James W. Fowler

Stages of Faith; The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning

Review by Susan Troy, 2008

Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith; The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981.).

Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning by James W. Fowler is a seminal work of structural-developmental psychology that delineates an innovative stage theory of faith development. Fowler’s work is considered a classic in the development of the psychology of religion. In this study Fowler, a psychologist and theologian, develops a six-stage theory of faith development. Stage 1 – Intuitive-Projective Faith, Stage 2 – Mythic Literal Faith, Stage 3 – Synthetic-Conventional Faith, Stage 4 – Individuative-Reflective Faith, Stage 5 – Conjunctive Faith and Stage 6 – Universalizing Faith. Fowler’s goal is to “clarify the dynamics of faith as the way we go about making and maintaining meaning in life” (xii.) His study is based on the view that “faith is a human phenomenon” and a “human universal” (33).

Fowler adds much to a modern discussion of religious experience. He provides a model for investigation and evaluation of the process of faith development. His work begins with an acknowledgement of faith as a universal human experience. “Our characters and faith are shaped by our centers of value, our images of power and our master stories—the contents of our faith” (277). Fowler’s theory is part of a foundational exploration of the psychology of religion and of religious experience. Fowler’s goal is to make this book “accessible” to the average reader, and for the most part he succeeds. The illustrative use of study interviews easily captures the reader’s attention and imagination. He successfully uses a dynamic, spiral model to explain the interaction of developmental theories of personality and identity with his study’s six stages.

The book is divided into parts five parts. In Part I Fowler puts forth his understanding of faith and explains his indebtedness to the work of three prominent developmental psychologists, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg (specifically his developmental work on moral reasoning and decision making). Fowler’s sees his study and theory as a “broadening and deepening” of the structural-development approach of these three as applied to human faith. Wilfred Cantwell Smith is a critical influence on his understanding of the nature of faith and belief. Paul Tillich and Richard Niebuhr are also both cited as major influences.

Fowler employs a very interesting methodology in Part II, a lengthy fictional conversation between a “Convener” (Fowler), Piaget, Erikson and Kohlberg. This is his mostly successful attempt to synthesize the thinking of these psychologists as it applies to his development of a stage theory of faith development.

Part III is Fowler’s description of the “dynamics” of faith and human development. He develops the concept of the formation of “triadic or covenantal patterns” (92) in human development. This concept addresses Fowler’s understanding of the existential interplay among and between different aspects of human life in the development of faith. Faith as social and relational is at the enter of the construction of these “triadic or covenantal patterns.”

Fowler’s six stages of faith are seen as “relating” in differing ways to the developmental theories of Piaget, Kohlberg and Erikson. They differ in terms of applicability to the whole-life cycle. An individual does not necessarily attain all the stages of faith. “Faith stage transitions are not automatic or inevitable” (276).

The final parts of this book focus on a single case study, a lengthy interview (22 pages) of a woman named “Mary.” Fowler states that he finds this the most efficacious way to enable the reader to “gain a working understanding of the stage theory of faith development” (217). Fowler personally conducted this interview. It is puzzling that for this important role Fowler chose an interview that he admits deviates from the standard set for the study. Fowler initially interviewed this woman in his role as a “counselor” at the request of the woman’s family. This choice might lead one to be suspect of the scientific degree and quality of the overall research and data collection.

Fowler states that the stages of faith development he describes are part of the universal human condition and therefore are applicable to faith development within any religious tradition or outside of a recognizable tradition. However, there clearly is a Judeo-Christian, Western bias that begins with the author. Fowler states in his introduction that this will be a “personal book—personal for me as a writer, personal for you as a reader (xii.) He writes the book as a psychologist but also, less directly, as a theologian and a person of Christian faith.

It is the author’s hope that follow-up studies will address the cross-cultural applicability of this theory. Published in 1981, there are already citations in the book of further study based on Fowler’s theory and so one must imagine that there is a large body of scholarly literature that modifies this work.