Saturday, April 08, 2006

Reading Notes: Stages of Faith by James W. Fowler

Ok -- this is going to be long, so I've broken it into two segments -- this one summarizes a piece of a book I've been reading recently -- Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, by James Fowler. The next post will be a quick study of my life based on the analytical structure Fowler develops. How is this yoga? See part 2.

Fowler, through some four hundred interviews he and others conducted and analyzed, concludes that just as there is a relatively common and consistent pattern to the development and stages of human cognition, from birth through adulthood, so, too, there is a consistent pattern of and progression in stages of faith.

But before we get to the stages, it's probably worth first reviewing what Fowler thinks of as "faith." A few highlights from the book:

In The Meaning and End of Religion, [Wilfred Cantwell] Smith makes his first, seminal distinction between religion and faith. Speaking of religions as "cumulative traditions," he suggests that we see a cumulative tradition as the various expressions of the faith of people in the past. A cumulative tradition may be constituted by texts of scripture or law, including narratives, myths, prophecies, accounts of revelations, and so forth; it may include visual and other kinds of symbols, oral traditions, music, and host of other elements. Like a dynamic gallery of art, a living cumulative tradition in its many forms addresses contemporary people and becomes what Smith calls “the mundane cause” that awakens present faith. Faith, at once deeper and more personal than religion, is the person’s or group’s way of responding to transcendent value and power as perceived and grasped through the forms of the cumulative tradition. Faith and religion, in this view, are reciprocal. Each is dynamic; each grows or is renewed through its interaction with the other. The cumulative tradition is selectively renewed as its contents prove capable of evoking and shaping the faith of new generations. Faith is awakened and nurtured by elements from the new tradition. As these elements come to be expressive of the faith of new adherents, the tradition is extended and modified, thus gaining fresh vitality.

pp. 9-10

If we examine major and minor religious traditions in the light of contemporary religio-historical knowledge, Smith says, we recognize that the variety of religious belief and
practice is far greater than we might have imagined. But in like manner we find that the similarities in religious faith also turn out to be greater than we might have expected. In explaining why, he characterizes faith in contrast to belief:

Faith is deeper, richer, more personal. It is engendered by a religious tradition, in some cases and to some degree by its doctrines; but it is a quality of the person, not of the system. It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response; a way of seeing whatever one sees and handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of, a transcendent dimension.

pp. 11-12

Also: …faith involves an alignment of the heart or will, a commitment of loyalty and trust. His treatment of the Hindu term for faith, sraddha, perhaps puts it best: “It means … to set one’s heart on. Fowler continues with several more examples of his comprehension of faith, but each focuses on aspects of setting one’s heart on something – investing something with all that we have and are. For some, it’s devotion to Shiva, or the Virgin of Guadalupe, or the Buddha, or one of the many understandings of Jesus Christ. For others, it’s service to others. For some, it’s causing the world to embody ahimsa. For others, it’s feeding the hungry. For some, it’s climbing the corporate ladder. For others, it’s connecting to the guys at the bar.

If faith is reduced to belief in creedal statements and doctrinal formulations, then sensitive and responsible people are likely to judge that they must live “without faith.” But if faith is understood as trust in another and as loyalty to a transcendent center of value and power, then the issue of faith – and the possibility of religious faith – becomes lively and open again. … …a review of his [Smith’s] major conclusions:

1.Faith, rather than belief or religion, is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence. Faith, it appears, is generic, a universal feature of human living, recognizably similar everywhere despite the remarkable variety of forms and contents of religious practice and belief.

2.Each of the major religious traditions studied speaks about faith in ways that make the same phenomenon visible. In each and all, faith involves an alignment of the will, a resting of the heart, in accordance with a vision of transcendent value and power, one’s ultimate concern.

3.Faith, classically understood, is not a separate dimension of life, a compartmentalized speciality. Faith is an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goal to one’s hopes and strivings, thoughts and actions.

