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Stages of Faith

Monday, 27 November 2023  | Charles Ringma

Many of us are all too aware that our faith and living the Christian life do not constitute a smooth and clear trajectory. Yet there are some Christians who think it should. They believe that the Christian life under the sovereignty of God or under the power of the Spirit or through faithful discipleship should be a steady growth to maturity in the faith. They see the Christian life as a steady mountain climb. In reality, the Christian life and the walk of faith are more a rocky and windy road.

Contours on the Road

That the straight path idea of faith is far too simplistic and evolutionary is evidenced in a variety of ways. The first is that it does not do justice to the conflictual nature of living the Christian life, in which we struggle between the works of the ‘flesh’ and the fruit of the Spirit. Luther identified this by suggesting that the Christian remains sinner and saint in dialectical tension. Secondly, it fails to give credence to the reality of temptation and the seductive work of Satan. Thirdly, it does not give weight to the way we can be affected by impacts not of our own making, as we live in our beautiful but bruised and dysfunctional world. We not only sin but are also sinned against. Fourthly, it wrongly assumes that the only movement in the Christian life is from darkness to light and from childhood to maturity. Clearly this is not so in that we also need to move into the greater ‘darkness’ of living in the mystery of God’s ways and to live the gospel call to simplicity and the Pauline call to downward mobility and relinquishment. Clearly a spirituality of descent and relinquishment does not seem like growth to maturity. Fifthly, this trajectory of growth assumes we are all the same. It fails to take note that personality differences have implications for the way we pray, worship, read scripture and live the Christian life. Sixthly, this way of understanding the Christian life and the journey of faith knows nothing of the dark night of the soul and the strange contours this brings to the inner configurations of the life of faith. And finally, this smooth trajectory fails to take into account human psycho-social development, major stages of life and the reality of ageing.

Bumps Along the Way

All of this is further complicated by the way in which the church, in its long march in history, has understood the biblical themes of faith and the Christian journey. In the Old Testament, the notion of faith had more to do with a life of covenant faithfulness within the framework of a religio-political way of life. Faithfulness and apostasy were major themes. In the New Testament, faith is understood as a gift of grace leading to conformity to Christ and a life of discipleship and service. Growth in faith is growth in Christ conformity. This was expressed in a life of worship and prayer, serving those within the community of faith and seeking to be salt, light and leaven through one’s involvement in the world of work. The New Testament recognises a fundamental commonality of faith, even though it also recognises the reality of immaturity.

By the time the church had marched three centuries down the road, some problematical notions of faith had begun to emerge. One was the idea that Christians could live two very different kinds of faith: ordinary faith and a special and higher form of faith. This latter faith was living the ‘evangelical counsels’ or ‘counsels of perfection’. The church father Eusebius expressed these two ways of life as follows: ‘The one is above a common human living; it admits not marriage, property, nor wealth, but wholly separate from the customary life of man devotes itself to the service of God alone in heavenly love. The other life, more humble and more human permits men to marry, have children, undertake office, command soldiers fighting in a good cause, attend to farming, trade, and other secondary interests’. Traditionally this higher form of faith came to expression in the Monastic tradition. This dualistic categorisation has persisted in the life of the church up to the present, even though Martin Luther turned it upside down. Luther not only normalised the life of faith but turned it towards the world. He suggested that the life of faith had to be outworked in the normal ‘stations’ – spheres – of life. However he went on to suggest, for example, that one was failing in one’s life of faith if one did not marry. Thus celibacy was regarded as an inferior way of living the life of faith. Here, too, dualistic thinking continued.

A further bump along the road of understanding and living the life of faith occurred through much of Medieval Christianity with its idea of ‘ladders’. Through certain processes and practices, one could climb the ladder to different levels of faith in one’s pursuit of union with God. One extreme example was the writings of Denys the Areopagite, who established a heavenly hierarchy with God and the angels that different groups of Christians could ascend to while others remained on the bottom of the ladder. A more moderate form was developed by the great Franciscan scholar, Bonaventura, with his notion of six stages, where the soul in its growth moved from the exterior to the interior and from the temporal to the eternal. While these ideas of stages and growth cast in hierarchical terms are highly problematical and reflect neo-Platonic ideas rather than biblical categories, at least our forefathers and foremothers gave a lot of attention to the matter of the growth of faith in an ever-developing God conformity. We, in contrast, through an easy-believism in Christ as Saviour, do little interior work.

