St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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On Moving Beyond Horse and Buggy Religion

“You can’t live with a horse-and-buggy religion in the space age.” So my old co-worker Fr Pat Underwood, chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Yale, would say. If your faith does not advance intellectually with the rest of your education, you will not stick around.

In the late seventies and early eighties, much attention was paid to how people’s values and morals are shaped. Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard conducted studies patterned after the stages of cognitive development limned by Jean Piaget, a pioneer in developmental psychology. James Fowler then applied the process to religious systems, giving birth to “faith development.” Without going into Fowler’s system in detail, he identified six developmental stages. Most importantly, he saw that everyone has a turning point where they give up horse-and-buggy religion and move to maturity. Many do not make the cut. This turning point typically happens from teen years through college.

The trigger for a significant return to faith comes when – or if – a person realizes that, despite the loss of simple credulity (no more Santa Claus, no more enchantment), maybe there was something to it after all. This leads to reconstruction on a new, grown up, and informed level. At stake is personal involvement; you have to take charge of your development and recognize how complex faith really is. No longer armed with the simplistic faith of childhood, you set out to re-consider and appropriate what you can of the faith on a post-critical level.

This is a bit technical but it’s important. Here’s why: those who advance to mature faith are capable of compassion and understanding that allows others space for their beliefs. Childhood religion, while it seems magical, is grounded in rigid assumptions marked by conformity. In an adult, such childhood faith – a sort of arrested development – can turn ugly and repressive toward others who do not share your views. Sadly, there is much of this in our world.

You have to grow past this stuck point to reach a universality that treats others with compassion and decency. This does not mean that you have to sink into a wash of relativity, where everything goes and nothing ultimately matters. It does mean that you have to be able to live with paradox and tension and to acknowledge the potential conflicts in your own faith. It does mean that you have to reach below the surface of your particular tradition and see how the symbols might relate to those of other traditions.  This is spiritual maturity.

One alternative is practical atheism. Faced with the collapse of childhood faith, many people exclude faith or religious commitment from their lives. This is certainly one potential response. Often churches are unable or unequipped to enable these people to move past the initial loss. Or don’t get the opportunity, since they left.

In our secular society, also, many people have abandoned religion and thus their children had no tradition in which to achieve even a childhood faith. Such folks may find their way into a mature faith, but it is not easy.

The sad thing, to me, is that so many people, no longer able to live with a horse-and-buggy religion, but unable to see that there might be more to it, drop out completely. I live with the hope that such people might read a column like this, and perhaps reconsider faith, but I doubt it since it appears on the religion page and, thus, would not likely draw their attention.

Mature faith offers satisfaction beyond the smugness of practical atheism or the enchantment of childhood. Mature faith is not only something you can live with, but live by.

published 18 May 2012