Fowler’s Stages of Faith



A series of stages of faith development was proposed by Professor James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology, in the book Stages of Faith. This book-length study contains a framework and ideas, which have generated a good deal of response from those interested in faith religions.


Stage 4 (below) is be very relevant in espect of antagonising an  abusive leader. This  is the maturing, questioning  and the developing of spiritual  reasoning stage  that is so vital to progress in spiritual maturity.  Stage 3 may be the prefered state for leaders who indoctanate absolute authority and refuse to be questioned.


It proposes a staged development of faith (or spiritual development) across the life span of the believer. Fowler emphasises that no stage is either right or wrong it is what it is a ‘stage’ It is a much respected piece of work


Stage I: The Innocent - (Intuitive - Proiective)

Characteristics - Fantasy, Stories, Experiences and Imagery, both real and fantasy. Children of this stage live a magical world where their understanding of God is usually found through family. They believe anything is possible. There is little separation of fact and fantasy.


Stage II: The literalist (Mythical - Literal)

Characteristics - able to organize experiences and categorise them. Ideas and stories are interpreted literally, as are adults' explanations of faith. They begin to identify with a faith community, which may be religiously, politically or culturally defined. They locate themselves within the story they are told - the story that tells you who you are. Unable to stand back and view events from

the position of a neutral observer and unable to reflect on own position or the position of others from a value free perspective.

Here the child typically makes strong associations with people like us and is aware and often critical of those who are different. (Jamieson, 2002:114)

Fowler suggests that 20% of the adult population may best be characterised by this kind of faith. These adults tend to appreciate churches where a more literal interpretation of Scripture is encouraged, along with offering security, deep conviction and commitment. God is viewed as stern, and being a just but loving parent, with rules and authoritative teaching being the norm.


Stage III - The Loyalist (Synthetic - Conventional)

This is a Conformist Stage in which the individual is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgements of significant others. It is a Tribal stage, where being part of the tribe is powerfully significant to the person - and being in a community of like-minded believers. May hold deep convictions and be loyal and committed workers and servers. Beliefs are typically not examined critically and are therefore tacitly held to. That is, they know what they know but are generally unable to tell you how they know something is true, except by referring to an external authority outside of themselves - "The Bible says" or "My Pastor teaches this".

We are socialized into our faith community, " catching" our values and ways of thinking unconsciously from our peer and subculture. We are immersed in the thought system of our faith community like a fish that does not perceive the water it which it swims. (Testerman, 1995)

They predominantly have a vision of God as an external, transcendent being with little reference to God as an imminent indwelling God. Among adults, this is the Stage most commonly found amongst church members. Most find enormous meaning in their faith, as they share in church activities - worship, prayer, mission, teaching etc.

Many express a strong sense of belonging, "being at home" or having "arrived". Emphasis is on the "family of believers".

Dualistic thinking is very prevalent: Christian/non-Christian; saved/unsaved, along with being a part of, and being accepted by the faith community.


Stage IV - The Critic (Individual - Reflective)

If the traditional answers stop making sense, Stage III collapses. The transition to Stage IV is probably the most difficult as it involves the greatest dismantling of what has been learnt and experienced. Often major upsets precipitates transition beyond Stage III. It is characterised by an overt sense of self that will take responsibility for own actions, beliefs and values, and is prepared to stand against "significant others" of the past. This is often a courageous and difficult journey, with an emphasis on objectification and examination of the beliefs, values and expectations they have received.

The Critic is able to stand alone in a group, and look in from the outside, to weigh up and evaluate without surrendering to the need to be "a part of. There is increased resistance to just conforming to teaching, beliefs and actions, without some degree of analysis. In their critical examination, flaws, inconsistencies, over-simplification and unanswered aspects are all considered in order to be understood and reconciled. There is a greater emphasis on authenticity, congruence and consistency, along with autonomy and individual accountability. Relationships are no longer essential for the formation of personal identity. A person's reference group tends to widen enormously. Symbols and rituals are only significant if they useably carry meaning and illustrate truth. Intellectual stimulus and challenge, along with debate are valued. Dependence on external sources of authority is resisted, as is the lack of freedom of choice.


Stage V: - The Seer (conjunctive)

This Stage is not so easy to explain, as it encapsulates what seems to be contradicting aspects which, in themselves, are the heart of Stage V. The confident self, in a deeply rooted faith, becomes humbly aware of the depth of both the unconscious and the unknown. This process often coincides with the realization of the power and reality of death. This stage is seldom reached before midlife. In some respects, this Stage is similar to the wonders lived in Stage 1. Seeing once more through the lens of the imagination and intuition, we again come to live in a numinous universe of mystery, wonder and paradox. (Testerman, 1995)

People at this stage love mystery and relish the vastness of the unknown; realizing that the more they understand, the more 'unknown' is opened up before them. They accept ' axiomatic that truth is more multidimensional and organically interdependent than most theories or accounts of truth can grasp.' (Fowler, 1995:186)

Characterised by:

1. A need to face and hold together polar tensions and opposites: young/old,

male/female etc.

2. A felt sense that truth is more multifarious and complex than most of the

either/or categories of earlier stages. An acceptance of ambiguity, diversity

and plurality.

3. An increased receptivity to move beyond the meaning of Stage IV and

embrace mystery in symbols, myths and liturgy in a post critical way.

4. A genuine openness to the Truth, Traditions, and community other than one's own (not to be equated with relativistic agnosticism.) Whilst holding a deep and committed belief, there is a much greater capacity to approach the world from a more embracing and inclusive position. Stage V believers can be a threat to others who want a "clearly defined" true-believers' position, rather than the open uncompromising humility that is often encountered.


Stage VI - The Saint (Universalizing)

This Stage is the most difficult to understand. It is also very rare. It involves two major transitions:


1. "Decentralization from self, in which the self is removed from the centre of

the locus of the individual's life. It is a move beyond the usual human

obsessions with survival, security and significance, coupled with a

continued widening of the circle of "those who count".

2. A shift to the complete acceptance of the ultimate authority of God in all

aspects of life.


Fowler found only 1.6% of the population that operated at this Stage. Of those over 61 years of age, examples might be Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King.


Fowler's work is based on his observations of hundreds of people, listening to their life stories. Although he speaks primarily of Christians, the same holds true of those of other faiths or none who are seeking to make sense of the world and their experience of living in it.



Fisher, L. (2004) Shaftsbury Society, C.P.D. Programme-Christian Distinctiveness (unpublished)

Fisher, M. (2003) Willows Counselling Course - Christian Diversity (unpublished)

Smith, Marion (2003) Ways of Faith - A handbook of adult faith development: North of England Institute for Christian Education, Durham

Jamieson, Alan (2002) A Churchless Faith GB: Cromwell Press

Testerman, John (1995) 'Stages of Faith' in A Today: Magazine Archives: Mar/Apr 1995;articles

Fowler, James W. (1995) Stages of Faith USA: HarperCollins

Learning & Development - Professional Updating Programme - Christian Distinctiveness


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