April 1, 2009

My Interpretation of Fowler’s Stages of Faith

Posted in Deep thoughts, Mormon life tagged , , , , , at 11:44 PM by Robin


If you happened upon this post separately, please see my introduction and conclusions to the subject first, or it might not make a lot of sense!

I will try to briefly describe the stages and my interpretation of how it relates to my LDS perspective, but I apologize if someone is more well-versed in these theories and understands the psychology jargon better than I did. It’s kind of confusing anyway, since different sources have anywhere from five to seven stages, and it gets a little murky where one stage ends and the other begins. Just remember it is the process that it interesting, not what number the stage is assigned (in case I mess them up!).

The first stage begins as a very small child is taught the beginning precepts of a worldview or religion. This child accepts whatever his or her parents and others teach them as truth. They become acquainted with the ritual and tradition of their particular faith. This would be like teaching your two-year-old to take the sacrament. They learn the ritual, but they have no idea of the meaning behind it. They become familiar with the primary songs and what you do when you go to church. The second part of this stage expounds upon the first as the child develops more verbal skills. They learn the scripture stories and central characters of their religion, and develop their concepts of God. These characters are very real to them and they learn to love them almost as if they were people they were personally acquainted with. This is what we mean when we talk about childlike faith.

The next stage comes as the brain becomes able to process logic and causality (consequences). I’m pretty sure this corresponds with the ability to take responsiblity for your actions. Interestingly enough, this stage occurs around age 8, when LDS children are baptized, and continues on to age 11 or 12. During this stage, children begin learning how to glean additional meaning from stories and narratives. That means that when you teach them a scripture story, they understand that this is story, not about someone they might bump into on the street, but they can also understand a lesson taught through the story and be able to apply the situation of the story to situations in their own lives. In effect, this is the age when they begin to be able to actually “liken the scriptures” unto themselves.

The next stage begins in early adolescence, when the mind becomes capable of abstract thought. It is here you can look back on past experiences, see patterns within them, and gain meaning from them. Perhaps this can be related to a young person realizing that they feel a certain way whenever they are at church or reading the scriptures. The ability to have abstract thought also leads to another part of this stage, in which the person for the first time begins to question their beliefs as an individual, separate from their parents.  Youth strive to know for themselves whether they believe in the church. Many have spiritual experiences that convince them the church is true. Others at this age rebel against their parents and what they were taught and fall away from the church. Anyone who works with the youth can see this happening in both ways. It is also at this age that you begin to identify yourself with the community of your faith; it becomes as much a social attachment as a spiritual one.

The transition to the next stage comes as a person seeks a more personal relationship with God, and begins to spend a good deal of time in personal reflection and meditation (or prayer). I believe this is the time when an independant testimony is solidified. For me, I can see this transition occurring in my first couple of years at college, when there was no one looking over my shoulder, telling me to go to church, when I was separated from my closest friends, had a hard time making new ones, and really had no current social reasons to go to church. I did a lot of soul searching and praying during this time, and had several strong spiritual experiences which provided the basis for a solid testimony.

Like me, many people make the transition to this stage  in mid to late adolescence.  It is characterized by a firm, independent belief in the truth of the religion.  For a majority of people, this becomes a sort of plateau state in which they remain throughout the rest of their lives. One source estimated that perhaps 60% of individuals stayed at this point in their spiritual development. This group regularly attend meetings and serve within the church, they have a firm testimony and strive to keep all the commandments and live righteously. They are good, faithful people, but they have a hard time comprehending that anyone might question the beliefs they have come to accept as fact. They do not examine the paradoxes within their religion, and shy away from confronting some of the harder issues. For the remaining 40%, however, there comes a time when events in their life cause them to doubt the validity and strength of their convictions.

