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Photo by Cecile Graat

When I was younger, I had horrible nightmares, some of which I still remember vividly, even 30 years or more down the road. Recently I spent some time with my nieces and saw that the oldest, Elisa, struggles with the same thing. In the daytime, a stuffed bat with fangs looked a little creepy. At night, it was horrifying and perhaps trying to crawl into her bed. Fireworks outside were even more dreadful and panic-inducing. Almost a week after the trip, she still has nightmares about these things.

I encountered the work of James Fowler for the first time in a Developmental Psychology class. He contends that the development of faith involves a number of stages, the first of which is Intuitive-Projective Faith. This is the stage young children are in, and it involves a certain fluidity of thought, a capacity to be flooded by fantasies and images the child does not yet have the logical capacity to inhibit. In essence, the child can be subject to mental imagery s/he cannot control, and that imagery can be terrifying.

Elisa is defenseless against the stuffed bat.

While I’m not convinced that this model is cross-culturally appropriate or applicable to all, I appreciate that Fowler’s theory connects the capacity for imagination with the development of faith. I was brought up with Bible stories, rich in mythology and symbolism, and often, they bled into my nightmares. (One especially vivid one involved Sesame Street characters and the Tower of Babel story.) While I hate that Elisa struggles with her dreams the way I did, I like the idea that perhaps Elisa’s capacity for vivid nightmares points to potential for a rich, beautiful and equally vivid imaginative life down the road. I’d like to think Fowler is right, that imagination and faith are two rooms in the same wonderful, mythological house, and Elisa has a key.