4.The unity and recognizability of faith, despite the myriad variants of religions and
beliefs, support the struggle to maintain and develop a theory of religious relativity to which the religions – and the faith they evoke and shape – are seen as relative apprehensions of our relatedness to that which is universal. This work toward a “universal theory as to the relation between truth itself and truth articulated in the midst of the relativity of human life and history” represents a rejection of faith in “relativism,” (the philosophy or common sense view that religious claims and experience have no necessary validity beyond the bounds of the communities that hold them) and serves a commitment to press the question of truth in the living and the study of faith.

pp. 14-15
The patterns of faith that make selfhood possible and sustain our identities are covenantal (triadic) in form. Our relations of trust in and loyalty to our companions in community are deepened and sanctioned by our shared trusts in and loyalty to transcendent centers of value and power. Lasting human associations at every
level exhibit this triadic form, though often our covenants are tacit and taken
for granted, rather than explicit. Though I have not said it before now, the covenantal structure of our significant human relationships is often made visible as much by our betrayals and failures of “good faith” as by the times when we are mutually loyal and

P. 33

In the most formal and comprehensive terms I can state it, faith is:

People’s evolved and evolving ways

Of experiencing self, others and

(as they construct them)

As related to and affected by the

Ultimate conditions of existence

(as they construct them)

And of shaping their lives’ purposes and

Trust and loyalties, in light of the

Character of being, value and power

Determining the ultimate conditions

Of existence (as grasped in their operative images – conscious and
unconscious – of them))

pp. 92-93

Conveniently, Fowler summarizes the various stages at the end of the individual chapters in which he describes them. So, rather than generate my own articulation of his stages, I offer his own summary (which picks up some of his personality, as well):

Stage I Intuitive-Projective faith is the fantasy-filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions and stories of the visible faith of primally related adults. The stage most typical of the child of three to seven, it is marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. The child is continually encountering novelties for which no stable operations of knowing have been formed. The imaginative processes underlying fantasy are unrestrained and uninhibited by logical thought. In league with forms of knowing dominated by perception, imagination in this stage is extremely productive of long-lasting images and feelings (positive and negative) that later, more stable and self-reflective valuing and thinking will have to order and sort out. This is the stage of first self-awareness.

The "self-aware" child is egocentric as regards the perspectives of others. Here we find first awarenesses of death and sex and of the strong taboos by which cultures and families insulate those powerful areas. The gift or emergent strength of this stage is the birth of imagination, the ability to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images and as presented in stories that register the child's intuitive understandings and feelings toward the ultimate conditions of existence. The dangers in this stage arise from the possible "possession" of the child's imagination by unrestrained images of terror and destructiveness, or from the witting or unwitting exploitation of her or his imagination in the reinforcement of taboos and moral or doctrinal expectations. The main factor precipitating transition to the next stage is the emergence of concrete operational thinking. Affectively, the resolution of Oedipal issues or their submersion in latency are important accompanying factors. At the heart of the transition is the child's growing concern to know how things are and to clarify for him- or herself the bases of distinctions between what is real and what only seems to be.

Stage 2 Mythic-Literal faith is the stage in which the person begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning. In this stage the rise of concrete operations leads to the curbing and ordering of the previous stage's imaginative composing of the world. The episodic quality of Intuitive-Projective faith gives way to a more linear, narrative construction of coherence and meaning. Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience.

This is the faith stage of the school child (though we sometimes find the structures dominant in adolescents and in adults). Marked by increased accuracy in taking the perspective of other persons, those in Stage 2 compose a world based on reciprocal fairness and an immanent justice based on reciprocity. The actors in their cosmic stories are anthropomorphic. They can be affected deeply and powerfully by symbolic and dramatic materials and can describe in endlessly detailed narrative what has occurred. They do not, however, step back from the flow of stories to formulate reflective, conceptual meanings. For this stage the meaning is both carried and "trapped" in the narrative. The new capacity or strength in this stage is the rise of narrative and the emergence of story, drama and myth as ways of finding and giving coherence to experience. The limitations of literalness and an excessive reliance upon reciprocity as a principle for constructing an ultimate environment can result either in an overcontrolling, stilted perfectionism or "works righteousness" or in their opposite, an abasing sense of badness embraced because of mistreatment, neglect or the apparent disfavor of significant others.

