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I was the kind of CCD and Catholic school student that nuns didn’t want in their classroom. My hand shot into the air more than anyone else’s, most often not to give an answer. If Sister Teacher didn’t acknowledge me, I interrupted and asked my question anyway. Curious about precursors, outcomes, and tangential information, I dug deep into lessons and usually got the class off track.

Photo by jdurham on morgueFile.

“Angie is intelligent, and a creative thinker, but she often disrupts class and derails class discussion with her questions.” Due to regularity, my parents expected such comments on my report cards. Teachers gave me Ns in citizenship for “Needs improvement.”

Eventually I got the hint. Note to self: Don’t ask questions. It’ll only get you in trouble. Just believe what the church peeps tell you, and everything will be okay.

Years ago, my friend Charla was worried about her son, Jamaal. Jamaal was in college, and he was “struggling in his faith,” as Charla put it. Raised in a Christian home and church community, Jamaal had always been a thinker and a questioner. The more he thought and questioned, the stronger his Christian faith grew. That was until he left home for the collegiate life.

By the time he was a junior Jamaal described himself as “spiritual,
not religious, and certainly not exclusively Christian.” He read everything he could get his hands on in his great quest to find meaning and get a grip on the divine: the Koran, the Book of Mormon and the writings of Confucius to name a few. At one point Jamaal even thought of himself as Buddhist, as he “strongly resonated with Eastern spirituality.”

Charla was an anxious, nervous wreck. Our prayer group lifted up her and Jamaal in prayer weekly, if not daily. Charla didn’t understand Jamaal’s wandering, but she knew it was something he needed to do.

“My son has to make his faith his own,” Charla said. It became her mantra.

Charla was exactly right. And while Jamaal’s path was unique to him, the wayward road of questioning faith and one’s childhood beliefs is common to everyone. There comes a time in all of our lives when we examine closely things we used to swallow whole and spout with certainty, no matter our religious upbringing.

The linchpin is our response. Do we enter into the questions? Or do we “just believe?” Which of these options produces a more robust faith?

Reputable psychologists such as James Fowler (Stages of Faith) and John Westerhoff, III (Will Our Children Have Faith?) contend that questioning is a vital part of growing in faith. As a matter of fact, if we do not wonder and wander (i.e., simply just believe), we risk stalling and never reaching in adulthood a maturity of faith that coincides with our age.

Westerhoff suggests four stages of faith. (Abridged here based on notes by Brian Stoffregen.)

  • Experienced faith (preschool & early childhood) — We imitate what we see other doing and saying, e.g., a child praying the Lord’s Prayer without understanding the meaning of all the words. “This is what we do. This is how we act.”

  • Affiliative faith (childhood & early adolescent years) — We cherish belonging to a group, which still centers on imitating what the group does — “This is what we believe and do. This is our group/church.

  • Searching faith (late adolescence) — Here we begin asking questions, “Is this what I believe?”

  • Owned faith (early adulthood) — This stage comes only through the searching stage. After exploring the question, “Is this what I believe?” one, hopefully, discovers a Christian answer that declares: “This is what I believe.”

Westerhoff’s stages of faith aren’t a liner step-by-step process, and none of the stages are static. Each of us is apt to go forward and backward through the stages at varying times in our lives.

Photo by Andi on Flickr

Photo by Andi on Flickr

That said, the Church needs to make room for those searching in their faith. People need a safe space to question, doubt, and return to when their journey is complete. We do a great disservice to the Church when we shut down or shun people who are struggling with and questioning Church teachings — people like Jamaal and me.

It appears, regretfully, that many adults in the church have never had the benefit of an environment which encouraged searching faith And so they are often frightened or disturbed by adolescents who are struggling to enlarge their affiliative faith to include searching faith. Some persons are forced out of the church during this state and, sadly, some never return; others remain in searching faith the rest of their lives. In any case, we must remember that persons with searching faith still need to have all the needs of experienced and dependent faith met, even though they may appear to have cast them aside. And surely they need to be encouraged to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation, and first endeavors at commitment.

(Westerhoff, 97).

Questions for y’all: Do you relate to Jamaal and my experience? How has the Church supported or hindered your growth in faith?