FAITH: SECURITY or RISK? -- The Psychodynamics of Belief

Issue #12 of  DIALOGOS:
An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Theology

Richard W. Kropf, editor

Editor's note: In seeking to explore possible avenues of convergence between the sciences, philosophy, and theology, this issue of DIALOGOS ventures into the area of psychology, and more specifically, the psychology of religion. In several past issues of this journal, but most particularly in issue #6, ("The Jesus of History and the Future of Faith") there has been either a distinction made between "faith" and "belief(s)" with possible other references made to this editor's book, FAITH: SECURITY & RISK  (Paulist Press, 1990) . After conferring with several of the DIALOGOS editorial consultants, it has been decided that it might be good to present a synopsis or summary of it's main points although in a manner focused less on spiritual growth and more on the varieties of belief -- as well as non-belief. Or one might see this article as an "abstract" of the book itself, which is written in a more concrete style, and is now available at the author's personal website. (To access the book directly, click here .)

Faith: Security or Risk?

An author's retrospective view of  his own book, by Richard W. Kropf

The approach presented by the book represents a synthesis of an number of themes drawn from several authors, each of which addresses a specific aspect of either psychological theory -- developmental psychology on the one hand, and existential "logotherapy" on the other -- or in the case of the distinction between faith and belief, what might be seen as a kind of philosophical "linguistic analysis" between these two closely related terms. We will begin with this latter element.

A Key Distinction: Faith vs. Belief

The core insight in this regard is taken from Wilfrid Cantwell Smith's insightful study, Faith and Belief (Princeton University Press, 1979). While admittedly taking advantage of the dual terminology afforded by the English language, Smith, perhaps rather arbitrarily considering the way meanings change, made a semantic distinction to more clearly separate two related aspects of religious faith or belief. To Smith, "faith" is more an attitude of mind or disposition, or as some have put it, more properly a verb ("faithing"?) than it is a noun. Or as theologians, backed by a multitude of scripture scholars and historians of religion would generally admit today, despite a variety of meanings attached to the word down through the ages, "faith" can best be described in terms of "a loving trust".

"Belief", on the other hand, while it could simply serve as the Anglo-Saxon cognate of the Latin-derived "faith", has come to mean, particularly when spoken of in the plural ("beliefs"), a series of mental concepts or formulated propositions that are held to be true, at least in various degrees of certainty, yet none of them "provable" in the contemporary scientific sense. Some may be questions of historical "fact" others of what we call "scientific law" or simply accepted common-sense interpretations of repeated human experience. Thus, strictly speaking, I can say I "believe" that the sun will make its reappearance tomorrow morning, but unless I belong to one of the ancient sun-worshiping religions, it couldn't really be said I have "faith" that this is so. Thus it should be noted that even some of the most fundamental presuppositions of modern science, such (as Einstein noted) the universe making sense, or that the laws of physics are everywhere uniform, or that our scientific methods of ascertaining reality are, on a whole, reliable indicators of what is, in fact, the case -- all these are also matters of belief in much the same way. So when it comes down to it, much of what we understand as being "science" is as much a matter of belief as is many a religion.

While the importance of this faith vs. belief distinction may not be evident to begin with, it is nevertheless extremely important to keep in mind. The rest of this article (as does the book itself) attempts to adhere to this terminology.

The Stages of Faith

The second major element in this synthesis is derived from the work of theologian and religious psychologist James W. Fowler, whose monumental study The Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest For Meaning (Harper & Row, 1981) drew on the pioneering work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget and the Lawrence Kohlberg, who documented distinct stages of both cognitive (Piaget) and moral (Kohlberg) reasoning as they unfolded in children and adolescents. Fowler then correlated the results of these studies to the model of life-stage development presented in the work Erik Erikson, one in which each stage draws to a conclusion precipitated by a crisis of some sort out of which a new resolution or synthesis needs to occur if development is not to cease or become distorted by unresolved problems left over from an earlier stage.

Using both the cognitive indicators (such as degrees of abstraction, etc) as well as moral indicators (as revealed by motivational factors) Fowler conclude that there are at least seven distinct stages of faith development possible -- if one goes back far enough into the origins of human trust. These stages are as follows (with Fowler's terms in italics, and my own preferred terms underlined) along with a brief description of each:

1st. Undifferentiated or Primal or Instinctive Faith:
the fundamental attitude of trust found in an infant, but lacking any distinct cognitive or moral reasoning.

