Stages of Faith

Stages of Faith: Human Development and the Quest for Meaning
James Fowler, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist, a United Methodist layperson, and Director of the Center for Faith Development at Emory University. He is the premiere pioneer of the study of Faith development, and his book Stages of Faith (1981) is a ground-breaking classic. Fowler identifies six stages through which pilgrims of faith invariably travel.  Below are summaries of the stages drawn from various sources as well as the book itself.  Read it through and see what you think.

Steps on the journey

The first stage:
Intuitive-Projective faith

This first stage usually occurs between the ages of three and seven, and is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious. Imagination runs wild in this stage, uninhibited by logic. It is the first step in self-awareness and when one absorbs one’s culture’s strong taboos. The advantages of this stage are the birth of imagination and the growing ability to grasp and unify one’s perception of reality.  This age perceives the world through lens of imagination and intuition 
unrestrained by logic e.g., lives in a magical world in which anything is

The second stage: Mythic-Literal faith
Symbol and ritual begin to be integrated by the child. These symbols, however, are one-dimensional. Only literal interpretations of myth and symbol are possible. Here the child develops a way
of dealing with the world and making meaning that now criticizes and 
evaluates the previous stage of imagination and fantasy. The gift of this 
stage is narrative. The child now can really form and re-tell powerful
 stories that grasp his or her experiences of meaning. There is a quality of
literalness about this. The child is not yet ready to step outside the
stories and reflect upon their meanings. The child takes symbols and myths
 at pretty much face value, though they may touch or move him or her at a 
deeper level. Here one sees the world as a story–concrete, literal, narrative family of
 ritual and myth e.g., “In the beginning, God created the . . .”

The third stage: Synthetic-Conventional faith

The majority of the population finds its permanent home in this stage. Usually arising in adolescence, it is a stage characterized by conformity, where one finds one’s identity by aligning oneself with a certain perspective, and lives directly through this perception with little opportunity to reflect on it critically. One has an ideology at this point, but may not be aware that one has it. Religious concepts are “tacitly” held – the person is not fully conscious of having chosen to believe something. Thus the name “Synthetic” – beliefs are not the result of any type of analytical thought. Any attempts to reason with a person in this stage about his beliefs, any suggestion of demythologizing his beliefs is seen as a threat.  Those who differ in opinion are seen as “the Other,” as different “kinds” of people. Authority derives from the top down, and is invested with power by majority opinion. Dangers in this stage include the internalization of symbolic systems (power, “goodness” “badness”) to such a degree that objective evaluation is impossible. Furthermore, while one can at this stage enter into an intimate relationship with the divine, This stage develops in the teenager to early adulthood or beyond, sees the world through the lens of 
the peer community e.g., unconsciously “catches” faith, values, and way of 
thinking from peer group or subculture. Tends not to question the accepted
ways of thinking e.g., “if the Bible says . . . it must be true” or “if my church says . . . then it’s the Truth.”   At this stage it is difficult dealing calmly and rationally 
with issues that touches on one’s identity.

One of the hallmarks of this stage is that it tends to compose its images of
 God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced
 as Friend, Companion, and and Personal Reality, in relationship to which I’m 
known deeply and valued. I think the true religious hunger of adolescence is 
to have a God who knows me and values me deeply, and can be a kind of 
guarantor of my identity and worth in a world where I’m struggling to find 
who I can be.

 At any of the stages from two on you can find adults who are best described by these stages. Stage Three, thus, can be an adult stage. We do find many persons, in churches and out, who are best described by faith that essentially took form when they were adolescents.  The name “conventional” means that most people in this stage see themselves as believing what “everybody else” believes and would be reluctant to stop believing it because of the need they feel to stay connected with their group. It turns out that most of the people in traditional churches are at this stage. And in fact, Fowler comes right out and states that religious institutions “work best” if the majority of their congregation is in Stage 3. (Now THAT explains a lot of the preaching we hear that sounds destined to discourage people from questioning! To properly assure their continuance, churches apparently need people to remain in Stage 3. )

When a person cognitively realizes that there are contradictions between some of his authority sources and is ready to actually reflect realistically on them, he or she begins to be ready to move to the fourth stage.

The fourth stage: Individuative-Reflective
This is primarily a stage of angst and struggle, in which one must face difficult questions regarding identity and belief.  It is ideal that a person reach this stage by their mid-twenties, but as has already been discussed, it is evident that many adults never reach it.  If it happens in the thirties or forties or even later, it is much harder for the person to adapt.  At this time, the personality gradually detaches from the defining group from which it formerly drew its identity. The person is aware of him or herself as an individual and must–perhaps for the first time–take personal responsibility for his/her beliefs and feelings. This is a stage of de-mythologizing, where what was once unquestioned is now subjected to critical scrutiny. Stage four is heavily existential, where nothing is certain but one’s own existence, and disillusionment reigns. This stage is not a comfortable place to be and, although it can last for a long time, those who stay in it do so in danger of becoming bitter, suspicious characters who trust nothing and no one. But most, after entering this stage, sense that not only is the world far more complex than his or her stage three mentality would allow for, it is still more complex and numinous than the agnostic rationality of stage four allows.

