James Fowler’s Stages of Faith has been a staple in certain seminary courses since the 1980s. While subsequent scholarship has criticized and refined the theory, it continues to exercise wide impact. Unfortunately it also has been misused, with dreadful results.
Fowler’s theory involves six stages, from childhood forms of faith (intuitive and mythic), to adolescent and emerging adult forms that call for moving from belief on the basis of external authority to critically considering, sorting and “owning” one’s faith. In later stages (conjunctive and universalizing) generally more middle age or older folk become possessed of the deep mystery and are able both to hold firmly to their particular commitments and remain open – the virtue of epistemic humility – to more expansive expressions of faith. Each stage is generally associated with a certain segment of the life course, but these transitions or “conversions” are not automatic, nor tightly restricted to a particular chronological age.
Fowler’s stages 3 and 4 are of particular concern because so much of the misuse has happened here. Stage 3 is labeled “synthetic-conventional” faith. It is described as sincere but unreflective reliance on “what I was taught” by authority figures: parents, teachers, pastors, youth leaders. If a person settles for conventional stage 3 faith (Fowler calls the settling”equilibrium”) it means that a person’s system of beliefs and values, though sincerely held, remains tacit, unexamined. (p. 161) The growth challenge is to make the uncritically-accepted system of beliefs “the object of reflection.” (p. 162)
As a person becomes aware that she or he has never seriously reflected on the conventionally-held belief system, she or he is challenged to “leave home,” so to speak. (Going off to college is both a literal and metaphorical leaving home, which is why the college years are understood to be so important. Enlisting in the military is also a big leaving home.) “Leaving home” provokes critical reflection and the opportunity for growth toward stage 4, an “individuative-reflective” faith, which leads to more adequate (critical) awareness of one’s beliefs and taking responsibility for refining them and making them truly one’s own. (p. 182)
Stage 4 faith, therefore, is considered a more mature version of faith than stage 3. And precisely here the insidious, corrosive misuse of Fowler’s theory starts. I would bet that almost all of us who received instruction on Fowler in mainline seminaries picked up the idea (whether we agreed or not) that traditional Christian doctrinal beliefs are “conventional,” suggesting that those who maintain traditional, orthodox beliefs are stuck in stage 3. They have “foreclosed.” They refuse to grow to a more mature faith.
The first mistake in this sincerely held, usually gently put, but still condescendingly delivered viewpoint is of the category kind. Fowler’s theory is about psychological processes, not theological reflection per se. (Fowler had his theological commitments, which I’ll get to momentarily.) As James Loder pointed out and as Fowler himself said, this theory is about ego development. It uses the word “faith” phenomenologically, not tied to any specific theological or religious viewpoint. Everyone needs to move from stage 3 synthetic-conventional to stage 4 individuative-reflective faith, not just traditional Christians. Modern, mainline Protestant theological education is rife with the bias that somehow traditional, conservative, evangelical, orthodox students especially (solely?) need to do this work. There is an appropriate word for this prejudice, which I won’t use here, but anybody hanging around cattle knows what it is. Worse, it is a terrible disservice to students, maybe even abusive.
Yes, traditional students need to do this reflective work toward stage 4 because everybody needs to do this work. Linda Mercadante’s book on the spiritual-but-not-religious, mentioned in a previous post, provides examples. She discovered a significant number of people who grew up in atheist or agnostic homes who, by Fowler’s theory, are classic examples of stage 3 faith. (Remember, “faith” does not have to be tied to religion.) In my nearly twenty-five years of working with college students, faculty and staff, I have encountered many people “stuck in stage 3” and their “stuckness” had nothing to do with their theological viewpoints.
One particularly egregious scenario is of the student (or a college-educated person) who “took a class” in religion and “now knows” that the Bible is full of fairy tales and textual corruptions. Or that the Council of Nicaea was little more than a political grudge match among bishops. How did they come to this conclusion? Perhaps a few on the basis of careful engagement with a range of ideas, but far more because the professor (or the book) said so, probably not overtly, but by means of suggestion and inference. This person, now thinking that she or he is well-informed because of the class (or the book), has simply shifted allegiance to the new point of view on the basis of the new authority. They have traded one version of “what I was taught” for another.
A second significant problem serves as an important object lesson for our United Methodist battles. Because Stages of Faith is scientific and descriptive, it is generally understood as not suffering the problem of bias like traditional Christian doctrines supposedly do. After all, Fowler’s work is based on thousands of hours of clinical research. It is rigorously empirical, which purportedly gives it privileged epistemic status. However, as one quickly realizes, even empirical work is based on theory, on background belief(s). Fowler’s views were shaped by Immanuel Kant’s critiques. (See Stages, p. 44.) I won’t take the space here to detail Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena, but it bears directly on how many mainline Protestants, including Fowler, think about Christian doctrine.
Therefore, if you “buy” Fowler’s work uncritically, you are also “buying” his Kantian biases. They predispose people to think of “faith” as a universal human phenomenon that is primary and all theological systems of “belief” as secondary constructions, subsequent to the experience of faith. Yes, belief systems are important because we use them to “make meaning,” (a ubiquitous phrase, or is it an ubiquitous phrase?), but all belief systems stand in a dependent relation to “faith.” This bias privileges “spirituality” over “religion” and downplays the epistemic value of religious dogma or doctrine. Notice how Sharon Daloz Parks, Fowler’s famous PhD student and an enormously influential writer in higher education, characterizes “dogma” in her widely read Big Questions, Worthy Dreams.
Serious reflection on Fowler’s faith stages theory should help us see both its value and its limits. His theory instructs all of us regardless of our theological identity. Anyone can be unthinkingly tied to a set of beliefs. It is not the special problem of Christian traditionalists.