Detox and James Fowler

by Len Hjalmarson

In his article a few years back Jason wrote,

"Here’s a strong statement: most evangelicals… are addicted to church culture. Take away their Sunday service, their bible studies, prayer meetings, and five-song worship teams and they start having withdrawals quickly. I would suggest a time of at least a year of not doing the ‘normal’ church stuff. For us, during that time of detachment we only did a few things together ” ask hard questions and eat. Those were our corporate disciplines.”

This subject comes up every month or two in conversation or via email. I've learned to make an immediate connection to liminality. When we are in a serious transition we are always in liminal space, and detox is a serious transition, sometimes by choice, and sometimes by circumstances beyond our control.

Previously I've done some reflection on this under the subject of "maps for transition and change." In other places it was more confessional, like "Leaving the Church to find the Church." Various blog posts have considered more specific aspects of detox.

But after a conversation downtown yesterday, I want to frame detox as a deepening in the Spirit, a greater dependence on Jesus, and a step away from the enmeshed and codependent dynamics so common to leadership cults within evangelical circles. All of this and more is implied in the article penned by Andrew Pritchard a few years back in Reality Magazine. The article title is, "Fowler, Faith and Fallout," and in many ways it echoed work done by Alan Jamieson in his books and articles (find them all linked HERE).

In short, Andrew uses Fowler's taxonomy of spiritual growth to argue that some people leave the church on the corner because it has begun to limit their growth in Christ. Perhaps they recognize that they have learned dependence on human leaders and they decided to jump out of the nest; perhaps they feel a subtle spirit of religious control; perhaps it's not so subtle. Perhaps they a type of personality that challenges the status quo.. they like to ask hard questions.. and the questions are not appreciated. Whatever the reason, for increasing numbers of believers, and not just church hoppers or church shoppers, there is something systemically wrong with the corner church and rather than make a big fuss they simply leave.

“Detox” is often framed as a return to stasis, a rebalancing that places a person back in the condition they were in prior to an addiction. In reality, it is often much more: detox, for substance abusers as much as for believers, often becomes a process of learning and growth. Using Fowler’s stages, detox may move believers from stage 3, Synthetic-Conventional faith to stage 4, Synthetic-Individuative faith. Key characteristics of Synthetic-Conventional faith are described as follows:

1. The need to conform to the norms, beliefs and practices of the group.

We see a strong parallel to this in the importance and influence of the peer group in adolescence. The need to belong and to show this by having the ‘right’ clothing, hairstyle, music, jargon - by being seen in the right places with the right people.

2. Partial development of self-identity and self-assurance about the beliefs held.

Largely the beliefs and practices of this stage are maintained and sustained by the group rather than the individual. In stage 3 the need to examine these beliefs critically has not yet emerged, nor is it encouraged in groups which are predominantly stage 3 in their corporate faith.

3. Expectations and evaluations of others outweigh autonomous evaluation.

People in stage 3 are particularly vulnerable to abuse of all kinds because the opinions and decisions of those in leadership roles carry such authority. The stage 3 Christian has not developed the solid autonomous belief to challenge or often even to question this.

4. Despair arising from interpersonal betrayal.

What are stage 3 Christians to do when a respected role model lets them down? Because the locus of faith and security for stage 3 believers lies largely outside themselves, such a failure or betrayal by a respected leader is a failure of their own faith. Despondency and despair will commonly accompany such betrayal.

Fowler describes in detail the movement from stage 3 to stage 4. It is usually experienced as a crisis. In an article written some years ago on spiritual development and the epistemology of systems theory, Bill Buker quotes quotes Keeney: “the deepest order of change is epistemological change.” This is the level of change required for alcoholics to experience real healing. It is “second order change.” First order change is common sense change. This is the kind of change that happens when your spouse has to cut back at work. It will mean an adjustment in your family. Either you spend less, or someone else works more.

This works fine when there aren’t powerful personal and psychological dynamics involved. However, when someone has become dependent on something and it shapes their very identity, this first order strategy will not succeed.

The second order of change involves becoming open to reevaluating the presuppositions that govern first order strategies. This is usually experienced as a crisis and one’s world view may be in shambles. Then Bill gives the clincher:

“In comparison with the rules and premises that previously governed their system, these new ones often seem paradoxical in nature. Instead of the commonsense idea that out of control drinking should be addressed by choosing in-control behavior, second-order change says that the complementary position of honesty is better. Instead of continuing to engage in the first-order strategy of exerting more willpower in a determined effort to prove their control over alcohol, it becomes important for alcoholics to recognize and admit that they are [powerless.] To genuinely make this admission, a shift in self-perception is required. Rather than exulting in pride, bowing in humility becomes appropriate. Such a change is generally made possible through the gift of hitting bottom.”

