Stages of (My) Faith, a review by John Halstead

Today we continue our early winter theme, Beginnings, with a discussion of James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, by John Halstead.

Is human spiritual development like a road?  Do we progress from one stage to another, like leaving one town and moving to another?

Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;
There are four seasons in the mind of man …
— “The Human Seasons” by John Keats

Stages of Spiritual Maturity

When I was transitioning out of my religion of origin (Mormonism), Alan Watts’ book, Behold the Spirit, had a profound influence on the course of my subsequent spiritual development.  Watts is best known for being a popular translator of Eastern spirituality for Western audiences.  One of the quotes that stood out to me and which I copied into my little book of favorite quotations was this:

“In the stage of infancy, the church’s moral teaching is of necessity authoritarian and legalistic.  In adolescence, intensely earnest and self-consciously heroic, following after extremely lofty ideals.  In maturity, we return somewhat to earth, and find the source of morality neither in external authority, nor in remote ideals, but in the consciousness of God himself in the heart.”

As with many quotes that captured my attention at the time, I did not fully understand its meaning when I first read its, and I would only grow to understand it, sometimes years later, as I lived out that meaning in my own life.  In the quote above, Watts identifies three stages of faith* development.  These corresponded with the course of my own spiritual development.  At the time I read the quote, I was leaving the first stage.  My own literalistic understanding of religion had come into conflict with my intellectual explorations and my expanding sphere of personal experience.  “Self-conciously heroic” would be an apt description of my departure from the Mormon church as I moved into Watts’ second stage.  I saw myself as struggling against the powers of ignorance and fear, both personal and collective.  At the time, I had only a vague sense of an internal God-consciousness, which is a quality of Watts’ third stage, but I longed for it.  A couple of years later, Neo-Paganism helped me to “return somewhat to earth”, as Watts says, and develop that inner divinity, which I am still attempting to do.

One of my role models from contemporary Paganism has been Aidan Kelly, the founder of the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn, a West Coast Neo-Pagan tradition organized in 1967.  In his book, Crafting the Art of Magic, Kelly describes the same three stages in the development of an individual’s religious maturity identified by Alan Watts:

“The first is the stage of childhood, during which the myths of religion, learned from parents and others, are believed implicitly.  The second stage is the stage of adolescence, during which the critical intellect develops, and the objective facts of ordinary history are taken as the criteria by which to judge the plausibility or possibility of the myths, which are normally rejected as being simply false during this stage, which can last into the late twenties.  The third stage is the beginnings of true maturity, in which the person realizes that the facts of ordinary history, being value-free, provide no basis for making decisions about life problems.  At this stage the adult can begin to reappropriate the myths, recognizing that they are intended to be primarily statements of value, not statements of fact or history, and recognizing also that an interpretation of the myths which is much more sophisticated than that of a child must be possible; else these myths would hardly have survived for millenia as the basis for the value systems of world civilizations.  One mark of true maturity is therefor the ability to tolerate the ambiguous tension between myth and history.”

Kelly does a good job here of describing the third stage.  At the time, I understood my own embrace of Neo-Paganism as the kind of “reappropriation” of mythology which Kelly describes as part of the third stage.

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith

A few years later, my brother-in-law gave me a copy of James Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith, which turned out to be a godsend.  In Stages of Faith, Fowler describes this same process as Watts and Kelly above, but in much more detail, drawing on the theories of psychologists Piaget, Kohlberg, Erickson, and others.  Fowler describes 6 stages of spiritual development.  Fowler’s Stages 2/3, 4, and 5 correspond roughly to the three stages described by Watts and Kelly above: a mythologizing stage, a de-mythologizing stage, and a reconstructive stage.  It’s these stages that I will be discussing below.  (Fowler’s Stage 1 corresponds to early childhood, of which most of us have little memory, and Stage 6 essentially corresponds to what might be called “enlightenment”, which few of us will ever experience.)

