James Fowler’s useful stages of faith work as a spiral as we develop and change and gain from experience of life. Fowler calls Stage 2 ‘Mythic-Literal Faith’ and dates it around the chronological ages of 7-12 where there is a belief in justice and fairness in religious matters, it includes a sense of reciprocity where doing or being good leads to a good result, and doing or being bad will lead to bad things. God may be seen as a real figure – classically an old man with a long white beard living in the clouds. And religious metaphors are often taken literally which can lead to disappointment. Religious thinking is concrete and lacking nuance and subtleties.
From the chronological ages 12 up to adulthood is Stage 3 – ‘Synthetic-Conventional’ Faith where the person is identified with a religious institution, belief system, or authority, and the growth of a personal religious or spiritual identity. It has been pointed out that conflicts with this identity and developing belief system are seen as a threat and so ignored or challenged. From here on the person is able to let go of the particular physical image of God so able to perceive the divine as an abstract or formless manifestation.
The chronological ages Fowler gives are mere pointers, but it does seem as if those needing the certainty and literal readings of the bible – where things are so split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have decided to stay within this apparent ‘safety’ and choose to ignore anything that might threaten this (both in the world and within the inner world). This seems like a false being at peace with ourselves and God as it forces so much to be kept at bay, and the ensuing conflict will eventually lead to emotional distress. It’s a de-valuing of the God-given self and the complexity of feelings and life experiences through submission to an imposed belief system.
There’s an interesting piece of research found online by Christopher Lloyd – ‘Contending with Spiritual Reductionism: Demons, Shame, and Dividualising Experiences Among
Evangelical Christians with Mental Distress’ published this year 2021. Following an earlier study, he interviews eight evangelical Christians to gain their experience of the handling of mental ill health in their church communities. Perhaps none of the findings are surprising but nonetheless the ignorance about why mental illness arises and how best to treat it are still strange given it is 2021. The research took place in the UK and found that these church communities equated suffering with demonic or spiritual involvement – what the author calls spiritual reductionism, alongside the wider cultural expectation of healing. This meant that the church ‘often inappropriately used prayer to expel demons or to insist on prayer alone as the route to healing.’ If healing or deliverance from mental distress didn’t happen then the person’s lack of faith was questioned which led to feelings of guilt and shame and a questioning of their own faith. As one participant remarked, “A question that some people have asked is, ‘How’s your walk with Jesus going?’ They think that it correlates.”
Yet it is clear that the false peace that comes from denial, projection or repression is very different from the peace and acceptance of oneself that can come from integrating the shadow and holding the tension of opposing and sometimes difficult feelings.