Stages of Faith – Intro to James W. Fowler

 

In the previous post I introduced the work of M. Scott Peck, represented as a simplification of the work of James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology.  I’m certain this is an unfair characterization of Peck’s work, as he has developed a large body of work.  However, I feel it does serve as a useful introduction to Fowler’s work, which is why I presented it as such.

I personally found Fowler’s book “Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning” extremely informative and a very thorough presentation of his theory of human faith development.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this subject.  His work makes extensive use of the collective works of Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg, as he studies human psychological development as we mature from childhood to adulthood to elderhood.

In Fowler’s study, we find that faith development parallels our psychological development.  We also find that our orientation to personal spirituality is broadly delineated by our social and cultural mores, and finely focused by those who raise us.  Only as we mature do we begin to define ourselves, and only at later stages does one typically do so mindfully.

Upon reflection, none of this is greatly surprising.  But it is edifying to have these effects upon our own development so well organized and explained, for not only does this allow us to better understand ourselves, and our own belief structures, it affords us the opportunity to better relate to others.

Fowler proposes six stages of faith development which may be investigated, beginning with early childhood, and extending throughout one’s maturity to adulthood.   If one wishes to include infancy as stage zero, there are then a total of seven stages of faith,  but this pre-stage of infancy is not one which may be readily investigated by interviewing those residing within it.

How do we learn to relate to whatever we consider to be our Universal Concern?  What becomes the most important focal point, the directing beacon, of our life?  To what is our life, taken as a whole, orientated?

Answers to these kinds of questions will demonstrate how we relate to ourselves, to those close to us, to others in a widening sense of community, and to that which we perceive as the Ultimate Power in the universe.  This is the projection of self-interest moving outward in increasingly larger spheres of influence and concern:  from Me, to You, to Us, and perhaps, to All.

Stage 0 – Undifferentiated Faith (birth to 2 years age)

Trust in those who are caring for us develops at this earliest stage.  We either learn the world is a safe and supportive place or a dangerous and threatening one.  Our experiences at this stage of our early lives form the foundation of all future developmental stages we enter.  It is the foundation upon which we build our perception the world.  By extension, we simultaneously learn to trust/distrust others and the Divine based upon our early (primal/formative) experiences of safety or danger.

The acquisition of speech, which requires the manipulation of symbols, signals the beginning of the transition into stage one development.

Peck’s Stage I comprises both Fowler’s Stages 1 and 2.  

Peck’s system characterizes this as a primarily chaotic, anti-social stage of development.  And one can see these traits in Fowler’s stage 1 and 2, as the person moves from a severely egocentric mental state, to learning the ability to see the world from the perspective of another.  Yet, there is more complexity and refinement offered in Fowler’s system.  One might think of Fowler’s stage 1 as the entry point into Peck’s stage I, and Fowler’s stage 2, as the transitioning phase out of Peck’s stage I.

Both systems acknowledge that some adults never progress beyond this stage.  And even for those who do, there may be pockets of beliefs which hold onto the character of these stages well into later stages.  Sometimes, this is a matter of convenience, as a type of mythic short-hand.  Sometimes, it is a cluster of beliefs which resist a greater degree of integration with the rest of the person’s developing personality.

Fowler’s Stage 1 – Intuitive-Projective Faith (2 to 7 years age)

In stage 1, we evolve beyond an undifferentiated sense of self (lack of sense of ego, as an infant) to a strong sense of self, and our own ego.  In a word, we have become egocentric.  This is also a period during which we are open to impressions arising from our unconscious, develop our imaginative function, and typically have difficulty in separating reality from fantasy.

Due to the inability to readily differentiate reality from fantasy, this is a particularly sensitive period for our faith development.  If we are subjected to strong teaching/preaching about the negative aspects of religion (original sin; our sinful nature; Satan devouring our souls; etc) we may form very rigid belief systems, and develop an “authoritarian personality.”

Because this personality is founded upon fear, it is also a fundamentally weak system, and the organizing personality may shatter if over-stressed, due to its inherent inflexibility.  This sensed weakness may provoke anger and violence in the adult.  That which is threatening, is attacked.

We transition into stage 2 development once our thinking is capable of objective, operational thought processes.

Fowler’s Stage 2 – Mythic-Literal Faith (7 to 12 years age)

This is a really interesting stage of faith!  We tend to believe the universe is just, and that one’s behavors are rewarded according to the merit of one’s actions.  The sense of Deity nearly always takes on anthropomorphic representations.

