Last week we looked at how people grow in their faith experience or become rigid or even static fundamentalists. This week a brief look at belief, religion, and the need for change – reformation.

FAITH EXPERIENCE: In the Faith Experience people do have an experience of the Divine, often described under various names: God, Creator, Father, Mother, Allah, the Ground of Being, etc. Sometimes people cannot put a name on their deepest human experiences. I still remember the observation by Dag Hammarskjöld who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961. He wrote: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder the source of which is beyond all reason.”

And these days I resonate more and more with the words of Karl Rahner (1904-1984) one of the most influential Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century: “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute  mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, and inklings. We make faltering attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.”  

BELIEF: Belief is the attempt to put into words the meaning of our faith experience. Belief is really theology which is “faith seeking understanding.” 

RELIGION: Religion is an attempt to interpret and systematize belief. Any religion is a system of beliefs and practices that helps people understand and live their faith experience. Religion therefore gives people: rituals, ritual places, ritual  leaders, sacred books, sacred places, sacred days and seasons, codes of morality and creedal statements. Religion provides helpful aids – MEANS – that point people to the Divine. That’s good and proper. But religion is not Faith. (Sometimes very religious people can be very ungodly.)

RELIGION LIFE-CYCLE: All religions go through a four-stage cycle

(1) They begin with the charismatic foundational state, e.g. the primitive Christian community. Here men and women had such a vivid lived awareness of the Faith experience that they had little need for institutional structure. They relied on do-it-self and charismatic ways of praying, speaking, and celebrating. Men and women presided at Eucharist.

(2) Then when people start thinking and asking  “how do we safeguard what we have and how do we pass this on to the next generation?” a religion enters stage two. This is the stage of institutionalization: important things are written down (e.g. writing the Gospels), set ways of praying are established (official sacramental rituals and gestures are established), properly authorized leaders are established (e.g. ordination is created as a kind of quality control mechanism to make certain that the Christian leaders are competent and reliable. Ordination was not originally about sacramental power!)

(3) After some time, a religion enters stage three. I call it the stage of self-focused short-sightedness. The institutional religion becomes so self-centered and so self-protective that it becomes less a means and path to the Divine and more and more the OBJECT of religious devotion. This stage comes close to idolatry. The church institution and certain institutional leaders, religious objects, and teachings are treated like IDOLS. People get so involved in acts of religious veneration that they miss or distort the Divine. 

(4) When stage three happens, the only solution is REFORMATION. This demands a serious effort to regain the vision and focus on the Divine. To recapture the vigor and creative enthusiasm of stages one and two.

All religions need periodic reformations. The old saying in Latin ecclesia semper reformanda est was true yesterday and is certainly true today: “the church must always be reformed.” 


So… how do we move ahead in the reformation process? 

We need to be – and invite our friends to be – critical observers and prophetic change agents. We need to OBSERVE, JUDGE, and ACT. 

The “Observe, Judge, Act” methodology was developed in the 1920s by the Belgian priest and later cardinal, Joseph Cardijn (1882 – 1967) in an attempt to mobilize laborers at a time when there were major industrial abuses affecting the dignity and well-being of laborers. 

For us today, we need to Observe what is happening in the church, Judge what should be done about it, and then Act in reforming actions. (The same is true of course in politics. But my focus today is religion.)

Clues that we need reformation are found in signs of unhealthy religion:

1. Healthy religion is grounded in contemporary Reality with all of its ups and downs. Unhealthy religion is grounded in fantasy and longs for the “good old days,” which were not so great for most people. Unhealthy religion imposes, as well, the antiquated and discredited historical and theological understandings of the “good old days.”

2. Healthy religion builds bridges between people. Unhealthy religion builds walls and creates barriers separating people into qualitative classes of people. It demonizes “those who don’t fit in” and validates hatred and cruelty through racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

3.  Unhealthy religion imposes power OVER people in often dismissive and demeaning ways through abuse, control, repression, and coercion. It uses guilt, fear, and overly-strict rules. 

4. Healthy religion promotes hope-filled love, compassion, and collaboration.

May we all be alert and courageous reformers.


PS   As I have now done for several years, starting next week I will be away from my blog for some late spring R&R and travel with my wife, as we celebrate 53 years of happily married life. I hope to return at the end of June with fresh thoughts. I often worry about becoming just another babbling old man.

Why Do People Believe the Way They Do?

Reflecting on religious authoritarianism and fundamentalism in a variety of contemporary religions, I went back to the analysis of human growth and faith development by James W. Fowler (1940 – 2015). 

For many years now I have been interested in Fowler’s thinking. He was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. Fowler argued that the development of people’s spiritual awareness runs parallel to other aspects of human development. His research into stages of faith development has helped me understand my own development and has greatly influenced my own approaches to faith formation and continuing education. At Emory University in Atlanta, he was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was also an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. Fowler is perhaps best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he outlined his understanding of the developmental process in “human faith.”

