
respect and aid your fellow travelers.
1. Imaginative faith
Until around age seven a child's faith can be expected
to be highly imaginative. A host of different and sometimes conflicting
images of God, the world and the hereafter fill children's minds
at this stage. God may be the ever-loving, ever-present, grandfather
figure somewhere in the sky, or perhaps the exacting mother or
father seemingly impossible to please. A child's faith is "healthy"
at this stage if the images that fill his or her mind are positive
ones that picture the world as a friendly, welcoming place and
God as a loving, dependable parent. This is true of one five-year-old's
comment that "God can go all around the world in one day. And
he can't ever do bad things to you!" It is less apparent in another
young boy's comment that, "The devil can come up out of a hole
in the ground and get you when you're bad!"
Images of God that cause fear, guilt and worry to
a child are the real dangers to faith at this stage. Some destructive
images of God and the world may continue into adult life and give
one's faith a scrupulous, anxious or pessimistic cast. But, by
the time a child reaches the "age of reason" around age seven,
the desire to know how things really are lessens reliance on imagination
alone. Now a child wants to know more about how the world really
is and how things fit together. The child is ready for the world
of story and for a new stage of faith.
2. Literal faith
Children in the early years of school are fascinated
with stories. Not surprisingly, then, learning the religious stories
of one's family or church group gives children at this age a clearer,
more consistent picture of God. Bible stories, in particular,
remain a very apt method of religious instruction. However, for
children at this time all Bible stories are taken literally. For
example, the story of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Moses
and the Ten Commandments, Jesus' crucifixion and Paul's conversion
are all read the same wayas literally and historically true.
While literal faith is appropriate for children at this stage,
adults whose faith remains literal throughout their later lives
may at times appear anti-intellectual or resistant to the deeper
meanings of Scripture and life itself.
The central feature of literal faith is a view of
God as the rewarder of good and punisher of evil. God is presumed
to operate as the parent who loves and praises us for being good,
but also corrects and penalizes us for wrongdoing. Faith then
entails bargaining with God: "If I do what God expects of me,
I can count on his help in return." I remember in elementary school
often promising to say ten extra Our Fathers and Hail Marys if
God would help me do well on a test or in an important baseball
game. And often it worked! God kept the bargain! But I noticed
eventually that God was not always as predictable or reliable
as I thought. This breakdown of a too literal view of God as the
grand arbiter of weal or woe ushers in a new understanding of
God and a new stage of faith.
Yet, some adults may live much of their lives with
a literal faith. Some years ago a brilliant, retired scientist
astonished me with the remark: "When it comes to my faith, I do
better staying with what I learned in the third grade." Indeed,
he continued to view God as the judge who doled out fortune or
misfortune according to one's behavior. But this faith proved
woefully inadequate in the scientist's life. He continued to blame
himself for the misfortunes of an alcoholic son and an emotionally
troubled daughter. Somehow he must have done something wrong!
Why else would God allow this? A faith so strongly rooted in moral
bargaining with God will rarely prove adequate to resolve the
complexities of adult life.
3. Group faith
Since most young people naturally value
the importance of friendship, they often come to view God as one
who treats them much like a trusted companion. At the same time,
young persons often tend to model themselves after admired heroes
or respected authority figures. This growing significance of companions
and esteemed heroes and authority figures leads faith in the adolescent
and early adult years to be very influenced by the group.
