One of the most helpful books to me, as a pastor and counselor, is James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. In the same way psychologists use models of psycho-social developmental stages, Fowler examines the development of spiritual growth.
When I look around at our current political dilemma and try to understand how we got here and why, I find myself returning to his text. I have done no research so my hypothesis is based solely on observation. That being said, I believe a good part of this nation is stuck in Fowler’s stage 3.
Stage 3 is adolescence to early adulthood. Fowler calls it the Synthetic-Conventional stage in which peoples’ believe without critical examination. They believe that they have been taught and in what everyone around them believes in. There is a strong sense of identity with the group with whom they share belief systems. A particular feature of stage 3 is a lack of openness to question because questions are frightening. People at this stage of spiritual development tend to trust implicitly people in authority (external authority) and don’t recognize the box or circular thinking that is internalized when their beliefs go unexamined.
Sound familiar? I don’t mean this as a judgment on people but on the systems that stunt spiritual and intellectual growth. And not only stunt it, but condemn questions as faithless. A questioner myself, I find it terrifying. However, it is important that my fears not engage with the terror of those mired in stage 3. It will accomplish nothing and most likely escalate fear on both sides.
What are the systems that stunt? Fundamentalist religion and public education. Fundamentalism has a sharp stop at the door of questioning. The theological tenets of fundamentalism are circular arguments that defy challenges. Having worked with many folk healing from fundamentalist pasts yet thirsty for Godde, the fear of being wrong and ‘disobeying’ the authority figures of their pasts is inextricable tied to the fear of eternal damnation. Fostering absolute trust in authority figures subsidized Trump’s ascension.
Then there’s our educational system. When we began ‘teaching to the test’ we encouraged children to think in absolutes. Your answer is right or wrong. Facts are pandered to as knowledge rather than critical thinking. When you spend twelve years of your life being ‘taught to the test’ the way you engage and interpret events in the larger world is stymied. It fosters tribalism, manifesting in a shared identity with like-minded people, setting up a false ‘us and them’.
I keep thinking back to the opening chapter in C. S.Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In it the professor, after helping the children discern the truth of a troubling situation, sends them forth saying to himself (something like), “Aren’t schools teaching children how to think these days?” If we are afraid of children learning to think in a spiritual or theological context then, of course, we would be fearful of children learning to think in an intellectual context. Surely that fear is the origin of the seared phrase ‘intellectual elitists’. Those who have learned to question are deemed questionable.
My friend, Erin, says I put an ‘altar call’ at the end of my blog posts. Today I don’t have one. But join me in the effort to hear the echoes of faith that repeatedly reassure us to ‘be not afraid’, Be not afraid to think. Be not afraid to question, Be not afraid of being wrong. Be not afraid of not knowing the answer. Be not afraid of many answers all being ‘right’. Be not afraid of the One whose identity is Love.