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How God Invites
Us to Grow:
Six Stages of Faith Development

by Rev. Richard J. Sweeney

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 unconvincing—even 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 way—as 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 of me."

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 country—right or wrong!" "Our Church is the true Church!" Also, religious practices done because "everybody else does them" eventually become lifeless and mechanical.

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 services—much 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 reason.

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 mystics—the 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 comes—like 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.

Richard J. Sweeney has a doctorate in spiritual theology from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. Father Sweeney is academic dean of the Athenaeum of Ohio in Cincinnati. He is also a well-known spiritual director and lecturer. His "Spirituality and the Seasons of Adulthood"—a popular audiocassette series (four-tape set)— is available from St. Anthony Messenger Press (CAS 375, $32.95).


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