What do we mean by ‘faith’, in Lives of Faith?

28 Apr

The interesting part of our study of ‘Lives of Faith’ is that it provides actual data on what we mean by ‘faith’. In a sense it’s an empirical study: to look at how a person’s faith is worked out in their real-life experience, and conversely how their life experience shapes their belief system or convictions.

So at the beginning of this course I set out some of the crucial philosophical or conceptual aspects of this topic—aspects of the ideas of ‘faith’ that need to be teased out and explored.

Here are some of the key elements we consider.

Faith in the New Testament is generally the translation of a greek word, pistis the noun, and pisteuo the verb: which needs an object, and very often that object is a person, and so it has the sense of believing in or trusting, at least as much as the sense of believing some ideas or truths.

So one of the key considerations here is the distinction between believing in and believing that.

Believing that is about ideas, truth, propositions and so on—and, inherently, these are things that can be expressed. Believing that is always about something you can apprehend, comprehend, get your mind around and put into words—and then it becomes a question of whether you have good reason or evidence for believing it.

Believing in is not always so clear. We can believe in someone or something that we do not entirely understand: such as our lover! or our friends. And often we believe some things about that person—that they are beautiful, reliable, fun to be with, etc. etc. But these summary sentences are never the whole of it. Our belief in a friend is much more than we can say, and often more than we know.

Friendship is something that endures through change, so we might say: I never thought things would turn out like this, but still she is my friend.

Like McClendon’s concept of convictions, our belief in someone is more than we know, and maybe we can discover more about it. But even then, what we can express is perhaps never the whole story.

Now faith is much more like believing in that just believing that.

One of the other things to bear in mind as we think about our words for ‘faith’ here, is the difficulty we have in English, since we have only one verb. We have two nouns: faith and belief, but for a verb we usually use believe.

We could use trust, but mostly we use believe. We don’t have a verb, ‘faithing’.

This gives rise to a big problem, when we consider the relationship between doubt and faith. The relationship between doubt and belief is very clear. They are opposites.  But is this the same with doubt and faith?  We need to return to this question!

Some other issues in relation to ‘faith’ as a general concept:

  • Individualism: our culture has for several centuries been essentially an individualist culture. So when people speak of faith, they usually think of the faith of an individual. The modern, evangelical focus on personal experience has strengthened this individual emphasis: we urge each person to believe for themselves. This is the basis of ‘believers’ baptism’, for example, and is also the source of much difficulty for people from strongly communitarian cultures. (A Baptist missionary found it difficult when an entire tribe said they wished to convert and become Christians all at once: for them it was a communal decision. That challenged his individualist concept of faith.)

The major consideration here, though, is the idea that faith as such is inherently individual and subjective, even private. We need to think about the implications and limitations of an individualized and privatized concept of faith.

The alternatives are several: faith may be understood in strongly communal and collective terms, where the actual beliefs of an individual are not the defining aspect: the faith is, and you as an individual may participate in it; (This I would suggest is very much how a lot of Catholic thought has used the concept, except that the term they use for ‘the faith’ here is the church.)

But another option (found in the Anabaptist tradition) combines the two: faith involves both an individual freedom and a communal accountability, and neither one without the other. So there is individual conviction and communal participation, as an expression of that commitment, made freely.

  • Faith as a journey or faith as a static state.

Much of the literature about faith describes it in a way that implies faith is something that does not change: you enter into faith, you have faith, you keep the faith and you don’t change your faith.

On the other hand, there is also the concept of faith as a journey, with many aspects, perhaps stages or periods of different colour or focus.

I will later introduce the idea of ‘faith development theory’, which combines psychological ideas of personal growth and moral development, to suggest some ‘stages of faith’.

As we think about lives of faith, one question is precisely then whether the faith of the person we study is a static dimension of their life, or was it in some way dynamic, more like a journey than a stationary situation.

  • Faith as a ‘success concept’

Philosophers of language have identified some ideas which are categorical: this means they are either the case or not. It’s a kind of all-or-nothing idea. Some have used the idea of ‘success concept’ to describe some of these ideas. By this they mean that the concept either applies or it does not. If it is the case, it ‘succeeds’.  For example, to be married is a ‘success concept’: you are either married or you are not; similarly you are either a graduate or you are not.

There are other concepts that allow for shades or degrees: you might be funny, very funny, hilariously funny, or not very funny.  There are many such factors: kindness, being helpful, being thoughtful.  Usually, we are these things to some measure.

