Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development

James W. Fowler III (1940 – 2015) was an American theologian who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was also a minister in the United Methodist Church. Fowler identified the following stages of spiritual growth.

Stage 0 – Primal or Undifferentiated Faith, 0-2 years
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This beginning stage is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). Basic ideas about God are usually picked up from parents. If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and language which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
Stage 1 – Intuitive-Projective2-7 years
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Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with. Understanding is very literal.
Stage 2 – Mythic-Literal, 12+ years
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Strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe.
Stage 3 – Synthetic-Conventional 12+ years
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Characterized by conformity to authority and the religious development of a personal identity. Conflicts with one’s beliefs are often ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
Stage 4 – Individuative-Reflective, 21+ years
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A stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.
Stage 5 – Conjunctive, 35+ years
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Acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement. May return to sacred stories and symbols, but this time without being stuck in a theological box.
Stage 6 – Universalizing, 45+
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The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice. Fear and worries are overcome.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution is largely Synthetic-Conventional, as reinforced by the correlation program, general conference talks, handbooks, policies, etc. Its historic culture is binary with an “us versus the world” mentality.

Members who progress to stage 4 and beyond may face painful challenges as they express their evolving faith and understanding to conventional members. There is a need for mutual respect, tolerance and peacemaking on all sides.

Scott R. Braithwaite, an associate psychology professor at Brigham Young University, said that “These stages of faith I think are helpful because they help us to realize that there’s not just one way to have faith.” Reference

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The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, who language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.

~ Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l  

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– Tom Irvine

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