The following is taken from the book,
Stages of Faith, by James W. Fowler
By understanding the various stages a person may
go through in their faith-development, one can be more tolerant and
understanding of oneself and of others. Dr. Fowler believes that all
religious faiths can learn from this model.
STAGES OF FAITH
Material from James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith, 1981
(Psychological perspectives on faith and growth)
"Whether we become [believers], nonbelievers, agnostics or atheists,
we are concerned with how to put our lives together and with what will make life
worth living." Pg. 5
Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective Faith, Ages 2 – 6 or 7
- The Stages
- Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith
- Seeds of trust, courage, hope and love are fused in an undifferentiated
way and contend with sensed threats of abandonment, inconsistencies and
deprivations in an infant’s environment. These underlie (or threaten to
undermine) all that comes later in faith development.
- The strength of this stage is the fund of basic trust and the
relational experience of mutuality with the one(s) providing primary love
- The danger/deficiency in the stage is a failure of mutuality.
Either there may emerge an excessive self focus which dominates and
distorts mutuality, or experiences of neglect or inconsistencies may lock
the infant in patterns
Fantasy-filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and
permanently influence by examples, moods, actions and stories of the visible
faith of parents and caretakers. Here we find first awareness of death and
sex and the strong taboos by which cultures and families insulate those
The strength of this stage is the birth of imagination, the ability
to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images and as presented
in stories that register the child’s intuitive understandings and feelings
toward the ultimate conditions of existence.
The dangers in this stage arise from the possible
"possession" of the child’s imagination by unrestrained images
of terror and destructiveness, or from the witting or unwitting exploitation
of her or his imagination in the reinforcement of taboos and moral or
Stage 2: Mythic-Literal Faith—School Age
The person begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and
observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. These are
appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes.
This curbs the imagination from the previous stage. Story becomes the major
way of giving unity and value to experience. They compose a world based on
reciprocal fairness and an immanent justice based on reciprocity. The actors
in their cosmic stories are anthropomorphic. They can be affected deeply and
powerfully by symbolic and dramatic materials and can describe in endlessly
detailed narrative what has occurred. They do not, however, step back from
the flow of stories to formulate reflective, conceptual meanings.
The strength of this stage is the rise of narrative and the
emergence of story, drama and myth as ways of finding and giving coherence
The limitation of this stage is its literalness and an excessive
reliance upon reciprocity. This can lead to an over controlling, stilted
perfectionism or "works righteousness" or in their opposite, an
abasing sense of badness embraced because of mistreatment, neglect or the
apparent disfavor of significant others.
Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith—Puberty/adulthood (Most
fundamentalist and evangelical churches fall in this area.)
Stage 4: Individuated-Reflective Faith—Adult (Usually main-line
denominations, but not always.)
- This typically rises in adolescence, but for many adults it becomes a
permanent place of equilibrium. Its images of unifying value and power
derive from the extension of qualities experienced in personal
relationships. It is a "conformist" stage acutely tuned to the
expectations and judgments of significant others, and as yet does not have
a sure enough grasp on its own identity and autonomous judgment to
construct and maintain an independent perspective. While beliefs and
values are deeply felt, there has not been occasion to step outside them
to reflect on or examine them systematically.
- The strength of this stage is the forming of a personal myth—the
myth of one’s own becoming in identity and faith, incorporating one’s
past and anticipated future in an image of the ultimate environment
unified by characteristics of personality.
- The dangers/deficiencies are two fold. The expectations of others
can be so internalized (and sacralized) that later autonomy of judgment
and action can be jeopardized; secondly, interpersonal betrayals can
shatter intimacy with divinity.
Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith—Adults whose inner journey is their priority
- The movement to Stage 4 is particularly critical and difficult with a
significant amount of spiritual pain if one leaves the faith tradition of
one’s past. The late adolescent or adult must begin to take seriously
the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle,
beliefs and attitudes. Where genuine movement is underway the person must
face unavoidable tensions: individuality versus being defined by a group
or group membership; subjectivity and the power of one’s strongly felt
but unexamined feelings versus objectivity and the requirement of critical
reflection; self-fulfillment or self-actualization as a primary concern
versus service to and being for others; the question of being committed to
the relative versus struggle with the possibility of the Divine.
