The precursor to Fowler‘s ideas of progression of faith is the venerable work of Kohlberg (and before that, it seems to me, of Maslow). All of who suggest a kind of progressive hierarchy as they observe behavior and prescribe a better way forward, and all of who are idealistic enough to suggest levels of development rarely or never seen in real life.
After watching many friends go through the process of disillusionment with conventional forms of church, and deconstruction of the thoughts and assumptions that go along with it, I wonder if this progression is, for many of us, the move (or the attempt to move) from Stage 3 to Stage 4. Quoting Brewin,
Anyone who has been through this stage, or knows someone who has, will know that it can be lonely and protracted. People at Stage 4 can make life very difficult for any groups they are a part of. They raise doubts and call things into question. Their identity does not need to be bolstered by being part of a tribe, and they tend to widen their frame of reference beyond the perceived “small world” of Stage 3. For these reasons, churches that are stuck around Stage 3 become intolerant of those in Stage 4, who in turn become intolerant of an unchanging church, and many, many Christians give up and leave the church altogether.
And yet we dasn’t dismiss those who we see as prior or unenlightened or delayed or whatever. We can’t, or we betray our own selves, and our (perceived or real) development. And we must remember that there are stages far beyond the one in which we’re currently dwelling (whether apparently, or actually).
In the college ethics class that I sometimes teach, I close the class by presenting Kohlberg’s famous Heinz’s Dilemma to my students. As we discuss this conundrum and the moral issues it highlights, I see my students falling into three basic categories:
1. The literalists, who misunderstand the nature of the question. They think that Heinz is a real person, and may even ask ‘what happened?’, or ‘how can that pharmacist be such a bad man!’, or ‘so, did Mrs. Heinz survive?’. After 10 weeks of lectures and discussions about ethics and moral theory, it is exceedingly frustrating and disappointing to realize that such students seem incapable of abstract thought.
2. The absolutists, who understand the questions at stake, but who seem more ready to fight than to think. With little reflection, they will take a position and loudly defend it, arguing with their fellow classmates and invoking any holy writ (usually the Bible), cliched wisdom, or motherly advice at their disposal. When the discussion time is over, they often attempt to corner their professor: ‘so, what’s the answer?’. These people scare me, and make me less confused as to how it is that our supposedly Christian nation is engaged in a protracted ‘war on terror’.
3. The reflective relativists. In a classroom of black and white, these folks can be a little reluctant to speak up. They are the students who have been relatively quiet throughout the term, yet who have occasionally offered insightful ideas and counterpoints to their fellow classmates. At the end of the term, I’m a little exasperated to hear from these folks, who seem like they could have made our previous sessions much more civil and insightful, rather than invective and combative.
Now, it is easy for me to dismiss the first two groups, and to embrace the third. To say, “I would never want to do church with the knuckleheads in group one, or the fundies in group two!!” But there is a quiet and idealistic voice deep inside that knows that real church should somehow include all three groups. That the gospel, if it be good news at all, should be for all people. And that makes me a little crazy, for that is a very tall order, indeed.