Psychological Development & Meaningful Faith: When Faith Works

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To say it a different way, if an individual’s primary measure of maturity has to do with length of time he/she has been a member of a church, e.g. since childhood, then their faith may be little more than the result of enculturation, as opposed to obtaining a personal and worked out faith. In Foreclosed identity, and in the language of James Marcia, the individual is Christian because of the family they were born into and the social structure they have lived in – conformity to social norms, strong identification with role models, and so forth (Arnett, 2007). From this foreclosed perspective, the individual developed psychologically and emotionally into adulthood, but his/her faith may have remained essentially the same as it was in childhood. Then if tragedy or trauma strikes, and a mature faith is necessary as a coping skill, all the individual may actually have available to them is an immature and childish view of faith and religion. Their faith turns out to be primarily a life-style shaped by their culture.  Thus, trauma that threatens a significant part of one’s cultural assumptions, including foundational religious beliefs and patterns, by association also shakes the foundation of their faith. Faith that is predominantly the expression of an unquestioned cultural life style will be less available as a coping strategy for trauma that takes place outside of an individual’s cultural assumptions and identity. To state this in common vernacular, it may be an issue of having taken on a life style (culture) as opposed to the development of a set of internal motivations, a life force. Although the illusions of a non-internalized faith may provide a false sense of security, they are of little use when the absence of foundations is exposed. The individual left with immature or less well-integrated faith must deal with the events in psychologically unhealthy ways, such as denial, avoidance of situations and people who are apt to remind them of the experience and, so on. Inadequate coping and in some cases conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may result.

The process of adjusting to developmental stressors and life situations cause many individuals to seriously question cultural assumptions concerning faith. The act of questioning relatively small cultural traditions over the course of time allows for gradual change/adaptation in manageable bites.  Even relatively small purposeful decisions can serve to facilitate a level of integration of faith into adult life. Individuals that have practiced with smaller accommodations along the way are more likely to possess a faith that is available to help them cope with more difficult and even traumatic life events. Thus, even though the more integrated individual experiences a traumatic event – such as war, assault, natural disaster, or the like – they are better equipped to work through the situations, utilizing faith as an effective coping mechanism.

Adequate coping/survival is dependent on the presence of specific coping strategies, as well as the quality of those strategies. Psychological development influences the quality of coping strategies. Foundational knowledge of, and a strong commitment to, one’s faith are important. Depth and quality of faith are thought by many to be related to the level or degree of integration that one has achieved with other aspects of their lives such as one’s career, the role he/she plays in their family, a developed sense of how political ideology and community involvement are influenced by one’s faith, and so forth.

Facilitating an Integrative Faith

Almost by definition, conservative, and/or fundamentally religious individuals are frequently motivated to conserve or protect their foundational religious beliefs – or fundamental spiritual cores. Generally, the importance of tradition and cultural heritage is well known. Yet, a normal part of the maturing process is learning what to do with new knowledge and increased breadth of experience. Many people can recall some instances of feeling at a loss of knowing what to do with new insights, understandings, or experiences that were outside of established habits of thinking and experiencing.  Dealing with experiences, knowledge and other contradictions that are outside of established ways of thinking is a normal challenge of adolescence and early adulthood. Normal cognitive disequilibrium6 can be unsettling. It can be especially perplexing to younger individuals who are less experienced at accommodation, and believe they must protect at any cost, one hundred percent of their heritage.

Within a Piagetian, theoretical framework, trying to assimilate new experiences into an existing cognitive framework without adjusting the old way of thinking, will frequently prove to be frustrating. For most individuals, the process of accommodating experiences that falls outside the realm of normal cause a sense of disequilibrium.  For some the experience can take on crisis proportions. Especially if one’s support system and cultural environment fails to provide a healthy emotional and psychological context while working through the non-normative experiences (traumatic events).  The acknowledged need for a nurturing environment is seen in work that is taking place in assisting military troops returning from service in the Middle East since September 11, 2001 (APA Practice Organization, 2008). Nurturing, in this case includes allowing one to think aloud and express self without fear of reprisal or being censured.

The persistence of cognitive disequilibrium, and the innate psychological need to achieve consistency in our basic beliefs and values, facilitates an eventual return to equilibrium. The process of regaining balance is most often discontinuous and occurs through, awkward stages of discomfort (Santrock, 2001; Arnett, 2007). Discarding one or the other concept that created the imbalance in the first place may seem tempting at first – wishing things could be the way they used to be.