In the interaction of parent and child not only does a bond of mutual trust and loyalty begin to develop, but already the child, albeit on a very basic level, senses the strange new environment as one that is either dependable and provident, or arbitrary and neglectful. Long before the child can sort out clearly the values and beliefs of the parents, he or she senses a structure of meaning and begins to form nascent images . . . of the centers of value and power that animate the parents’ faith. As love, attachment, and dependence bind the new one into the family, he or she begins to form a disposition of shared trust and loyalty to (or through) the family’s faith ethos. (1981, 16–17)
When parents model covenant love to their children, they expose them to a way of seeing and being in the world. Their provision of a safe, trustworthy environment allows the child to experience loyal and faithful connection, which opens up a meaningful structure for the child. Fowler understands faith as developing through six sequential stages. Infancy begins with undifferentiated faith, derived from the infant’s initial experience of being
sufficiently cared for by parents. The formation of secure or insecure attachments establishes the foundation on which faith is built (and is not counted as one of the six stages). The first stage, intuitive-projective faith, emerges during early childhood as language acquisition and emotional development allow a child to imagine through stories. Since logical thinking does not control imagination, reality and fantasy are indistinguishable during this stage. Children begin to form a conscious image of God. The mythical- literal faith stage emerges during middle and late childhood. As children begin to reason in a more logical and concrete manner, they can distinguish between fantasy and reality. Children’s understanding of God is largely a projection from human characteristics they find present in “godly” characters in stories. Adolescence is characterized by a synthetic-conventional faith that allows children to integrate their abstract religious ideas and concepts into a coherent belief system. Developing a personal identity spurs teenagers to incorporate God into that identity, while an increasing capacity for intimacy in personal relationships leads to a desire for a personal relationship with God. Stage 4, individuative-reflective faith, emerges as the adolescent transitions into young adulthood. The process of anchoring faith within the self is often accompanied by examining and questioning the unexamined conventional, community-referenced faith of the previous stage. Individuative-reflective faith tends to be both consciously chosen and intellectually based.
Advanced chronological age is no guarantee that one has automatically moved to a new stage of faith. In fact, a majority of young adults do not advance to the conjunctive faith stage. During this fifth stage, the need for a rational, intellectually consistent faith is replaced by the acceptance of a faith that includes paradox, ambiguity, and mystery. The black-and-white certainty of the previous stage is replaced by the reality of gray areas.
At this time, one moves toward a deepening of one’s relationship with God through spiritual disciplines and practices. It is a time when young people take up a clear devotion to God as their own personal quest rather than riding on their parents’ coattails.
The highest developmental stage is universalizing faith, reached by few and then rarely before middle to late adulthood. Universalizing faith is characterized by a commitment to overcome division, violence, and oppression, and an ability to transcend specific belief systems. Fowler suggests that a quest for universal justice that moves beyond self-interest can
be observed in the lives of people such as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi.
To summarize Fowler (1996), faith (1) is an integral, human process; (2) underlies the development of beliefs, values, and meanings; (3) provides coherence—a sense of sharing trust and loyalty with others; (4) grounds one’s relationship to the ultimate; and (5) provides a coping mechanism for human finitude. This is incapsulated in Fowler’s term centers of value and power (CVP), which form the basis of faith relationships. These CVPs are crucial in relating individuals with the transcendent other based on family and community relationships.
Although these specific stages of faith development are helpful markers, Fowler maintains that children enter the faith process through the relationships with their parents and primary caregivers, which are so persuasive. Children deprived of trusting and caring relationships are therefore hindered in the development of a mature and trusting relationship with God. The ability to experience God as a loving and trustworthy Parent is related to personal experiences of loving and trusting in and through family relationships. The Christian family plays a crucial role in the development of faith.
