Psychological Development & Meaningful Faith: When Faith Works

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Faith plays an important role in establishing a sense of meaning necessary for coping with life’s stressors and traumas. This is especially true for those events that lie beyond our expected and normal experiences.  This paper asserts that the context of psychological and emotional development, which forms in concert with our faith, is necessary in understanding how faith develops as a coping strategy. Cited writings include those of C.S. Lewis, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and James Marcia.


“When outward strength is broken, faith rests on the promises. In the midst of sorrow, faith draws the sting out of . . . trouble, and takes out the bitterness from . . . affliction (Cecil, 1955).” Richard Cecil, the eighteenth century Anglican clergyman asserted that faith establishes a context through which we understand and deal with the troubling and traumatic situations that arise in the course of life’s journey. Current day observations, anecdotal accounts, and ongoing research continue to cite faith as one of several mechanisms used in successful coping (Pargament, 1997; Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch, 2003). The past 35 years of my career in psychology, religion, and faith have seen recurring discussions of particular interest relative to psychology and faith:  to many individuals, faith has played a significant role in helping them cope with especially difficult and traumatic events. However, others seem to have found their faith no more meaningful than other coping strategies including membership in a social support community. Still others find their religion or faith to be of little help at all and turn away from it altogether. Inherent in these general discussions are assumptions that faith always should help us cope with various stressors by giving meaning to life, or it is never useful. Rather than take one or the other of these polar opposite positions, it is my assertion that the usefulness of faith is more dependent upon how faith is developed, as opposed to seeing faith in itself as either useful or not. This raises the obvious question: What makes faith helpful only for some, less helpful for others, and even useless for still others?

Within the field of psychology, there is growing interest in how the majority of individuals make healthy adaptations to major traumas and life stress. Following a normal period of confusion, questioning, and distress, sixty-five percent of people living in New York City displayed psychologically resilient adaptations six months following the September eleventh terrorists attack (Bonanno, Galea, Bucciarelli & Valhov, 2006). Even a gradual recovery from trauma (six months), displayed by some individuals is consistent with a pattern of adequate coping. Yet, thirty five percent of individuals did not fully recover.  What determines the difference between people who display psychological resilience, and those who do not? Research on resilience, recovery, and/or the absence of PTSD following a traumatic event is limited.  It has been observed, that individuals who deal effectively with stress and trauma do so with a variety and combination of coping techniques. Possession of a strong personal faith is one such strategy and viewed as providing meaning to life, thereby helping to cope with suffering (Pargament, 1997). To casual observers, many individuals who appear to possess similar levels of faith have different reactions to stress – some display psychological resilience and others are diagnosed with psychological disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 1.

Development of a complex combination of strategies, which contribute to an individual’s ability to cope with stress and trauma, is accomplished through a variety of life experiences. However, merely adding the total number of coping mechanisms to get a sense of how well someone is apt to cope is too simplistic. In the presence of what appears to be adequate patterns of coping strategies and life experiences, questions remain as to why one adult survives in a comparatively healthy manner, and another with essentially the same profile, fails to thrive. The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, to offer a conceptual and integrated framework for understanding how human beings develop effective styles of coping with complex issues related to trauma. Such a framework will in turn assist in understanding the role of faith as an expression of self within the context of stressful and traumatic events. Secondly, that adequate understanding of how faith develops as a coping mechanism is enhanced through the context of psychological development.

Psychological Development

Foundational work in developmental psychology is relevant to this discussion.  This includes thinking by theorists such as Erik Erikson – psychosocial development (Erikson, 1968), Jean Piaget (Cobb, 2004) and Lev Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1978) – cognitive development, and James Marcia – Identity Statuses (Arnett, 2007).  These theorists and others have concluded that adolescence is the period of time when the development of a significant portion of one’s identity takes place. Continued growth, fine-tuning, and adjustment of our psychological selves continues through our twenties and into our thirties. Significant events that take place during the adolescent years often become associated/paired with one’s internalized sense of identity. For example, one teenager who is praised by important adults and peers for participation in athletics, or accomplishments in the high school science laboratory is likely to view her/his self worth and identity in roles similar to these activities. Similarly, a second teenager whose family may be going through particularly stressful times may be praised and given attention for being ultra responsible, or nurturing. Another one for his/her striking good looks. 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.

