Fowler’s faith development, love and leadership.

Why do some people progress in their faith development and others remain stagnant?  How do we account for people who claim a Christian conversion and faithfully attend a local Church but lack the all important virtue of love?  Could it be that they are frozen in a stage of faith development that does not allow them, for whatever reason, to alter their thinking, advance their understanding and ultimately transform their behavior?

In 1981 James Fowler, a Christian theologian, published a groundbreaking book on the subject of human spiritual growth. The book, entitled Stages of Faith: the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning , is based on Piaget’s work depicting stages of human psychological development. Fowler’s work follows Piaget’s stages but expands them to include the spiritual dimensions of life.

Fowler suggests seven stages of faith, starting with that of the newborn and ending with that of the fully spiritually developed adult (a place very few ever reach). It is Fowler’s contention that movement from one stage to the next is usually precipitated by some form of crisis such as death, divorce, the onset of adolescence, menopause, serious illness, a traumatic experience, etc. Such situations cause people to ask questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives. The search for answers to these questions often precipitates a spiritual crisis, causing the individual to move from one stage of faith development to the next in order to effectively answer the questions and alleviate the distress inherent in the crisis. Or they remain frozen and never explore new spiritual frontiers.  There are several reasons for remaining stuck in a given stage of spiritual development such as poor life choices, spiritual darkness, a family system that is out of whack, etc.  Fowler claims very few people make it to stage 6.  He’s probably right.  I’m sure some reading this are going to object to the linear catagories use in Fowler’s paradigm.  Make no mistake, many of us have valid critiques Fowler’s theory.  Scores of books and articles have been written that dissect and analyze Fowler’s work.  Some of those critiques view faith development as a non-sequential process arranged in a mosaic.  Whatever the case, no one underestimates the influence of David Fowler and his faith development theory. So feel free to take this with a grain of theoretical salt.

The stages of faith development are as follows:

1)    Primal Faith (Infancy): A prelanguage of disposition of trust forms in the mutuality of one’s relationship with parents and other to offset the anxiety that results from seperations which occur during infant development.

2)    Intuitive-projective faith (early childhood):  Imagination, stimulated by stories, gestures, symbols, etc. and not yet controlled by logical thinking, combines with perception and feelings to create long lasting images that represent both the protective and threatening powers surrounding one’s life.

3)    Mythical Literal Faith (early childhood and beyond). Stage 3 usually begins just before adolescence and extends until one develops a stage 4 level of thinking anywhere from late adolescence to old age. The transition to Stage 3 occurs when the literalism of Stage 2 begins to break down and conflicts between authoritative narratives must be faced. Stage 3 is characterized by a religious hunger for a God who knows, accepts, and validates the self in a deep manner. God is seen as a divinely personal significant other in one’s life. Those in this stage are aware they have values, can articulate and defend those values, and usually feel quite passionate about them. They have not, however, questioned or evaluated the system to which they adhere because to do so would place them outside their religious group and thus they would risk losing the community, which, at this stage of life, defines them. From a faith development perspective, the main danger of this stage is that the individuation process may stop. Interpersonal betrayals (such as molestation by a trusted father figure) can lead to despair and distrust; they may prevent the development of the individual’s personal relationship with God. Without this sense of a personal relationship with God, the individual cannot progress to Stage 4 development.

4)      Synthetic-Conventional faith (adolescence and beyond) Factors contributing to Stage 4 transition include contradictions between valued authority sources, changes in policies and procedures once deemed sacred, and encounters with other faith traditions which cause one to question one’s own traditions. This stage often begins in late adolescence as one prepares to leave home and is usually not completed until middle age, although some rare individuals may complete stage 4 tasks in their mid twenties. Many adults will spend the rest of their lives at this stage. It is characterized by dichotomous thinking (“either this is true or that is true” rather than “it is possible that both of these apparently contradictory concepts are true at the same time” which characterizes stage 5.  Many fundamentalist are stuck right here in this stage of faith development, they are unable to conceive of two things at once being held together in tension.  They question the status quo but often are often idle and unable to break free from the world view they have inherited.  Developmentally they are stuck and expect everyone else to conform to their narrow interpretation of reality.  Unless, by God’s Grace they move onto stage 5.

5)      Conjunctive Faith (Mid-life and beyond).  This stage embraces the polarities in one’s life, and alertness to paradox.  As Len Sweet says, “Paradoxy is orthodoxy”.  Parable, symbol, story, metaphor and myth are newly appreciated.  Too often the fundamentalist remains abstract while the conjunctive person of faith is able transfer faith to concrete experiences.  Because those at this level have critically evaluated their own faith tradition, they now have confidence in its worth and are able to open themselves up to new ideas without fear. They enjoy ecumenical encounters while simultaneously remaining firmly rooted in their own tradition. There is an opening up to the voices of one’s “deeper self “ and a desire to rid oneself of the myths, images, and prejudices of one’s social class.  Sounds kind of emergent doesn’t it? Often the debate between the emergents and fundamentalists is a battle raging between these two stages, 4 & 5.

