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James Fowler and Spiritual Development: Stages of Faith

Rose is a doctor who has worked with patients with issues from trauma to depression. She has a keen interest in psychology and spirituality.

James Fowler's theory suggests that humans go through seven stages of spiritual development.

James Fowler's theory suggests that humans go through seven stages of spiritual development.

Fowler's Spiritual Development Theory

In the second half of the 20th century, 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 theorized that there are seven distinct stages of spiritual development that illustrate the stages in which humans understand and relate to God or a higher power. In this article, I'll cover:

  • The 7 Stages of Spiritual Development
  • History of Fowler's Theory
  • Criticisms of Fowler's Stages of Faith

The 7 Stages of Spiritual Development

Fowler does not define faith through any particular religion but describes it as a specific way of relating to the universe and creating meaning. He proposes seven stages of development (starting, oddly, with Stage 0).

Stage 0: Primal or Undifferentiated Stage

(Birth to 2 years)

In this stage, 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: Intuitive-Projective Stage

(3 to 7 years)

In Stage 1, 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: Mythic-Literal Stage

(6 to 12 years, school age)

During this stage, 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: Synthetic-Conventional Stage

(Adolescence to early adulthood; some people remain permanently in this stage)

In this stage, 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: Individuative-Reflective Stage

(The earlier in adulthood, the easier on the person)

In this stage, 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 logical, rational mind and the self.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Stage

(Usually not before mid-life)

In this stage, 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.

History of Fowler's Theory

Fowler developed this theory and development model in the 1970s and 1980s, and his best-known book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, was published in 1981. While developing his theory, Fowler consulted with Lawrence Kohlberg, whose six stages of moral development spurred the growth of a new field within psychology.

Fowler's theory was also heavily influenced by the work of Erik Erikson, a German psychologist who expanded upon Sigmund Freud's theories of ego psychology and developmental psychology, eventually formulating eight life stages accompanied by "virtues," which Erikson considered to be positive outcomes of the end of each stage.

Fowler's ties to Kohlberg and review of Kohlberg's unpublished materials helped him develop and determine the methodology for testing his theory. Along with the graduate students under his instruction, Fowler began conducting interviews based on a questionnaire that would establish the baseline data to develop his theory.

Fowler's theory was influenced by the works of Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, among others.

Fowler's theory was influenced by the works of Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, among others.

Criticisms of Fowler's Stages of Faith

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. Still more criticisms include the relatively small size of Fowler's interview sample (359 interviewees), as well as the ethnic diversity represented.

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. Fowler's theory supports the notion that spiritual growth is vertical and does not explore the horizontal dimensions of spiritual development or view spiritual growth as a holistic experience.

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?

Sources and Further Reading


Chidi on October 11, 2018:

I want to know the definition if growth and development according to James H (2013)

Lawrence Carson from Meridian, Idaho, USA on April 03, 2018:

You asked “What do you think?” so here is a very brief snippet of how my states of consciousness thinking changed after my near death experience, (NDE) which should really be called nearer to life experience (NTLE)

1. All Consciousness is Energy because all Energy is Conscious.

2. Belief Systems are thus various frequencies of Conscious Energy

3. Belief Systems and the words they infuse with meanings control how the average person thinks, how a person generates their emotions that then motivate one’s behavior that impacts one’s perceptions of reality.

4. Thus, Belief Systems are the prime directors of one’s supply chain of Identity Illusion.

5. To transcend and elevate one’s Coherently Harmonic, Energetically Entangled Reality – States Of Mental Experiences (CHEER-SOME) one must (i) Want to … (ii) Learn How to … Experience, Disidentify, Transmute, and Integrate the at-one-with the Pan Omni of allness (Communion = 2B@1with) in order to Transcend the Ignorance of our Infinite and Eternal Identity. That is to succinctly say, “There are no truthful belief mirrors of identity.”

And at that level of one’s noetic imperiencing, identity formation becomes a youthful experience only to be cast aside while manifesting meanings that truly matter forever.


Never mind the cynical and lazy of mind; for centuries they have repressed our spiritual callings and have never provided our world with a better way. James Fowler has received a calling to which I wish to experience to become just one of many who can hear destiny’s calling and venture forth along with . . . “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

Lawrence Carson is a pioneer in exploring and sharing his experiences on how the Conscious Operating System of the Universe (C-OS) and the human mind actually relate.

A Mental Expedition To Explore & Understand

The Unified Field Theory (C-OS)

The Conscious Operating System of The Universal Mind

The Conscious Operating System of Your Mind (C-OS)

That Gives Rise to Human Beliefs … That Generate Human Emotions … That Compel Human Behavior That Produces The Realities of Our Life’s Destiny

by Lawrence J. Carson II

Rose Anne Karesh (author) from Virginia on April 06, 2013:

Thanks Beata Stasak! I appreciate the feedback.

Beata Stasak from Western Australia on April 05, 2013:

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

Rose Anne Karesh (author) from Virginia on February 21, 2013:

Hi Margaret Johnson, thanks for the additional information!

Margaret Johnston on February 20, 2013:

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 (author) from Virginia on February 18, 2013:

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

William E Krill Jr from Hollidaysburg, PA on February 17, 2013:

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