Crises of Faith

Term Paper for Adult Development Class
California State University Bakersfield

by Jaye
Copyright © 2001 by Jaye Emrys, all rights reserved


          Many researchers and theoreticians have described changes in psychological, physical, mental, and social dimensions. Each researcher adds a bit more structure to the puzzle of change that occurs over a person's lifetime.

          The evolution of what James Fowler (1981) calls Faith is a very complex phenomena, yet it follows a relatively predictable path. Many clients seek therapy for help in issues of faith, although they may not have a name for it. Therapists need to be able to recognize a crisis of faith and to plan a treatment strategy to support the client in the charge process in a gentle and respectful manner.

Transitions: Normal Experiences

          Object relations theorists noticed that the overall quality of parenting the infant and young child received (Cashdan, 1988). "Good enough" parenting allows secure attachment to the caregiver, setting the stage for healthy relationships later in life. It sets the stage for successful separation and individuation (Bowen, 1960) from the caregiver, so the child can develop a sense of trust toward the caregiver and others and to form stable relationships with others in later life by smoothly adjusting intimacy levels. Infants who lacked adequate caregiving often grew up learning to relate to others in rigid, inappropriate ways, including seductive, controlling, and clinging to others.

          The infant is not capable of realizing that the mother who meets all needs and the mother who withholds immediate gratification are the same person, the child "splits" her into "good mother" and "bad mother." From there, it is only a small step for the infant to split herself into "good girl" and "bad girl." This resolves the paradox of conflicting images of self and others, but it also undermines the child's sense of a constant, reliable world.

          If parenting is good enough - nurturing enough of the time, the child develops ways to hold the image of the caregiver in mind when the caregiver is absent. Especially if the child is given transitional objects (eg stuffed dolls, teddy bears) to keep with her when she wishes the caregiver to come, the early good-bad split begins to heal.

          This early learning affects all of the child's future assumptions about the world, the self, other people, and whatever deity the child is taught to believe in. As a family is, so, usually, is whatever deity the child is taught to believe in. The name of the deity can be anything, but the child automatically invests the deity with the same relationship to the child as the caregiver has. (In this sense, "deity" need not be a religious construct.)

          Once this early worldview is established, replacing the overall feel of the nature of the world happens only with great effort, and since all thought, feeling and behaviour arise from assumptions first formed in a preverbal time, expectations are hand to identify in order to reassess.

          Each framework of the development of emotional and spiritual life describes how these early lessons play out, but to each stage of development is bound unconscious assumptions that ease or inhibit progress to the next.

Developmental Theories and Meaning systems

          Many researchers began their conceptualizing stages in infancy, realizing that early experience strongly influenced later beliefs and behaviour. Jean Piaget (1952, 1969) focused on intellectual stages,  noting that each child grew through different stages of reasoning, moving from concrete thought into increasing levels of abstractions.

          Erikson's (1959) psychosocial theory attempted to describe, explain and predict the ways that people related to those around them over the lifespan. He posited a series of stages that were linked by "crises." According to him, the first, basic crisis consisted of trust vs. distrust, and that this crisis came at roughly the same age when object relations theorists said that attachment styles were being built.

          Kohlberg (1964) focused on moral development, putting to each person a vignette containing a moral dilemma (breaking a law or letting his wife die). His first level, preconventional morality, was oriented around "Punishment and obedience" followed by naive hedonism - basically the pleasure principle.

          Vaillant (1977) conceptualized development in terms of defense mechanisms ranging from "psychotic," through "immature" to altruism and sublimation.

          Fowler (1981) investigated the progression of “faith.” His definition of faith however, is not related to religious beliefs. Bee (2000) writes:

Moral reasoning is only a part (perhaps quite a small part) of Faith. Faith is broader, In my terms it is a set of assumptions or understandings, often so basic that they are not articulated, about the nature of our connections with others and with the world in which we live. (p. 316

Briefly, the stages Fowler posited are:
      (Undifferentiated Faith [Infancy])

  1. Intuitive-Projective Faith (Early childhood)
  2. Mythic-Literal Faith (School years)
  3. Synthetic-Conventional Faith (Adolescence)
  4. Individuative-reflective Faith (Young adulthood)
  5. Conjunctive Faith (Mid-life and beyond)
  6. Universalizing Faith

          The ages given are those at which people normally BEGIN entering the stages. Some people enter the higher levels at later ages, and fewer people enter each stage than the one previous.

