A Critical Examination of Fowler’s Stage-Theory Model of Faith Development

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James Fowler (d. 2015), a late theological scholar and former Professor at Emory University, proposed the most cited stage-model theory taking into account faith and faith development. It has been widely used within various contexts including pastoral care, counseling, practical theology, and in spiritual direction.

Fowler was influenced by the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (Fowler, 1995: 110). The former broke down the cognitive development of children into four stages that had “a major impact on his [Fowler’s] thinking about cognitive development” (Dacey & Travers, 2006: 40). Although he was influenced by Piaget and Kohlberg, Fowler claimed that his own stage-theory is distinct as it dealt “with different domains of knowing than with the cognitive stages of Piaget or the moral stages of Kohlberg” (Fowler, 1995: 99).

Fowler’s theory relates to the process of spiritual formation in that the Christian’s life is a constant journey throughout his or her lifespan. This formation focuses on one’s relationship with God and refining one’s life to become more Christ-like (Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, 1993: 909). C.S. Lewis captured the essence of this when he remarked that “there are a great many things that cannot be understood until you have gone a certain distance along the Christian road” (Lewis, 1977: 124). According to Lewis, the journey is a continual learning process in which one never stays at the same place for too long.

Fowler’s model has several stages: it begins with stage 0 defined as a “Primal or Undifferentiated faith” (from 0-3 years). An individual then progresses to “Intuitive-Projective faith” (age 4-7; stage 1), a “Mythic-Literal faith” (age 7-11; stage 2), “Synthetic-Conventional faith” (age 11-18, stage 3), “Individuative-Reflective faith” (the early 20s, 30s, 40s; stage 4), “Conjunctive faith” (stage 5), and, finally, a “Universalizing faith” (stage 6).

Each stage has distinct characteristics. Stage 0, the Primal or Undifferentiated faith, is when the child is learning about the safety or lack of safety of his environment. How the child will come to view God (in the sense of trusting/distrusting God) is much dependent on his experiences during this early phase. Stage 1, Intuitive-Projective faith, is characterized by children’s experiences of stories and fantasy. Often the children live within a magical world of their making in which their concept of God is heavily influenced by their family. In the Mythical-Literal stage, people interpret ideas and stories literally, and tend to put themselves within these stories. They also begin to identify with faith communities and often value churches in which scripture is more literally interpreted, and where God is seen as loving but also as a more authoritarian figure. In the Synthetic-Conventional faith-stage, or stage 3, the individual becomes increasingly aware of the judgments and expectations of others. Finding a community that believes similarly is important. Although the individual holds to his or her beliefs deeply, the beliefs are not usually examined critically. God is seen as being external and transcendent, and often so at the expense of his imminence. Stage four, the Individual-Reflective faith, is often most challenging because one starts questioning what he believes or what he has been taught to believe. People attempt to be objective when examining their beliefs and values. Often one opposes the idea of merely conforming to beliefs they have learned without analyzing. The Conjunctive stage, faith-stage five, is where the individual has become increasingly aware of the unknown, especially the reality of death. The sixth and final faith-stage, Universalizing faith, is the most rarely obtained faith. Decentralization of the individual is important as the person’s own life has been removed from the center of interest. The person has also come to a full acceptance of God as being the ultimate authority in his life.

Benefits of Fowler’s stage-theory have been cited, perhaps with self-awareness being an important one. Fowler’s stage-theory opens up the individual for self-awareness and self-reflection because it helps him understand where along the faith continuum he sits. In pastoral counseling settings, few would think that self-reflection and self-awareness are irrelevant. Moreover, self-awareness is crucial if one is a pastoral counselor helping others on a psycho-spiritual level; as Walter Thiessen in The Basic Process of Counselling and Care acknowledges, “Self-awareness is crucial for the one who seeks to help others in a relational way” (Thiessen, nd:1). The Fowler stage-theory model is at least one framework that can be used to facilitate client-counselor discussion and reflection, and thus contribute to strengthening the relationship between the two.