A factor initiating transition to Stage 3 is the implicit clash or contradictions in stories that leads to reflection on meanings. The transition to formal operational thought makes such reflection possible and necessary. Previous literalism breaks down; new "cognitive conceit" (Elkind) leads to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings. Conflicts between authoritative stories (Genesis on creation versus evolutionary theory) must be faced. The emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective taking ("I see you seeing me; I see me as you see me; I see you seeing me seeing you.") creates the need for a more personal relationship with the unifying power of the ultimate environment.

In Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith, a person's experience of the world now extends beyond the family. A number of spheres demand attention: family, school or work, peers, street society and media, and perhaps religion. Faith must provide a coherent orientation in the midst of that more complex and diverse range of involvements. Faith must synthesize values and information; it must provide a basis for identity and outlook. Stage 3 typically has its rise and ascendancy in adolescence, but for many adults it becomes a permanent place of equilibrium. It structures the ultimate environment in interpersonal terms. Its images of unifying value and power derive from the extension of qualities experienced in personal relationships. It is a "conformist" stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and as yet does not have a sure enough grasp on its own identity and autonomous judgment to construct and maintain an independent perspective. While beliefs and values are deeply felt, they typically are tacitly held-the person "dwells" in them and in the meaning world they mediate. But there has not been occasion to step outside them to reflect on or examine them explicitly or systematically.

At Stage 3 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. Authority is located in the incumbents of traditional authority roles (if perceived as personally worthy) or in the consensus of a valued, face-to-face group. The emergent capacity of this stage is the forming of a personal myth-the myth of one's own becoming in identity and faith, incorporating one's past and anticipated future in an image of the ultimate environment unified by characteristics of personality.

The dangers or deficiencies in this stage are twofold. The expectations and evaluations of others can be so compellingly internalized (and sacralized) that later autonomy of judgment and action can be jeopardized; or interpersonal betrayals can give rise either to nihilistic despair about a personal principle of ultimate being or to a compensatory intimacy with God unrelated to mundane relations Factors contributing to the breakdown of Stage 3 and to readiness for transition may include: serious clashes or contradictions between valued authority sources; marked changes, by officially sanctioned leaders, or policies or practices previously deemed sacred and unbreachable (for example, in the Catholic church changing the mass from Latin to the vernacular, or no longer requiring abstinence from meat on Friday); 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. Frequently the experience of "leaving home"--emotionally or physically, or both--precipitates the kind of examination of self, background, and lifeguiding values that gives rise to stage transition at this point.

The movement from Stage 3 to Stage 4 Individuative-Reflective faith is particularly critical for it is in this transition that the late adolescent or adult must begin to take seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes. Where genuine movement toward stage 4 is underway the person must face certain unavoidable tensions: individuality versus being defined by a group or group membership; subjectivity and the power of one's strongly felt but unexamined feelings versus objectivity and the requirement of critical reflection; self-fulfillment or self-actualization as a primary concern versus service to and being for others; the question of being committed to the relative versus struggle with the possibility of an absolute. Stage 4 most appropriately takes form in young adulthood (but let us remember that many adults do not construct it and that for a significant group it emerges only in the mid-thirties or forties). This stage is marked by a double development. The self, previously sustained in its identity and faith compositions by an interpersonal circle of significant others, now claims an identity no longer defined by the composite of one's roles or meanings to others. To sustain that new identity it composes a meaning frame conscious of its own boundaries and inner connections and aware of itself as a "world view." Self (identity) and outlook (world view) are differentiated from those of others and become acknowledged factors in the reactions, interpretations and judgments one makes on the actions of the self and others. It expresses its intuitions of coherence in an ultimate environment in terms of an explicit system of meanings.

Stage 4 typically translates symbols into conceptual meanings. This is a "demythologizing" stage. It is likely to attend minimally to unconscious factors influencing its judgments and behavior. Stage 4's ascendant strength has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). Its dangers inhere in its strengths: an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of second narcissism in which the now clearly bounded, reflective self overassimilates "reality" and the perspectives of others into its own world view. Restless with the self-images and outlook maintained by Stage 4, the person ready for transition finds him- or herself attending to what may feel like anarchic and disturbing inner voices. Elements from a childish past, images and energies from a deeper self, a gnawing sense of the sterility and flatness of the meanings one serves any or all of these may signal readiness for something new. Stories, symbols, myths and paradoxes from one's own or other traditions may insist on breaking in upon the neatness of the previous faith. Disillusionment with one's compromises and recognition that life is more complex than Stage 4's logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts can comprehend, press one toward a more dialectical and multileveled approach to life truth.

