The first is pre-critical. In this time, we accept what we are told. The stories and ideas we hear, we accept without question as accurate expressions of reality for everyone. As an adult, I saw the Northern Lights and remembered how it is possible to experience the divine as a god of nature. This is an experience we hear in Psalm 77
When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
Generally, at this stage, we trust in the world around us and expect it to take care of us. About God, we expect that God will look after us and keep us from harm. Prayer is fairly self-centred, and is a petition: Please can I have a new bike? Please do what I ask.
The second is the critical stage. At this stage, we usually have some personal autonomy and some independent experiences from our group or family. At this point, we bring new information to bear on what we have been told. This is the time of questioning, of letting go, of literalism, of seeking and expressing a larger experience of the world as we encounter it. We struggle to gain control of our lives, our context, the very nature of existence. We hope that by defining life on our terms, we will gain some mastery of it. This kind of experience is expressed occasionally in wisdom literature, somewhat cynical and somewhat sad:
Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness.
Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this also is vanity.
It is important to say that this stage of questioning, of doubt is essential to a mature spirituality. One of the definitions of learning is the act of exchanging one certainty for another. So in the critical stage of faith, it is not so much that we stop believing. but rather that we trade one set of ideas about reality for another
The third stage is the post-critical, when we are able to understand the stories and ideas either in a metaphorical, or in a biased historical narrative sense. At this point, we see how the ideas, stories from the past fit within a larger context, rather than the context fitting the earlier story. Now we are able to see the way in which other stories, as well as our own, have power and beauty also. In this bigger picture, we welcome a less literal and limited idea of the divine. We come to understand that “we see in a mirror darkly” in which our personal power is irrelevant, but all the same our lives have beauty and meaning. We trade certainty for wonder, power for compassion, judgement for love.
In the last stage, the divine becomes the “horizon” of possibility and we open ourselves to adventure with all of life. Not only as members of a religious group, we understand ourselves to be citizens of the cosmos, responsible here on earth, with souls that reach to the stars.
With Jesus, we can be assured that those who are not against are with us, in the sense that we share common ideas about what is good and how we should be together, We do not need to share convictions about our speculations, but about how we behave as human beings, practices that can be shared amongst other faith groups, including atheists.
The practice of being a Christian is to rest in the Spirit, rather than being anxious about managing life. But it is also to be restless in the Spirit, never staying in safe bunkers of doctrine, always looking forward and not back. A disciple of Jesus is required to be on the move, to understand life as a process without any guarantee other than change. To be a Christian is to follow in the steps of Jesus with uncertainty, and with hope. As Dorothy Solle said in Revolutionary Patience:
He gave answers to questions they didn’t ask – sometimes they didn’t dare open their mouth anymore, not because they hadn’t understood; he was taking from them everything sacred and safe.
May we be courageous in the questions, full of wonder in the uncertainty, and at peace on the path where we see Jesus, remembered in our past, beside us in the moment, and beckoning from the as yet unrealized future.