You Got Faith?

A better question might be, “What kind of faith do you have?”

Or even more provocative, “What kind of faith’s got you?”

Georgia may have always been on the mind of Ray Charles, and I am grateful for it. But it’s”Faith” as a phenomenon and experience that has always been on my mind.

More precisely, “my question” (we all have one “pet” question that we push around the room and our lives) is “why do some people have faith and some people don’t?” How and why does that happen?

As I look back, the way I formed “my question” reflects the way my “faith community of origin” framed the notion of faith: are you “in” or are you “out”. This distinction held true for your decision to be a person of faith, or not, as well as your eternal destiny. Were you “in”, that is, bound for the promised land, or were you “out”, going to Hell? Fiery evangelists could paint the scene in bold colors, making their cosmic case, and scaring you half to death. I consider myself fortunate to have missed most of those pyrotechnics, while I am sure some feel that is precisely what is wrong with me.

I’ve been pushing this question of faith around for awhile. I came to it naturally. Religion, God, faith is in the water when you are South of God.

I grew up in church, mostly South of God. We were in church a lot. A lot. Do you get my drift?

Steve Harvey has a whole comedy routine about being in church “all da time”. Steve emphasizes the word ALL: ALL DA TIME, or as we said in my family, every time the church doors were open. Steve goes through a litany of the various meetings in the black church, a meeting specific for every day of the week. Deacon’s meeting, prayer meeting, young people’s meeting, old people’s meeting, and the infamous and ubiquitous building fund meeting.

I identified with his story the first time I heard it on his Kings of :Comedy documentary, his comedy routine about church. Surpringly, his church attendance led to his life in comedy. Here’s his logic: if you have to be there all the time, you have to start looking for things that are funny, things that will keep you interested. Otherwise, you will go crazy. Steve chose comedy.

For him, it was Sister Odell. Steve mentions in his act that he grew fond of going to church just to hear Sister Odell cuss. She would be talking to his mama, referring to some of the folks that were pretending to be holy, those backsliders, who would “do right” on Sunday, putting on a show, but “cut the fool” during the regular days of living. If you grew up in church, Steve, and I, assume you know who he’s talking about.

Steve would overhear Sister Odell talking to his mama about that “worthless somofabitch” that went by the name of Deacon Smith. As a kid, Steve found the juxtaposition of a holy person telling the truth, instead of “putting on” made Steve laugh, rightly. There’s a lot to laugh about when I look at the church. And there’s a lot to cry about as well, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about faith. Human faith.

I was prompted for this piece of writing by an article sent to me by Dr. Joe Howell, a clinical psychologist who has taught me a lot about the Enneagram. The Enneagram is popular in spiritual retreat centers, particularly in Roman Catholic and Episcopal ones. I first came across the Enneagram some time ago at a Jesuit retreat house. The Enneagram is a spiritual typology, which is sort of a Myers-Briggs inventory of the soul. It offers a way to reflect upon your spiritual life and also gives you some insights into how others are wired. I have found it helpful, and have watched the Enneagram become more mainstream in the last few years. My daughter reintroduced it to me as she was preparing for her marriage. She and her husband have found it a helpful way to talk about what motivates them, what’s important to each one, and how to live their lives together. It’s like the Myers-Briggs in that sense, although more explicitly spiritual.

I dove back into the Enneagram, thanks to my long-time friend, John Adams. He introduced me to Dr. Joe Howell, a prominent Enneagram guru in the circles where I run. Joe has written the best book I know on the Enneagram. Becoming Conscious, and I receive a daily post from him on things Enneagramish, to borrow a Steve Harvey literary construct. This week, Joe was taking note of my mentor, Dr. James Fowler who put forward a theory of human development around faith. I worked with Jim for six years at the Center for Faith Development at Emory as we sought to discover the psychological contours of human faith. That post from Joe prompted me to reflect on Fowler’s insights, discoveries, and how I followed my interest and curiosity in the phenomena of human faith. David Byrne’s poetic question dogs me: How did I get here? In the rearview mirror, such a preoccupation on faith makes some sense.

My question about faith emerged in my early environment, going to church with my granddad to the Friendship Class at the local Baptist South of God Church. Oakland City Baptist. This was my first experience of Christiian fellowship and community, as the old men (my age now) rallied round me to provide a “family of fathers”. I have a picture of me when I was three at my birthday party. When my mother asked me who I wanted to invite to my party, legend has it that my response was simply, “the boys”, meaning the Friendship Class. In the picture, I am on my grandfather’s shoulder, with the boys gathered around a picnic table, with a cake and punchbowl in the center. One does not have to dive too deeply into the water of Jungian archetypes to see and sense the prefiguring of how I would see religion. Flash ahead thirty years, and you could see a similar picture of me with my “grandfather” bishop Judson Child, with a host of priests gathered around a table with spiritual food set in the center.

