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

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Image: Biola, Richard Osmer and Lynn Bridgers, James Fowler

James Fowler (1940-2015), a late theological scholar and former Professor at Emory University, proposed a theory of faith development that has become the most referenced stage-model theory taking into account faith and faith development. It has been widely accessed within pastoral care and counseling settings, as well as by those engaged to practical theology, and spiritual direction. This paper will hope to examine Fowler’s stage-model theory in some more detail through considering a few personal reflections, its noted strengths, weaknesses, and limitations.

Summary & Personal Reflections

Fowler was influenced by the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (Fowler, 1995: 110). The former scholar, Piaget, broke down the cognitive development of children into four stages which, according to Dacey and Travers, had “a major impact on his [Fowler’s] thinking about cognitive development” (Dacey & Travers, 2006: 40). Kohlberg himself too took inspiration from Piaget’s work, and thus found himself reworking Piaget’s ideas. Nonetheless, though he drew influence from Piaget and Kohlberg, Fowler did observe that his own stage-theory was distinct given that it dealt “with different domains of knowing than with the cognitive stages of Piaget or the moral stages of Kohlberg” (Fowler, 1995: 99).

Before we dig deeper into responses to Fowler’s theory I want to begin by saying that Fowler should be commended for his contribution. Christians ought to be open to their own making use of their God-given cognitive faculties to better understand not only the universe in which God created for them to dwell within but also human psychological and faith development. It would be a sad day when Christians begin shutting down the intellectual creativity and genius of those within their own ranks, though this is not to say that Christians shouldn’t critically evaluate the ideas produced by their own. Fowler, I believe, thus entertained an interesting line of thought. If a person’s psychological and moral development can be mapped (as Piaget and Kohlberg attempted to do) then why not his or her spiritual development too? On a Christian theistic worldview, human beings, by virtue of being created in the image of their Creator, have spiritual lives. But if our lives in the here and now undergo processes of transformation, then why shouldn’t our spiritual and faith lives likewise go through transformation?

It seems that much of Fowler’s views relate to the process of spiritual formation. On such a view, a Christian’s life is itself a journey that takes place over the course of one’s lifespan. Such formation focuses on one’s relationship with God, and thus is refined by God in such a way as to guide one to becoming more Christ-like (Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, 1993: 909). C.S. Lewis observed this saying 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 one’s faith journey is a continual learning process, and one therefore never stays at the same place for too long.

Though others have provided a far better summary of Fowler’s stages of faith development than I could ever do here, I’d still like to briefly encapsulate it (see Gollnick, 2005; Huxley, 2017). Fowler’s theory begins with stage 0 defined as a “Primal or Undifferentiated faith” (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” (early 20s, 30s, 40s; stage 4), “Conjunctive faith” (stage 5), and, finally, a “Universalizing faith” (stage 6).

Each of Fowler’s stages possess distinct characteristics (Huxley, 2017). Stage zero, the “Primal or Undifferentiated faith,” is when the child is learning of the safety, or lack thereof, of his or her environment. How the child will come to view God, in the sense of trusting/distrusting God, is dependent on the child’s experiences during this phase. Stage one, “Intuitive-Projective,” 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 subsequent “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 a more authoritarian and stern figure. In the “Synthetic-Conventional” stage the individual becomes increasingly aware of the judgements and expectations of others. Finding a community of others who believe similarly is important, and though the individual holds his or her beliefs deeply, the beliefs are not usually examined critically. God is typically seen as a being external and transcendent and often so at the expense of him being indwelling and imminent. Stage four, “Individual-Reflective,” is often most challenging to an individual because one starts questioning what he or she believes, or what he or she has been taught to believe. Individuals place importance on attempting to be objective while examining their beliefs and values, and often one opposes the idea of merely conforming to beliefs they’ve learnt without analyzing them. The “Conjunctive stage,” stage five, is where the individual has become more aware of the unknown, especially where it concerns he reality of death. Often people in this state love the mystery of the unknown. The sixth and final stage, “Universalizing,” is the most rarely achieved. Decentralization of the individual is important in which the person’s own life has been removed from the center of interest. The second distinctive characteristic is the person’s full acceptance of God as being the ultimate authority in his or her life.