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. 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. 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. Other evidence also places the degree of psychological stability during the middle years upon the quality of one’s social context and resources such as educational and employment options. Thus, the implications for prevention are to encourage individuals to work through, or wrestle with, issues of identity younger (late teens through early adulthood), rather than later. Relative to matters of religious belief and faith, it is better to wrestle with doubts, fears when one is developmentally ready, versus pushing the doubts, fears aside, and hoping they do not resurface. An indication of the quality of faith as a coping mechanism, has to do with how much a person has wrestled with, explored, and come to a place of owning one’s beliefs related to various contexts of their lives.

Certainly, the process of emotional and psychological wrestling with foundational issues such as faith is often not an easy or comfortable experience, and can be the source of psychological turmoil. However, regardless of how difficult the actual process may be, the process is essential. Lewis (1947) describes such wrestling as a consistent pattern of God interacting with us on the way to forming a mature relationship with Him.  He describes a pattern of descent and reascent, as a sort of developmental fingerprint of God. This pattern is obvious in plant life when the seed, belittled and small, falls into the ground in a deathlike period of existence. The descent is necessary before it can sprout into new life and reascend- “go down to go up – … the highroad nearly always lies on the other side” of this pattern (p. 180). This pattern is also evident in the Christian view of in the incarnation. A sense of dying to self and identifying with the death of Christ on the cross is an essential part of new life in God. So too, according to Lewis, is the development of moral and emotional maturity. Erikson’s (1968) emphasis on the importance of a sense of crisis being required on the way to successful negotiation of each life stage (Engler, 1999) is an obvious parallel. As mentioned, this is a foundational goal within many theories of psychotherapy – coming alongside the client at a time of ‘descent’ into crisis and assisting the individual as they ‘reascend’.

Identity Status & Integration

The usefulness of one’s present religious commitment then is dependent on the current level of identity maturity, as well as the maturity level of the person when they made their religious commitment in the first place.  A practical knowledge of Erik Erikson’s and James Marcia’s work, presented earlier, is especially helpful in counseling and mentoring relationships, and understanding the psychology and of Lewis’ reascention.7 For example, a commitment to a religious creed made during the status of foreclosure (identity based on parent’s/role model’s beliefs), may be more of an expression of his/her cultural life style, rather than a worked out part of one’s identity as an adult.

In an attempt to apply theory to practice, it is important to know how old an individual was at the time of a religious conversion or a decision to follow a particular religious creed. Such a chronology provides some evidence of the level of integration of faith with other areas of life.  As mentioned above if this commitment took place during a later period of moratorium questioning and discovery, the level of maturity may possess more depth than if it was from an earlier age of foreclosure, when commitments tend to be more simplistic and less well thought out. Following Erik Erikson’s (1968) logic, since identity achievement is the major psychosocial task associated with adolescence, a significant conversion or spiritual awakening occurring during the later teen and early adult years would be more likely to develop as part of one’s identity as an adult. This later experience would be different for the individual whose significant spiritual experience happens in mid-childhood contributing more to the stage of foreclosure.

Developmental sufficiency is a phrase I have found helpful in thinking about this concept.  That is, the degree to which an experience or series of experiences occurs in concert with a developmental stage of readiness aids in the process of maturity.  For example, being ‘in love’ at 22 or 25 years of age has the potential to impact an individual’s ability to function in an intimate relationship as an adult, more than would ‘being in love’, or strongly liking someone at 10 years of age. Alternatively, within the context of faith development, the process of spiritual conversion, or significant re-commitment at 20 or 23 years of age would have a much broader impact on an individual’s sense of identity than at the age of 10 or 11.

The work of Benson, Donahue and Erickson (1993) confirms this important point: that ” . . . both cognitive readiness and experience are required for an individual to be able display the behaviors associated with a mature faith: taking the perspective of others, integrating disparate belief and action factors, and seeking the common good.” (p. 14)


I have attempted to present a way of understanding faith as a contributing factor in coping with stress and trauma. Within an integrated developmental model of faith and psychology, consideration should be given to the intensity of the risk factors, the quality of the coping factors, and the severity of the threat or trauma. 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).