As a result, a central feature of faith
at this stage is that it is largely conformed to the expectations,
values and understandings of the significant groups to which we
belong. The significant group may be our family, church community,
peer group or colleagues. Greater identification with a group usually
strengthens and supports our understanding of God and makes us more
aware of community responsibilities. One young man well expressed
faith at this stage by commenting: "My faith has always helped me
keep on the right path in life and reminded me what God expects
A further feature of faith at this stage
is that it remains largely unquestioned. Confidence in the authority
and dependability of the group eliminates all questioning. Typical
is the following statement made in a faith interview: "My father
was a good Catholic, went to daily Mass, followed the Ten Commandments
and told my brother and me to do the same.... He said whenever we
wondered how to act, we should follow the exact teaching of the
Church. Questioning it would only get us into trouble." While group
faith imparts helpful clarity and consistency, it also runs the
risk of discouraging personal responsibility. In the extreme, it
gives rise to a blind defense of one's own group. "My countryright
or wrong!" "Our Church is the true Church!" Also, religious practices
done because "everybody else does them" eventually become lifeless
For many adults, certain experiences
sooner or later force a questioning of earlier beliefs. It may be
the experience of seeing opposing opinions or even conflict among
religion teachers, priests or bishops. Or it may be the inability
to accept or understand some Church teaching or a change in Church
practice. The Second Vatican Council provoked questions for countless
Catholics. Questioning of this kind, troubling as it is, often signals
the birth of a new, more challenging stage of faith.
4. Personal faith
According to the Gallup survey mentioned above, three
out of four adults in the U.S. now believe that faith is strengthened
by questioning earlier beliefs. Apparently, more adults are recognizing
that it does not suffice to hold certain beliefs and perform religious
practices only "because my parents did, or my teachers taught
me to, or Church authorities say I should, or everybody else does."
A desire to take personal responsibility for the beliefs I hold
and the values I live by points to a more personal (though not
private!) faith less dependent upon group expectations. My understanding
of God is now increasingly shaped by my personal life experience.
Former beliefs are examined and may be altered, renewed, deepened
or, if found faulty, discarded altogether.
The passage to a personally "owned" faith rarely occurs
without significant tension and struggle. St. Teresa of Avila
found her own journey from a conventional to a more personal faith
to be a wrenching experience. In describing this experience she
wrote, "I have sometimes been terribly oppressed by this turmoil
of thoughts." She noted wisely that at that point the presence
of doubts and questions may lead persons to feel that they are
losing their faith.
The opposite is often true. God may be leading them
to probe the deeper meaning of their previous faith. Such was
the case with one 43-year-old woman who mentioned that for years
she had received the Sacrament of Penance at least biweekly. She
knew it had become merely a routine for her, but was afraid to
stop going for fear that something bad might happen in her life.
But her growing appreciation of God's constant love and ready
forgiveness gave her courage to alter this routine. As a result,
she said, "I go to confession less frequently now, but it seems
much more meaningful to me."
For some, the transition to a personal faith means
that they must be willing to endure the pain of standing at odds
with friends, family members and Church leaders. For one college
student it meant enduring the ridicule of his peers as he chose
to adhere to his Christian values in the face of the differing
sexual practices of his university roommates. For a young Catholic
woman it meant a decision to expand her awareness of other Christian
Churches by attending for a time Protestant worship servicesmuch
to the distress of her parents. For others, it has entailed the
painful process of finding themselves unable to accept completely
a particular Church instruction.
Such decisions may be necessary if persons are to
develop a mature conscience and assume responsibility for the
values they choose to live by. Faith-filled living now means accepting
that even the most helpful laws, norms and guidelines are sometimes
limited in their ability to point out the best behavior. Reliance
upon a God who is ever-loving and who has blessed us with the
gift of human reason now makes it possible for persons to act
increasingly according to their own most honest judgments and
decisions. Still, those who continue to search for answers to
the more complex questions of life are often led to the discovery
of a source of wisdom that lies sometimes even beyond personal
5. Mystical faith
Don't let the word "mystical" put you off. It simply
suggests communion with God. The hallmark of this fuller stage
of adult faith is nothing other than an experience frequently
described by Christian mysticsthe experience that God dwells
in us. St. Paul witnesses to this mystical faith when he says,
"The life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me" (Galatians
2:20). He calls others to this faith by reminding them, "You are
in the spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you" (Romans 8:9).
For most people this awareness of God's inner presence begins
with a longing or a compelling desire to be one's whole self or
to live one's life as meaningfully as possible.
