Friday was the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I would have thought they were uneasy feast day sharers, Paul’s strident certainty must grate on Peter’s impetuosity of faith and visa versa. It is too simplistic to see Peter as all emotion and Paul as all intellect. A careful reading of Paul will show plenty of emotion hidden behind rational words. Equally, Peter is quite capable of intellectual religious insight. However, that is not the coupling I want to draw attention to. What I want to draw attention to is the way St Matthew has coupled together two episodes the first of which is often read on this Saints’ day. Continue reading “Twin star Biblical Interpretation”
This is a late addition to a series of posts I made and it is in response to Bishop Philip North’s Hope for the Poor which he gave at New Wine in August. It is a good piece of writing and thought-provoking. I am for urban ministry and if you got this far in this series you will not be in any doubt about that. I am for those articles that encourages us to look at what people bring to the Church in more than monetary ways. The problem I want to address is one that is brought by a hidden change of topics in the article. He starts by arguing for an acknowledgement of what the poor bring to the church and ends up with arguing for the greater development of churches ministry to the poor. Without a doubt, the poor need help if their ministry to the church is to be received. It is not easy to draw the poor into the institutions of power and the Church is often too similar to other institutions. It would do the Church no harm to focus. However, I actually want to address here what the poor bring to the Church that is distinctive and why the Church should welcome it.
Let me be clear the Church has a long tradition of holding the poor in high esteem. In the letter from James (James 2:1-6), the Christians are chastised for not welcoming a poor man as they welcome rich. In verse 5 we read “has God not chosen the poor to be rich in faith”. Charity towards them is important enough for it to be a sign of unity to for the Church (Galatians 2:10). The opening of Jesus’ ministry includes ‘proclaiming good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18). Jesus asks us that when we have a feast we should invite the poor (Luke 14:13) and in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes it is simply “Blessed are you poor” (Luke 6:20-21). Matthew 25:40 has the rebuke for not doing it for the “least of these”. Indeed we are told if we are to be perfect we must “sell all we have and give to the poor” Matthew 19:21.
Now not many of us take that seriously but there has been a long tradition in the Church of doing so. Most notably with the Franciscans. St Francis is revered even today for the extent which he sought to be poor and one of the early classics of Franciscan spirituality is an allegorical exchange between St Francis and Lady Poverty. What is more, most monastic orders keep the vow of poverty or the practice of not having personal possessions.
More modern communities where the radical adoption of poverty has featured include Sojourners and Bob Holman. There are others particularly among evangelicals but you almost have to specifically know who they are to be able to identify them. The radical choice of evangelical poverty is not just a call to minimalism and an absence of stuff but to something deeper. A joining with the poor so as to be one alongside them. The Church is not called to help the poor but to join with the poor. It is different. There is much written about the advantages of poverty as a spiritual discipline but there is a world of difference between poverty chosen and embraced and poverty thrust upon you. The poor in the Biblical sense are those who have it thrust upon them.
So far I have argued that Christian relationship with the poor is not just about serving the poor. and also that voluntary poverty is different from being poor and, while a valid and useful religious discipline, is not the same as being actually poor. Equally, we are not called to idealise the poor as if they are automatically saints by virtue of not having enough to eat. We need to take off rose glinted glasses.
There is one thing that all people who are poor experience; that is that they are subject to institutions, forces and beings that they cannot control. Those forces may be represented by the debt collector, the people who give them substandard shelter at inflated prices, government agencies, charitable agencies, the local drug dealer. Basically, they experience daily lack of agency in their lives and have no illusion that they are masters of their fate. They know they are dependent on events and people they cannot subjugate to their will. They will still try and manipulate those events and people to their advantage but this feels more like playing Russian Roulette than solving the Cryptic Crossword. Get it wrong and you will end up in real trouble with only a limited knowledge of the outcome.
This is very different to anyone even slightly higher up the social scale. We are very much Cryptic Crossword solvers. We tend to believe that if we try hard enough, work long enough, or ask enough people we will eventually find the solution to life’s many riddles and be able to run our lives successfully on our own. We may acknowledge the Divine God who judges all but we tend to imagine him rewarding those who play well and punishing those who cheat at solving life’s riddles. We think what is more that the more money we have the less we are subject to vagaries that life brings.
The poor bear witness to the fact that we ultimately are not in control.
