Developmental psychologists have attempted to understand if there is a discernible universal pattern to how a person’s values and perspectives change at different stages in their life. James Fowler developed a theory of six stages in his 1981 book Stages of Faith where he describes how an individual’s faith matures as they age.
The six stages are (1) Intuitive-Projective faith from age two, (2) Mythic-Literal faith when the child starts school, (3) Synthetic-Conventional faith in early adolescence, (4) Individuative-Reflective faith often as a young adult, (5) Conjunctive faith at midlife or beyond and, finally, (6) Universalizing faith reached by only a few people in later life. A critical review of Fowler’s work will help determine the usefulness of his theory in understanding faith development in individuals.
The theological and psychological validity of Fowler’s theory
Fowler developed his theory from the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, and was influenced by the work of Erik Erikson and Daniel Levinson. The Swiss psychologist Piaget had identified four stages in the cognitive development of children. John Dacey and John Travers explain that “Piaget’s training as a biologist had a major impact on his thinking about cognitive development.” They continue, “Piaget believed that intelligence matures as we develop increasingly effective cognitive structures.” They add that we can form cognitive structures because “we have inherited a method of intellectual functioning that enables us to respond to our environment.”
Fowler’s colleague Kohlberg, building on Piaget’s theory, recognised six stages in moral development. Dacey and Travers explain that Kohlberg used a “technique called the moral dilemma, in which a conflict leads subjects to justify the morality of their choices.” Kohlberg believed that “moral judgement requires us to weigh the claims of others against self-interest.” However, particularly in a transition between stages, behaviour may not match the level of moral development.
Fowler acknowledges that “Stages of faith deal with different domains of knowing than with the cognitive stages of Piaget or the moral stages of Kohlberg.” However, he argued that “the broad epistemological emphasis in the structural-development theories serves us well as a model for understanding faith as a way of knowing and interpreting.” Fowler believed faith to be a “human universal,” and that the hierarchical model employed by Piaget and Kohlberg could be adapted to demonstrate faith development. He also believed that “spirituality cannot develop faster than intellectual ability and depends on the development of personality.”
The Christian life is often seen as a journey or a pilgrimage. C. S. Lewis, writing about faith, noted “there are a great many things that cannot be understood until you have gone a certain distance along the Christian road.” Lewis explains that there “are directions for dealing with particular cross-roads and obstacles on the journey and they do not make sense until a man has reached those places.” For Lewis, faith is something that develops and matures throughout life.
N. T. Wright likens coming to faith to waking from a sleep. For some this is a quick awakening, like the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus. For others, there is a gradual waking up into the Christian faith and “many people who are somewhere in between.” Wright explains, “For some people, becoming a Christian is a deeply emotional experience; for others, it is a calm, clear-eyed resolution of matters long pondered.” He argues that God deals differently with ours different personalities.
Both Lewis and Wright, speaking from a theological perspective, would find some resonance in Fowler’s concept of faith development. Although neither Lewis nor Wright have suggested there are discrete stages of faith, other than the point of conversion, rather that faith development is a continuum.
The pastoral value of the theory
In order to illustrate his theory in practice, Fowler included a chapter in his Stages of Faith book detailing an interview with a twenty-eight year old woman called Mary. Fowler explained “the best way to help people gain a working understanding of the stage theory of faith development is to put them to work with it.” Fowler asked Mary to describe various episodes from her life by suggesting she divided her life into chapters of a book and then describe each chapter. Over the course of the interview Mary is able to describe in detail the different periods in her life and Fowler directs his questions to steer her through the highs and lows of her life, including her conversion at age twenty-two.
Using this technique, Fowler is able to identify that Mary’s had a Stage 3 faith, and that the communities she had been a part of had failed to enable her to progress to Stage 4. Mary had the faith-stage that, according to Fowler, would usually be seen from the teenage years, but that should have been left behind as she became a young adult. Fowler writes that, “Conversion, for Mary, will not be completed until, through recapitulative return to the places where the past lives in her, she can be met by a spirit that can re-ground the foundations of basic trust in her life.”
Three years later, and Mary has been taken through this process and helped through the obstacles that had been a barrier to her continuing faith development. Fowler’s theory has helped Mary to complete her conversion, and move towards wholeness. Her brother described that “Mary has never been happier… Not that everything is wonderful, but there is a stability, a peace, no real turmoil… Mary is also becoming a more integrated person.”
Fowler’s is perhaps the most well known theory of faith development, but there are others including simplified four stage versions by M. Scott Peck and Brian McLaren. Peck’s stage 1 is analogous to Fowler’s 1 and 2 combined, and his stage 4 to Fowler’s 5 and 6. Dave Schmelzer writes that it “saved his life,” although speaking with hyperbole, when he realised that he had entered faith from stage 3, but was attending stage 2 churches. Schmelzer had been baffled because, “It wasn’t that [he] disagreed with anything they were saying… [He] wondered why these things were worth saying at all.” Peck’s four stage theory had helped Schmelzer in his understanding of his own faith journey. This is the pastoral value in such theories; does an understanding of the faith-stages help move a person towards wholeness?
The degree to which I find faith-stages helpful in understanding my own faith journey
Nobody wants to be at a low stage. All of western life is geared to advancement: the promotion at work; the passing of education qualifications; moving up a year at school; buying the bigger house. Only in the kingdom of God do we see the counter to this – where we are encouraged to consider others better than ourselves and choose the lower position in life rather than seek the higher.
