The pelican papers

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Chapter 4: Theological reflection essay, ‘Faith in Terms of Reason’

“Evidently, then, the science and the religion are both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure-house to him who can use either of them practically.”

– William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

“Though the evil that ignorant good men do is gleefully exposed in our times by men who think that science is a substitute for morals, it must also be continually exposed and repented of by those who know that morals are no substitute for science.”

– H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture


Developmental psychology has provided much to Christian pastoral practice and theological reflection. The work of theorists such as Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and Erik Erikson, for example, have provided theoretical bases for Christian educators to develop curricula consistent with what secular science discloses as normative intellectual development. The developmental school of psychology provoked United Methodist pastor and theologian James M. Fowler to ponder whether faith, defined as “a way of knowing,” develops in ways consistent with various cognitive-development theories, especially those of Piaget, Kohlberg and Erikson. Fowler concluded that, given the opportunity, religious faith does so develop. In his 1981 book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, Fowler proposed six stages of faith based on his theoretical conflation of various developmental theories and numerous interviews with Christian believers.

Fowler’s theory is a significant basis for Christian theological reflection because it proposes an anthropological model for faith development wherein faith, as an epistemological structure, is present within the human creature at birth. Fowler’s theory asserts that faith develops as an operational aspect of the human mind, provided it is nurtured in suitable social environments. It puts the nexus of divine encounter within the human brain, in a sense positing that whatever the human soul may be philosophically, it is fundamentally rooted in mental phenomena. Such an insight, regardless of whether it is true, has profound implications for Christian theological disciplines such as ascetical theology, the disciplines and practice of prayer, and allied theological issues such as vocation, revelation and creation.

Fowler’s theory is appealing in many ways to a postmodern world that would take seriously advances of scientific knowledge while not falling victim to the fallacy that such knowledge exhausts all that can be known of that broad sense of the universe known generally as “reality.” The discipline from which Fowler’s theory springs has sought to penetrate the mystery of the human mind, but in some cases has propounded scientific theories that resonate with such formally non-scientific practices as prayer and meditation. Fowler’s thinking seems to have begun with the insight that developmental theories might be a bridge between burgeoning scientific knowledge and the phenomenon of human faith. Such a link in contemporary Christian theology might have made Christian faith more intelligible to contemporary culture. Theologically, Fowler’s theory assumes the mystery at the center of all being and accepts the dynamic character of Christian life. However, it also proposes a rigid, irreversible developmental structure that leads only to one destination, regardless of the content of any human faith tradition.

Fowler falls well within the liberal Protestant theological tradition, which more so than either the Evangelical or Catholic tradition takes seriously historical-critical study of Christian and Jewish scripture and the implications of scientific knowledge on classic theological and ethical doctrines. Faith-development theory may be seen as reductionism of the sort that some theologians reject, because it seems to exile the concept of faith as a supernatural gift and make it no more than a special quality of human flesh. Fowler claims such criticism misconstrues his theory, but there is no denying that the concept of faith-development is a fundamental reinterpretation of this central category of Christian theological reflection.

Fowler’s enterprise may well become a classic within the genre of liberal Protestant theology that would marry Christian theology with emerging scientific and philosophical insights. Its general form places it the same category with such classics such as Adolf Harnack’s What is Christianity? and Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy. This essay will consider first the origins, content and critics of Fowler’s work, reflect on his theory in light of Harnack and Otto and critique the theory in light of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture and the work of contemporary research psychologist Ralph L. Piedmont.

Fowler’s Stages of Faith

Fowler first published his stage theory in November 1978. His classic work, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, was first published in 1981. He increased the number of stages from six to seven in 1984 by renumbering the stages, beginning with the “pre-stage” he described in 1981 as a discrete developmental stage he called “Primal Faith.” The number scheme changed but not the nomenclature. He has since published numerous iterations of his stage theory in various theological contexts.

Philosophically, Fowler’s stages are rooted in Piaget’s theory of childhood cognitive development and the formation of logical thinking, which Piaget considered structures of the mind. Fowler theorized that faith, as a way of knowing, constitutes just such a structure without specific content. Fowler also draws upon Erikson’s eight stages of life and the polarities of value Erikson links with discrete chronological periods. Finally, Fowler relies most directly on Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, which moves beyond internal structures (Piaget) and social dynamics (Erikson) to the acquisition of specific content within a developmental framework.