Stage 5 Conjunctive faith involves the integration into self and outlook of much that was suppressed or unrecognized in the interest of Stage 4's self-certainty and conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality. This stage develops a "second naivete'' (Ricoeur) in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings. Here there must also be a new reclaiming and reworking of one's past. There must be an opening to the voices of one's "deeper self." Importantly, this involves a critical recognition of one's social unconscious-the myths, ideal images and prejudices built deeply into the self-system by virtue of one's nurture within a particular social class, religious tradition, ethnic group or the like.

Unusual before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts. 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), this stage's commitment to justice is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation. And with the seriousness that can arise when life is more than half over, this stage is ready to spend and be spent for the cause of conserving and cultivating the possibility of others' generating identity and meaning. The new strength of this stage comes in the rise of the ironic imagination-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. Its danger lies in the direction of a paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth. Stage 5 can appreciate symbols, myths and rituals (its own and others') because it has been grasped, in some measure, by the depth of reality to which they refer. It also sees the divisions of the human family vividly because it has been apprehended by the possibility (and imperative) of an inclusive community of being. But this stage remains divided. It lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties.

In some few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualization that we call Stage 6. Stage 6 is exceedingly rare. The persons best described by it have generated faith compositions in which their felt sense of an ultimate environment is inclusive of all being. They have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community. They are "contagious" in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity.

Living with felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world, Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance. Many persons in this stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change. Universalizers are often more honored and revered after death than during their lives. The rare persons who may be described by this stage have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us. Their community is universal in extent. Particularities are cherished because they are vessels of the universal, and thereby valuable apart from any utilitarian considerations. Life is both loved and held to loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages and from any other faith tradition.

Later in the book, after explicating his thinking and application of the stages of faith, Fowler sketches out some ideas about the way that the contents of faith relate to the structures of faith. He spends some time considering the memoirs of Albert Speer – an architect who rose to prominence in the Third Reich. Speer was convicted of war crimes for his involvement in the slave-labor practices of Nazi Germany. During his time in prison, he wrote about his experiences:

I did not see any moral ground outside the [slave-labor] prison system where I should have taken my stand. And sometimes I ask myself who this young man really was, this young man who has now become so alien to me, who walked through the workshops of the Linz steelworks or descended into the caverns of the Central Works twenty-five years ago.

Fowler continues: “Hauerwas’s account helps us to see how Speer’s obsession with being Hitler’s architect so absorbed him that he “chose not to know” about the death camps and ignored many other objectionable features of this regime. P.280

Careful theological work is required in a faith tradition to determine the normative images of adulthood which that tradition envisions. By normative images of adulthood I mean to ask, what developmental trajectory into mature faith is envisioned and called
for by a particular faith tradition, at its best? ... In light of this, we ask ourselves, how can faith communities avoid the coerciveness of the modal developmental level,
and how can they sponsor appropriate and ongoing lifelong development in faith?

Pp. 294-5

Doctrines and creeds are formulations of the reflective faith of persons in the past. They are the stories they told themselves about the meaning of ways of living with each other and God that they found truthful. These creedal and doctrinal expressions tell the stories – the master stories – into which and by which they tried to shape their lives. As such, inherited creeds and doctrines become for present members of the faith community invitations and stimuli for contemporary experiments with truth. Adult living in faith becomes a matter of entering into the master stories that animated the faith of our forebears and of shaping our lives of faith with all their present impingements and challenges in trust and loyalty to those stories.

Communities that call persons to ongoing adult development in faith will not fear the intimacy of conflict nor the inevitable presence in growing faith of doubt and struggle. Provision will be made for adults to bring their struggles of faith to word. Before prescriptions are offered, and without condemnation or accusation, they will be given the help of active listening in order to tell their present stories and visions of faith and
to hear those of others. Such a community, by its regular celebrations and sharing of the master stories of its faith, will provide models by which adults can construct or reconstruct the faith-truth in their lives for this period. In the meantime, they, with others in the community, will be engaged in acts of responsibility and compassion on behalf of the needs of persons in and beyond the community.

