(This is from a paper I wrote for my Human Behavior class at Oxford Graduate School. These views do not necessarily reflect the views of OGS, my church, or my employer. The terms in bold are my terms, not Fowler’s.)
There are dozens upon dozens of perspectives on human development related to psychology. However, there are relatively few works on human development that relate to spiritual growth in such a way that can be applied to nearly any person along any stage of the spiritual journey. There also seems to be a lack of a definition of spiritual maturity within Christian circles. In a recent Barna study, the researchers found that 81% of self-identified Christians agreed that spiritual maturity meant “trying hard to follow the rules described in the Bible” (2009). This rules-based understanding reveals that Christian adults may be trapped along the path of spiritual development rather than moving forward.
James Fowler, in his book Stages of Faith, provides readers with a thorough explanation of six different stages a person may go through in his or her lifetime alongside his or her conception of God. Later in this paper we will explore his ideas regarding the stages of faith development. First, we will briefly investigate how one might begin to discover what the driving force in his or her life is.
In order to discover what one’s life treasure and driving force (God) truly is, a person can ask him/herself some pointed questions: For what and for whom am I willing to expend the most energy? On what do I spend most of my time? What do I most enjoy doing? What dreams and goals are the most important to me and how far am I willing to go to see them come to fruition? In what or whom do I place the most trust? What is my purpose for living? To what or to whom am I so committed that I would die rather than betray it or him? The answers to these questions can help a person know what is the driving force behind his or her life, and thus begin to discover what or who his or her God really is.
Many who claim to be Christians may be surprised at their answers to the questions above. Many may discover that the God of the Bible—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—may not be their ultimate source of living, enjoyment, and power. Some may find they have very noble intentions for leading their lives being transformed into the likeness of Christ, but that this cannot and will not happen while “other gods” command their attention. They may be even more surprised to discover that these “gods” come in forms of the friendly and the urgent—ministry, family members, church activities, hobbies, careers, and the like. Or, some may find that they need a better understanding of who God really is, what He is really like, and that they must be willing to let God “out of His box” by examining their conceptions of Him and whether they line up with Scripture.
This process of getting to know God is, of course, one that takes a lifetime and is a task that, being in its nature relational, will never be “finished”. All individuals, including those of world religions and those that claim they are atheists, are somewhere along the faith journey and are somewhere in their relationship to God. World religions, while they are not paths in and of themselves to the one true God, almost always have just enough truth mixed in and just enough knowledge of the human condition to draw in converts. The god of atheists is essentially the fight against their innermost longings for the one true God. As Fowler states, “Our real worship, our true devotion directs itself toward the objects of our ultimate concern. … Ultimate concern is a much more powerful matter than claimed belief in a creed or a set of doctrinal propositions. Faith as a state of being ultimately concerned may or may not find its expression in institutional or cultic religious forms. Faith so understood is very serious business. It involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our most costly loyalties” (1981, p. 4). So, while world religion adherents and atheists may not realize it, their spirits are in some stage of development. Sadly, they may never be exposed to the Truth. For the purposes of this paper, we will be focusing on the Christian’s faith journey.
For many, the stage of faith development corresponds to his or her current life stage (infancy, preschool, school-aged, adolescent, young adult, mature adult). However, as we will discover, this is not true for all Christian adults. This is not necessarily “good” or “bad,” but can perhaps assist followers of Christ in assessing their spiritual growth and help them determine any courses of action they may need to implement.
We can briefly compare the “ideal” spiritual progression to physical growth. The spiritual journey begins much like organic life does—in infancy. As infants, we have the important task of building trust. As very young children, we fuse fact, fantasy, and feeling; relating to God is somewhat magical (Stage 1). Once we begin to develop concrete operational thinking, we transition into a time of exploration, sorting out what is real from what is make-believe, and often relate to God based on reciprocity (Stage 2). As our childhood period grows toward adolescence, we develop formal operational thinking and transition into a much more complicated area of spiritual life. We begin to see God as our lives’ “significant decisive other,” as Fowler puts it, relating to God on a much more intimate and mysterious level, while defining ourselves by the allegiances we form with groups (Stage 3). As we develop critical thinking skills and upon leaving home for college or career, we often experience a crisis of faith that leads us to deconstruct and examine our beliefs like never before and we relate to God in ways that are demythologizing (Stage 4). Eventually a deeper longing for the mysterious draws us into a period of reconstructing beliefs, openness to conversation/exploration, and increasing comfort with paradox; we enter into what Fowler calls a “second naiveté” (Stage 5). As we begin to see the world for what it is, we will often feel tension between whether we should spend our energy on attempting to change the world or not. The ultimate goal for all followers of Christ is to live a life in which beliefs and love run so far in our beings that we become incarnations of love and live in “redemptive subversiveness,” as Fowler puts it (Stage 6).