Implicit in Fowler’s theory is the notion that the next stage is better than the former. This is the problem with hierarchical models. Fowler prefers to see his model in terms of rising spiral movement. He imagines “the whole process as dynamically connected, each successive spiral stage linked to and adding to the previous ones.” He also acknowledges the difficulty that can be associated with the transition between stages, and that actually transition can be halted, preventing development.
I find myself somewhere between Stage 3 and Stage 4. This inability to choose a definite stage reflects another problem that I have with the concept of having to be at one particular stage. My natural inclination is to lean towards a continuum rather than discreet stages. I do not always find that I fit into a particular type of behaviour. Instead I find that my behaviour changes in different situations and before different groups of people.
I do, however, recognise that there is a need for my faith to develop, to deepen and become more authentic, and I acknowledge that my faith has changed as I progress through life. Here I agree with Fowler, when he writes, “For persons in a given stage at the right time for their lives, the task is the full realization and integration of the strengths and graces of that stage rather than rushing on to the next.” I find that, when I take the time to evaluate my progress, I understand the way my faith has developed. This is something that I am more able to do in my forties than I would have been able to do in my twenties.
I also resonate with McLaren, who writes, “The point isn’t to stay in spring or summer forever, nor is the point to get to (or through) winter as soon as possible … any more than the point of life is advancing from infancy to old age as soon as possible. No, the point is to live each stage well, to learn well what each day and season has to teach, to live life and enjoy life and bear the good fruits of a life with God through all of life’s seasons.”
Faith-stage theory and individuals who serve in pastoral care or counselling
The struggle Schmelzer realised he had after he understood that he had a stage 3 faith and went to a stage 2 church is indicative of the problem that could be faced by an individual serving in pastoral care or as a counsellor, when they are helping someone who is at a later stage. Schmelzer concluded, “If Peck is right, stage 2, by definition, cannot reach those in stage 3.” Is it possible for someone at a lower stage to counsel an individual at a higher stage? The logical conclusion to that train of thought would suggest that all effective counsellors would have to be at Fowler’s Stage 6; a stage Fowler suggests is rarely attained.
Many people remain at Stage 3, and many churches also are at this stage. It would be difficult for an individual responsible for pastoral care in this situation to be able to help people move beyond Stage 3. Schmelzer observed that people tended to migrate to churches where there were people at the same stage. This usually, by implication, means the leadership of the church are at that stage.
Nevertheless, it is also true that a counsellor does not need to have suffered a particular condition in order to show empathy to the person being counselled, and to help with their healing process. Fowler was thirty-two when he developed his theory, and so, by his own reckoning, should have been at Stage 4. However, he does not comment on which stage he was at when he wrote his book. Yet he theorised all six stages without the suggestion that he was a wise old sage at Stage 6.
Self-awareness is a key element in self-preparation for the counsellor and those responsible for pastoral care. Walter Thiessen writes, “Self-awareness is crucial for the one who seeks to help others in a relational way.” A counsellor with an awareness of faith-stage theory, and also aware of their own faith development will bring an understanding of faith-stages, and their own limitations, to the counselling relationship.
Fowler argues that it is possible to discern a universal pattern to how a person’s faith changes at different stages in their life. He believes there are six discreet stages and there is a correlation between these stages and the age of the individual. His theory is based on the research of other developmental psychologists and is perhaps the most well known theory of faith development.
His theory is helpful in the counselling process and has value in pastoral care. It is also important to be aware of the faith-stage of an individual who is being considered to serve in pastoral care or counselling. In my own faith journey, I agree with Fowler who concludes, “Each stage has the potential for wholeness, grace and integrity and for strengths sufficient for either life’s blows or blessings.”
Dacey, John S. and Travers, John F., Human Development Across the Lifespan (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006).
Fowler, James W., ‘Faith Development Theory and the Human Vocation,’ in Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), pp. 37-61.
Fowler, James W., Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York: Harper One, 1995).
Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity (London: Fount, 1977).
McLaren, Brian D., Naked Spirituality: A life with God in twelve simple words (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010).
Schmelzer, Dave, ‘How M. Scott Peck Saved My Life,’ in Not The Religious Type: confessions of a turncoat Atheist (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008), pp. 17-27.
Wright, N. T., Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2011).
 James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York: Harper One, 1995), p. 113.
 Ibid., p. 110.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 John S. Dacey and John F. Travers, Human Development Across the Lifespan (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006), p. 40.
 Ibid., p. 41.
 Ibid., p. 41.
 Fowler, Stages of Faith, p. 46.
 Dacey and Travers, p. 256.
 Ibid., p. 256.
 Ibid., p. 256.
 Fowler, Stages of Faith, p. 99.
 Ibid., p. 98.
 Ibid., p. xiii.
 Dacey and Travers, p. 547.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fount, 1977), p. 124.
 Ibid., p. 124.
 N. T. Wright, Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2011), p. 175.
 Ibid., p. 176.
 Fowler, Stages of Faith, p. 217.
 Fowler, Stages of Faith, pp. 218-239.
 Ibid., p. 243.
 Ibid., p. 265.
 Ibid., p. 268.
 Dave Schmelzer, ‘How M. Scott Peck Saved My Life,’ in Not The Religious Type: confessions of a turncoat Atheist (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008), p. 24.
 Ibid., p. 24.
 Fowler, Stages of Faith, p. 274.
 Ibid., p. 274
 Brian D. McLaren, Naked Spirituality: A life with God in twelve simple words (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010), p. 34.
 Schmelzer, p. 25.
 Schmelzer, p. 25.
 Fowler, Stages of Faith, p. 269.
 W. Thiessen, course notes, ‘The Basic Process of Counselling and Care,’ Pastoral Studies, p. 1.
 Fowler, Stages of Faith, p. 274.