We begin sorting our mythic representations and fantasies as we develop a sense of what is real and what is make-believe.  Myth, and story, are primary vehicles for understanding our experiences, and those of others.  We begin to become less egocentric and learn to appreciate the point of view of others.  However, this still tends to be arranged in more-or-less inflexible images and symbols.  While life begins to take on multiple perspectives, they remain very one-dimensional and flat representations of our experiences.  Persons in stage 2 tend to view values literally.

God is a human-like being in the sky or heaven above; heaven and hell are real places; “If I am good, God will send me to heaven;” “If I pray, God will grant my wish.”

As one begins to experience difficulty in holding onto such a simple view of the world and universe, they begin the process examining why they hold the beliefs they do.  As the simple binary mythic system of Good:Bad, Black:White, fails to the complications presented in everyday life, which is filled with shades of grey, the person is required to re-interpret the stories they once took to be literal, and the search for the true meaning behind the mythos is begun.  This signals the transition into stage 3.

Peck’s Stage II (Formal-Institutional) corresponds to Fowler’s Stage 3.  

Peck’s system identifies persons in this stage as relying upon some form of institution.  This may be of a religious or secular nature.  The key trait of this stage is the person feels they require their chosen institution to provide security and stability in their life.  Such persons may become so attached to this institution that they become very upset or even violent if its validity is questioned.

Both Peck and Fowler observe that many adults cease psychological-sociological development at this state of maturity.  However, I am not aware of any studies which have been conducted in an attempt to estimate this percentage of the population.  That said, my experience suggests this segment of the population comprises a significant percentage.

Fowler’s Stage 3 – Synthetic-Conventional Faith (adolescence; 12 years into adulthood)

The on-set of this stage of development typically takes place around the age of puberty.  On one hand, this is where we refine our sense of personal identity.  On the other hand, we are also subject -or subject ourselves- to the authority of others, be that the state or church.  A person in this stage is not yet ready to examine inconsistencies in the religious, political, or philosophical beliefs in which they are so heavily invested, so they tend to ignore conflicting or inconsistent beliefs.

Leadership and authority are found outside oneself.  In the church.  In the government.  In social or civic organizations.  Fowler describes one’s beliefs as “tacitly held” because one is unwilling to consciously examine them:  their beliefs ‘just are.’

This is the “synthetic” aspect of this stage.  One’s beliefs are not one’s own as the result of any conscious reflection.  They ‘just are.’  One does not really understand why one’s beliefs are held, so any attempt to move them out of the mythic realm is resisted.

The “conventional” aspect of this stage refers to the pressure to feel part of a known group, within which they feel secure.  Interestingly, Fowler states that he believes most people participating in traditional churches are in this developmental stage.  Furthermore, he observes that generally speaking, churches (and other forms of religions organization) work best when the majority of their membership are of stage 3.

This makes perfect sense once one thinks about it.  A church or other organization will reflect the values held by the majority of their population.  It is possible for persons to form collectives in later stages of faith, but until a desire to return to community is felt, it is more difficult.

Persons in stage 3 wish to form into groups, and they really do not wish to have their beliefs challenged.  Largely because these beliefs are “synthetic” as opposed to organic (grown as from within the person).  So convening in congregations which teach/preach a predictable and stable belief in faith is exactly what they feel they need.  (And perhaps they are quite right in so thinking.)

While this is one of the stages of faith which works really well to support a church, or similar organization, it is not one in which one may do a lot of seeking for new answers, and it is seldom an environment which supports continued growth, beyond a certain, acceptable point.  This is primarily because growth beyond stage 3 typically requires questioning the roots of one’s beliefs.

Yet as a person becomes increasingly aware of the contradictions in their authoritative sources, and desires to resolve these contradictions rationally, they must be willing, and permitted, to stand on their own.  This search for knowledge will carry them into the next stage.

Peck’s Stage III (Skeptic-Individual) corresponds to Fowler’s Stage 4.  

I suspect perhaps due to the undue pressure to *not* question the foundation of one’s faith (be that pressure internally felt or externally applied) when one breaks out of the previous stage, one frequently loses all sense of religious faith, and turns to forms of non-religious expression.  Some people will remain in this stage for the rest of their lives.

I would add this is the stage of Agnosticism.  In and of itself, this is not a bad thing.  In proper measure it provides us a mechanism of discernment and level-headedness, which is important to practice.  Difficulty enters should we decide that lack of evidence is proof of nonexistence  😉  God and the Divine are not that simple, however.  And we cannot use a slide rule to measure the depth of our love.