Modern Categories

In our contemporary world, shaped not so much by religious reflection but more by sociological and psychological categories, there are two well-known theorists who have provided some framework for thinking about the stages of faith. One theorist is Erik Erikson with his stages of psychosocial development from infancy, and the conflict around mistrust and trust through to adolescence and the question of identity and role confusion, and finally to maturity and negotiating the conflict of ego integrity versus despair. He maps out eight stages and basically suggests that each stage presents the human being with possibilities and challenges that need to be overcome for healthy personal and social development to occur. Clearly these categorisations open possibilities for understanding the gestalt of one’s faith in these various stages of the life cycle. For example, the adolescent challenge of identity and role confusion helps explain why young people usually come to a religious conversion experience during this phase of the life cycle. And the latest cycle in Erikson’s schema helps explain why older people become more oriented towards reflective and meditative practices.

The other theorist is James Fowler who identifies six stages of faith. He moves from the intuitive-projective  fantasy faith of early childhood, to the mythic-literal faith where the younger person makes the stories of faith their own, the synthetic-conventional faith where one’s beliefs help to make some coherent sense of the world, the individuative-reflective faith that leads to a more critical phase in one’s faith journey, and finally conjunctive faith in later life where depth is gained through a more sacramental and symbolic and ritual appreciation of the life of faith. Fowler adds a final phase, which he says few people reach, when one’s faith becomes a normative symbol that others want to follow. In the Roman Catholic tradition saints such as St Francis would play such a norming role. In the Protestant tradition someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be seen as a Christian whose faith and prophetic service one might want to emulate.

A Personal Reflection

If we take on board the biblical notion of the growth of faith leading to greater Christ conformity, the ancient Christian tradition that one can live the life of faith with greater sacrificial commitment, the Medieval idea that there are phases or steps in one’s growth in spirituality and the psycho-social categories of the modern world, then clearly there is a case that faith is not a railway station but a journey. The challenge for us then is not to see faith only as a gift of grace but also as a life-long process. Theologically this is reflected in the doctrine of justification by faith and the accompanying doctrine of sanctification.

In the contemporary Western church, with its acute lack of Christian formation and discipleship, the need to have guides in one’s journey of faith becomes all the more necessary when one recognises that the contours of faith don’t simply belong to personal idiosyncrasies and failure. Instead, one’s journey, while personal, is also typological. To know this is to be greatly comforted when faith takes on a newer and unfamiliar gestalt. And when that happens one is not well served in a church that holds to the notion of the steady mountain climb of the Christian journey.

My own reflections look something like this – and I would encourage you to make your own. The preconditions of my faith lay in growing up in a Christian family. At age 17 I came to a conversion experience where that faith became my own. This experience reoriented me from career to vocation and from normal employment to mission and ministry. The next major phase was a faith activism that lasted for several decades. This faith, while rooted in the gospels and the imitatio Christi and accompanied by prayer, was more oriented to serving the neighbour in need and attempting to change something of our world.

The next major phase of my journey was a more critical engagement regarding my faith – including rethinking key beliefs, my engagement with the traditional church and the nature of my engagement with the world. In the midst of this came the experience of the dark night of the soul, where the more overt sense of God’s presence was withdrawn and I had to learn to walk and live the life of faith without any inner sense of consolation. Neither the Evangelical nor Charismatic traditions, which had helped to shape my Christianity, were able to give me any guidance or support in this challenging phase of my faith. The overall impression that I was given was that I had spiritually lost my way. There was little understanding in these two traditions that a de-centering needs to occur in order that a more radical re-centering can take place. In more theological language, this is known as living a paschal spirituality.

The present and rather substantial next phase has been characterised by two complimentary dimensions. The one has been the ever-growing search for greater intimacy with God through the spiritual disciplines, and much of my writing reflects that search. The other has been a commitment to a certain kind of generativity. This has expressed itself in playing more of a teaching and training role in relation to others. This has further revealed itself in the joy I receive in mentoring others and seeing others grow and develop and commit themselves in service in our world, particularly in relation to the poor.

On the heels of this present phase another wave is starting to roll in. It is the wave of letting go, stepping aside and greater relinquishment.


Charles Ringma is Emeritus Professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Queensland and former Research Professor at the Asian Theological Seminary in Manila.


Questions for reflection

How might the way we respond to the issues of our day – work, politics, economics, human welfare, animal welfare, conflict, Indigenous rights, refugees, identity, race, sexuality, abortion, euthanasia and so on – be different in each of the stages?

Which of the stages of faith do you identify with at this time? How does this shape your response to the issues of our day?


Image credit: Person walking on wooden pathway near mountain by Niki Shuliahin on Unsplash.

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