Piaget (1896-1980) theorized that the structure of human thought develops in particular ways as the mind matures. He believed he had discovered universal structures of logic that could be demonstrated cross-culturally. Children, he said, develop from basic “sensorimotor” perception as infants through three stages of “operational” thought: pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operational. Ideally, adolescents have developed formal operations that stay with them through adulthood. Piaget’s theory did not extend past the development of formal operations.

In Piaget’s sensorimotor intelligence stage, from birth to two years of age, babies deal with their immediate world by organizing such physical actions as sucking, grasping and hitting. Pre-operational children from two to seven years of age learn to think using symbols and internal images but tend to be illogical and unsystematic. From seven to 11 years of age, children develop concrete operations that enable them to systematize information but only having to do with concrete objects and activities. Formal operations, beginning at about age 11, enable children to begin thinking in the abstract systematically and hypothetically.

In Piaget’s view, developmental change occurs within the developing child. He subordinated the role of environment to that of the child’s natural inclination to discover and understand novelty.

Erikson (1902-1994) enhanced Freudian stage theory by broadening its referents to include how developing human beings encounter society amid the complexities of biological maturation and interpersonal encounter. For each Freudian stage, Erikson elaborated polarities of value within which ego modes develop. At Freud’s oral stage, for example, from birth to one year of age, the polarity of trust and mistrust leads to the development of hope. Erikson’s early stages corresponded with Freud’s – oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital – but he added two stages beyond adolescence (young adulthood and adulthood) and considered old age as a developmental stage, wherein the polarity of integrity and despair leads to wisdom.

Erikson believed that developing human beings pass through each of the eight stages of life regardless of how well she or he has adapted to the matrix of biological changes, psychological development and social interaction constituting each stage. Erikson believed, as did Piaget of his stage theory, that the stages were invariant and universal, viz., all human cultures would manifest the same stages at roughly the same age intervals.

Crain notes that while “Erikson’s theory describes a variety of feelings we bring to tasks; Piaget’s focuses on intellectual development.” Erikson gave weight to external factors in human psychosocial development, whereas Piaget believed that humans are motivated to learn and adapt primarily from within. Crain shows how Erikson and Piaget approach basic developmental issues from differing points of view. In terms of trust, for example, “Erikson discussed the child’s growing reliance on the predictability and dependability of people, whereas Piaget documented the developing sense of permanent things.”

Kohlberg (1927-1987) elaborated upon Piaget’s two-stage theory of moral development, the major change in which occurs at 10 or 11 years of age, when children move from believing rules are absolute to seeing them as changeable and to basing moral judgment on motives rather than consequences.

Kohlberg’s theory consists of six stages, the first three of which are somewhat similar to Piaget’s. Kohlberg’s stages move generally from the “pre-conventional morality” of children who obey because they fear punishment to a largely theoretical stage of “universal principles,” wherein adults seek justice on the basis of principle alone. Kohlberg dropped stage six from his diagnostic manual in 1975. He and his colleagues had found that few subjects consistently operated at that level, in part because Kohlberg’s research instrument, an interview based on standard moral dilemmas, didn’t sufficiently reach for subjects’ universal moral reasoning.

Fowler’s stage theory understands faith as a structure of the human mind that knows, values and commits to a coherent “ultimate environment,” such as the Christian “Kingdom of God.” Faith is theoretically understood as a dynamic process discovering meaning “and being found by meaning” in beliefs that are both constructed from within and received from others. Faith, as Fowler defines it, may be explicitly religious or not.

Fowler’s seven stages are “formal” and “structurally definable” means by which human beings “compose and maintain their life-orienting systems of meaning and valuing.” Change from one stage to another – always to a higher stage – is brought about by a complex of psychosocial factors, including “cognition, social perspective taking, moral reasoning, personal authorization, widening social inclusiveness, cosmological coherence, and symbolic/aesthetic responsiveness.”

Transition through all seven stages is not inevitable but is irreversible. Faith development may be halted permanently by “certain groups [that] sponsor persons to particular stages but … [then] may ‘seal’ or ‘cap’ their development to further stages.” The sequence of stages does not vary, and although Fowler and his colleagues do not have sufficient data to prove it, they believe that the stages are culturally universal.

