Between Two Worlds Day 3
I often sit at my desk while I am pondering a sermon topic and catch myself looking at the books on my shelf. A little wave of sadness often overtakes me. Probably 80% of the books on my shelves I don’t dare use publicly. Part of that is because it would be too politically risky to share much on the topics of mysticism and mythology and the “Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen.” Part of it is because my congregations haven’t been prepared to have the religious and theological foundation to handle it. You can’t give a baby a steak. Meaty matters are for those whose digestive tracks can handle it!
The comments to my post yesterday, Jesus Meets Joseph, all had a thread of how to deal with literalistic belief in churches and individual relationships. Each of you have or are working on making your peace with the reality that literalism permeates our culture and religious institutions. Some of you have left the church completely and probably for good. Others of you have either stayed or come back, but have learned to co-exist in your own way either with a greater sense of acceptance or a better ability to be avoidant. But the issue is real as you all have pointed out.
I haven’t decided yet if our churches are being compassionate or lack courage. One of the dynamics that I have witnessed over and over again is that the churches I have served are generally made up of a greater number of folks who use a metaphorical lens for reading the Bible (or any religious literature). But at the same time they have been protective of those who use literalistic lenses to interpret the Bible. Sometimes the pressure is subtle and sometimes it is overt–but I get asked to be careful that I don’t offend those whose faith is built on a rigid, literalistic certainty.
I have to admit that I appreciate these people. They would rather be quiet about their more ambiguous, open, and tolerant approach to faith than to disturb the faith (or sometimes incite the ire) of those who insist on literalistic interpretations. I appreciate their sensitivity.
What I don’t appreciate is being asked to preach as if I everyone had just emerged from their childhood Sunday School classes. What I don’t appreciate is the tens of thousands of dollars I spent on theological education only to be told that what is taught in seminary stays in seminary. And what I don’t appreciate is feeling like my books are arranged as if they belong in two separate worlds–books that fit in the church and books that feed my soul.
Many years ago I did a little consulting with government and human service agencies on how to meet the spiritual needs of the clients they served in correctional facilities, foster care, and children’s services. One of the books that was extremely helpful was James Fowler’s The Stages of Faith. In it he describes how faith development follows fairly predictable patterns just as psychological human development does. One of those stages is the Mythic-Literal stage where a person takes on the stories, values and morals of their community in a sort of rigid, literal relationship to them. This is a natural stage of childhood.
Fowler says that a person begins to move to the next stage when those values begin clashing with other stories and values as they meet their peers, read, get educated, travel, etc. This typically happens in adolescence. Most people successfully negotiate their way through this as they near adulthood. The strange thing is that while people continue to mature in every other area of their life, some people stall in their faith development. Rather than graduating from the simplicity of Sunday School-level faith they actually work harder and harder to defend the simple literalism that naturally belongs to that stage of development.
Fowler traces the level of faith development through six different stages showing that the vast majority of people reach the fourth or fifth stage sometime in their lives. Stage Six is for those who often end up giving their life on behalf of truth such as Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Archbishop Oscar Romero, etc.
I love Fowler’s approach. And, quite honestly, I have found it extremely helpful in counseling people and consulting with human service agencies. My question however is, “Who gets to tell people their faith is stuck at Stage Two.” The higher your stage, the more developed you are, and the less reason you have to defend your faith. Which explains all your comments. Some of you have left the church because of the literalism and others of you have quietly made your peace with it because you have no need to fight it. A sign of faith development!
Personally, I too feel it’s okay to have a Sunday School faith. I just wished I could use the rest of my books.