Faith: Development or Stunted Growth


November 1, 2019 All Saints

Thinking about some well-known public personalities who, despite their age, are still rather adolescent in their beliefs and behavior, I went back to James Fowler’s understanding of faith development.

James W. Fowler (1940-2015) was an American theologian who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. 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 a minister in the United Methodist Church.

Fowler described faith as a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life: the way one finds coherence and meaning in the multiple forces and relationships that make up our lives. In his book, Stages of Faith, he proposed that faith development occurs in six predictable stages, though not everyone progresses through all six stages; and some people get stuck in earlier stages, primarily because they cannot move beyond their own self-centeredness.

Pre-stage: Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith

Before Stage 1, Fowler described a Pre-Stage, of Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith, roughly from birth to age two. This is the time of developing “Trust vs Mistrust.” Here Fowler stressed that, “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.” Indeed, this stage provides the foundation for the future.

Holding my recently-born great-great niece a couple weeks ago, I felt so happy for her because she has been born into a warm and loving family network. Trust vs Mistrust.

Stage One: Intuitive-Projective Faith

Most typically for children aged 3 to 7. Intuitive-Projective Faith is learned through stories, images, feelings, and actions from significant adults. The child’s imagination plays an important role in this stage of faith development. The child’s religious descriptions may not make sense logically, because they are symbols, images, and stories that fit together in seemingly random patterns.

The Stage 1 child learns self-awareness, without understanding that others may have a different perspective.

Stage Two: Mythic-Literal Faith

In the Mythic-Literal stage, the young person begins to take on the stories, beliefs, and observances that symbolize belonging to a community. Faith stories are understood as logical, concrete and literal.

In Stage 2 the young believer learns to distinguish between real and make believe. Justice is based on fairness, with rewards and punishments are given based on adherence to moral rules. The person in this stage is better able to take on the perspectives of others.

God is thought of in anthropomorphic terms, described with human qualities and actions. This stage is mostly found in school age children, but some adults remain locked in this stage for their entire life. (A very important understanding for pastoral ministers….)

Stage Three: Synthetic Conventional Faith

Synthetic Conventional Faith generally develops during adolescence when personality and self-identity emerge. Interpersonal relationships and being known and accepted by a group are extremely important in this stage, because self-identity is formed as a member of the group.

Since self-identity is still developing, there is often little independent perspective beyond that of the group to which the person conforms.

Synthetic Conventional faith relies on external authority. For these reasons, many religious institutions (but political ones as well) work best with a majority of committed people locked in Stage 3. Many church authorities can be quite satisfied when most of their members maintain a Stage 3 faith of unquestioned commitment to the beliefs and practices of the church. (I remember a bishop telling me, when I was a high school teacher on Michigan, “your duty is NOT to question but to obey.”)

The beliefs and value system of Stage 3 are unexamined and tacitly held. Like fish in a fish bowl, people in Stage 3 are unable to view their system from the outside and unable to understand that there are other systems, other fish bowls.

Transition to Stage 4 can only be precipitated by the experience of leaving home, either emotionally or physically, or both. This can occur through marriage, going to college, entering the workforce, or joining the military, when the Stage 3 person encounters people from other groups and different perspectives.

I was edged out of Stage 3 when, as a young man, I left Southwestern Michigan to become a graduate student in Louvain, Belgium. It was exciting but unsettling as well.

Today, I try to nudge people toward a higher stage of faith development, through educational trips, engagement with other cultures, and interfaith dialogue: placing people in contact with other people with differing world-views.

Some people of course don’t want to be confronted with a differing world-view. They regress or retreat to a fundamentalist or even fascist perspective. Donald Trump and his supporters are found here; although one can really question whether or not DJT has any genuine Christian faith.

Stage 4: Individuate-Reflective Faith

Individuate-Reflective Faith usually begins in young adulthood with exposure to the wider world of diverse cultures and perspectives. This can be a time of disequilibrium as unexamined beliefs and values are called into question and compared to alternative value systems.

Authority in Stage 3 comes EXTERNALLY from the group. In Stage 4, authority shifts INTERNALLY to the self, with an emphasis on individuality, independence, and self-fulfillment. The individual makes her- or his own judgments about values and beliefs.

