I spoke last week to a woman who was greatly distressed because her church was making a slight change in a common liturgical formula. When the celebrant says, “The Lord be with you,” the people respond, “And also with you.” Her church is planning to change the response to, “And with your spirit.”
“What gives them the right to do that?” she demanded. In her eyes, the pastor was arbitrarily altering what God had ordained. I tried to explain that the exchange was not in the Bible and that both versions were acceptable to God, but I’m not sure she understood. She was stuck in an early, immature stage of faith, like children who will not allow their parents to skip a page or alter a line in their favorite Dr. Seuss book.
Or consider the teen who is afraid to go to a certain college because the teaching there might be unsettling to her faith. In such a case, one might appropriately ask, “Which is more important, the doctrines you believe or the truth?” However, that may be the wrong question. Perhaps what seems most important in her crazy, unsettled world is the security of anchoring her heart in an unchanging, unchallenged system of belief.
These sorts of encounters lead to a broader question: What does psychological development have to do with faith? Various attempts have been made to link the two. A friend has asked me to comment on the theological soundness of James Fowler’s work on stages of faith development and Scott Peck’s stages of spiritual development. Hence, this blog post. For a chart summarizing their views click on the link—Fowler/Peck chart.
I am not an expert in developmental psychology, but I find it relatively easy to think of people whose spiritual development bears a resemblance to the stages described by Fowler and Peck. For example, I have seen people questioning their faith in their early twenties (as they suggest) and either abandoning it, or coming to a deeper, more personal experience of Christ.
At the level of observation and description, the work of psychologists like Fowler and Peck can be very helpful. We do see people progressing through or sometimes stuck in various stages of spiritual development. However, I see several major limitations to the whole project.
The first is that the end-point of spiritual development is defined without respect to ultimate truth. A person may be a spiritually mature Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon or Baptist. This is unacceptable for those who hold to a biblical worldview. For us the pattern for maturity (both individually and corporately) is conformity to the character of Christ (Ephesians 4:13-16).
A second limitation of psychological descriptions of faith or conversion is that they inevitably end up in what the late British Christian neurophysicist Donald M. MacKay liked to call the “nothing buttery” syndrome. Love, morality, appreciation of beauty and all our joys and sorrows are “nothing but” a physiological response within our brains to certain external stimuli. Conversion is “nothing but” a radical change of attitude and viewpoint resulting from certain psychological stresses.
In a similar vein, a fascinating sermon by C. S. Lewis discusses how the higher, richer aspects of human life are transposed into the lower, poorer realms of physiology and descriptive psychology.
If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning. . . . If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense. . . . If you are making a piano version of a piece originally scored for an orchestra, then the same piano notes which represent flutes in one passage must also represent violins in another.
So a psychologist might describe the conversion of Malcom X to Islam using the same terms as he would use to describe conversion from political apathy to fervent activism in the Tea Party. Again, the same language might describe conversion from atheism to Christ. Psychological tools and language are not rich enough to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in spiritual terms. That is a limitation, not a fault, in the psychological method. It only becomes a fault if the psychologist assumes that his description is complete delineation of what is happening in the lives of his subjects.
Let us now return to our original question, about Spirit and Nature, God and Man. Our problem was that in what claims to be our spiritual life all the elements of our natural life recur: and, what is worse, it looks at first glance as if no other elements were present. We now see that if the spiritual is richer than the natural (as no one who believes in its existence would deny) then this is exactly what we should expect. And the sceptic’s conclusion that the so-called spiritual is really derived from the natural, that it is a mirage or projection or imaginary extension of the natural, is also exactly what we should expect; for, as we have seen, this is the mistake which an observer who knew only the lower medium would be bound to make in every case of Transposition. The brutal man never can by analysis find anything but lust in love; the Flatlander never can find anything but flat shapes in a picture; physiology can never find anything in thought except twichings of grey matter. It is no good browbeating the critic who approaches a Transposition from below. On the evidence available to him his conclusion is the only one possible.
Everything is different when you approach the Transposition from above, as we all do in the case of emotion and sensation or of the three-dimensional world and pictures, and as the spiritual man does in the case we are considering.
A third limitation relates to ways in which Christians might use psychological descriptions of how faith matures. I see positive contributions and a need for caution.
Contributions. Observing the normal progression of faith can help pastors and parents in several ways. First, it may keep us from expecting more maturity than is realistic for most children and for most early teens. Immature faith can still be genuine faith. Second, when we observe someone who is stuck at an immature level of faith, we may be better equipped gently to guide that person toward greater maturity. Third, we need to realize that some people do not have the mental or emotional capacity to progress as far or as fast as others. They may truly love and trust the Lord, but never move on to the kind of confidence that will enable them to respond calmly and kindly to people who challenge their faith. They may always resort a flight or fight reaction that is born out of fear and insecurity.
Cautions. The greatest danger for parents and pastors is probably the temptation to think we can protect our children from apostasy by using psychological insights and methods. Psychological techniques cannot transform group conformity that is common among our teens to confident, independent faith in their twenties. No one grows from the family of Adam into the family of God. Each one must be born into it. Neither can psychological methods of altering behavior produce the fruit of the Spirit. Fowler and Peck may help us see what is going on in the lives of those under our care, but as always the true “weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Corinthinas 10:4).
 For a helpful response to this kind of reductionism, see Donald M. MacKay, “Man As a Mechanism,” in Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe, edited by Donald M. MacKay (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1965).
 C. S. Lewis, “Transposition,” in Srewtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces (Collins: London, 1965).
 Ibid., 80-81.
 Ibid., 85.