Each stage is composed of seven aspects by which researchers establish subjects’ faith stages. Aspect A, Form of Logic, “describes the characteristic patterns of mental operations the person employs in thinking about the object world.” Aspect B, Social Perspective Taking, “describes the way in which the person constructs the self, the other and the relationship between them.” Aspect C, Form of Moral Judgment, assesses “patterns of a person’s thinking about issues of moral significance …” Aspect D, Bounds of Social Awareness, “answers the question of how the person is viewing or constructing the group of which he or she is a member.” Aspect E, Locus of Authority, “looks at … how authorities are selected, how authorities are held in relationship to the individual, and whether the person responds primarily to internal or external authority.” Aspect F, Form of World Coherence, “describes how a person constructs the object world, including the sense of the ultimate environment.” Aspect G, Symbolic Function, determines “how the person understands, appropriates, and utilizes symbols and other aspects of language in the process of meaning-making and locating his or her centers of value and images of power.”

In Fowler’s research, discrete passages of interview transcripts are sorted by aspect then coded by stage. The method produces an overall stage assignment. Fowler and his colleagues have observed that results are not always clear cut at any level of the process. In cases of such ambiguous results, subjects are said to be “in transition” from one stage to the next. About 30 percent of 359 subjects for whom results were reported in 1981 were found to be transitional.

Fowler’s theory seeks to create a productive conversation between science and religion in their respective forms of developmental psychology and Christianity. Karl Ernst Nipkow observes both the courage and difficulty of such an undertaking.

According to modern structural-developmental theories, human beings have been involved, presumably from the dawn of history, in the process of organizing their experiences. The problem is not this fact itself, but the desirability of its implications. One can well imagine authoritarian political or religious systems where the individual as an active agent is not wanted … [W]hat about the claim of Christian faith and experience that human life and its fulfillment before God come as a gift? Fowler makes the exciting attempt to reconcile both perspectives.

Fowler’s definition of faith precludes Christian content – indeed, it precludes all content in theory – to preserve a scientific standpoint, which must be objective in the sense that it not be shaped by doctrinal predisposition. Thus Fowler would apply faith development theory to subjects with no religious belief even as he has speculated, in the absence of data, that it would apply to a broad range of religious traditions. Faith, according to Fowler, is a universal human structure of meaning that develops in specific ways whether it embraces Christianity or any other human religion or no religion at all.

Faith is not always religious in its content or context … Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

Such a definition is disquieting to a broad range of theological traditions, but the term also has drawn fire from secular critics. Sharon Daloz Parks writes:

While the first seem to have a stake in defending the agency of God, the second seem to have a stake in protecting the irrelevancy or irrationality of God. The first would prefer to confine discussion of faith to the subject of “grace.” The latter would prefer to confine faith to religious categories safely deposited on the margins of society and to label as merely “ego” the meaning-making, convenantal activity in relation to the ultimate [environment] that Fowler, following on Smith, Niebuhr, and Tillich, describes as faith.

The uneasy tension between faith and reason, especially as the latter is expounded by scientific inquiry, is not new. The competing claims of sacred versus secular thinking have been components of Christian theological discourse from the beginning, but since the advent of medieval scholasticism, debates have resounded with more and more intensity. Fowler’s enterprise partakes of that dialogue by vacating the concept of faith as a religious category and reinterpreting it – some would say reinventing it – as a universal phenomenological form. His perspective is religious but his theory is not – until it propounds a theory of mature faith.

Critics note that Fowler’s rules for stage development and change don’t apply to “Universalizing faith.” Parks writes that Universalizing faith

does not appear as an evolution of the psychosocial structures described by stages 1 through 5; that is, the examples used do not necessarily demonstrate the attainment of all that Fowler states – a qualitatively new form of all seven aspects of faith as he has described them … Moreover, the distinctions between form and content become blurred without adequate explication.

Fowler writes that Universalizing faith is “the normative endpoint of faith development” but that it is due more to external than internal changes: “It is my conviction that persons who come to embody Universalizing faith are drawn into those patterns of commitment and leadership by the providence of God and the exigencies of history.” “Universalizers,” according to Fowler, are rare and contagious “in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity.” Universalizers are often subversive of religious structures and so incur the wrath of powers that be. “Many persons in this stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change. Universalizers are often more honored and revered after death than during their lives.”

Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives, often involving strategies of nonviolent suffering and ultimate respect for being, constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance. It is little wonder that persons best described by [Universalizing faith] so frequently become martyrs for the visions they incarnate.

Fowler’s list of Universalizers includes Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as non-martyrs such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta – but not Jesus of Nazareth.

It does appear, as critics have suggested, that Universalizing faith is not a stage at all but a statement of belief. Fowler’s explanation that it must be so to be intelligible doesn’t make sense as scientific theory.

