One of the foundational ideas for this blog is that of ‘stages of faith’ – the spiritual journey, or the life-cycle of faith. Part of this idea is that we gradually outgrow and move on from old ways and understandings and have to seek new ones. I’ve written before about moving beyond either/or, moving beyond goodies and baddies and moving beyond the Christian label. This time I want to look at our need for answers to the big questions of life and faith, and how our need for answers changes over time.
The need for right answers
Early on in our conscious spiritual journeys or religious lives, we crave answers – preferably clear, simple and above all right answers. We want to know (no, need to know) what is the Truth, and therefore what is, by opposition, False; what is Right, and what’s Wrong, what is Good and what’s Bad. We seek to define ourselves according to these binary opposites, aligning ourselves with the True, Right and Good, and against the False, Wrong and Bad.
We also need simple answers to the complex questions that trouble us – what am I here for? What is God like? What must I do to be saved? Is hell real and how do I avoid it? Why is there suffering? How should I pray? How should I interpret the Bible?
We therefore seek (and need) Authorities, or preferably a single Authority, to define for us what is True, Right and Good, and to give us explanations for our troubling questions. For some this Authority is the Church, or a particular vicar/pastor; for others it’s the Bible.
So at this early stage we imbibe and learn the simple ‘right’ answers according to our chosen Authorities. This gives us security in our spiritual identity, and crucially gives us belonging to the select group who have the same right understanding of the world.
I need to stress that there’s nothing wrong with all this. It’s an important, even vital, stage of development. Nonetheless it’s only a starting point – a faith nursery if you like. Following M. Scott Peck’s schema, I call this Stage 2, or the Pre-critical phase of faith. It’s where many believers spend most of their lives. Which is okay, but it’s a bit like being stuck as a child when you should be growing up.
Dealing with doubts
Over time, for some people at least, the easy answers may gradually become less satisfying and convincing, and doubts may start to creep in. This can be quite uncomfortable, particularly if you’re locked in a mindset (and a church) that values right answers and unquestioning acceptance of authority.
Some of course react to these troubling doubts simply by becoming even more doggedly entrenched in their beliefs, effectively putting their fingers in their ears and their heads in the sand (sounds an awkward position, but it’s surprisingly easy to adopt).
Others react by seeking more complex answers, hoping that if they study more, read enough books and learn enough theology they can shore up the shifting sands of their faith. Not all ‘Stage 2-ers’ have a simplistic theology by any means. Many have developed a carefully worked-out, highly complex and intellectual set of positions which enable them to continue in their same overall beliefs, but with greater depth and (crucially) the ability to counter anyone who challenges them. If they’re evangelical they probably look up to scholars like J.I. Packer, Don Carson et al – the intellectual giants of conservative evangelicalism.
(NB I’m aware of a grave danger here of just dismissing conservative evangelicals as spiritual or intellectual inferiors, which is far from the truth. These are not stupid people, nor are they lesser Christians. For me though, their views of God, the world, and the Bible no longer fully work; I need to find a different way of understanding Christianity, of being Christian.)
The Critical phase
For some however, eventually the doubts can become too great, and we start to wonder if we can really be certain of the Authorities we once trusted without question. So we now have a whole new set of questions to which we want answers. Can we be sure that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God? Does it really mean what we’ve been taught, particularly on key subjects like hell, homosexuality, other faiths? Can we really believe all the stuff we used to, and if not, then what?
And though at this stage we still want answers to our questions, we no longer fully trust the sources we used to turn to for answers, so where do we go with our doubts?
This is Scott Peck’s Stage 3 – the Critical phase of faith. It’s ‘critical’ in the sense of holding up our former beliefs and authorities to critical scrutiny. It’s also critical in the sense of vital. I believe we need to go through this phase eventually if we’re to have a fully mature, developed, adult faith. It’s the adolescent phase of spirituality – unattractive and awkward, but essential.
It’s also critical in the third sense of make-or-break. At this point we may feel angry and disillusioned with our former authorities, with the church and even with God and the Bible. We may feel bewildered, even betrayed or let down. Some give up and walk away completely, never to return; others do eventually come back. Still others may simply leave church but stick around on the margins, unwilling to give up on the whole thing but not feeling able to fully belong either.
We need to understand people who are at this difficult but important stage. We need to welcome them with all their troublesome questions and abrasive criticisms, not browbeat them with the Bible or turn them away. And rather than trying to answer all the questions and doubts, we just need to acknowledge their validity and reality. That’s in large part what this blog is about.
And I’ll freely admit that it’s largely about that because that’s where I’m at too, and I need a place where questions and doubts can be accepted – where I can be accepted.
Moving beyond answers
Stage 3 is not the end though, or it need not be. Though I’ve not got there yet, I can see beyond this point to the possibility of a faith without the need for answers at all. For those who do ultimately get through the critical phase and make peace with faith or God or church, it can be the beginning of a whole new kind of spirituality.
Moving beyond the need for answers does not make this a blind faith, but rather a mature one. I suspect that at some point comes a realisation that all our desperate seeking after right answers – whether simple or complex – arose from fear and emptiness, a need for security.
I’m speculating, but I imagine that we may reach a place where we are content not to know for certain in an intellectual way. Rather we are content just to be known, and therefore to know in a relational, not merely rational, way. We experience God’s holding of us, rather than desperately trying to grasp hold of him by understanding the truth logically. We learn to embrace mystery and uncertainty rather than fearing it.
As I say, I haven’t reached this point yet. I still feel the need to ask questions and at least try to find some answers. But I’m starting to accept that there may not be any answers, at least not ones I will understand in this life. And crucially I do want to move on to the next stage, to a point where I’m not obsessed with the need to tie everything up in neat solutions and can be content with not knowing.