catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 16 :: 2004.10.08 — 2004.10.21


All you ever wanted to know about ?

I was told that when my kids asked me about sex, I was supposed to answer their questions honestly?whatever their age. I was assured that if I shared information that was too advanced for my child, that he would simply absorb what he could. I?ve tried to honor that rule and it has worked very well. As my kids get older, they move into different stages?they can understand different realities, receive deeper truths.

They don?t believe the same things about sex that they did a couple of years ago. In a couple more years their picture of sex will be something totally different than what it is today. And all this in spite of the fact that I have never told them a lie?nor have I ever sought to deceive them in any way.

I?ve come to see me own journey of faith in much the same way. The stories I heard as a child left me with a certain set of pictures in my mind and a certain set of beliefs. As I have grown, my insights and understandings have grown. What I once believed was literally true, I now find to contain far more significant truths. Today I continue to find insight, to discover underlying messages and nuances of meaning.

Psychologist James Fowler believed he found a consistent pattern of seven stages of faith. The stages can usually be identified along certain age ranges, but a person can become stuck at a certain stage despite maturing in years. In fact most people never move beyond stage 3 or 4. Fowler found these stages to exist no matter what the religion of the person he was interviewing. Each stage reads Scripture differently, understands God uniquely, and lives life according to the mindset of that stage. We cannot yank others up or down to our own stage of faith?but we can learn to see all of the stages as important and valid expressions of faith, hoping that people in all stages will find they are served and nourished.

I invite you to consider these stages and to decide the stage in which you find your own faith today. Here is a brief summary:

  1. Primal/Undifferentiated faith (Infancy)
    • Pre-linguistic.
    • Influenced by infant?s sense of trust or mistrust, sense of self-worth.
    • Influence of the primary caretakers.
  2. Intuitive-Projective faith (Early childhood; 3-5y)
    • Imagination runs wild.
    • Uninhibited by logic; reason does not count.
    • Absorbs culture’s strong taboos.
  3. Mythic-Literal faith (school years; 6-12y)
    • Symbol and ritual begin to be integrated by the child.
    • Literal interpretations of myth and symbol are possible (?The Bible says??).
    • Harnessed imagination and linear thinking (Cause and effect).
    • Strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe.
    • Cosmic powers are almost always anthropomorphic.
    • Legalistic faith (right or wrong thinking).
  4. Synthetic-Conventional faith (adolescence; 13-21y).
    • The majority of the people.
    • Faith is an inseparable factor in the ordering of one’s world.
    • Characterized by conformity.
    • One’s identity by aligning oneself with a certain perspective, and lives directly through this perception with little opportunity to reflect on it critically.
    • Dichotomous thinking: us and them.
    • Top-down authority.
  5. Individuative-Reflective faith (young adulthood; 22-29y)
    • Stage of angst and struggle.
    • Questioning one?s identity and belief.
    • Personal responsibility for one?s beliefs and feelings.
    • Much disillusionment.
    • An uncomfortable place to be in.
    • Danger of becoming bitter.
  6. Conjunctive faith (Midlife and beyond; 45+y)
    • Some adults can acknowledge paradox and transcendence vs. rationality.
    • Grasping reality behind the symbols and is drawn to and acknowledging of the symbols of other’s systems.
    • This stage makes room for mystery and the unconscious.
    • Universal justice beyond one?s own system.
    • In the “big picture” the walls between culture and tradition and between people come down.
    • Overwhelming, ecstatic stage in which one is radically opened to possibility and wonder.
  7. Universalizing faith
    • No more desire for self-preservation (stage 6), but one becomes an activist (subversive) for a unitive vision beyond usual criteria of normalcy.
    • Not self-preservation, but a sense for self- and other-transcendence.
    • Living in a universal community.
    • Gandhi, Martin Luther King; Bonhoeffer, Abraham J. Heschel, Mother Theresa, Thomas Merton, Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu, etc.

We cannot move forward on our faith journeys unless we are willing to let the Holy Spirit continue to work in our lives: opening us up to new insights, revealing to us new information, inviting us to new ways of thinking and believing. We don?t ask for God?s revelation one time and hold it all in our grasp. Just like kids learning about sex, we aren?t expected to ask once how it works and never ask another question again. As we keep asking, God answers us over and over again—much like I answer my children?s grasping questions. And like my children, I absorb from what God reveals that which I am able at any particular moment to absorb. In time I too will come to understand different realities, and to receive deeper truths.

Sometimes those new insights really shake us up. Be careful what you wish for ? you just might get it!


Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

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