Psychological Development & Meaningful Faith: When Faith Works

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Understanding the development of faith as an effective coping strategy recognizes that faith operates differently within the context of our spiritual identity, than faith operates in our psychological/emotional identity. Different philosophical perspectives provide support for this argument. William James’ (1902) turn of the twentieth century work, Varieties of Religious Experience, proposed that when religious conversion takes place, there is a shift in the habitual centre of the individual reflected in his/her psychology. Fowler (2000) and Hill (2001) proposed developmental stages of faith and of conversion respectively. A principle of stage-wise development posits that there are qualitative differences from one stage to the other, with the difference occurring in levels of maturity as one advances through the stages. Thus, the understanding of these qualitative differences comes from a spiritual/religious frame of reference, as well as from a psychological perspective. A relevant assertion of Hill’s work is that the psychological benefits of conversion are evident primarily after the completion of all of the stages (Hill, 2001).

The thesis of this paper is that a model of psychological development provides a helpful way of understanding faith as a psychological coping strategy. Moreover, faith must be developed and strengthened to be useful in coping.  From a psychological perspective, faith must become more than a routine set of habits. It needs to become part of one’s personal identity. Adolescent psychology provides a helpful example of how faith becomes part of an individual’s developing identity.  Regardless of when faith becomes a focus of an individual’s life, be it in childhood, adolescence, or during midlife, the process of development must include some degree of emotional and cognitive exploration. Additionally, wrestling with particular issues is necessary as to how faith fits with who the person has become and is becoming. Thus an explanation to the initial question, why one person’s faith serves to sustain them through periods of trauma, and another person’s faith does not, has to do with the level of integration of one’s faith with his or her identity. The more one’s faith is part of his or her identity, as opposed to being primarily an expression of a set of culturally developed habits, the more likely it will be of psychological benefit during times of emotional and psychological trauma and stress.

Specific research with clinical populations that have been diagnosed with PTSD and with less severe symptom patterns consistent with posttraumatic effects is needed. I am currently working on a research design & questionnaire to test this hypothesis – that less well developed sense of identity achievement concerning ones faith impacts how effective faith is in coping with traumatic events.


1 Diagnosis of PTSD is based on the presence of a combination of 17 symptoms such as recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, feeling as if the event were recurring, intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues, etc. (DSM-IV-TR 4th Ed., pg 463-468, American Psychiatric Association.)

2 For the sake of understanding, it is also important to note that an individual may be at different levels, or statuses, in different areas of their life – i.e. political ideology, gender and sex roles, vocational, and religious/faith issues.

3 Two separate groups of upper division undergraduate students (55 total) completed a self-report survey designed to measure the maturity of one’s faith (Henning & Briggs, 2006). These students, whose average age was 20.5 years, achieved average scores similar to a cross section of study participants who participated in the original Faith Maturity Scale study (Benson, Donahue, & Erickson, 1993). The average age of the original study participants was 35 with several years of education beyond a bachelor’s degree, and several years of experience in various roles within the ministry of a church.

4 Divorce rate among couples who met and got married under the age of 20 is significantly higher than those who met and got married in their mid to late 20’s (Olson, D & DeFrain, J. 2000).

5 The value here is in the ‘process’ of exploration more than it is in the result. Values may very well be similar to that of one’s parent’s, but there needs to be a sense of ownership that comes from making the choice to hold those values, versus holding them because other options were never thought about.

6 During times of rapid cognitive growth cognitive disequilibrium is seen early in developmental stages when the child realizes that new information does not assimilate easily into his or her existing way of thinking about the world around them (Berk, 2007). Likewise, disequilibrium is experienced during adolescence and early adulthood as the individual is developing and refining how they think and feel about changing family relationships abstract issues concerning morality and ethics (Arnett, 2007).

7 Essential discussions of work by Erikson and Marcia are found in Adolescent Psychology texts such as ones by Nancy Cobb (2004, 193-198) and John Santrock (2001, 308-312).