Stages of Faith  Just as there are changes as we transitions into mid-life, when we enter this stage there are also changes in our faith development.  According to James Fowler (Stages of Faith, 1995), a person entering mid-life would experience what he refers to as the fifth stage of faith development: Conjunctive Faith.  Once again the middle-aged adult is confronted with paradox.  One begins to accept that there are paradoxes associated with faith.  Boundaries become more porous and flexible as the person seeks to find greater common ground with those they disagree with.  This speaks to my earlier point in part 1 about being a whole person in relationship with others, and the ability, or inability, to reach healthy resolutions in highly emotional conflicts.  In this stage conjunctive faith is similar to cognitive development in mid-life.  A mature person who has transitioned into, and is navigating a healthy passage through mid-life is better able to mediate sharp conflicts and pronounced differences through the integration of emotion and logic.  In conjunctive faith,

“There is also a deepening of appreciation for the complex issues associated with faith, and also a deepening of empathy for people who are at other stages in their faith journeys” (Richard N. Shulik 1988). 

This stage is rarely encountered before middle age, and as I write this, the Church where I serve comes to mind, and I’m glad that we are led by Elders; mature, healthy leaders, who have also experienced enough of life, have successfully transitioned through this stage, and are able to lead others with wisdom, skill, and empathy, sympathizing with the weaknesses of others. 

Although there are similarities in this stage between conjunctive faith and cognitive development, I would be careful to not rely too strictly on logical progressions and cognitive models to formulate a process of faith development.  A person’s faith journey is also a thing of mystery, and just as in character development our experiences may lead us back and forth through various stages, sometimes causing us to learn mature lessons beyond our years, or returning to unfinished business in our older years, so it is with ones passage through the stages of faith.  We often take circuitous routes to reach maturity.  So what is of primary importance is how we experientially relate to God and others, not how we systematize belief about God.  How we interact with God and cooperate with the Spirit is an experiential process as well as intellectual.  The visceral struggle of mid-life is ripe for such exploration.

Man or Troll  The progression from stage to stage is a progression through various stages of maturity, not just a process of aging that leads to retirement and then death.  One sign of maturity for a person in midlife is a willingness to accept that one has entered it.  Author Mark Gerzon speaks of midlife as a quest he was reluctant to embark on.  In his book, Listening to Midlife: Turning Your Crisis Into A Quest, Gerzon says:

“Whether we know it or not (and usually we don’t), it often begins with resistance to change.  It begins with our pulling against the future and clinging to the past.  It begins with our unconsciously saying, “No, not yet!” to what is happening inside us.”

Our denial is a refusal to continue the journey to greater maturity.

 A mature middle-adult is also someone who has adapted to the social and relational changes and demands placed on their life.  The Call of this stage is a call to care.  If one is to be a whole person, they must be so in caring mutual-relatedness to others.  For the mature middle-adult, to live for one’s self is not enough.  To live for one’s self is a choice to not live true to one’s best self.  Henrik Ibsen dramatizes this crisis in one of my favorite plays, Peer Gynt.  A modern poetic comic/drama on man’s search for identity, Peer Gynt chronicles fifty years in the life of an immature man who forsakes his family, friends, and the love of his life, to escape from the responsibility of caring for others.  In midlife he fails to see that his life has had no positive “other directed” purpose.  His adventures, misadventures really, are attributed to fate and not his own self-centered decisions to be less than a mature, caring, person.  In fact, in one scene, he chooses to identify with the mountain trolls when they explain to him the difference between a man and a troll:

“Among men, under the shining sky, they say: ‘Man, to yourself be true!’  While here, under our mountain roof, we say: ‘Troll, to yourself be – enough!’”

This describes the immature man in midlife who has chosen to cope with stagnation by serving his own self-centered interests.  I know what its like to withdraw into the solitude of  a “cave’.  Comfort and solace can be found there.  But my hope for other men and women who find themselves stuck in a cave and growing stagnant like this, is that by the grace of God, they would not see this season of their lives as a season to withdraw into their “mountain caves”, but rather give more fully of themselves to the human race, their neighbors, communities, churches, families, and spouses.  In community, they could discover their true selves in interdependent relationships with others.  This will require faith, hope, and love.

Faith Hope and Love  God has already provided the remedy for our stagnation and the means of growth through this or any stage of life.  Whether it be family, Church, or some other safe and healthy community where life is shared, these are the means God has provided to keep the middle-adult from becoming a Troll.  When healthy, these provide a context where we learn to live, love, and labor in mutual relatedness to others.  Our needs are shared, responsible demands are made upon us, and comfort and support is given to one another.  This is also a place where those who are younger can be mentored by the middle-adult.  Within families and faith communities we learn how to serve others.  We learn skills necessary for healing and maturing the souls of others.  It is here, in a safe environment that we learn to speak the truth in love, growing up into maturity.  As Ephesians 4:14-16 says:

“Then we will no longer be immature children.  We won’t be tossed and blown about by everywind of new teaching.  We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth.  Instead, we will speak the truth in love., growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of the body, the church.  he makes the whole body fit together perfectly.  As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” 

Finally, community is a place where grace should be freely given and recieved, and a vision for the care of others beyond our selves is imparted.  Near the end of his life, a broken, weary, and much older Peer Gynt returns to his home in the woods, where decades earlier he had abandoned his wife Solvieg (a Christ figure?).  She is as young and faithfully in love with him now as she was then.  In remorse and full of shame, Peer asks her: 

“Where have I been myself, whole and true?  Where have I been, with god’s mark on my brow?”  Her answer: “In my faith, in my hope, and in my love.” 

The challenges of midlife and life in general, require faith, hope, and love.  Without these three, the greatest being love, how can we ever hope to tame the trolls lurking within our hearts?