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Off-road faith

Essential for mature religion is the constant willingness to shift gears, to integrate new insights and revise our positions.”  --- Henri Nouwen

Many people have attempted to describe how faith changes, matures and develops throughout life using different analogies to explain the process of faith development. Teresa of Avila used the analogy of a journey into an interior castle which involves moving through a number of different rooms. Each room has its own challenges of faith and new experiences and ways of relating to God. Each move to a subsequent room brings us to a closer and more intimate connection with God. John Bunyan in Pilgrims Progress described the journey of faith as a travelling adventure through many different types of terrain. The adventure includes places of danger and risk as well as times of being at home and secure.

James Fowler, the leading researcher and writer in the area of faith development for the last three decades talks of stages of faith. He likens the stages of faith to the stages in other areas of human development – e.g. cognitive development and moral development. In today's society many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of moving from one stage of faith to another. Stages sound like boxes; and moving through stages sounds like a logical hierarchy when life and faith are experienced in a more chaotic, organic and less hierarchically structured way. Picking up on this discomfort Heinz Streib (Professor of Faith development at Bielefeld) speaks of styles of faith rather than stages. Sam Keen uses the idea of dimensions in order to move away from the ‘staged' idea of Fowler. Recently, at Spirited Exchanges training event, Adrienne Thompson suggested the notion of zones of faith. Zones are less rigid and more fluidly interconnected and overlapping than stages.

We may think of rooms, terrains, stages, styles, dimensions, zones, spaces or places of faith. The reality is that for many people their experience of faith changes during adulthood. These changes are not uncommon and have similar elements. But most importantly our faith is radically and unalterably transformed as we move into a new ‘phase' of faith.

The crucial adult faith-shifts involve a move from conventional faith (which Fowler would call stage 3 faith) into a period of faith dislocation, exploration, self ownership and expression (Fowler's stage 4) and on into a new embracing of faith and life as intimately entwined and inseparable, a desire for mystery, ritual and symbolism and a relishing of the paradoxical nature of truth (Fowler's stage 5). This is the move from a conventional faith to a post-conventional one. The move is from a pre-critical faith through a period of hyper-critical reflection to a post-critical faith. Or, as the French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur described it – the move from a naivety of faith through a ‘desert of criticism' and into a second naivety of faith.

It is this shift of faith from conventional to post-conventional, from a first naivety to a second naivety, from pre-critical to post-critical that is vitally important in our present context. Why? Because the culture we live within fosters, supports and encourages this shift in our thinking, understanding and living out of our faith.

How does contemporary culture foster and support such a personal faith shift?

  • Through new approaches to education focused on learner sensitive approaches and new pedagogies and through greater participation in tertiary forms of education that foster critical thinking, and analysis.
  • Through immersion in a media saturated culture in which the media's approach is often adversarial, agenda-driven and conflicting in its presentation of ‘news', information and entertainment.
  • Through increasing dependence on global information communication systems (internet, web, phone and live TV coverage) which make an ever growing ocean of opinions, ‘facts' and information instantly and cheaply available.
  • Through greater participation in overseas travel and greater interaction with people of different cultures, religions and philosophies ‘at home'.
  • Through the pervasive presentation of values, life-styles and beliefs in the arts, music, film, video and DVD.
  • Through a reduction in personal security and stability previously more readily available in families, work and employment, sports and cultural clubs and church. Each of these institutions has significantly changed in recent decades.
  • Through the sense of powerlessness generated in the wake of the powerful face-less markets controlling currency rates, share prices, interest rates and the value of commodities, businesses and skills.

    Through these changes a global culture is emerging which fosters the personal shift from conventional to post-conventional faith. And simultaneously we also see the exact opposite of this happening. Because for a sector of people this shift also creates the opposite response: into religious, political and ideological fundamentalism. While the shift toward fundamentalism has been significant, especially in the wake of ‘September 11', it is not as expansive nor, I would argue, as significant, as cultural fostering of a post-conventional, post-critical, second-naivety towards faith. While Fundamentalism may be a powerful faith shaper for some people for some parts of their lives it is not the key shaper for most people through-out most of their lives.

    At the church I go to two large paintings hang side by side at the front of the auditorium. The first depicts a road through the countryside. The road is clearly marked with a centre line and white lines at either edge. It is a straight road leading down a slight descent and across open country. In this picture the journey of faith is clearly marked in front of us.

    The second picture shows open countryside with foothills and mountains in the background. There are no roads, tracks or markers. Here each traveller is free to, and must, make their own way. For the first picture an ordinary vehicle and moderate driving ability is all that would be needed to make your way down the road. On the other hand the open country of the second picture would require a four wheel drive vehicle and considerable off- road driving experience to traverse.

    Recently I've been thinking about these two pictures and the comparison between conventional driving and conventional phases of faith and off-road driving and post-conventional phases of faith understanding and expression. With both there are similarities and yet big differences. Learning to drive a four wheel drive vehicle is helping me to understand the extent of these differences.

