Welcome to Theology Thursday! Theology can be an intimidating topic, but because right thinking leads to right living, it is important to have our thinking right!
What is Theology?
Theology is simply the study of God and of God’s relationship to the world (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
Why Should We Study Theology?
Our world is full of differing beliefs about God, faith and spirituality. How are we to know what is true and what is false? We need to know theology.
How are we to teach our children (and anyone else who asks us) about God? We need to know theology.
How do we know how God wants us to live? We need to know theology in order to apply it to our lives!
How do we grow in our relationship with God? The more we know about who God is and how God acts, the more we love God. And because we love God, we desire to obey Him.
Our goal is not to be super intelligent, deep thinking professor-types. Our goal is to live lives of integrity: what we say we believe should be shown by how we live our lives. There should be no contradiction. We strive to grow in sanctification (becoming more and more like Christ).
What Will Theology Thursday Look Like?
Each Thursday (or many Thursdays), we will look at one small piece of theology and how it applies to our lives. This will look like many different things.
Some weeks we will deal with definitions of words (like justification, propitiation, atonement and sanctification) and how to clearly communicate these ideas in a simple and easy to understand way.
Some weeks we will talk about common “Christian-ese” phrases or beliefs and how they are accurate or inaccurate.
Some weeks we’ll discuss methods of teaching and other helpful topics to help us to better understand how to communicate with others. Today we’re going to start with one of these topics:
Fowler’s Stages of Faith
James W. Fowler (1940-2015) was an American theologian and professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He is best know for his book Stages of Faith (1981). In this book, he looks at how a person’s faith or spiritual belief system develops throughout life. It looks at development in a similar way to Piaget’s theories of cognitive development and Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.
Preschool-aged children fit this stage nicely. Fantasy and reality often are combined together. They learn about God and faith from family members and people they associate with often. This is a great time to communicate truths about God through well-known Bible stories.
As we teach children of this age, we must be careful to communicate truths about God clearly while not simplifying them so much so that they are no longer theologically correct. We need to recognize that even if children cannot understand abstract truths, someday they will be able to understand and we need to build a correct foundation.
An example of this would be explaining where heaven is. Heaven is not “in the sky.” While this is a concrete and easy to understand concept for young children, it isn’t accurate. Heaven is where God and Jesus sit on their thrones. We often talk about heaven as being “up there” but the clouds, atmosphere and universe is “up there.”
Elementary school-aged children characterize this stage. They understand the world in logical and often literal ways. Some people remain in this stage through adulthood. People in this stage tend to accept as truth the stories of faith and what trusted people in authority (family and church leaders) tell them is true.
As with people in Stage 1, we need to be careful to communicate truths about God accurately even though some abstract facts will be difficult to understand. Using concrete analogies can help communicate abstract truths.
R.C. Sproul does a great job of this in his book The Priest with Dirty Clothes. Through this story about a priest with dirty clothes we get a concrete example and explanation of the concept of imputed righteousness.
Most people move into this stage sometime during their teen years. They have had exposure to many different belief systems and are trying to synthesize these various view points into “their” belief system. They rely on a person (such as a pastor or teacher or parent) or an institution (such as a church) to give form and structure to their religious beliefs. If this person or institution errors or is challenged, their faith is deeply shaken. Many people remain in this stage throughout life.
This is why it is so important for us to live lives of integrity. Lives where our beliefs and actions “match.” We need to continue to educate ourselves and those in our lives with true, correct theology so that if a person or institution fails, their faith is not shaken to the point of abandonment.
As parents and teachers we need to openly accept and welcome questions about faith. We need to encourage others to know what they believe and why they believe it. This is where our understanding of theology can help people solidify their own beliefs when we have a way to at least begin answering their questions. Sadly many teens receive shocked and shaming responses to questions about faith as they try to move into and through this stage.
People in stage four realize that there are many ways to believe and they begin to deeply question what they believe and the forms this takes. This often begins in early adulthood and can lead to a deep and lasting faith. Many people in stage 3 see those in stage 4 as “loosing” their faith. Sometimes this is the case, but often is just questioning the form and rituals their faith has taken in the past.
Solid teaching and understanding (correct theology) will make the process of moving into stage 4 a time of growth and result in a deeper faith instead of in a rejection of faith.
It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. In this stage people begin to recognize and accept the paradoxes and mysteries of life and faith and can accept them as realities without needing to define them to the point of complete understanding.
Few people ever reach this stage. In this stage people can live selfless lives of service without doubts or questions.
(Much of this information is taken from this chart.)
Understanding how people grow in faith can help us to better know how to teach and disciple others.
Are you excited to study theology?