Monday, October 20, 2008

Stages of Faith

Recently, I went on a spiritual retreat, where Jon Paulien, Dean of Loma Linda University's Faculty of Religion, spoke. During this time, he discussed the stages of faith. I'd heard of them before, but this time something else deeper hit me with it. It also clarified some of the purpose of this blog.

Paulien explained his description of the stages of faith are based on Hagberg and Guelich's The Critical Journey, although he dicussed the stages a bit differently and made some adjustments. I like and agree with his changes. I'll give a summary of Paulien's version here with some of my thoughts and commentary, but if you want to know more about the original version (or even deeper into the stages), I found a diagram from Hagberg's website, a nice summary chart, and then a more detailed narrative description.

One of the keys to the stages is that people can get stuck in any one of the stages, which obviously prevents full spiritual development and a closer relationship with God. Another important element is that we can only really understand people one stage ahead of us. Get two or more stages ahead, and we don't understand others; or others don't understand us if we're ahead. But we can understand those behind us. A third element is that these stages can also describe organizations and churches. I think this is really important to understanding a lot of what's happening in the institutional church, as I'll describe more later. Finally, while I'll use language to apply this to Christianity, these stages have been observed in all faith traditions.

Stage 1: Encounter
This is the quintessential conversion experience. It's when we have our first deep, meaningful encounter with God. I think those who get stuck here are the ones who are people who have continual conversion experiences and never really grow. I think the fault of a lot of this falls with the Church for not helping develop these people.

Stage 2: Discipleship
This is the stage when we learn about our faith and theology. We learn about the Bible and what it means to be a Christian. Getting stuck in this stage often leads to fundamentalism.

Stage 3: Success
Things are going well in our development, and we are able to effectively lead a "good Christian life." We seem to be blessed by God, and we are experiencing "success."

Dark Night of the Soul 1
Just as things are going well, we experience a dark night of the soul. This generally happens between ages 30 and 50, which should give you an idea of the length of each of these stages. St. John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul, explaining it can be a time of purging sins and bringing us closer to God. It can be a time when we are tempted, feel disconnected from God, do not enjoy things we used to enjoy, lose hope, and, significantly, doubt a lot of our prior beliefs.

Paulien explained that Jesus' 40 days in the desert was His first dark night. I hadn't heard that interpreatation before, but it fits well and makes a lot of sense.

Paulien also explained that in his experience, when a dark night hits, about 50% of people try to go back to the success stage and just do whatever seemed to work before. We like the success stage, obviously, and the dark night can be very uncomfortable. However, this leads us to get stuck in the success stage and lead to a lot of problems. I personally think this is where a lot of evangelical churches have landed.

Another 25% of people facing a dark night come to the conclusion that the problem is just the institution of the church. So people leave the church and try to find their own way. I think a lot of the emerging church falls in here, although not all of it.

Finally, the last 25% push through the dark night and emerge into the fourth stage...

Stage 4: Inward Journey
As the dark night has deconstructed a lot of our beliefs and ideas about God, the world, and faith, we now take a journey inward, in a way that seems similar to much of the contemplative and mystical movements in Christianity. Through this journey, we rediscover God and our faith.

Stage 5: Outward Journey
As we have rediscovered our faith, we begin doing things for others again, taking outward actions that can look a lot like the success stage. However, we are doing things for different reasons. This is a stage where people in the success stage don't understand these new reasons. Things seem to be going well again, and then we again hit a...

Dark Night of the Soul 2
This dark night is one in which we realize good actions are never understood or supported by everyone. It is also a very rare dark night. Few people make it to this stage. While we can have mentors who have gone through the first dark night help us through that, we often have to rely on Scripture and other historical writings of great spiritual people to help us through this dark night because it is so rare to find someone who has gone through it. Paulien described Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as His second dark night. Once we move through this dark night, we emerge into the final stage.

Stage 6: Unconditional Love
Interesting, true unconditional love does not occur until this point. It takes a lifetime, and most people do not get here. Jesus moved into it after His second dark night and showed the quintessential example of unconditional love on the cross. This is a good reason we cannot fully understand or act in unconditional love because getting there takes a lifetime process.

Relevance to Jacob's Café
What I realized is that Jacob's Café is particularly aimed at people going through a dark night, especially the first dark night. So often in the church, we are condemned for doubts and struggles. Yet they are a gift from God. We need support as we go through it. It can be a very scary, but life-giving time. Gary Barkalow described something similar, I think in his October 1, 2008 e-letter. I pray this is a place where people can find some rest and comfort in normalizing their experiences while also having a safe place to struggle through their doubts and move into and through the inward journey.

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