The Trappist writer, Thomas Merton, expressed this
longing with the words, "When I have found my truest self, I will
have found God." This inner yearning to be all that God invites
one to be leads persons at this stage to listen more intently
to their thoughts, feelings and deepest desires. They begin to
heed Paul's reminder that God often speaks to us through "inner
groanings that cannot be expressed in speech" (Romans 8:26). A
woman religious in her 50's captured this view of faith when she
said, "I believe that listening to the deepest part of me is identical
to listening to God. At that point we are one."
At this stage of faith the awareness of God's inner
presence leads one to become more aware that God also dwells in
all others. As a result, one begins to see people of various creeds,
races and nationalities as brothers and sisters to one another.
Typical is one 70-year-old man's comment, "I have learned to have
respect for anybody. I could sit down and talk to a Muslim or
a Jew or an Arab or anyone, and if they started talking religion
in their way, I could really and completely fit my mind to theirs,
see where their mind is going, and understand their ideas." Interfaith
dialogue now becomes not a threat but an opportunity for new understanding.
Recognition of the sisterhood and brotherhood of all people also
intensifies one's commitment to the well-being of all humankind.
Not surprisingly, mystical faith can strongly influence
one's relationship to religious institutions. Heightened awareness
of the ultimate authority of the Holy Spirit lessens one's reliance
upon the limited authority of human groups. Adults who live a
genuinely mystical faith discover a new responsibility to challenge
and strive to improve the very institutions (church, government,
civic groups) to which they belong. However, they also discover
at times that an even further degree of faith may be needed to
live up to their ideals.
6. Sacrificial faith
Occasionally, history provides us with examples of
persons who have so identified with the well-being of others and
who are so committed to the values of truth and justice that they
have a capacity for selfless love that outreaches most of us.
Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Archbishop Oscar Romero are examples
of this sacrificial faith. Such persons display a radical and
consistent commitment to the doing of God's will that is uncompromised
by concern for personal status or security. In some cases the
willingness to sacrifice self for others has led to martyrdom.
For many other less famous persons, it leads to a constant dedication
of self to the growth of other persons and the improvement of
society as a whole.
Robert Bolt's highly regarded play, A Man for All
Seasons, presents the political life and death of St. Thomas
More and portrays well the features of a truly sacrificial faith.
Thomas More resists King Henry VIII's claim to be head of the
Church in England and reveals the faith that inspires him with
his famous last words, "I die the King's good servant, but God's
first." For a person of such faith, following the will of God,
carefully discerned, leaves no room for compromise. One's commitment
to values of truth, justice and love becomes all-consuming.
What faith is right for you?
So what stage or degree of faith should you or I have?
Should we seek the "highest" stage? Should we all hope to reach
the point of a totally sacrificial faith? No doubt, we all tend
to see that as an ideal. But dare anyone tell you where you should
be at a given stage of your faith journey? To insist that you
reach complete maturity now is like grabbing a budding
flower by the stem and trying to yank it upward into full bloom.
Such an effort would be violent and destructive. And it ignores
the truth that there is a season for everything.
Faith remains always a gift of God. The precise stage
of faith to which we are called by God depends greatly on our
life experiences. God loves us at each stage of our development,
affirming us at the level at which we are and, when the time is
right, inviting us to fuller life. This invitation may come in
the form of a gnawing dissatisfaction with our way of life or
through the unrelenting pressure of doubts and questions. It may
be spoken in our search for better solutions to life's problems.
As we become more conscious that faith develops in
stages, we also come to some practical conclusions. For example,
we may need to learn patience and realize that some things are
beyond our control: It may simply take a certain amount of time,
and even trial-and-error, to get from one stage to another. We
need to trust that God is in the often uneven process of our growth
in faith. Therefore, it's okay to feel conflict, fear and doubt
or to face hard questions. This may even be our cue to reach out
to others for help and guidance, which is already a sign of growth.
Finally, the stage-by-stage process of faith teaches
us that change is not a bad word. It's the stuff of human life,
the meaning of conversion, the way the Kingdom comeslike
the little mustard seed, becoming by grades a full-grown tree.
Openness to change, to the ongoing invitation of the Spirit, may
well be the gift of God we need the most.