Late Childhood Spirituality (Mythologizing Stage)

Fowler’s Stage 2, which he called “Mythic-Literal Faith” (and which I call the Mythologizing Stage), is the stage most common in school children.  It is characterized by one-dimensional and literalistic interpretations of the stories and beliefs of one’s community.  Experience is structured largely by means of linear narrative or story.  The actors in the cosmic story are anthropomorphic.  Individuals in this stage do not naturally step back to reflect on the meaning of the story.  The world is understood to operate on a principle of reciprocal fairness and justice.  Fowler warns that the literalness and excessive reliance on cosmic reciprocity at this stage can lead to “an overcontrolling, stilted perfectionism” (“works righteousness”) on the one hand or “an abasing sense of badness” on the other (or, as in my personal case, both).  A person begins to move out of this stage as they become aware of the contradictions in the stories they have inherited and begin to reflect on the meanings of those stories.

Adolescent Spirituality (Constructive Stage)

Fowler’s Stage 3, which he calls “Synthetic-Conventional Faith” (and I call the Constructive Stage), typically develops in adolescence.  In this stage, the individual seeks to construct a coherent worldview that will orient them in their increasingly complex environment.  While we tend to think of adolescents as independence-seeking, Fowler calls this a “conformist stage”.  Individuals in this stage are “acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others” and do not have a sure enough grasp on their own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective.  Authority is located in traditional authority roles, if they are perceived as personally worthy, or in the “consensus of a valued, face-to-face group”.  According to Fowler, at this stage, beliefs and values may be deeply felt, but they are tacitly held.   The individual “dwells” in their beliefs, rather than reflecting on them objectively:

“There has not been occasion to step outside them to reflect on or examine them explicitly or systematically. [In this stage,] a person has an ‘ideology,’ a more or less consistent clustering of values and beliefs, but he or she has not objectified it for examination and in a sense is unaware of having it. Differences of outlook with others are experienced as differences in ‘kind’ of person.”

According to Fowler, one of the dangers of this stage is that “[t]he expectations and evaluations of others can be so compellingly internalized (and sacralized) that later autonomy of judgment and action can be jeopardized”.

Young Adult Spirituality (Demythologizing/Deconstructive Stage)

Numerous factors can lead to a transition to the next stage, including:

“serious clashes or contradictions between valued authority sources; marked changes, by officially sanctioned leaders, or policies or practices previously deemed sacred and unbreachable; the encounter with experiences or perspectives that lead to critical reflection on how one’s beliefs and values have formed and changed, and on how ‘relative’ they are to one’s particular group or background”;

or the experience of “leaving home” — emotionally, physically, or both — which precipitates the kind of self-examination that leads to a transition to the next stage.  All of these factors played a role in my own disillusionment with Mormonism: contradictions of authorities, changes in doctrines, exposure to a world not so easily encapsulated in the Mormon paradigm, insight into my own personal history and idiosyncrasies that led me to embrace Mormonism at a young age, and so on.

Fowler’s Stage 4, which he calls “Individuative-Reflective Faith”, may begin in young adulthood for many, but for some it only emerges in the mid-thirties or forties.  The individual begins to define him- or herself as distinct from group membership and social roles. The individual begins to take seriously their personal responsibility to examine their feelings and reflect critically on their beliefs.  Fowler calls this the “demythologizing” stage.  This is the stage, which many of my readers are undoubtedly familiar with, of deconstructing the dogma of one’s previously-held faith.  Individuals in this stage tend to have “an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought”.  It also can breed a kind of narcissism.  This certainly applied to me when I left the Mormon church.  I believed that my rational mind would provide me with everything my spirit needed, and I was convinced I could do it alone.  The danger of this stage is that it will lead to nihilism, but even nihilism can be a precursor to transformation.