2nd. Intuitive-Projective Faith:
characterized by magical thinking and moral(?) behavior based on punishment and reward.

3rd. Mythic-Literal Faith:
conceptualized in terms of concrete examples (stories) and literal understanding of myth; moral reasoning could be described as "instrumental hedonism" -- much as the above but a long-term perspective (e.g., heaven vs. hell).

4th. Synthetic-Conventional Faith:
tacit acceptance of multidimensional symbolic meaning; emphasis on peer group behavior with a "law and order" perspective on morality.

5th. Individuative-Reflexive or Personal Faith:
explicit reconceptualization, tendency to reject mythological symbolism;
individualistic and relativistic "ethics" replacing inherited moral imperatives.

6th. Paradoxical-Consolidative or Conjunctive Faith:
polymorphic recovery of symbol and the power of myth; rediscovery of a universal ethic expressed within various moral systems.

7th. Universalizing or Unitive Faith:
characterized by more or less complete "transparency" of belief with a sense of universal identification with Being and dedication to its universal fulfillment.

Of course, there are apt to be people who reject the whole idea of stages of faith to begin with. For them you either have faith or you don't. But subsequent sampling carried out by the Gallup Organization for the Religious Education Association of the United States and Canada revealed the basic accuracy of these patterns as established by Fowler in a much smaller but much more detailed study. But even then, certain comments are in order.

One result, that a very large proportion of people seem to fall into the fourth or "conventional" faith stage is hardly surprising (one reason for calling it "conventional" surely) considering that both Piaget and Kohlberg's earlier studies revealed that most people's cogitative potential and moral reasoning generally cease to develop beyond this stage -- usually reached sometime during mid-adolescence - - even though Fowler himself claimed there could be no strict correlation between these stages and chronological age.

If that is often true beyond adolescence, at the same time it throws (I think) some light on one troubling phenomenon that does not seem to fit, and that is why so many people who seem to have advanced beyond a purely conventional faith into a more personal commitment, at the same time seem to revert to a style of believing (namely literal, one-dimensional "fundamentalism") that appears outright childish and naive. Or to take another and clearly opposite example, why is it that, again, so many people who appear to have moved beyond conventional religiosity, end up stuck in a personal stance that is clearly anti-religious? (Notice that I don't say anti-belief. In fact, one of biggest ironies here, as G.K. Chesterton noted years ago, is that a very common result of people losing their faith is not that they end without any beliefs but rather that they end up believing almost anything at all -- how else explain some of New Age manias?)

Finally, why is it that even those who seem to have progressed into a more reintegrated and universal perspective such as that found in "conjunctive faith" so often seem to lack the inner peace or energy found in those very few persons (Fowler found only one among to some eighty people he interviewed) who seem to have reached the final "unitive" stage? This is a particularly vexing question, because in terms of their cognitive and moral-ethic reasoning, these last two stages are almost indistinguishable?

One easy answer to this last question is that such persons are probably those rarest of people that we tend to call "living saints". But that conclusion only reiterates the more basic question: why do people tend to stop at one any particular stage in development, more or less frozen or paralyzed in place for the rest of their years?

Answering this question leads us to the third, and most important factor or element in the synthesis.

The Security Catch

I believe the recently deceased psychotherapist-philosopher Viktor Frankl is the one who can give us the best key to understanding this whole phenomenon. In the best-selling book ever to emerge from the horrors of the Nazi-driven holocaust, Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York, Pocket Books, 1959) enunciated a principle that is clear for all to see -- that human happiness or fulfillment cannot come as a result of the pursuit of pleasure or power or whatever, but only as by-product of a life lived within the context of meaning, a purpose that transcends the individual self. As Frankl never tired repeating to his audiences (but especially his American ones) you can "pursue" happiness, but you'll never find it that way. Happiness can only "ensues" that is, come as a "spin-off" of something much greater than the quest for our own fulfillment.

