• David Flowers

P is for Progress (Stages of Faith)

Updated: Apr 29

I am currently blogging, along with my daughter, all the way through 
the alphabet. Check out how the idea started, and get the rules here.

James Fowler is best known for his pioneering work on stages of faith, showing how faith progresses over time.  Here is my summary of his faith stages:

Stage 1, ages 3-7 — The first stage of faith is characterized by imagination unrestrained by logic.  At this age, Santa and Jesus both exist primarily in the imagination.  Of course so also does the bogey-man and thus this stage of faith commonly features both imaginary delights and imaginary terrors.

Stage 2 — This stage is characterized by belief that the universe is a just place.  Bad people will always be punished, and good people will always be rewarded.  Myths are not understood as myths but as actual events, because the person at this stage has not yet developed the capability of extracting and understanding general principles.  This faith stage is characteristic of school children, but some adults remain at this stage all of their lives.  People at this stage tend to be rigid and perfectionistic.

Stage 3 — The vast majority of adults find their permanent home in this stage.  Here faith becomes central, adding a sense of meaning and purpose to one’s life.  It is characterized by conformity, where one finds identity and comfort by aligning one’s self with a certain way of thinking.  Once one has done this, one then lives according to this perspective, with very little ability to see the perspective itself clearly as a world view.  At this stage one might not even understand that one’s beliefs constitute a “world view,” but will instead take it for granted that what one believes is simply “the way it is,” believing that those who do not share the same views are ignorant, or morally inferior.  This is why fundamentalism always looks the same, whether you are talking about fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Scientists, or whatever.  In all cases, the position is, “I bear the truth, and you do not — therefore you are ignorant, depraved…” etc.

Stage 4 — Many people living comfortably in stage 3 suddenly find themselves faced with a crisis that seems too big for their faith to respond to, or they are confronted with evil on such a personal level that they can no longer take comfort in the faith that used to work for them.  Other times people become aware of religious hypocrisy on the part of themselves or others that they cannot explain.  Sometimes people simply become deeply disillusioned with the responses that faith often gives to science and to difficult issues like suffering.  At this point they either shrink back into rigid stage 2 or 3 faith, or else they move into Stage 4, which is characterized usually by doubt, uncertainty, and questioning (and usually the corresponding emotional and mental suffering that come with such things).  Some may begin to identify as skeptics/atheists/agnostics.  Others don’t know how to identify with faith anymore and continue to struggle, although no longer within the ranks of a faith “family” from which they once drew comfort. Others stay within the ranks, but feel their relationship the church, and much of what it teaches, has changed.

Stage 5 — Assuming one does not fall back into the fundamentalism of earlier stages, or remain in the doubt and skepticism of stage 4, one will move on to stage 5.  Here the individual begins to make room for mystery and paradox.  One no longer needs certainty and clarity.  The person with stage 5 faith, in fact, begins to realize that this, essentially, is what faith is — not having all the answers, and not insisting that one must have them.  One comes to see quite clearly that his previous faith, though sincere, was faith more in an organization or institution or doctrinal statement than in a mysterious and transcendent yet imminent God.

Stage 6 — I’ll let Fowler speak for himself here:

Persons described by stage six typically exhibit qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy. Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of justice. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives, often involving strategies of nonviolent suffering and ultimate respect for being, constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance.” (Fowler, 200)

Sounds an awful lot like Jesus to me.  And isn’t it interesting that not one universally respected religious figure has ever been a fundamentalist?  From Jesus to Buddha to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Nelson Mandela to Desmond Tutu to Mother Teresa to Billy Graham — not one.  Stage 2 and 3 faith simply do not allow to grow into reality the kind of love that Jesus taught.  A person in stage 2 or 3 might speak of it, claim to believe in it, and passionately and sincerely attempt to live it out, but will ultimately be constrained and prevented from doing so by their own vision of the world — their own way of seeing, understanding, and practicing faith.

It is interesting that many religious martyrs throughout history have been killed not by evil pagans, but by well-meaning people at earlier stages of faith, who were shaken to the core and deeply threatened by the seemingly sacrilegious and heretical vision of the world these strange people held to.  The crucifixion of Jesus is a perfect example of this.  Of course some of the people calling for his death were malevolent but clearly most were ordinary, observant religious people who sincerely believed they were doing God a favor by getting rid of Jesus.  The same, of course, is true for hundreds of people burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in the middle ages.

The church often speaks deeply and meaningfully to those at the lower stages of faith, but tends to organize so as to actively prevent people from moving through stage 4 and onto the later stages.  This, I believe, is what Jesus was referring to when he said to the religious leaders of his time:

“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.” Mark 7:9 (NIV)
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