I’ve already provided a bit of an introduction to James Fowler’s book, “Stages of Faith”. In that post, I attempted to define faith in hopes of getting to a better understanding of something almost undefinable. I want to re-emphasize here that faith is more structurally sound when it focuses on things “which are true”. I’m not going into a deep dive here on each of the six faith stages, you can find summaries elsewhere. And I will readily admit that I have not yet fully absorbed the faith stages. I find faith to be difficult and abstract and Fowler’s book is definitely both of these, but it’s also academic, using language that’s better understood by someone with a psychology background, something I do not have. I’m still trying to make sense of it. But I have a few insights I would like to share here.
Faith in Children – Stages 0 through 2
Fowler’s early faith stages mirror Piaget’s childhood development stages pretty closely. What does it mean for a baby to have faith? I think in the most rudimentary way, babies and young children feel connected, almost embodied with their mother first and foremost but also with their immediate family. As they feel loved and cared for, their faith in a loving, compassionate world filled with grace can take root – providing a fertile soil for a mature faith to grow later in life. To the degree that this doesn’t happen, later faith development becomes more difficult.
I think all of my kids are in these early faith stages. They take the stories we share with them literally and unquestionably as they grow and develop in a world they experiencing for the first time. I think it’s why Christmas is so magical but I also believe it’s why my children are also scared of the dark. It’s wonderful and frightening, for adults, but especially for children.
Teenage and Young Adult Faith – Stage 3
My oldest daughter is almost 14 and I think slowly making the transition into stage 3. She’s starting to absorb some of the lessons taught to her by young women’s leaders, by us and by other authority figures in her life. She’s starting to ask questions, turning previously learned stories upside down, trying to make sense of them. They aren’t just literal stories to be accepted at face value but she’s starting to have to trust this faith as something she’ll have to stake her young life on.
Her world is getting larger, she’s pulling in ideas from outside of her family and being informed and influenced by teachers at school, friends – some (but not enough) from other faiths, and church leaders. She will, perhaps eventually, offer a real testimony for the first time. She’ll learn to say her prayers with meaning for the first time – if she hasn’t already done so – pleading for help to overcome problems and concerns seeping into her young mind. This developing faith will be highly dependent on the faith community she was brought up in.
Stage 4 Faith – Broken Shelves and Dark Nights of the Soul
This can be especially difficult faith stage for Mormons. It’s here the person begins to critically and seriously examine the stories, traditions and beliefs likely for the first time in ways that can feel de-stabilizing. This often happens in a person’s twenties, leaving home for the first time, attending college, rubbing shoulders with people from other faith traditions, it’s here they may encounter ideas that contradict and challenge their faith. It’s also here they may meet others, triving in other faith traditions. They are like fish who learn to walk and see a world larger than the river they were previously swimming in.
It can also happen when a person runs up against the limits, boundaries and weaknesses of their stage 3 faith. Perhaps their stage 3 faith community rejects them in some way or imposes or implies demands that become untenable.
This faith stage can be difficult because it can be misinterpreted as an act of apostasy, as someone falling out of their faith rather than growing into a more mature one. It’s here when someone takes ownership of their faith story in a deep way. Their faith is scrutinized from top to bottom.
As a reminder, if faith’s foundation is always based in “things which are true”, from the child’s first inkling of a faith in a loving mother to the very real power of a mature, thriving faith community in stage 3, mature stage 4 faith allows a person to walk toward an independent, mature faith firmly held, tried and tested through the crucible of necessary doubt. It’s here rough edges can be shaved away, false prejudices and bad ideas of earlier years can be cast aside. The danger here is the possibility of “throwing out the baby with the bath water”, stepping away from the gifts of earlier years.
Stage 5 Faith – Articles of Faith 13
I find stage 5 faith beautiful and I think Articles of Faith 13 basically summarizes someone deeply living stage 5.
13 We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
Or I love this quote from the book:
“Conjuctive faith, therefore, is ready for significant encounters with other traditions than its own, expecting that truth has disclosed and will disclose itself in those traditions in ways that may complement or correct its own. Krister Stendahl is fond of saying that no interfaith conversation is genuinely ecumenical unless the quality of mutual sharing and receptivity is such that each party makes him- or herself vulnerable to conversion to the other’s truth. This would be Stage 5 ecumenism.”
Here a person begins to re-appreciate faith traditions – perhaps their own stage 3 tradition assuming it was a healthy one, and all of the others around them. Here, there is a appreciation for paradox, mystery, and a recognition of our limitations and earth, God and truth’s complexity is developed. Goodness, beauty, truth. I think stage 5 is big, expansive and beautiful. Stage 5 faith is also not all that common.
Stage 6 Faith – Jesus
Precious few people really reach stage 6 faith. This is a universalizing faith where one’s life is fully wrapped up on the service of others. Many people who reach stage 6 faith are killed because they lose all fear because it gets completely wrapped up in love of others. The scriptures point us toward stage 6 faith in 1 John 4:18
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
I don’t think this perfectly captures faith development. It’s a model and like all models, it’s a poor mirror of the actual. But I think it’s useful nonetheless. I don’t believe on faith stage is inherently superior to another. A person can live a full, fulfilling, service-filled life deeply enmeshed in a stage 2 or 3 faith. I’m not sure any of us really stand fully in one faith stage completely. On our best days, some of us experience stage 6 faith, at other times we cling to stage 2.
I think it helps though in that it can help us have understanding and compassion for both ourselves and for others who are struggle in a deep, complicated and difficult world.