P is for Progress (Stages of Faith)

I am currently blogging, along with my daughter, all the way through 
the alphabet. Check out how the idea started, and get the rules here.

James Fowler is best known for his pioneering work on stages of faith, showing how faith progresses over time.  Here is my summary of his faith stages:

Stage 1, ages 3-7 — The first stage of faith is characterized by imagination unrestrained by logic.  At this age, Santa and Jesus both exist primarily in the imagination.  Of course so also does the bogey-man and thus this stage of faith commonly features both imaginary delights and imaginary terrors.

Stage 2 — This stage is characterized by belief that the universe is a just place.  Bad people will always be punished, and good people will always be rewarded.  Myths are not understood as myths but as actual events, because the person at this stage has not yet developed the capability of extracting and understanding general principles.  This faith stage is characteristic of school children, but some adults remain at this stage all of their lives.  People at this stage tend to be rigid and perfectionistic.

Stage 3 — The vast majority of adults find their permanent home in this stage.  Here faith becomes central, adding a sense of meaning and purpose to one’s life.  It is characterized by conformity, where one finds identity and comfort by aligning one’s self with a certain way of thinking.  Once one has done this, one then lives according to this perspective, with very little ability to see the perspective itself clearly as a world view.  At this stage one might not even understand that one’s beliefs constitute a “world view,” but will instead take it for granted that what one believes is simply “the way it is,” believing that those who do not share the same views are ignorant, or morally inferior.  This is why fundamentalism always looks the same, whether you are talking about fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Scientists, or whatever.  In all cases, the position is, “I bear the truth, and you do not — therefore you are ignorant, depraved…” etc.

Stage 4 — Many people living comfortably in stage 3 suddenly find themselves faced with a crisis that seems too big for their faith to respond to, or they are confronted with evil on such a personal level that they can no longer take comfort in the faith that used to work for them.  Other times people become aware of religious hypocrisy on the part of themselves or others that they cannot explain.  Sometimes people simply become deeply disillusioned with the responses that faith often gives to science and to difficult issues like suffering.  At this point they either shrink back into rigid stage 2 or 3 faith, or else they move into Stage 4, which is characterized usually by doubt, uncertainty, and questioning (and usually the corresponding emotional and mental suffering that come with such things).  Some may begin to identify as skeptics/atheists/agnostics.  Others don’t know how to identify with faith anymore and continue to struggle, although no longer within the ranks of a faith “family” from which they once drew comfort.

Stage 5 — Assuming one does not fall back into the fundamentalism of earlier stages, or remain in the doubt and skepticism of stage 4, one will move on to stage 5.  Here the individual begins to make room for mystery and paradox.  One no longer needs certainty and clarity.  The person with stage 5 faith, in fact, begins to realize that this, essentially, is what faith is — not having all the answers, and not insisting that one must have them.  One comes to see quite clearly that his previous faith, though sincere, was faith more in an organization or institution or doctrinal statement than in a mysterious and transcendent yet imminent God.

Stage 6 — I’ll let Fowler speak for himself here:

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. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives, often involving strategies of nonviolent suffering and ultimate respect for being, constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance.” (Fowler, 200)

Sounds an awful lot like Jesus to me.  And isn’t it interesting that not one universally respected religious figure has ever been a fundamentalist?  From Jesus to Buddha to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Nelson Mandela to Desmond Tutu to Mother Teresa to Billy Graham — not one.  Stage 2 and 3 faith simply do not allow to grow into reality the kind of love that Jesus taught.  A person in stage 2 or 3 might speak of it, claim to believe in it, and passionately and sincerely attempt to live it out, but will ultimately be constrained and prevented from doing so by their own vision of the world — their own way of seeing, understanding, and practicing faith.

It is interesting that many religious martyrs throughout history have been killed not by evil pagans, but by well-meaning people at earlier stages of faith, who were shaken to the core and deeply threatened by the seemingly sacrilegious and heretical vision of the world these strange people held to.  The crucifixion of Jesus is a perfect example of this.  Of course some of the people calling for his death were malevolent but clearly most were ordinary, observant religious people who sincerely believed they were doing God a favor by getting rid of Jesus.  The same, of course, is true for hundreds of people burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in the middle ages.

The church often speaks deeply and meaningfully to those at the lower stages of faith, but tends to organize so as to actively prevent people from moving through stage 4 and onto the later stages.  This, I believe, is what Jesus was referring to when he said to the religious leaders of his time:

“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.”
Mark 7:9 (NIV)

View Kyra’s P post

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • Joseph

    Stage 4 is an awful place to be. I think I’ve been here for the better part of 2 years, and had been slipping into stage 4 for even longer before. I want a strong fait, I want to know God, to feel His presence. Right now, however, I’m often struggling with the very notion of God. I try to pray, to think, to try to go to different places to find some sort of understanding, but I mostly don’t find God.

