John Wesley had a term for a Christian who was making headway to spiritual maturity, sanctification. He used the words “Christian perfection” to describe someone who reached a level of maturity that modeled things like selflessness, unconditional love and a willingness to suffer on behalf of others.
How many Christians really feel they have reached perfection? Of course, the answer should be zero but does that keep one from trying to grow in their faith. Adam Hamilton in Chapter 4 of Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White addresses the idea that Jesus said we should have the faith of a child. I think the main idea that may have been intended was that Jesus admired the trust of a child. It is wonderful to see a person with great trust in God, but Hamilton also adds that adult faith is “thoughtful, reflective and able to recognize and embrace paradox and ambiguity.”
This leads to the final three levels of faith development that Hamilton references in Dr. James Fowler’s book Stages of Faith. Buckle up, you are not going to like stages four, five and six.
Stage four is called Individuative Reflective Faith. This stage of faith is usually brought about by some personal trial. Many people don’t have this level of development because the process happens due to some faith shattering experience [divorce, horrible sickness, incarceration etc.]. For the first time in a person’s life, the faith that has been passed on from others [parents or authority figure] does not fit anymore. People at this stage of spiritual development realize that the Bible does not have to be taken literally for it to be God’s word. The world is not all black or white. The absolutes and certainties that once seemed so secure are not there the way they used to be. As you can imagine, this stage of faith can lead to sleepless nights, “dark nights of the soul” and just general soul-searching.
This stage sounds painful doesn’t it? Who would want to go through this? People have hard times but that is where the greatest growth occurs for many people. The crucible is an appropriate image for this stage. Just as metals are heated to a very high intensity to change them, so are we. We find ourselves in a place where we have to change and make difficult decisions.
What is on the other side of this stage? Conjunctive faith is the stage that follows. The word conjunctive is key as people in this stage begin to bring things together. Hamilton states “seemingly contradictory things are at one and the same time true, in which seemingly irreconcilable ideas can be held together and in which seemingly absurd things are actually real. At this stage, people become more open to and tolerant of the views of others.”
If I may editorialize, this stage does not mean that faith continues to be shattered as in stage four; instead, a new faith emerges that sees beyond the things that divide us. This new faith builds bridges, is open to sharing love with others and allows the sharing of ideas.
Universalizing Faith according to Dr. Fowler has possibly been achieved by rare people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa but it is something that most people do not experience. Even letters from Mother Theresa expressed the many years of spiritual doubts that she had. She stated that she often did not feel the presence of God in her life, but she overcame those feelings and became selfless, able to express unconditional love and suffered for those less fortunate.
Here is the rub.
Most Christians never get to stage four or stage five for that matter. One would not expect to get to stage six but it is very common to cling to conventional ideas of faith and stop searching for answers. The tried and true is good enough. To go beyond the ordinary takes too much work and even if a crisis in life occurs, most people want to rush back to the status quo. The painful growth associated with constructing new belief is just too hard.
Let’s put all this in the context of today’s world. Is it any wonder that people refuse to get along with others? I think not, because it is too challenging to understand another’s point of view. Slap negative labels on people. That’s fast and easy and requires little thought. Holding back on a label and trying to get to know someone else takes time and patience and good listening [mental work].
I hate to end on a negative note but let’s be real. Pastor Hamilton had a very “realistic” parishioner comment to him about his teaching of Dr. Fowler’s book. “Adam the problem is that most people in the world will never leave stages II or III and you are challenging this congregation to enter stage V. They’ll never be able to do it.”
Hamilton’s response: “I cannot accept the fact that people cannot move beyond three.”
I can’t either. I know people who have moved beyond stage three. God bless them. They inspire me to be a better person and make we want to try to move on down the road toward sanctification.