Consider this archetypal story. A man named, let’s say, Gary is lying in the gutter, covered in his own vomit. He has lost everything – gambled it away, pissed it up against the wall, snorted up his nose. His wife, his kids, his house – all gone. He is absolutely desperate.
Then, just as he is considering whether it might not be best, all things considered, to end it all and spare his family any further suffering, he is encountered by a conservative Christian street ministry team. They get him cleaned up, find him somewhere to live, draw him into community, and, when the time is ripe, invite him to accept Jesus as his personal saviour.
His life is, over time, completely turned around. He gets off drugs, stops gambling, gets a job, gets his family back. He is, as we say, born again. It’s a strict world he inhabits, with strong rules about good and bad, in and out, pure and impure. Drinking, for instance, is out. As is gambling. And things he learns to associate with worldliness – quite a lot of things, it turns out.
Basically, it’s a safe space for him, but – like being in the army – a rigid one.
His daughter, let’s call her Hazel, is the next character in the story. She was only little, five or so, when her father disappeared out of, and, just as abruptly, reappeared into her life. This means that she was brought up in the church. Church on Sunday morning, Youth Group on Sunday evenings, a Bible study during the week. Keen member of the worship team. You know the drill – you’ve probably met her. You may even have been her.
She’s a good student, with an aptitude for maths, and so when it’s time for university, she decides to major in Science. She ends up in astrophysics, and enjoys it so much that she ends up doing a doctorate, and following an academic career. Everything is rosy for Hazel.
Well, everything bar one thing – a quite important thing. Her church taught her that the book of Genesis was to be taken literally – by which they meant that Genesis is to be understood as a scientific text. Which means that the universe can only be around 6000 years old. But the light from even moderately close stars has taken longer than that to get here – which means that she comes to doubt that Genesis can be understood in the sense she has been taught.
But that means that everything she was taught is now up for grabs. She enters into a serious time questioning, with the result that she decides that she is in fact at best agnostic. Only things provable by science are true.
In a way, it’s a relief. While she was at university she had experienced increasing levels of cognitive disconnect about what her faith predicted the world should be like, and how it actually is. She met a lot of non-Christians, and they seemed no less virtuous than people from her church. Her best friend in her postdoc was a gay man – could it really be true that he was destined for hell?
So for a while Hazel lives as a moderately contented agnostic. However, because she has a rigorous sort of mind, she notices that a lot of the important questions about life – about its meaning, how to live, whether anything has any value at all, why there is something rather than nothing, what on earth are good and evil – are not answered by science. Some are out of scope – in order for science to function, it needs to assume that the universe exists, but it can’t go behind the curtain to see why it exists. There is no scientific way to determine what good and evil are – or why good people do such horrible things. And it certainly has no answer to the question of whether life is worth living or not.
In short, she begins to “doubt her doubts.”
So, like many people in our culture, she begins to investigate spirituality. Her quest leads her from wellness (positive psychology, mindfulness) to Eastern religions (Buddhism and then Daoism.) But eventually, she is quite surprised to find herself at a boring, mainline church, and regaining her faith. – but without giving up her belief in science. She can reconcile these two things, and in doing so, finds a richness in each that she had never before suspected.
But her faith is not exactly the same as it was before. She can say similar things, in good faith, to her (relieved) father, but she isn’t sure that she means exactly the same things as he does. She feels like her faith is now richer, more generous, than before, but while still being orthodox.
This story is, in its broad outlines, a common one. It is based on research by James Fowler (especially in his book Stages of Faith) and used in simplified form by self help guru M Scott Peck (especially in The Road Less Travelled and Beyond) and it’s his version I’m using here.
We can think of Gary and Hazel’s story as having four distinct stages.
- When Gary is lying in the gutter as a result of his self-destructive behaviour, we can call that Stage 1 – Chaos.
- Gary and Hazel are both embraced by a strong, but rigid, way of looking at the world. It is a safe place to stand in an uncertain, threatening world. It is backed up by membership of a strong community or institution. You are learning ideas from this external authority – it is a stage of dependency, where you trust your community and its leaders, and it all just seems so clear and obvious. We can call this Stage 2 – Institutional
- Hazel embarks on a spiritual quest to find out what is really real. She uses the best technique available to her, which is science. Using her new insights, she puts everything to the question. This is an individualist stage, where you question what you learned back in stage 2. This can be (but doesn’t necessarily have to be) a counter-dependent stage, where it you reject a lot of the stuff you unquestioningly accepted back in stage 2. You rejoice in throwing off the shackles of convention and being your own person. The motto of this stage is Kant’s “dare to know” We call this Stage 3 – Sceptical.
- As Hazel explores more, she eventually finds her way back to faith. But it is a different sort of faith – a second naivety. If stage 2 was dependent, and stage 3 counter-dependent, then this is an inter-dependent stage, where you are finding a degree of engagement, and even harmony, between your community’s beliefs and your own thinking. This is Stage 4 – Mystical
Before we go any further, here are a large number of caveats.
Firstly, God loves everyone. God loves Gary in the gutter as much as He loves Hazel. God’s love for you does not depend on where you are in some theoretical scale.
Secondly, neither does it mean that people in stage three are in some way better than people in stage two, and nor are people in stage four better than people in stage one. To want to jump to stage four from stage one is like wanting to jump from childhood to old age – each of these stages has its own integrity, its own value.
Thirdly, this isn’t really to do with the content of people’s beliefs. Rather, it is to do with how you believe, and where your beliefs come from. It is entirely possible to be stage 2 with respect to your green-left views, and dogmatic in your insistence that science is the only way forward – like one of our militant new atheists. In fact that dogmatism is one of the characteristics of Stage 2 – you know you’re right, and anyone who doesn’t see it is (at best) misguided, probably stupid, or even actively malign.
Fourthly, this is only a theory. There is a certain amount of evidence to back it up, but it isn’t the gospel. It can be a useful heuristic – but if you don’t find it useful, then don’t use it. Simple as that.
Fifthly, and most importantly, is the question of ends (or purpose or telos.) To what are these beliefs pointing? What sort of person are you becoming, and what sort of universe are you inhabiting? No matter where you find yourself, the point is to be moving towards being someone who is characterised by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) and being someone who is, in Paul’s language, “in Christ.”
The tl;dr point: you can find your experience of faith changing in disturbing and unexpected ways, ways which isolate you from your former peers, and from your community. Don’t give up: there is a way forward – if you choose to take it.
A complementary point: a lot of churches are committed to one or other of these stages. In New Zealand Sociologist (and pastor) Allan Jamieson’s book A Churchless Faith (here’s a blog post which seems to do a good job of outlining his ideas), he suggests that a lot of Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic (EPC) churches are pretty firmly lodged in Stage 2. I don’t know what the numbers are, but it would seem to make intuitive sense that big institutional churches attract people who like the security of institutions. And certainly many people I talk to about their experience of EPC church is of conflict with authority, of having too many questions, as being seen as a bit of a troublemaker, and of just not fitting in. I believe that there are churches characterised more by stage 4 than stage 2, and I (or 3.) I hope Cafechurch (and deconstruct / reconstruct!) is an example of this, but I get the feeling they are quite hard to find.