For many years now I have been interested in the thinking of James W. Fowler (born 1940). His research into stages of faith development has helped me understand my own development and that of those around me; and he has greatly influenced my own approaches to catechetics, religious education, faith formation, and continuing education.
Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University in Atlanta, he was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.
Fowler is perhaps best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he outlined his understanding of the developmental process in “human faith.”
Reflecting on religious fundamentalism today, polarization in a variety of religious institutions (not just the Catholic Church), and my own real-life experiences of what I would call healthy and unhealthy religion, I still find Fowler’s analysis helpful and challenging. In the end it is about growth and maturity….or stunted development and locked-in immaturity.
Fowler proposed a multi-stage understanding of faith development. His analysis is closely related to the work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg. He defines faith as an activity of trusting, committing, and relating to reality based on a set of assumptions about how one is related to others, the world, and the divine.
Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith: From birth until about age 2, people are greatly shaped by their experiences of a safe or unsafe environment. One develops either a sense of trust and safety or distrust about the universe and the divine. How important early childhood environment!
Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith: From ages 3 to 7. Religion is learned primarily through experiences, stories, images, and the people with whom one comes in contact. What kind of people?
Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith: At this stage, elementary-school-aged children develop an anthropomorphic sense of the divine. Metaphors and symbolic language are often taken literally.
Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith: From about age 12 to adulthood. This stage is characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage. One fears inconsistencies and what challenges authority. Some people have arrested development at this stage; and we find them quite often ending up in fundamentalist movements.
Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith: From the mid 20s to mid 30s. This is a stage of angst and struggle as one begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own beliefs. One begins to see that issues are not so easily clear cut. One becomes open to the complexity of faith and more aware of conflicts in one’s belief. This stage is Important turning point as one either accepts ambiguity and the need to explore or one simply shuts the door to faith challenges. Is this why some young people become missionaries and care-givers in difficult situations, while others become terrorists and suicide bombers?
Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith: This is the time of the mid-life crisis. People in this stage acknowledge the paradoxes found in human life and can begin to resolve conflicts about reality through a complex understanding that human life is grounded in a multidimensional and interdependent “truth” that can be neither controlled by nor completely contained in any particular institution. Everyone is a truth-seeker.
Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith: Some call this “enlightenment.” The individual realizes that all people — regardless of their sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, or culture – must be treated with compassion, guided by universal principles of love and justice. I think Jesus of Nazareth arrived at this stage when he was close to 30……..And he hoped his followers would arrive there as well. Some did of course……and some still do.
Closing reflection. In all segments of the community of faith – members, teachers and leaders in the church – we need to ask: How are we alert to and ministering to babies, children, teenagers, young adults, and older adults? In not just what we say, but in what we do, are we stimulating and promoting healthy human development and growth in authentic faith? Or…..are we, by actions or inaction, contributing to interpersonal environments that stunt human growth and faith development, and distort individual and group religious understanding?