I’m reading James Fowler’s classic work, Stages of Faith, as part of my doctoral research. To say there’s a lot going on in this book is an understatement. It’s dizzying at times, especially as I’m trying to read it both critically and with an open mind. I’m also reading it not only as a doctoral student, but as an educator, rabbi, and person of faith. One idea that resonates with me is the idea of “anachronistic faith.” Fowler writes:
To approach a new era in the adult life cycle while clinging too tightly to the structural style of faith employed during the culminating phase of the previous era is to risk anachronism. It means attacking a new agenda of life tasks and a potential new richness in the understanding of life with the limiting pattern of knowing, valuing and interpreting experiences that served the previous era. Such anachronism virtually assures that one will settle for a narrower and shallower faith than one needs (Fowler, 1981, p. 114)
Fowler is describing a costly disconnect that I have observed at times. The journey through life is necessarily one of maturation. We are meant to grow in so many ways: in wisdom, in compassion, in appreciation, in our capacity to love and so on. As spiritual beings we are also meant to grow in our faith.
Faith is a dynamic concept. It isn’t necessarily religious though it can be. It isn’t necessarily individualistic, though it can be. Rather faith represents the capacity to respond to life experience with a certain set of characteristics or dispositions. Faith is a way of knowing, a way of being, and a way of doing.
The tragedy that I think Fowler accurately describes is for the person who encounters the complexity and richness of life, having failed to mature in faith. To greet the challenges of life as a mature adult with a faith that has not been reflected upon, challenged, or expanded since childhood or adolescence ensures that we navigate life from a place of deficit and immaturity (at least as far as faith is concerned).
In my work as an educator I find myself committed to helping children and adolescents develop their spirituality and faith. Already by Middle School it is evident that some children are less motivated to develop their faith lives than others. I believe it is the responsibility of adults to promote dynamic faith development in children and adolescents. I fear that anachronistic faith in adults undermines our ability to do so. Like most things, we must educate ourselves before we can educate others, especially our children.