James Fowler and Spiritual Development: Stages of Faith

Updated on February 17, 2013

The theologian James Fowler proposed a framework for spiritual development that he suggests parallels the frameworks for other aspects of human development. By doing this he suggests that spirituality is a basic aspect of human existence that develops in predictable ways, just as cognition or social behavior or motor skills or the ability to feed oneself. Fowler does not define faith through any particular religion but describes it as a particular way of relating to the universal and creating meaning. He proposes seven stages of development (starting, oddly, with Stage 0):

Stage 0: (birth -2 years) Primal or Undifferentiated stage in which a very small child learns to rely on the goodness (or badness, or inconsistency) of the world based on how that child is treated by their parents. This is very similar to Erik Erickson’s initial stage of human psychosocial development, Basic Trust vs. Mistrust.

Stage 1: (3 to 7 years ) Intuitive–Projective stage in which children are beginning to be able to use symbols and their imaginations. However children in this stage are very self-focused and inclined to take very literally (and self-referentially) ideas about evil, the devil or other negative aspects of religion. The ability to sort out reality from fantasy is not well developed.

Stage 2: (6-12 years, school age) Mythic–Literal stage in which information is organized into stories. These stories, along with moral rules, are understood literally and concretely. There is little ability to step back from the story and formulate an overarching meaning. Justice and fairness are seen as reciprocal. A few people remain in this stage throughout their lives.

Stage 3: (adolescence to early adulthood, some people remain permanently in this stage) Synthetic–Conventional stage in which people believe without having critically examined their beliefs. Their beliefs are in what they have been taught and in what they see “everyone else” as believing too. There is a strong sense of identity with the group. People in this stage are not very open to questions because questions are frightening at this point of development. People in this stage place a large amount of trust in external authority figures and tend not to recognize that they are within a belief system “box” as their beliefs are internalized but have not been examined.

Stage 4: (the earlier in adulthood the easier on the person) Individuative-Reflective stage in which a person begins to recognize they are in a “box” and look outside it. People in this stage ask questions and see the contradictions or problems in their beliefs. This can be a very painful stage as old ideas are now modified and sometimes rejected altogether. Some people give up on faith altogether at this point but faith can be strengthened in this stage as beliefs become explicitly, personally held. There is a strong reliance on the logic, rational mind and the self.

Stage 5: (usually not before mid-life) Conjunctive stage in which a person who has gone through the deconstruction of the Individuative-Reflective stage begins to let go of some of the reliance on their own rational mind and recognize that some experiences are not logical or easily understood at all. The move here is from either/or to both/and; complexity and paradox are embraced. People in this stage are more willing to dialogue with people of other faiths, seeking further information and correction to their own beliefs, and are able to do this without letting go of their own faith.

Stage 6: Universalizing stage. Very few people reach this stage, which is characterized by seeing all of humanity as one brotherhood and taking profound, self-sacrificing action to care for all humanity because of this view.

It’s important to note that there are many critics of Fowler’s theories and the research that has been done to support them. Some of the criticisms are from religious circles and address Fowler’s definition of faith and express concerns about the non-religious content of his descriptions. Other criticisms come from psychological circles and address possible cultural and gender biases and question the way Fowler conceptualizes the self. One of the criticisms I find most relevant is that it is unlikely that progression through these stages is entirely linear particularly within the later stages, and that people show signs of moving back and forth between them. Despite the criticism, this model has been widely used and I find it useful as a tool for personal self-reflection. I also find it helpful when working with others to have a sense of where they might be in their development at that moment. What do you think?


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    • Rose Anne Karesh profile image

      Rose Anne Karesh 4 years ago from Virginia

      Thanks Beata Stasak! I appreciate the feedback.

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 4 years ago from Western Australia

      Interesting views, thanks for sharing and congrat on your nomination:)...B

    • Rose Anne Karesh profile image

      Rose Anne Karesh 4 years ago from Virginia

      Hi Margaret Johnson, thanks for the additional information!

    • Margaret Johnston profile image

      Margaret Johnston 4 years ago

      Your readers may be interested in my book which adds three things to Fowler's work. 1) it includes real life stories that illustrate how real people experienced these stages. 2) it correlates Fowler's work with that of eleven other "theorists" from different fields, different parts of the world and even different centuries. All of them came up with similar development concept, though each used different terminology and different numbers of stages. 3) it suggests some cultural implications to which this theory, which I have called spiritual development theory, points.

      Margaret Placentra Johnston, Author

      Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind.


    • Rose Anne Karesh profile image

      Rose Anne Karesh 4 years ago from Virginia

      Thanks krillco! I also find his work very meaningful (obviously!)

    • krillco profile image

      William E Krill Jr 4 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

      I think he is brilliant, and has contributed a profound theory to human development as well as spiritual development.