What is faith?
‘Faith’ and ‘belief’ are words generally associated with religion and often contrasted with words like ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’. These ingrained cultural scripts highlight the common misconception that only ‘religious’ people have faith. But what is faith?
While faith is often referring to a belief in some transcendent reality, more generally it means:
“the persuasion of the mind that a certain statement is true. It is the belief and the assent of the mind to the truth of what is declared by another, based on his or her authority and truthfulness.”
Who has faith?
Everyone has this kind of faith. Everyone’s view of the world is based on faith. Quite simply because everyone holds to a set of propositions they cannot personally verify in order to exist in the world.
A world view may have ‘religious’ components e.g “there is a god, she created all things, the universe has purpose”, or ‘secular’ components e.g “there is no god, we are the product of time and chance, human life has no greater meaning beyond ourselves”. Both points of view, no matter how passionately held are based on an array of ‘unprovable’, value-laden tenets.
How reasonable those assumptions may seem is more a result of particular upbringing, cultural conditioning and milieu than anything else. This is self-evident in that intellect, education, talent, wealth or status do not in themselves determine a ‘religious’, ‘secular’ or other type of worldview.
Enter James W. Fowler.
James Fowler is a theologian, university professor, human development theorist, and United Methodist minister who has written extensively about the idea of faith.
Faith as examined by Fowler is a universal human activity, an orientation to life that may or may not be religious and
“may be characterized as an integral, centering process underlying the formation of beliefs, values and meanings that (1) gives coherence and direction to persons’ lives, (2) links them in shared trusts and loyalties with others, (3) grounds their personal stances and communal loyalties in the sense of relatedness to a larger frame of reference, and (4) enables them to face and deal with the limit conditions of human life, relying upon that which has the quality of ultimacy in their lives”.
Here’s a summary of Fowler’s stages of faith:
0. Primal/Undifferentiated Faith
(Infancy) – child does not differentiate between themselves and the world. Understandings are formed of primal others who communicate a sense of basic trust or fear.
1. Intuitive/Projective Faith :: “The Innocent”
(3-6) Active enquiring mind free of preformed constructions. The child is powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, symbols and actions of primary adults. Difficulty in differentiating fact from fantasy.
2. Mythic/Literal Faith :: “The Literalist”
(7-12) Coincides with Piaget’s concrete operations. A sense of fairness develops based on reciprocity, stories become important as a way of expressing meaning.
3. Synthetic/Conventional Faith :: “The Loyalist”
(12+) This stage entails a basic shift in perspective and closely relates to Piaget’s formal operations. The interpersonal world comes alive and the individual is able to use hypothetical thinking to ‘synthesise’ a faith that is still generally conformist. There is a deep hunger for acceptance by peers, ideas are not necessarily critically examined or reflected upon.
4. Individuative/Reflective Faith :: “The Critic”
(18+) There are two major shifts in this stage: Individuation and critical reflection. The ‘self’ is differentiated from the group. Independent identity is formed as reflection takes place and the critical choosing of one’s own beliefs, values and commitments. Beliefs may yet be bound by limited perspective and so there tends to be dichotomising and reductionist reasoning.
5. Conjunctive Faith :: “The Seer”
(adult years if at all) This stage involves an ability to hold together apparently paradoxical or polar element as a way of expressing a new awareness that truth is more multifaceted and complex that previously believed. There is a concern for dialogue and a principled openness to new ways of looking at things. A recognition of the limitations of a tradition enable one to be a guardian of that tradition whilst avoiding over-accommodation on the one hand and sterile protectionism on the other.
6. Universalizing Faith :: “The Saint”
(“exceedingly rare”) There is a sense of wholeness and a desire to act on what is good for all people everywhere. They have a dream and will act upon it with deep commitment often at personal cost. There is an abandoning of self. Faith and moral vision become more universal. Figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa are often cited as twentieth century examples.
These are only brief summaries. A google search will yield more information. There is a more detailed analysis of Fowler’s stages here.
- http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faith [↩]
- His most well known book is James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1981. [↩]
- Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life (1996) by Fowler, p. 56 [↩]
- The titles in quotes are Charles McCullough’s. Other faith stage theorists include Robert Coles, Sharon Parks and John H Westerhoff III [↩]