The case I am trying to make is this: the fact that the image of the most developed faith that informs the normative and descriptive end-point of the faith development theory derived initially from a theological formulation of the central thrust of biblical faith need not disqualify it as more generally or universally valid. Put another way, the fact that descriptions of [Universalizing faith] seek to express in a formal and inclusive way the contours of radical monotheistic faith does not negate the possibility of its universal truth and usefulness.

None of which dispels the content Fowler has imported into the final stage of his theory, which in retrospect serves to interpret the whole: Universalizing faith is the teleology of Fowler’s theory, which begins with faith as an empty set but ends as an affirmation of universal Christian ideals.

Religious and secular critics alike have noted this problem, and repeated apologia by Fowler seem to have failed. Parks writes:

The direction and goal of the trajectory envisioned do serve as the primary influence upon what the theorist sees and identifies as significant along the journey. To be responsible as a theorist, Fowler has had to be clear on this matter. But we may ask whether or not his vision of mature faith needs to have been titled [Universalizing faith].

A tradition of idealism

Fowler’s enterprise falls within a type of Christianity identified by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ in Culture (1951) as “culture-Protestantism,” a kind of neo-Gnosticism that, among other things, appropriates the science of its day to interpret Christian theological issues. In this, Fowler is one with idealists such as Adolf Harnack and Rudolf Otto, who after Immanuel Kant and Albrecht Ritschl propounded development theories that ultimately were teleologically compromised despite the erudition and rigor of their authors. Harnack, Otto and Fowler claim to have distilled from their study of faith and reason interpretive insights that lead to certain inevitable conclusions.

Harnack (1851-1930) contends throughout What is Christianity? (Das Wesen des Christentums, 1901) that there is something quintessential at the origin of Christianity, pure and undefiled by institutional dogma and cultural accretion. Christianity, he writes, “is something simple and sublime; it means one thing and one thing only: Eternal life in the midst of time, by the strength and under the eyes of God.” He proposes that only a “purely historical” approach can answer the question: “What is the Christian religion?”

Harnack roots “pure Christianity” in the person of Jesus.

He lives in religion, and it was breath to him in the fear of God; his whole life, all his thoughts and feelings, were absorbed in the relation to God, and yet he did not talk like an enthusiast and a fanatic, who sees only the one red-hot spot, and so is blind to the world and all that it contains … He is possessed of a quiet, uniform, collected demeanor, with everything directed to one goal … [Pictures of Jesus found in the gospels] exhibit an inner freedom and cheerfulness of soul in the midst of the greatest strain, such as no prophet ever possessed before him … Yet he who had not where to lay his head does not speak like one who has broken with everything, or like an heroic penitent, or like an ecstatic prophet, but like a man who has rest and peace for his soul, and is able to give life and strength to others.

Harnack argues that Christianity is “a spiritual religion” that knows no external authority but knows God only as “Father” and “as the source of strength and joy and peace.” Such was the religion of Jesus, Harnack maintains, and it ought to be the religion of anyone who would be called Christian.

The church, says Harnack, has paid a heavy price for interpreting Christianity in any way other than inner truth.

We have always to “pay the penalty” of acting, and not only take the evil consequences but also knowingly and with open eyes resolutely neglect one thing in order to gain another. Our purest and most sacred possessions, when they leave the inward realm and pass into the world of form and circumstances, are no exception to the rule that the very shape which they take in action also proves to be their limitation.

Harnack’s critique of Christian history is one wherein the gospel must hold its own against worldly accretions of doctrine, philosophy and ecclesiastical structure. He frames his analysis of Christian history in terms of six core issues: “asceticism,” “the social question,” “the question of public order,” “the question of civilization,” “the Christological question,” and “the question of the creed.” In brief, he spiritualizes these issues and in various ways denies their relevance to “true Christianity.” Two examples will suffice.

Asceticism, “the Catholic doctrine … that it is only monks who can follow Christ fully,” which

maintains the theory that all worldly blessings are in themselves of no value … has no place in the Gospel at all; what it asks is that we should struggle against mammon, against care, against selfishness; what it demands and disengages is love; the love that serves and is self-sacrificing. This struggle and this love are the kind of asceticism which the Gospel means, and whoever encumbers Jesus’ message with any other kind fails to understand it. He fails to understand its grandeur and its importance; for there is something still more important than ‘giving one’s body to be burned and bestowing all one’s goods to feed the poor,’ namely, self-denial and love.