In this radically "existential" (some say that Frankl coined this term that was to take over much of the post-war philosophical world) departure from both the Freudian and Adlerian schools of psychotherapy, Frankl also started his own school of "logogtherapy" that is, a psychotherapeutic technique based on the conviction that most cases of neuroses (if not of outright psychosis) are either directly due to a loss of sense of meaning (hence the Greek term logos or "word" connoting "reason", "purpose" and "meaning") in life, and that even much of neurotic behavior can be explained as unconscious attempts to avoid facing that fact.

Now how does that principle translate into the subject of faith? We don't have to look far, as one of Frankl's first books, The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology (Simon & Schuster, 1979 -- actually his first book after he emerged from the death camps, but translated into English only many years later) puts it quite succinctly. Religion, according to Frankl, is "the search for ultimate meaning." and "belief and faith as trust in ultimate meaning." But notice -- and would I particularly urge one to reread this statement in light of Smith's distinction between faith and belief -- that faith in this case would not mean that one is absolutely sure of just what this ultimate meaning is -- only that one trusts that there is one. In fact, to miss this fine point and assume that one has to know, and be able to prove, down to the last detail, exactly what this meaning or purpose to life really is, is not only to demand something that is contrary to the "loving trust" that stands at the heart of faith, but it is also explains, at least in most cases, why any further growth in faith becomes impossible.

The reason? It is simply that need for security (for the absolute assurance that one is "saved", or that "God loves me", or that I already know all the answers or know where to find them -- e.g. in a Bible, or in infallible church teachings, or in personal revelations of the Spirit) has become the be-all and end-all of the whole religious quest. Like the pursuit of pleasure (sensual or otherwise) or of power or success for its own sake, faith that seeks assurance above all is a faith that is doomed to stop in its tracks. It is not that such an assurance, if it were possible, is wrong. It is rather that when pursued as the goal of religious commitment, it is apt to become only a disguise for the pursuit of one's own self. Faith is, above all, a risk, the gamble of committing the meaning of one's whole life on something that is ultimately a matter not of certain knowledge, but of trust. Or to put it another way, when one's own need to be absolutely right or correct about everything has replaced all willingness to risk trusting ourselves to something greater than we can understand, we have made an idol of our own need for certainty.

But as they say, what is sauce for the goose is good for the gander. Seen in this light, lack of faith is not all that different from a distorted faith. Regardless of what one believes or refuses to believe, the root problem is the refusal to let go of the need to make oneself (whether consciously, or unconsciously in terms of one's inner compulsions) the measure of all things. So even for those who have reached something of integrated, "conjunctive" stage of faith, the lingering distrust, the unwillingness to let go of the last vestige of self-assurance, of self-justification, remains the proverbial thread that tethers the bird, and thus remains, however willing, unable to fly.

A Concluding Question: Stages of Disbelief?

If the synthesis presented in the book is correct, might there not also be a similar or parallel phenomenon indicating stages of disbelief? Might lack of faith have its genesis in problems of "trust" arising in early childhood? What might be the role of society and/or peer pressure in sowing the seeds of doubt? Can a dogmatic atheism "mature" into a kind of "reverent agnosticism"? What is the role of so-called "apophatic" or "negative" theology? These and many other questions, if not fully exhausted by this book, are surely bound to be provoked by the approach it suggests.

March, 1998

Comments and Questions:

The following question comes from Manitoba:

You wrote,"Faith is, above all, a risk, the gamble of committing the meaning of one's whole life on something that is ultimately a matter not of certain knowledge, but of trust." If the implied risk of religious faith is that my trust is misplaced and that there isn't a hereafter, then isn't it true that there is no risk at all since it is impossible that I will ever know that I was wrong? That seems a contradiction to me.
Bob Greenhalgh, Lockport, Manitoba, Canada

Response: I guess the risk would be if one went so far as to "living one's life in a way that makes no sense unless God exists" -- but in having done so in vain. Something more drastic than what Pascal envisioned in his famous "wager", where he figured that even if you were mistaken in your beliefs and living a moral life, people would consider you a fine fellow. Today people would criticize you for expecting a heavenly reward! RWK

For some further thoughts on this subject, see Patrick Dillon's musings from the "Old Sod".

See also Tony Morse's review of Patrick Glynn's recent book.

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