Over my thirteen years in Christian higher education as faculty, I have written about (and this is a conservative estimate) a dozen essays reflecting on my Christian faith and how it shapes my personal and professional life. In addition, I have served on numerous committees reading such essays crafted by job candidates and colleagues seeking promotion and tenure. If you are currently teaching at a faith-based institution, you can probably relate to this sometimes awkward practice of having your faith evaluated by others. At the same time, this type of writing can deepen the appreciation for the diverse ways in which God works in the lives of His people.
I also contend that, at times, these written essays can become one-dimensional and succumb to the pressures of portraying a certain type of progression. To expand upon this claim, I will briefly pivot to my discipline of psychology and then return to the issue of these written reflections on faith (“faith essays”).
In psychology, cultural identity developmental models that describe identity development as occurring in linear phases or stages are quite popular. The Racial and Cultural Identity Development Model (R/CID)1 is one such popular theory Very briefly, the model includes the following stages: Conformity, characterized by a lack of identity salience; Dissonance, or an encounter of some kind that goes against their low identity salience; Resistance and Immersion, characterized by a deep dive into the exploration of one’s own identity and even a development of anti-majority feelings; Introspection, where the active exploration of identity continues but against the backdrop of less adverse feelings toward dominant groups; and Integrative Awareness, which is the final stage that includes an internalization of a balanced perspective on one’s own and others’ identities.
If the stage models in multicultural and cross-cultural psychology were to be described in even more simplified “buckets,” it would be that they generally describe identities as beginning with unawareness, experiencing dissonance, and finally gaining more awareness.
It is understandable why stage models dominate the identity development literature in psychology. There is intuitiveness in capturing development as going from a less developed stage to a more developed stage. Moreover, there is succinctness in capturing the stages using a few descriptive names or phrases.
The appeal of the stage models of identity development simultaneously reflects their shortcomings. Two major critiques of stage models are (a) they imply a neat linear progression through stages, without a return to an earlier stage, that might not be true to the complex nature of realty,2 and (b) there is a blanket assumption that the final stage is the best outcome.3
When I teach about cultural identity development, I assign a written essay asking students to reflect on their own identity development. Even though I do not explicitly instruct them to do so, the vast majority of students articulate a stage model that has them ending up in the “most ideal stage” of their development—this is usually the last stage. Perhaps because of the internalized pressure to portray themselves as having “arrived” at an ideal state, I get students clamoring to highlight how much evidence of the final stage is in their essay. Rarely do I get students expanding upon an earlier stage of their identity development; rarely do I get students articulating a return to an earlier stage.
Now, I’d like to return to the topic I began this blog post with – faith essays. When I look back at the contents of my own faith reflections, I see the same biases to which my students are prone: a bias toward linear progression and a propensity to highlight the final phase or stage. Indeed, much of the written content focuses on having gained more awareness or insight. I note phrases and claims that imply that I have somehow landed in a better spiritual place. If I were to superimpose the (using social science language here) latent factors or domains of “awareness, dissonance, and increased awareness” onto my written reflections, I can readily code much of the content into these buckets. As a quick example, here are the factors that shows up in my own writing about faith: the lack of awareness of corporate lament (unawareness); a posture of intentional listening to the pains of my students (shifting or dissonance moment); and a more intentional integration of advanced empathy into my vocation (more awareness).
To clarify, there is, of course, value in articulating the transformations that have taken place in my spiritual life. All of us have meaningful stories to tell of how God has orchestrated different things in our lives to form our identities; we are being sanctified into a more likeness of His image, and a written narrative of this process using a succinct “model” is a valid and important practice.
But I also wonder about the written content concerning my Christian faith that, as standalone documents, might not “pass” formal evaluations because they do not describe neat progressions through the hardships of life; reflections on faith that do not rely on a neatly packaged, linear progression through so-called phases or stages, but instead offer a snapshot—a cross-sectional perspective, if I borrow the language of social sciences again—that also provide an authentic understanding of spirituality.
What would my essays look like if the pressure of “arriving” at a more ideal stage/phase was taken away? What if I allowed myself to describe on paper a “circling back” to an earlier stage of my spiritual development, and perhaps even feeling stuck in such a stage, in a way that feels truer to how God is currently working in my life? I would think that this approach would be liberating for me, just like my students who I encourage to grapple with where they truly might be in their identity development, without the internalized pressures of thinking they should have “graduated” to a more advanced stage.
A faith essay that is free from the pressures of linear progression and achieving a more “advanced” stage will speak to the truth that there are days—indeed, seasons—that seem to be full of spiritual pains and struggles. Moreover, sometimes, these struggles and pains do not result in the eventual emergence of something better—at least, not during our time on this earth. There are times when we groan and cry out to God, “when will you show up?” “How long, oh Lord?” “Why are you distant?” Faith narratives that do not succumb to the pressures of progression to a more ideal stage can be just as powerful in capturing God’s work in our lives, even if such narratives might not be typical in many parts of our faith communities.
I am not naïve enough to claim that all Christian scholars in all of their faith journey statements should be undiscerningly transparent; that would be a poor advice, for example, for those seeking tenure or promotion. But I do think that there are unintentional consequences to the implicit expectation of a linear progression of faith and an “arrival” at a stage in faith essays, much like the identity development models in my field of psychology. To protect against these tendencies, both micro and macro level changes are necessary. At the micro level, I hope that scholars who read this piece will be encouraged to take appropriate risks by being courageous in their written reflections about their faith, free from the pressures discussed in this blog post. And at the macro level, I pray that institutional leaders will reflect on ways to reform our campus cultures to be more open to non-linear “models” of faith development.
- Derald Wing Sue and David Sue, Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice, 5th edition (New York: Wiley, 2008).
- Thomas A. Parham, “Cycles of Psychological Nigrescence,” The Counseling Psychologist 17, no. 2 (1989): 187–226.
- Lori Barker-Hackett, “African Americans in the New Millennium: A Continued Search for Our True Identity,” in Culturally Diverse Mental Health: The Challenges of Research and Resistance, eds. Jeffery Scott Mio, Gayle Y. Iwamasa, 121–140 (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2013). For more elaborations on the shortcomings of the stage models, see Jefferey Scott Mio, Lori A. Barker, Melanie M. Domenech Rodriguez, and John Gonzalez, Multicultural Psychology: Understanding Our Diverse Communities, 5th edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).