An individual begins to move out of this stage as he or she begins to acknowledge in the influence of unconscious factors influencing their judgment and behavior, what Fowler calls “images and energies from a deeper self”.  An individual may also develop “a gnawing sense of the sterility and flatness of the meanings one serves”.  Stories, symbols, myths and paradoxes from one’s own old tradition or from other traditions develop a new appeal.  One begins to recognize that life is more complex than the “logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts can comprehend” and begins to move toward “a more dialectical and multileveled approach to life truth.”

Adult Spirituality (Remythologizing/Reconstructive Stage)

Fowler’s calls his Stage 5 “Conjunctive Faith”.  According to Fowler, this stage is rare before mid-life, but I have found elements of it in people much younger.  This stage involves the integration of spiritual elements that were either suppressed or unrecognized in the previous stage.  It brings together the power of symbolic truths of Stage 3 with the critical awareness of Stage 4.  This is a re-mythologizing stage; individuals in this stage can (re-)embrace symbols, myths and rituals — either those previously rejected or new ones — because they are no longer empty formalities; the individual has now experienced the “depth of reality” to which they refer.

This stage involves a “reclaiming and reworking of one’s past” and “an opening to the voices of one’s ‘deeper self.'”

“What the previous stage struggled to clarify, in terms of the boundaries of self and outlook, this stage now makes porous and permeable. Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. It generates and maintains vulnerability to the strange truths of those who are ‘other.’ Ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation) […]”

The strength of this stage comes from what Fowler calls “a capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.”

Limitations of Fowler’s Stages

There are some obvious limitations to understanding spiritual development in this linear way.  First, the stages can occur at nearly any point in a person’s life.  I have known adults who seem to be in Fowler’s Stage 3 and teenagers who seem to be Fowler’s Stage 4.  Second, not everyone seems to go through these stages.  Fowler’s stages may be common or even predominant among American Christians, but not even everyone in that group fits this model.  My wife is an example of one such exception.  As far as I can tell, she moved smoothly from Stage 3 right past Stage 4 and into Stage 5.  In spite of apparently not going through a deconstructive stage, she developed the tentativity and ambiguity-tolerance in religious matters which is characteristic of Stage 5.  For as long as I have known her (her early 20s), she has had what Fowler described as “a capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.”

Third, as UU minister Carl Gregg points out in his review of Fowler’s book, spiritual development is less like a conveyer belt and more like spiral, meaning that a person can experience aspects of two stages at once.  This was certainly true in my case.  I more often felt like I was straddling two of Fowler’s stages than standing firmly in any one of them.  Even now, while I identify myself as being in Fowler’s Stage 5, I have a foot dragging along in Stage 4 behind me.

Another one of the problems with Fowler’s linear approach is the temptation it creates to view ourselves as farther along the path than we are and to view other as farther back than they are.  When I was given Fowler’s book, I would have said that I was transitioning from Stage 4 to Stage 5.  Looking back, 10 years later, I would now say that I had (at least)  a foot in Stage 3, was straddling Stage 4, and had a toe in Stage 5.  And then there is the problem of how one views others.  For instance, when I was in the deconstructive Stage 4, it was practically impossible for me to tell the difference between others who were in Stage 3 and Stage 5.  They all looked the same to me, because most of them participated in religious community and spoke the language of religious symbols.  My default was to “condemn” them all to Stage 3, because I really had no experience of Stage 5 to make sense of other kinds of religious participation.  In my case, that meant that I thought I had moved “beyond” my wife when I left the Mormon church, only to find out years later that I was actually “catching up” to her.

Why I Still Like Fowler’s Stages

I know there will be some who object to the whole idea of stages of spiritual development because it inevitably leads to comparisons of individuals which can be unflattering and breeds a kind of spiritual elitism.  Nobody would want to hear that they are in Stage 3 at mid-life.  And those in Stage 4 may resent the suggestion that their hard-fought-for religious independence is not the end of the road.  Nevertheless, it does seem to me that there is a general pattern in American spiritual development, which involves a mythologizing phase, a de-mythologizing phase, and a reconstructive phase.  Perhaps there would be less stigma attached to the earlier phases if we did not tie them to specific age groups.  In any case, Fowler’s stages fit my own personal history pretty well.