Faith actually begins when we realise this and put our trust in another. While we are trying
to micromanage our ways out of possible disaster or trying to put money aside for every eventuality we are in fact also creating an illusion for ourselves that we are in control. If this is the case then it is not surprising Jesus says that it is harder for rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25). Usually the illusions stay until something pretty traumatic happens and then we work hard to regain the illussion. They are our safety net from an anxiety attack that would leave us unable to operate or so we believe. The poor know how to operate while permanently without the safety illusion and they know they often have to risk putting their trust in something they cannot control.
That is the poor know what it is to have faith. They rely on faith, perhaps not in God, though many do believe in God in some form but faith in institutions, the social worker or their mate to see them right. If they did not they would end up overwhelmed with anxiety. The rest of us therefore have some catching up to do when it comes to the technology of faith. While we may be experts at doctrine, have a thorough understanding of the Bible and regular in devotional practice we have little experience of trusting anyone with our existence.
It is the middle class and the rich who need to take the risk for faith, whether that is to embrace voluntary poverty or step out of comfort zone in some other way. Without it we are too shielded from our ephemerality, believing that what we purpose will happen and become self-orientated. Until we open ourselves to risk for faith we cannot know what faith is.
I see the enthusiasm of young people for hot topics: Climate Change, Politics, Immigration etc. I admire it, wish I was not so tired myself but…
Over twenty years ago, pre-new Labour, I sat in the Chapter House in Iona late September. The week was the first ever JPIC week. If you are wondering what the letters stand for that are Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. It was the first time that the Iona Community added Integrity of Creation to their Justice and Peace commitment.
I remember it as a wet day, the room was cold and like all Justice and Peace events the people there were two groups. There were the seasoned battle weary campaigners, there were the new enthusiastic recruits and there was me. Age wise I should have been in the new recruit group, but I was somewhere between struggling out of quite a severe bout of depression and I started young, really young. I was battle injured from the bouts when I had come to Iona ten years earlier. We were asked to list the story of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in the last fifty years. The process was dismal, as defeat after defeat was listed. So much so that I, of all people in that room, started to demand that we somehow hold a candle of light. I was close of suicidal but I knew we had to keep a light or there was no hope.
A decade later I watched many of the new recruits burn out. I was also in the long, still ongoing road, to trying to find a balance. I have never been a vocal campaigner but have spent much of my time engaged in the backroom. Trying to make things happen and improve the lot. I am still here, trying to light those candles. Sometimes I am more active than others but I never totally give up. Often it has involved trying to help people as they approach burn out. I have no illusion on the cost of engagement.
Maybe it is returning to Iona that set this off. Maybe it is that I am making contact with new recruits. If I was in that room I would say to the new recruits today:
- we have been here before this is cyclic,
- there will be times when we make progress (and yes forward is the direction overall)
- long-term engagement with any of these issues is costly
- short of the parousia there is not going to be a quick fix, you need to be in for the long haul
- choose your battles, you can’t do everything and trying to just hastens burnout
- weary campaigners often have wisdom, often hard won, so listen
- but be ready to do things differently – you will at least fail for different reasons.
- make sure that your spiritual oxygen supply is getting through. You cannot really help anyone else if you are suffocating.
I did not think when I posted the previous the blog on a need for liberals to look forward that it was the start of a series. It was a one-off blog but I have since been fleshing things out a lot more. Let me start with the question “When did social progress occur?” There seems to me to be two key times when that happened in relatively modern history. Quite a lot of social progress happened during mid to late Victorian times and then also post-World War II. First I need to make clear one critique here is not sustainable. These were not times when the “City of Gold” became a reality, they are times when moves were made that reflect what I see as the social reform was achieved towards something inspired by the imagery of it.
In Revelation 21:1-4 (ESV) we read:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
It is a place without pain and suffering and where God dwells with humanity so things happen according to his will. At its core “imagining the city” must take seriously the reduction of pain and suffering and living in harmony with God. For me, harmony with God is not marked by religious fervour but by the way we treat other people as icons of Christ particularly the weak and the marginalised.
Before I tell you what in my opinion they have in common, let me tell you one significant difference. They are not both times of wealth in the UK. Yes, the British Empire was at its zenith during the Victorian times and we manufactured goods that the World wanted. However, the 1950s were post-World War II and for much of that time, the UK was experiencing austerity. What is more, the British Empire was largely being dismantled and in the words of 1066 and All That, “America was thus clearly top nation”, So this progress was made despite financial constraint rather than by extra.