A faith community that provides for the nurture of ongoing adult development in faith will create a climate of developmental expectation.

Pp. 295-6.

In an appendix to the book, Fowler includes the outline of questions he and other researchers used to conduct the interviews. I think they provide an interesting exercise in self-inspection in this regard.

Faith Development Interview Guide

1.Part I: Life Review

a.Factual data: Date and place of birth? Number and ages of siblings? Occupation of providing parent or parents? Ethnic, racial and religious identifications? Characterization of social class – family of origin and now?

b.Divide life into chapters: (major) segments created by changes or experiences – “turning points” or general circumstances.

c.In order for me to understand the flow or movement of your life and your way of thinking about it, what other persons and experiences would be important for me to know about?

d.Thinking about yourself at present: What gives your life meaning? What makes life worth living for you?

2.Part II: Life-shaping Experiences and Relationships

a.At present, what relationships seem most important for your life? (e.g., intimate, familial, or work relationships)?

b.You did/did not mention your father/mother in your mentioning of significant relationships.

i.When you think of your father/mother as s/he was during the time you were a child, what stands out? What was his/her work? What were his/her special interests? Was s/he a religious person? Explain.

ii.Have your perceptions of your parents changed since you were a child? How?

c.Are there other persons who at earlier times or in the present have been significant in the shaping of your outlook on life?

d.Have you experienced losses, crises, or suffering that have changed or “colored” your life in special ways?

e.Have you had moments of joy, ecstasy, peak experience or breakthrough that have shaped or changed your life? (E.g., in nature, in sexual experience, or in the presence of inspiring beauty or communication?)

f.What were the taboos in your early life? How have you lived with or out of those taboos? Can you indicate how the taboos in your life have changed? What are the taboos now?

g.What experiences have affirmed your sense of meaning in life?

h.What experiences have shaken or disturbed your sense of meaning?

3.Part III: Present Values and Communities

a.Can you describe the beliefs and values or attitudes that are most important in guiding your own life?

b.What is the purpose of human life?

c.Do you feel that some approaches to life are more “true” or right than others? Are there some beliefs or values that all or most people ought to hold and act on?

d.Are there symbols or images or rituals that are important to you?

e.What relationships or groups are most important as support for your values and beliefs?

f.You have described some beliefs and values that have become important to you. How important are they? In what ways do these beliefs and values find expression in your life? Can you give me some specific examples of how and when they have had effect? (E.g., times of crisis, decisions, groups affiliated with, causes invested in, risks and costs of commitment)?

g.When you have an important decision or choice to make regarding your life, how do you go about deciding? Example?

h.Is there a “plan” for human lives? Are we – individually or as a species – determined or affected in our lives by power beyond human control?

i.When life seems most discouraging and hopeless, what holds you up or renews your hope? Example?

j.When you think about the future, what makes you feel most anxious or uneasy (for yourself and those you love; for society or institutions; for the world)?

k.What does death mean to you? What becomes of us when we die?

l.Why do some persons and groups suffer more than others?

m.Some people believe that we will always have poor people among us, and that in general life rewards people according to their efforts. What are your feelings about this?

n.Do you feel that human life on this planet will go on indefinitely, or do you think it is about to end?

4.Part IV: Religion

a.Do you have or have you had important religious experiences?

b.What feelings do you have when you think about God?

c.Do you consider yourself to be a religious person?

d.If you pray, what do you feel is going on when you pray?

e.Do you feel that your religious outlook is “true”? In what sense? Are religious traditions other than your own “true”?

f.What is sin (or sins)? How have your feelings about this changed? How did you feel or think about sin as a child, an adolescent?, and so on?

g.Some people believe that without religion, morality breaks down. What do you feel about this?

h.Where do you feel that you are changing, growing, struggling, or wrestling with doubt in your life at the present time? Where is your growing edge?

i.What is your image (or idea) of mature faith?

pp. 310-312.