If faith is a dynamic journey and not a static resting post then we are invited to know ourselves in our search to know God. Fowler’s next stage he sees as typically belonging to early adulthood up to late thirties, and he termed this ‘Individuative-Reflective Faith’. It is characterized by the difficulties of the person struggling with their own feelings and beliefs, and so there is space for greater nuance that will include angst and struggle as the individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs or feelings. Religious or spiritual beliefs can take on greater complexity and shades, and there is a greater sense of open-mindedness, which can at the same time expose the individual to potential conflicts as different beliefs or traditions collide.
The Stage 5 – ‘Conjunctive’ Faith in mid-Life Crisis continues into uncertainty where paradox and mystery linked to transcendence are acknowledged. Opening to this allows the person to move from inherited conventions and where a sort of resolution results from accepting different perspectives and the experience of ‘truth’ that cannot be reduced to a simple statement of faith.
Later adulthood at Stage 6 – ‘Universalizing’ Faith (or ‘Enlightenment’) is a stage that very few achieve where the person is characterized by seeing all people as worthy or compassion and deep understanding. Here, the kingdom of God is within you and there is no sense of being hemmed in by one tradition or another rather an openness to that of God within all beings. Fowler sees Thomas Merton as someone who reached this stage …
The process of Fowler’s stages is interesting as it moves us from a basic trust and mutuality out into the need for certainty and security, and then gradually allowing for our life experiences to transform and open us into new thinking. The growing and aging of our faith is about an increasing vulnerability and a return to something we once knew though unselfconsciously: innocence/experience/innocence to use William Blake’s sequence.
In his foreword to my book ‘The Only Mind Worth Having, Thomas Merton and the child mind’ Rowan Williams wrote about this breakthrough to a new mind.
‘When we were children we did not know we possessed it; now we must drop everything in order to find it. … The true mind of the child is found in an emptying out of the self that collects nice experiences. The child mind is simply the mind that inhabits where and who and what it is, that lives in the world without the shadows of craving and fear and self-objectifying.’
Merton as one of the great spiritual guides of our age ‘gradually clarifies his understanding of this journey towards the present moment of inhabiting the place where life is happening. Merton does this through his contemplative discipline, but also through his imaginative writing, especially his poems, and in his courageous exploration of other religious frameworks such as Buddhism.’ Merton invites us to that home … that is the simple present actuality where God lives and acts… where we are and “know the place for the first time.”