    Sometimes/days I feel so happy and absolutely sure that God is real, and with me. Other days, I pretend but deep down I’m sure of just the opposite. I don’t want to be an atheist, the very word brings up such sadness in me. I really want to believe in God, and restore my faith, not just some days, but every day. However I often wonder if the argument that “God is just and imaginary friend for adults” is real. I mean I want a God who is there and all powerful and will give me life after death. So is this all just a comfort thing?

    I wouldn’t be posting here if I didn’t have some ounce of faith left in me, but that gives me hope. Am I in stage four, or some other terrible category, and how do I get out?

    • Hi Joseph. Thanks for reading and commenting. You probably knew I’d say this, but every person has to find their own way through Stage 4. And you’re right. It’s downright agonizing. I don’t know how this will resolve for you, but I suggest two books that may be helpful on your journey. One is Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. The other is Abba’s Child, by Brennan Manning.

      Don’t know if you’ve tried this, but you may also consider getting away for a few days to a retreat center where you can meet with a spiritual director, and be in silence, and pray. Had I not done that, I think I would perhaps still be wrestling with that stage 4 internal conflict. Best wishes to you on your journey.

  • Traci R.

    Crap I feel myself stepping into stage 4 as well. And while it seems like it would never be a good time to go through this phase, for me, its starting right when I feel like I need my faith in God to be very strong to get through the end of my Ph.D. program and search for a job. I never wanted my critical academic mind to ever taint my loving relationship with Christ but lately I can’t seem to turn off the questions about Him, who He is, why He’s so mysterious, why atheists make some darn plausible claims, why apologists sometimes fail to make plausible claims, why church and church folk seem silly to me, why every potential male suitor I meet who behaves the worst are “Christian,” etc. I’m very fearful that my faith is being supported on a basic existential need to believe right now and not pure genuine and real FAITH. Sigh. I feel like I’m just using my Christianity for my own selfish self-preservation and comfort right now…makes me question if that’s what we’re all just using it for? A big soothing, comforting lie we buy into just to make it through life. Gah…I wish more people DID talk about THIS part of the FAITH. Thank you for some perspective. I will follow up on your recommended reading.

    • The Promised Land is out there, Traci. Hang in there, and don’t be afraid to follow this thing. Don’t give in to materialist ideology without sincerely investigating what could come next for you in the spiritual life!

  • Douglas

    Thank you for this. I feel I have recently entered stage 4 faith, and I’ll be honest, it’s very hard. I used to find comfort in my faith, however my faith has been shaken as of late, and I have been left feeling very abandoned by God. It’s a painful process. I keep praying asking God to show himself to me, and alot of times He doesn’t. I’m holding on though. My hope is that God will use this doubt to strengthen my faith such that I can use my struggles to witness to others with similar struggles. And this article gives me hope.

    How do I move on from stage 4 though? I don’t want to sink back into stage 2 or 3, and I don’t want to remain in this painful stage 4 forever.

    Thank you.

    • You’re right, Doug. That can be a VERY painful place to be. What people usually do in that stage is bear down and try even harder to believe, serve, love, etc. It almost never works. In addressing this issue, Jesus talked about the need to put new wine into new wineskins. In that statement he was talking about ideas (wine) and our frames of reference for those ideas (wineskins).

      New ideas require new ways of thinking. When you first begin to enter stage 4, your ideas of faith begin to change, but it doesn’t seem okay because the ways of thinking you have learned do not hold those ideas comfortably. It causes pain as the new wine feels like it is splitting open the old wineskins.

      The wineskins are the painful part. The ideas change on their own, due to circumstances and experiences. All we have to do for our ideas about God to change is remain alive long enough. The question is what do we do with the new ideas? How do we get ourselves a set of new wineskins? We can either refuse the openness this requires, rejecting our new ideas outright because it’s not exactly what we learned in our stage 2 and 3 Sunday school classes, or we can immerse ourselves in the lives and writings of those who have gone before us who themselves have walked this road. I encourage you to do this, and to start with Jesus. I also encourage you to read the work of Brennan Manning (Abba’s Child and The Ragamuffin Gospel, specifically) and Falling Upward, by Father Richard Rohr. There is life beyond stage 3 faith, and it’s bigger and better, with actual experience of the constant love and presence of God. It’s out there, I assure you. Best wishes to you.

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