Psychological Development & Meaningful Faith: When Faith Works

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However, developmentally this is often not practical. Resolution of the inconsistent beliefs and unsettling perceptions require accommodations resembling varying degrees of Piagetian forms of accommodation.  First, the individual may learn how to tolerate a peaceful coexistence between the two opposing points of view, which is similar to the psychological process of compartmentalization. An example of this may be the development of a different, but not oppositional, set of standards for different situations. For example, some expectations are applicable at work, while other standards are appropriate in social or familial relationships. A second paradigm is discovering how the two concepts might complement each other.  This often requires the perception that one point of view is primary, or foundational, relative to the other. A third paradigm involves a more complete process of integration with the result being a complex system of beliefs that is greater than the mere sum of the parts (Entwistle, 2004; Carter & Narramore, 1974).

The more invested the individual is in conserving the total of his/her beliefs primarily due to cultural pressure, while at the same time dealing with new understanding, the more challenging the process. As recent as the middle of the twentieth century many psychologists viewed religious commitment as a dysfunctional human phenomenon. Some of the traditional approaches to psychotherapy saw religious commitments as something the client needed to grow out of, and labeled such beliefs as immature and childish illusions (Engler, 1999; Capps, 2001). In the end, this often proved to be ineffective, from some perspectives unethical, and no more sophisticated than simple attempts at assimilation.  I am of the opinion that psychological work should include assistance in the development of an accommodation style of rational and emotional processing. This is opposed to the less mature method of attempting to fit all new experience and knowledge into a fixed, or inflexible enduring context.

Faith’s Role in Coping: Psychotherapy Indicators

In the remainder of this paper, I will suggest some ways to conceptualize the degree of religious experience and faith, and its usefulness to specific individuals in coping with trauma. These are based on Lewis’s assertions of a typical pattern in which God deals with us through descention and reascention (Lewis, 1947); the value of struggle as described by Lewis and developmental psychology; and the importance of integrating one’s faith with other significant areas of life.

The age at which a person makes a decision(s) to become a believer is important in understanding the established pattern of integration of faith with other aspects of life.  Further, the difference or variation of one’s own personal faith from that of one’s parent’s often gives an indication of the degree of foreclosure versus identity achievement.

The timeliness and depth to which previous traumatic events have been addressed in the past also increases our understanding. For example, if the need to deal with related issues or adequate time for healing was not allowed but glossed over and postponed indefinitely, the significance of the psychological injury may never have been consciously ‘processed’.  The healthier approach would have been to take active purposeful steps to address the emotional and psychological injuries. As an illustration, following a near divorce or extramarital affair, a rush to forgive and “get back to normal” (assimilation) can actually allow the emotional wounds to fester. It is almost as if the natural responses of anger and fear related to marital infidelity are buried alive. The powerful emotions of anger and fear were not dealt with on a practical level. Thus, trust and vulnerability necessary in maintaining a healthy and vibrant marriage are not available in the present, which interferes with healthy emotional responses.

Similarly, in the mid 1970’s and through the 1980’s the concept of PTSD was often associated with Vietnam War veterans. Research such as the Forgotten Warrior Project emphasized the importance of taking time to process the stress and traumatic physical, psychological and emotional events that returning soldiers had been a part of (Wilson, 1977).  It is well documented that 19 and 20 year old warriors would literally leave the rice paddies and battlefields of Vietnam, and be home landing in San Francisco 20 hours later. Families and friends denied much of what these young men and women had experienced.  No one wanted to talk about, or believe what he or she had done and seen. Even though the denial may have been motivated by the desire to get back to normal – to assimilate the experiences into existing cognitive and emotional frameworks – the rush to heal served to put off healing and resulted in an intensified sense of trauma years later (Goodwin, 1980).

Developing Meaningful Faith

It is more desirable to work through issues at a developmentally appropriate time than postpone them. An example comes from life span development literature concerning mid-life crisis. Research continues to support the conclusion that the extent to which a crisis is experienced during the mid-adult years revolves around whether or not issues of identity were resolved in the late teen and early adult years (Schaie & Willis, 1996). If a young adult hurried through decisions concerning career choices and whom to marry, during mid-life they are more likely to experience normative mid-life transitions in crisis proportions.