And in spite of the limitations discussed above, I have still found Fowler’s stages to be personally helpful to understanding my own life.  When I left the Mormon faith, transitioning from the adolescent Stage 3 stage to the young adult Stage 4, I was hurt and angry.  I felt that I had been lied to.  I wanted nothing to do with organized religion at all.  As I (very) gradually transitioned from Stage 4 to Stage 5, I realized that much of my anger at my religion of origin was really anger that I felt toward myself which I had projected outward.  I realized that I was not so much angry that I had been lied to, as I was angry at myself for being deceived (or for lying to myself).  Healing from that wound was less about forgiving others, as it was about forgiving myself.  And a critical part of forgiving myself was realizing that the adolescent stage of spirituality was normal and healthy.  We cannot be born into the world with an adult spirituality, any more than we can be born into the world with an adult body or adult cognitive faculties.  (That’s not to say that there are not young individuals who are exceptional.)  Reading Fowler’s Stages of Faith was invaluable in realizing the truth that spirituality is developed over time and forgiving myself essentially for being human.  Eventually, it helped me feel more empathy for those for whom the Mormon church was still fulfilling a spiritual function.

Fowler’s book also helped me from getting stuck in the spirituality of young adulthood.  It would have been easy to get stuck in the negativity of Fowler’s Stage 4.  Realizing that there was something beyond the deconstructive stage of faith helped me to be open to a re-constructive kind of spirituality that I eventually found in Neo-Paganism.  It is something I still am striving toward.  Of course, I don’t mean to suggest here that Mormonism is necessarily associated with Stage 3 or that Neo-Paganism is necessarily associated with Stage 5.  (That’s a question for another day.)  A person going from Neo-Paganism to Mormonism could till be moving from Stage 3 to Stage 5.  It’s just the direction it occurred for me.  And in the process, Fowler’s schema for spiritual development helped me make peace with my past and also gave me an inkling of what I wanted to move toward.

More information on Fowler’s stages can be found here and here.


* I use the word “faith” here, not in the sense of belief, but in the sense of one’s general relation to religious questions.

For discussion: Has your own religious development followed a similar pattern?  Has it followed another pattern?  Do you think it is helpful to think of spiritual development in terms of stages?  Why or why not?

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neopagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis).  He blogs at The Allergic Pagan at Patheos Pagan and Dreaming the Myth Forward at PaganSquare. John currently serves at the managing editor at HP.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

Next Sunday

Bart Everson

Next Sunday: A Pedagogy of Gaia: by Bart Everson: “Always Beginning Again”.

8 Comments on “Stages of (My) Faith, a review by John Halstead

  1. Wow! As a very long time fan of James Fowler ( I devoted a chapter to his model in my own book, Spiritual Mentoring), I appreciate your clear summary of his ideas and your even more clear reflections upon them.

    I even more appreciate your giving me an opportunity to look at them again several years later. Some thoughts came up:

    1. I’ve thought a lot about Fowler’s assertion that the growth of individuals within any congregation tend to be limited by the level of the group’s clergy. To some extent, this is just tautological, as those who move beyond that level tend also to move on. But still it is a challenge to those of us who presume to lead groups, Pagan or otherwise.

    2. Reading your essay, I noticed how well these three stages also map to the classic dialectic of thesis (literal belief), antithesis (rebellion and deconstruction) and synthesis.

    3. As a British Traditional Witch, I’m mulling about whether the three stages can also somehow be correlated to the three Degrees of our Tradition.

    Again, thanks for this essay. I will be sharing the link with my students.