Ideally this takes place in young adulthood, but this assumes a strong
family faith basis with encouragement to question one’s beliefs. Self
(identity) and outlook (worldview) are differentiated from those of others
and become acknowledged factors in the reactions, interpretations and
judgments one makes on the actions of the self and others. Symbols are
translated into conceptual meanings, e.g., the transubstantiation of the
Catholic Mass becomes an understanding of the Incarnation in oneself.
- The strength has to do with the capacity for critical reflection
on identity and outlook.
- The dangers are in its strengths: an excessive confidence in the
conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of self focus in which
the now clearly bounded, reflective self over assimilates
"reality" and the perspectives of others into its own world
The integration into self and outlook of much that was suppressed or
unrecognized in the interest of Stage 4’s self-certainty. Stage 5 develops
a "second naïveté", a willingness to open to Mystery. There must
be a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past. There must be an opening
to the voices of one’s "deeper self." One’s social
consciousness can handle dissonance with what is happening in one’s
nation. Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this
stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. Ready for closeness
to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including
new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation),
this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from cultural pressures.
The strength of this stage comes in the rise of the ironic
imagination—a capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most
powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative,
partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.
The danger lies in the direction of a paralyzing passivity or
inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its
paradoxical understanding of truth. This stage remains divided. It lives and
acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties.
The tensions are between the paradoxes and one’s own well-being. In some
few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualization in
Stage 6: Universalizing Faith—The Rare Journeyer; the Saint; The Chosen
A. These exhibit qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy.
Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and
feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and
words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to
universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of
justice. Their leadership initiatives, often involving strategies of
nonviolent suffering and ultimate respect for being, challenge society's
norms. . Mother Teresa is an example. She was a rather unremarkable nun,
when on a retreat was overcome by Spirit and had a vision of caring for the
poorest of the poor. As she responded with a whole heart, the Sisters of
Charity were born and are now all over the world. Perhaps she was feeling
the Stage 5 "dis-ease" which led her to go on retreat. Visions
such as hers have drawn her to commit her entire being. Faith is sufficient
to face all obstacles. It is as though the Divine of history selected them
in the heated fires of turmoil and trouble and then hammered them into
usable shape on the hard anvil of conflict and struggle.
- The strengths are one’s discipline activist incarnation,
making real absolute love and justice. A faith relationship is
characterized by an inner vision born out of radical acts of
identification with persons and circumstances where being is being
crushed, blocked or exploited. Their faith is characterized by total
trust in and loyalty to the principle of being.
- The Transitions
- Pre-stage: Begins with the convergence of thought and language,
opening up the use of symbols in speech and ritual play.
- Stage 1: The main factor precipitating transition to the next stage is
the emergence of concrete operational thinking. At the heart of the transition
is the child’s growing concern to know how things are and to clarify for
him- or herself the bases of distinctions between what is real and what only
seems to be real.
- Stage 2: Clashes or contradictions in stories precipitate a move to
the next stage. Previous literalism breaks down; disillusionment with previous
teachers and teachings arises. Conflicts between authoritative stories
(creation) hopefully are faced. A mutual interpersonal perspective arises and
creates a need for a more personal relationship with the Divine, a power
greater than oneself.
- Stage 3: Factors contributing to the breakdown of Stage 3 and to
readiness for transition may include: serious clashes or contradictions
between valued authority sources; changes in dogma, e.g., Catholic Church
changing from Latin to English in the Mass; the encounter with experiences or
perspectives that lead to critical reflection on how one’s beliefs and
values have formed and changed, and on how "relative" they are to
one’s particular group or background. Leaving home may precipitate this.
- Stage 4: It is unusual for adults to transition from this stage. Most
main-line churches members find themselves here, and are happy to stay here.
It is disturbing inner voices that appear to prompt a transition. Images and
energies from a deeper self, a gnawing sense of the sterility and flatness of
the meanings one serves—any or all of these may signal readiness for
something new. Disillusionment with one’s past understandings press one
toward a more multileveled approach to life’s truth.
- Stage 5: A sad, deep longing and dis-ease can begin to permeate the
person ready to move to Stage 6. What must be struggled with is living a fully
incarnational life, fully disciplined and making real and tangible the
imperatives of love and justice. Since this stage often occurs in mid- to
later life, the energy needed is lacking. The Divine must take the initiative
and act upon the mind, heart and spirit through bringing key persons into one’s
life, through spiritual experiences, through opportune reading material, etc,
as well as contributions from the historical times in which one lives. Health
concerns may limit one from a ministry that is world-wide, but a simple
ministry of presence is always possible, or that of prayer.