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Evolutionary Faith

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.

 

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Embodied Faith

Tillich: “The history of faith is a permanent fight with the corruption of faith, and the conflict with reason is one of its most conspicuous symptoms.”

“Reason” as a term referring to a faculty of human intelligence has an interesting history of its own, both on the human-evolutionary and individual-developmental scales. Its ascent in the evolution of our species gave us new powers for critical thinking and rationality. It’s not that reason is any more reality-oriented than faith, but it moves less by wide leaps than smaller logical steps, connecting dots into patterns of meaning.

The relationship between mystery and meaning helps illustrate the essential differences in faith and reason. Faith is your primary response to mystery – to what I’ve been calling the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality. It’s a very here-and-now phenomenon and has to do with the quality of your experience in terms of how open, grounded, centered and trusting you are to the greater reality in which you live.

Awareness at this level is beyond words (ineffable), not just because words are fixed and the mystery is fluid, but also because this experience is processed in a deep, preverbal part of your brain.

When you were still in the womb, reality was registered in your nervous system as providential or inhospitable, depending on the sensory-intuitive information it was picking up from your uterine environment. And because all organisms are equipped with a survival drive, the general tenor of your resulting nervous state was somewhere between agitation and calm, distress and composure, anxiety … and faith.

Your brain’s primary task is to regulate the internal state of your body and continually match this state to its external environment. Such adaptation is what Darwin called “fitness.”

According to this definition, faith is a deep response to reality rooted in your very physiology. Anxiety or faith are felt at a level far below verbal processing, deeper even than conscious awareness. How you feel is the way it is – I could say “for you,” but it really doesn’t matter. This is why there is such certitude in this kind of knowing: no argument is needed to make the point.

Reason takes it start from this place of direct knowing. The nervous state of faith is preverbal, subconscious and inarticulate until the mind can begin to represent it somehow. The earliest forms of art, dance, song and poetry were likely creative expressions of the human experience of reality – as vast, sublime, frightening, and awe-inspiring. These were the first products of reason in its attempt to translate pure experience into communicable forms of representation. This was also the birth of meaning.

As it develops, reason takes these products of its own creative effort and puts them together in more complex patterns. Eventually – and it doesn’t take long at all – a complicated web of cross-referencing associations is generated, expanding up, out and around the ineffable mystery of your present experience. This meaning is tribal and personal, and its all about orienting your experience within the larger web of collective metaphors, values and concerns that make up your cultural world.

One of the important terms in your culture’s web of meaning is the mythological god. He is responsible for creating the cosmos, calling your ancestors to a special destiny, providing for your salvation, protecting you from harm, showering you with blessings, and finally taking your soul to everlasting life. At one level – at the imaginative, creative, and metaphorical level – such belief in god can promote a “blessed assurance,” a profound and confident trust that everything is going to be okay.

In a time when human culture was still in its creative-artistic phase, the mythological god was completely compatible with reason. It made sense to speak of a supernatural personality who made the world, who watches out for those he favors, and intervenes on their behalf. But when human evolution moved into a logical-rational phase, something had to be done about myth, the mythological god, and the traditional organization of life around one’s relationship and obligations to him – now formally called “religion.”

The progressives have always been in favor of putting down the stories and taking life more seriously, as enlightened and sophisticated adults. Conservatives, on the other hand, typically preach the necessity of holding on to the traditions and preserving the values of our forebears. If the myths and the mythological god don’t seem any longer to be compatible with our contemporary scientific worldview, then it only exposes how far we have fallen in our sin.

Faith now becomes inseparable from a literal Bible, an objectively real god (up there, out there), along with the orthodox doctrines, denominational creeds, and ordained authorities appointed to defend them as absolute truth. This is what Tillich means by “the corruption of faith.” What is basically a primary nervous state and existential stance in reality – open, trusting, present and receptive – gets retooled into an exercise in intellectual by-pass where we are pressured to believe and confess things that require an outdated worldview to make any sense at all.

Progressives also need to move past the point where they criticize mythology as childish and culturally retarded. There’s often a sour smell of self-congratulatory pride in their dismissive comments, and not enough genuine appreciation for the creative imagination and how metaphorical theology can still speak to our deep human need for grounding in a providential reality.

Truth is in the myths, but not when they are taken literally. At least not any more.

 

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