Let us now explore each stage a little more in depth. But as a first word, we must realize that this journey is not a linear one. Followers of Christ may flow back and forth between stages before landing in one where they will spend more time at any given point in their lives.
Stage 1: The Magical. Most of us can remember our favorite make-believe games from when we were very young, the story lines we created for our toys, and imaginary friends. For those who were raised in homes where church was a priority, some of us probably remember our favorite Bible story or a part of the church service we found interesting—what did the fish look like that swallowed Jonah? Why do we drink grape juice some Sundays but not others? What does God look like? We collect imagery and ideas along the way that will form a basis for much of our spiritual development later. Fowler cites, “Dr. Rizzuto finds that despite our secularization and religious fragmentation, religious symbols and language are so widely present in this society that virtually no child reaches school age without having constructed—with or without religious instruction—an image or images of God” (p. 129).
For adults who become followers of Christ later in life and who have had relatively little exposure to the Bible and religious symbolism, they will go through some of the same discovery that a young child will. Stage 1 may not last as long for an adult of course, since he or she has already developed concrete operational thinking. But in some sense, adults must grapple with the “magical” side of faith. In essence, faith is the most important step learned in Stage 1. Depending on the person’s development in the area of trust (which can be influenced by any number of factors), developing initial faith may be quite a long process. Faith is, of course, developed, tested, and refined as we go throughout all the stages of spiritual development, and our trust in God grows deeper as we face the everyday challenges of life.
Stage 2: Exploration. During Stage 2, children (and adults) will begin to sift through what is real and what is imaginary. Religious symbols will be completely tied to the meaning that they represent, and those in this stage do not have the ability or thought to step outside of this paradigm to examine beliefs. This is an extremely critical point of development for children emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Parents and adults must take care in what they expect from children spiritually during the school-age years. Fowler writes, “Because the child’s appropriations of and personal constructions of meaning with these symbolic elements is unpredictable and because insisting on conceptual orthodoxy at this age is both premature and dangerous, parents and teachers should create an atmosphere in which the child can freely express, verbally and nonverbally, the images she or he is forming. Where this expression is allowed and encouraged, the child is taken seriously and adults can provide appropriate help in dealing with crippling, distorted or destructive images the child has formed” (pp. 132-133). In other words, rather than attempting to force children to adhere to the same expectations as adult believers, parents and faith leaders should focus on creating environments in which children can process their spiritual formation on levels that are appropriate for them. They can then go about the work of helping the child formulate ideas and foundations that are more accurately based on Scriptural teachings that have been crafted for his or her level of understanding and learning.
Fowler warns of the potential consequences of failing to allow children to grow spiritually at their own pace. “There are religious groups who subject Intuitive-Projective children to the kind of preaching and teaching that vividly emphasize the pervasiveness and power of the devil, the sinfulness of all people without Christ and the hell of fiery torments that await the unrepentant. This kind of faith formation—and its equivalent in other religious traditions—can ensure a dramatic ‘conversion experience’ by the time the child is seven or eight. It runs the grave risk, however, of leading to what Philip Helfaer calls ‘precocious identity formation’ in which the child, at conversion, takes on the adult faith identity called for by the religious group. This often results when the child is an adult in the emergence of a very rigid, brittle and authoritarian personality” (p. 132).
During this stage of development, children (and some adults) will often relate to God reciprocally. If you are a good boy or girl, God will bless you. If you are a bad boy or girl, God will punish you. Many adults live in a similar stage of faith development, believing that if they store up good deeds, God will overlook it when they sin or will bless them in some particularly special way. It is important for parents and faith leaders to recognize these unscriptural beliefs and to assist children and adults along the path of understanding concepts such as sin and grace on the levels at which they function. This will, of course, require a bit more effort and one-on-one attention than many faith leaders or parents may be accustomed to giving in this area, but they will recognize the magnitude of importance.