The essence of epistemological shift involves three critical dimensions:

  • an ability to embrace paradox;
  • an inner quality of humility leading to surrender;
  • the willingness to grieve the loss of the previous world and previous identity

James Fowler writes,

“For a genuine move to stage 4 to occur there must be an interruption of reliance on external sources of authority. The ‘tyranny of the they’- or the potential for it - must be undermined. In addition to the kind of critical reflection on one’s previous system . . . of values . . . there must be . . . a relocation of authority within the self.

“While others and their judgements will remain important to the Individuative-Reflective person, their expectations, advice and counsel will be submitted to an internal panel of experts who reserve the right to choose and who are prepared to take responsibility for their choices. I sometimes call this the development of an executive ego.” (Stages of Faith, 179)

Stage 4’s strength, according to Fowler, has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). Its dangers are an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought, and an over assimilation of the ‘reality’ and the perspectives of others into its own world view. (183)

What is interesting is that externally things can look the same. People may hold the same beliefs at stage 4 as they did at stage 3., but stage 3 people held them because they were the beliefs of the group as expressed by its leaders or senior members. At stage 4 people hold them because they have reflected on them, examined them against competing beliefs and found them to be compelling. Of course often the transition from stage 3 to stage 4 will result in some change to the content of belief, while not usually touching the core. Pete Rollins comments on fundamentalism may be relevant here:

“..those involved in the [emerging] conversation are not explicitly attempting to construct or unearth a different set of beliefs that would somehow be more appropriate in today’s context, but rather, they are looking at the way in which we hold the beliefs that we already have. This is not then a revolution that seeks to change what we believe, but rather one that sets about transforming the entire manner in which we hold our beliefs. In short, this revolution is not one which merely adds to or subtracts from the world of our understanding, but rather one which provides the necessary tools for us to be able to look at that world in a completely different manner: in a sense, nothing changes and yet the shift is so radical that absolutely nothing will be left unchanged.” (How Not to Speak About God, 7)

Stage 4 people are not loyal in the same way as stage 3 people express it. They may respectfully challenge or question accepted group practices or traditions. The enthusiastic expression of their newly discovered autonomy is easily misinterpreted as rebelliousness or undermining of unity and authority, rather than as evidence of healthy growth. In an unhealthy or “enmeshed” system, difference is often seen as hostility.

But while stage 4 people don’t see the world in terms of black and white, stage 4 people may be seen as polarizing. Having discovered clearly what they do believe, stage 4 people also see clearly what they don’t believe. Stage 4 people say YES, but they also say NO.

This leads some detoxified believers to begin a campaign to set others straight. They become evangelists for change. Their enthusiasm to ‘convert’ others to their newly discovered freedom can be threatening, if not damaging, to those who have not yet developed an anchor outside the group and its leaders. Stage 3 people lack the resources to evaluate their beliefs and take responsibility for such freedom.

Taxonomies of spiritual growth are highly abstract ways of thinking about growth, and the debate about their utility is a good one. If this kind of framework is helpful for you, you might be interested to know there is a fifth and sixth stage. The fifth stage, not uncommon for believers around midlife, is Conjunctive Faith. Conjunctive faith knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts. It is alive to paradox and the truth of apparent contradictions, and it strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. A restful faith, it generates and maintains vulnerability to difference and alterity.

The new strength of this stage, according to Fowler, is a capacity to own one’s most significant beliefs, while recognising that they are relative, partial and imperfect perceptions of reality. Its danger lies in the direction of a paralysing inaction, giving rise to complacency or cyclical withdrawal.(198)

This stage is often felt as a second conversion. If detox is a conversion out of the traditional church and toward Christ, stage 5 believers often move back toward community and into missional engagement. The pendulum swings back from narrow ‘certainties’ and into a new humility and a level of comfort with paradox. The insistence that one truth must dominate is left behind in favor of embracing the tension of uncertainty or in hope of further light. The stage 5 person is at ease with difference and with mystery.

The stage 5 person recognizes that many of the issues of faith are larger than ours ability to grasp. Because of this, stage 5 Christians often develop a new appreciation for symbol and for ritual, and for liturgical forms of worship. While their stage 3 and 4 friends are wondering if they still hold to faith, stage 5 people feel they have learned a deeper appreciation for the “otherness” of God and that they are learning for the first time to bow in worship. It’s easy to see how this particular place can be so much more open to the insights of postmodernity.

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• © 2005-2007 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in September, 2007