What they have in common is both stand out as high tide marks of institutional strength. The Victorian model was that largely of philanthropy and campaigning, while the 1950s was state formalised institutionalism. If you like Victorian was bottom-up while 1950s was top-down. Both were followed by anti-institutional movements. Now institutionalism is not in itself what I think of as good, I think that for people to be busy creating institutions, there needs to be a good cohesive civil society. A society where the owner of the biggest conglomerate feels that they are connected to the sick child in a damp B&B.
Many of the old-fashioned civic institutions are failing. I do not mean state institutions like NHS; I mean things like Working Men’s Clubs, Trade Unions, Literary and Philosophy Societies, Local Professional Associations. These are groups that make up a lot of the third space. By this I mean a space between the Big Institutions – e.g. State, Finacial Markets and Business and the closed small space of family and friends. In this, I am picking quite strongly on what Ray Oldenburg calls “Third Space“. The difference is that whereas he talks of individual Third Spaces, I tend to talk of the whole as “Third Space”. His US argument and from what I know of the last fifty years in the UK would suggest a steady decline in the institutions in this space. The occasions where we function outside the two sphere’s of family and work has decreased because of this.
With the failure of these broad -based civic institutions, many activities formally done bythem have been taken over by professional bodies. I freely acknowledge that the number of charities in the United Kingdom has increased as Hilton et al state. What has to be understood is the nature of the charity has also changed. It is no longer a group of like-minded individuals who get together to accomplish a task and may raise money with respect to it. There is a separation between those who do the work and are financially paid to do so and those who raise the money. To belong to many of these charities involves no more than putting your hand in your pocket. You never need to meet another silly faced human. If you decide to raise money that normally involves some interaction with others but often largely those individuals are colleagues and family. The others on the increase are small caring and support groups such as described by Robert Wuthnow. Although in Britain they are less likely to be Bible study and more likely to be hobby focused. Their problem is they often only attract a very specific demographic. Campaign groups which are also on the rise seem to adopt one or other of these two models. The medium sized group that attracted people from a variety of settings to engage with its aims and more generally socialise is in steep decline. This is in line with Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which is often wrongly represented as portraying an overall fall.
This means that the following is largely true:
- many people exist in a social bubble largely made up of family and colleagues with few friendships that go outside this
- equally the charities, support groups and campaign groups also function in a bit of bubble and do not necessarily connect to those outside their sphere. What relationships there are tend to be with like. Writers groups will connect to other writers groups, feminist groups to other feminist groups, health charity to health charity etc.
- the small support/hobby groups do not have the skill to grow much beyond their current base yet are probably the groups that engage most fully many people. People do not get experience in other groups to bring back to the group and given current legislative practice, there are major disincentives to doing so.
- Many people are not engaged outside of work and family (close friends) networks. When these break down they can very easily lead to those individuals being isolated.
- cohesion between this third space relies on a few individuals who are active in multiple organisations. These individuals are increasingly either becoming professionals or are facing burn-out.
- that means that Milgram’s Six Degrees of Separation is only maintained by a small thread because it is these cross civic institution ties that are essential for the process to work. What we are getting is smaller more highly connected groups and then fewer links to wider groups.
I think I will leave to the next post why this is of concern. Let it just be stated is what I am describing is a thin gruel for sustaining a common life. However it is not good enough to know this is thin gruel, we need to imagine what it would be like to have a properly sustaining common life.
That title comes from a hymn whose first verse goes
God has given us a book full of stories,
Which was made for His people of old,
It begins with the tale of a garden,
And ends with the city of gold.
The verse captures rather succinctly the breadth of the Bible from creation to Revelation. The rest of the hymn focuses on the gospel but I want to look at the beginning and then end and relate them to politics. What I want to take is narratively we are between the Garden and the City. Politically we have a spectrum which I will characterize as conservative to liberal. What I think is that it is quite useful to see the two as trying to direct our attention to one of the ends.
Let me take the easy one first. The conservative end of the spectrum the aim is to return to the Garden of Eden. It will be only in the case of a few religious nutters that that is taken literally. Rather what the Garden of Eden stands for is an imagined perfect past which they want society to return to. They want to put the genie back in the lamp and the apple back on the tree for then we can live happily for they think then the lion will lie down with the lamb and we will live in a good society. The ideal for that society is built of images of the past and the aim is to return there.
