March 2017

Stages of Faith: Finding Our Way

We are talking about what James Fowler calls the "Individuative-Reflective Stage" of faith development. Up to this point, teenagers have been contained, so to speak, by the value systems of their family, church, and community. But as teenagers mature, they begin to develop the capacity to step back and reflect critically on that value system.... So, it's almost inevitable that teenagers will reject the all-too-human authority figures who have been telling them what to think and what to do their whole lives. We all have a little Bob Dylan in us.

I can't help but think that the people of Nazareth are acting much like teens in Middle School and High School, policing the borders of their town the way teenagers police the boundaries of their cliques. They don't want any outsiders to question their conventional thinking and the stories they like to tell about themselves. And that's because once they reached Stage 3 faith they decided to stay there. Once they learned the traditions of the faith and embraced them as their own, they became unwilling to question them. But because they aren't willing to question their assumptions about faith, they are not prepared to follow Jesus.

We never hear about him again, but I think the character of Nicodemus is meant to be a stand-in for a lot of us who are not quite there yet, but are on the way. He certainly stands in for Christians who seem to be stuck in Stage Two, thinking too literally about the stories of our faith. Whether we regard them as historically and factually true or dismiss them as nonsense—either way, we miss what the Spirit is trying to do: bring us to a deeper, richer, more multi-layered and contextual understanding of these stories and to a more God-filled experience of their truth for our lives today.

This is the first in a series of sermons engaging with the work of James Fowler, a United Methodist pastor Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He also was the Director of the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics at Emory. In 1984, he wrote Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. In this first sermon, I am focusing on the first stage of faith that Fowler calls "Intuitive-Projective" Faith for children from 2 to 6 or 7 years old.