          It is tempting to think of the conjunctive and universalizing stages as being limited to famous humanitarians but in actuality, it may include those who those who engage in quiet, anonymous, prosocial behaviors, including people who aid others, especially at risk of their own lives. People who hid Jewish families and helped them flee Nazi-occupied areas had probably reached conjunctive faith stage and possibly the universalizing stage.

          But the definitive difference from stage to stage is measured not by actions, but by where authority and control reside. People in the later stages look more to their own sense of self for guidance rather than to laws, rules, and traditions, where those in earlier look to outside sources.

          Fowler is careful to point out that people must go through the stages sequentially. Problems arise when a person is stuck in a level.

          It must be remembered that in each of these stages, there may or may not be a deity involved. The external authority may be a religious deity; the law of the land; or a professional or social group. During the progression from stage to stage, the figure in whom authority is vested may change or remain the same, but a Baptist in the universalizing stage relates to God in a very different way than does a Baptist in the mythic-literal stage.

          Beyond the final stages described by Fowler and Kohlberg, Evelyn Underhill (1911, 1961) describes the stages of Mysticism. Beginning with an awakening, the mystic progresses toward illumination, and even, possibly, to union, "with God, with reality, with beauty, with the ultimate." (Bee, 2000)

          Unfortunately, in the western world, the fundamentalist and authoritarian churches have attempted to control believers' spirituality. Throughout European history, the Catholic and Protestant denominations have martyred people who marched to a different drummer, only to name them saints after several decades or centuries. Many Christian denominations still discourage or even forbid their members to associate with outsiders except for the purpose of converting them or to read unsanctioned books (Ellerbe, 1995).

          On the other hand, the medical professions, including psychiatrists any psychologists, have traditionally pathologized signs of mysticism, calling them hallucinations or delusions.

Crises of Faith

          As evidence that spirituality and faith are beginning to attract respectful attention from the psychiatric community, the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) has included:

          V-Code V63.89, Religious or Spiritual Problem: This category can be used when the focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem. Examples include distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith, problems associated with conversion to a new faith, or questioning of spiritual values that may not necessarily be related to an organized church or religious institution.

          There is less research on transitions or crises of faith than on stages linked by the transitions but some tentative conclusions can be made. Crises often arise when assumptions about how the world or a group of people "should" or does behave: something repressed is called into light, diagnosis of an incurable or fatal disease, or exposure to ideas that cannot be integrated into the present worldview. For instance, some fundamentalist Christians cannot understand why non-Christians in a 12-Step are able to achieve and sustain sobriety. (Wheeler, 1995)

          Certain conditions seem to pave the way for a crisis phase to begin. For instance, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis (1994) list several factors that often set the stage for recovering memories of child sexual abuse:

          When I began recovering memories, the most difficult shift was not accepting that the molester had done it, nor that those around had neither prevented it nor taken steps to keep it from happening again, but the fact that I not who I thought I was. The shift from "There is something innately wrong with me because I have all these feelings" to "I am not defective; I'm traumatized and that means I can get better."

          A crisis of faith can be almost as stressful to the loved ones as to the transitioner. As the crisis progresses, the client's family may attempt to dismiss the importance or necessity of the transition. The transitioner may hear commands to "get over it," warnings that she is in danger of “losing her faith,” and demands to change back. As pressure is applied, the transitioning person may attempt to return to pretransition mindset. But some refuse to turn back, and they may then seek a new circle of friends who understand, and withdraw emotionally from everyone in the old group if only for a time, or even leave the region to escape the pressure.

          Once the crisis begins, several things seem to be essential in order to resolve it:

          The same inner and outer circumstances that affect the beginning and transit through a crisis still pertain as the client consolidates the experience.

