Stages of Faith: Stage 1 - Intuitive-Projective Faith

The first true stage of James Fowler's theory, Intuitive-Projective, typically emerges at around age two, and lasts until six or seven. It corresponds with what Jean Piaget identified as the preoperational stage of cognitive development.

One of the characteristics of the preoperational child is egocentrism. This means that the child is generally unable to take any perspective other than his or her own, nor do they even imagine that other perspectives are possible.

Fowler writes,
In early childhood thought is dominated by perception. This means that the child thinks by way of mental pictures that are imitations of reality as perceived. As yet the child lacks the mental capacity to prolong actions or to reverse them, so as to test the inferences he or she makes on the basis of perception. Causal relations and connections, therefore, are poorly understood. The child's feelings and fanciful imagination have free rein to fill in the gaps in understanding that perception leaves. (Stages, 57)
This inability to take perspectives other than one's own inhibits the child from any real kind of moral reasoning, as Lawrence Kohlberg's research has shown. Kohlberg held that "moral judgment requires the construction and coordination of the points of view of self and others" (Fowler, Stages, 58). For this reason, Kohlberg understood the preoperational stage as "a premoral position." A child at this stage makes decisions on the basis of anticipated reward and punishment.

A child's thought processes at this stage are largely unrestrained by the control of reason. They are not well-equipped to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Concrete symbols, images, and stories play an important role in shaping the child's worldview, including their understanding of God. This happens even in children raised in non-religious families. Fowler, drawing on the work of Ana-Maria Rizzuto, explains that "despite our secularization and religious fragmentation, religious symbols and language are so widely present in this society that virtually no child reaches school age without having constructed -- without or without religious education -- an image or images of God" (129).

The quality of images and stories children are exposed to is particularly important at this age. These may "prove life-opening and sustaining of love, faith and courage," but they might also "[give] rise to fear, rigidity, and the brutalization of souls -- both one's own and those of others" (132).

In his summary of this stage Fowler writes,
The gift of emergent strength of this stage is the birth of imagination, the ability to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images and as presented in stories that register the child's intuitive understandings and feelings toward the ultimate conditions of existences. The dangers of this stage arise from the possible "possession" of the child's imagination by unrestrained images of terror and destructiveness, or from the witting or unwitting exploitation of her or his imagination in the reinforcement of taboos and moral or doctrinal expectations. (italics in original; 134)
Intuitive-Projective Stage by Aspects:
Form of Logic (Piaget): Preoperational
Perspective Taking (Selman): Rudimentary empathy (egocentric)
Form of Moral Judgment (Kohlberg): Punishment-reward
Bounds of Social Awareness: Family, primal others
Locus of Authority: Attachment/dependence relationships; Size, power, visible symbols of authority.
Form of World Coherence: Episodic
Symbolic Function: Magical-Numinous (Fowler, 244)
Next: Stage 2 - Mythic-Literal

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