Yesterday, in one of my Facebook groups, I was criticized for my admiration for Fowler’s Stages of Faith. And, as is often the case, it turns out that the reason is a nearly-complete misunderstanding of the book–not its content, but its applicability. I question whether you can make the kind of category error that was made if you understand the content well, but it finally came around to the following:

I find Fowler’s stages unhelpful for the spiritual formation and development of individuals or for congregations.

Well, there’s a reason for that. In no way does Fowler at any point in the book suggest that his purpose.

Using Stages of Faith as a resource for spiritual formation and development (and I can raise questions about what my interlocutor means by that) makes as much sense as trying to cut down a fully grown maple tree with a nail clipper.

Now, you probably could take down that tree with your trusty Trim Trio nail clipper. But it’s going to be a lot more work than it needs to be, it’s going to make a mess, it’s going to leave the tree in pretty much unusable condition for anything but mulch, you’re more likely to have some kind of weird accident, and you’ll ruin a perfectly good set of nail clippers in the process.

I’m no landscaper, but my guess is a chainsaw is a better choice if you need to take down a tree.

Tools matter. Choose them wisely, and use them well.

When you’re not in an emergency situation and have to make do with whatever is at hand, it seems to me it’s always better to choose quality tools designed to do the job. When I’m cooking, I don’t try to cut a slab of pork ribs apart with a paring knife, or boil pasta water in the coffee maker; a flat wooden spatula might be the best thing to stir a pot of soup, but I need to change to a ladle for serving. When I’m knitting, I choose the needles that work best with the yarn for the project, giving consideration to whether metal or wood might work best with the yarn and pattern, how loose or tight I want the stitches in the finished product to be, and how many stitches per row or round need to be accommodated.

Learning a craft well means that you learn what tools are available, which ones are appropriate for the varied operations which compose that craft, and you select the best available for each project or task. After a while (often, not very long), you learn just by “eyeballing” a tool whether it will work for the operation you need to perform–the size, the material, the shape. You hold the tools in your hand, you work with them, make a few mistakes (which sometimes lead to inventive new ways of practicing the craft), and over time you become proficient in selecting the tool that will help you achieve the desired results most effectively.

Ministry is (among other things) a craft. Why then, if church leaders really believe that the human soul is moderately important, would they make the choice of resources to perform their tasks without properly identifying which tools are appropriate for the specific operations of which the craft is composed?

Stages of Faith, as much as I admire the book, is the wrong tool for congregational development or for the spiritual enrichment who are committed to a particular religious tradition. Even a cursory reading of the first two chapters (at most) makes that abundantly clear–it is not a “how to” book for people to advance their spiritual life, or deepen their relationship with God, or obtain more knowledge about their own religious tradition. Indeed, for Fowler, “faith” does not even need to be religious at all, or believe in/relate to a deity.

If your task is to give spiritual guidance to an individual or develop a congregation, this is the wrong tool. Put it down, find a better one. But don’t blame a spoon for not being a knife.

It does not advance ideas about how to “develop the congregation” so that all members are at a more advanced stage. It doesn’t even tell a pastor how to deal with a multi-stage congregation. My interlocutor made noise about how we tend to value people at Stage 4 and 5 more highly than we should–which makes no sense, because Stage 4 is when people are most likely to start developing a sense that “congregation” is not a good thing for them any more. Even though many do not leave at this point of development, it is the most likely time for a person to part ways with institutional religion (whether permanently or not). How, or why, a congregation would “value” the very thing that threatens its existence, is a puzzle to me. (And this is the point where I wonder how well my interlocutor really understood the content.)

So why, if the standard reasons Christian leaders have ignored or denigrated Fowler’s Stages of Faith, do I admire it and find it helpful in navigating my own inner life?

Because I’m not asking it to do anything it wasn’t meant to do. Just like I’m not trying to butcher a cow with a pair of tweezers.

Stages is primarily a description of how people advance, not in their religious life, but in faith as Fowler describes it:

Faith is not always religious in its content or context. . .Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

(I’ve said quite a bit more about it here.)

You can’t tell an individual–much less a congregation–how to move from one stage to another. And even though my interlocutor is correct that there can be somefluidity between stages, he is incorrect (per Fowler) in saying that you can move from Stage 5 to Stage 1 because of a life crisis. You can have elements of an earlier stage. I believe myself to be clearly Stage 4, but I know that when I find myself lapsing into “prayer” (whatever that may mean in my life these days; I’m not sure it is what most Christians would call “prayer”), there are probably elements of the more reciprocal Stage 2 attitudes as I move through life. But that is definitely not the dominant theme of my spiritual life. (Indeed, I believe that most prayer-as-the-Church-understands-it, is Stage 2, at most Stage 3.)

Stages is, at most, a diagnostic method; It has been, and continues to be, helpful in better understanding and coping with my malaise around congregational life and conventional church participation. It has given me a better understanding of the why of where I am; knowing that my current condition has been observed and (sympathetically) named by a respected scholar has helped me become friends with my own discomfort.

I suppose I should have expected the misunderstanding and dismissal that I encountered with my interlocutor. The old saying that “when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” can also be reversed. “When you’re surrounded by nails, ever tool looks like a hammer” is appropriate in this case. If all you can see is the need to deepen a person’s commitment to a particular religious tradition, or to “develop a congregation”, you’re going to assess every resource based on whether it’s going to meet those needs.

But there are other needs, other tasks and projects. They need other resources. We’ve been a bit blinded to that by the last thirty years or so of “congregational development” (the effectiveness of which can be debated, but I will leave it to others to host that conversation).

For now, I am happy to have a tool that works for the task at hand, for the making-sense of my own journey as a Past-Christian. I recommend it for others engaged in similar work for themselves.


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