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Stages of Faith: Learn James Fowler’s 7 Stages

Let’s look have a comprehensive look at James Fowler’s 7 Stages of Faith Development, which describe how we satisfy our basic need for meaning in ever more elaborate ways as we grow and mature.

Learning what James Fowler discovered can seriously alter how you view yourself, others and human culture.

One of James Fowler’s greatest contributions was to show us that faith is not necessarily religious. In the broadest sense, it is the guiding set of ideas, values and beliefs that drives our lives. James Fowler was also adamant that faith is a process, one which unfolds through seven potential phases as we live out our lives. James Fowler’s stages of faith roughly match those in Spiral Dynamics, Integral Theory and other leading models of human development.

But before looking at the stages of faith, let’s take a look at their key properties.

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith: Key Ingredients

Here’s a concise summary of their features:

  • Each phase has an optimal time for emergence. Each helps us meet our unique crises and challenges during a particular life phase. There are minimum ages below which certain transitions are very unlikely.
  • The stages of faith “exhibit an indisputably normative tendency”, with #6 signifying the endpoint of maturation in James Fowler’s model.
  • Each phase signifies the rise of new capacities, adding to the previous ones and recontextualising them.
  • Overall, there is a movement from unconscious union to individuation, culminating with James Fowler’s Stage 4, before a movement towards conscious union.
  • Transitions between phases are often protracted, dislocating, painful and sometimes abortive. They represent changes in how we know, value, judge and commit.
  • Each is capable of providing an individual with wholeness, grace and integrity. Each has strengths and deficiencies.

Keep those properties in mind as we cover each level and look at the world through this new lens.

James Fowler and the 7 Stages of Faith

Stage 0: Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith

Though not particularly relevant to our everyday adult lives, this phase is the foundation for all future development. Understanding it also allows us to better grasp faith itself.

Key Features of 0

Its features are found only in very young infants who are entirely dependent on caregivers. At this phase in their development, the child lacks even the basic mental capacities that develop in childhood. These include the distinction between self and other, the “centralised self-sense”, as James Fowler calls it, the sense of linear time and the permanent world of objects.

These deficincies, along with its obvious physical restrictions, make the child entirely dependent on a caring guardian to meet its basic biological needs. The core challenge in this phase is to develop a sense of trust towards those caregivers and towards life itself.

Its Importance

The seeds of faith are sown here. In this phase, the child forms their first “pre-images” of God. Since young infants cannot access verbal language and representation through symbols, these images are prior to language and concepts. They may be feelings or senses that are consistent with the quality of care and attention they receive.

And if the needs of the child are inadequately met, due to neglection, poverty or similar, their capacity for trust and for forming relationships and secure attachments can be seriously undermined. Distrust will then plague their view of the ultimate environment, affecting their ability to form a relationship with the divine.

Let’s turn to Stage 1, where we typically find young children.

Fowler’s Stages of Faith #1: Intuitive-Projective

After the “primordial matrix” in Stage 0, children learn to walk, write, talk and interact with others, gaining a measure of independence. By now, they have stood on their feet and started walking, learned to use their hands. They want to explore their world using their radical new capacities.

Features of Intuitive-Projective Level

In a cognitive sense, children can now access symbols and language, and they use it to name objects, which they now see as being separate from them. In a similar vein, they develop a sense of object permanence: if mummy isn’t in the room, that doesn’t imply she doesn’t exist. If the teddy isn’t present, it’s probably just under the bed. This relies on memory and the formation of mental concepts.

Their inner world of thought now runs rampant. The child can assimilate concepts from peers, adding them to their mental store. They form an assortment of images and thoughts relating to the ultimate environment. But when they attempt to create a coherent account of it, they fall short.

Limitations of Level 1

The later-developing logical capacities are yet to come online here. Magical thinking dominates, meaning the lines between imagination and reality are blurred. This is to do with the child’s lack of understanding of cause and effect and how things happen in the world. Children at this phase speak fluidly, using phrases and sentences that lack logical structure. While they have senses of the ultimate power, they cannot adequately describe it with language. Descriptions have an episodic flavour.

Nevertheless, we should appreciate the new capacities that this phase affords us. Among them are the use of language to describe the divine, an ability to capture the ultimate power in stories, and the rich mental life that emerges.

intuitive-projective faith: James Fowler's Stages of Faith #1

With additional biological, cognitive and social development, the child’s faith system complexifies further.

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development #2: Mythic-Literal

This level typically appears in childhood. Several key capacities emerge here.

Here we begin to adopt the beliefs and stories prevalent in our community, whether that means our family, religious or secular groups, school, city or nation, or a blend of these.

Key Features of Level 2

For the first time, we internalise the moral standards of those groups. Faith takes on a flavour of reciprocity, in the mould of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”. If you are good, God or Allah or Lakshmi will treat you favourably; if not, they will punish you in line with the severity of your wrong-doing. This phase is visible in our tendency to separate good and evil into rigid categories and view them as being inherent to the cosmos.

Phase 2 participants in Fowler’s research often saw their trials and tribulations to be governed by a bank of goodwill. If things were going wrong, they would carry out acts to please God. If things were going well, they saw it is a sign that they had acted as a believer should.

Limitations of Phase 2

We come to greatly appreciate narrative and stories as a vehicle to express meaning. Here we interpet these literally and the meanings we derive from them are locked into the story itself. We are unable to see the myth or story as a pointer to deeper, greater realities. Thus stories and symbols take on a sacred status for us. This means the very myths and images conveying faith are fused with their meaning and greater significance. Hence the “Mythic” descriptor.