According to Fowler, while many late adolescents move quickly through the last stage and into this transition, it is much more common to find people in their thirties and forties struggling through it.  This transitionary period is the most difficult of all stages, usually marked by disillusionment and confusion–the mid-life crisis, so to speak. This transition is often prompted by situations of tension or adversity: conflicts or betrayals in personal relationships (which could be interpreted as anything from divorce to an argument with a fellow member of the church), apparent clashes between authority sources, changes in policies and practices (polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, etc), and encounters with other influences outside of one’s own past experience that lead to critical reflection on where you gained your values and how relevant they are to your current situation. Basically, any emotionally-charged situation that prompts you to call your faith into question could spark this transition, which can go on for several years. It is rare to find someone completing this transition and fully moving on the next stage before their mid-30s.,

However, once the transition is made, this next to last stage is characterized by what seems to be a deeper understanding of spiritual things.  Symbolic meanings are more fully comprehended, such as things taught in Isaiah or in the temple, and there is greater ability to be guided by what some sources called your “deeper self,” but I interpret to mean the Spirit. People who reach this stage understand that others have differing “worldviews”, and can handle conflict between opposing views with equanimity. I think this means that during this stage you have a greater surety within yourself of your personal beliefs. You are not threatened by others who believe differently than you do, but can understand and relate to people at all stages of faith. This is when your testimony becomes truly unshakable.

According to Fowler, the final stage is exceedingly rare. He calls those who reach this stage “Universalists”. These are great spiritual and religious leaders, great teachers, who have a huge impact upon the world they live in and the people they meet. They have an awareness and love for people of all walks of life, all races and religions. Often, Fowler points out, they challenge existing rules and ideas, and in so doing, make a lot of people uncomfortable. As a result, those who reach this stage often are martyred. They are often honored more after their death than during their life. As a Mormon, the first people who come to mind who would have reached this stage are Joseph Smith and many other we believe to be prophets. Some would claim that the Savior himself is the ultimate example of this ultimate stage of faith.



  1. anonymous said,

    Fascinating post Robin! I have not read Fowler’s book but have also listened to a podcast about it. I think you are right that the first thing to take from it is the message that there is a possibility of resolving these concerns and finding peace. I have many intellectual friends whom I put on pedestals. These people are the sharpest thinkers I have ever encountered and many of them are faithful LDS members. They have not avoided learning about church history or philosophy and quantum physics for that matter. But they are at a point where this controversial information has been reconciled with their faith. The fact that the possibility exists is very encouraging to me. However, it does not change the fact that you can’t jump the obstacle completely and end up there just because other people have. In your previous post you said “those who’s faith cannot stand up to the test fall away..” This sounds like it is saying that it is unfortunate when people fail the “test” but how can you say that “falling away” or choosing a different path was not the right conclusion? Fowler noticed similarities across the board in different faith-based religions and noticed that several people after much struggle obtain an “unshakable testimony.” But as someone who accepts a Christian point of view, how beneficial is it that an islamic or Jewish follower becomes unshaken in their faith if you are also unshaken in your faith? The fact that people are perhaps able to see beyond dogmas and selectively find the good in their religion shows that they are accepting personal responsibility but does not say anything about ultimate truth. When you allow yourself to challenge your beliefs you become an outsider. Your institution may even be guiltless of ostracizing you but internally you dis-identify yourself and feel like an outsider. What you are proposing is that there is a way to come back into the fold and not feel like you are lying to yourself. Such a person would recognize that not everyone feels it important to challenge their beliefs but they are okay with it. They recognize that church leaders are just people and that god works through imperfection to accomplish his purposes but it seems that perhaps after all truth claims have been deconstructed and a person sees that the answers they seek are not going to be provided by anyone, including the atheistic scientific community, they are most likely to return to the faith tradition that is familiar to them and the culture/community that originally accepted them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Fowler’s observation of faith-emphasizing religions may tell us something about people, but doesn’t it actually hurt the case for an absolutist religion?

  2. Robin said,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking comment! I have actually considered the same issues, and obviously, Fowler was not conducting this study as a way of promoting one religion above another. I, on the other hand, am operating from the perspective that the LDS religion is true, and therefore can’t adopt the same impartiality. In the articles summarizing this work that I have read, I did not read anything describing what happens to those who turn away from their faith, or who adopt a new faith later in life. What about converts? How does that work? It definitely brings up the question of how faith relates to organized religion, and in writing this post, I did have a lot of difficulty trying to decide whether to use the terms “faith” or “religion” or “testimony” or “belief system” or whatever.

