Growing in faith requires willingness to change thinking

It's a hot summer day in Phoenix. I'm 8 years old, standing on the deck of the swimming pool in our backyard, trying to have faith.

In my Sunday school class, see, I had heard the story of Jesus and some of the disciples out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. A storm comes up. Jesus steps out of the boat and walks on the water. Disciple Peter thinks that looks fun, but he's afraid. Jesus tells him that, if he has the faith, he can do this, too. So Peter steps out of the boat and, after floundering a bit with his fear, finds the faith to join Jesus in the miracle.

So, little boy Steven closes his eyes and flexes his "faith muscle." I say, out loud and to nobody, "I have faith," and I step out onto the water. Plop! Hmm …

As memory serves, I spent the next 20 minutes or so doing this again and again, to no avail. I never did walk on water. Not then. Not since. As a man of faith today, I see only two possible conclusions: either I lack faith, or ... I'm fundamentally misunderstanding and misusing this Gospel story.

But 8-year-old Steven isn't an idiot. Nor is he spiritually defective, lazy or evidencing "sin." What 8-year-old Steven is, is perfectly, completely and appropriately 8 years old! His embrace of spirituality is the embrace of a child. Not the embrace of a man.

It happened that, right smack dab in the middle of my graduate school studies, James Fowler published "Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest For Meaning" (1981). Fowler delineated six stages of faith development and would say that 8-year-old Steven was right on schedule in Stage Two: Mythic/Literal.

Joann Wolski Conn is associate professor of religious studies at Neumann College in Aston, Pa. She has done a masterful job of describing each of Fowler's six stages of faith, which you can read at this link:

I credit Fowler for informing my chief measure for what I consider a "healthy religion." To wit: A healthy religion can and does welcome and embrace a pilgrim in any of the six stages of faith, and proceeds then to encourage and nurture movement from each stage to the next.

Yet, some religious systems are defined by exclusively lauding one stage and subtly or not so subtly discouraging, criticizing or even punishing attempts to develop -- grow! -- from one stage to the next. In some religious systems, moving from one stage of faith to another is quid pro quo evidence that the pilgrim in question is rebelling against God, or is guilty of heresy, or has "lost his/her faith."

I'm saying some people remain fiercely attached to the "Mythic/Literal" stage into adulthood, and are threatened by or even overtly hostile to those who have outgrown this stage. Fundamentalist religions -- of any sort -- are marked by this dynamic.

Most recently, of course, my mind floats back to May 21, when doomsday preacher Harold Camping predicted "The Rapture," a literal interpretation of New Testament scripture advancing the idea of the "true Christian faithful" being carted off to heaven to escape the suffering of the coming apocalypse. Never mind that, in that same Bible, Jesus expressly warns against making such predictions or offering shrift to those who do.

For the record, both Harold and I got left behind.

I admire people who are willing to listen to their soul's longing to grow, in whatever dimension of their lives is calling them to take the next step forward. Sometimes taking these steps cost you a community, friends, family members, sometimes even your marriage. It's painful and tragic to find yourself forced to choose between your growth and your loved ones, between giving voice to your urgent questions and lock-step agreement as the admission price to membership. Surely "I-can't-welcome-you-unless-you-agree-with-me" isn't a religious value worth having. Yet, in practice, this is the value advanced by some religious systems.

Yes, I remain a man of faith. And yes, I believe in miracles. I've seen them. But I no longer have any ambition to literally walk on water. And, thank my Maker, I'm much less prone in my 50s to think I walk on water. When I do fall prey to thinking thusly, I have the ultimate safety net: I hear about it pretty quickly from people who love me.

And I go "plop" and start paddling and kicking like everybody else.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@