Psychological Development & Meaningful Faith: When Faith Works

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Psychological and Faith Development

Research focusing on the development of an individual’s religious identity, or sense of religious self, suggests that a significant percentage of students attending denominational Christian colleges are less likely to develop a mature sense of faith/religious identity than students attending non-denominational Christian colleges.  Approximately forty percent are still in the stage of Identity Foreclosure relative to their faith at graduation (Burwell and Van Wicklin, 1999). The general limitation of foreclosure is the individual does not believe his/her faith needs to develop any further. In comparison to adults in their mid-thirties, unpublished survey data of college students suggests that the average twenty year old has the self-perception that their faith is as mature and sophisticated as an adult in their mid-thirties with several years of education and experience in ministry.3 From a psychosocial perspective this is to be expected – those in their early twenties would perceive themselves as being as developed as much as possible and to a level consistent with their developmental age. Yet, the practicality may be similar to ‘true love’ at 15 years old. The 15 year old’s experience of love is very real to the individual, and possesses many similarities to love they will experience later in their mid to late twenties. However, it lacks other individual and relational qualities that give it the ability to persist through adulthood.4 Similarly, the emotions and sense of commitment to one’s faith are often relatively intense during adolescence, and may be quite similar to those experiences associated with later stages of development following the working out, or development of ownership of one’s faith. In many cases, until one views his/her love/faith with hindsight or through the lens of experience that tests one’s mettle, the individuals may believe themselves mature, only to find out they possess a naïve, elementary (foreclosed), level of faith. Implications from research (Burwell & Van Wicklin, 1999) and anecdotal evidence strongly suggest that students who are in foreclosure think they possess a more mature faith than they actually do. Rohr asserts that nothing is more dangerous than people who presume they already understand [their faith] – “God can be most easily lost by being thought found” (Rohr, 2003 p. 31). Thus, critical to the role an individual’s faith is able to play in coping with trauma, is an ability to know one’s self. Specific to faith, this would include the ability to recognize subtle distinctions between the culture of popular religion and foundational aspects of one’s personal faith in God.

Lewis emphasizes the importance of being able to tell reasonable facsimiles -look alike – from the enduring God (1947, pgs. 186-187).  Individuals and groups who get caught up in popular religious movements, often built on one or two trendy aspects of faith, are at times quite vulnerable when crisis and trauma occur outside of those few, albeit popular, characteristics. A danger or temptation is that the closer we get to the real God the more things around Him look like Him (Lewis, 1947). We are apt to be caught in a side-eddy that is close enough to bear several similarities to the real thing. An example of this is the identity status of foreclosure mentioned above, during which specific commitments are made and the language is well learned, but the sense of struggle and personal exploration are missing. Faith based on foreclosure, for some individuals, may only look like the real thing and therefore not be as enduring as faith that has encountered and overcome obstacles. Thus, it is less able to sustain the individual through a crisis/trauma that occurs outside one’s routine commitments.

As an aside, effective mentoring, coaching, parenting, and so on should allow, and when necessary facilitate, age-appropriate struggle.  As stated earlier, struggle is an essential piece in the puzzle of developing a mature faith. The more mature one’s faith is when traumatic and difficult experiences occur, the more useful faith is likely to be in helping to adequately cope.

Time and Experience

Intuitively, it seems that the amount of time a person spends in a particular role or context contributes to the development of maturity. For example, the more time spent in school as a student, the more one is expected to be an effective student. The more time spent being a parent, the more that wise parenting is expected. However, this assumption of time-in a role needs qualification. We must also consider the quality of the actual experience in the role of student or parent. Just being enrolled in several courses and attending class on a regular basis is not enough. One also needs to study, prepare for exams, and write papers in order to develop the traits that are associated with being a mature student.  The same is true for parenting. Merely being a biological parent for a certain number of years and being around from time to time does not qualify as a quality parent. The amount of time in the role is insufficient, and if taken too simplistically misleading. Consideration must be given to the quality of the experience as well.

Similarly, in and of itself, the length of time that one has been a member of a religious community, church, or parish is an insufficient indicator of the maturity of one’s faith. As with the examples of student and parent, time-in a role alone may actually lead one to an unwarranted assumption regarding the quality of one’s faith/religious practices. C.S. Lewis has said that, ” . . . Experience [by itself] is the mother of illusion,” (1961, pgs. 155­157). Time-in a particular role, may only serve to increase the likelihood of a foreclosed religious identity.5 Although this may seem counter-intuitive at first, the length of time one has been a member of a religious group may actually contribute to a level of immaturity or lack of practical and useable faith during a time of crisis or trauma.