APA Practice Organization (2008) Treating Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Related to Military Combat. Good Practice. Spring 2008, pgs 6-12.

Arnett, J. J., (2007) Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach, 3rd Edition. Pearson, Prentice Hall.

Benson, P.T., Donahue, M.J. & Erickson, J.A. (1993) The Faith Maturity Scale: Conceptualization, Measurement, and Empirical Validation. Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, V.5, pgs 1-26.

Berk, L. E. (2007) Development Through the Lifespan, 4th Edition. Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

Bonanno, G.A., Galea, S., Bucciarelli, A., & Valhov, D, (2006) Psychological resilience after disaster: New York City in the aftermath of September 11th Terrorist Attack. Psychological Science, Vol. 17, # 3, pg 181-186.

Burwell, R. J., & Van Wicklin, J.F. (1999) The Development of Religious Identity and Educational Factors. Paper presented at the meeting of Religious Research Association Annual Meeting, 1999.

Capps, D. (2001) Freud and Freudians on Religion: A Reader. Yale University Press.

Carter, J.D. & Narramore, S. B. (1979) The Integration of Psychology and Theology: an Introduction. Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids.

Cecil, Richard (1718-1777) (1955) In The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations. Editors: Edwards, T., pg. 186. The Standard Book Company, New York.

Cobb, N. (2004) Adolescence: Continuity, Change, & Diversity 5th Edition, Text Revision, pg. 168, McGraw Hill.

DSM-IV-TR 4th Ed., (2000) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition. pgs. 463-468, American Psychiatric Association.

Eliassen, A. H., Taylor, J, & Lloyd, D. A. (2005) Subjective Religiosity and Depression in the Transition to Adulthood, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 44(2): 187-199.

Engler, B. (1999) Personality Theories, an Introduction. 5th edition. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Entwistle, D. N. (2004) Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity. Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene.

Erikson, E. (1968) Identity: Youth and Crisis. W. W. Norton and company, New York.

Fowler, J. (2000), Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, Josey Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

Goodwin, James, (1980) The etiology of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorders.  In Williams, Tom (Ed.) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of the Vietnam Veteran. Disabled American Veterans – publisher, pg 1-23.

Henning, D. & Briggs, L. (2006) Presentation and paper for undergraduate course in psychology and Christianity.  MidAmerica Nazarene University.

Hill, Peter (2001 Spiritual Transformation: Forming the Habitual Center of Personal Energy. In Psychology of Religion Newsletter. American Psychological Association Division 36.)

James, William (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York. The Modern Library.

Johnson, E. L. & Jones, S.L. (2000) Psychology and Christianity-Four Views. Intervarsity Press.

Lewis, C.S. (1961) The Screwtape Letters. The Macmillan Company, New York.

Lewis, C.S. (1947) Miracles. Harper Collins 2001 Edition.

Olson, D. & DeFrain, J. (2000) Marriage and the Family: Diversity and Strength. 3rd edition. Mayfield Publishing Company.

Pargament, Kenneth (1997), The Psychology of Religion and Coping. Guilford Press.

Rohr, Richard (2003), Everything Belongs: the Gift of Contemplative Prayer. The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Santrock, J. (2002) Lifespan Development, 8th Edition. McGraw Hill.

Santrock, J. (2001) Adolescence, 8th Edition, McGraw Hill.

Schaie, & Willis (1996) Adult Development and Aging. 4th Edition. Harper Collins.

Spilka, B., Hood, R.W., Hunsberger, B., Gorsuch, R., (2003) The Psychology of Religion, 3rd Edition. Guilford Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Watson, George (2006) The art of disagreement: C.S. Lewis, In C.S. Lewis Remembered, Eds. Poe, H.L. & Poe, R.W. page 77-88.

Wilson, J. P. (1977) Identity, Ideology and Crisis: The Vietnam Veteran in Transition. Part I – A partial & preliminary report submitted to the Disabled American Veterans Association on the Forgotten Warrior Project. Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio 44115.