If that is the conservative one, then the liberal one must be looking forward to the City of Gold. We are here talking revelation, judgment day and the new Jerusalem. In other words, liberals should have a well-developed eschatology. The problem is that on the whole they do not. I do not mean a cohesive single format, I am not really talking about Utopia here but a bricolage of the images, ideals, and principles that create a rich and desirable portrayal of a future reality. These ideas do not need to be compatible. I am not asking Liberals to be any more reasonable about their golden age than I think conservatives are. If you like we need stories of the city of Gold.
Unfortunately, my feeling at the moment is the entire eschatology is a combination of the formalism of human rights, a notion of equality and being nice or framed with if we campaign hard enough we will achieve it. We need to do better our stories need to grow.
My suggestions for getting there by liberal Christians
- Drop the idea that we can bring about the Kingdom of God. This does two things. Firstly it leads to burnout with people carrying doing the same campaigning long after it has ceased to be effective. Secondly, it has watered down our vision to what may be possible. Though we should work towards the establishment of the Kingdom the ultimate responsibility for heralding its coming lies with God.
- We need to rethink our theology. A theology that is anthropocentric tends to work in times of ease but leaves little to inspire in times of need. We need humility to acknowledge that while God has gifted us greatly, he has not handed the world over to us. It is time to become more theocentric again.
- We need to visit the past. In WWII there were theologians who made sense of resistance even in dire circumstances. The Churches resistance to Hitler was not led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer but by Karl Barth. The isolationist USA was given a theology of engagement by Reinhold Niebuhr, not his brother Richard. I say this as a contextual Reformed theologian who believes that the faith needs restating for every age. However, we can only restate if we know our past and find the resources in it to re-imagine the future.
- We need to think again of the nature of the Kingdom of God. We have made it too much in the image of Western civilization. with hard boundaries of territory and clear distinction drawn between them and us. God is Other, and those who are other uniquely challenge us to see the image of God in them. We do not have to like them; we do have to see the divine in them. If a real alternative to the current capitalist system is going to come about it is not going to be the work of wealthy white males (Sorry Marx and Lenin). They have too much opportunity under the present system. Crucially such a group will have a new anthropology (understanding of what it meant to be human) that empowers them.
- We need to rethink our place in the World. If our theology is too anthropocentric then so is our views on creation. Indeed they tend to be highly egocentric as we view the world first through our concerns, then through the concerns of those close to us, and so on until the rest of creation comes way down the list. If we are called to be stewards of Creation (a reading of Genesis 1:26) then we are bad stewards (Matthew 24:48-51). I am not really happy with that, this planet is more than somewhere to look after while its true Master is away. We need to start telling the story when we are not the hero.
- We need to take sin seriously in all its guises. I do not subscribe to the Garden of Eden story and I believe good is more firmly ingrained in the human psyche than evil. However, I find the narrative of the fall as the pervasive taint of evil in all human activity a good metaphor. That means we need to look for our own failings, we need to be aware of our partial sightedness (we still see but not clearly). The converse is also true, we need a theology that takes God’s judgment seriously. I believe is more interested in our humanity towards each other than in much that the church and society spout. That does not let us have a God where everything goes, it is just different things that are banned.
- We need to start small, big prizes are all very well but it is the small scale that is going to make the difference. I do not really care who is in the Whitehouse as long as it is thinkable that someone who has spouted the views Trump has can be. I am not talking legislation or censorship; I am talking cultural change and that happens in hundreds of small incidences that occur every day. In a sense, I do not want to beat the conservative but to be such a way that they come alongside us. There is space for this, the small scale institution has been significantly undermined in recent decades.
Many will be calling for action and I can see the attraction in that. What I want to suggest is that at the moment we have work to do that needs doing before we can take that action. My concern is if we rush into action we will only gain a pyrrhic victory where the price is paid by the very people liberals are supposed to be seeking advancement for. That unless we are deliberate about imagining and re-imaging the Kingdom of God then in striving for our aims we will end up losing that which we count as central.
This is a think piece because I am reassessing.
About a decade a book came out called “A Churchless Faith” which broadly argued that those who were leaving the Church were Stage IV in the Fowler Stages of Faith and that this made them less than docile sheep in the flock.