But for success concepts, you either are or you are not: a graduate, married, baptized …

So what then of faith? It is possible to say: You either believe or you do not. But what about faith: can we say you either have faith or you do not?

This seems to me another reason to say that faith is not the same thing as belief.  Faith is not a success concept. There are many shades and stages and moods and styles of faith. That is why is it so interesting to discuss many lives of faith.

(That is why Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ had many different faces around the table—which should not have been painted over to make them all look much the same. It’s a wonderful painting, which has been restored to its original images depicting diverse characters, facial moods, etc.)

So, then, to consider the idea of faith development theory.

James Fowler developed the idea of stages of faith, expressing an approach to psychology very popular in the 20th century. There are two very helpful books here, Fowler’s Stages of Faith, and James Fowler and Robin Lovin, Trajectories of Faith. Both books introduce the ‘stages’ idea but the latter includes some detailed life stories to illustrate:—lives of faith!

Many models of psychology suggested different tasks and levels of growth through childhood, adolescence and adulthood: and some of these make a great deal of sense.

Fowler adapted this concept to look at the lives of a number of people, and identified six possible ‘stages’ of faith, each building on those before it, and allowing that many people never progress all the way through.

As a Christian, Fowler sees Jesus as the one person in all history who has clearly demonstrated the sixth stage, while some of the saints (official and unofficial) have clearly reached the fifth and maybe verged on the sixth.

Here is a very brief summary of these stages: you will see that as the stages progress, faith changes its focus from experiences to belief and then to different kinds of experience. The relationship between experiences and beliefs thus becomes a key element in shaping the stage or style of faith. (This, incidentally, is an entirely individualist concept of faith, too.)

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective Faith           (Ages 3 – 7) The child experiences stories, events and feelings, with imagination and responsiveness, but largely undifferentiated from other stories, even fantasies.

 Stage 2: Mythical-Literal Faith        Concrete operational thinking allows the child to identify ideas, and these may be adopted with a literal understanding. It is characterized by a fairly linear narrative understanding of coherence and meaning.

  Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith    Here, faith takes on a specific form, with beliefs and group identity. ‘We belong to this group.’ This can be strongly affirmed in (early) adolescence.

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith      Here, faith takes on a degree of personal responsibility and identity, often after some questioning or consideration of options.

This may occur in early adulthood, or often not till 30s and 40s.

But this stage may also lead to a restlessness and perhaps chaotic sense of a range of voices, perspectives and options, demanding further reflection …

 Stage 5: Paradoxical-Consolidative Faith      Here, there is a positive acknowledgement of paradox, a range of options not easily synthesized. Consolidation may affirm the inherent or central aspects of earlier belief, while embracing diversity and paradox.

Stage 6: Universalizing Faith    ‘This stage is exceedingly rare.’ Such persons move beyond the categories established by specific traditions, so embrace ‘space’ and inclusion for all others: liberating them from specific cultural, social and ideological shackles. Their faith is not without content, but the content provides a basis for inclusion rather than separation. They are often seen as subversive of the structures which other stages of faith try to maintain. ‘Life is both loved and held loosely.’

There are I think many valuable things to be learned from this approach, even though it too has some limitations. It is a highly individualist framework, imagining that a person’s faith is essentially about them, and is largely about their ideas or intellectual development. Still, there are many valuable insights here about how our ideas and experience do work together.

Then again, the idea of ‘stages’ seems to imply that we move on and leave the previous elements behind, whereas in reality I think we may move forwards and back. And again, in class we discussed how in some aspects of our faith we may be at one ‘stage’ and in others we may be at another stage. Our theology and our worship experiences may well be at very different levels—which leads to another suggestion, and that is that these ‘stages’ might be better described as ‘styles’ or forms of experience.

It is I think an interesting challenge to our implied Christology whether we think that Jesus himself progressed in this way. I suggest that many people find it hard to think of Jesus as growing—and yet the idea that he was from the beginning at ‘stage 6’ seems rather to deny his genuine humanity.

It is also interesting to think of the ideas of God and God’s purposes in the world that may be implied by each of these ‘stages’ of faith, and along with that then to think about what it means for ourselves as living and growing human beings.

These conceptual tools and frameworks are something we can apply as we explore the lives of others, and our own journeys of faith. Some of those in my next posts!

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