I initially credited Fowler’s efforts because as a psychology student the topics of faith and God are mostly treated as mere concepts, and seldom, when they are spoken about, are they conveyed in any way as actually being real. For example, in one of my essays that was published in last years Cornerstone Newsletter, I attempted to highlight the imposition of secular enlightenment values on religious students within the psychology class (Bishop, 2016). I discovered, having sat through a few interviews, that even our very own psychology lecturers, Christians themselves, had imbibed, probably unconsciously, these values. This is so common, and often leads to negative consequences (a split in spirituality in the form of dual allegiance, for example), that all the more valuable it then is that someone like Fowler within a secular milieu can stand up, and present something potentially helpful for theists and believers. This reminded me of Johannes Kepler, the mathematician and astronomer, who once remarked in awe at how he was “thinking Thy [God’s] thoughts after Thee.” We need similar sentiments shared by our psychologists.

The Benefit of Fowler’s Stage-Theory as a Pastoral Tool.

A number of benefits of Fowler’s stage-theory have been cited with self-awareness being one of the more important components to the theory. Fowler’s stage-theory appears to open an individual up for self-awareness given that it assists one in understanding where along the faith continuum he or she finds him or herself. Fowler’s stage-theory thus has at least some place within a pastoral and counseling setting due to its emphasis on self-awareness. As Walter Thiessen, in his article The Basic Process of Counselling and Care, explains, “Self-awareness is crucial for the one who seeks to help others in a relational way” (Thiessen, nd:1). Fowler’s stage-theory provides this, and a pastoral counsellor or therapist who is aware of his or her own faith development can bring that valuable insight into the client-counsellor relationship.

One method through which Fowler demonstrated the pastoral value of his stage-theory was in an interview he includes in his book with a certain woman (Fowler, 1995: 217). Fowler encouraged the woman to examine several different periods of her life and describe those periods in some detail. Fowler’s questions were well planned and thought out, and he discovered that the woman had a stage 3 faith. She hadn’t progressed any further he found because of her exposure to several communities that had, in some way, resulted in her failing to reach stage four (Fowler, 1995: 243). It was concerning that the woman, who was 28 years old at the time of the interview, was stuck in a faith stage that was, according to Fowler’s theory, typical of adolescence. A few years later, when the woman was 31, she had worked through barriers that had initially prevented her from progressing through her faith development. At the end, says Fowler, the woman had become a far happier and a far more “integrated person” (Fowler, 1995: 268).

Some have also noted the uniqueness of Fowler’s model given that it encompasses an individual’s whole lifespan unlike previous developmental models that have focused 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 pertinent to a wide range of people meaning the it is accessible and applicable to different individuals within different settings.

Criticism & Limitations of Fowler’s Stage-Theory Model.

Though we’ve considered the above benefits Fowler’s stage-model theory has reaped much criticism too. One of the criticisms is over the rigidity of its stages. Some scholars have, for example, identified limitations inherent to stage models, and especially when such models make universal claims (Brainerd, 1978). Stage theory, as general concept, usually identifies a number of distinct stages that are often distinguishable by their separate characteristics that people go through during their life times. Scholars Fischer and Bidell, both specialists in the field of education, argue that stage-theory has significant limitations in describing and explaining an individual’s development in developmental psychology (Fischer and Bidell, 2007: 343). One might argue, as we will do, the same with Fowler’s theory of faith development.

Personally, I do not find myself placed firmly in any one of Fowler’s stages. It would be safe to say, I think, that adults would have moved on from the Primal or Undifferentiated faith (stage 0) and Intuitive-Projective (stage 1) stages. However, beyond that I see myself reflected in many of the others. For example, as per defined traits of the Synthetic-Conventional stage, I do tend to see God as both an external and transcendent being (Huxley, 2017). The stage also defines the individual as having little allusion to God as being an imminent and indwelling God (Huxley, 2017). As per stage two, the Mythical-Literal stage, I see God as being stern and authoritative (Huxley, 2017). But perhaps the stage that best describes or encapsulates my personal theological disposition is the Individual-Reflective stage. Typically, this stage emphasizes the objectification and examination of beliefs (Huxley, 2017). That is something I’ve been putting all of my effort into doing for nearly five years now. What is one to make of the fact that numerous stages are applicable to them?

