A pragmatic working definition of faith

Before getting to the heart of this chapter, I want to provide a more-or-less serviceable definition of the rather amorphous and ambiguous term faith, at least as I will be mainly discussing it. The definition comes from the pathbreaking study of the six stages of faith development formulated by J. W. Fowler (1981, updated 1995), a professor of theology and human development and a minister in the United Methodist Church. Fowlers stage theory, one that draws from Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Erik Eriksons psychosocial developmental theory, among other influences, has received considerable empirical support, though there have been methodological criticisms too (Coyle, 2011). Fowlers definition should be viewed as a “placeholder” for this chapter, for what constitutes faith is hardly agreed upon by philosophers/theologians and psychologists/ psychoanalysts. Faith is a

Human universal ... an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response; a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at a more than mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension.

(Fowler, 1981, p. 11)

Thus, for Fowler, and to a large extent for Buber and Marcel, faith is a mode of fmding/creating meaning and coherence in one’s life. This involves embracing a “master narrative” to answer, if only provisionally, such basic questions as “What is the point of life?” (the problem of meaning), “Who is running things?” (is anyone? is God?), and “How do I live a praiseworthy life?” (an ethically animated flourishing life). As Marcel asked, “Who or what am I?” and “What am I worth?” (Anderson, 2006, pp. 60,69).Thus, faith can be conceived of as how we existentially respond to whatever has transcendent significance and value to us; it is a way of being-in-the-world, that is, of trusting, committing to, and relating to others (and to ourselves). Of course, what differentiates so-called “healthy” or “mature” versus “unhealthy” or “immature” faith is hard to judge, but for Fowler it has a lot to do with the level of sophistication of cognitive processes applied to challenging moral dilemmas, calling to mind the great ancient religious and spiritual wisdom traditions (Compton & Hoffman, 2020, p. 341). However, the latter wisdom traditions always recognized that cognitive knowledge was not nearly enough (Marcus, 2003). In addition, mastery of the passions was essential via greater self-awareness, self-understanding, self-mastery, and self-overcoming, and always animated by a transcendencepointing, other-directed, other-regarding, and other-serving existential/ethical orientation (Marcus, 2019). Buber and Marcel, at least broadly speaking, are lodged in this axial sensibility, the ancient religious “spirituality” and “wisdom” that flowered during that “pivotal age” from 800 to 200 bce when the spiritual foundations of our current society were established by, for example, Confucius, Lao Tse, Upanishads, Buddha, Zarathustra, the Hebrew prophets, Homer, Plato, etcetera (Jaspers, 2011, pp. 51—60).

Fowler’s stages of development are worth briefly summarizing, for they have some correlation with psychoanalytic formulations and because they point to what Buber and Marcel were getting at:3 (1) Intuitive-Projective: This is the world of preschool children when fantasy and reality are frequently entwined and the child’s most fundamental notions about God are usually appropriated from parents, teachers, and society. (2) Mythic-Literal: At school age, children begin comprehending the world in a more logical/rational manner. Typically, they appropriate the stories told to them by their faith community but are inclined to comprehend them in decidedly literal ways. Some people never develop beyond this stage. (3) Synthetic-Conventional: When children become teenagers, life significantly consists of a variety of social networks, and there is a need/desire to integrate them in terms of their social identity. When this unifying process occurs, the teenager usually embraces some kind of all-inclusive belief system (that functions similar to a faith structure). Moreover, they are inclined to resist thoughtfully considering other perspectives, and they believe that their way of seeing is the only one that is reasonable and acceptable. Often, authority is assigned to individuals or groups that represent the teenagers’ strongly held beliefs. Many people, says Fowler, remain lodged in this stage throughout their life. (4) Individual-Reflective: In young adulthood, people begin thoughtfully considering other perspectives and realize that their angle of vision is only one among many alternatives. Such young adults tend to critically evaluate their beliefs and frequently become disenchanted with their prior faith. Paradoxically, the Stage 3 teenagers often think that Stage 4 young adults have become apostate-like or have “jumped ship,” when in truth they have simply progressed forward and embraced a different, preferred perspective.

  • (5) Conjunctive Faith: This is the usually midlife moment when people begin to reflectively acknowledge the limitations of logic/rationality and begin to come to terms with the paradoxical nature of life. They tend to perceive life as an unfathomable mystery, and often revisit sacred books and symbols but with a different sensibility, that is, without being trapped in a theological cage.
  • (6) Universalizing Faith: Few people achieve this stage, and if they do, they too are in midlife, or even older. Such people assume an existential orientation that is other-directed, other-regarding, and other-serving, lodged in universal principles of love and justice, and comprehending people as part of a universal human community to which one responds with deep and abiding compassion. Such were the great religious teachers, sages, humanitarians, and saints, which comprised the Axial Age, as well as their contemporary counter-parts4 (www.psychologycharts.com > james-fowler-stages-of-faith retrieved 1/21/20). Psychoanalysis has aptly described some of the so-called “lower” forms of religious/spiritual cognition/affect, but much less so in terms of what is potentially positive about so-called “higher” faith manifestations, Fowler’s stages 5 and 6 appear to depict many of these characteristics, including those that Buber and Marcel touch on.