Meanings in stories become separate from the symbols themselves, so the stories are demythologized. (In losing the literal meaning of the religious symbols, people can lose ALL meaning of the symbol and that is how you wind up with so many atheists and agnostics at this stage.)  This process can result in grief and guilt in some cases, and can take several years to work through. But in the place of the literal symbol, the person gains the ability to make comparisons and whatever meanings they retain are explicitly held (and thus more authentic in that they are personal.)

The strengths of this stage lie in the capacity for critical reflection (and the willingness to face truths that may cause distancing from comfortable thought patterns and thus pain.) But a weakness of this stage is that the person may put excess confidence in the rational, conscious mind, thus ignoring unconscious and spiritual forces that become more prominent in the next stage.

Stage five: Conjunctive faith
Here one moves from stage four’s rationalism to the acknowledgement of paradox and transcendence. It is in this stage that, in Washburnian terminology, one chooses regression in the service of transcendence.   One develops a “second naivete” in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings.  It was Barth’s and Ricoeur’s common conviction that theological interpretation of the Bible ought to lead us beyond a critical preoccupation with the text to a fresh encounter with the divine reality to which the text bears witness.  In this stage a person grasps the reality behind the symbols of his or her inherited systems, and is also drawn to an acknowledging of the symbols of other’s systems. People in this stage are willing to engage in dialog with those of other faiths in the belief that they might learn something that will allow them to correct their own truths. To get to this point, it is critical that the person has moved through the demythologizing phase of stage four.  This stage makes room for mystery and the unconscious, and is fascinated by it while at the same time apprehensive of its power. It sees the power behind the metaphors while simultaneously acknowledging their relativity.

In stage five, the world is re-sacrilized, literally brimming with vision. It is also imbued with a new sense of justice that goes beyond justice defined by one’s own culture and people. Because one has begun to see “the bigger picture,” the walls culture and tradition have built between ourselves and others begins to erode, and one can work through one’s cultural and psychological baggage. Stage Five is a period when one is alive to paradox, and, though it is not easy to live on the cusp of paradox, one understands that truth has many dimensions which have to be held together in paradoxical tension.  It is an overwhelming, ecstatic stage in which one is radically opened to possibility and wonder.  One becomes committed to a form of justice that extends to those outside the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation.  With this very inclusive worldview, people at Stage 5 are in an excellent position to make important contributions to society.

Stage six: Universalizing faith

The final stage is reached only by the very, very few. Examples Fowler names are Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa.  In a sense we can describe this stage as one in which
persons begin radically to live as though what Christians and Jews call the
“kingdom of God” were already a fact.
 These people experience a shift from the self as the center of experience.
 Now their center becomes a participation in God or ultimate reality. There’s 
a reversal of figure and ground. They’re at home with a
 commonwealth of being. We experience these people on the one hand as being more lucid and simple than we are, and on the other hand as intensely
liberating people, sometimes even subversive in their liberating qualities. 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.


10 thoughts on “Stages of Faith

  1. I like the simplicity of this and it actually makes a lot of sense. If you can stage my life to simplify it, I’m going through stage 4 right now after my life was completely shattered by those I was on the “in” with. It is such a struggle because I constantly feel the pressure to go back to conforming and being a part of the group I once was a part of because I feel so left out. And considering my family is trying to save me from myself and this time of deconstruction in my life, and absolutely afraid that I’m walking away from the “faith”, this time of my life is so very hard and I don’t feel encouragement but only a deep sense of failure from those who say they love me (practically, everyone).

    Every day I ask myself, “What is love?” because I’m constantly barraged with scripture verses from others trying to convince me that my questions and doubts are unbiblical, and that God really has all this anger and wrath stored up for me (and everyone else) unless I believe in certain doctrines; and because of this, the most loving thing to do is to save me from my deceptive self regardless of how I feel about it. But I feel in my heart this deep desire for real love and I honestly don’t want to be a part of something that does things out of fear. I just see a different definition of love from most Christians that doesn’t feel like love at all.

    Anyway, thank you for your authentic questions and words of encouragement. I’m finding encouragement from men like Peter Rollins as well. But it’s so hard to go through this time in my life feeling alone in the faith because I fear every Christian around me. I don’t feel loved by them at all, and it scares me because I want to love God, but I don’t want to be like every Christian around me who seems to be (deep down, even if they don’t want to admit it) motivated by a fear of hell or punishment from God. I know it’s not every Christian, but it feels like it because I feel like I haven’t met one with real love in their eyes and not just a love they claim with their lips.


