Psychological Development & Meaningful Faith: When Faith Works

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Still another adolescent gains attention for getting into trouble, or acting out in negatively social ways. As psychological development continues along a normative path, older adolescents and young adults typically and gradually adjust their views of themselves into an integrated sense of self.  From these examples a developing, balanced, and complex self-concept might include some combination of athletic abilities and being a team player; being a critical thinker; being attractive in his/her own right; capable of nurturing self and others, having ‘natural’ tendencies toward getting in trouble, and so on. Theorists such as Erikson (1968), Fowler (2000), and Marcia (Cobb, 2004) suggest that a consistent and mature sense of identity serves as a filter through which we interpret a generalized sense of meaning, and deal with various events throughout our lives.

Because the development of our identity spans three decades, psychological growth and maturity is often subtle and gradual.  Similar to physical growth, psychological growth may go relatively unnoticed over shorter periods. Further, within the range of normal there is often a great deal of variation from individual to individual as to when benchmarks are achieved, when subsequent psychological tasks begin, and when these tasks are finished. Two individuals may be about the same chronological age and educational level in school, but differ dramatically from each other in terms of their level of psychological maturity, their subsequent sense of identity, and the level of comfort with who they are. Due to this normal variation in development, even though two people vary from each other, they may both be ‘on schedule’ developmentally – within the range of normal psychological development.  This is an essential point to assist us in understanding why development of faith and religion may also vary from person to person. Specifically, regarding an individual’s religious identity, personal variability in and of itself could contribute to the difference in how two individuals might understand and make meaning of a particular event. This is especially true during adolescence and early adulthood when foundational psychological development is still in process.

James Marcia’s Status Model of identity development is important here. The Identity Status model states that on the way to achieving the sense of identity mentioned above, individuals tend to occupy one of four identity statuses (Arnett, 2007; Cobb, 2004).  1. Identity Achievement is the last and most desirable status, characterized by the following: a strong sense of commitment to a set of ideals and values, which come about through a time of exploration of alternatives. Consistent with the process of exploration and searching is often an internal sense of psychological conflict or turmoil. 2. Identity Moratorium is the status during which commitments are not yet made, but the process of exploration and internal struggle is taking place. A hallmark of this status is a sense of ‘trying out’ different options, values and beliefs. 3. Identity Foreclosure is the status characterized by a strong sense of commitment to values and ideals, but without a time of searching for alternatives and therefore without a sense of significant psychological turmoil.  The commitments made in the stage of Foreclosure are primarily based on views held by one’s parents or other strong role models. 4. Identity Diffusion, described by Marcia is the status characterized by a lack of commitment and a lack of exploration – in essence, a decision is made to not make a decision, nor look for any viable options. 2

The importance of questioning and struggle is consistent throughout the developmental literature and extends to the writing of C.S. Lewis.  He emphasized the importance of psychological turmoil as an important part of developing strength and depth of faith and belief. Lewis was suspicious of beliefs and ideas that were the result of ” . . . easy reconciliations” (Watson, 2006, pg 78).  A psychological identity too easily attained may be primarily made up of thoughts and beliefs borrowed from role models such as parents and teachers, rather than worked out in the process of the individual’s development.

Background: Faith & Psychology

Discussions regarding the value of a religious core in our psychological makeup have taken place throughout modern day psychology. William James’ (1902) work in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries is an excellent example.  Prior to and following James’ work, various theories have been posited, shaped and reshaped by Freud, Jung, Adler, Frankel, and many others in an attempt to persuade regarding the positive and/or negative aspects that religion plays in psychological health and/or illness.  A century later, pros and cons of the psychological importance of faith are still discussed. More recently, it has been suggested that we would benefit by approaching this issue with a more integrative framework in mind versus searching for an all or nothing, either/or answer.  In Christianity, there is a developing body of helpful literature addressing various theoretical models for thinking about the relationship between psychology and theology or religion (Entwistle, 2004; Johnson, & Jones, 2000; and Carter, & Narramore, 1979.)  These models have progressed from hoping for a type of peaceful coexistence to one of cohabitation. The last twenty years have seen a blending, or integrating, of these very different approaches to understanding human behavior. This paper does not attempt to digest the vast history or current volumes of theory, but tries to present a context for understanding how faith develops as a mechanism for coping with stress and trauma.