The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 38: Stages of Faith


An emerging Tamarind tree seedling, Kerala, India, by ManjithkainiFrom Wikimedia Commons


Yesterday I shared this passage:

After many births the wise seek refuge in me, seeing me everywhere and in everything. Such great souls are very rare. There are others whose discrimination is misled by many desires. Following their own nature, they worship the lower gods, practicing various rites. (BG, 7:19-20) 

Regardless of faith tradition, we all go through different stages of faith development (see James Fowler’s stages here). Some have a toddler’s understanding of their faith: They must follow the rules and not get caught! Some have an older child’s view of their faith: That right and wrong and belief in God are about something more than consequences; there is a Truth that demands a response from us. Some who have an adolescent faith recognize the social function of religion; they develop a sense of belonging, and believe that faith makes them better people (or not) and helps society function (or not). Fewer people reach an adult faith: the language of multiple religions is how we all talk about our experience of the sacred and transcendent. Fewer still have wisdom: that faith is about the mystery of being, and sometimes the best language to describe it is silence. We often find ourselves transitioning to another stage of development when we experience a crisis, or have a mystical experience, or learn something new that rocks our world, or simply realize our old worldview no longer suits us.

Hinduism extends this understanding of faith development over multiple lifetimes or incarnations. We may go through many lifetimes and repeat many stages before we come to enlightenment. The scripture above points to what Fowler calls “universalizing faith”: One eventually realizes that the words and systems we use in religious language are simply mental models for something indescribable, beyond words, beyond institutions, and beyond formal systems of theology. The wise “see me everywhere and in everything.”

This is not just an intellectual leap. There is a difference between accepting a formal doctrine that God is omnipresent, and truly seeing God everywhere and in everything. One is a proposition and the other is a perception, a change in our state of being.

To someone with a synthetic-conventional (adolescent) faith, someone else who is questioning or outgrowing the religion and the doctrines they grew up with looks like a “backslider,” even though they are maturing in their faith. And it is easy for someone at a more “advanced” stage of faith to look backward with contempt—especially if they haven’t fully integrated their understanding of previous stages. As we go through the stages of development, we don’t exactly leave one behind and fully inhabit another. We carry each stage with us into the next.

Someone who is truly wise can also appreciate the simplest expressions of faith. It is easy for us to think we have matured in our faith, when really we have just scratched the surface of a new stage, or “rearranged our prejudices,” (to quote Bishop Oldham). The wisest also seek “faith like a child” (Matthew 18:2-4).

God of all living, growing things, help me to appreciate my own growth and the growth of others.