    1. Andrew-
      Appreciate your openness as well as your struggle. There are many of us who are wrestling with the black and white approach we were raised with and are beginning to realize that things just aren’t that simple. It’s not an easy time to wrestle through some of this stuff, but it’s an important process, and I pray God will bring some people your way who can share the journey, rather than try to ‘rope you in’.

      I really think God is more mysterious, profound, and loving than we’ve often made him out to be. Feel free to read some of my own musings on these topics: Is God Dead? and An Angry God?

      May your path lead you into his love, may others in your life see it, and may they be be inspired by you rather than dismayed. Hang in there!


      1. Thanks Bryan for you words of encouragement. The hardest part in all of this is that my health is really bad and I have terrible mood swings and anxiety that make it really hard to be around others that scare me. All that to say that I want to be a good and loving aroma to those who don’t treat me with love, but the stress is more than I can handle. I’m just tired of being judged for not meeting the “Christian” status quo. And every time I talk to a Christian they’re more concerned about me meeting the line than about me. I don’t want to be selfish but when we feel loved the most it’s when we are accepted for who we are not who we should be, but it seems like church is more like a nagging mother always making sure we are who we should be and not loving us for who we are (even if they say they do). Sorry..I don’t want to wine, I’m just so confused and tired of this love I see, when it doesn’t seem to make any correlation with the love we all need.

        One more thing… Do you know anyone along your grain of thought in northern Seattle? Thanks again and I read those posts and enjoyed them very much! Sometimes I feel like I’m at war with what My heart says is true vs. What my upbringing and mind say is true. One is way more beautiful (the former) than the other, but if it’s the latter than I’m just a rotten selfish, more or less, worthless human being that must bow out of fear to a God who hates me if I don’t. But that doesn’t seem to mesh with “God is love” or “come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest”. (unless your on the in, than i guess it works) Anyway, sorry I’m rambling…


  2. Spring Arbor University uses this in their intro PSY 310 class that I teach. I think it helps to frame things in a number of ways. Thanks for posting it.


  3. It’s inevitable that I invariably confuse those words.

    Yes, Kohlberg was modeling his stages on those of the developmental psychologists.

    I think the descriptive/normative question is important. It’s a surprisingly common mistake, and potentially dangerous. It’s the root of the move from natural selection theory to eugenics, for example.


  4. Fowler clearly is referencing Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development here.

    As with Kohlberg’s stages, we should ask, “What is supposed to be the nature of these stages?” Are they descriptive or normative? That is, does he cite research showing that a person in fact moves from 1 to 2 and then from 2 to 3, etc? If so, then nothing follows about whether it is better (morally or otherwise) to be at a higher-numbered stage. We can’t conclude that because people actually move in this direction that they ought to.

    He describes the stages as “inevitable,” but clearly it’s not inevitable that one will get to stage 6, as he admits. So, in what sense are they inevitable? I would avoid a word like that when describing a *statistical* model of changes people tend to go through.

    Also, there is a difference between claiming that each person goes through the stages in that order and claiming that most people in such-and-such age group tend to be at stage x. The latter could be true even if no one ever goes through the stages in numerical order.

    On the other hand, if he’s arguing that people ought to strive for the higher-numbered stages, then the studies of children and adolescents is irrelevant. He would, instead have to present some moral theory and then show that people at higher-numbered stages are in a better position to meet their moral obligations.

    I haven’t read the book, so I just raising questions. Perhaps a reader can answer?

    P.S. I’m sure my admiration of Ghandi and MLK in the previous blog post is just a coincidence. 😉


    1. I think the word is ‘invariably’ rather than ‘inevitably’, but regardless, I believe most of that introductory part was from someone else, not Fowler himself.

      Fowler does note that he is building on not only Kohlberg, but Piaget and Erikson as well.

      It’s hard to say whether he thinks this is normative or something to be consciously striven toward. There seems to be spots where it’s the former, but then by stage six seems to be the latter.

      Hopefully Fowler shows up at Right Brain tonight. We’ll give him a stage.


  5. That’s helpful. I think Mark’s comments are on point. It’s a nice road map to make sense of where people may be or may be coming from in the way they communicate their reality.


  6. I’ve always appreciated Fowler. I think it’s very common to float in and out of different phases at different times of life, depending on what many factors. It’s probably not a linear as it seems.


    1. Yeah – it’s a helpful sketch, but as with any attempted schema, will not cover everyone nor every situation… and yes, it’s not always so linear. But some insights nonetheless.


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