Implications For Counseling

          Clients enter therapy for many transition-related reasons. Some look for something to caulk together a leaky worldview. Other clients' worldviews have already been shattered so completely that the client knows there is no going back, but has no idea how to proceed. Still others are brought “kicking and screaming” to therapy because their behavior patterns are beyond the ability of friends or family to cope or because they have come to the attention of the law.

          Because worldview is the basic driver of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, the therapist dealing with someone in transition must proceed with care. First order change occurs as the client learns and practices new behavior patterns but needs the new behaviors externally reinforced. First order change does not necessarily involve a crisis of faith. Second-order change occurs as the client’s attitudes and values shift so that the new behaviour patterns provide their own reward, becoming valued for their own sakes: the definition of a crisis of faith.  This level of change is the ultimate goal of treatment of addictive or compulsive behaviors (Cloud, 2000).  Once this shift is completed, the client can maintain the new behavior pattern and can catch the relapse danger signs in time to seek follow-up help as needed. At that point, continuous monitoring of the client’s behavior by others can be gradually withdrawn, although follow-ups are advisable in case problems should arise.

          The ability to ascertain what the client is dealing with and what she has already tried saves counselor and client time and energy. Each element of the client’s problem must be considered: each dimension of the problem lengthens the probable term of therapy. A client with a substance abuse problem, a history of abuse, a PTSD or major depression diagnosis and a personality disorder requires carefully planned and sequenced interventions. Furthermore, the therapist must be able to alter goals and strategies as inner and outer situations change.

          A client who reports that she is in danger may be delusional -- but then again, she may be in actual danger from homophobic parents or a husband who is stalking her. Even the time she requires after an intense session to calm herself to drive safely needs to be considered.

          A therapist who cannot remember what it felt like to work through a crisis of faith may ask the client to deal with a transition much too quickly or to focus on underlying factors before the immediate issues of safety and coping skills are mastered. The therapist also must check in with the client frequently to make sure that no “weight-bearing” beliefs or behaviors have been undermined prematurely (Salter, 1995).

          If weight-bearing beliefs collapse, the therapist MUST assess risk factors and make sure that adequate support is available and that the client is both willing and able to take steps to access that support. If reliable support systems are not available and a non-suicide contract cannot be negotiated, the client may require hospitalization until she is again safe on her own recognizance. In this, the therapist also must consider the client’s history and behavior patterns. Where one client may go home and tear apart a phonebook when upset, another might go home and cut.

          Social institutions may be helpful in supporting the client through crisis, or they may hinder or even attempt to prevent the process. Many clients today lack community ties their parents and grandparents had. Religious groups may attempt to assert control via shaming, the "cold shoulder" or shunning or excommunication. In that case, the church is the very last place a person undergoing a difficult transition would look for help.

          As the political climate is influenced by religious fundamentalism, seeking secular support may also be increasingly risky, especially if the problem is in dealing with something that is controversial. The counselor must stay current on social, religious, and political climate.

          For clients who enjoy reading, a number of books have appeared: they are common in the self-help, women’s studies, New Age, and spirituality categories. Some recovery groups maintain small, informal lending libraries for their members. The therapist may collect books for a lending library or may compile a suggested book list for her clients.

Options other than Therapy

          In addition and as alternatives to therapy, other options are available in some cities.

          The 12-step tradition has provided a framework for change to hundreds of thousands of alcoholic, addicted, and abused adults. A newcomer to a group can usually meet and learn from oldtimers and hear stories of what can be expected as the newcomer progresses through the stages of recovery.

          Although many 12-Step groups are flexible welcoming and inclusive, however, other groups rigidly insist on the letter of the 12-step format, and shaming of those who do not acquiesce. (Kasl, 1992).

          Furthermore, the 12-steps were developed by and for middle-class, white male alcoholics, and as such, focus largely on ways to tear down out-of-control egos rather than to build up ones that have been pummeled by sexism, racism, classism and sexism.  Kasl also notes that more people in Step meetings were in faith stages two and three (loyalists and literalist) than in the higher ones. Since people two or more steps apart have trouble communicating with each other on the topic of faith, people who questioned the form of the 12-step tradition was in danger of being hushed or worse.

