Stages of Faith: Where Are You?

Last week, I was prompted to reflect on my journey of faith, beginning by recalling “my” early question that drives much of my thinking: “Why do some people have faith, and, some people do not?”. I gave a promissory note that I would fill in some of the gaps as to the formal theory James Fowler offered as to the universal, sequential, and hierarchical stages of faith that humans move through in the course of life.

I have interviewed hundreds clinically, thousands informally, about how they make sense of life. How do they see the contours of our experience, our common reality? How has their nature formed them, how has their nurture shaped them, and what is the interplay of the two? What interpretive lenses have they developed during the course of their life, and how do those lenses inform and limit what they see? How can those lenses change through time, even be transformed?

Fowler and our tribe would state that faith is a universal among humans, which I assume includes YOU. I realize that I am being optimistic, but that’s just part of particular and peculiar faith. As you may have read last week, it flows from the circumstances of my beginning, the people who formed me and my way of seeing this world that I found myself living within That original image of the world has been added to, subtracted by, and transformed by the people and experiences I have had. YOU may have been or are one of those factors. You know who you are…..

Fatih as we are defining it is not limited to creedal communities, or formal religious systems of thinking and valuing, though they certainly inform a person’s faith formation. Even a refusal to name any religious faith as one’s own is, de facto, a faith, a way of seeing the world. Ironically, I have found that some of the most adamant holders of faith are those who vehemently oppose any ascription to a transcendent reality. It’s a part of their “faith” by having NO faith. Cue Alanis Morisette, Isn’t It Ironic.

While we hold that faith is a universal phenomenon across cultures, we also offer a stage structure as a heuristic device to help us see ways in which our faith is formed, reformed, and transformed through the course of our life. As we said every time we professed this ambitious theory, we intend it as a helpful model rather than pigeon holes in which to stuff persons.

Our stage theory is largely formed on the back of Piaget’s cognitive structural theory. It also owes a great deal to the practical extension of that theory into moral reasoning by Lawrence Kohlberg. Moral development theory looks to see how we reason our way through ethical dilemmas and arrive at moral decisions.

Drawing on Piaget and Kohlberg, James Fowler forwarded a stage theory that identifies six identifiable ways of exercising that human capacity of faith. For a look at the sweep of those six faith stages, I would point you to the signature statement of our theory, Stages of Faith, which will dissect the dimensions of human faith, and will show you the debt we have to Piaget and Kohlberg, while making our unique contribution. Stages of Faith is hefty in theory, deep in humanity’s meaning, daring to look unflinchingly at our existential condition. It has the temerity to ask “my” question of how we come to faith, emerging with an answer.

In last week’s article, I did a bit of autobiographical gazing into my past journey of faith, which some refer to as a pilgrimage. It gave a personal testimony as to how my faith was formed, reformed, and hopefully transformed to where I am presently on this Winter Solstice of 2022. This week, you will be spared of my gaze turned within as I focus my attention on the three stages that touch the largest group of people living life: Stage Three- Conventional Faith, Stage Four- Individuative Faith, Stage Five- Dialectical Faith.

We will begin with Stage Three, rightly referred to as Conventional Faith. It is generally the system of truth, the life orientation that you grew up with. Many times, it represents the faith tradition you grew up with, mainly because it was all you ever knew or was exposed to in childhood and adolescence. The content can be varied. It could come from a traditional religion that offers stories, symbols, and values that are passed on to you by your parents or family of origin. This can be done aggressively with indoctrination or casually, just hoping you pick it up as you go. The content can be that of no-content, agnostic, or atheistic, or a more common form in our society, relativism. Again, this can be aggressively pushed or merely present as “the way we do things around here”. These positions can be tacit, that is, largely assumed and unexamined, or carefully thought through and discussed openly. Regardless, this becomes your way of seeing the world, or interpreting just what in the world is going on.

A person transitions out of Stage Three when you realized that you have accepted a system of thinking that has been handed off to you, by your family, your society, or culture.

You awake to the fact that there are other ways to conceive life, make ethical decisions, and see the lay of the land of human existence. For many people, this process takes flight when one goes off to college, leaves home, or joins the military service. Not only does one leave the context of home and family, but may be simultaneously exposed to other ways of thinking and valuing. This can prove to be both exhilarating and frightening, maybe both.