Stage 3: Allegiances. The adolescent years are focused on identity formation, gaining acceptance, and deciding with which “group” one will align. We see this within spiritual formation as well. As teens explore their growing independence, they begin to decide who will take the role of the “significant decisive other.” Fowler writes, “Previous literalism breaks down; new ‘cognitive conceit’ (Elkind) leads to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings. Conflicts between authoritative stories (Genesis on creation versus evolutionary theory) must be faced. The emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective taking … creates the need for a more personal relationship with the unifying power of the ultimate environment” (p. 150). The significant decisive other is the one to whom the teen looks for ultimate advice on important moral decisions but also for everyday concerns, whether consciously or unconsciously. For many this ends up being a peer group or parents or clergy, but for some this role will eventually be filled by God the Holy Spirit.
Marks of Stage 3 are a desire for a more intimate, personal way of relating to God, reflection on the meaning behind religious symbols (although they are still unable to be separated from one another), and developing one’s story of faith, or “testimony.” Teens in Stage 3 are developing self-consciousness, and thus are quite egocentric. Adolescents begin to learn how to accept others’ opinions and will be forced to investigate why they believe what they believe. We see this focus among adults in Stage 3 as they place stressed importance on apologetics and taking a firm stance on political and social issues.
We see marks of Stage 3 in the modern church as a whole with ideas such as church membership, expected political alignment (whether spoken or unspoken), and business meetings. We also see marks of Stage 3 in the stress of the importance of a “personal relationship” with God. Perhaps the most obvious mark of Stage 3 in the modern church is the importance placed on the role of clergy and the wide difference of “expectations” between clergy and laity. Fowler points out, “… there is always the danger of becoming permanently dependent upon and subject to what Sharon Parks calls the ‘tyranny of the they’. For Stage 3, with its beginnings in adolescence, authority is located externally to the self. It resides in the interpersonally available ‘they’ or in the certified incumbents of leadership roles in institutions” (p. 154).
Some catalysts that may move a Stage 3 believer toward Stage 4 include the crisis of faith and self-examination that often accompany “leaving home”. For teenagers, graduating from high school and leaving home for college, the military, family, or career is a very critical time in faith development. In 2007, LifeWay Research found that about 70% of church-attending teens will leave the church by age 23 (Grossman, 2007). This crucial time often includes questioning and rejection of the “significant decisive other” and authority figures and precedes an investigation of one’s beliefs. Even for adult believers in Stage 3, this transition can lead to Stage 4 of faith development.
Stage 4: Deconstruction. Stage 4 faith can be a very uncomfortable, difficult stage. This stage includes much questioning and analyzing of oneself and one’s faith. The faith symbols that an individual has grown accustomed to are looked at from an objective point of view. The meaning of the symbols is separated from the symbols themselves in a process Fowler calls “demythologizing”. He writes, “Instead of the symbol or symbolic act having the initiative and exerting its power on the participant, now the participant-questioner has the initiative over against the symbol. For those who have previously enjoyed an unquestioning relation to the transcendent and to their fellow worshipers through a set of religious symbols, Stage 4′s translations of their meanings into conceptual prose can bring a sense of loss, dislocation, grief and even guilt” (p. 180). Persons in Stage 4 may even feel that they are walking the line of orthodoxy, and may often feel quite alone during their demythologizing process. Or, they may develop what Fowler calls the “executive ego” and will take more initiative in his or her faith development.
For individuals in Stage 4, the “either/or” becomes very important. The Stage 4 believer can often come across to others as critical or narcissistic as he or she draws conclusions that are, for him or her, revolutionary and new. Some individuals in this stage can run the risk of reverting to a form of intolerance and pride that places dogmatic emphasis on their own being “right” about certain subjects or aspects of faith and religious practice while at the same time claiming to be very open-minded.