          As an alternative to 12-Step groups, Kasl developed a 16-step model which supports the questioning process and the development of the higher faith levels. Drawing on the work of Fowler (1981) and Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1979), Kasl's program is designed to facilitate the development of identity and faith of marginalized people. Members are encouraged to identify ways their selfhood was stolen and their growth undermined by the majority culture and to identify where they caused their own problems vs. what problems are societally induced.


          Abstract thinking skills break down as stress piles on (Caine & Caine, 1991). Since abstract thinking as needed to process information during a crisis, "downshifting" may prolong the length of a transition. Downshifting comes when eustress (challenge mindset) gives way to distress (threat mindset) (Selye, 1978). Therefore teaching a client experiencing a crisis of faith to reduce stress is indicated when possible. Progressive Relaxation and guided imagery may work well. (Spiegler, Michael D. & David C. Guevremont 1998) A cognitive approach once the worst edge of the client's anxiety has passed can begin identifying the automatic thoughts may bolster the client's ability to stay present and focused long enough to meditate on the paradoxes that precipitated the onset of the crisis (Beck, 1995).

          Bibliotherapy can enhance and ease the change process. Helpful mass market books are often found in self-help, feminist, and New Age sections of bookstores, but the therapist must take the client's orientation into consideration before making specific recommendations. Some clients, especially those from religious groups that warn of catastrophic results to reading books from "foreign" worldviews may be most comfortable with books that use the vocabulary of their own group. Others may feel so raw about the group they have left that they are less anxious reading books written from other perspectives. Still other clients may not be ready to read relevant nonfiction, but would enjoy fiction about people in similar situations (Caine & Caine, 1991; Lichtenberg, 1993). The therapist may want to keep a suggested reading list of books and videos categorized by worldview. Additionally, reading for pleasure, especially reading fiction for pleasure, automatically lowers stress levels at the same time it introduces the reader to new ideas.

          Rituals may provide courage and strength during a crisis and closure when it is resolved. Evan Imber-Black and Janine Roberts (1992) advocate use of ceremony -- whether traditional or original, religious or secular – to reestablish a sense of connection to past, future, and formalize and strengthen meaningful relationships with important others. Some sweat lodge ceremonies are open to non-Native Americans. Art, craft, literary, and music activities solitary or communal can be used to celebrate or commemorate significant events.

          Some people make pilgrimages to places that have special meaning. One California woman (Johnson, 1992) "went walkabout" - packed her guitar and her harp into her car and set out across country on a quite literal rite of passage.

          Another woman opened a part-time business planning ceremonies for people, locating and acquiring unique materials for them. (Laidler, 1997).


          No matter what theoretical orientation the therapist prefers, a huge number of options are available to assist a transitioning client through the crisis.

          The best part is that the more attention a therapist pays to her own crises and transitions, the more she will understand the challenges her clients face and the more respectfully she will be able to apply her skills therapeutically.