The vortex of relativity may cause panic and disorientation. Many times it may lead to retrenchment, diving back into what you “know” with a sense of resistance to the new, the literally “unfamiliar”. Others seem to relish the new found freedom and see the world as a smorgasbord of thought from which to experiment and choose. This exposure typically leads to a choice of an “owned faith”, something that you have chosen for yourself. It can be an affirmation of the system that you grew up within, or a choice to adopt a new community of shared belief. Let me add that for some that community is of people who explicitly don’t know and choose not to know or care. That too is a system of belief and way of faith, strange as they may be to us who are thinking in traditional terms.

I can’t help but think about the Christmas holidays, that moment when kids who are going through this process are returning to the nest. Many times, they will be asked to go with the family to a religious service that they used to attend each year when they lived at home. This can be comforting to one who has been inundated with strange and unfamiliar knowledge, returning to familiar people, thoughts, and customs. On the other hand, it may press the discontinuity in their heart, mind, and soul, making them feel uncomfortable, even disingenuous. It makes sense to be aware of what’s going on with folks who may be experiencing this transition. What a novel thought to be compassionate in the season of Christmas.

Stage 3 Conventional Faith transitions to Stage 4 Indiviiduative Faith which signals that one has self-consciously chosen a faith position. This can be a new system of belief, a system that has a few differences from one’s original conventional faith, or it can be a decision to stand in the one that brought them to the dance of faith from the beginning. The big difference is that now one has come to “own” the faith for oneself, and not merely going along for the ride of an inherited faith of one’s family. That movement to make a conscious decision is dramatically portrayed in evangelical religions as one literally “walks the aisle” to the front of the church to profess your faith. It is curious that the drive for such a profession comes in these congregations before the child has the cognitive structures that have the necessary capacity to make such a decision. Having worked with youth, this push for premature closure is driven by fear, as caring parents wan their kids “done” before they get away from them. Understandable, but it tends to be counter-productive as the adolescent develops formal operational thinking. I’ve seen the same thing happen in more liturgical traditions that use the liturgy of confirmation to formally ask questions as to what one believes. Again, this is generally done too early to be effective. Regardless, the “owning” of one’s faith represents a significant moment in the life of faith.

My experience is that, given the fear-based push, this move to Stage Four may be repeated several times, usually requiring some steady-state identity before one truly has the capacity to choose and “own” one’s faith. And some never find that capacity, choosing to hang with folks that make them feel comfortable, confirming both their values and prejudices. Formation in many traditions are relegated to learning facts, affirming dogma, rather than engaging the basic issues of faith. Thankfully, some traditions and denominations are beginning to take this question more seriously.

After one has lived out of a Stage 4 faith for a while, one will find that your system may have some holes in its logic, or some gaps in its argument. Coming in contact with other faith systems may alert you to weaknesses in your own position or may be attractive to dimensions of the world’s reality that you may have missed. This may lead you to question your faith position internally, not sharing that doubt with others. Also, sometimes people in Stage 4 react strongly to those emerging internal questions, doubling down on their firm commitment to the system that they have chosen. For some people, this self-selected system of belief is satisfying and remains their faith position for the rest of their lives, serving them well, as they say, even unto death. Whatever Gets You Through the Night, adds John Lennon.

We found that some of the people that we interviewed had their self-chosen Stage 4 disrupted by some event that caused them to question the adequacy of their faith structure. A traumatic event to one’s self or to a loved one may prompt such reconsideration. Also, we found that world events might begin the cracking of the solid structure of explaining “how things are”.

Sometimes, the overly tight rules of a Stage 4 faith start to fray at midlife, leading to an exploration of other ways of making sense of life. This transition can resemble the vortex that one felt when moving away from the conventional faith that you inherited. Once again, one becomes acutely aware of the competing systems of truth, and may be overwhelmed at times as one no longer has the certainty that accompanies a stabilized stage.

Again, one may choose consciously or by default to return to the formerly stable set of beliefs and orientation. Or, one may come to hold one’s faith tradition more loosely, recognizing the Truth of other systems, no longer obsessed with defending your own. One may still live fully and faithfully out of one’s chosen faith, while giving berth to others, looking for parallels that exist between systems of truth and values. This Stage 5 is called Dialectical Fatih as it holds one’s own faith in tension with other faiths. There seems to be a relaxing of the need for “superiority” that was a part of one’s past way defining one’s faith over and against others’ faith.

