Tell Me About Your Faith

What is your faith?

Some people respond to that pregnant question by offering me a list of intellectual, rational propositions that they say they believe in. Belief is a part of faith, traditionally referred to as “faith seeking understanding”. But faith is more about a core orientation toward life, not just a list of beliefs.

Some people respond by proclaiming their connection to a religion. Or they may even differentiate further, naming their particular flavor in terms of a denomination. It might be the tradition of their ancestors or may be a newly discovered “take” on what they deem as the “true” religion. As it was popular a few years back, some have a sense of “I found it!”.

But for me, when I say “faith”, I am asking you a question that lies close to the bone. It’s not a mere intellectual belief system that one embraces, or struggles to hold on to with a death grip. It has more to do with both heart and mind. It’s called trust.

I remember my days in seminary when we students would battle into the night over some minute theological nuance of the meaning of a particular biblical verse, or argue about a fine distinction in some concept. I had one particular theological partner who was adamant about the “rightness” of his position, so proud that he would not even entertain the possibility that there might be something for him to learn. We could go way into the night in such sparring, but he would always conclude our encounter with a patent line: “That’s okay, Galloway, you just keep believing your way, and I will believe God’s!”.

Those of you who have read my articles know how important this question of human faith has been for me. Observing the faith of my grandparents, up close and personal; going to the family gatherings “in the country” of west Georgia that centered around heart-felt Gospel songs; attending church weekly; watching my business-minded dad tear up when he sang The Old Rugged Cross; growing up in the social matrix of my youth group; witnessing the deadly conflict over race in my home church when the pastor dared to “open the doors” of the church to people of color- all this led me to deep questions as to what is going on in this thing called “faith”. My world seemed suffused with it, as ubiquitous as fluoride in the water.

Early on, I was fortunate to study with a person who also had been captured by questions of faith, a true explorer of the realm of faith, Dr. James Fowler. Although his Ph.D. at Harvard was in ethics, he too was fascinated by the human phenomena of faith. He had worked with Dr. Carlyle Marney in his ground-breaking transformational design that engaged ministers and priests to reflect on their lives and how they made sense out of their experience. It was called Interpreters’ House, providing a three-week intensive process of thinking and reflection. This proved to be the experiential foundation of what would come to be known as Faith Development theory, as Fowler posited six stages of cognitive structures that humans can move through in the course of their development.

I began working with Jim in 1978 as he came to Emory, and founded the Center for Faith Development to continue the research into his theory and to apply it in the practical work in congregations. Jim’s theory had been circulated among Christian educators for years in the now-extinct form of mimeographs. Finally in 1981, it found expression in a Harper Row book entitled, Stages of Faith. Jim begins the book by unearthing the common ideas and images of faith, noting the differing dimensions of belief, religion, and trust.

As we continue in the season of Lent, I thought you might enjoy/appreciate some of the existential/spiritual questions he gleaned from ministers talking about their stories in the retreats at Interpreters’ House:

What are you spending and being spent for? What commands and receives your best time, energy?

What causes, dreams, goals, or institutions are you pouring your life out for?

As you live your life, what power or powers do you fear or dread? What powers do you rely on and trust?

To what or whom are you committed in life? In death?

With whom or what group do you share your most sacred and private hopes for your life, and for the lives of those that you love?

What are those most sacred hopes, those most compelling goals and purposes in your life?

Where do you find an experience of awe in your life, a sense of connection to/with something larger than your self?

These are not coffee hour “chat” conversational questions, but rather get at the heart of the matter of what faith is. Let me encourage you to read back through the previous paragraph, pausing with each question, pondering your honest response to each. Within these seven questions, there is plenty to last you through the weeks of Lent.

I hope these questions that I dared, as a 24 year-old doctoral student, to ask seasoned ministerial veterans, prompt your reflection. To be honest, these questions for me at the time had no deep ring of profundity. What did I know, so fresh to the Garden of life?

I do now.

Asking these questions in the context of a weekend retreat at a parish, or posing them in a formal research interview over the course of three hours, the gift for me was listening to the variety and sameness of the answers. I could piece together the narrative string of events in people’s lives and discern the struggle for it all to make sense. I would lean into their wrestling with competing values that tried to claim their loyalty and best energy. I came to see and appreciate the deep mystery in each person that I talked with in those hours of interchange. Each person is trailing behind them a history of events that happened TO them, and decisions that they made in a moment, as well as a narrative of how they came to be in the present moment. Mystery, indeed.

I am still trying to do that work in the coaching and spiritual direction that I do. And, I bring those questions to the people that I work with in the continuing formation work for clergy. And. I engage those questions myself, seeking to understand my crooked paths, stuttering steps, wayward habits, and the story I tell as to who I am, and why..

I would invite you to “seriously play” in engaging those questions in any way that you want. Just try them on for size. One question might grab you, and press you to answer. Still, another might catch your curiosity and offer a delightfully free run at self-discovery. You might choose to journal, writing down your thoughts for later reflection, or you may just ponder to yourself how you are living this amazing life.

They are good questions, powerful questions from around fifty years ago, but still pertinent. My sense is that it will yield good fruit for your sense of soul in this seasonal time of renewal. Blessings.

2 thoughts on “Tell Me About Your Faith

  1. David,

    Powerful questions indeed!

    What’s funny, before we ‘met’ last year I’d never heard of Jim Fowler nor the stages of Faith, nevertheless I’ve been wrestling with those questions the last ten years; What’s more I came up with answers that guide me through my last years.

    It all started when I was diagnosed a cancer and one of the doctors, when I asked her to postpone radiation for one week: “No question to grant you that week, Johan, since it’s ‘five minutes before twelve hours’ in your case” and the lady put her hand on my shoulder guiding me to the door of her cabinet. That simple hand on my shoulder was enough to start to ask those Jim Fowler Spiritual Questions.

    The answers to those questions boiled down to, what I sometimes call my Mission Statement:

    “Helping my Grandkids Create their Lives while Staying their Original Self through Consistent Living Creative Interchange from Within.”

    I started to consciously passing on to my three grandchildren the most important ‘wisdom’ I have, i.e., Creative Interchange. I was all too aware that one day this life would come to an end. Life is finite; this is a law of nature. What does live on, and this is one of my convictions, is the creative interchange process, embedded in every child that is born. My hope was that my three grandchildren would continue to experience this process consciously and they would not become prisoner of their Vicious Circle. I wanted to give them a lasting support – especially for the era when I won’t be there anymore.

    I was lucky, since I survived the chemo, radiation, surgery, post-surgery chemo and I got time to write a ‘book’ for those kids and produced some 33 podcasts.Later I reworked that ‘book’, as you know, in some 44 chapters, first for my friends and later for non Dutch speaking friends I translated those 400 + pages in English. Chapters that I nowadays publish on a LinkedIn group. Living your mission statement is work!

    Keep the Faith (i.e., the trust in Creative Interchange = ‘God’)
    Your friend,


    1. What a legacy for your grandchildren! That is so inspiring to me in what life I have left to live.
      I count myself blessed to have come into your orbit a time ago, reaping the wisdom you have earned, as well as our common love for music. Thank you.


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