Nevertheless, children and adults at this phase show an ability to construct structured and logically sound descriptions of the divine. This brings a coherence and order to their experience that is unavailable at Stage 1.

Now let’s turn to the next of our stages of faith.

mythic-literal faith: James Fowler's Stages of Faith #2

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith #3: Synthetic-Conventional

This structure first becomes available in adolescence, but many adults become permanently located here. In fact, it give rise to the kind of religion that many wrongly equate with all of religion due to its prevalence.

The Keys to Synthetic-Conventional Faith

Faith here orients us in a complex network of friendships, family commitments, work, peers and society. Now fully aware that other people are their own people with their own experiences and views on life – and on us – we internalise the values, expectations and outlook of our peers. Our identify derives from membership to a group – be it a nation, household, church or a generalised sense of belonging, and our outlook is enmeshed with theirs, hence Synthetic. This provides us with comfort and a sense of belonging.

The person’s identity is so tied to their chosen group or groups that they lack a strong grasp of an independent identity, so cannot form their own views through deliberation and evaluation. Authority is outside themselves; other people direct them. They are in a sense a mouthpiece of the meanings and values that dominate in their surround.

Why is it “Conventional”?

Here, we view everyone else as sharing our own faith system. Fowler called this Conventional because we grow into this structure in a more or less uniform environment, picking up the ideas championed by the culture or groups we encounter.

Fowler emphasises the tacit nature of this system. While the person who holds it is aware of having an ideology, they can’t step outside the flow of their lives and look at the origins of their convictions. They are as yet unable to identify and question the reasons behind their conventional ideology.

This person’s faith system plays an important role in affirming the validity of their groups and providing the belongingness they need.

synthetic-conventional faith: James Fowler's Stages of Faith #3

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Let’s break the shackles of conventionality and dive into the next stage.

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith #4: Individuative-Reflective

Fowler remarked that this phase takes form in young adulthood as we emotionally and/or physically leave home, cast aside our inherited outlook and take seriously the effects of our life choices. We have the necessary time and space apart from our familiar surround to question it and reflect on it.

But by no means does this distancing guarantee a shift from Level 3 to 4. We may find groups and ideologies elsewhere that replace the previous one as a Level 3 anchor.

Key Features of Stage 4

Authority is relocated to the individual and their identity expands beyond their roles and significant others. To support this identity, they compose a self-reflexive system. This is no longer tacit – the person has arrived to their system of meaning after deliberation and analysis. Hence Individuative.

Neither is it synthetic – they have an executive ego, an inner panel of judges. The person, though still attuned to other’s beliefs and expectations, is able to pass the meanings and concepts from their surround through an internal filter before accepting them.

We form a system of meaning that is self-reflective and well-defined. A key feature of this level is its “demythologisation”, which means that we force symbols to conform to explicit meanings. We look beyond the symbol and strip away its power as a metaphor, extracting what appeals to us based on our prior knowledge.

The preoccupation with logical consistency can bring an excessive trust in the conscious mind, skepticism and deliberation and mean we overlook the unconscious factors driving groups and individuals.

individuative-reflective faith: James Fowler's Stages of Faith #4

The move to 5 signifies the arrival of a more flexible and open faith system.

James Fowler’s Stage 5: Conjunctive

Fowler’s research revealed to him the rarity of this level before midlife. The reason for this is illumined when we consider two core features present in all his Level 5 subjects: sustained responsibility for the wellbeing of other people, and the experience of living with irreversible moral decisions. The youngest person Fowler determined to be at this phase was in their late twenties.

Understanding Conjunctive Faith

Here we transcend the explicit, sharply defined system and identity of Stage 4. We realise that truth is much more multifaceted and wondrously complex than any one theory, system or doctrine can encapsulate. As a result, we’re ready to broaden our spiritual horizons and interact with and incorporate the truths of other systems.

We also become attuned to the unconscious factors that have shaped us and warped our perspective. To compensate, we develop a second naivete in which we relinquish our control to the power of texts, practices and truths. We retain our critical capacity and self-prism developed in the previous phase while realising how distorting this filter can be.

Closely related to this expansion is Stage 5’s relationship to symbols. After the flattening and downplaying of symbols at the previous level, here we breathe new life into them, giving them the initiative and allowing them to speak to us on their own terms. This brings an entirely new dimension to faith life.

Furthermore, Stage 5 is keenly attuned to injustice and division, unlike any of the prior levels. However, passivity and complacency is common. Caught between conflicting life demands, they do not wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to fearless fighting and efforting for improvement to the welfare of others.

conjunctive faith: James Fowler's Stages of Faith #5

We now come to the endpoint of Fowler’s sequence.

6: Universalizing

Very few people are found here. Fowler describes this level as a fearless, radical enactment of universal principles of morality, justice and faith, backed by a meaning system that sees the divine in absolutely all manifestations of life.

Perhaps because they are convenient examples, perhaps because few common people reach this phase, Fowler gives Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi as examples of people embodying this level.

Here we have a strong sense of universal justice that cuts through national and racial boundaries. We have a vision of heaven on earth that extends to all of humans regardless of race, colour, sex or creed. And while at Stage 5 we have visions and imaginations of this sort, we often fall short of taking action and devoting ourselves to suitable causes. Here we enact through action that shakes the status quo, often forcing change and revolution.

universalising faith: James Fowler's Faith Stage 6