Humanity is constantly searching for meaning and purpose within their own lives. A meaningful life typically has a clear and positive self-concept, goals that give purpose to life, commitment to relationships, provide the world with some ‘greater good’, and give a sense of hope for the future. Many things can impact an individual’s viewpoint of what gives meaning and purpose to their lives, whether through religion, culture or their own personal experiences. So, what gives your life meaning? What makes life worth living?
One of the ways individuals have tried to find meaning within their lives is through the interconnection between age, life experience and religious affiliations. Faith development theories provide this link for many people by comparing their age to where they are religiously. James Fowler has created stages of faith development based on conducting research by asking people questions relating to what gives their life meaning. Within the model, the seven stages range typically from infancy to mid-life and beyond, although the ages are only a suggestion and some people do not correlate to where their age states.
Stages one through to three, infancy and undifferentiated faith, intuitive-projective faith, and mythic-literal faith, respectively, cover infancy and childhood stages where individuals learn and develop their ideologies based on their differing influences and role models.
Specifically, infants within the first stage learn basics to life such as trust versus mistrust. Fowler writes, “the quality of mutuality and the strength of trust, autonomy, hope and courage (or their opposites) developed in this phase underlie (or threaten to undermine) all that comes later in faith development”.
Children aged three through to seven’s learning in Fowler’s Faith Development Theory is guided by the child’s imagination. This stage is learned through stories, images, emotions and actions imitated by the children from a significant parent. Fowler suggests, “parents and teachers should create an atmosphere in which the child can freely express, verbally and non-verbally, the images she or he is forming”.
Mythic-literal faith individuals begin to distinguish between real and make-believe, gathering ideologies from stories, beliefs and observations of society. They also learn about justice, with rewards and punishments given to those who adhere or not to moral values.
Stage four, synthetic conventional faith, is where most adults remain. At this stage, most people hold relationships and being accepted by others at extreme importance. Individuals in this phase are still developing their own identities and there is little independence from family and social groups.
The actions of leaving home, going to university, getting married, entering the workforce, or having a connection with people who have a different viewpoint on the world, can assist individuals to transition to individuative-reflective faith, stage five. With exposure to the world and the differing ideologies, people within stage develop individuality and independence to create their own values and beliefs. Some who reach this stage start to discard religious symbols, stories, practices, or the religion in its entirety, as naive.
Fowler states that stage six, conjunctive faith, is a “willingness to let reality speak its word, regardless of the impact of that word on the security or self-esteem of the knower. I speak here of an intimacy in knowing that celebrates, reverences and attends to the ‘wisdom’ evolved in things as they are, before seeking to modify, control or order them to fit prior categories”. The stage five religious ideologies that individual rejected are now accepted as ways to help encounter God and truth.
The final stage, universalising faith is reached by few people. Individuals such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa are examples of people who have reached this stage. This is as they all have individual perspectives on society yet all see the world as one universal family, selflessly serving others.
Similar to most adults, I can identify between stage four, synthetic-conventional faith and stage five, individuative-reflective faith. This is as I hold personal relationships as high importance yet with the end of my schooling, I am starting to become more independent, taking responsibility for my own lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes. Unlike some stage 5 individuals, I do not question or reject my religion or its virtues.
Social researcher, Hugh Mackay, describes humanity as having influences that drive individuals to create their own meaning to life. His research identifies ten desires that are believed to be common across society and if understood, can help us to understand what the meaning of life might be. Mackay suggests that the ‘Ten Desires’ that drive us include:
- The desire to be taken seriously;
- The desire for ‘my place’;
- The desire for something to believe in;
- The desire to connect;
- The desire to be useful;
- The desire to belong;
- The desire for more;
- The desire for control;
- The desire for something to happen;
- The desire for love.
Each person can have a connection with one or more of these desires. To me, the desire to connect and the desire to belong are most important. The desire to connect comes back to relationships, to have a connection with my family, friends, God and with myself. Personally, having these connections make life worth living, as without them life would be dull and lonely. The desire to belong reflects on the desire to connect. Relationships are not worth having if you feel as if you do not belong there. I feel as if you need positive relationships in your life with everyone, with God and with yourself, to have a meaningful life and to live out your purpose in the world.
The meaning and purpose of life can differ from person to person. James Fowler’s Faith Development Theory and the Ten Desires created by Hugh Mackay can assist people in determining what is important in their lives, hence prompting them to find what gives them meaning and purpose within the world.