PERRY G. DOWNSPerry Downs is chairman of the Department of Christian Education, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

Why are most children captivated by Bible stories? Why do teenagers suddenly start asking hard spiritual questions? (And why do they think their thoughts are original?) Why do young adults often discover that Christianity is more than doctrines and don’ts—that they can know personal intimacy with God?

Emory University theologian James Fowler may have partial explanations for these facts of religious life. He has carefully studied the predictable stages through which faith develops. The result is a sophisticated description of six stages of faith—beginning with an intuitive fantasy-filled childish faith and ending with a universalized faith characterized by an absolute living out of the imperatives of love and justice (see “Six Stages of Faith”).

Since the publication of his book Stages of Faith (1982), Fowler’s theories have received a lot of attention. It is not unusual to hear a pastor speak of preaching a “stage-four sermon” or to read that Sunday-school materials were designed for a “stage-three faith.” But what are we to make of this kind of analysis? Is this widespread acceptance merited?

Faith Without Religion

Fowler contends that all people have faith, and that the basic question of faith, “On what or whom do you set your heart?” does not have to be a religious question. We have confused faith with creed, he says, and have called a list of theological beliefs a “statement of faith.” But that is not faith.

Fowler’s formal definition of faith makes faith something that is evolving, existential, and relative. It has to do with how we see ourselves, others, and the ultimate values that are held in common.

For Fowler, faith is active and always has a relational component (trust in or loyalty to someone or something else). He ultimately expands this concept of faith to include the ability to see everyday life imaginatively—in images of what the world could be and what life could be like.

The idea of faith developing in stages is not new. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) wrote of three stages of spiritual life, plateaus of the devotional life. But Fowler claims that the development of human faith is a universal phenomenon, quite apart from religion.

The roots of Fowler’s theory are firmly planted in the developmental understandings of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg (see “The Mystery of Building Faith,” CT Institute, CT, June 13, 1986, p. 7–1). These developmentalists believe that within the genetic codes of the species are predetermined patterns of growth toward maturity. Thus they seek to define and describe patterns that predictably emerge in the human personality. Fowler’s contribution has been to identify faith as a universal aspect of the human personality that also develops naturally.

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Like all stage theories, Fowler’s predicts that everyone’s faith will emerge through the same stages in the same order. The content of the faith will differ and change, but the structure will always be according to the same six stages. What varies is the extent to which one’s faith will develop. Some people may only reach stage-three conventionality, while a few may develop all the way to stage-six radicalism. But the route to the higher stages will be the same for all.

The strongest influence in Fowler’s work is the moral development theory of his former colleague at Harvard, Lawrence Kohlberg, who describes a stage theory of moral reasoning. Kohlberg makes a sharp distinction between moral content (what one believes to be right or wrong) and moral structure (why one believes something to be right or wrong). In the same way, Fowler attempts to describe the contours of faith without describing its content.

Conversion is defined as a change in the content of one’s faith and may occur at any stage. Depending on the content of faith that is adopted, conversion may either facilitate or inhibit one’s faith development.

Implications And Insights

The implications of this line of research are profound. If predictable stages of faith do exist, pastors and religious educators could understand levels at which their people are functioning and help them develop to higher levels.

Developmentalism respects the human being and strives to enhance the natural process of development. People are viewed holistically; and faith is understood as an aspect of the whole person, not as an isolated experience apart from the rest of life.

But there are also problems. The term faith is used in divergent ways. For Fowler and others, the term refers to the human quest for ultimate meaning—a universal human experience. But for Christians, the term also refers to a particular content (as in “the Christian faith”) and a particular experience (as in “being saved by faith”). While faith is not an exclusively Christian term, it is presented in Scripture as something other than a universal human experience. It is a particular gift of God that results in salvation for those to whom it is given.

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Those who study the human quest for meaning must not force Christian faith into a purely developmental mold. Attempts to pigeonhole the Christian life into developmental stages (without adequate theological consideration) have led some into an exuberant, but uncritical, adoption of Fowler’s theory. True, much of human experience is best understood developmentally. Stages in cognitive ability, psycho-social development, and moral reasoning can be empirically observed. It is reasonable to assume that these would influence faith. But to understand spiritual growth from a developmental perspective alone is to ignore the supernatural.

Likewise, conversion can be understood from a psychological perspective as a change in the content of one’s faith. But from a theological point of view, conversion is the creation of a new person in Christ. Because there is more to conversion than content, and because people experience conversion at different ages, Christian faith will only partly fit Fowler’s developmental mold.

Fowler wants to use theological data, but he then disclaims any theological restrictions. For example, he believes that the Jewish-Christian image of the “kingdom of God” is the best description of stage-six faith. But then he also argues that we should not limit stage six to Jewish-Christian usage. It seems he cannot have it both ways.

Needed: More Study

One helpful outcome of Fowler’s writings has been a renewed interest in spiritual formation. Long a Roman Catholic concern, spiritual development is now capturing the interest of Protestants. With a few notable exceptions, it is the mystics of Roman Catholicism who have studied the spiritual life. Their writings lack a sound empirical base. We need a Protestant theology of spiritual growth, along with empirical studies describing the process.

Fowler has offered the beginnings of this kind of study. His theoretical work lays a basis for understanding people’s quest for meaning. Moreover, research is beginning to show the validity of the stages. However, to use this research to understand the spiritual development of Christians is inappropriate, for spiritual growth is more than a maturing orientation to self, others, and ultimate values. It is the reorientation of one’s life toward God and the abandonment of self to Christ in ever-deepening ways. While aspects of this process are clearly developmental, it is primarily the result of the work of a sovereign God who may choose to work outside of the patterns of human growth and development as well as within them.

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Six Stages of Faith

1.Intuitive-Projective Faith (early childhood); A fantasy-filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions, and stories of the visible faith of primally related adults. The person thinks in terms of magical explanations of events.

2.Mythical-Literal Faith (ages 6–12); The developing ability of logical thinking helps the person sort out reality from make-believe. The narratives of the faith communities (understood literally) are added so that stories become increasingly important.

3.Synthetic-Conventional Faith (ages 12 and beyond): With the ability for abstract thinking comes the need to integrate faith into a systematic whole. Developing self-identity causes the person to identify with others in a unity of belief, with God perceived as an extension of interpersonal relationships and as a close personal friend.

4.Individuative-Reflective Faith (early adulthood and beyond): Self is separated from the group and a person’s beliefs are critically reflected upon. A demythologizing of religious rituals occurs as the person seeks meaning in religious practices and assumes greater personal responsibility for his or her faith.

5.Conjunctive Faith (midlife and beyond): As deeper self-awareness develops, the person becomes alive to paradox and open to other religions and people. It becomes axiomatic that truth is multi-dimensional, and the person seeks significant encounters with others.

6.Universalizing Faith (midlife and beyond): Issues of love and justice become all important as a person is grounded in oneness with the power of being. As people are drawn to this stage by God, they learn to radically live the kingdom of God as a means of overcoming division, oppression, and brutality.

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