My research interviews with Stage 5 folks demonstrates a deeply held “home” faith while expressing an open view to the Truth that may exist in other’s faith. Appreciation for others’ journey and culture does not seem to diminish the commitment that one has for their chosen form of faith.

I had an opportunity to interview the mystic Howard Thurman just before his death. He was a grand example of one who was firmly rooted in his Christian tradition, and yet was able to appreciate and learn from other faith traditions, enriching his own faith. I remember admiring his gracious acceptance of others’ traditions as he described them in appreciative terms, synthesizing their perspective and insights with his own, and emerging with a transformed vision of the world. I have come to know this as Creative Interchange, which I have written about in previous articles. On that weekend, I recall witnessing a kind of faith that seemed to offer a way forward. In these days of aggressive purveyors of violent differentiation and judgment of right and wrong, I recall the real-life faith of Dr. Thurman as “a way through”, and try to do likewise.

I have tried to give you a “down and dirty” introduction to three of the most pertinent stage of faith that are offered in our faith development theory. Again, I refer you to the primary source material of James Fowler, Stages of Faith, for a winsome and provocative picture of human faith as well as a process of stage development that we found common in persons.

I am finishing up my writing of this particular article on the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year for those of us living in the northern hemisphere. It has served as a liminal time in the history of humankind, when our awareness of the thin space between heaven and earth. In this deep darkness, people of primitive religions, those in conventional, those wrestling with relativity, and even those with more sophisticated faith look to the horizon of our world for signs of the coming light. This is our faith, our hope for the future… our future.

I hope that in this season of Light that my ramblings may provide a fresh insight into your own journey of faith as you borrow the heuristic lens of faith development. May the faith that you carry in your heart, mind, and soul bring you joy and wonder in this time. Advent blessings.

2 thoughts on “Stages of Faith: Where Are You?

  1. Hi David,

    On my personal ‘name day’ (even for Episcopalian I guess) a longer comment

    Your description of some stages of James Fowler’s theory made me think of a quote of George E. P. Box: “All models are wrong, some are useful”. He would argue regarding the theory of stages that there is no need to ask the question “Is the theory true?”. If ‘truth’ is to be the ‘whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ the answer must be obviously ‘No!’. The only question of interest, Box would say: ‘Is the theory illuminating and useful?” and the answer to that question regarding Fowler’s theory is YES!

    In his 1987 book “Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces’, which he co-authored with Norman Draper), he writes on p. 424:

    … all models are approximations. Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful. However, the approximate nature of the model must always be borne in mind….

    I have the conviction that a model is useful if it changes once mindset. And I’m sure that the theory you’ve developed with dr. Fowler has done that regarding your own ‘stages of faith’. In my lifetime I’ve developed two models. And as in the case of your theory, that has been formed on the theories of Piaget and Kohlberg, mine were standing on the shoulders of other giants. Both of my models transformed my way of thinking, not only while developing them, surely by using them.

    The first model I developed I called the ‘Sewing Tower’ and was built upon the back of the domino ‘cause and effect’ or ‘accident causation’ models of H. W. Heinrich (1931) and my second ‘father’ Frank E. Bird Jr. (1974). I developed my model in the same period prof. Reason developed his ‘Swiss Cheese’ model (1992); not mine, although far better than Reason’s, became famous. (big smile) More important is that my model thought me continuously over the years and I learned it’s hidden gem’s by using it during my second and consecutive lives.

    The second model I developed I called the “Butterfly model” (Crucial Dialogue Model) which turned out to be a useful model to understand and live Creative Interchange. This time I was standing on the shoulders of Wieman (1958) and A. Bos (1973) and my third ‘father’ Charlie Palmgren (from 1994 on). My butterfly model will never be a hit (since Creative Interchange has never been) and it thought me more than I could have dreamed of. And I hope for you the same!

    The same, I guess, is true for you and your Stages of Faith theory: it continues to transform your mindset, and gave you insights as seeing Howard Truman’s way of living his faith as living Creative Interchange from within.

    Johan (named after Saint John the Apostle)


    1. Thanks Johan. Your butterfly model has been useful to me in getting my legs under the Wiemanian treasure.
      By the way, Fowler and I used to joke about Faith Development as a heuristic device, saying it was a “you risk it” device.
      Hope your day is glorious, full of joy and wonder.


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