Now I am not convinced. Certainly I understand that there are congregations and traditions that like conformist sheep. I have two cautions. Firstly this is to overlook the role power plays in this situation. The transition between III and IV is often connected with a change in power dynamics. The desire is often to be more actively engaged in the decision-making process. Now it might be genuinely a difference of stage, or it might well be a situation of the abuse of power. If it is abuse we are being dishonest by referring to it as a stage difference, equally if it is power struggle does the stage actually matter? The second reason is that it typecasts all congregations as a certain type associated particularly strongly with independent Evangelicals and denominations with strong hierarchical control. There are a lot of congregations out there where this is not the norm. Indeed my experience of URC was that the desired church member was someone in stage IV. That is questioning and engagement with theological ideas and such was actively encouraged.
That said I am in the process of reassessing. Firstly I have come increasingly aware of the number of members in United Reformed Church congregations who were “Dones” and are testing the water again. Secondly, I am struck with how hard many “Dones” have worked to maintain a relationship with the institutional church. Quite often people who have given up have tried several congregations before finally leaving.
There are several things that I notice:
- Unlike many “Nones”, “Dones” may have a fair grasp of the gospel. The idea that sending them on Alpha or another basic introduction to Christianity is they way to start them off is often a BAD Idea. It is a denial of where they are coming from.
- They may indeed have a wrong understanding of the gospel but that is not the same as no understanding and what one congregation considers “wrong” another might accept. Correcting ideas that people have already accepted needs to be done carefully.
- The like many people who have been hurt they are pastorally and politically difficult to handle. They are likely to have sensitivities that you know nothing about. They may be cautious about saying anything at all or go to the other extreme and always have loud views. Both approaches are methods of testing the water.
- There is a good chance that they have some sort of involvement burn, whether that is burnout because too much has been expected of them or catching too much of the heat from a hot internal politics.
- You need to consider that there has at least been a breakdown in fellowship in their Christian experience. Even if it is the case that the congregation they previously belonged to has had to close and they were happy with it right to the end.
A congregation which has a lot of former “Dones” can thus be very turbulent indeed. Ever so often things will get blown out of all proportion to the intention. It maybe something as simple as singing a hymn two Sundays running.
A congregation who wants to be a place where “Dones” can edge back into membership, and I happen to think many URCs could do this, needs to think seriously about how it deals with the following:
- Good governance and open decision-making structures – You want to be trustworthy and seen to be trustworthy. Remember these people have been hurt in their encounters with power in the church previously. Be clear about what you expect from people with responsibility and make sure it applies to all. Work on having checks and balances.
- A theology of restoration – partly a theology of healing, partly one of forgiveness and with something more as there is a need to get beyond the grievances and hurts that “Dones” carry. They have often made the first step but can you offer then something that is worth risking being hurt again for or are they better off in the safety of being done with Church
- A big emphasis on pastoral care – as the place where restoration is worked through. I do not simply mean the building of the relationship between minister and “Done” or elder and “Done” but the care that the congregation gives each other. How does pastoral care fit within church arguments? It is worth thinking about because the one thing I can be certain of is these arguments will arise.
Jamieson, Alan. A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the churches. London: SPCK, 2002. paperback.
Fowler, James W.. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995. Paperback.
I do not call myself a pacifist, my great grandfather was a pacifist, he would rather be beaten and his family’s income stolen than actual defend himself. That takes guts and strength of will. I am not saying I do not have it, but I do not feel that until there you genuinely know your will. So I would say I have pacifist tendencies, but they have never been tested when it counts.
However, when I hear stories such as American Soldiers on Food Stamps I find myself getting angry. While that anger comes out of my pacifist tendencies, it is not an anger at the soldiers. It is anger at the hypocrisy of a society that can applaud men one minute and yet once they are demobbed will leave them to their plight. The world has not changed much since Rudyard Kipling wrote Tommy.
So let me say this now. I believe it is wrong for a country to ask young men and women to do the tasks that they ask people in the army, navy and airforce. I believe that war is best avoided because of what it will cost and often than cost is born by the most vulnerable. This is not an argument against nuclear war, the number of children who die in conventional warfare is high. Some of the deeds done are horrendous. The US authorised the bombing of maternity hospitals in Africa twenty years ago so that the regime could not provide better facilities for women than had happened under British colonialism because it was communist. Do not worry the English invented concentration camps during the Boer War. War leads all nations to behave in vile ways.