This early experience in community was added to by weekend trips with my grandparents to “the country” for “singings” and prayer meetings. Bear it in mind that I am a mere child, taking it all in, experiencing, seeing, smelling, hearing and then nascently interpreting what in the world, my world, is going on. There were a lot of starched white shirts, Brylcreem pomade, cheap aftershave lotion, women with big hair, and expressive holy utterances that would form the core memory of this time in the more emotionally centered Bible Belt gathering. As strange as it appeared to me, there was a joy and sincerity that impressed my young eyes and soul.

A few years later, I would find my faith community in my South of God church youth group in East Point, a southwest suburb of :Atlanta. I confess that it was more of a social gathering than religious camp meeting, and that was just fine by me. It was where we tried on our emerging identities, began rather feeble but hormone-driven attempts at intimacy. Does she like me, really like me? How far can I press these boundaries? What do I think about all this God stuff? For some, it was where people would profess their faith in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and then get baptized, immersed in the waters of believers’ baptism. For most, it was a curious comingling of spirit, society, and sex. There was nothing quite like a church youth group party in someone’s basement. There was one girl who had professed her faith, gotten her sweet self baptized, but seemed to need to make her way down front to the pastor almost every Sunday night to “rededicate” her life to Jesus. After a while, even before my training in psychotherapy, I would anticipate her walk to the front for rededication, especially if I heard that she had a date that weekend. Guilt seemed to be pervasive in this group, which ran parallel to hormonal development. It turned out that the Bible lost a lot of late-night wrestling matches.

I had been warned by a friend that the college I had chosen, Emory, would take my faith away and that I needed to prepare my soul for battle. He gave me a copy of a book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, produced by the Campus Crusade crowd. For the uninitiated into evangelical apologetics, these were the “four spiritual laws” that would locate precisely where you were on your particular road to Hell. But it would not just diagnose your sinful, depraved state but give you a map to the exit ramp to heaven. I studied that book all summer, hoping to gird my loins for the onslaught of the dual-headed enemy of science and humanism that lurked at my college of choice, otherwise known as the den of iniquity. The women’s prayer group put my name at the top of the prayer list, hoping that I would not succumb to the wiles of godless liberal professors, since Emory had earned a reputation for the “God is Dead” theology of Dr. Thomas Jefferson Jackson Altizer thanks to Time magazine. I am guessing that no one had been leafing through Nietzsche in my town.

When I got to Emory, I found that almost half my class were Jewish, about half from outside of the Southern culture that I had been dipped in. I suddenly was forced to deal with people who were radically not like me, which was one of my first experiences of good news/bad news. That dialectic would become familiar, if not my brand.

It was bad news in that my presuppositions about life were not dominant within my new tribe. I faced a clear choice. I could search out a cultural ghetto in which to hide and wait the four years out, or I could examine other ways of making sense of the world. I chose the latter. That consequential choice, that I would later learn to be existential, would make all the difference. It introduced me to an experience of the vortex of relativity, in which Truth is no longer defined tightly, but is rather swirling with competing worldviews.

I love the phrase “the vortex of relativity” because it conveys exactly what I felt like in a world without my previous moorings of certainty. In cartoons that I grew up with, this psychological scene was represented by a character, like Tutor the Turtle, who is spinning in infinity, not sure what is up or down. That was pretty much my freshman year. The four spiritual laws that I had memorized became just a part of a merry-go-round of options for my examination. It was dizzying, and I was blessed. or lucky, depending on your cosmology, to have a compassionate professor, ironically named Dr. Jack Boozer, who helped me keep it between the ditches.

So what’s the good news? It’s good to realize that you have a perspective from which you came. I got clear that my perspective was mine, the only one I could have had: white, privileged, and South of God. And now, I was liberated to see that there were many other systems of seeing the world, some that were similar to mine, and some that were radically different. And, and here’s the kicker, I had the awesome possibility/responsibility of choosing my own perspective.

Once you choose your position, your way of looking at the world, life, and God, that becomes your faith, that is, your orientation, the way that you lean into life. Good news/bad news again. Even though you have chosen your particular way of thinking, you are now aware of the competing systems of truth, so you must differentiate and defend why you decided to follow the path you chose. This leads one to “distinguish” your choice over others, most times emphasizing the superiority of your chosen system. Typically, when one is fresh to this decision process, you can get defensive when challenged by competing systems, setting up a win-lose situation. This is the fatal flaw of much of religion, that is, dividing people up into us/them. In the South of God tribe, it was Right and Wrong. Some never get over that false dichotomy.

