Reflecting on religious authoritarianism and fundamentalism in a variety of contemporary religions, I went back to the analysis of human growth and faith development by James W. Fowler (1940 – 2015).
For many years now I have been interested in Fowler’s thinking. He was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. Fowler argued that the development of people’s spiritual awareness runs parallel to other aspects of human development. His research into stages of faith development has helped me understand my own development and has greatly influenced my own approaches to faith formation and continuing education. 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 was also 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.”
Fowler proposed a multi-stage understanding of faith development. His analysis is closely related to the work of the developmental psychologists Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994), and Lawrence Kohlberg (1907 – 1987). 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.
According to Fowler, there are seven primary stages of faith development (including Stage 0) in the life of an individual. They are as follows:
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. A child at this stage learns to trust the goodness or badness of the world based on the way the child is treated by his or her parents. But situations of neglect or abuse can lead to the formation of feelings of distrust and fear of the universe and the Divine. How important the early childhood environment! And the kind of day care centers in which they are placed.
Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith: From ages 3 to 7. Spiritual awareness is learned primarily through experiences, stories, images, and the people with whom one comes in contact. What kind of people? What kind of parents? Again day care personnel? In this stage, children begin to use symbols and their imagination. Children at this stage tend to take ideas about right and wrong very literally. The ability to distinguish the real from fantasy is not yet well developed. Also, they are generally not yet able to see the world from another person’s perspective.
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. This second stage starts around the sixth or seventh year of life and continues until about the twelfth year of life. In this stage beliefs are interpreted literally. Religious truth is communicated through stories, in which morality is legalistic. But some people stay in this phase for their whole lives.
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. It is better not to question. Some people have arrested development at this stage; and we find them quite often ending up in fundamentalist movements. They don’t move beyond this stage.
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 life issues are not so easily clear cut. One becomes open to the complexity of faith and more aware of conflicts in one’s belief. One also begins to question existing authority structures within one’s religious institution. This stage is an 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, 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. Many people who have reached this stage are beginning to become more and more open to the religions and beliefs of other people. This is not because they distance themselves from their own faith, but because they believe that the faith of others can inform, deepen, and enrich their own.
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. People who are at this stage have the potential to become important religious figures. That’s because they have the ability to interact with anyone at any stage of faith development without being condescending. People in this phase cherish life, but do not take life too seriously. They put their faith into action, challenge the status quo, and work to create justice in the world.
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? Last week’s thoughts about authoritarian fundamentalism are of course part of this question.