I recently attended a session at a conference entitled “Help me! … But I don’t really trust you.” The session was led by Dr. David Clement, a psychologist, licensed minister, and self-identified Evangelical Christian. In part of his presentation, Dr. Clement discussed James Fowler’s Stages Faith Development, which I thought were particularly meaningful for GLBT Christians as we grow and develop in spite of the hatred and discrimination that we face in the church. It’s important to note that Fowler defines faith as whatever is your source of meaning, and not necessarily a certain religious faith.
Stage 1. “Intutive-Projective” faith (ages 3-7): This stage is characterized by fantasy-filled time in which God is understood as magic.
Stage 2. “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school-age children): This stage is characterized by literally-held beliefs, such as God really is sitting up in the sky on a throne, just beyond the clouds. Children in this stage will also ask questions like “What does God do when he’s asleep?” or “What does God eat for dinner”? Children begin to take on the teachings of their religion and figures of authority, but get confused when authority figures (such as the minister of the church and the children’s parents) disagree on something. Moral reciprocity makes up the worldview of children in this stage – if I do good, I will receive good. If I do bad, I will receive bad.
Stage 3. “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (maybe in adolescence): Here, people begin to reject the norm, over simplify the world, and choose authority hierarchies (i.e. I will follow the rules of my friends, then the rules of my parents, then the rules of my church)
Stage 4. “Individuative-Reflective” faith: In this stage, people begin finding other rules, because they begin to see that one rule does not work for every situation. They search until they find a rule that works, and use that rule until it doesn’t work.
Stage 5. “Conjunctive” (also called Paradoxical-Consolidative) faith: This stage is reached after middle age, only by a few. This stage is about embracing paradox and truly believing that not all things can be resolved intellectually. You learn to live in the questions rather than demand answers for everything.
Stage 6. “Universalizing” faith: This is achieved only by very few, Fowler says Gandhi or Jesus illustrate this faith. “They have generated faith compositions in which their felt sense of an ultimate environment is inclusive of all being. They have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.”
The beauty of this stairstep developmental model is that in a moment of crisis (crisis of faith or otherwise) you can choose whatever stage you want to be in at a given time. Dr. Clement said that at every stage of Fowler’s model, when we move between stages, we will feel like we are losing our faith, or that our faith object is inadequate. As this is happening, a person has three options to choose what to do:
1. Settle/Freeze: This entails not wanting any more facts that might distort your current view or perception of faith. You do not want to hear all of the opinions, you want to settle, or freeze, in the stage that you are. This typically reinforces an immature faith, and in psychology circles, would be called defensiveness.
2. Reject all of this Pie in the Sky By and By: This means letting go of what you have been told or read, and go with your experience of the world. Many people just toss out their faith here, instead wanting to rely on logic or science, things that can be “proven”.
3. Continue to allow one’s understanding of God/faith to grow: With this option, the person is allowed to struggle, and often comes out on the other side saying that they have grown in their faith because of the struggle. This option allows for opposing viewpoints to coexist with each other, and pushes the person to grow and expand their faith to allow for these new happenings.
Gay and lesbian individuals are constantly met with opportunities of faith crisis. It happens when a Reverend who is charged to bring people to God lead a protest at Matthew Shephard’s church with signs like “God Hates Fags” and “Matt Fag Burn in Hell”. It happens when California and Maine pass laws barring committed same-sex couples from marrying. It happens when Jerry Falwell gives a sermon that lists the “top 20 people who are going to hell” and puts gay people on the top of that list. It happens when our mothers and fathers do not accept us because they believe the Bible tells them not to. It happens every minute of every day.
Each time, we have the choice. A mother can say “I don’t need to read any other interpretations of Romans or Leviticus, or listen to any other opinions. I know being gay is wrong, and I will not accept my daughter as a gay person in my home” (Option 1). Or she can say “Romans said being gay is wrong, but I love my gay daughter so much. I guess I’ll give up my Christian faith” (Option 2). Or lastly, she can say, “You know, from what I’ve been taught so far, being gay isn’t good. But I know that God created my daughter in His image. It says so in the same Bible that I get my other Scriptures. So there has to be some middle ground here, a way to expand my faith and my view of God to include my beautiful daughter” (Option 3).
It is so easy and tempting to choose Option 1. Though there is growing support for gay Christians, most of the voices our there are of hatred and contempt, fear and loathing. It would be easy to say “if that’s what Christians are, I want no part of that.” But I encourage us all to choose Option 3, to expand our faith and our human understanding of God to include things that do not always make sense.
I encourage us to sit with our struggles – whether it’s with being gay and believing that God loves you, or whether it’s being a conservative Christian mother trying to decide whether or not to support her lesbian daughter’s relationship – and make room in our hearts where God can grow us in our knowledge and understanding of Him and His will.