    One thing I didn’t read, but have deduced,is that people don’t always progress from stage to stage in a steady fashion, always in line with the age approximations that Fowler noted. For instance, my grandfather falls into a category he himself describes as the “chronic Aaronic”. In other words, he was baptized at age 8 and received the Aaronic priesthood at 12, but became inactive in his teens, most likely because I don’t think his parents were all that active either. Using Fowler’s descriptions, he seems to be stuck in the adolescent stage, where he never became socially attached to the church. Does he then remain stuck at that stage for the rest of his life? I don’t know. I’m not close enough to him to really know what his beliefs are at this point.

    I think my answer to your question about absolute religion, would be that by the time you reach that penultimate stage, you have figured out for yourself what is truth–based upon what your knowledge of the truth is. President Hinckley has said (in paraphrase), “Let us take what is good and true from other religions and add more to it.” I think that a person can have an unshakeable testimony of some things,the important things, but not of every detail of doctrine (that is a subject for an upcoming post, actually) that a religion teaches. If you have a firm foundation, you can build and remodel other parts of the structure as greater knowledge permits. Likewise, if there are similar elements in a person’s religion–a belief in Christ, for instance-and they encounter new truths outside of their current religion, they may still be able to accept them because of that foundation. Does that make any sense?

    Finally, while I believe that our church has many important answers about ultimate truth, I do not believe that we have ALL the answers by any means. Our Articles of Faith tells us we believe that God has yet to reveal many important things unto man, and that therefore implies that we do not yet know everything there is to know. But you know, I think that we’ve got plenty of stuff to work on with what we’ve got!

  3. anonymous said,

    I know that in theory we accept this idea that true principles are floating around in the world and that many other religions have some of them but we have the entirety. However, I think you know very well that within our culture quoting the Dalai Lama in sacrament meeting is not appropriate. Raising the idea that someone else’s approach works better than ours in certain ways is not appropriate. There are many good principles that I think other religions have a superior understanding of. If we are willing to selectively absorb the information in the world that supports our beliefs (without looking to be added upon by others) are we equally entitled to reject beliefs within our religion that we find destructive or misleading without betraying our faith? Can an institution encourage this? It has lead to an innumerable amount of branch-off faiths throughout history. It makes absolute sense why an institution must protect itself. Can we also say there is a point where something has been on the back shelf for so long while so much more information has come out validating the concern and nothing confirming it’s wisdom that we can make the decision to no longer suspend our judgement? Can this mentality be projected on other faiths and circumstances that we might see as having destructive aspects? I hate to bring this name up in this context but what if a follower of Jim Jones said they were putting disturbing information they had learned about their faith on the back shelf? It is an exaggerated reference I know (I would never make the claim that Mormonism is the same in nature to Jim Jones’ sect) but I think you get the basic message. Wouldn’t we encourage those people to take more responsibility for their beliefs? I hope that I do not come across as being antagonistic by writing these things. The reason why it is a challenge is because the church has added so much to my life. However It is difficult to honestly explore anything having predefined that you are going to end up in a particular spot. Can we really say whether or not something is true if we have not, with equal energy, pursued whether it is not true? In countless other contexts this type of investigation would seem the wisest approach. Can we really expect other faiths to look hard at themselves and be honest with their flaws if we refuse to see our own? I hope that I can resolve my concerns and really feel good about them in my conscience. I genuinely appreciate your willingness to patiently discuss these issues and hope that your experience and wisdom can shed light on my dilemma.

  4. Robin said,

    OK, first of all, may I request that you put an occasional paragraph break in your comments? It makes it so much easier to keep track of the different questions posed. A paragraph that goes on for too long gives me a headache!

    Second, I am not going to set myself up as an authority on how to find for oneself absolute truth. You have valid concerns, that I think everyone, inside and outside of the church, needs to address for themselves. Putting concerns “on the back shelf” is a typical characteristic of those in what I think of as the adult plateau stage Fowler describes (stage 3 or 4, depending on which source you’re reading). It is the examination of these concerns that causes the tension of the upcoming transition. Once you are able to resolve those concerns to your own satisfaction, you have reached the next stage of spiritual security. It is secure and peaceful because you have answered these questions for yourself, not because you have passed some sort of test and earned your reward. I believe there is no problem expanding your search for knowledge outside of the church, but the question remains–how can you recognize truth?