    Judy Harrow

    • Judy,

      You’re right about the similarity to the Hegelian dialectic. In that sense, Fowler’s scheme is hardly new. I think that, in the course of our lives, we undergo this three stage cycle many time, on smaller and larger scales. I imagine we can even be undergoing smaller cycles within a larger one. Anyway, I hadn’t thought about how the stages might be integrated with degrees of initiation. I think that could be a fruitful area to explore.

  2. Interesting. Fowler’s stages remind me a bit of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Any connection there, that you know of?

    Following the links to learn more about Fowler’s stages, I’m still pretty fuzzy about how Stage 6 people relate differently to their faith. They are described as more charismatic and relatable, but otherwise I can’t quite pin down what is meant by stage 6… 😦

    • He spends a chapter on Kohlberg. And there’s an interesting chart where he compares the theories of various psychologists to his stages.

      Regarding Stage 6, he calls these people “universalizers”. These individuals can fellowship with individuals at any other stage and from any faith traditions. They see themselves as part of something that transcends social, political, economic, and ideological divisions and act to realize this in an inclusive human community. Fowler calls them “contagious”, which refers I think to the charisma you mentioned. They are also subversive of existing social (including religious) structures. Consequently, they are often martyred. He describes them has having “a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.” Admittedly, that is even more subjective than the rest of his very subjective schema. He names Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Dag Hammarskjöld, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham Heschel, and Thomas Merton as examples of Stage 6 personalities.

      • That still leaves me awfully fuzzy. It kinda sounds like his stage 6 suffers from a problem similar to Kohlberg’s top stage, namely that is seems to single out a particular favored view as “best.” In this case, it’s a kind of pluralism or nondualism or something of that nature. No?

  3. John,

    Thanks for this! I’ve never read Fowler directly, only seen others referring to and building off of his work. It’s helpful to have such a clear and concise run-down of his approach, along with some sober reflections on its potential flaws and drawbacks.

    A couple thoughts come to mind:

    First, like Judy, I found myself wondering if the three-stage model could be mapped to other processes. (The thesis-antithesis-synthesis wasn’t one I thought of! Awesome!) What came to mind immediately for me were theories about ritual initiation or rites of passage. On the one hand, you have van Gennep’s theory of separation-liminality-reincorporation; on the other, you have Lincoln’s enclosure-metamorphosis-emergence. Two sides of the same coin, so to speak. What made me wonder about this in particular is that, when I left Christianity, it was like I could feel in an almost visceral way how I was being “bumped back down” to an earlier stage within this new religious tradition. As a Christian, I think I’d reach a similar place as the one your wife is in (and I really appreciated you including that personal perspective) — which is why I didn’t leave Christianity because of any animosity or trauma, but because I simply felt called to a bigger, wilder life outside of the Christian tradition. I actually felt somewhat ashamed when I realized I was having to go through the entire process of mythologizing and deconstructing again as a Pagan, and I had to process that before I felt comfortable even speaking publicly about my polytheism. (Which is why it’s been, well, ten damn years and I’m only just now starting to put some of it down in writing!)

    This kind of brings me to my second thought, which is — I wonder if thinking about these stages as constituting a process of transition or rite of passage would put them in a more helpful context (and also go to explain why the stages sometimes don’t seem to match up with the age groups he assigns them). I’m particularly intrigued by the possibility of pairing this linear approach to spiritual life stages with the work of Bill Plotkin, who adopts a cyclical model based on the four elements/directions placed around a circle. (If you haven’t read Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul, I really recommend it! I’d love to hear your thoughts.) I wonder, for instance, if perhaps people move through a “mini” or truncated version of Fowler’s stages at each of the life stage transitions that Plotkin explores — I’m really intrigued by the idea of trying to put those two models into conversation and see what happens. Blending the linear with the cyclical and you end up with a personal favorite of mine: the spiral! 😉

    Anyway, just some thoughts. Very interesting post! Thanks again for sharing.

  4. Pingback: The Travails of a Pagan in a Dual Faith Household

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