Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.

The Author

James Fowler

Charles Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University.

Stages of Faith

Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective Faith

Stage 2: Mythic-Literal Faith

Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

Stage 6: Universalizing Faith

Selected Quotes

“In these pages I am offering a theory of growth in faith. At the heart of the book you will find an account of a theory of seven stagelike, developmentally related styles of faith that we have identified. A theory means an elaborate, dynamic model of very complex pattens in our lives. Theories can be exciting an powerful, giving us names for our experiences and ways to understand and express what we have lived. They can also become blinders, limiting our ability to see to only those features of phenomena that we can name and account for. Erik Erikson, himself a great theory maker, once said, ‘We must take our theories with a serious playfulness and a playful seriousness.’ In that gentle warning there is a kind of double faith—faith that we can in some measure grasp, clarify and work effectively with the most vital processes of our lives, but also faith that the reality of any such complex process will not be exhaustively contained in our theoretical frameworks.”[1]

“Speaking of religions as ‘cumulative traditions,’ [Smith] suggests that we see a cumulative tradition as the various expression of the faith of people in the past…Like a dynamic gallery of art, a living cumulative tradition in its many forms addresses contemporary people and becomes what Smith calls ‘the mundane cause’ that awakens present faith. Faith, at once deeper and more personal than religion, is the person’s r groups’ way of responding to transcendent value and power as perceived and grasped through the forms of the cumulative tradition. Faith and religion, in this view, are reciprocal.”[2]

“At critical junctures in our lives the normal fabric of our everyday patterns can be interrupted…We too wonder vaguely who or what has sent this into our lives. Our images of the character of the power(s) determining the ultimate conditions of our lives arise out of and are tested in these kinds of experiences…In the interplay between such invasions of ‘normality’ and the symbolic representations of the transcendent that have grasped us, we compose images (and perhaps beliefs about and concepts of) the ultimate conditions of our existence. We have varying degrees of consciousness regarding these working images of ultimate reality. But conscious or unconscious, they affect the setting of our goals, the relationships we make and maintain and the ways we respond to emergencies and crises. They have an impact upon the ways we make plans and on our efforts to live our lives with integrity. These are the triadic dynamics of faith.”[3]

Contributions from Piaget and Kohlberg:

  1. Epistemological focus. “The broad epistemological emphasis in the structural-developmental theories serves us well as a model for understanding faith as a way of knowing and interpreting.”
  2. Focus on the structuring of knowing as it gives form to the contents of knowledge.
  3. Rigorous concept of structural stages and with the actual descriptions of cognitive and moral reasoning stages. [Faith stages] provide generalizable, formal descriptions of integrated sets of operations of knowing and valuing…each new stage integrates and carries forward the operations of all the previous stages.
  4. Development as an interactional process. The interaction between an active, innovative subject and a dynamic, changing environment. Adaptation is invention.
  5. Normative features of stages. The more advanced stages are able to develop knowing that is ‘more true’ than the lower stages.
  6. Separation of cognition or knowing from emotion or affection. In light of this, Fowler distinguishes two forms of cognition: logic of rational certainty—objective, scientific inquiry—and the logic of conviction—there is a modification of the knower in the observation of the known.
  7. Their very restrictive understanding of the role of imagination in knowing, their neglect of symbolic processes generally and the related lack of attention to unconscious structuring processes other than those constituting reasoning.
  8. Neither has offered a theory of the epistemological or moral self.

Some serious limitations:

“ A structural-developmental theory of faith must be a theory of personal knowing and acting. This means neither an individualistic theory, nor one that gives up the commitment to generalizability. Rather, it means a commitment to take seriously that our previous decisions and actions shape our character, as do the stories and images by which we live. It means a commitment to take seriously the fact that we are formed in social communities and that our ways of seeing the world are profoundly shaped by the share images and constructions of our group or class. It means, further, a commitment to relate structural stages of faith to the predictable crises and challenges of developmental eras and to take life histories seriously in its study.[4]

“If Piaget and Kohlberg have given us impetus to study the structuring activity of faith, Erikson has helped us in many ways to focus on the functional aspect of faith, the expected existential issues with which it must help people cope at whatever structural stage across the life cycle.”[5]

The Contents of Faith

“Our faith orientations and our corresponding characters are shaped by three major elements of what I have been calling the ‘contents’ of our faiths:

  1. Centers of value. What we worship and give worth. We may exhibit polytheistic, henotheistic, or radical monotheistic patterns.
  2. Images of power and the powers with which we align ourselves to sustain us in the midst of life’s contingencies.
  3. Master stories.[6]


“A significant recentering of one’s previous conscious or unconscious images of value and power, and the conscious adoption of a new set of master stories in the commitment to reshape one’s life in a new community of interpretation and action.”[7]

A Haunting Paragraph for those of Us Raised in Fundamentalism

The context for this paragraph is Fowler’s list of six types of conversions as they relate to his construction of 6 stages of Faith. Conversion type #6 contains the haunting words:

“6. Conversional change that blocks or helps one avoid the pain of faith stage changes—as when a boy or girl of seven to ten is led, in a fundamentalist Christian environment, to a powerful conversion experience that brings assurance of forgiveness and salvation when the child has been convinced of her or his sinfulness and by images of the destructiveness of hell. Such a childhood conversion can lead to what Philip Helfaer has called ‘precocious identity formation’ in which the child takes on prematurely the patterns of adult faith modeled in that church. In such cases the growing boy or girl goes through no adolescent identity crisis. And short of an extraordinarily disruptive young adult ‘breaking out’ of those cast-iron images of identity and faith formed in childhood, the person remains in that stage for life.”[8]

A faith community that provides for the nurture of ongoing adult development in faith will create a climate of developmental expectation.”[9]

“ I believe that the sequence of stages as now described does reflect a developmental process in human beings that makes both ontological and ontogenetic sense. Here I introduce two terms, both built on the Greek word ontos, meaning ‘being.’ To say that the stage theory makes ontological and ontogenetic sense means that it brings to expression the structural characteristics of a sequence of developmentally related systems of constitutive knowing by which we construct (an therefore ‘know’) self-others-world as related to transcendence. With the phrase constitutive knowing I mean to suggest that being—in others, in self, in world and in God—becomes real to us as we construct it in our knowing in response to the sense data and symbolic representations that impinge upon us. Put more simply, we constitute our own subjective experience of others, self and world as related to transcendence. The stages give us a model by which to represent and examine the evolution of the systems of operations by which we do this constitutive knowing.”[10]

“Perhaps the most important thing that can be said in concluding this book is that our study of faith development, so far, underscores the fact that we human beings seem to have a generic vocation—a universal calling—to be related to the Ground of Being in a relationship of trust and loyalty. That vocation calls us into covenantal relationship with the transcendent and with the neighbor—when the neighbor is understood radically to be all being. Faith development studies confirm the judgment that human beings are genetically potentiated—that is to say, are gifted at birth—with readiness to develop in faith. Perhaps our studies and the account of stages of faith this book has offered will enable us to see something of how we can become co-responsible with God for the quality and extensiveness of faith on earth. It is my hope that this book results, for those who read it, in an enlargement of that awareness and of gratitude for the gifts of God’s grace—both ordinary and extraordinary. I hope that it leads to enlarged commitment to be part of God’s work of righteousness and faithful liberation in our world.”[11]

[1] James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), xiii.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 96-97.

[4] Ibid., 105.

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Ibid., 276-281.

[7] Ibid., 281-282.

[8] Ibid., 286.

[9] Ibid., 296.

[10] Ibid., 297.

[11] Ibid., 303.

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