  1. American Psychiatric Association, (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV. - 4th Ed.
  2. Bass, Ellen and Laura Davis. (1994) Courage to Heal. HarperCollins, N.Y.
  3. Beck, Judith S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: Guilford Press.
  4. Bee, Helen N. (2000) The Journey of Adulthood - 4th Ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  5. Bowen, Murray (1960). A Family Concept of Schizophrenia. The Etiology of Schizophrenia, D.D. Jackson, Ed. New York: Basic Books.
  6. Caine, Renate Nummela & Geoffrey Caine (1991). Making Connections. USA: Banta Company.
  7. Cashdan, Sheldon. (1988) Object Relations Therapy. Canada:. Penguin Books.
  8. Cloud, Brad. (2000) Personal communication.
  9. Ellerbe, Helen (1995). The Dark Side of Christian History Orlando, FL.: Morningstar and Lark.
  10. Erikson, Erik (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. (2nd Ed.) New York, Norton.
  11. Fowler, James W. (1995) Stages of Faith. N.Y.: HarperCollins Publishers.
  12. Imber-Black, Evan and Janine Roberts, (1992) Rituals for Our Times, Celebrating, Healing, and Changing Our Lives and Our Relationship. N.Y.: HarperCollins.
  13. Johnson, S. (1992). Personal communication.
  14. Kasl, charlotte Davis. (1992) Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps. 1st Ed. N.Y.: HarperPerennial.
  15. Kohlberg, L. (1964). Development of Moral Character and Moral Ideology. In M. L. Hoffman & L. W, Hoffman (Eds.), Review of child Development Research (Vol.. 1, pp. 283-332). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  16. Lichtenberg, Jacqueline (1993). Rereadable Books.
  17. Nichols, Michael P. and Richard C. Schwartz. (1998) Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. Needham Heights, Ma. Allyn and Bacon.
  18. Piaget, J. The Origins of Intelligence In Children. New York: International Universities Press.
  19. Salter, Anna C. (1995). Transforming Trauma: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. CA.: Sage publications.
  20. Selye, H. (1978). The Stress of Life. Rev. Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  21. Smith, Wilfred Cantwell (1979). Faith and Belief. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press.
  22. Spiegler, Michael D. & David C. Guevremont (1998). Contemporary Behavior Therapy: the Basics and Beyond. Pacific Grove, Ca.: Brooks & Cole.
  23. Underhill, Evelyn (1961). Mysticism. New York: Dutton. (Original work published 1911.)
  24. Vaillant, G. E. (1977). Adaptation to Life: How the Best and Brightest Came of Age. Boston: Little, Brown.
  25. Wheeler (1995). 1995 Jan; Vol. 55 (7-B):2995 Dissertation-Abstracts-International: -Section-B:- The-Sciences-and-Engineering.
Suggested Readings
  1. Bass, Ellen and Laura Davis. (1994) Courage to Heal. HarperCollins N.Y.
  2. Caine, Renate Nummela & Geoffrey Caine (1994). Making Connections. Menlo Park, CA. Addison-Wesley/Innovative Learning.
  3. Dickerman, Alexandra Collins. (1992) Following Your Path: Using Myths, Symbols, and Images to Explore Your Inner Life. N.Y.: Putnam's Sons.
  4. Ellerbe, Helen (1995). The Dark Side of Christian History. Orlando, FL.: Morningstar and Lark.
  5. Erikson, Erik (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. (2nd Ed.) New York, Norton.
  6. Feldmeth, Joanne Ross and Midge Wallace Finley, (1990) We Weep for Ourselves and Our Children. CA.: HarperSanFrancisco.
  7. Fowler, James W. (1995) Stages of Faith. N.Y.: HarperCollins Publishers.
  8. Imber-Black, Evan and Janine Roberts, (1992) Rituals for Our Times: Celebrating, Healing, and Changing Our Lives and Our Relationship. N.Y.: HarperCollins.
  9. Kasl, charlotte Davis. (1992) Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps. 1st Ed. N.Y.: HarperPerennial.
  10. Lichtenberg, Jacqueline (1993). Rereadable books. Re-Readable Books
  11. Morrison, Dorothy, (1999) In Praise of the Crone. St. Paul, MN Llewellyn Publications.
  12. Murdock, Maureen. (1990) The Heroine's Journey: Woman's Quest for Wholeness. Boston, Ma. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  13. Peck, M. Scott. (1978) The Road Less Traveled. N.Y.: Simon and Schuster Inc.
  14. ---- {1983) People of the Lie. Riverside, New Jersey, Touchstone.
  15. ---- (1993) Further Along the Road Less Traveled. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc.
  16. Ritter, Kathleen and Craig, O'Neill, (1996). Righteous Religion: Unmasking the Illusions of Fundamentalism and Authoritarian Catholicism. Binghamtom, N.Y.: Haworth Pastoral.
  17. Salter, Anna C. (1995). Transforming Trauma: a Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. CA.: Sage publications.
  18. Sloat, Donald E., (1990) Growing Up Holy and Wholly: Understanding and Hope for Adult Children of Evangelicals. Brentwood, TN. Wolgemuth and Hyatt.
  19. Spong, John Shelby. (1991) Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism: a Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. N.Y.: HarperCollins.
  20. Viorst, Judith. (1986) Necessary Losses: the Loves, Illusions, Dependencies and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up In Order to Grow. N.Y. A Fawcett Gold Medal Book.

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