Regarding “the social question,” Harnack rejects the idea that Jesus “was a great social reformer, who aimed at relieving the lower classes from [their] wretched condition.” Jesus’ teachings do provoke charity, but these are to be seen as singular acts with eschatological implications, not social programs for changing the here and now.

The Gospel is a social message, solemn and overpowering in its force; it is the proclamation of solidarity and brotherliness, in favor of the poor. But the message is bound up with the recognition of the infinite value of the human soul, and is contained in what Jesus said about the kingdom of God … But laws or ordinances or injunctions bidding us forcibly alter the conditions of the age in which we may happen to be living are not to be found in the Gospel.

One by one, Harnack dismisses Christian traditions that, in his view, have lost the true essence of Christianity. “Greek Catholicism,” for example, has bound itself with traditionalism, intellectualism and ritualism.

There is no sadder spectacle than this transformation of the Christian religion from a worship of God in spirit and in truth into a worship of God in signs, formulas, and idols … It was to destroy this sort of religion that Jesus Christ suffered himself to be nailed to the cross, and now we find it re-established under his name and authority.

Likewise, Roman Catholicism – its government, theology and liturgical practice – has departed from the pure gospel of Jesus: “[T]he whole outward and visible institution of the Church claiming divine dignity has no foundation whatever in the Gospel. It is a case, not of distortion, but of total perversion.”

Harnack the historian, having delivered a “scientific” critique of Christian history, based on a contemporary understanding of Jesus’ teachings that peels away supernatural doctrinal traditions Harnack believes could not have been part of the pure, spiritual gospel, concludes that there is at least one Christian tradition that comports with original, pure Christianity – his own.

What do all our discoveries and inventions and our advances in outward civilization signify in comparison with the fact that today there are thirty millions of Germans, and many more millions of Christians outside Germany, who possess a religion without priests, without sacrifices, without “fragments” of grace, without ceremonies – a spiritual religion!

Protestantism, Harnack argues, “was not an innovation in regard to religion, but was a restoration and renewal of it.” Catholicism had not lost pure Christianity as embodied in the Word of God, faith and simplicity, but had buried it “in a heap of rubbish.”

Thus, under color of scientific historical inquiry, Harnack concludes that the purest expression of Christian faith is the late-19th century liberal Protestantism with which he is most familiar. The teleology of his theory, in a sense, becomes clear in the final “stage” of its explication, but from the beginning it appears to have been the purpose to which the theory was put.

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) proposes in The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilege, 1917) that human religion has developed by inevitable stages from lower to higher forms. His discipline is that of “the comparative study of religions,” by which he explores, with considerable erudition, ancient languages and philosophies to disclose a universal phenomenon for which he coined the term “numinous,” from the Latin term numen, or “divine power.” Otto’s use of the term, however, is specialized and as such plays a pivotal role in his development theory.

By means of a special term we shall the better be able, first, to keep the meaning clearly apart and distinct, and second, to apprehend and classify connectedly whatever subordinate forms or stages of development it may show … I shall speak, then, of a unique “numinous” category of value and of a definitely “numinous” state of mind, which is always found wherever the category is applied. This mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other; and therefore, like every absolutely primary and elementary datum, while it admits of being discussed, it cannot be strictly defined.

The English translator of The Idea of the Holy, John W. Harvey, wrote in 1949:

The word “numinous” has been widely received as a happy contribution to the theological vocabulary, as standing for that aspect of deity which transcends or eludes comprehension in rational or ethical terms. But it is Otto’s purpose to emphasize that this is an objective reality, not merely a subjective feeling in the mind; and he uses the word feeling in this connexion not as equivalent to emotion but as a form of awareness that is neither that of ordinary perceiving nor of ordinary conceiving.

Otto analyzes “the numinous” by isolating its elements. Terminology is drawn from a cross-cultural vocabulary comprising such terms as “awefulness,” “overpoweringness,” “wholly other” and “fascination.” He describes how the numinous operates in Jewish and Christian scripture and the theology of Martin Luther. Philosophically, Otto posits that for “higher religion” to develop, the rational and the irrational must cohere. He contends, for example, that this is what happened to produce Protestant Christianity, although he laments that the Lutheranism of his day

has itself not done justice to the numinous side of the Christian idea of God. By the exclusively moral interpretation it gave to the terms, it distorted the meaning of ‘holiness’ and the ‘wrath’ of God, and already from the time of Johann Gerhardt and onwards Lutheranism was returning to the doctrine of divine apatheia or passionlessness …

Schleiermacher was the first to attempt to overcome this rationalism … It will be a task for contemporary Christian teaching to follow in his traces and again to deepen the rational meaning of the Christian conception of God by permeating it with its non-rational elements.

