Even though I’m an amateur blogger, I like to pay attention to which posts my readers are visiting more often. Presumably more visits indicates a greater interest in a particular topic or idea, and I like to think there’s an opportunity for advancing the dialogue together. Among the things I write about, the topics of faith, spirituality, and religion seem to be most interesting – to my readers as well as to me personally.
I know that some would prefer to drop the whole set and get on with life in the modern age, seeing how much confusion, bigotry, persecution, and suffering have been perpetrated for their sake and in their name. But I’ve argued for a long time that these three forces in human history and experience cannot simply be dismissed just because they happen to be problematic.
Indeed, they are problematic precisely because they are so critically important and essential to our continuing human story.
Back in the 1970s James Fowler, a Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, set about exploring the nature and development of faith, which he broadly defined as the act of relating to reality (“the universal”) and creating meaning. Fowler worked closely with Erik Erikson’s psychosocial model of development, which was and remains the standard theory in the field. His definition of faith cuts beneath the popular notion of it as either a more or less fixed set of religious beliefs (e.g., the Christian faith) or a willingness to believe something without evidence or logic to support it.
Fowler’s idea of faith as a basic orientation to reality and life in the world is therefore nonreligious in any formal sense, and much more experiential.
In his research, Fowler identified six stages of faith – seven including a “pre-stage” condition which he named undifferentiated or “primal” faith. Out of this undifferentiated state the developing individual’s mode of engaging reality and making meaning evolves – through childhood, into adulthood, and beyond. As in Erikson’s psychosocial theory, Fowler found numerous points where development can get arrested, delayed, or fixated, resulting in a kind of spiritual pathology that slows progress and compromises the individual’s successful transit to fulfillment or self-actualization.
My diagram correlates Fowler’s stages of faith with the historical development of religion through its three main types: animism, theism, and post-theism. A way of understanding this correlation would be to see individual faith as the prompt (inducement or drive) for changes in the character of religion at the cultural level; but also reciprocally, in terms of the way a society’s religion supports, shapes, and promotes (or stunts) the faith development of its members.
Finally, the big picture is revealed by those Yin-and-Yang poles of “communion” (mystical oneness) and “community” (ethical togetherness), which I recently explored in my post Human Progress. Once a separate center of self-conscious identity (ego) is established, reality can be engaged by going (1) deeper within ourselves to the grounding mystery of being, but also (2) by going farther beyond ourselves to the turning unity (universe) of all things.
The first path is a via negativa, releasing and subtracting all that goes into our individuation as separate individuals until only an experience of ineffable oneness remains: the mystical path. Stretching out and beyond us is a via positiva, affirming our unique existence and joining it to others in the experience of diversified togetherness: the ethical path.
Just seeing the dialectical continuum of communion (Yin) and community (Yang) there in front of us reveals the evolutionary principle working its way through Fowler’s stages of faith. From its genesis in the undifferentiated or primal experience of oneness where consciousness rests in its own grounding mystery, our engagement with reality progresses through ego formation and, finally, to the breakthrough realization that All is One – all of it together, including us. Our orientation in reality and the meaning of it all shifts, sometimes dramatically, from one paradigm to the next.
In the space remaining, I want to focus in on the three stages of faith that correlate to theism, the type of religion that is organized around the priorities of personal identity (deity and devotee), group membership, and a morality of obedience. Theism itself can be analyzed as evolving through three distinct phases: early, high, and late theism.
Early theism corresponds to the “mythic-literal” stage of faith, where the founding stories of world creation, tribal formation, heroic achievement, special revelation, and the consummation of history are taken quite literally, as setting our orientation in space and time.
In high theism, faith takes on a “synthetic-conventional” mode and the pressures of conformity motivate us to match our attitudes and outlook to the general view of our group. This is typically when the transcendence of god (the deity) is emphasized in worship and devotees are exhorted to worship god in humble submission, as they aspire to be more godly in their daily lives.
Because high theism has a tendency of getting locked into its arrangements of power and authority, it can often and actively work against the prompt of “individual-reflective” faith. As the individual awakens by a deeper curiosity and critical reason to doubts and insights that seem to challenge the tribal orthodoxy, religion can become a repressive force using guilt, along with the threat of excommunication and everlasting punishment, to bring the heretic back into its fold.
But it can happen that theism actually stimulates and encourages an individual’s quest for a relevant and secular (this-worldly) philosophy of life. The metaphorical foundations of theology (“god-talk”) are not only admitted but celebrated, and those sacred stories (myths) which had provided the incubator for our emerging identity back in childhood are now reappropriated as poetic lenses into the creative paradoxes of body and soul, self and other, humanity and nature.
Late theism need not be regarded as the “death” or “eclipse” of theism, but can rather be understood as the transition into an entirely new expression of spirituality and type of religion.
Post-theism – literally “after theism” – is about the farther reaches of human nature and the further stages in the development of faith. Fowler’s “conjunctive” faith actively brings together the heretofore disconnected and alienated aspects of our life: the shadow in our personality, the enemy we had worked so hard to keep at a distance, and the many variations on the theme of Truth that play out across the world cultures.
A “universalizing” faith beholds it All as One, seeking to live in and creatively cultivate genuine community, by such intentional practices as covenant fidelity, universal compassion, unconditional forgiveness, and absolute devotion to the wellbeing and fulfillment of all.