Fowler proposed a multi-stage understanding of faith development. His analysis is closely related to the work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994), and Lawrence Kohlberg (1907 – 1987). He defines faith as an activity of trusting, committing, and relating to reality based on a set of assumptions about how one is related to others, the world, and the Divine.

According to Fowler, there are seven primary stages of faith development (including Stage 0) in the life of an individual. They are as follows:

Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith: From birth until about age 2, people are greatly shaped by their experiences of a safe or unsafe environment. A child at this stage learns to trust the goodness or badness of the world based on the way the child is treated by his or her parents. But situations of neglect or abuse can lead to the formation of feelings of distrust and fear of the universe and the Divine. How important the early childhood environment! And the kind of day care centers in which they are placed.

Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith: From ages 3 to 7. Spiritual awareness is learned primarily through experiences, stories, images, and the people with whom one comes in contact. What kind of people? What kind of parents? Again day care personnel? In this stage, children begin to use symbols and their imagination. Children at this stage tend to take ideas about right and wrong very literally. The ability to distinguish the real from fantasy is not yet well developed. Also, they are generally not yet able to see the world from another person’s perspective.

Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith: At this stage, elementary-school-aged children develop an anthropomorphic sense of the Divine. Metaphors and symbolic language are often taken literally. This second stage starts around the sixth or seventh year of life and continues until about the twelfth year of life. In this stage beliefs are interpreted literally. Religious truth is communicated through stories, in which morality is legalistic. But some people stay in this phase for their whole lives.

Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith: From about age 12 to adulthood. This stage is characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage. One fears inconsistencies and what challenges authority. It is better not to question. Some people have arrested development at this stage; and we find them quite often ending up in fundamentalist movements. They don’t move beyond this stage.

Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith: From the mid 20s to mid 30s. This is a stage of angst and struggle as one begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own beliefs. One begins to see that life issues are not so easily clear cut. One becomes open to the complexity of faith and more aware of conflicts in one’s belief. One also begins to question existing authority structures within one’s religious institution. This stage is an important turning point as one either accepts ambiguity and the need to explore or one simply shuts the door to faith challenges. Is this why some young people become missionaries and care-givers, while others become terrorists and suicide bombers?

Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith: This is the time of the mid-life crisis. People in this stage acknowledge the paradoxes found in human life and can begin to resolve conflicts about reality through a complex understanding that human life is grounded in a multidimensional and interdependent “truth” that can be neither controlled by nor completely contained in any particular institution. Everyone is a truth-seeker. Many people who have reached this stage are beginning to become more and more open to the religions and beliefs of other people. This is not because they distance themselves from their own faith, but because they believe that the faith of others can inform, deepen, and enrich their own.

Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith: Some call this “enlightenment.” The individual realizes that all people — regardless of their sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, or culture – must be treated with compassion, guided by universal principles of love and justice. I think Jesus of Nazareth arrived at this stage when he was close to 30. And he hoped his followers would arrive there as well. Some did of course. And some still do. People who are at this stage have the potential to become important religious figures. That’s because they have the ability to interact with anyone at any stage of faith development without being condescending. People in this phase cherish life, but do not take life too seriously. They put their faith into action, challenge the status quo, and work to create justice in the world.


Closing reflection. In all segments of the community of faith – members, teachers and leaders in the church – we need to ask: How are we alert to and ministering to babies, children, teenagers, young adults, and older adults? In not just what we say, but in what we do, are we stimulating and promoting healthy human development and growth in authentic faith? 

Or…are we, by actions or inaction, contributing to interpersonal environments that stunt human growth and faith development, and distort individual and group religious understanding? Last week’s thoughts about authoritarian fundamentalism are of course part of this question. 


Authoritarian Power and Control

This week I am returning to some thoughts and concerns about authoritarian leaders. A critic told me recently that I should not get into politics but, as he said, “just stick with the theology stuff.” I understand his concern. I have no desire to argue about either U.S. political party, both of which I know quite well. I am currently a Democrat but grew up in a very Eisenhower-Republican home. My Dad, in fact, was a Republican county commissioner in lower Michigan and I worked on his political campaign. Today, as an historical theologian, I am very concerned about safeguarding human dignity and authentic Christian values. “Theology stuff” as my critic would say. My concern is the degree to which supporters of the forty-fifth U.S. president, are pushing the United States toward an authoritarian regime. Not just banning books but banning people and restricting civil rights. 

Across the globe in countries with long-established democracies, authoritarian leaders have taken advantage of people’s fears and anxieties in a rapidly changing world. They condemn the “problematic” people and have become advocates of hatred, violence, and passionate demagoguery. We see a similar development in some fundamentalist religious movements.

