The Seven Stages of Faith
Recently I’ve been hearing a lot about a certain James W. Fowler, a Christian theologian and psychologist, who published a book called ‘Stages of Faith’ (thanks to Christina McNeil for putting me onto this). In this book Fowler defines seven different stages of faith development, and I decided to take a look at them.
I’m sure Mr. Fowler has his critics, but having read classics like ‘Pilgrims Progress’ and the works of the Saints and Mystics, I found Fowlers model to be an immensely helpful one in understanding my own faith journey as well as the dynamics I see at work in the wider western church. If you’ve struggled at all over the years with a ‘dark night of the soul’ or the seeming apathy or gradual loss of vitality in the western Church (yes, people are leaving our churches in droves every week!), reading this list could shed some light on the matter. I won’t tell you where I think I’m at.. you can make up your own mind on that ;)
The Stages (borrowed from a brilliant article here)
Pre-faith (Infancy): When we cannot yet speak, but the seeds of love and trust are planted.
Stage 1 – The Innocent (Early Childhood): When we’re new to the faith, our understanding of God is developing. We have snippets of truth and experience, our faith is a seamless, disorganized mix of fantasy and reality. An egocentric and quite punishment-oriented stage.
Stage 2 – The Literalist (Primary School years): This stage begins as we are better able to organise and categorize our experiences. God is understood in terms of a parent, and very literal understandings of life & scripture are held. Life is made sense of in terms of story rather than systematic theology, and people in this stage are strongly influenced by rules and those perceived to be in authority. There is a belief in fairness and reciprocity – goodness is rewarded, evil is punished. Family-oriented. M Scott Peck estimates 20% of adults remain in this stage.
Stage 3 – The Loyalist (Teenage years): These are the conformist years, the time of peer pressure when we are acutely aware of what others expect of us and how they view us. This is a ‘tribal’ stage with a clear idea of what it means to be part of your group, and clearly defined boundaries of who is in or out. A very secure stage. These people are loyal to their community and willing to sacrifice much for it, accordingly conflict and controversy are very threatening to them. “While beliefs and values are deeply felt… there has not been occasion to step outside them to reflect on or examine them explicitly or systematically.” They have a strongly held but uncritical faith, often unable to explain why they believe things beyond referring to some external authority – “the Bible/my pastor says so.” Most adults are at this stage.
Stage 4 – The Critic (University years): This is the most difficult transition to make and can seem like a loss of faith as the walls and certainties of stage 3 are broken down. It involves developing a greater sense of independence and seeing life beyond the ‘tribe.’ It seems easier to traverse at a younger age and can be brought on by exposure to new ideas at work, university, leaving home or traveling. This is when one stands back and critiques one’s assumptions of life, and enters a period of questioning and doubting. This can be a lonely ‘long dark night of the soul’ stage where people begin to trust their own perceptions.
Stage 5 – The Mystic (Mid-life): Some find the loss of security in stage 4 too uncomfortable and return to the certainties of stage 3 (or new certainties), but some press on to this stage. Here boundaries become less rigid as one is more aware of the unknown, paradox is acknowledged and accepted. ‘A second naivety’, this is faith beyond the doubts which relishes mystery, which is open to listen to and tolerate the views of others. This stage is not dogmatic and is likely to approach truth from more than one angle. “Unusual before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat.” This stage is associated with acceptance of our mortality.
Stage 6 – The Saint: Very few people reach this stage, Fowler lists Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as among those who have. Self and self-preservation no longer matter as one submits totally to the authority of God. They are willing to expend themselves to save all humanity, even those they oppose. Martyrdom is an occupational hazard of this stage.