The religious phenomenologist Wilfred Cantwell Smith described the faith community as a triangle: An individual and a community come together in service to a shared center of value and power. This center might be the concept for which we use the word “God” or “truth” or “justice” or “love.” Because this is a transcendent center, the individual and community have fragmented images with which they come together. Faith communities use these images to teach about that in which they have faith.
So, what must we teach? We must teach stories.
James Fowler in his typology of faith development describes stages of faith during which the individual continually processes the teaching stories of their particular group. The story remains the same while we are constantly changing.
I like to use Santa Claus to describe these stages. Everyone has observed that an infant confronted with Santa Claus rejects this large, loud, brightly-colored stranger and presses more deeply into the safety of their parent’s embrace. So the foundation of all faith development is trust in the reliability of those who will teach us these stories.
Later, we learn stories about Santa Claus that we must believe literally to build the foundation through which any other kind of understanding becomes possible. We ask detailed questions about Santa. Is it true that he has flying reindeer? Are they only the ones in the poem or are there more and what are their names? This is Fowler’s Stage Two: Mythic-Literal faith.
This shared story describes who we are. When confronted by some playground apostate who says that there is no Santa, we reaffirm our sense of our identity by sticking to the story.
At some point though, we see that these stories may not be literally true. We “demythologize” old Santa. We can interpret this moment as one of entering into an adult way of knowing, or we may believe that we have been intentionally duped or that the persons who tell this story are ignorant of this “truth.” This is Fowler’s Stage Four: Individuative-Reflective faith.
Later we see that while a teaching story may not be literally true, it is always actually true. When we have children of our own, we find that in playing Santa we understand his story in a completely new and deeply meaningful way. In this stage, we are open to the teaching stories of others and synthesize all of these messages into a more nuanced faith.
Fowler describes a final stage that few have ever reached. It is the realm of the Christ, the Buddha, and the Mahatma. One manifests, one incarnates the transcendent itself. As if one could be not only Santa, but awe itself, generosity itself, love itself.
When I met James Fowler, he told me that he was familiar with Unitarian Universalists. He said, “Your problem is that you have Stage Four adults (those demythologizers) teaching Stage Two children (the literalists). So they tell them a story and then say, ‘But of course, it’s not true.’” He said, “You must decide on what you wish to teach and by what stories you will teach it, and you must stand by those stories.”
When we identify a Good Samaritan who helps a stranger, when we express brokenness as a “Trail of Tears,” we are drawing in a few words on a deep well of meaning. Without this shorthand, we may never share our understanding of the transcendent in a way that is useful to the hearer.
Our Seven Principles cannot suffice. They are somewhat dry descriptions of outcomes of our service to the centers of value and power we share. You may say that we are on a search for truth, but the story of the blind men and the elephant turns my path toward truth itself.
In this light, there can be no such thing as a “children’s” story in a community of faith. The child, the youth, the newcomer, the elder all need a constant diet of shared imagery. Teach them forgiveness by teaching them “Grudgeville.” Teach them abundance by teaching them “Stone Soup.” Teach them the nobility of the human spirit by teaching about a little girl hiding in an attic who could say, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Tell them the story for all ages. Tell them again and again.
From the Archives
Correction 12.18.06: The printed version of this story and an earlier online version misspelled the name of Wilfred Cantwell Smith.