Fowler’s Stage 4 – Individuative-Reflective Faith (typically early to mid-adulthood)

Self-responsibility and self-reliance become increasingly important to us during this stage.  And this is a very good development.  We no longer accept that which is spoon fed to us, but instead feel a need to make the knowledge our own, which requires us to understand it deeply.  This is why we can no longer simply accept what we are told.

Our heart opens to new understandings and refines previous teachings, and learns to relate them in more complex networks.  At the same time, we are also well aware of inconsistencies in our beliefs.  These we feel a need to resolve.  We are no longer content to ignore them.  This is a richer, more complex, and at times more confusing form of faith.  The older we are when entering this stage, the greater the difficulty we face in entering it.

Fowler expresses some of the most difficult inner work as making what was once tacit, explicit.  Fowler also observes that at this stage of faith our sense of ego changes.  We develop what he calls “executive ego.”  This too is a good development, because through the process of bringing about this authoritative sense of self, and reliance on oneself, we learn to govern ourself from within.  We become internally motivated and internally validated.

So far we have been discussing the “Individual” aspect of this stage.  It is the formation of a strong sense of self.  This is one of the strongest benefits of this stage of development.  It also opens the door to one of the greatest weaknesses at this stage of faith.  We may become so enamoured of our mighty powers of discrimination and logic that we place all our faith in the rational, at the cost of denying our unconscious strengths, or relegating the unconscious to a secondary, and more-or-less unimportant status.  Yet if we are to move to the next stage of faith, we need that which is found in the unconscious.

The “Reflective” aspect of this stage involves dismantling of our mythos.  Fowler believes that we separate meaning, from the structure of the myths themselves.  This is sometimes called demythologizing.  We do this to better understand the subtle meanings which are contained in our mythos.  The danger to religious faith at this stage is the symbols are completely stripped of numinousity (a sense of the presence and wonder of the Divine).  Those whose religious symbols lose all numinousity may become atheist.  They will almost certainly become agnostics, at least for a period, until such time as they are able to construct a new mythos which provides them rich religious meaning.

Peck’s Stage IV (Mystical-Communal) correlates to Fowler’s Stages 5 and 6.

Returning from the arid desert of agnosticism/atheism, those who reach the next levels find a renewed appreciation for that which the earlier stages of faith offered, as well as finding a renewed dedication to community, over their personal concerns.  Life takes on a richness of mystery and wonder, and even paradox, which offers its own rewards.  The tight confines of the rational mind comes to realize there is also strength and value to be found in the irrational mind, for therein resides the unconscious and a mystic apprehension of the Divine.

Speaking for myself, I found my rational mind could only take me so far.  Given that my dominate psychological function is Thinking, this was a difficult admission.  Yet there it is.  I now believe for one to traverse beyond the limitation of the rational mind, one must enter the domain of the unconscious.  I believe this is the path of the mystic.

Fowler’s Stage 5 – Conjunctive Faith (mid-life crisis)

Paradox.  Transcendence.  This is the nature of the reality reflected to us by the archetypes which constructed the system of faith the person left behind in an earlier stage.  A person entering this stage of faith comes to realize that the symbols they stripped of meaning only represented the surface level of meaning.  Now they recognize there is a deeper, widely shared ocean of meaning spanning many spiritual and religious systems.  Now they are prepared to re-enter a religious/spiritual relationship, and to derive numinous illumination from the religious symbols they find meaningful.  There is an appreciation of a complex, multidimensional, interrelated system of Truth which binds all life.

Having “demythologized” the symbols of their earlier religion, and now seeing something of the truth to which the symbol was pointing them, they are ready to speak with persons of other faith traditions, with the desire to learn something valuable.  In a sense, their spiritual cup has been emptied, and now it may be refilled.  All spiritual traditions have their intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, and some are better suited to one person or another.

The person in this stage of faith may be drawn to a religious tradition differing from their previous tradition, or they may find having investigated many faiths, a renewed appreciation for their old traditions.  They are now able to see partial truths in any religion, and are able to select and combine those elemental ideas which are useful in helping to bring about a sense of oneness across numerous religious traditions.  But whether they choose a new religion or choose to re-enter their old religion, the faith they choose to observe will be much richer than it ever could have been before.

Fowler’s Stage 6 – Universalizing Faith

This final stage is very rare.  Very few reach it.  Some call this achieving “enlightenment.”  Fowler cites modern examples of such persons as:  Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa.  These persons treat others with great compassion.  They view everyone as forming a universal Oneness.  Ron Miller observes that we no longer see enemies at this stage of spiritual development, as all are One.

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3 Responses to “Stages of Faith – Intro to James W. Fowler”


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