Stages of Faith: Introduction

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to write about the things I want to write about without making reference to the work of people like James W. Fowler, whose research into faith development has had a profound impact on my own thinking.

I've decided to write a series of concise descriptions of the various stages of faith identified by Fowler, so that I can make reference to them in my work.


It's very important to understand that when Fowler speaks of "faith," he is not talking about "belief," and he is not even necessarily talking about anything religious. The "faith" of many people is often entirely secular.

Fowler draws on the thought of Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Wilfred Cantwell Smith. For Tillich, "Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned" (Dynamics 1), and "whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes a god for him" (Systematic 1.211). Tillich derived this idea from Deuteronomy 6.5: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Dynamics 3). Needless to say, the biblical God is not everyone's "god," even for those who might insist otherwise.

One might point out that, for many people, there is no single centre of value that commands one's faith, and this is where Niebuhr comes in.

Much like Niebuhr, Fowler uses the term polytheist to describe someone whose faith "lacks any one center of value and power of sufficient transcendence to focus and order one's life" ( 19). This might follow one of two patterns. One might follow a protean pattern, and have a series of fairly intense commitments that are nevertheless "transient and shifting," where one's faith is marked by "sharp discontinuities and abrupt changes of direction" (Stages 19-20), or one may have a diffuse pattern of faith, where one has "a kind of laid-back, cool provisionality regarding commitment or trust" (20).

Fowler writes,
The practical impact of our consumer society's dominant myth -- that you should experience everything you desire, own everything you want and relate intimately with whomever you wish -- is to make the polytheistic pattern, in either its protean or diffuse form, seem normative. (20)
On the other hand, there are those who have one single dominant centre of value and identity, but it is something that is limited and finite. This pattern of faith is termed henotheism, a term coined by Max Müller to denote "faith in one god...without asserting that (it) is the only god" (20).1 An example of this would be someone whose primary centre of value is their career, their country, etc.

"The henotheistic god," writes Fowler, "is finally an idol":
It represents the elevation to central, life-defining value and power of a limited and finite good. It means the attribution of ultimate concern to that which is of less than ultimate worth. (20)
Finally, Fowler appropriates Niebuhr's notion of radical monotheism. As with the other terms, he is not speaking strictly in terms of religious belief. Radical monotheism, Fowler explains, "implies loyalty to the principle of being and to the source and center of all value and power" (emphasis in original; 23). In this broad sense, it is not to be narrowly identified with traditional Western theism, and it can be conceptualised in both theistic and non-theistic ways.

This does not mean that other centres of value and power do not exist, but it does mean they become far less important.

Most people tend to be polytheists or henotheists, as Fowler defines these terms. Indeed, he acknowledges that radical monotheism "rarely finds consistent and longlasting actualization in persons or communities," and he suggests that it serves as a "regulative principle," or "a critical ideal" against which we can "keep our partial faiths from becoming idolatrous" (23).

With this understanding of faith as something that is not necessarily religious, we can better understand what Fowler means when he speaks of faith development. It applies no less to atheists than it does to Christians (or Muslims, or Jews, or whoever).

It is also important to understand that the stages of faith are formal stages -- that is, they do not describe the content of faith. A Stage 3 atheist will have very different faith content (beliefs and so on) than a Stage 3 Hindu or a Stage 3 Jew. But there will be important parallels between them. They may differ in what they believe, but they will be similar in how they think about their beliefs, how they relate to authority, and so on. I will try to demonstrate this when I actually get into describing each stage.

The Stages of Faith

Pre-Stage - Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith
Stage 1 - Intuitive-Projective Faith
Stage 2 - Mythic-Literal Faith
Stage 3 - Synthetic-Conventional Faith
Stage 4 - Individuative-Reflective Faith
Stage 5 - Conjunctive Faith
Stage 6 - Universalizing Faith


[1] Christians often believe in a plurality of supernatural beings, angels and saints and so on, who are often the object of devotion and even prayer, and so Christianity is sometimes described as henotheistic rather than strictly monotheistic. Fowler, like Niebuhr, uses the term in a much broader sense than this.

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