    The first mistake we make is thinking we can travel through this new phase of faith in the same conventional road vehicle we are used to driving. Sadly this doesn't work. To successfully traverse beyond the tar sealed road an off-road vehicle is needed. Equally, to successfully traverse beyond conventional faith a new vehicle of faith is needed. The old must be left at the road side or else it will very quickly become stuck or dangerous in the new conditions. Not realizing how essential this change is leads to huge disappointments.

    The second thing we need to be aware of is that an off-road vehicle is quite different to a conventional two wheel drive car. Sure there are similarities but there are also big differences. The way you use the gears, use the brakes, the tyres and the equipment needed to get out of trouble when you get stuck are all new.

    While one mistake is to assume that the old conventional vehicle of faith will get us through this new terrain of faith the second is equally important. Being in the right kind of vehicle (in this case a four wheel drive) doesn't mean we are equipped or experienced enough to drive in off-road terrain.

    Off-road driving and off-road faith are both similar. When you begin four wheel driving there is a whole new world of learning ahead. So too the world of off-road or post-conventional Christian faith forms. In four wheel driving speak we need to learn about driving in high and low ratio, how to use manual and automatic hubs. What the difference is and the risks and strengths of both. New appreciation for the right kind of tyres and tyre pressures for different terrain is needed. Different types of hooks and strops, winches and jacks are needed for extraction. But you don't just need the gear you need to know what to use when and how to use them quickly and safely. You need to learn how to pick a route through mud, across a rutted path or through a river. You need to know about approach, departure and ramp angles, centre of gravity, and how to use engine braking, cadence braking or over-drive braking. And more importantly still you need to know what you and your vehicle can do and what you can't. When it is safe to cross a river and when it is best to find another route.

    Entering the world of post-conventional faith is very similar. There are a whole range of things to un-learn and equally demanding new learnings, understandings and experiences to grasp. Yet the uninitiated observer notices little difference between on-road and off-road driving. The same is true for the uninitiated observer of peoples' changed faith experience and expression from a conventional faith to a post-conventional faith form. This is understandable. You can drive a four-wheel drive vehicle on conventional roads just as you would a ‘normal' two-wheel drive vehicle. Equally a post-conventional Christian faith seems in many ways the same as a conventional faith expression. It is only when you move into uncharted territories of faith or track that the differences become apparent. And then they are substantial. The following table presents in generalisations the depth of change that occurs between a conventional, pre-critical naïve faith and a post-conventional, post-critical second naivety of faith. Both can be distinctly Christian but they are fundamentally different.

    This analogy of shifting from four-wheel drive to two-wheel drive by changing gears helps me because it deflects one of the great criticisms of the staged faith model: the inherent sense that the later stages are better or more mature than the earlier ones. When we think of stages this is hard to dispute because while Fowler is very clear that no stage is better than another and no Christian is any more saved or loved by God than someone at another stage; there is the inherent reality that the later stages are broader and deeper in their faith experience, understanding and expression than earlier stages. They may not be better but they seem so. Because of this apparent hierarchy people at the later stages may see themselves as somehow better or more mature than they used to be and also more mature than others. I want an analogy that recognizes that different places on the journey of faith are distinctly different but not evaluatively better or stronger. Thinking in terms of on-road and off-road driving with appropriate gear changes from four-wheel to two-wheel drive gives me this analogy.


    Conventional faith expression


    Post-conventional faith expression

    Focus on a black and white, right and wrong faith

    Focus on the greys of faith and life

    Focus on all shades of faith and life




    Answers accepted

    Searching and questioning, doubt and critique

    Understanding and relishing of mystery, paradox and wonder

    Primary sense of relationship with God is hierarchical e.g. God's servant

    Primary sense of relationship with God is relational e.g. God's friend (John 15)

    Primary sense of relationship with God is intimate e.g. God's lover (Song of Songs)

    Socially constructed identity

    and roles

    Formation of self identity and roles

    Giving of self for others

    Want someone to lean on – e.g. a mentor or discipler

    Want someone to encourage and legitimate their personal exploration – e.g. a facilitator or sponsor.

    Want a co-discerner of God's will and leading – e.g. a spiritual director

    Focus on external authority of leaders, the Bible and my community of faith

    Focus on internal authority of self understanding, experience and self truth.

    Focus on an integration of internal and external authorities of faith

    The Bible, faith community or leaders are the authors –of –my-faith and life. A need to listen to the external voice(s)

    I am the author-of-my-faith and life. A need to listen to the internal voice(s)

    The Spirit of God within me is the author-of-my-faith and life. A need to integrate external and internal voices.

    Status quo confirmed

    Status quo challenged

    Status quo integrated into larger canvas

    What and how


    What is my contribution?

    Specific personal examples

    Hearing and telling our own stories

    Working with metaphor, art and poetry


    “So we are ever more confident of the message proclaimed by the prophets. You will do well to pay attention to it, because it is like a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the light of the morning star shines in your hearts”   2 Peter 1:19

    Alan Jamieson 

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