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”.

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.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    It seems to me, we can’t begin the journey of knowing things with what is proven; we have to begin with what is believed. Any “truth” we hold will be grounded on a set of presuppositions that cannot be proven but merely believed. This seems a worthy way of understanding faith. We begin with believing some things without evidence, but often these are the most important things (ramification-wise) we can believe.

    • James Croft

      I agree and disagree. I generally think there will be beliefs within our scheme which are more “foundational” than others, and which bear more epistemic weight. But I do not agree that we have a simple choice between “merely” believing in something and “proving” it. Some of my core beliefs cannot be “proved”, but they can all (I think) be robustly justified and demonstrated to be reasonable, particularly in comparison to other beliefs which could take their place.

      There is a genuine difference, in my view, between simply assuming something to be true to make progress, and holding something provisionally to be true and assessing the epistemic fruit of the resulting construct.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    James you wrote, “I generally think there will be beliefs within our scheme which are more “foundational” than others, and which bear more epistemic weight.”

    Certainly both what one takes to be “foundational” and “weight” bearing are value judgements dependent on what we presuppose as worthy of being borne and the structures we wish to erect.

    You wrote, “But I do not agree that we have a simple choice between “merely” believing in something and “proving” it. Some of my core beliefs cannot be “proved”, but they can all (I think) be robustly justified and demonstrated to be reasonable, particularly in comparison to other beliefs which could take their place.”

    Yep. And what will count for you as evidence here will again be dependent on your value judgments.

    You wrote, “There is a genuine difference, in my view, between simply assuming something to be true to make progress, and holding something provisionally to be true and assessing the epistemic fruit of the resulting construct.”

    I agree. That seems to me the best we can do, and eventually our presuppositions can only be justified in a circular fashion–which is a fallacious move. Moreover many differing sets of presuppositions can do that work–so how shall we choose between them? I would argue that “faith” is a selection between competing presuppositions. You dive into a reality and breath its air, enjoy its story, and function in its light.

    I like your blog. Peace.

    • James Croft

      The point about values doesn’t seem to me me apposite: we are talking epistemic structures here, so by definition the value of the schemes will be judged in terms of their epistemic value.

      You say “eventually our presuppositions can only be justified in a circular fashion”. This I wholeheartedly disagree with. Even if they can only be justified in comparison with other presuppositions, we do not have to rely on circular reasoning. This is a vey slippery apologetic move – not every epistemology is debased, and some are more reasonable than others.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    You wrote, “by definition the value of the schemes will be judged in terms of their epistemic value.”

    What counts as “epistemic value” cannot be know a priori. How do you establish this?

    You wrote, “Even if they can only be justified in comparison with other presuppositions, we do not have to rely on circular reasoning. ”

    Again, by what criteria shall we judge presuppositions? And who gets to decide?

    You wrote, “This is a vey slippery apologetic move – not every epistemology is debased, and some are more reasonable than others.”

    Its a slippery slope, I suppose, if you don’t like the conclusion. But more importantly, what counts as “reasonable”? And why value “reason” over other attributes? Eventually, it seems to me, you must presuppose based on your preferences/desires/passions/sentiments.

    Peace.

  • http://AA smrnda

    I agree that we all start with some number of assumptions, If we’re going to judge presuppositions, we should probably go with the ones which require the fewest assumptions. The whole notion that ‘everybody makes assumptions so everybody is using circular reasoning’ is used to pretend that assuming basic axioms of logic (like A and NOT A cannot both be true at the same time) is just as big an assumption as starting with the belief that a particular religious text is a reliable source of truthful information. If anybody seriously thinks that two assumptions are equally circular, then make a case. To me, it’s just an argument by obfuscation tactic – avoid admitting that you’re making big assumptions and avoid defending them by arguing that all assumptions are equal.

    On faith, none of the definitions really deal with it – they deal more with the role that belief plays in shaping people’s experiences and helping them find meaning, but ‘faith’ at least in the religious sense seems to deal mostly with believing things not open to normal means of empirical evaluation. It’s like the definitions talk about the effects of faith on people but not faith itself.


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