    I plan to address this question and some of the other issues you have raised in future posts, where I can go into more detail than I like to do in a comment section. Please check back! I appreciate your thoughts.

  5. anonymous said,

    I apologize for my rambling (it seems even more like that with no paragraph breaks). My jumping from subject to subject prevents us from discussing any one thing in depth. I guess I’m just happy to have a forum where I can vent my anxieties and address topics that I wish were not so taboo. This is truly therapuetic. I look forward to your future posts and promise I will try to focus on the topic at hand and not throw out dozens of qustions. You are an excellent writer by the way. I am excited to see what comes next.

  6. Anonymous said,

    This is an interesting discussion between Robin and a commenter. Might I add a few thoughts. “Back shelf” issues are difficult to deal with. That’s why they’re on the back shelf. It’s important to note that every religion has those back shelf issues. I believe there are many things that will become more clear as we gain new insights through study and personal revelation.

    However, some troubling issues require us to adopt a new perspective, new ways of considering history, doctrine, etc. It’s like the relatively modern understanding that the earth is round, not flat as it seems to be intuitively. Or the idea that the earth is NOT the center of the universe. This was a huge issue for leaders of the early Catholic church. And yet today, we can’t really understand why that idea was so important to their belief system. Most can easily accept that the earth is just a very small part of God’s creations. But that doesn’t mean he loves us any less or isn’t interested in our lives. It’s just a shift in a way of thinking, that, at the time, seemed like a big deal, but now seems like a non-issue.

    There are some things we will never fully understand; I don’t like this category of issues much because it creates cognitive dissonance for me. If we don’t understand something that is not fully understandable, it’s easy to have doubts and concerns that seem irreconcilable. For me, the best way to find peace with these types of issues is acceptance of the fact that doubt exists and that it’s okay. Some things we just do not understand, no matter how much we wish we did.

    I do not understand gravity. I have read theories on what causes it, and many of them sound plausible, but in the end they are theories. I can accept the one that suits me best, but I may be wrong. I can accept the fact that this COULD be the explanation for gravity, but maybe it isn’t. The true answer itself, without any shadow of doubt, is unknowable. That bugs me, but since I can’t do anything about it, I choose to find peace in the answer works for me… and perhaps I will find more “truth” in additional information in the future.

  7. anonymous said,

    It definitely seems like demanding immediate answers is a common challenge to many people (myself included). I’ve read in several places that many of the greatest thinkers in the world were able to keep several contradictory beliefs marinating in their mind at the same time. It’s difficult, but it seems “the back shelf” is the wisest way to sort through all the paradoxes that we encounter in life.

    I think newer discoveries can often be reconciled with long-held beliefs. But there is some adjustment that has to take place. Other beliefs need to be reevaluated and moved around to make room for that new information. Discovering the world to not be the center of the universe may not break down the foundation of Catholicism but people who accept that new information have a new perspective of the pope who was acting as god’s mouth piece on the issue. Those people are now aware of a real concern (that surely will reoccur) found within the concept of religious authority. They now recognize that many people were severely punished for accepting a controversial belief that was later proven to be a certainty. The whole system does not fall apart but in the future those people are less likely to accept everything the pope says based only on a concept of authority.

    That doesn’t discount every revelatory claim the pope has made but it does mean that he can get things wrong to a significant degree. It also means that those individuals have a great responsibility to consider dissent a feasible option.

    The previous post gave me some comfort when they said that doubt should be expected and that it is okay. It is unfortunate that there are so many mixed messages about the place of doubt. We can’t have it both ways. By speaking of the benefits of nurturing faith and by telling countless stories where people benefit from “trusting” we are at the same time saying that doubt is a destructive negative thing. It would have hurt people in these situations. However, at the same time, we admire those in the past who have had the bravery to doubt. Joseph Smith’s investigation into religion was fueled by doubt. It could almost be said that following Joseph’s example would lead us to be more skeptical of any truth claims that are not founded on solid experience. My feelings are that the over-all discourse within the church is that doubt is wrong. It does seem like a paradox though doesn’t it?

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