Previously accepted religious symbols, practices, and biblical narratives can be rejected as naïve. People at this stage often reject traditional faith of any kind. Today, a lot of millennials and post-millennials are at this stage, as well as the people whom sociologists call the “nones.”

As an older fellow, I am especially interested in this group, because they are often asking all the right questions.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

Conjunctive Faith is rare before midlife. With it comes a greater acceptance of diversity, complexity, mystery, and paradox.

Conjunctive Faith is often called the “second naïvete.” Previously rejected religious symbols and practices are now reaffirmed as tools that help one encounter God and the truth, rather than as merely ends in themselves. One begins to appreciate life as a journey of discovery.

Knowing reality in Stage 5 is characterized by a willingness to let reality speak its word. One develops wisdom and an appreciation in knowing things as they are, without seeking to modify, control, or order them to fit one’s prior categories.

Stage 6: Universalizing Faith

Stage 6, Universalizing Faith is extremely rare.

James Fowler mentions people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as examples of people who reached a Universalizing Faith. People at this stage can become important religious teachers because they have the ability to relate to anyone at any stage and from any faith. They are able to relate to others without condescension but at the same time are able to challenge the assumptions of those in other stages.

The perspectives and actions of Stage 6 people often run counter to the surrounding culture. They see all men and women as part of a universal family. They selflessly serve others. Many of them are persecuted and martyred in life, but later revered in death.

Concluding thoughts: While there is some predictability due to age and intellectual development, progression through these stages of faith is not automatic. Some people move more slowly than others from one stage to the next. And some people remain in earlier stages throughout their adult lives.

In all of this, the Christian community plays a key role. A kind of “sponsorship” by the community can make a significant difference as people move from one stage to the next and they grow in their faith. A sponsoring – ministering – community can provide affirmation, encouragement, guidance for a person’s ongoing growth and development.

May we continue our journey together …..

Jack

9 thoughts on “Faith: Development or Stunted Growth

  1. Ever the excellent educator, Jack! A convincing essay of the dire need for Christian communities to heal and guide us on our faith journey “beyond their own self-centeredness” Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your well crafted words that bring clarity to some ‘crazy’ goings on in our world today. As I read today’s voice I couldn’t help thinking of Marianne Williamson who is running for president. In my estimation she is the voice of Truth.

  3. Thanks so much, Jack, for this column! Since your visit and presentation here in Indianapolis, I’ve been wondering where fundamentalist thinking and one’s world view fit into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’d forgotten about Fowler’s hierarchy regarding faith development. Understanding faith development, and where we ourselves fit into that hierarchy, makes it much easier to listen to others’ ideas and world views.

    Located in the same building as the Center for Interfaith Collaboration (CIC), St. Mary of Magdala Catholic Community has easy access to interaction with others who hold a different world view. In fact, some of our Catholic community members are involved in interfaith conversations and work. But I find that understanding this hierarchy will help a lot when relating to other Christians whom I encounter every day.

    As a follow-up to your visit, I spoke with the CIC director, Charlie Wiles, yesterday in hopes of finding a way for St. Mary of Magdala to collaborate with his office. Charlie loved your presentation on Oct. 21 and was eager for collaboration with us as well. We will begin by attending the CIC presentation of “Backs Against the Wall: the Howard Thurman Story, 2019, followed by Q&A. Thurman met Ghandi in the ’30s and became the inspiration and mentor for MLKing, Jesse Jackson, etc. and the non-violent movement for equality of blacks in this country. He is author of Jesus and the Disinherited, considered a spiritual classic.

    So, thank you for your inspiration and work to keep discussions going for understanding and justice in our world of diversity and mixing of peoples. You know we would love to have you come again next year.

  4. Thank you for opening this important topic. I wish our church more propagated the idea of individual developement of faith. It seems to me that many times, churches are afraid to let people advance to stage 4 because there is a fear that they are losing the faith. The spiritual leaders try to clutch young people in stage 3 and it is how they lose their credibility. It is a very important thing to lead people into and through stage 4.
    For me personally it is easier to identify with the simplified version of this system which is ascribed to M. Scott Peck: http://www.psychologycharts.com/james-fowler-stages-of-faith.html

  5. Dear Jack,
    Thank you so very much for this wonderful essay. I will print this and study it in detail. This clarifies and explains the stages of faith as I have never seen it before. Most profound!
    Peace,
    Frank

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