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Over the years it has struck me that our attitude toward theological disagreement is tied to how psychologically tolerant we might be of ambiguity.

Just so I’m clear and nip in the bud a misunderstanding, I am not talking about tolerating the views of others.

I am talking about one’s own inner disposition, whether one can psychologically tolerate what one perceives as ambiguity in matters of faith, allow that ambiguity to remain, and accept it as part of the journey of faith, rather than feel the psychological pressure of quickly moving toward a resolution.

What made me connect some dots about this was reading Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning by James W. Fowler (October 12, 1940 – October 16, 2015) a couple of years ago.

In case you’re not familiar with Fowler’s book, he traces 7 stages of faith development that correspond to human developmental stages from birth through mid-life crisis and beyond.

Here are Fowler’s Stages of Faith.

  • Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
  • Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.
  • Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.
  • Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
  • Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.
  • Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
  • Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment.” The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.

Fowler isn’t saying that stages in faith development move at the same pace as our overall psychological development—you can be in stage 5 in your thirties and stage 4 in your fifties.

These aren’t rigid categories, but more groupings of traits that hold well for psychological development in general and can be transposed to the matter of faith.

With those caveats in mind, perhaps we can say that an intolerance for ambiguity is an important factor for why theological conflicts arise and how they are handled once they do.

Perhaps the kinds of heated, and even vicious, conflicts we come across on the world wide interwebs is more a function of a psychological inability to tolerate theological ambiguity than a sign of theological “courage.”

Maybe “standing one’s ground” theologically is not so much a mark of mature and unwavering fidelity to the true faith as it is an indicator of the psychological need to see the world in terms of a “mythic-literal”(stage 2) or “synthetic-conventional” (stage 3) faith.

Maybe seeing the world in unambiguous “us vs. them,” “black and white,” “right or wrong” categories should not be seen as a qualification for faithful Christian leadership but a disqualification.

And so my mind’s eye goes to Christian leaders I know or have come across who exhibit an intolerance for ambiguity and the avoidance or suppression of potential challenges to theological clarity and certainty.

My intention here is not to sound belittling. But I find Fowler’s stages very useful as I think through my own journey of faith. I think he gives us a lot to ponder.

[Please be patient as your comment is in moderation. Comments are normally posted within 6 hours but may take as long as 24. If you’re annoying, I will be intolerant toward you.]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.