Saturday, 30 April 2011

Stage four faith

I have a story to share with you tonight. It's come from the preparation I've been doing for my next course essay, which is going to be about something called 'stages of faith development'. I shall explain what that's all about in a moment but first, here's the story. A guy is relating how he went to a couple of churches when he was around fifteen, partly because he 'was interested in checking out what this Christianity business was all about' but mainly because he 'was interested in checking out the girls'.
The first church I decided to visit was just a few blocks down the street, and it had the most famous preacher of the day, a man whose Sunday sermons were broadcast over every radio wavelength in the land. At the age of fifteen, I had no trouble spotting him as a phony. However, I also went up the street in the opposite direction to another church which also had a well-known preacher, although not nearly as famous as the first. His name was George Buttrick, and at the age of fifteen, I had absolutely no trouble spotting him as a holy man, a true man of God.

My poor fifteen-year-old brain didn't quite know what to make of this. Here was the most famous Christian preacher of the day, and as far as I could see at fifteen, I was already well ahead of him in my spiritual growth. But then, in the same Christian church, there was another preacher who was obviously light-years ahead of me. It didn't seem to make any sense, didn't seem to compute, which is one of the reasons I turned my back on the Christian church for the next twenty-five years or so.
This is an excerpt from M. Scott Peck's book 'Further Along the Road Less Traveled'.
He also notes that during his work as a psychotherapist he realised that religious clients of his who really engaged with the therapy tended to lose their faith, while non-religious clients who engaged tended to become more spiritually minded. Peck came to appreciate that people are in different places, spiritually speaking, and that these places can be grouped into distinct stages. He does offer two important caveats, firstly that others have put forward similar, more scholarly, proposals and that his categories are fuzzy, not rigid. People do not always fall quite as neatly into his psychospiritual pigeonholes, as he might like them to do, Peck writes!

Dave Schmelzer is a church leader who credits Peck's ideas with transforming his attitude towards churches. Schmelzer had become a Christian a while ago but still had what he calls a 'challenging' relationship with churches. This all changed when he read about Peck's stages of faith theory, which suddenly made sense of his frustrations with churches. I'll give a quick summary now of what Peck saw as the stages of faith, so that (hopefully) the rest of what I have to say makes some kind of sense...

Stage 1: Chaotic / anti-social
As toddlers always demand what they feel they need, people in this stage rarely consider other people's feelings, needs or wishes. Peck says that in general, this is 'a stage of absent spirituality and the people at this stage are utterly unprincipled'.
Stage 2: Formal / institutional
This stage is about rules that must be followed, corresponding (Schmelzer says) to a typical child of six or seven. Peck believes that the majority of church-goers fit this stage, being 'dependent on the institution of the church for their governance [and] very attached to the forms of the religion'.
Stage 3: Sceptic / individual
In the next stage, mapping on to many people's experience of teenage life, the person is questioning and doubting, viewing the certainties of stage two with some suspicion.
Stage 4: Mystical / communal
For Peck, there is a stage beyond the doubting and the scepticism, where it is often the case that the beliefs rejected in the transition from stage two to stage three are embraced again, albeit in a rather different form.
So there you have it. Do you recognise yourself in any of these stages? What has particularly struck me about the stages of faith idea is that it explains (maybe) why two Christians can talk together and each think the other is speaking a different language. Or why you can read certain Christian authors and marvel at how different their faith seems to yours... The church that Dave Schmelzer leads is in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a university town like its namesake in the UK. Being the home of two major universities (Harvard and M.I.T.), the town is full of intellectual people who love to debate and question. So these people are unlikely to react positively to a stage two, rules-based kind of Christianity, which sees God as something like a 'giant benevolent cop in the sky' with 'a certain kind of punitive power which He is not afraid to use on appropriate occasions' (quoting from Peck). Here's how Schmelzer describes his experience of this:
When I went to resolutely stage 2 churches, I was baffled... The things they talked about struck me as heady, as abstractions that I perhaps didn't have any quarrel with, but I kept waiting for them to tell me something that would call me into the profound but hopeful and life-changing mystery that I seemed to be entering. Instead, I found their whole purpose was to remove all mystery, as if mystery were the enemy and certainty were what we were looking for.
He says that a different approach is needed to share the good news of Jesus with people who have already rejected an approach to life that is centred on rules and unquestioning obedience. Trying to start stage two type churches in areas full of stage three people just will not work:
Many great people have been commissioned by vibrant, Bible Belt churches to come here [to Cambridge] and start a new church in the heart of paganism. These churches are often faith filled, but they almost always stay quite small. If Peck is right, stage 2, by definition, cannot reach those in stage 3. Stage 3 people, rightly, are never going back. We often meet folks who grew up in stage 2 churches, who led youth groups there, and who then went to college (that home of stage 3) and lost their faith. When they find their way back with us [Schmelzer's church], what they realize is that – to their surprise – they never quit believing in God. What they quit believing in was stage 2.
Mystery and uncertainty are okay in our spiritual life. Daring to ask questions like 'Why do natural disasters happen if God is all-good and all-powerful' doesn't mean your faith is weak. Instead, it may mean that your faith is stronger; because you're daring to ask such challenging questions. In any case, I think our churches and our society in general really must allow people to ask the difficult, uncomfortable questions. In explaining his use of the word 'mystic' for stage four of faith, Peck says this:
Mystics are people who love mystery. They love to solve mysteries, and yet at the same time, they know the more they solve, the more mystery they are going to encounter. But they are very comfortable living in a world of mystery whereas people in Stage Two are most uncomfortable when things aren't cut-and-dried.
And here's what Schmelzer has to say about his vision of what stage four Christianity can be. I think this is just beautiful:
Stage 4 is all about life transformation, about a God who actually does stuff that we very much want done in our lives, a God who navigates his way through all the evil and pain in the world to somehow triumph in the end, both in our moment-to-moment lives and in the world itself... [It's] about this unexpected God, this arresting life changer, this profound mystery who is mysterious primarily because of his profound desire to be known, to be walked with, to be drunk into our thirsty spirits, to be lived.

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