Friday, January 21, 2011

"That's Not My Experience, So It's Not Real"

James Fowler's Stages of Faith development is the foundation for many people who struggle with or reject religion - or, at least, the idea of organized, institutional religion. There are various ways to define this theory, from the straightforward and simple (Wikipedia explanation) to the ludicrously complex, academic and nearly indecipherable (Women's Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development). This idea is very helpful for many, and I appreciate its impact for good in the lives of those whom it helps.

My biggest issue with Fowler's theory, however, is the idea many take from it that the stages are linear, absolute and universal. In other words, there is a tendency to think that everyone has to go from belief in / acceptance of / activity within a religion to some kind of shattering doubt that leaves them feeling lost and bewildered (or even angry) to a new awareness of the lack of any absolute Truth. Even without Fowler's stages of faith, this idea of spiritual progression as totally linear leads dedicated members to devalue others whom they see as "not progressed enough to understand the Restored Gospel" - but it also leads disaffected members to devalue others whom they see as "not progressed enough to understand the problems with the Restored Gospel".

I know enough faithful members who embrace ambiguity and uncertainty to question the assumptions many disaffected members make about faithful, dedicated, fully active members - that, somehow, being a "true believing member" automatically means one has not been enlightened like those who become disaffected. It's possible to pass through Fowler's stages and never leave activity in the Church - and actually to qualify as a true believing member in every way that really matters. I understand that many members who have never doubted might have qualifications for faithfulness that I don't accept, so I realize that "what really matters" is as subjective as anything else, but making life stages so linear only validates "those who agree with me" while invalidating "those who disagree with me".

I think there is great benefit for many in Fowler's stages, but I think there is great danger in assuming that experiencing the basic parameters articulated in them must be accomplished in one way. It is much like the idea common in our schools (and many professional development groups) right now that all students are benefited by doing "projects" that engage each and every one of them in all learning modalities. I can't tell you how many times I've been involved in activities that ask the participants to "visualize and draw" something relative to a concept. That's fine and dandy for those who are visual and can draw with any degree of ability; for those like me, however, who can't draw stick figures, this type of activity is a frustrating, total waste of time and mental energy. It might be wonderful and even necessary for those who have been left out of traditional teaching methods, but it does nothing whatsoever for me.

In summary, I just don't like people insisting that other people learn and grow and experience exactly as they do - whether that be teachers, bosses, faithful members or disaffected and ex-members. There's too much judging of others in this life as it is, and it generally boils down to, "That's not my experience, so it's not real."

No comments: