The Humanist Institute – What on EARTH is “Faith”?

I’m back at The Humanist Institute (a Humanist leadership training program which you can join too!), at the headquarters of the American Humanist Association, and we’re talking about faith. Specifically, we’re discussing James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, an attempt to lend some psychological weight and bring some scientific clarity to the notion of “faith” and how it develops in human beings. It is, I’m told, a seminal work in the field, to be ranked alongside such developmental giants as Piaget, Kohlberg, and Gilligan. Apparently it is used still by the Unitarian Universalist Association as a foundation for some of their educational work.

And, as far as I can tell, it’s bollocks. There are very significant problems with the way the work is presented, but here I want to focus on what I see as the central deficiency: Fowler is criminally unclear as to what he means by “faith”. In a book exploring the development of the same, this is not acceptable. It is not responsible writing. It’s not that Fowler doesn’t try: he makes a number of attempts. It’s just that every definition of the concept he offers is chronically unclear. Here’s his first:

Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is a way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is  way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a shared meaning and purpose (p. 4).

I don’t know what to make of this. As fellow class-member Steve Ahlquist put it, I know what a force field is in Star Trek, but “the force field of life”? What is that? And is faith a “way of moving”, a “way of finding coherence”, or a “way of seeing”? It seems like those must be different things, and if they are different ways of describing the same thing that surely requires explanation – explanation which Fowler does too little to provide.

Later, Fowler tries again, seeking to offer “the most formal and comprehensive” definition of “faith” that he can. What he comes up with is a little poem (!):

People’s evolved and evolving ways
of experiencing self, others, and world
(as they construct them)

as related to and affected by the
ultimate conditions of existence
(as they construct them)

and of shaping their lives’ purposes and meanings,
trusts and loyalties, in light of the
character of being, value and power
determining the ultimate conditions
of existence (as grasped in their
operative images – conscious and
unconscious – of them). (p. 92-93)

In the three stanzas of this turgid verse you see the three components of Fowler’s “triadic” understanding of what faith is – it’s to do with our relationship to ourselves, others, and some set of “ultimate conditions”. But what “faith” has to do with with these three areas of life is far less clear. Fowler attempts to illustrate what he means with a story from Flannery O’Connor, but – at least for me – wholly fails: the idea is as confusing after the narrative as before. Perhaps more so.

What strikes me most about Fowler’s attempt to provide a developmental account of “faith development” is that the term “faith” seems entirely unnecessary. If there are aspects of human development which are worth exploring in his work (I’m not sure there are), then they can surely be captured with less vague, problematic words than “faith”.

Meet Me in St. Louis
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"The Experience of God" Review - Chapter One
About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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