After a while of living with your faith orientation, one sees some issues that are problematic in explaining everything one is experiencing in life. This tends to happen in mid-life, although it can occur earlier due to a traumatic experience that challenges your neat package of how things work. Or, curiosity may press you to see the truth in other systems that offer another and fresh perspective. This can open up a person to a transition in which Truth is seen as bigger than any theory or theology, transcending the limits being imposed by a religious system or one’s home team.. One is able to see the truth in one’s chosen system while valuing the truth and insights of other systems.

What I have been describing is a part of a process we came to refer to as faith development. This is that faith thing that grabbed me early with the Freiendship Class, my youth group, my Emory experience of science and religion, my experience of life. I was in a process of which I was unaware, but a process that most folks experience.

As I said, this experience led me to Jim Fowler, who had been stolen away from Harvard to come to Emory. His impeccable credentials, his overlay of psychology, and his curiosity made for a perfect fit for me in my own wayward pilgrim’s progress. His ace in the hole for me was his relationship with Carlyle Marney, having served as his young assistant at a retreat center for ministers and priests, the Interpreters House. There in the foggy mornings and crisp evenings of Western North Carolina, Marney would gather ministers to sit in a circle and tell their knightly stories of how it was out there in the fields of church. Many came battered, shell-shocked, even abused by the good church folks that they sought to serve. “Telling their stories”, or as Marney called it “throwing up”, gave them a place to begin healing, mending broken bones, cauterizing bleeding wounds, and for some, a heart transplant. Marney would feed them with rich fare of wisdom and the heady wine of scholarship, getting them ready for reentry into the parishes that awaited their return. The work and the place became the stuff of legend, and formed the frame around which Fowler and I would later recreate such an experience for spiritual pilgrims.

Fowler listened to these stories, synthesized them with the cognitive developmental theory of Piaget and the moral development theory of Kohlberg, forming a nascent theory of how people develop in their making sense of life. For Fowler, the human is a meaning maker, homo poeta, shaping one’s experiences into a story that explains who you are. Everyone pieces those incidents and episodes into a narrative that makes sense. Some folks know how to tell that sorry better than others, and some are working hard to “fit in” an event that seems out of character. But, we all have a story.

Jim recognized parallels in the structures of development and had the audacity to claim that these stages are universal. He set out to do the difficult cross-cultural research, hoping to say something substantial about this human faith and its development in the wide human family. Following prior developmental psychologists, Fowler offered a theory of six stages of faith. If you are interested in diving deeply into this broad notion of faith as well as the predictable stages of development, I would direct you to his magnum opus, Stages of Faith, which I was able to work with him on during my time at the Center. It is rich reading, provocative, and gives great insight into this thing called faith.

Are you noticing that I am enamored by this thing called “faith”? It is a thread that runs through my life and the stories that I tell about my experience of it. I have more to say, but will stop now for the sake of the reader. Next week, I will give you a skeletal view of the stages, focusing on the three stages, Three, Four, and Five, that most of us glimpse, if not live through, with hopes it might give you some markers for your own journey.

Until then, why not use this time to pull up your own stories of growing up, in faith communities, or outside of them. Do you see any patterns? Are there defining moments when you wrestled with tough questions of meaning and values? Were there times of discernment that clarified your heart’s desire or your soul’s longing? Such things are the stuff of faith. Recalling them can connect you to the spiritual mystery of being, something that may be prompted in this season of pause and of hope in Advent.

2 thoughts on “You Got Faith?

  1. Another homer. . .

    David, do you know that Kohlberg’s stages of moral development is what led Clare Graves to develop what is now known as ‘Spiral Dynamics’ (see the attached).

    Along with Polarity Thinking, The Spiral has been in the background my path ever since I was introduced to it 25 years ago. When reflecting on ‘faith’ while reading your piece this week I thought immediately of The Spiral. Fowler might have been enriched by attempting to integrate the two development models. . .





    1. Thanks John. I am familiar with Spiral Dynamics but was not aware of the Kohlberg connection. Fowler was a trained ethicist, working with a Niebuhr. I think he got attracted to Kohlberg when at Harvard, went back did the Piagetian background. I have noted Wilber’s citing of Fowler. I look forward to talking with you about it,
      Thanks again for your gracious comment.


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