If you aren’t familiar with James W. Fowler’s research on what he calls the “stages of faith” then you might be missing out on some good stuff.
There has been a lot written about Fowler’s research and I think it provides a helpful framework for understanding the dynamics of various individuals in a faith community. I think it is safe to say that most understand that different people are on different levels of spirituality and understanding, but I’m not sure we understand what the implications of being at those levels are.
Here is the full audio of a Seventh Day Adventist speaker named Jon Paulien talking about the stages of faith in great detail. I particularly enjoyed the last third of this recording and it got better and better until the end. I invite you to listen to the whole thing as it contains some truly inspired words and counsel.
Stages of Faith Audio
Have you ever observed someone that you thought was very spiritual but they often seem to be borderline “apostate” in some ways? Do you consider yourself knowledgeable in spiritual things and often feel like everyone else at church just doesn’t get it? Do you feel shaken or disturbed and fearful that your spiritual world view is just falling apart? Do you get frustrated or annoyed at the simplistic, almost naive way that some religious peers express themselves and conduct their lives? Do you feel that there are just some people in your faith tradition that you just don’t get?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then understanding Fowler’s stages of faith just might help you understand yourself and others a little better. Transitioning stages can be a soul-shaking experience. Paradigms have to be adjusted and sometimes you have to deconstruct your entire worldview and build it up again from scratch. That light at the end of the dark tunnel is a new stage preparing to open up to you, patience and wisdom will carry you through.
Fowler’s Stages of Faith
Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective
This is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. However, during this stage, our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society.
Stage 2: Mythic-Literal
When children become school-age, they start understanding the world in more logical ways. They generally accept the stories told to them by their faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. [A few people remain in this stage through adulthood.]
Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional
Most people move on to this stage as teenagers. At this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles and there is a need to pull it all together. When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system. However, at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box and don’t recognize that they are “inside” a belief system. At this stage, authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one’s beliefs. [This is the stage in which many people remain.]
Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective
This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes”. They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.
Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith
It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. This is the point when people begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box.
Stage 6: Universalizing Faith
Few people reach this stage. Those who do live their lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts.