Stages of Faith: Stage 4 - Individuative-Reflective Faith

[A slightly altered version of this post can be read on my new blog.]

The transition to the fourth stage, "Individuative-Reflective," ideally happens in the early to mid-twenties, though it can happen later (Fowler, Stages, 181).

This transition, which involves a movement beyond the conventional faith of Stage 3, typically follows a significant change in life. For many, it is the experience of moving away from home, into an environment where one encounters values and beliefs that differ considerably from one's own. This often forces a critical examination of the tacitly held beliefs and values of one's Synthetic-Conventional faith.

Additionally, this transition requires "an interruption of [the] reliance on external sources of authority" that is characteristic of Synthetic-Conventional faith. There must be, as Fowler puts it, "a relocation of authority within the self":
While others and their judgments will remain important to the Individuative-Reflective person, their expectations, advice and counsel will be submitted to an internal panel of experts who reserve the right to choose and who are prepared to take responsibility for their choices. I call this the emergence of an executive ego. (179)
(It's not difficult to find elements within religious traditions that aim to mitigate against exactly this transition, which undoubtedly accounts for the large number of adults whose faith development fails to keep pace with their cognitive development. In light of this, it is not at all surprising that we find so many otherwise intelligent people with such immature faith.)

So Fowler has identified two things that have to happen for an individual to move beyond Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional into Stage 4: "the critical distancing from one's previous assumptive value system and the emergence of an executive ego" (179). When both happen, a new identity is formed.

Some individuals, however, will make one of these movements but not the other. On the one hand, there are individuals who, after moving into a new kind of environment, will encounter ideas very different from their own:
They come face to face with the relativity of their perspectives and those of others to their life experience. But they fail to interrupt their reliance on external sources of authority--and may even strengthen their reliance upon them--in order to cope with this relativity. (179)
So if I am a young Synthetic-Conventional person, leaving home to go to university, I might encounter for the first time peers who believe very differently than I do. Now I might be forced to acknowledge that I've come to believe a lot of things -- things I've simply assumed to be true -- because of the family, community, and culture in which I was raised. This might be liberating, but it might also create a great deal of anxiety, particularly if great importance was placed on maintaining those beliefs.

"On the other hand," Fowler writes, "there is a significant group who shape their own variant way of living from a shared value ethos, break their reliance on consensual or conventional authorities and show the emergence of a strong exective ego. Yet they have not carried through a critical distancing from their shared assumptive values systems" (179).

Fowler doesn't provide any examples of what this might look like in Stages of Faith (or either of his other books I've read), but I wonder if some conservative and traditionalist Catholics who reject some papal teachings (or entire popes, in the case of many traditionalists) don't fall into this category. They have learned to be critical of external authorities, but they don't critically examine their other beliefs, or consider that those beliefs came from equally fallible authorities.

People who complete only one of these two movements can remain indefinitely in a transitional space that is neither Synthetic-Conventional nor Individuative-Reflective.

Those who do make the transition completely develop a greater awareness of their own ideology, as well as the external factors that have nurtured it, and they can understand the ideologies of other people in the same way. They also understand symbols and rituals in a very different way than before. In the past, these were "taken as mediating the sacred in direct ways" and were therefore seen as "sacred in themselves" (180). In other words, people at Stage 3 tend not to distinguish between the symbol and what the symbol represents. At Stage 4, the meaning of a symbol can be distinguished and expressed without reference to the symbol.

Fowler writes,
This demythologizing strategy, which seems natural to Stage 4, brings both gains and losses. Paul Tillich, writing about religious symbols and their powers, says that when a symbol is recognized to be a symbol by those who relate to the transcendent through it, it becomes a "broken symbol." A certain naive reliance upon and trust in the sacred power, efficacy and inherent truth of the symbol as representation is interrupted. (180)
For many people, this transition brings "a sense of loss, dislocation, grief and even guilt" (180). (When people speak of "losing their faith," I imagine it is often this transition they are talking about.)

"This transition," Fowler writes, "represents an upheaval in one's life at any point and can be protracted in its process for five to seven years or longer" (181). This is less of a problem for younger people, as it can be "a natural accompaniment of leaving home and of the construction of a first, provisional adult life structure" (182). For those who are more established in this structure -- those in their 30s or 40s -- it can be more disruptive and difficult.

With the transition to Stage 4, Fowler explains, the individual begins "to take seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes" (182). Previously, the individual's faith was in large measure chosen for them. They were Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or Muslim because they were raised that way. Authority is located externally to the self. Beginning with Stage 4, one's faith is self-chosen, and while external authorities may be consulted, the final authority resides in the individual's own judgment (243).

Fowler writes in his summary,
Stage 4's ascendant strength has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). Its dangers inhere in its strengths: an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of second narcissism in which the now clearly bounded, reflective self overassimilates "reality" and the perspectives of others into its world view. (italics in original; 182-183)

Individuative-Reflective Stage by Aspects:
Form of Logic (Piaget): Formal Operations (Dichotomizing)
Perspective Taking (Selman): Mutual, with self-selected group or class--(societal)
Form of Moral Judgment (Kohlberg): Societal perspective, Reflective relativism, or class-biased universalism
Bounds of Social Awareness: Ideologically compatible communities with congruence to self-chosen norms and insights
Locus of Authority: One's own judgment as informed by self-ratified ideological perspective. Authorities and norms must be congruent with this.
Form of World Coherence: Explicit system, conceptually mediated, clarity about boundaries and inner connections of system
Symbolic Function: Symbols separated from symbolized. Translated (reduced) to ideations. Evocative power inheres in meaning conveyed by symbols (Fowler, 244)
Next: Stage 5 - Conjunctive Faith

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