09/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Faith Develops

Last week I wrote about three possible responses to suffering, and soon received several comments noting that I did not include classic religious responses from the perspective of faith. Most deep religious traditions tell us that suffering comes from a mistaken belief that we are separate and purposeless, and from the desire to avoid struggle and pain. Spiritual growth begins with the basic acceptance that life is difficult. Buddhism (as far as I understand it) teaches that suffering results from the ego's attachment to that which is transient, and that we each can end suffering through right knowledge, action, and thought. Western monotheistic religions offer many different explanations, but most profound formulations focus on the idea that life's challenges are mechanisms built in to the workings of physicality by the Creator, in love; not as "punishments", but as the very way in which human beings become more compassionate, effective, and evolved.

Of course one may say that we live in a random chaotic world where events simply happen without intention or design. This is a valid answer, and one to which I subscribed for the first 3 1/2 decades of my life. I have experienced, though, that there is purpose to our existence; that there is an ever-present consciousness of creation that imbues everything, and that a connection to this ever-present consciousness elevates us, illuminates our purpose, and reveals our true nature. This is not based on religious dogma, and does not conflict with the findings and methodologies of science and physical observation, but is, instead, the result of my personal experiences.

One can also say that such "religious" experiences are just biochemical reactions in the brain; a remnant of a survival mechanism that helped our ancestors to make sense of a chaotic world. In this way, love, too, can be seen as just a biochemical reaction that is necessary to ensure that children are cared for. Well, we are biochemical beings -- that's how information is processed -- and this process does not negate the object of its reaction, or the possibility of a Designer. I have found, though, that such attempts to argue for the existence of a Creator, while interesting and thought-provoking, do not convince anyone either way, just as a diagrammatic analysis of a great work of art will never bring someone to a true moving aesthetic experience. This is where faith enters.

Many people carry a very distorted notion of the word "faith". This is because the common usage of "faith" is not the same as the theological and experiential nature of "faith". I recently saw a young man wearing a tee-shirt that proclaimed, "Truth, not faith". This mirrors Friedrich Nietzsche's famous quote:

Faith means not wanting to know what is true.

This view sees faith as wishful thinking; a return to the childish desire for easy answers, the end of struggle, adoption of rigid dogma, a rejection of science, and an unwillingness to face the hard realities of life. Viewing faith in this way certainly creates an easy straw-man target for ridicule and dismissal, and is the model used by many who harbor animosity toward religion. But this definition is not how "faith" is understood by any sophisticated theologian over the past two thousand years, and leaves behind the billions of human beings who have a living, transformative, personal relationship with the realm of Spirit: People of "faith."

In his classic book, Stages of Faith, James Fowler provides a deeper, truer, more sophisticated way to understand faith:

Faith is a person's or group's way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relationships that make up our lives.

In this way, faith is our orientation toward life, based on our experience of living. None of us sees the world "as it is" -- objectively and without distortion. We are all products of our experiences, inclinations, culture, sex, and choices. Our faith orientation shows up when we respond to the people, events, and objects in our lives. "People are untrustworthy, and will take advantage of you if you let them!" is as much a statement of faith as "People are images of the Divine, and are essentially good." In this way, we all live in "faith".

Folwer discovered that faith grows as our experiences deepen, and that we all move through documentable stages, from narcissistic magical thinking, to conventional dogma, to the freedom of individualism, to an integration of reason with other ways of knowing, and finally to a sense of universal connectedness to a transcendent purpose. As we grow through these stages we experience increasing levels of concerns for others and for something greater than ourselves. Often, the propulsion for moving us through these stages comes from a "crisis of faith", in which we painfully discover that our current faith no longer addresses the needs of our lives and the realities of our existence. It takes courage to face this challenge. This is the "leap of faith"; not a desperate grasping for certainty, but an acceptance of uncertainty with the confidence that your life has meaning, and that you are meant to grow..

"Why do we suffer?" Seen from the highest perspective of faith, when we transform our reaction of suffering in to an opportunity for growth, we rise in awareness, begin to accept responsibility for ourselves and others, and come closer to our true nature, as physical images and agents of the Divine.