Stages of faith – Moving beyond easy answers

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.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Fundamentalism, Orthodoxy, Stages of faith, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Stages of faith – Moving beyond easy answers

  1. Nate says:

    Thanks for the post, that was a good read!

    I can definitely sympathize with being in Stage 3 – I find myself there currently. I’m “doubting,” not necessarily God in a sense, but wondering about the things I believe and that I’ve been taught, criticizing and critiquing them.

    However, I am starting to find myself in a different kind of Stage 4 than what’s mentioned above. I am starting to rely on my faith itself more, and being content in that, but also holding fast to tenets that I believe are true. In other words, not “letting go of everything,” but “letting go of what I must.” There are many things I’m finding out I will probably never have an answer to this side of eternity, and letting go of them has been incredibly hard. I think I’m still at the beginning stages of this, because I’m still holding on to too much. However, I’m still seeking to be grounded in the faith, because I believe that God gave us minds in order to seek Him wisely. I believe there are things I should not let go of, even if I may not “know” them 100%.

    I hope that made sense! I look forward to reading more of your writings, thanks again for posting!

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    • Hi, thanks very much for your comment and it’s great to have you on the blog!

      I certainly don’t mean to be prescriptive about ‘stage 4’ or whatever lies beyond the critical phase – I’ve not really got there yet, so I’m only guessing what it looks like. I suspect it’s probably different for different people, and for different types of people. I’d guess that the key to post-critical faith is probably in things like authenticity, reality, openness, acceptance and trust, and that these will find different expressions depending on our varying backgrounds and personalities.

      As I move on, I certainly hope to remain grounded in God and in Christ. What I think is changing for me is my understanding of what that means and how it works… and indeed, maybe I’ll no longer feel the need to understand precisely what it means or how it works! So I’m not giving up on Christianity, but just moving out of the particular kind of Christianity that requires set answers, unquestionable doctrines and rigid structures. I’d see it as a process of growing up, rather than of becoming liberal or wishy-washy.

      And yes, I totally agree that we need to use our minds!

      All the very best,
      Harvey

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  2. Paul says:

    I think I’ve been partly in the critical stage since my university days. Unlike some of my fellow IVCF er’s I clung to the basics of my inherited faith, questioning many more cultural mores than essential theology. These were intellectually stimulating times and pastors and teachers engaged in dialogue that endeavored to lead in the direction of accepting a reasoned apologetic and thus a stronger faith. However in later years as I began to engage more directly some basic theology such as the authority of the bible, the divinity of Jesus, and universalism which treatened to move me across the conservative/ liberal divide I found dialogue became heated argument. It seems to me that many evangelicals are unwilling to engage in calm, rational discussion if they feel challenged on the issues they have certainty about which first and foremost is the authority of scripture. Consequently I took of vow of silence. I decided in order to maintain my emotional stability, avoiding engagement was the wise course to follow. I will admit it takes great restraint to not react to what I consider ‘ illogical God talk’. It is also very lonely, especially when discussion and debate had been so intellectually invigorating for years.
    So Harvey I do appreciate your eloquence in describing those of us in the critical stage. I must admit there are times I wish I had just not questioned anything, sat back and gone with the flow. Conformity has it’s pluses.
    I must admit throughout my critical years I never anticipated I would end up on the ‘liberal’ side of the divide. I was always trying to find reasons to stay firmly conservative. I think what happened was I had no vested interest ( church, job or friends) that compelled me to conform. I sense that although you have many questions , ultimately the answers must fall on the conservative side even if the answers resort to no answer or mystery. I could be wrong as I fully admit about any of my current beliefs. However it is nice to find a place to share our faith struggles. Thanks.

    Paul

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    • Thanks Paul – yours is an interesting story, and one that I’m certain many will identify with. Thanks as always for your honesty and openness!

      I wouldn’t really identify myself as either fully conservative or liberal at the moment, but a bit of both and neither (hence ‘The Evangelical Liberal’). There are a lot of things I’m fairly liberal on, including scriptural inerrancy, gay marriage, hell, universal salvation, and other faiths. Other things I’m probably more conservative on, like the divinity of Jesus and a (broadly) literal resurrection. Even with those though I feel less need to be 100% certain; and I’m more open to interpreting things in different ways. But I suppose that I do still broadly accept most of the core tenets of historical orthodox Christianity.

      I certainly do wish that the more mainstream church (whether evangelical, Catholic or other) had more room for doubters and questioners. Some individual churches do, and my own has been pretty good for that, but it’s sad that so many people feel rejected or ostracized when they start to move out of a doctrinally and structurally rigid faith into something freer and looser.

      Thanks again,
      Harvey

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