Beyond Elementary School Christianity


Beyond Elementary School Christianity
Brian Zahnd

In his groundbreaking book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, James W. Fowler describes spiritual development in a series of stages from zero to six. Fowler describes stage two as the faith of school children. This is a stage where metaphors are often literalized and a strong belief in the just reciprocity of the universe is held dear. At this stage of faith the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people is a controlling axiom. I won’t summarize all the stages here, but Fowler describes stage five as the capacity to acknowledge paradox and experience transcendence.

Fowler’s final stage is characterized by compassion and the view that all people belong to a universal community. This is the mature stage where the spiritual journey breaks out of the paradigm of “us versus them” that dominates so much religious thought and controls so many religious institutions.

In his forthcoming book, A More Christlike God, Canadian theologian Brad Jersak comments on Fowler’s stages of faith and the current plight of evangelicalism making this stinging observation: “Entire streams of Christendom are not only stuck at stage-two faith, but actually train and require their ministers to interpret the Bible through the mythic-literal eyes of school children. Growing up and moving forward is rebranded as backsliding; maturing is perceived as falling away.”

If we are required to abide within a stage of spiritual development that believes giving correct answers to a theological quiz is the essence of spiritual maturity and that being good guarantees freedom from suffering, we are stuck in elementary school. We can preach the certitude of Proverbs, but not the paradox of Job; we can make sense of the maxims of Deuteronomy, but not the mystery of John. To become spiritually mature we have to recognize that suffering cannot be avoided and paradox is part of the program.

Sadly, American consumer Christianity specializes in offering gimmicks that promise to eradicate suffering and theologies that claim to eliminate paradox. In our current religious and political climate a following is most easily amassed by capitalizing on the polarizing approach that frames everything according to a dualistic “us versus them” paradigm. This conspires to keep Christians immature and Christianity ugly. We have been trained to be reactive, not contemplative. The reactive is extolled while the contemplative is suspect. In such an environment reactive faith is viewed as “strong faith,” when it’s actually immature.

During the culture war era Christian leaders have been rewarded for forming people according to the reactive life. Christian television and radio thrives on reactive ideologies. In A Sunlit Absence Martin Laird says, “The reactive life is strengthened by these sudden spasms of talking, talking, talking, talking, to ourselves about life and love and how everybody ought to behave and vote.”

We desperately need more mature pastors who can lead their churches beyond the narrow confines of dualism and dogmatism and into the wide vistas of contemplation and compassion. It’s hard for me to imagine a more critical need for the American church right now than this.


(The artwork is Figure on a moonlit lane, St. John’s Road, Ryde, Isle of Wight by John Atkinson Grimshaw, c. 1880)