Faith: Moving Beyond Dogma

Faith.  It’s trust and confidence in someone or something.  It’s a conviction about something that’s not based on objective evidence.

While we usually think about faith in terms of religious beliefs or the existence of a deity, we actually have faith about a great number of things in life.  For example, in developed countries, we have faith that the water which comes out of our faucets is safe to drink.  We don’t look for evidence each time we take a drink.  Instead, we have faith.  Of course, lead in Flint, Michigan’s water and non-potable water in many communities give us reason to question our faith in water safety.  But even with growing concerns about clean water in the US, most people think:  “That’s not here in my community.  I trust our officials will do the right thing.”  In a sense, we double-down on faith in such situations.

I recently received an email from a young man struggling with his faith.  He was raised in a religious family and is known for being very devout.  But he’s finding that his faith isn’t as sure as it once was.  Is there a god? Is this god good?  Why do things happen the way they do in life?  He’s been told that to question faith is wrong, but to just believe.  He wrote that he’s tried to “work himself into it,” but his faith just isn’t what it once was.

In responding to this young man, I had difficulty not to say what I really felt:  “How wonderful for you! Questions lead to new insights!”  Instead, I held my enthusiasm and tried to connect with him in his struggle.  I am aware from my own experience that faith grows, changes, and evolves over the course of life.  Some of the best growth occurs when we question and struggle and look to gain new insight.

In the early 1980s, James Fowler, a theologian and professor of human development, published a theory of faith development.  Since its publication, this theory has been studied from many different perspectives.  I won’t summarize all the stages here, but simply say that Fowler describes a process of growth and maturation of faith moving from literal, concrete beliefs through a period of angst and questioning to a stage when faith is not about rules but internalized ways of understanding the world which is marked by compassion for self and others.

In other words, people generally begin with faith in formal beliefs, statements, and creeds.  A formal belief could be that the universe operates on the law of karma, that there is one God, or that Jesus is the savior of the world.   Then, a life experience comes along which doesn’t fit with these formal beliefs.  This causes anxiety and confusion.  One resolution is to give up faith entirely.  For many people, giving up on faith isn’t an actual solution because people are often left with very mixed feelings about the beliefs once held.  Fowler’s theory of faith development shows that one can sort through the transition and come out the other side with a more nuanced understanding of faith.  Faith becomes internalized.  In other words, a person could evolve from a belief that the universe operates on the law of karma, to beleiving in a sort of quid pro quo for each and every action, to an internalized sense of karma that it’s better to do good in the world than evil, no matter what comes my way.  The belief becomes something of a personal ethic.

In the end, I contend that the only way to have a mature, integrated sense of faith is to lose that formal, dogmatic faith which Fowler understands as characteristics of the early stages of faith development.  As with most things in life, maturity is about integration.  With faith, that means not focusing so much on the externals but learning to live in ways that can be described as faithful.


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© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Faith: Moving Beyond Dogma

  1. Hi! I don’t often respond. As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist, studying traditional Buddhism, and having used Fowler’s theories for many years as a Religious Educator, it would appear to me that many of us are evolving up through Fowler’s Faith Development stages. Of course, stage 6 identifies that most evolved . . . Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, etc. His is an informative theory and can be used for many that are struggling with questions of faith. As an Ordained Interfaith Minister, I companion folk through their confusion and process.

  2. Lou says:

    Thanks for your posting. I appreciate your insight and value my UU colleagues.

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