James Fowler Stages of Faith


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.


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.


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.