6)      Universalizing Faith (Mid-life and beyond): Stage 6 is a level that, according to Fowler, only a handful of people throughout history have achieved and most of those were martyrs. Transition to this stage occurs when the individual is no longer able to live with the division between the untransformed world and their transforming vision of what the world could be. At this stage the welfare of the entire world is the focus. It is marked by compassion and a disregard for self-preservation. Because it is also marked by a disregard for society’s institutions, those at this stage are often viewed as threatening to society as a whole. The simplicity of their beliefs and lifestyle is usually somewhat appealing to the rest of us. Their community is the whole world and they are radically committed to justice, inclusiveness, and unconditional love. Jesus was at Stage 6 faith development when he made the decision to go to the cross for the welfare of the world rather than avoid the pain, humiliation, and death that the cross represented.  Can anyone honestly say they are at stage 6?

Stage 4 people often have contempt for Stage 5 people and especially for Stage 6.  At best they are neutral and civil, at worst they wage war, point fingers and name call.  Stage 6 people are careful not to Lord it over, but stage 4 people will interpret those actions as passive and pointless.

What keeps people from progressing in their faith development?

Some theorize abuse, fear, life trauma, anxiety, stress, addictions, unprocessed grief, etc.   My contention is that fear plays a very significant role one’s faith development.  Stage 4 leaders have a tendency to lead out of fear and not out of a compulsion to love and serve.  They can recite all the Bible verses that speak to the issue of fear, but have no concept of how that translates into real life faith living.  They typically speak a language of fear and not love.

In Wesleyan circles we celebrate a theology of Love given to us by our Lord and expounded upon by John Wesley.   Love creates an environment of freedom that allows people of faith to progress in their spiritual development.  Conversely, fear holds people back.  Mildred Wyncoop once said, “Love can only exist in freedom and freedom can only exist in love”  So the question is:  What kind of leader are you?

I would argue that most groups of fundamentalist persuasion are driven by a fear that keeps them frozen in stage 4.  They are incapable of progressing to stage 5 given their existing world view.  In some instances they loathe stage 5 and bemoan it as liberal and threatening.

I am fond of how Dr. Tom Oord defines love in his book, Relational Holiness, “Love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote well –being.”  Oord reminds us, as does Wynkoop, that love is the core of holiness.   I would also argue that LOVE is THE dynamic of spiritual leadership.  If leadership is being resulting in doing then we must allow ourselves to be totally consumed by God’s scandalous love.

Sadly, scores of people are spiritually stuck in stage 4.  Or worse, they are frozen in literalistic stage 3. Both of which have their place in spiritual development, but do not serve us well as a destination.

How then do we break the cycle of stagnation and enter new spiritual territory?  I think the key is faith expressing itself though Love.  Hear the words of the Apostle Paul in the love chapter of the Bible, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11).   Could it be that love is the key to faith development?  The Bible also says, “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18 NIV).

John Wesley’s idea of prevenient Grace expressing God’s love further explores this idea.  Wesley integrated the idea of conversion, growth and nurture with prevenient grace serving as a catalyst.  Wesley viewed conversion as prompted by prevenient grace.  This is God’s divine love that surrounds all humanity and prompts our first awareness of God and our desire for deliverance from our sin.  It is this love, Wesley believes, that moves us toward repentance and faith.  After conversion is prompted by prevenient grace, Wesley believes it is effected by justifying grace.  This is God’s love that pardons the repentant sinner and accepts him/her into God’s family.  This conversion experience can sometimes be dramatic as it was for St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or it can be quiet, even gradual.  Either way, the experience, Wesley believes, is marked by a very real change in the heart of the believer.  This change is most evident “as faith working in love” (The Book of Discipline – 2000, page 46).  All throughout his life John Wesley would insist on the biblical ideal of ‘faith working by love’ based on Galations 5:6 where Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (NIV).   Wesley saw the idea of faith working by love extending beyond personal salvation.   It also implies doing good works and performing acts of social justice.  With Wesley there is no split between personal salvation and the social dimensions of the Gospel.   He saw the ‘whole’ person being sanctified.

In Wesleyan thought, growth and nurture occur when love prevails.  As Howard Synder notes, “Love was the key dynamic in Wesley’s whole life and theology.”

I would contend the faith development construct is a much more helpful and hopeful when viewed through the Wesleyan dynamic of love.  A theology of love brings out the best in people and propels them into new spiritual frontiers.  The hopeful light of God’s love sheds light on our current condition and compels us to move forward.  Wynkoop’s description of Love is relevant, she says “Love does not reduce life to dull, monotonous placidity.  It, rather, drives one into the unknown, the dangerous, the tumultuous human experiences all around us” (pg. 29).  When looking at the faith development construct, pray this prayer:  Lord, let your love shine brighter than ever before, consume our fears and compel us to reach for new heights.  Give us a faith that expresses itself through love.  Teach us as emerging leaders to embrace change instead of fearing it.  Amen.

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One Comment on “Fowler’s faith development, love and leadership.”

  1. Laraine Says:

    Love this article! Just what I was looking for. Great descriptions about the different stages & what makes people progress to the next stage or stay stuck.


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