A Nation Stuck


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.


8 thoughts on “A Nation Stuck

  1. One day in our class at Candler with Archbishop Tutu, someone asked him if he wished he had done something different in the fight against apartheid. He reflected a few moments and replied that he wished he had been “less tolerant of intolerance.” Surely systems perpetuate the stunting of intellectual and spiritual development in the USA; those systems, however, are supported by people who are intolerant of growth and development that reaches beyond their own level.

    A friend quoted another recently saying, “After about age 30, it is unseemly to blame your situation on those who came before you.” I’m thinking people who are intolerant may need some “judgement” placed on them. Not condemnation, but intolerance for their arrogance and hypocrisy. Those who claim to be religious leaders and are obviously most concerned about their own status and place of power over others may need to be challenged for upholding systems of oppression. Of course, those who challenge power get crucified and the narrative of the under-developed ruling the world continues. So, do we stop speaking truth to power?

    1. I keep thinking of Howard Thurman in Jesus and the Disinherited, how radical Jesus’ call to love one’s enemy was for the oppressed to hear. Very different from tolerance but so that hate doesn’t ultimately diminish us. Of course intolerance isn’t necessarily hate… but being on the receiving end of intolerance, I can testify it takes the smallest push to topple into hate. For me, never stop speaking truth to power but I fight the urge to hate so that I don’t become less of who I want to be.

  2. Thank you, Connie! Jim Fowler was one of my instructors at Candler and his work on stages of faith is, of course, a basic and foundational one for understanding others’ theological thought processes. I would very much like to share your post with some friends here in Brevard if you agree. I have missed your postings and am glad you are back on the horse!

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