Otto summarizes his theory in Chapter XIII of The Idea of the Holy. Awe of the numinous animates primitive human religion “in the form of ‘daemonic dread,’ and which, as it further unfolds, becomes more elevated and ennobled, is in origin not something rational or moral, but something distinct, non-rational, an object to which the mind responds in a unique way.” The “numen” becomes “God” when “out of a confusion of inchoate emotions and bewildered palpitations of feeling grows ‘religio’, and out of ‘shudder’ a holy awe.” Rationalization and moralization, meanwhile, are said by Otto to develop along a parallel track

on the basis of the numinous consciousness. It nearly, if not quite, synchronizes and keeps pace with the stages of the purely numinous development, and, like that, it can be traced in its different gradations in the most widely different regions of religious history. Almost everywhere we find the numinous attracting and appropriating meanings derived from the social and individual ideals of obligation, justice, and goodness. These become the “will” of the numen, and the numen their guardian, ordainer, and author.

The history of human religion, according to Otto, is the development of ever higher concepts of the holy driven by awe of the numinous and the development of pure reason.

“The feeling of the numinous” is a fundamental aspect of human psychology that emerges by degree “when certain conditions are fulfilled, conditions involving a proper development of the bodily organs and the other powers of mental and emotional life in general.” The feeling of the numinous develops as do all other “primal elements of our mental or spiritual life … in conformity to laws and under definite conditions [that are] indisputable.” A rational process Otto describes as “schematization” reconciles the irrational and rational, the numinous and pure reason, and develops concepts such as “the holy” to interpret experience. “The tremendum,” for example, “the daunting and repelling moment of the numinous, is schematized by means of the rational ideas of justice, moral will, and the exclusion of what is opposed to morality …” By such analysis, Otto concludes that Christianity is the highest form of human religion.

The degree in which both rational and non-rational elements are jointly present, united in healthy and lovely harmony, affords a criterion to measure the relative rank of religions – and one, too, that is specifically religious. Applying this criterion, we find that Christianity, in this as in other respects, stands out in complete superiority over all its sister religions.

Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) resists whatever temptation there might have been in Christ and Culture to suggest that there is a superior means by which to view the issues. He acknowledges the contributions as well as the deficiencies of each of five tableaux for understanding the interface of Christian faith and human culture: “Christ against culture,” “The Christ of culture,” “Christ above culture,” “Christ and culture in paradox” and “Christ the transformer of culture.” Niebuhr clearly states that he is not talking about stages of development but types “of the great motifs that appear and reappear in the long wrestling of Christians with their enduring problem.”

Generally, Niebuhr’s types consist of polarities within which three types may be characterized as syntheses of the poles. “The enduring problem” of Christians, Niebuhr writes, comes from embracing Christ “as Son of the Father.”

Belief in him and loyalty to his cause involves men in the double movement from world to God and from God to world. Even when theologies fail to do justice to this fact, Christians living with Christ in their cultures are aware of it. For they are forever being challenged to abandon all things for the sake of God; and forever being sent back into the world to teach and practice all the things that have been commanded them.

Niebuhr defined culture as “that total process of human activity and that total result of such activity to which now the name culture, now the name civilization, is applied in common speech … New Testament writers frequently had [this] in mind when they spoke of “the world” …

Historically, Niebuhr argues, one type of Christian response to culture has been that of “the Christ of culture” (emphasis added), wherein followers of Christ

feel no great tension between church and world … On the one hand they interpret culture through Christ, regarding those elements in it as most important which are most accordant with his work and person; on the other hand they understand Christ through culture, selecting from his teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization.

The historical template for this continuing aspect of Christ in culture was formed by early Christian Gnosticism, according to Niebuhr. Citing the research of F.C. Burkitt, Niebuhr aligns the Gnostic enterprise with that of latter-day Christian apologists taking their epistemological cues from contemporary science.

[W]hat they sought to do was to reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of their time, as nineteenth-century defenders of the faith tried to state the doctrine of Jesus Christ in terms of evolution, so these men undertook to interpret it in the light of the fascinating ideas that had been suggested to enlightened minds by Ptolemaian astronomy and by the psychology of the day with … its theory that the body was the soul’s tomb … [W]e may well believe that the Gnostics were no more inclined to fantasy than are those folk in our day who find in psychiatry the key to the understanding of Christ, or in nuclear fission the answer to the problems of eschatology.

