Already Been There
As I navigate through a plethora of changes, James W. Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith, has often come to mind. Fowler was a developmental psychologist from Candler School of Theology who defined religious stages in much the same way Erikson or Piaget defined developmental stages. In Stage One, Wishes and Magic, Fowler says we project onto God the traits of our parents. By the time we realize we have our own religious viewpoint we have moved into Stage Two and Stage Three, the Law and Order and Conformist stages. These two appeal to adolescents and young adults, but prove inadequate when life becomes more subtle, nuanced, and mysterious.
For several decades I would have placed myself in Fowler’s Stage Four, Individuative Faith, in which inner authority and informed conscience comingle with and often replace more traditional faith. Laura Thor, a therapist and spiritual director I know and respect, calls Stage Four Disenchanted Faith.
Stage Five is Conjunctive Faith, in which head and heart reconcile, diversity is valued, and there is a new depth to one’s prayer and a new intimacy with God. Laura simply and descriptively calls this stage Re-enchanted Faith.
It is a paradoxical reality of this good life that we do not grow unless we suffer. If we finally make peace with life’s suffering we have arrived at Stage Six, Universalizing Faith, in which we gain our proper creatureliness. We are imperfect, simply human, yet empowered by the Spirit. Grace, mercy and forgiveness come more easily. Understanding and acceptance become second nature. Judgment is more discerning. Dialogue is welcome and nonthreatening because we know where our grounding lies.
The turmoil surrounding my gender transition and a rereading of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss have nudged me toward the next stage. Wiman cautions his readers, “There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us.” One of those anxieties is doubt. There is a certain smug assurance in a life of embraced doubt. While always present and often instructive, doubt should never be one’s destination.
Wiman defines different types of doubt. One he calls “a furious, centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction.” Yep, know that one – too well. Another is exhibited by, “an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others, some rational or ‘psychological’ explanation.” Yep, know that one too. Then there is what he calls, “an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith?” Yep, got miserable living there.
Wiman suggests a different approach to doubt. What he calls devotional doubting is marked first by humility, making ones attitude impossible to celebrate, then insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest. The third mark is mystery, which always tugs you upward and outward. Wiman believes devotional doubt is where, “faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.”
Inspired by Wiman’s benevolent rebuke, I departed my domicile in the land of perpetual doubt and entered a new place in which my faith has been, if not re-enchanted, at least disturbed from its slumber. If I live long enough and continue to learn from suffering, perhaps I shall enter the land of those who have claimed their proper creatureliness and embrace being simply human, empowered by the Spirit. We will see where life leads. I am grateful to be on the journey.
And so it goes…