However, it is one thing that says that war is not something we should plan for. It is another thing altogether to hold the soldiers who serve as responsible for these vile things they are ordered to do in our name. In many ways, they are as much a victim of war as the children who get killed by a stray bullet. We ask of them what we could not do ourselves, what we are not prepared to do ourselves. In the process of doing so, many come back with injuries both physical and mental that makes integrating into normal civilian life difficult. Indeed there is a sense in which the military, having its own code of behaviour, can institutionalise soldiers and make their return to civilian life difficult even without a disability.
Now if we ask people to do this. I know the government does, not me personally, but the government does on our behalf. Then I see as a basic quid pro quo, that we have a responsibility to look after them. In other words, when a young person signs up to join the services the nation takes responsibility for making sure they are cared for, not just while they serve, but for their life. Often that also includes responsibility for the family as well.
So I will not be there out cheering on the soldiers on parade, may well campaign against various wars and choose not to wear a red poppy. However, I will not be among those who berate soldiers, I will donate to charities that aim to look after them, and if ever there comes the opportunity to vote for better conditions for ex-servicemen and women, they can count on my vote.
I would rather they were not asked to serve, but given that they are, it is the least we can do.
I have chosen to call this ‘Living out the faith’ a piety. Therefore a piety lies somewhere between a morality in the broad sense of how do you make moral decisions in your life and a spirituality that explores how you understand yourself as relating to God. Everyone’s understanding will be different; there is nothing wrong with this; well at least for the Reformed there is nothing wrong with this. This is just my understanding.
I have chosen to call it practical. I think that “practical” is a better term than David Cornick’s choice of “worldly” but I believe we mean similar things. We expect a piety driven by faith to make a difference in the world not just for us as individual but those around and the wider community. In my thesis, I do not use “practical” in the title of the chapter, but I will have to have a section on why I think it is practical or worldly. Maybe the cultural aspect that Max Weber was trying to describe as the “Protestant work ethic” is far more closely allied to this very down to pragmatic approach to faith, than to a Lutheran doctrine but whether either relates to capitalism is anybody’s guess.
[Next Blog not until 1st October]
I am going to try a new tack on the first five stages of faith by Fowler. I have known about Fowlers stages of faith for over a decade now and for various reasons I have been unsatisfied with them as a model and yet have been drawn back to them as containing explanations of what I see happening around me. The two major problems I have are that I do not see faith development as the simple progression that is implied by his structure and I find the sixth stage too dependent on Liberal Christian hagiography.
Before I even start, the sense that I mean by faith here has almost nothing to do with salvation. Faith in this entries take is a human activity that most if not all humans partake in or at least most Western humans do. I am not defining what is correct to belief, I am rather describing those activities that create a person as a being of faith or at least a western person as a person of faith. There is space for the development of correct belief in the descriptionsbut that space could equally lead tofalse belief.
Equally too often in the past Christians have thought that what it is to belong to another faith is the same as what it is to belong to Christianity. There is a lot of room for different forms of faith, but I am no expert of different faiths, therefore my thinking and data which I have drawn on is at broadest a western perspective and at its narrowest a perspective from within a specific Christian Western tradition.
What I am going to suggest is that there are five elements of faith which are loosely characterised by Fowler’s stages 1 to 5 (I will leave the sixth for present as I am not so sure about it). I have chosen elements rather than stages as I wish to make it clear that they are no successive, although I freely admit that it is possible for one element to be dominant at any stage of faith development. However as I see it a fully developed faith would include parts of all five elements. Howeverit is not essential to develop all five equally or to keep a specific balance between them.
Moving onto the five elements:
- The element I wish to draw from Fowlers first stage (which he calls Intuitive-Projective faith), is what I call passive faith. This is perhaps the simplest. It is when the faith of others keep the faith for you. I think it is often derided and forgotten, treated as pre faith, but this simplest form of faith reminds us that at all times our faith is not ours alone but that shared with others. They hold us and we hold them. In this I am picking up the projective part of his definition. That is the faith is projected onto us by the people around.
- The second element I want to draw from the second stage (Mythic-Literal faith) is participatory faith. This is about performing the faith, when an individual starts to be involved in active listening and doing within the faith. It is this sort of faith that gets one to pray, read the bible, take communion, do acts of charity. This one concentrates on doing faith in a very active way. The evidence suggests that this is more basic and more important than is given credit. How one what one understands as happening when one performs will vary with age, faith stage and previous experience but emphasis is on performing of the faith.