There is practical precedent within Fowler’s work on how this might play out (Fowler, 1995: 217). Fowler encouraged a client to reflect on several periods within her life and to describe them in detail. Fowler’s questions had been thought out in light of his model, and this helped him discover that the woman had a stage 3 faith. Discovering where the woman was on the continuum proved helpful in providing advice and counsel. Fowler discovered that she had not progressed beyond this stage because of the communities she was a part of (Fowler, 1995: 243). It was concerning that the client, who was 28 at the time, was stuck in a faith-stage typical of adolescence. But by working through these problems with the guide of the model, Fowler helped the woman progress. Fowler says his client had become a far happier and more “integrated person” (Fowler, 1995: 268).

Some have noted the uniqueness of Fowler’s model in that it takes into account a person’s entire lifespan. This differs from some previous developmental models that place emphasis mainly on childhood and adolescence (Coyle, 2011). Fowler’s definition of faith as a “universal quality of human meaning-making” (Fowler, 1995: 31) is also broad and can apply to an assortment of people in various settings, contexts, and of different ages.

One of the criticisms of Fowler’s model concerns the rigidity of its framework. Scholars have concerns with extrapolating from stage models to the universal level (Brainerd, 1978). Stage theory usually identifies a number of distinct stages that are often distinguishable by their separate characteristics that people go through during their lifetime, but this is said to have significant limitations in the field of developmental psychology (Fischer and Bidell, 2007: 343).

Further, could the model prevent some people from helping others? (Schmelzer, 2008: 25). For example, is it possible for an individual in a lower stage of faith to counsel someone in a later stage? If not, does that mean effective counselors must be in stage five or six, and clients be from lower stages? And given so few ever reach stage 6, are we cutting our pool of useful counselors a bit thin? For Christians, moreover, there seems to be biblical insight affirming that all people have the capacity to help others with wisdom and counsel irrespective of their age or where they are in life (Gal. 6:2; Rom. 15:1).

Another criticism stems more from the model’s cultural specificity given that it takes into account only faith of the late twentieth-century Western culture. Baxter has argued that Fowler’s theory should be exported from the Western context so it can be applied to other cultural contexts, especially African ones (Baxter, 2006: 103-104).

References.

Baxter, P. 2006. From Ubuzungu to Ubuntu: Resources for pastoral counselling in a Bantu context. Unpublished PhD thesis: Kimmage Mission Institute of Theology and Culture, Milltown Institute, Dublin.

Brainerd, C. 1978. Piaget’s theory of intelligence. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Coyle, A. 2011. “Critical responses to faith development theory: A useful agenda for change?” In the Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 33(3), 281-298.

Dacey, J. & Travers, J. 2006. Human Development Across the Lifespan. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fischer, K. & Bidell, T. 2007. “Dynamic Development of Action and Thought: Theoretical Models of Human Development.” In the Handbook of Child Psychology.

Fowler, J. 1995. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: Harper One.

Hawthorne, G., Martin, R., & Reid, D. 1993. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Westmont: InterVarsity Press.

Heywood, D. 2008. “Faith development theory: A case for paradigm change.” In Journal of Beliefs & Values.

Lewis, C. 1952. Mere Christianity.

Schmelzer, D. 2008. “How M. Scott Peck Saved My Life.” in Not The Religious Type: confessions of a turncoat Atheist. Carol Stream: Tyndale House.

Thiessen, W. “The Basic Process of Counselling and Care.” In Pastoral Studies.

 

2 comments

  1. James, I read with interest and understanding your analytical article. I believe without doubt that I’m in the highest stage possible. I believe that I have articulated all those parameters succinctly in my little book, Wilderness Cry-a scientific and philosophical approach to understanding God and the universe. I would encourage you to check it out on Amazon and make an analysis.

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