A Trinitarian Model of Family Spirituality Using a trinitarian focus on relationality, we suggest that the core aspect of family spirituality centers on each family member achieving a differentiated faith. Differentiated faith in the context of family life is multilayered: first, each family member is differentiated (identity) in Christ; second, each member establishes spiritual differentiation in the context of the family; and third, a differentiated family spirituality develops, which serves as a unifying and transforming process in the life of each family member. This approach also connects and unifies the believer with the Christian community, which is ultimately the context for both the individual and family to flourish spiritually.
Differentiation in Christ Differentiation in Christ refers to the New Testament emphasis on each
believer finding his or her identity and reference in relationship with Christ rather than with other humans. Trusting in Christ’s death on the cross for
salvation and looking to the Holy Spirit for indwelling and transformation starts the process. DifC is based on being adopted into God’s family: the words from Jesus’s baptism—“You are my Son, the Beloved” (Mark 1:11)— are said over us when we are adopted into God’s family through Christ’s saving work. Surrendering one’s will to the will of God places Christ at the center of each family member’s identity. As the Spirit enters, this individual family member takes on a Christ-centered focus. The apostle John expresses it this way: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Each family member’s personal relationship to Christ and growth in the Spirit enhances family spirituality. Mutual commitment to spiritual transformation keeps family members consciously aware of how God is working in and through each of them and how it affects the family as a whole.
Spiritual Differentiation in the Family The theological concept of perichoresis is based on the reciprocal
interiority of the divine persons through mutually indwelling and permeating one another. Miroslav Volf (1998) writes that the “internal abiding and interpenetration of the Trinitarian persons . . . determines the character both of the divine persons and of their unity” (208). In a similar way, we suggest, the internal interdependence and mutual indwelling (interpenetration) of the spiritual lives of its members defines a family’s spiritual character. Just as the members of the Godhead do not cease to be distinct persons in their unity, neither do family members cease to be distinct spiritual persons in the family. Volf further explains, “The distinctions between them are precisely the presupposition of that interiority, since persons who have dissolved into one another cannot exist in one another” (209). In other words, differentiation makes interiority and interdependency possible.
If family members absorb into one another spiritually, they cease to be distinct spiritual presences to one another. We call this spiritual fusion. When members dissolve into one another, they cannot offer unique spiritual perspectives. They relinquish their uniqueness, which is based on their personal relationship with Christ. At the other extreme, when the spirituality of family members has little or no mutual impact, spiritual interiority and interdependence are nonexistent. We might call this spiritual cutoff. When family members distance or cut off from one another spiritually, they cannot draw on the spiritual resources that could enrich their spiritual lives as a family. The relationship is sacrificed for a pseudo-individuality.
Spiritual differentiation means that each member is ultimately formed through a personal relationship with Christ and God’s Spirit. The family supports and nurtures this spirituality, and the family encourages each member to cultivate spiritual meaning individually while maintaining relationships with one another and the local church. DifC means that one is personally called beloved of God and finds his or her identity in Christ and his family, the church. Second, this identity forms the foundation for relating to the family as well as the local church.
In spiritual fusion, the spiritual trials or doubts experienced by one member precipitate a crisis that threatens the faith of the whole family. Hardships necessarily bring questions about the faith to the forefront. These questions produce anxiety as they are perceived to threaten the family’s Christian identity. Further, individuals are unable to express honest differences because members are overly invested in being of one mind on spiritual matters. Any expressed difference sends members into a reactive panic mode, and honest doubt and questions are interpreted as a personal affront to the family faith—an existential threat to the family’s identity. Such a state of spiritual fusion puts all family members under duress, leading to shaming and judgmental tactics to bring the straying member back into the fold. It might be helpful to make a distinction between spiritual overdependence and spiritual interdependence among family members.
The opposite end of spiritual fusion is spiritual disconnection and indifference. In this case, a low level of differentiation in Christ leaves family members cut off from one another’s spiritual lives. In spiritually cut off families, individual spiritual lives are kept private, as are most personal experiences. Spiritual joys and struggles are not shared, resulting in disconnection. The family misses out on the spiritual meaning that emerges when members openly express their beliefs and spiritual visions. What is needed is neit