While Stage 4 can be a challenge, there are positive results of this analytical search, such as the ability to communicate one’s faith journey in a way that reveals deeper critical thinking and reflection or a renewed passion for truth. If one is to successfully transition from Stage 4 to Stage 5, he or she must have the diligence to work through the discomfort and find a way to reassemble a new way of living out faith on the other side.
Stage 5: Reconstruction. The path to Stage 5 and reconstructing one’s faith begins with a deeper longing for the mysterious. Perhaps the individual remembers the “simpler times” of his or her childhood when relating to God was magical. Perhaps he or she begins to realize that not all questions must have answers, that God can be both intimately knowable and mysterious at the same time. He or she will move slowly away from the either/or mindset of Stage 4 and into one that embraces paradox—the “both/and”. Persons in this stage begin to foster a deep appreciation for dialogue and conversational exploration, even if no conclusions are drawn or no particular “destination” is reached.
Another mark of a person in this faith stage is tolerance and acceptance of others as people. The Stage 5 believer has done the hard work of firming his or her foundational beliefs and will not waver on core issues he or she feels are worth dying for. But while he or she may completely disagree with another on issues such as lifestyle choice, religious belief, or denominational preference, the Stage 5 individual is able to discover nuggets of God’s truth in nearly any situation or group of people. As Fowler writes, Stage 5 faith “suspects that things are organically related to each other; it attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting to its own prior mind set. … In a mutual ‘speaking’ and ‘hearing,’ knower and known converse in an I-Thou relationship. The knower seeks to accommodate her or his knowing to the structure of that which is being known before imposing her or his own categories upon it” (p. 185). This will have a significant impact on how the Stage 5 believer approaches God and other people in his or her life mission. The Stage 5 believer does not, however, embrace a pluralistic view of God or believe that “all roads lead to heaven;” instead, he or she is more interested in the journey of conversation that can occur between dissenting individuals. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
As Stage 5 believers begin to again embrace more symbolic or mysterious aspects of faith, they may be considered idealistic or naïve by others. But the Stage 5 believer often has, whether consciously or unconsciously, chosen the “second naiveté”. Fowler writes, “With its attention to the organic and interconnected character of things Stage 5 distrusts the separation of symbol and symbolized, sensing that when we neutralize the initiative of the symbolic, we make a pale idol of any meaning we honor. … Ricoeur’s term ‘second naiveté’ or ‘willed naiveté’ begins to describe Conjunctive faith’s postcritical desire to resubmit to the initiative of the symbolic” (p. 187).
As the Stage 5 believer develops, he or she will encounter a dilemma—the reality of the world. In one’s “naïve” desire to embrace others as beloved creatures of God, he or she will be exposed to the harsh reality of a sinful and fallen world and faced with the decision of whether or not to attempt to intervene. This is the transition toward Stage 6 faith.
Stage 6: Incarnation. Followers of Christ in this stage of faith are, as Fowler writes, “exceedingly rare. … They have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community. They are ‘contagious’ in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity. … Life is both loved and held to loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages and from any other faith tradition” (pp. 200-201). These individuals are the ones that are most likely to be martyrs due to their radical selfless love and commitment to justice. The most obvious example of Stage 6 faith is, of course, Jesus Christ Himself. It stands to reason that at the heart of any of His followers is the desire to be just like Him. However, Stage 6 faith does not come easily. Fowler states, “It is my conviction that persons who come to embody Universalizing faith are drawn into those patterns of commitment and leadership by the providence of God and the exigencies of history. It is as though they are selected by the great Blacksmith of history, heated in the fires of turmoil and trouble and then hammered into usable shape on the hard anvil of conflict and struggle” (p. 201).
Stages of Faith is a book that every follower of Christ should at least investigate and is a valuable resource for those who shepherd communities of faith on any level. Understanding the progression and nature of spiritual development is essential in order for Christ’s followers to truly embrace and live out their reason for existing—to glorify God by enjoying Him forever—at any stage of faith.
Barna (2009). Many churchgoers and faith leaders struggle to define spiritual maturity. The Barna Group. Retrieved from http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/264-many-churchgoers-and-faith-leaders-struggle-to-define-spiritual-maturity.
Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row Publishers.
Grossman, C. L. (2007, August 6). Young adults aren’t sticking with church. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-08-06-church-dropouts_N.htm.