Further, the stage that is most distinctive and “rare,” in terms of people actually ever getting there, is the seventh one, “universalizing” (stage 6) (Ralph et al., 83). Defining characteristics of this stage are the decentralization from oneself and a full and complete acceptance of God and God’s authority in one’s life (Huxley, 2017). A short list of people could be drawn up that could satisfy such a criteria, and no doubt the likes of Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be a few of them (Ralph et al., 83). It is thus quite evident that unless a stage maintains a stringent criteria (stage six, for example) certain characteristics from a number of stages can be applied to any individual’s life. If true, this lends credence to the criticism of stage theory that it isn’t so simple to confine a diverse range of people into certain types of behaviour or faith development, hence this being one of the central criticisms of Fowler’s model.

This following point is more of a personal observation and reflection that ties in with a recent film the class had to watch for the module, but it would seem that according to Fowler’s theory that each subsequent stage is better than the previous one; Fowler appears to say as much, “the whole process as dynamically connected, each successive spiral stage linked to and adding to the previous ones” (Fowler, 1995: 274). Is it then not possible that the Christian who finds him/herself in a later stage could generate a sense of superiority? (With the exception being one who finds him/herself in the “universalizing” stage where decentralization of the self is important). I find this reminiscent of the Catholic church presented in the film The Third Miracle. The way the church is structured, in a hierarchy of “stages” or “roles” acted in by the members of the church, seems to suggest that some of its members are more important than others. As soon as a hierarchy is implemented some people are going to feel inferior and others superior.

Further, I think in terms of counseling, Fowler’s stage-theory might prevent some people from helping others, especially others in later stages (Schmelzer, 2008: 25). If this is correct, then the question is whether or not it is possible for an individual in a lower stage to be able to counsel someone in a later stage. If so, then according to Fowler’s logic, effective councillors can only really be in stage six, and that would no doubt whittle down the pool of potential counsellors. However, biblical theology emphasizes the fact that we all have the capacity to be of council to others in their faith journeys (Galatians 6:2; Romans 15:1); one needn’t be the wisest nor the most spiritually developed to be of counsel to others journeying the same path. One might then wonder about Fowler himself. According to him, he was age 32 and in the fourth stage at the time he developed his stage theory (Fowler, 1995: 269). If so, was he able to provide counsel to those within later stages? And, perhaps, shouldn’t an individual who possesses traits Fowler includes in stage six be the one developing such theories?

Beyond some of my personal reflections, a number of other criticisms have been leveled against Fowler’s faith development stage-model. Concern, for example, has been expressed over whether or not Fowler’s theory applies equally to men and women (Gilligan, 1982), and some have argued that the stages and the patterns of faith within several stages do not adequately account for women’s development (Slee, 2004: 32). Fowler’s theory has too been criticized over its cultural specificity given that it only takes into account faith as it is embraced in late 20th century European and American culture. For example, Baxter has argued that Fowler’s theory should be “exported” from a western context and applied to other cultural contexts, and especially so with African contexts (Baxter, 2006: 103-104). Further critics have declared the theory’s ultimate death; Reverend and Dr. David Heywood, for example, suggests that Fowler’s theory is a good “example of a paradigm reaching the end of its life” (Heywood, 2008: 270). Heywood goes on to write that by rejecting Fowler’s theory does not “entail a denial that there is something there to be explained, only that Fowler’s explanation is not the correct one” (Heywood, 2008: 264). Others taking a softer approach, however, have suggested possible ways of working with Fowler’s theory. For example, Reich, aware of Fowler’s work, has proposed his own model seeking to learn from and thus avoid the deficiencies that are inherent in Fowler’s model (Reich, 2003: 229-247). Some wish to use Fowler’s theory by using his wisdom, and radically changing it by removing the stage structure (Slee, 2004).

Closing Remarks.

So, is Fowler’s theory valuable in understanding faith development? When I find myself seeking to explain spiritual things I am often reminded of one of C.S. Lewis’ lines in his magnificent book Mere Christianity. Though he applies his logic specifically to Christ’s atonement theologically and philosophically, I believe what he says can be applied to Fowler’s faith stage-theory, and other spiritual matters. Lewis wisely remarked that “Any theories we build up… are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself” (Lewis, 1952: 58-59). Thus, faith is at the heart of the Christian’s life and what it means to believe in God. We can agree with Fowler that faith no doubt develops and changes over one’s lifetime, and though we certainly should seek to understand the process, as Fowler himself tried to do, we mustn’t confuse the “mere plans” and “diagrams” with faith itself.

[Words: 2773]


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  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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