A visitor to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum was deeply engrossed in looking at the bones of a rather large dinosaur. After spending close to 45 minutes looking at them, she broke away and, not seeing any of the museum’s curators, went over to the guard. “They’re amazing, aren’t they?” she said, “Do you have any idea how old they are?” The guard thought for a moment and then said, “They’re 103 million, two years and three months old.” “Wow!” said the visitor, “That’s very precise. How can the museum be so sure?” The guard replied, “The museum gave me a tour when I first started working here and they told me the bones were 103 million years old and that was two years and three months ago.”
So far, we’ve presented five of the six stages of faith; and we’ve done so with exacting precision. I wish it was that cut and dried. There have been several scholars who have tackled the topic of stages of faith; and while the lower levels all look similar, the higher up you go, the more dissimilar the stages look. It seems to me that we all look at the “higher” stages through our own lens and conclude that the highest stage looks a lot like what we would want it to look like. James Fowler was the pioneer in developing a schematic for stages of faith. Fowler was greatly influenced by the theology of Paul Tillich. As a result, Fowler’s last stage sounded a lot like Tillich. He called it “Universalizing Faith” and described it as a “special grace that makes people seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.” Think Gandhi, and you have a picture of Fowler’s universalizing faith. Brian McLaren argues for four stages of faith. He lists Simplicity (authority figures influence what we believe), Complexity (a faith crisis pushes us to believe in what works), Perplexity (a rejection of Stages 1 and 2 where we realize there are no easy answers and no quick formulas to success; this is the stage of relativism and skepticism – it is also known as deconstruction) and then Stage 4, Harmony (taking the best from the previous three stages and integrating them into a system of faith that works for you). Now, if you think that McLaren’s Stage 4 sounds like and looks like and feels like McLaren, you’re right. Our good friend and outstanding professor of Christian Education, Perry Downs, goes along with Fowler until the last two stages; and then he leaves Fowler and Fowler’s faith in “the Ground of Being” and proposes two stages that focus on living in light of the revelation of God in Scripture. All that to say, don’t be surprised if my Stage 6 looks like I would want to be. We are all seeing the last stage through our own lens and our own perspective.
In his day (1855-1916), Percival Lowell was known as a brilliant astronomer. Unfortunately, he is most remembered today for his belief (obsession?) that intelligent life once existed on Mars. As proof of this assertion, Lowell argued that there is a series of canals on Mars leading from the polar ice cap to other areas on the planet. As he gazed upon the planet through his 24-inch telescope, he could see clear lines running from north to south on the surface. For 15 years, Lowell sketched these lines and offered these “maps” as definitive proof that a race of people had created these canals. For years people wondered if he was right; but then in 1972, the Mariner 9 spacecraft took close-up pictures of Mars and revealed no evidence of any canals. Scientists today believe that what Lowell was actually seeing was not a network of canals on Mars, but actually the reflection of the blood vessels in his own retina. His telescope was not looking “out there.” It was mimicking an ophthalmoscope and looking “inside” his own eye. Sometimes, we think we are seeing “truth,” when, in fact, what we are looking at is what we want to see.
With that caveat, here’s how I define Stage 6 Faith. I call it, “Trusting Faith.” Here is my byline: “My faith has moved from my head to my feet to my heart in spite of my pain and struggles and questions; I don’t have answers for why God acts the way he does, but I rest in his love.” To me, that is great faith. It is a faith mired in struggle and questions, but it is a faith that refuses to let go.
Here’s how I would describe it:
- I trust God completely, but am uncertain about my ability to comprehend God or his ways to my satisfaction. And yet, most of the time that doesn’t matter practically. Knowing God and walking with him is all that matters. If we live or if we die, God is good.
- I live in the hope of the gospel, not in the facts of the gospel. Faith, hope and love are the critical components of my life. I am at peace with my struggles and pains and find that my trust in God overcomes my fears and disappointments in life.
- My faith, like God’s ways, remain a mystery. I don’t have answers for everything and I can’t always prove why I believe the way I do, but I believe and am okay with mystery and uncertainty.
- I live out my faith by trusting in God and loving people. I have questions, but I give myself away for the sake of the gospel and seek to advance the kingdom of God in everything I do. I live to seek God’s glory and the expansion of his kingdom of justice, love and peace.
If I was honest, I would tell you that I do not like mystery and uncertainty. My first real job was as a videotape editor for a teaching ministry. I learned then that I liked teaching and making things known. I went to seminary with the goal of one day teaching in a college or graduate program. My first job out of seminary was as a teacher. See, I like knowing answers and telling other people how things work. I don’t like being in the dark and not having a sense of how things are going to work out. I like an explainable God who makes sense to me and who will follow certain rules and who will not make any sudden turns or quick movements. In short, I like a God who is safe. Stage 6 Faith offers me none of these things. Stage 6 Faith offers a mysterious and untamable God who isn’t safe, but is good.
But this is not the God we usually think of, and so let me offer some quotes that helped me process this.
First, from Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.:
“Yes, we can believe God with all of our heart and yet have our heart broken by the loss of a child or the treachery of a spouse or the menace of a fatal disease. We know this is true—everyone in the church knows it. And yet, generation after generation of bruised saints have known something else and spoken of it. In the mystery of faith, we find a hand on us in the darkness, a voice that calls our name, and the sheer certainty that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God—not for this life and not for the life to come. We may be scarred and shaken, but as Lewis Smedes says in one of his sermons, we come to know that it’s all right, even when everything is all wrong.”
From St. Augustine:
“If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.”
From Craig Barnes:
“God is often silent when we prefer that he speak, and he interrupts us when we prefer that he stay silent. His ways are not our ways. To live with the sacred God of creation means that we conduct our lives with a God who does not explain himself to us. It means that we worship a God who is often mysterious—too mysterious to fit our formulas for better living. It means that God is not our best friend, our secret lover or our good-luck charm. He is God.”
From Barbara Brown Taylor:
“The parts of the Christian story that had drawn me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts. While I understood both why and how the early church had decided to wrap those mysteries in protective layers of orthodox belief, the beliefs never seized my heart the way the mysteries did.”
Last, from Kallistos Ware:
“It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of wonder.”
Here’s the bottom line. If I truly want to live by faith, I need to realize that my calling is to believe even when I don’t want to, to trust even when I am afraid, to be silent even when I am angry; to hope even when I want to run away, to obey even when I want to go my own way, to move forward even when I don’t understand, to believe that God is good even when everything in my life is bad, and to accept that God is with us even though he is mysterious.
Is faith easy? It never has been and never will be, and Stage 6 is the hardest faith to live out of all. I love this quote from CS Lewis (from The Screwtape Letters) where Satan and his hordes say:
“Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
That is Stage 6 Faith.
To recap, here are the six stages of faith we have explored in this blog series:
Stage 1: Receptive Faith
Stage 2: Concrete Faith
Stage 3: Ecclesiastical Faith
Stage 4: Individualistic Faith
Stage 5: Self-Questioning Faith
Stage 6: Trusting Faith
Three questions to wrap up this series. First, which stage best describes where your faith is currently? Second, which stage do you want to reach? Third, what are you doing to move from where you are to where you want to be? And just in case you were wondering, now is the time to be precise. As Brené Brown said: “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the bones.”