Fowler’s Faith Stages – One Mormon’s View

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
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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.

Conclusions

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.

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James Fowler Stages of Faith

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I’m currently plowing my way through the surprisingly dense book, Stages of Faith by James Fowler.  This site is a  a pretty good summary of the stages but I’d like to add my own commentary as I try to dig into this way of thinking.

Caveats

I think there’s something helpful in quantifying a faith journey into stages, but I don’t think we should rely too heavily on them. We’re each on our own journey. We’ll each bring our own personality, perspectives, gifts and experiences into it. It’s far more complicated than can be easily quantified. But I think it’s helpful to have this language, perhaps as guideposts for us in our journey and as a tool to make our travel a little easier, with fewer bumps. And ideally, to help others in their journey with more compassion and understanding and less judgment.

James Fowler leans on Jean Piaget’s developmental stages, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Erik Erikson‘s life stages. In fact his first two faith stages are taken almost verbatim from Piaget. The point is he’s not the first to quantify developmental stages, but he is the first to do it within the context of faith. Fowler came up with the stages after interviewing hundreds of people from different backgrounds and ages on their faith journey. Based on the way they described their growing faith, and leaning heavily on the language and processes of developmental stages, he quantified the common themes. I believe he offers something helpful here that can help us understand ourselves and each other.

Faith

Before we can describe faith stages, we must understand what it means to have faith. To really understand faith from scripture is vague and circular.

From Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

From Alma in the Book of Mormon:

21 And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

Circular because according to this logic, you can only really have faith in something which is true, without evidence that it is. The problem comes, obviously, with how do you really know that what you’ve placed your faith in, is actually true. Fowler makes it clear that even a newborn child, by necessity leans on faith as we enter and are forced to navigate this world within the environment we have been born into.

For Fowler, he needed a faith definition that would work universally and for people of all ages, from birth to end of life, to describe a baby’s dependence on a parent as well as the faith Jesus exemplified in his life.

For Fowler, faith is the means by which we find meaning in our lives and by which we place our center of value. In this sense it’s not exclusively religious and it is definitely universal. We all have faith and as parents we all are in the process of influencing the faith developing in our children. Some important thoughts on faith using quotes from the book.

Chapter 1: Human Faith:

Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

Chapter 2: Faith, Religion, and Belief:

Faith, rather than belief or religion, is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence. Faith, it appears, is generic, a universal feature of human living, recognizably similar everywhere despite the remarkable variety of forms and contents of religious practice and belief.

Chapter 3: Faith and Relationship

Faith is a relational enterprise, triadic or covenantal in shape.

The centers of value and power that have god value for us, therefore, are those that confer meaning and worth on us and promise to sustain us in a dangerous world of power.

Real idolatry, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, does not have to do with the worship of statutes or pagan altars. Idolatry is rather the profoundly serious business of committing oneself or betting one’s life on finite centers of value and power as the source of one’s (or one’s group’s) confirmation of worth and meaning, and as the guarantor of survival with quality.

Chapter 4: Faith as Imagination

Part of what we mean when we say that humankind – Homo poeta – lives by meaning is that from the beginning of our lives we are faced with the challenge of finding or composing some kind of order, unity and coherence in the force fields of our lives. We might say that faith is our way of discerning and committing ourselves to centers of value and power that exert ordering and force in our lives. Faith, as imagination, grasps the ultimate conditions of our conditions, unifying them into a comprehensive image in light of which we shape our responses and initiatives, our actions.

Chapter 5. On Seeing Faith Whole

But as we look at the data of lives of faith, our own and those of others, we are struck by the recognition that faith is response to action and being that precedes and transcends us and our kind; faith if the forming of images o and relation to that which exerts qualitatively different initiatives in our lives than those that occur in strictly human relations. While this ‘X-factor’ in faith is not ou rprimary focus, it continues to impinge upon our work and to keep us modestly aware that we are encompassed in mystery.

In the book, he spends these first five chapters diving deep into faith. He transitions from there to summarize the developmental stages of those he builds from, and then finishes with transposing faith development as developmental stages. I hope by scattering a few quotes from the book in this post, I can convey the complexity and hard to pin down nature of faith. It’s not a simple concept and one that takes study, prayer and pondering to really understand. I don’t think we should over-simplify this effort.

And then returning, for a moment, to the scriptural definitions of faith. The reason for their vagueness and circularity I believe is that they definitionally do not describe something you acquire quickly or in a moment. Rather, I think to get to a faith that leads one to hope for something that is true without evidence for its truthfulness, requires a lifetime of effort and evolution, as we learn through our mistakes and experiences, to lean more firmly on transcendent truth. As we go through life trusting and building our lives on foundations that are not exactly true, we evolve and learn until finally we come to a true, foundational, eternal understanding of a transcendent ordering of our lives.

In this post, I’ve tried to explain faith. In the next post, I’ll dive into the faith stages.