Stages of Faith

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Thoughtful Pastor: Loss of faith, pantheist or panentheist?

By Christy Thomas

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: In response to recent events in the world, particularly the bigotry and hate that have infected American politics, I have found myself quoting Scripture, rereading the parables of Jesus in the context of problems we face as a nation. I feel a bit hypocritical as I have been outspoken in the past when I see others who use the words of the Bible to justify the oppression and marginalization of others.

I was content with the Sunday School version of Jesus until my daughter died, at which point I simply could not believe any more. Since then, I have been more certain of what God is not, and frankly, indifferent to the anthropomorphic version that has held me hostage for most of my life. I no longer profess the Apostle’s Creed, as I believe it to be full of questionable assertions.

But I really miss Jesus of Nazareth. I feel Him evolving in me, in the air I breathe, the blood running through my veins and the beat of my heart as I ponder a broken world. I believe in his words, as I can understand them, to be vital to living fully in the world, without any inkling of what’s to come in the next one. Does this make sense? Is there a name for it?

Yes, this makes sense. I want to hug you and say, “It’s OK. Treasure your spiritual growth.

The death of your daughter spurred you to question the basics of the faith, learned as a teen. I’ve seen this dynamic multiple times. I experienced it myself. The clean answers appropriate for a younger, more innocent, stage of our lives do not suffice when the tsunamis of death, disease, and other uncontrollable events threaten to take us under.

Often the original foundations of our faith crumbles. We must decide where and how to rebuild.

Your rebuild is probably best known by the term panenthiesm.

Do not confuse this with pantheism. Pantheism makes no separation between God and the physical universe. So everything is God and everything can therefore be worshipped.

Panentheism, on the other hand, does separate God from the physical universe, but also posits that the presence of God permeates the whole of the universe — and that would include the beats of your heart and the blood in your veins.

You were probably taught a belief system that separates God from nature. God rules over the natural world, directs its affairs, saves some to spend eternity into God’s presence and consigns others to some separate not-God place.

In panentheism, there is no not-God place because God is everywhere. The “pan” in the word “panentheism” means “all.” Theism means “God.” So pantheism contends ”all is God.” Panentheism contends ”God is in all.”

It’s a subtle but profound difference.

In 1981, theologian James Fowler published a book, Stages of Faith, that explored how faith changes and develops as we age.

Fowler outlined steps in faith development. We start from the undifferentiated faith of small children, often quite spiritual in their understanding of the universe. During elementary school and teen years we move to the mythic-literal stage. At this point, symbolical and metaphorical language is often taken literally. That which is meant to point to another, greater reality instead becomes the reality itself.

There we create the anthropomorphic deity you mentioned. Anthropomorphic means “human-like.” So God, manlike, grows a beard, and has hands and feet and sits on a giant throne. As teens develop, and peer pressure does its job, faith tends to conform to authoritative pronouncements with black and white boundaries. Paradox and discrepancies create unwelcome tension. What doesn’t fit into the authoritative system gets thrown out. Many people contentedly stay there. However, many others, and you are one of them, begin to embrace complexity and paradox. Conflicts with the teen beliefs surface.

The church, unfortunately, has often failed to address this normal process, instead chanting, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it for me.”

But emerging adults may ask, “How do you KNOW this is what the Bible says?” Or, “The Bible is written by humans living a long time ago. It has flaws and says things not useful for our present condition. ” Often they find themselves ostracized, silenced and expelled by their persistence in asking unpopular questions.

They leave the church but also leave behind the support of the church community. It is good to own our faith journeys. It is problematic in that most do better in these explorations when connected with a larger group who know us and can help reveal our blind spots and the holes in our thinking processes.

There are church groups where these kinds of questions about faith are welcome and celebrated. I’d suggest you consider connecting with one as an aid to your own development and for you to be part of the development of others.