New Ways of Thinking — Part One

I’m working on a book chapter summarizing literature on social psychology and learning as it relates to students attending Christian universities. Today I worked my way through Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and James Fowler’s stages of faith.  It helped me think about three things: 1) the transitions described by Piaget and Fowler may be particularly difficult for evangelical young people to navigate, 2) Christian colleges are especially significant as that navigation is taking place, and 3) the transitions of thought process or the lack thereof is at the center of many of our issues in the evangelical church.

Stage theories have their limits, which I’ll speak to shortly. But there’s something significant about exploring shifts in cognitive processes. They suggest that students aren’t simply involved in learning new stuff — they’re developing entirely new ways of thinking.  Those new ways have their own risks and challenges.

Piaget identifies four stages:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage: infants respond to environmental stimuli
  2. Preoperational Stage: pre-school children acquire language and learn to take the perspective of others.
  3. Concrete Operational Stage: roughly equivalent to school years. Children adopt rigid categories and classifications. Imagining situations other than the current is very difficult.
  4. Formal Operational Stage: begins in the teen years. Child is able to use formal processes to consider hypotheticals, alternatives, and contrasts between situations.

Fowler, adopting ideas of Piaget and Kolberg, identifies six stages of faith development:

  1. Intuitive Projective Faith: young children have an imagined sense of things, clinging to stories but operating in a free-form sense
  2. Mythic-Literal Faith: school children see faith as connected to right and wrong and have a tendency to take metaphors literally
  3. Synthetic-Conventional Faith: teens are balancing a high commitment to conform to religious authority with simultaneously working through issues of personal identity
  4. Individuative-Reflective Faith: young adults begin to take responsibilities for their own personal views but struggle with difference from their past patterns
  5. Conjunctive Faith: associated with mid-life periods, faith is able to handle paradox, conflict, and abiguity. Certainty is not as highly valued.
  6. Universalizing Faith: for a limited number of individuals, faith becomes generalized rather than particular with an openness to justice for all people.

When I consider the students I deal with on a daily basis, they’re generally in transition between Piaget’s concrete operational and formal operational stages. In terms of Fowler, they’re moving from Synthetic-Conventional to Individuative-Reflective. A central component of the educational experience is to provide the context in which these new ways of thinking are explored.

There are many problems with stage theories but I’ll mention three. First, people move through the stages at their own pace. Not everybody who enters college is ready for formal operational thinking. (I’ve known some professors who are more comfortable with synthetic-conventional faith!) Second, the movement between stages is really more of a sense of back and forth. Some days are conjunctive and others are individuative-reflective. Some topics are concrete operational while others are formal operational. Third, these transitions are not easy. When students start to individuate their faith, they often feel like what they “have known” (that is, adopted from their parents) is crumbling. They need solid support as they’re exploring transitions.

I’ve written before about the young evangelicals I’ve been reading. As I said in that post, these are characteristically people of deep faith who are trying to think in new ways (individuative-Reflective). In my first post on this blog, I wrote of Rachel Held Evans’ story from Evolving in Monkey Town. Hers is a classic story of moving from concrete operational to formal operational thinking. The more she works out her questions in public forums, the faster she’s moving toward Fowler’s Conjunctive Faith.

There are some more sociological implications of these developmental stages. There are subcultures that inhabit a particular stage and place normative pressures on their members to think accordingly — not just to agree with conclusions but to process information in a particular way. They take pride in holding to a concrete, conventional faith. (I worry that some really desire the mythic-literal faith of elementary aged children.) If folks in the membership start thinking otherwise, they’ll feel great pressure to get back in line or leave. Pete Enns’ post yesterday gives voice to what it’s like to be in that pressure-filled situation.

I have other friends who valiantly attempt to engage concrete/conventional thinkers in dialogue on Facebook (looking at you, James McGrath and Karl Giberson). I’m always impressed by their efforts to confront those who claim evolution is of Satan or that Obama is destroying the world. They want their dialogue partners to engage in a level of thought Piaget would admire but it never seems to happen.

These notions of how people think are related to the general patterns we’re seeing in the evangelical world. The more today’s youth embrace the open postmodernism of cultural diversity, the harder it is for them to manage synthetic-conventional faith. The more they cling to mythic-literal faith, the hard it is to navigate the society. Kinnaman’s work on disaffected youth is consistent with such a pattern. Even if they aren’t lost to Christianity (as one Christianity Today headline worried) they are thinking about that faith differently.

Another very interesting pattern is occurring later in the age cycle. The Barna group found that church involvement for those over 40 has dropped significantly over the last decade. Michelle Van Loon has been conducting some informal online surveys (reported here) to unpack that result and we’ve been exploring ideas about what factors contribute to the change. It may be a family-focus that doesn’t speak to empty nesters. It may be burnout or care for aging parents. It may have something to do with our focus on seeker-sensitive services. I wondered today if it might not be that some of the 40+ crowd are moving into Fowler’s Conjunctive Faith while their congregations are barely making out of Synthetic-Conventional.

In short, how we organize our thinking appears to matter a lot. It speaks to how information is (or isn’t) processed and the kinds of conclusions that are open for consideration.

My next post will look at some of the same issues from the perspective of mental schemas, heuristics, and other patterns of meaning-making.

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7 thoughts on “New Ways of Thinking — Part One

  1. With observations like this, I am certain your book is going to be great reading: “There are subcultures that inhabit a particular stage and place normative pressures on their members to think accordingly — not just to agree with conclusions but to process information in a particular way. They take pride in holding to a concrete, conventional faith. (I worry that some really desire the mythic-literal faith of elementary aged children.) If folks in the membership start thinking otherwise, they’ll feel great pressure to get back in line or leave.”

    I’ve been a member of a couple of those churches. Now I’m a former member.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Thanks for the shout-out.

    1. Thanks, Michelle. I keep tossing too many irons in the fire. After reading your post today I spent a little time trying to come up with a research design to evaluate the 40+ in a more systematic way! I’ll put it in the queue behind other two projects I have going!

  2. Very fascinating. I am looking forward to future installments. What might be an interesting side discussion is to look at people who left their faith and perhaps trying to assess what stage of faith they were at when they left. Were there pressures which prevented them from moving through the various stages? If they were in a particularly “low” level of faith moving into adulthood, does this impact their ability to adapt their faith when new information is discovered?

    As a former believer, I’ve often pondered how in a few short years, I went from a fervent believer to a non-believer and these ideas are quite interesting.

    1. Thanks, Brian. I’ve been fascinated by David Kinnaman’s work on young people disaffected from church. Part of that argument (plus that of David Putnam and David Campbell) is that some in this generation are put off by the over-certainty of evangelical church leaders. The focus on doubt seems to me to be related to living in a complex society. The bigger project is a book written to incoming freshmen at Christian universities that begins where they are and works from there.

      I look forward to further reactions you might have.

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