Authoritarianism is hardly a new phenomenon. In the early twentieth century there were repressive authoritarian regimes in countries like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and the Croatian fascist Ustasha movement. While some researchers debate the causes of authoritarianism, the public and institutional behavior of authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers is rather clear-cut.

ADDICTION: Just like drug dealers and their “clients,” authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers sell and promote authoritarian addiction. It happens when followers stop thinking for themselves and submit to the emotional rhetoric of authoritarian leaders. We now see classic examples in our daily news. The primary focus of the authoritarian leader is the leader. The authoritarian leader uses and manipulates people to achieve the leader’s goals. The leader’s campaign message is often loaded with dishonest fabrications and emotionally charged bully-talk.

SUBMISSIVE: Authoritarian followers are highly submissive to authoritarian leaders and aggressively insist that everyone should behave as dictated by the authority. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society which they neither understand nor want to understand. They would rather turn the clock back to some imagined golden era.

BLIND OBEDIENCE: Easily incited, easily led, and reluctant to think for themselves, authoritarian followers don’t question. They obey. They are attracted to and follow strong leaders, who, in often theatrical style, appeal to their feelings of fear and anxiety. And they respond aggressively toward “outsiders.” Blind faith is substituted for critical reason. The unknown and the different become the enemy.

ANTI-CHRISTIAN: What authoritarian leaders want to implement is undemocratic, tyrannical, and often brutal. Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name of Christianity. Then, in reality, it becomes an anti-Christian social cancer starting to metastasize across the society. Blurred vision and bizarre rhetoric are the result. There is indeed a strong correlation between religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism. 

FUNDAMENTALISM: Authoritarian fundamentalists see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. They consider themselves – and their authoritarian leaders – as messengers sent by God. They seize on historical moments as prophetic and reinterpret them in the light of this cosmic struggle. They believe that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist worldview. They therefore condemn and demonize their opposition as evil. By way of By way of example, on April 28th in Cleveland, Texas, five victims, including a nine year old boy, were killed in an attack which began when the family asked their neighbor to stop firing his gun because their baby was trying to sleep. The far-right, authoritarian governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, demonized the victims of the Texas shooting in a tweet calling them “illegal immigrants.”  

Also in Texas, in Grapevine 20 miles northwest of Dallas, some religious and political leaders have called a school board election this week a spiritual battle between forces of good and evil. During a Sunday worship service, Robert Morris, a megachurch pastor and spiritual adviser to former President Donald Trump, warned his congregation that Satan was at work in area schools.

FAULTY THINKING: All authoritarians go through life with barrel-vision and impaired reasoning. Their thinking is sloppy and they are slaves to a ferocious dogmatism that blinds them to evidence and logic. As Adolf Hitler reportedly said, “What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.” I often think about a good example of faulty-thinking, given many years ago by my college logic professor: “All fish live in the sea. Sharks live in the sea. Therefore, sharks are fish.” Today of course one hears faulty-thinking authoritarian politicians and their supportive religious leaders asserting: “All Muslims are terrorists” … “African Americans are lazy”…“Feminists are undermining male and female identity”… “Gays are destroying marriage and family life.” And on and on it goes. Falsehood and nonsense that denigrates and kills people.


Certainly we need to confront authoritarianism, because it is a malignancy that threatens and polarizes society. We need to speak-out now or forever hold our silence. But it is not enough to talk about it or write articles about it. Too many people are simply standing on the sidewalk, quietly staring at the authoritarian parade as it marches on.

We need to take courageous leadership to clearly inform and organize others. We need to inform and motivate voters to elect well-informed and critical-thinking political leaders. Ignorance is neither civic nor religious bliss; and prejudice is based on ignorance.

The best way to confront ignorance is through real education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills. Real education teaches the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Authoritarians and fundamentalists work in opposite fashion.

We need to establish channels for dialogue. If people are telling lies or spreading falsehood, on social media, we need to be clear about what is truthful information and help spread that. When I see falsehood on Facebook, for example, I point that out. I am not speaking about opinions but about truthfulness and honesty. Social media can indeed spread falsehood but it can be used to spread truthfulness as well. 

Asking “why?” is a virtue. Questioning is healthy and mature. Unquestioned loyalty and obedience force authoritarian followers into servitude. If your religion makes you hate someone, you need a new religion. Empathy and compassion are Christ-like; but authoritarian hatred and denigration are anti-Christ.

[For further reading, I recommend Twilight of Democracy, a book by Anne Applebaum, Polish-American journalist and historian.]


PS “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in an illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.” – Walter Brueggemann (Born: March 11, 1933) U.S. Hebrew Scriptures scholar and theologian