Stages of Faith – Part Three – Falling Upward

Part One, Part Two

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Falling Upward by Richard Rohr is a great complement to Kathy Escobar’s Faith Shift.

Rohr’s book is a meandering description of one’s (potential) journey of faith and is rich with hidden gems. Instead of the structured stages of faith of Fowler or Escobar, Rohr generalizes the spiritual journey as first-half and second-half of life periods. The difficult transition between the two is given little attention, but is still seen as an essential transition period.

The final chapter contains a couple of summarizing paragraphs.

Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture. (pg 153)

Just remember this: no one can keep you from the second half of your own life except yourself. Nothing can inhibit your second journey except your own lack of courage, patience, and imagination. Your second journey is all yours to walk or to avoid. My conviction is that some falling apart of the first journey is necessary for this to happen, so do not waste a moment of time lamenting poor parenting, lost job, failed relationship, physical handicap, gender identity, economic poverty, or even the tragedy of any kind of abuse. Pain is part of the deal. If you don’t walk into the second half of your own life, it is you who do not want it. God will always give you exactly what you truly want and desire. So make sure you desire, desire deeply, desire yourself, desire God, desire everything good, true, and beautiful. (pg 160)

Rohr’s introduction is a rich summary of the thesis. If you can do no more than read that, I would recommend it.

One of the premises of Rhor is that Jesus was trying to teach second-half-of-life principles within the constraints of first-half constructs. Rhor cites little gems from the New Testament that point to this. But, just as in our time as in Christ’s, these philosophies are often perceived as abnormal or even heretical because:

Most of us are never told that we can set out from the known and familiar to take on a further journey. Our institutions and our expectations, including our churches, are almost entirely configured to encourage, support, reward, and validate the tasks of the first half of life. Shocking and disappointing but I think it is true. (pg xvii)

In spite of this, Rhor sees organized religion and its structure as necessary. But:

These are just tugboats to get you away from the shore and out into the right sea; they are the oars to get you working and engaged with the Mystery. But never confuse these instruments with your profound “ability to share in the divine nature” itself (2 Peter 1:4). (pg 98)

His citation of the Dalai Lama makes the point succinctly.

“Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” (pg xxviii)

Overall, I like Rhor’s approach to personal progression. While he sees injury or pain as a gateway into the second half of life perspective, he does not dwell on it since it is only the catalyst to greater fulfillment. In contrast, Kathy Escobar’s Faith Shift, treats the transition as an injury response and paints institutions as inherently abusive. Rohr calls us to recognize their role in our development, but asks us also to see their limitations.

What Now?

In the end, I am left with the same question that I had when finishing Escobar’s book.

Can institutional churches meet the needs of first-half and second-half of life members?

More specifically, can churches provide the vision and support to guide members through the transition while still maintaining institutional integrity (both from moral and structural perspectives)?

The reason the second question is critical, is that a focus of on rites and rules, on proposition over disposition, is supportive to the first journey, alienating during a transition (stage 4 or “shifting), and shallow to the second journey (stage 5). Institutional credibility may be at risk when church teachings and policies are at odds with later faith needs.

I fully agree that there are clergy that can address this challenge, but I fear that this is too uncommon and is done outside of institutional vision. As such, many churchgoers may be reluctant to entertain stage four concerns with their leaders for fear of being called out. It is often easier to walk away. Hopefully, we, as a Christian community, can find a navigable path. I think (hope) that addressing this is part of the slow burn of our current Christian reformation.

I don’t know how other churches are handling the issue, but the Mormon church introduced a program of youth instruction a few years ago called Come Follow Me. A similar program was applied to the adults this year. The method of instruction allows for—even requires—broader discourse which could be more accommodating to local members. Time will tell whether members rise to the challenge and expand their knowledge to take full advantage of it.

Act or Acted Upon

Changes to formal church practice typically lag a culture shift. Waiting for action may not be the best path or even the Christian path; as Christians we are called to act, 2 Nephi 2:14,26.

Dan Francom’s LeadingLDS podcast is one example. I was pleased to see that he addressed faith stages in a recent podcast: Being an LDS Leader Comfortable With Doubt: 8 Tips to Help Those You Lead Who Doubt.

From a local perspective, I received permission to hold an informal church discussion group I named Doctrine and Donuts. We meet in the kitchen of our church building as a way to break from the formality associated with class rooms. Hopefully, it becomes a venue where people can dig into difficult issues in a casual, supportive environment. I don’t know that I am the right person to act as mentor or counselor, but I could no longer sit on my hands.

What can you do to support those struggling with their faith transition?

Eugene

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