Stages of Faith: Stage 3 - Synthetic Conventional Faith

[For a better (and shorter) description of this stage on my new blog, click here.]

Fowler's third stage, Synthetic-Conventional, typically begins around 12 or 13. A very large number of people equilibrate at this is the stage -- that is, they do not develop beyond it.

Although children and adults at this level will have some things in common, there are also some differences. Nearly everyone will enter this stage, and a certain age this is healthy. When people remain in this stage into adulthood, however, this is usually due to one problem or another. It is necessary to talk about Stage 3 first in general terms, and then specifically how it appears in adults.

An individual can move into the Synthetic-Conventional stage when they have begun to develop what Piaget called formal operational thinking.
Formal operational thinking may first make its appearance in an alegebra class or in an advanced biology lab. As it emerges it brings with it the ability to reflect upon one's thinking. It appraises a situation or a problem and forms a variety of hypothetical solutions or explanations. It generates methods of testing and verifying the hypotheses. In problem solving formal operational thinking can work with propositions and symbols, manipulating them to find solutions prior to any contact with the actual physical objects or contexts they represent. And just as it can generate hypothetical propositions of explanation, so it can envision a universe of possible realities and futures. Formal operational thought can conceive ideal features of persons, communities or other states of affairs. It can be idealistcally or harshly judgmental of actual people or institutions in light of these ideal conceptions. (Fowler, Stages, 152)
The attainment of formal operations brings with it the ability to think hypothetically. This allows the individual to create hypothetical images of how others see him or her. This leads to a new kind of "self-consciousness." As Fowler writes, "The youth believes everyone is looking at him or her and may feel either a narcissistic inflation or a self-questioning deflation regarding 'the me I think you see'" (153). In significant relationships, this ability to see yourself as others see you results in mutual interpersonal perspective taking. Both the self and the significant other "come to be experienced as having a rich, mysterious and finally inaccessible depth of personality" (153). If God is an important part of the individual's faith, then God too will be "re-imagined as having inexhaustible depths and as being capable of knowing personally those mysterious depths of self and others we know that we ourselves will never know" (153). Referring to the well-documented phenomenon of adolescent conversion, Fowler suggests that it "can be illumined...by the recognition that the adolescent's religious hunger is for a God who knows, accepts and confirms the self deeply" (153).

Significantly, he observes that it is not an accident that religious images that appeal to people at the Synthetic-Conventional stage "have the characteristics of a divinely personal significant other" (154).

Another characteristic of this stage is the importance to the individual of the expectations of others. This is reflected in the way people at this stage relate to authority. Authority, for the Stage 3 individual, is located outside the self. "It resides," Fowler says, "in the interpersonally available 'they' or in the certified incumbents of leadership roles in institutions" (154).
This is not to deny that adolescents make choices or that they develop strong feelings and commitments regarding their values and behavioral norms. It is to say, however, that despite their genuine feelings of having made choices and commitments, a truer reading is that their values and self-images, mediated by the significant others in their lives, have largely chosen them. And in their (the youth's) choosing they have, in the main, clarified and ratified those images and values which have chosen them. (Fowler, 154)
This is a good time to clarify something about the relationship between these formal structures Fowler is talking about, and the specific contents of people's faith. When we hear "conventional" we might naturally assume that Fowler means the individual holds the beliefs that are conventional to the religion. But the religious group is only one of several communities the person belongs to, and each community brings different expectations.

I, for example, was raised in a moderately progressive, church-going Catholic family. While I understood who the pope was and I knew something about the hierarchical structure of the Church, it was really my mother who served as the primary authority for me as far as religion goes. It was taken for granted in my house that women should be allowed to become priests, and if I had been asked at age 13 if I agreed with that, I would have unhesitatingly said yes. So people at Synthetic-Conventional can indeed hold views that are at variance with (for example) official Church teaching. But, importantly, they do not originate these views; they inherit them from those they regard as authority figures.

Fowler actually illustrates this difference by comparing two teenagers, a girl who belongs to a fairly conservative Lutheran church, and a boy who belongs to a Unitarian church. They are quite different in what they believe, and it appears that the boy has more mature views, but it is also clear, as Fowler points out, that "the positions he takes are really his own versions of what his community stands for rather than being self-composed perspectives" (158).

Fowler describes Stage 3 as "a 'conformist' stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and as yet does not have a sure enough grasp on its own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective" (173).

Synthetic-Conventional Faith in Adulthood

As I mentioned earlier, many adults never develop beyond this stage. In fact, Synthetic-Conventional represents exactly what many people imagine being "religious" is all about:
Many critics of religion and religious institutions assume, mistakenly, that to be religious in an institution necessarily means to be Synthetic-Conventional. This mistake by critics is understandable. Much of church and synagogue life in this country [i.e., the USA] can be accurately described as dominantly Synthetic-Conventional. (Fowler, 164)
I also mentioned that, when this stage persists into adulthood, it is a sign that something less than ideal has happened. To understand why this is, we need to consider some other characteristics of Stage 3 faith.
For both adolescents in the forming phases and adults who find equilibrium in Stage 3 the system of informing images and values through which they are committed remains principally a tacit system. Tacit means unexamined; my tacit knowing, as Michael Polanyi calls it, is that part of my knowing that plays a role in guiding and shaping my choices, but of which I can give no account. I cannot tell you how I know with my tacit knowing. (Fowler, 161)
So people at this stage, though certainly aware that they have beliefs and values -- to which they might feel very strongly about -- do not reflect on their beliefs to any great extent. For adolescents this might be understandable. When this persists into adulthood, however, there is probably something preventing them from examining their beliefs and values. It may be that their cognitive development has not progressed far beyond early formal operations -- and indeed, Fowler does provide excerpts from interviews with two men who fall into this category: "Both come from backgrounds of limited education. Both exhibit difficulty in using language to communicate inner states or their attitudes, values and feelings for others... They are limited in their self-reflection...to either comparisons with or the approval of others perceived to be like them" (Fowler, 170).

Some adults at this stage, however, are highly educated, and if they have not critically examined their beliefs, it is likely, I think, that their religious formation has strongly discouraged them from doing so. They may be quite developed cognitively, quite capable of rational thinking, but they don't apply their rationality to their beliefs.

Synthetic-Conventional Stage by Aspects:
Form of Logic (Piaget): Early Formal Operations
Perspective Taking (Selman): Mutual interpersonal
Form of Moral Judgment (Kohlberg): Interpersonal expectations and concordance
Bounds of Social Awareness: Composite of groups in which one has interpersonal relationships
Locus of Authority: Consensus of valued groups an in personally worthy representatives of belief-value traditions
Form of World Coherence: Tacit system, felt meanings symbolically mediated, globally held
Symbolic Function: Symbols multi-dimensional; evocative power inheres in symbol (Fowler, 244)
Next: Stage 4 - Individuative-Reflective

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