Monday, February 07, 2005

Dialogue Difficulties; The Fowler Explanation

John S. Morgan has written an interesting essay entitled Talking Past One Another in which he suggests that the difficulty we have in dialoguing with those with whom we disagree may be partially explained by considering James Fowler's premise from his book Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development. I haven't looked at Fowler's work since seminary, but, based on Morgan's summation, I think that he might be on to something.

You might recall that Fowler based his "stages" on Piaget's earlier work on the stages of childhood development. Morgan suggests that our current difficulties in understanding one another is derived from the two positions being at different stages of faith; one group at stage three and the other at stage four. Here is his definition of stage three;

Stage III - Synthetic-Conventional Faith
As Fowler explains, "The Stage 3 individual's faith system is conventional, in that it is seen as being everybody's faith system or the faith system of the entire community. And it is synthetic in that it is nonanalytical; it comes as a sort of unified, global wholeness." Morality is simply a given of life. The individual can articulate and defend his positions and he likely feels deep emotional investments in them but has not made his value system the object of reflection as a system. He knows what he believes but as to why, he can only cite an authority. Authority defines morality.
This stage reminds me of boot camp, at which we were taught that there were three ways to perform any task; the right way, the wrong way and the Navy way. It was an effective mindset, for that setting. It does not seem terribly valuable to me, however, when attempting to make moral and ethical decisions today.

Morgan continues with a brief definition of stage four;

Stage IV - Individuative-Reflective Faith
The stage four faith system involves critical reflection on its systems of meanings; in stage four, meanings are separable from the symbolic media that express them.

Some never proceed to a Stage 4 faith system. Fowler argues that individuals must "encounter and respond to situations or contexts that lead to critical reflection on their tacit value systems" to develop a Stage 4 orientation. If one is completely content with the conventional ethical and moral system in which he has grown up, if there is no conflict, there will be no development toward a Stage 4 faith system. One becomes locked into a Stage 3 faith when there is no impetus or urgency for change. Morality will be accepted rather than systematized.

For "a genuine move to Stage 4 to occur there must be an interruption of reliance on external sources of authority." There must be a relocation of authority to an authority within the self.
Some might see this stage as a vast improvement. I'm not so sure. What troubles me is the term "individuative." I'm not convinced there is such a thing as an individual. As a matter of fact, I suspect that some of our biggest problems in today's world are rooted in a belief of the individual being the most important consideration regarding ethical decisions. In the realm of belief systems, this focus results in the idea that each person can hold their own "personal" beliefs, without any need to reconcile those beliefs with tradition or reason, let alone the sacred texts or the culture that surrounds them. This seems to me to lead to spiritual anarchy, which instead of healing divisions will actually encourage them to increase. Can the individual be considered the final source of authority? I think not; especially since my "personal belief" is that the individual is a facade; no such entity exists (and yes, I realize the paradoxical nature of that statement; but no claim to have moved past stage four here).

Morgan does go on to point out that stage four is not the ideal; nor is it the stage advocated by Jesus. The ideal is found in stage six;

In the above discussion I am not trying to say that Jesus was at Fowler's Stage 4 level of moral development. In Fact, Fowler locates Jesus at his terminal Stage 6, the Universalizing Faith stage.

I am primarily concerned with the transition to Stages beyond 3 because a transition out of 3 represents the line of demarcation in the culture wars. It is at stage 4 that the individual starts to make his value system the object of reflection as a system.

Individuals in Stage 3 tend to look to an external authority formulated in creeds and dogmas for the answer to questions of morality - a readymade religion handed over on a silver platter. Hence there is a great temptation to believe in an inerrant scripture and the propensity to interpret it literally where possible as sort of a rulebook.

A cursory reading of Fowler suggests that:
Stage 4 - Individuative-Reflective Faith - is where individuals begin to understand the limitations of reliance on external sources of authority.
Stage 5 - Conjunctive Faith - is where individuals make their own experience of truth the principle by which other claims to truth are tested.
Stage 6 - Universalizing Faith - is where individuals have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.
Note that stage five emphasizes "experience," which some have suggested (especially Methodists) is actually the fourth leg of the Anglican tripod of scripture, tradition and reason. I've always disagreed with that suggestion. I don't think "experience" by itself is much of an authority. It is the raw data, which must be filtered through the other three authorities. In my understanding, experience is a part of the reasoning process; not a separate category for consideration.

Note that stage six includes what I consider the critical piece that was missing in the other stages; "An inclusive and fulfilled community." Without community, the rest is pointless, it seems to me. It is within the context of the household of God that we encounter the risen Christ. Only within a community that will uphold me, correct me and walk with me can I live out my vocation and hope to grow into the full stature of Christ.

The thoughts regarding Dr.Ramachandran are interesting as well, although, in my estimation, not quite as pertinent to our current conversation.

There's an opportunity for you to respond to the article at its conclusion. Rather than limit the discussion to Morgan's essay, I'll just toss out the question without any boundaries put on the responses;

What seems to you to be the reason why religious liberals and conservatives seem to talk past one another?


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