Niebuhr sees this thread of Christian Gnosticism running through the ethics of medieval theologian Peter Abelard, whose commentary on the Sermon on the Mount consists of “kindly and liberal guidance for good people who want to do right.” By the 18th century, “[a] thousand variations of the Christ-of-culture theme have been formulated by great and little thinkers in the Western world,” among them John Locke, Kant and Thomas Jefferson. “The philosophers, statesmen, reformers, poets, and novelists who acclaim Christ with Jefferson all repeat the same theme; Jesus Christ is the great enlightener, the great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace.” In the 19th century, we might well add Harnack, and Otto, and in the 20th century, Fowler, albeit in a different context.

Fowler fits the template by virtue of his accommodation with contemporary science. His enterprise is especially similar to that of Otto for the rigor by which he enlists scientific doctrines, first, to redefine faith as a structure of the mind, a way of knowing; then to describe a process of change suggesting that faith inevitably becomes qualitatively superior to what came before, provided it has not been “capped” by repressive religious traditions. Otto, too, interpreted developing human religious awareness using a construct without content, “the numinous,” which he invented and then defined as being beyond rational definition. Harnack’s interpretive structure for discovering the “essence of Christianity” was a purportedly historical Christology that precluded much of the history that developed from the Jesus movement of 1st-century Palestine, except that of early 18th-century philosophical history that gave rise to German idealism.

Interpreting and understanding the dynamics of faith by scientific inquiry is vitally important, and Fowler’s contributions to productive theological discourse far outweigh the limitations of his theory, just as the insights of Otto in The Idea of the Holy and Harnack in What is Christianity? are not utterly dimmed by their teleology. Otto’s theory has provided a strikingly intelligible and useful vocabulary for dealing with numinous phenomena and for appreciating cross-cultural religious experience. Harnack’s exhaustive description of the development of Christian theology and practice and, perhaps, even his critical method – though not his conclusions – are invaluable for contemporary Christians’ appropriation and understanding of church tradition. Fowler has reminded us that Christian theology has nothing to fear from psychological science, that the saying is true that the Spirit will lead Jesus’ followers into all truth and that the truth will make them free – even, and perhaps especially, scientific truth. Christian tradition declares that humanity has been created in God’s image. If so, then there must be a profound connection between God and the human brain – and perhaps any brain from which it evolved – because, clearly, it is the organ by which creatures are most able to ponder the mystery of Being Itself. If Fowler has erred upon a technicality regarding how the human mind develops, he has nevertheless, perhaps prophetically, pointed toward a true path of understanding and appreciating human religious behavior. It will not deplete the spirituality of Christian faith to know more about how our brains operate vis a vis God.

There is truth in Fowler’s method of thinking about the nature of Christian faith, although it may have less to do with “faith” than with the practice of faith. There is a rhetorical sense in which faith is something Christians do, a form of behavior – “faith is a verb not a noun,” preachers never tire of saying – but in fact, “faith” in Fowler’s theory is a noun not a verb, and as such it refers to something. Fowler theorizes that “faith” points to a structure of the mind awaiting content and development, but it is more likely an interpretive matrix of content embraced, or not, by human choice, delivered in gradual doses by social experience. Fowler maintains that faith is an intrinsic property of the human mind, but it is more likely extrinsic, provided by God and mediated through creation and vocation.

Fowler, then, seems to have erred in positing that faith is the universal religious structure of the mind that develops by degree with time and experience. It may be, however, that prayer is the structure without content, the way of knowing whereby human beings encounter what Otto called the numinous. Theoretically, prayer is universal if understood broadly as religious behavior vis a vis the sacred. Types and techniques of prayer seem to be, if not universal, then at least historically multicultural. Some sacred symbols produced by (or provocative of) human spirituality appear in a wide variety of cultural contexts. The history of Christian prayer is replete with theories of spiritual development, and embedded within the literature of research psychology are insights that appear as though they would be fruitful paths for understanding the nature of human prayer and spirituality.

Ralph Piedmont, in a recent exploration of whether spirituality is a factor for personality modeling, observes that

[r]eligion and spirituality are universal threads in the fabric of human experience. Although each culture and religion provides different revelation and ritual for explaining and defining this “meaningful ultimacy” (Verbit, 1970), there is amazing consistency regarding its theme: that there exists a broader paradigm for understanding existence that transcends the immediacy of our own individual consciousness and that binds all things into a more unitive harmony. All religious traditions call individuals to recognize the limitedness of their perspective, which is anchored in a specific time and place, and to consider an encompassing vision of life that satisfied more fundamental urges of our nature. I call this theme Spiritual Transcendence.

