James Fowler’s Stages of Faith in Profile
James Fowler, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist, a United Methodist layperson, and Director of the Center for Faith Development at Emory University. He is the premiere pioneer of the study of Faith development, and his book Stages of Faith (Harper & Row, 1981) is a ground-breaking classic. His work with Faith research is of great importance to the study of transpersonal psychology in that, he posits, faith (moreso than religion, or belief) “is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence.” (14) And the stages of faith development, regardless of where one finds them, or in what religious context, are amazingly uniform. Faith to Fowler is a holistic orientation, and is concerned with the individual’s relatedness to that which is universal, even though the religious context be relative, even arbitrary. Fowler identifies six stages through which pilgrim of faith invariably travels.
The first stage Fowler calls Intuitive-Projective faith. It usually occurs between the ages of three and seven, and is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious. Imagination runs wild in this stage, uninhibited by logic. It is the first step in self-awareness and when one absorbs one’s culture’s strong taboos. The advantages of this stage are the birth of imagination and the growing ability to grasp and unify one’s perception of reality. Stage one is also dangerous, though, in that the child’s imagination can be “possessed” by unrestrained images of terror and destruction from the unconscious, and the exploitation of the fertile imagination by enforced taboos and indoctrination.
The second stage is called Mythic-Literal faith, in which symbol and ritual begin to be integrated by the child. These symbols, however, are one-dimensional. Only literal interpretations of myth and symbol are possible. The runaway imagination of stage one is here harnessed, and linear thinking becomes normative. Found mostly in school children (although one can maintain this state for life), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their cosmic powers are almost always anthropomorphic. Objective distance and critical evaluation of myth or symbology is impossible. Fowler describes a person in this stage as being both “carried and ‘trapped’ in” their own narrative. Stage two can be dangerous because the relentless belief in reciprocity forces the individual into a strict, overcontrolling perfectionism; their religious system will without doubt be either legalistic or else, in the case of abuse, the child may be convinced of his or her own irredeemability.
The third stage is labeled Sythetic-Conventional faith. The majority of the population finds its permanent home in this stage. Usually arising in adolescence, this stage demands a complex pattern of socialization and integration, and faith is an inseparable factor in the ordering of one’s world. It is a stage characterized by conformity, where one finds one’s identity by aligning oneself with a certain perspective, and lives directly through this perception with little opportunity to reflect on it critically. One has an ideology at this point, but may not be aware that one has it. Those who differ in opinion are seen as “the Other,” as different “kinds” of people. Authority derives from the top down, and is invested with power by majority opinion. Dangers in this stage include the internalization of symbolic systems (power, “goodness” “badness”) to such a degree that objective evaluation is impossible. Furthermore, while one can at this stage enter into an intimate relationship with the divine, one’s life situations may drive one into despair (the threshold to the next stage). Such situations may include contradictions between authorities, the revelation of authoritarian hypocrisy, and lived experiences which contradict one’s convictions.
The fourth stage is known as Individuative-Reflective. This is primarily a stage of angst and struggle, in which one must face difficult questions regarding identity and belief. Those that pass into stage four usually do so in their mid-thirties to early forties. At this time, the personality gradually detaches from the defining group from which it formerly drew its identity. The person is aware of him or herself as an individual and must–perhaps for the first time–take personal responsibility for his/her beliefs and feelings. This is a stage of de-mythologizing, where what was once unquestioned is now subjected to critical scrutiny. Stage four is heavily existential, where nothing is certain but one’s own existence, and disillusionment reigns. This stage is not a comfortable place to be and, although it can last for a long time, those who stay in it do so in danger of becoming bitter, suspicious characters who trust nothing and no one. But most, after entering this stage, sense that not only is the world far more complex than his or her stage three mentality would allow for, it is still more complex and numinous than the agnostic rationality of stage four allows.
Stage five, Conjunctive faith moves one from stage four’s rationalism to the acknowledgement of paradox and transcendence. It is in this stage that, in Washburnian terminology, one chooses regression in the service of transcendence. In this stage a person grasps the reality behind the symbols of his or her inherited systems, and is also drawn to and acknowledging of the symbols of other’s systems. This stage makes room for mystery and the unconscious, and is fascinated by it while at the same time apprehensive of its power. It sees the power behind the metaphors while simultaneously acknowledging their relativity. In stage five, the world, demythologized in stage four, is re-sacrilized, literally brimming with vision. It is also imbued with a new sense of justice that goes beyond justice defined by one’s own culture and people. Because one has begun to see “the bigger picture” the walls culture and tradition have built between ourselves and others begins to erode. It is not easy to live on the cusp of paradox, and due to its radical drive towards inclusivity, the mind struggles to assimilate and integrate faster than it can work through its cultural and psychological baggage. It is an overwhelming, ecstatic stage in which one is radically opened to possibility and wonder.
Stage six, the final stage, Fowler calls Universalizing faith. While in the previous stage, one glimpses a unitive view of reality, but feels torn between possibility and loyalty, and may even neglect to act on its new understanding out of a regard for self-preservation. In stage six, any such apprehensions dissolve and one becomes an activist for the unitive vision. Fowler describes it best, when he writes:
Persons described by stage six typically exhibit qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy. Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of justice. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives, often involving strategies of nonviolent suffering and ultimate respect for being, constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance.” (Fowler, 200)
Fowler, although not normally thought of as a transpersonal psychologist, has much to offer the field. He approaches the whole question from another side, not theorizing about the internal mechanics as Washburn and Wilber do, but merely observing thoughts and behavior. It is impossible, for me, not to visualize the internal drama in Washburnian terms when reading the progression from stages three to six. In stage three, for instance, the ego is dominant and the Dynamic Ground successfully suppressed. Stage four begins the individual’s psychic undoing, as one’s cultural/religious paradigm begins to crumble and existential anxiety sets in. Stage five begins the terrifying surrender to the power of the Ground, which transforms the personality and infuses it with the vision and the courage to enter stage six, what some might call, enlightenment. One sees things as they truly are, transcending the limitations and conceptions of one’s tradition and culture. Fowler has made an important contribution, by setting the transpersonal drama in a context of religious belief, the battleground for so much of the egoic conflict. He also names my own experiences, and I have felt an incredible sense of comfort and relief in reading him when I was going through my stage four trauma. I was not, as I suspected, going crazy! For everything about which my intellect raged was described and understood through Fowler’s analysis.