- The third element that seems to predominate in Fowlers Synthetic-Conventional faith, I call belonging faith as it stressed being part of a faith community. This really becomes about knowing what the group norms are and conforming to them. The norms can be both about practice and about belief. Under this one also comes the developing of deeper relationships with other believers and participating in communal events. Perhaps to be understood as faith similar to that of a football team supporter.
- The fourth element which I have drawn from Fowlers Individuative-Reflective faith is owned faith. I might well have called this is a questioning of faith, asking whether you agree with the communal norms. This is when it is no longer good enough to take others answers and you want to work out answers for yourself. However as people inevitably do find answers for themselves by this process and by so doing come to an ownership of faith I am referring to this as owned. It should be stressed that the process of developing an owned faith rather than just accepting what is taught is often involves searching and asking awkward questions.
- The fifth element drawn from Fowler’s Conjunctive faith stage is accepting faith; this is about learning to live with the unresolved. The struggle to understand and create a coherent faith, also in the end is doomed to failure. Things can never be that tidily sorted. There comes a stage where a person of faith needs to let go of the questions knowing they have pushed them as fully as they can and the answers that do exist are incomplete. Others may refer to this as learning to live with mystery. It is a coming to terms with the lack of answers, finding that despite not having everything tied down, that somehow faith continues and developing an ability to let go of the questions.
Now at any one stage an individual’s faith will have different mixes of all five elements. Howeverthe lower number an element is the more basic it is. Yes there are stories of people who have come to faith without contact with others, but I think our most find that something holds or draws them towards a faith, long before they actually make an active personal connection. Equally the second is often held to be the essential of any faith tradition. Please note at this point no intellectual assent is necessary. It is only with the third element that this starts to play a role. I suspect that for an active faith an adult needs some component of all of the first three.
Equally the final two elements are the harder ones to develop, I suspect that fifth is always a struggle and does not come easily to anyone. I am also suspicious that some people only ever have low requirements for these elements of faith. The conventional answers of their faith community on the whole satisfy them. For others the very opposite happens and only when they are practicing these elements do they find they can with integrity participate in the participatory and belonging elements of faith. I also suspect that some people with a tendency to approach things with their intelligence rather than emotions may find more need of owned faith than others. That is not to say people who approach things emotionally are without this struggle just that it plays a lesser role.
I also suspect that people who go through a conversion experience go through a process where different elements dominate at different stages of the process. I suspect that at the start people are developing the owned part of their faith, this leads them to question what they have received from their current community. They are then drawn to another community, passive faith if you like, as they start exploring it then participatory faith becomes the dominant, finally as they make the commitment belonging faith dominates. I suspect this cycling happens to a lesser degree with those within faith traditions. Some will cycle many times, quite often moving in a consistent trajectory with each cycle, others will never need to make such big changes.
This cycling while distinctive of conversion experience but it is not the only way elements can change. For instanceI suspect that to strengthening of owned faith leads to a weakening of belonging faith, although I suspect that for many belonging faith is important even when owned faith is quite strong. A growth in accepting faith may well produce a situation where the other four elements of faith can flourish as well.
I have heard this several times. It sounds good even to me and if properly understood it is true but it is rarely understood. It is interpreted to mean “All we need to do is to keep going as we are.” That is dangerous, a false lie, it is the modern equivalent of the servant who was given one talent and chose to bury it in the ground.
The key word is Faithful. Most people associate faithfulness with things staying the same, with remaining as we are, with keeping the status quo. However faithfulness is one of relationship, it is not faithful to suggest inside a relationship that both people must remain the same to keep things as they are, there must in any relationship be space to grow and change. Indeed faithfulness is altering a relationship to accept the change in another. What would we think of mother who kept her baby in nappies as that was a way to faithful or insisted in carrying the child everywhere no matter how big they grew. I think we would feel that such a person was psychologically in trouble. We know in our relationships with other people that being faithful is actually a matter of continual change.
So it is with God, the call for the church to be faithful is not a call for the church to be static but a call for the church to adapt its relationship to God as its circumstances and understandings of God change. Fighting to keep things the same because that is being faithful, is a failure of relationship, and far from being faithful it is highly unfaithful.