Spiritual transcendence, for Piedmont, is a “fundamental capacity” and a “source of intrinsic motivation that drives, directs and selects behaviors.” It includes religion and spirituality but is a broader category that comprises expressions such as patriotism and self-sacrificing altruism. Its components include

connectedness, a belief that one is part of a larger human orchestra whose contribution is indispensable in creating life’s continuing harmony; universality, a belief in the unitive nature of life; prayer fulfillment, feelings of joy and contentment that result from personal encounters with a transcendent reality.

Piedmont seems to be approaching from another perspective Fowler’s quest for that which motivates humans toward ultimate encounters. Other facets of Spiritual Transcendence, for example, include “tolerance of paradoxes” and “existentiality.”

Spiritual Transcendence represents a hierarchically organized domain of psychological functioning. At a global level it provides an overall index of an individual’s level of commitment to intangible realities and the degree of emotional support experienced in return. An analysis of the underlying facets allows for a more precise evaluation of how an individual is negotiating his or her search for meaning.

Missing from Piedmont’s analytical category is any sense that it develops by stages or that development is irreversible. Spiritual Transcendence is an aspect of personality, truly without content, that serves to explain

why individuals seek transcendent goals in setting as diverse as a hermetic desert retreat to charity work in a Calcuttan ghetto … [and] why people high on transcendence are so diverse, ranging from those who strictly adhere to well-delineated rituals aimed at glorifying a defined theistic image to those who eschew formal religion and seek to encounter some amorphous “higher consciousness.”

Piedmont’s theory, not unlike Fowler’s, comprehends a multiplicity of faiths and even no faith at all, but Piedmont’s thinking seems less coercive than Fowler’s and there is no hint that he believes late phases of Spiritual Transcendence are superior to earlier phases. There is, moreover, no stage theory in Piedmont’s work, and he proposes no idealized end state for which normative operating principles of change and manifestation to not apply.

Faith has much to learn from science and perhaps science as much from faith. This field project began with the assumption that the structure of Fowler’s theory discloses more about types than stages of faith. That conclusion, however, doesn’t foreclose on the possibility that something of humanity’s religious instinct develops as the mind matures and is cultivated with given traditions and methods of prayer and worship. In this researcher’s view, Piedmont’s category of Spiritual Transcendence would have more use than Fowler’s developmental concept of faith in the scientific appreciation of humanity’s encounter with the divine. It is, among other things, more pertinent to the universal practice of prayer, and its method does not require fundamental alteration of the key Christian theological concept of faith.

Interviews that formed the research component of this project disclose that certain features of Christian spirituality among clergy within a certain theological tradition may be predicted by typologies formed from Fowler’s faith-development theory. These findings may or may not be true, and in any case, productive use of such insights is still many steps away. It remains to be seen whether such a typology would be of diagnostic value in spiritual direction, but in theory at least, such tools would be beneficial, especially when circumstances, perhaps a compelling need for timely intervention, don’t permit preferable models that allow more time. The loss or erosion of faith this researcher associates with clergy misconduct may be of a certain type of spiritual disease that, within a given tradition, would be susceptible to a certain type of “treatment” in the form of spiritual direction under certain circumstances or providing certain species of content. Developing such a curriculum for Episcopalian clergy in crisis is the ultimate goal of this researcher.

It may seem an odd way to induce spiritual direction as a remedy for clergy with troubled spiritual lives, but such a method would draw upon the best of sacred and secular knowledge for the benefit of the church and its ordained members. Just as theology ought to have no fear of science, so spiritual directors ought to have no fear of scientific insights into human behavior and the processes of the mind, especially as these may illuminate the Christian life of prayer. It is the conviction of this researcher that some central issues of clergy misconduct are susceptible to remedy by the compassionate application of spiritual direction, and that the more consistent with scientific knowledge such a remedy can be, the more likely that remedy will be effective. It is clear that external means such as moral exhortation, peer pressure and threat of ecclesiastical sanction are successful to some extent – perhaps even in most cases – in providing reasonable incentives for clergy to comport themselves according to their vows. What matters most, however, is the individual clergyperson’s interior disposition, whether that be maintained by spiritual direction, peer-group support or moral resolution by whatever means. Spiritual direction, in other words, is not the answer to clergy misconduct, but this researcher believes that it should be part of a multifaceted approach to a problem that has beset the church for generations.


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