The following article is adapted from Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids
Most people think that faith is something you either have or you don’t. But research by Emory University’s Dr. James Fowler revealed that faith evolves in discernible stages throughout our lifespan. At each stage, a person’s faith needs to be nourished in different ways if it is to grow and mature into the next stage. If we don’t receive the right kind of support, faith development can stall or even wither. Because Fowler viewed faith as a natural and essential part of every human person’s search for meaning, significance, and transcendence, Fowler’s Stages of Faith track with other developmental stages you might remember from your Psych 101 class, such as Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.
What Stage of Faith are you at? And what do you need to do to more effectively continue your search for meaning, significance, and transcendence?
STAGE 0: Primal Faith (Infancy)– People might be surprised to realize that babies have faith. It’s true that they don’t have a conscious experience of faith and can’t articulate specific beliefs, but this stage is tremendously important because it sets the stage for baby’s view of God and the world. If parents respond to baby’s needs promptly, generously, and consistently, baby learns the basic, gut-level sense of trust that is necessary to believe that when I call out, God will answer. If parents delay responding to baby’s cries, baby develops gut-level insecurity that anyone will respond when I cry out or that there is anyone to bother crying out to in the first place.
Stage 1: Intuitive Projective Faith (Early Childhood)–This is the “feeling stage” of faith. Children of this age are not capable of abstract thinking. They understand everything in terms of “does it feel good or does it feel bad?” Parents do well to make the child’s experience of faith at this stage as warm, loving, pleasant, and even “cuddly” as possible. Whether or not a parent does this determines whether the child envisions the idea that “God is watching over you” as a positive, loving, and safe thing (“How wonderful, a loving God is looking out for me!”) or a judging, condemning, scary thing (“I always feel like somebody’s watching me!“). Everyone eventually outgrows Stage 0 and Stage 1 but the gut-level lessons they take from these stages often stay with them throughout their lives, making faith development a joy or a constant struggle depending upon the experiences they have had up to this point.
Stage 2: Mythic-Literal Faith (Primary School Age to Adulthood)– This is the “story stage.” The stage of fables and bible stories and rules. These stories and rules form the basic structures of a child’s faith system. At this stage, God is a “person” in the same sense that Superman or Santa Claus is a person. A “larger than life” being with superpowers to help him maintain order in the universe. Again, depending on how parents present their own faith story (i.e., how they live and explain their own faith life to their kids), God could either be perceived as a benevolent ruler of the universe or a tyrant. Either way, for the person at this stage, following the rules, doing things “just so” and working hard not to upset God are the prime motivators and primary ways faith is expressed. Generous amounts of parental affirmation allow the person to move through this to the next stage. By contrast, adults who become stuck at this stage tend to be fairly scrupulous in their approach to faith and overly concerned with liturgical rules, moral rules, and proving themselves to be “good enough”. For these individuals, faith can become an exhausting trial of constantly trying to prove themselves to God or the people they imagine to be the “official judges of goodness.”
Stage 3: Synthetic Conventional Faith (Adolescence to Adulthood)— This is the “relationship stage” of faith. A person at this stage tends to decide that something is “true” if it makes their relationships easier and makes people feel affirmed. By contrast, it is “false” if it makes relationships more complicated or makes people feel challenged or guilty in some way. The hard and fast rules of the mythic-literal stage are now revisioned in light of one’s relationships and the need to affirm others where they are at in their present struggles. Many adults remain at this stage for their entire lives. Community is very important at this stage. The down side of this is that faith can be a bit tribalistic (i.e., us v. them), even within a particular denomination. A faithful, supportive community will enable people to sustain their faith at this stage, the absence of such a community,or the presence of an angry, judgmental community could cause the loss of faith. Regardless, a person will tend to be faithful to the degree that the people around them are faithful and affirming of their efforts. They have a harder time feeling confident in their faith and values without a cheering section.
Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith (Early-Middle Adulthood)–This is the “Questioning and Seeking” stage of faith. The person at this stage owns their faith, is not worried about whether people approve of them or not, and begins questioning many basic assumptions they had previously accepted as gospel. The person at this stage is “kicking the tires” of their faith, asking hard questions to see what will stand and what may fall away. Often the people around this individual consider them to be backsliding and are threatened by this individual’s willingness to question the structures of rules and relationships that people at the lower stages of faith need to hold onto for security. At this stage, the person is much more concerned with internal conversion than with outward expressions of piety and righteousness. They tend to withdraw a bit from others, both needing less affirmation and more time to reflect and consider where they are in their journey and who God is asking them to be moving forward. The downside is that they can be a bit smug, looking down their noses at those who they consider to be less evolved. The other danger is that many people at this stage come to believe that the act of questioning is an end in itself and that actually finding actual answers is somehow beneath them. The process of “seeking and questioning” though imminently valuable and necessary, can become its own idol. In classic terms, this stage marks the end of the Purgative Way and the beginning of the Illuminative Way.
Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith (Middle-Later Adulthood)–This is the “wisdom stage” of faith. The person at this stage has achieved what seems to others to be an almost effortless integration of their faith and life. Things seem, somehow, genuinely less messy for them than for other’s lives. Others may be tempted to write this off as “luck” but in reality, this is the result of decades of struggle and effort. The person at this stage has achieved a true, authentic, integration between what they profess and how they live. This is essence of wisdom; the practiced knowledge of how to live their beliefs–authentically, honestly, and effectively–in the real world. People at this stage aren’t interested in proving anything. They also experience a “willed naivety” which allows them to revisit beliefs and practices that they formerly rejected as somehow beneath them. Also, unlike people at the answer-phobic individuative-reflective stage, people at the conjunctive stage accept that although there may not be perfect answers to the “Big Questions” there are often “very good answers” that are almost universally applicable. In classic terms, the person at this stage is squarely in the Illuminative Stage of the spiritual walk and perhaps the beginning of the Unitive Stage.
Stage 6: Universalizing Faith (Later Adulthood)–For want of a better way to describe it, this is the “saintly stage.” Without any attempt on their part to put on a show, people at this stage are acknowledged by those around them for being living, breathing, examples of faith and virtue and an inspiration to others. People at this stage can still be polarizing and challenging to others, but there is a compassion that comes with these challenges that tempers any sense of condemnation others may feel. There is a simplicity to outward expressions of this person’s faith that belies the depth of belief and wisdom that lies beneath the surface. This person is in at least the beginning stages of the Unitive Way.
So, what stage are you? Where would you like to be? Negotiating the challenges of these stages can be difficult on our own. That’s where a spiritual director can be a great help. If you’d like to learn more about how spiritual direction can help you navigate the challenges of these stages and achieve greater confidence in your spiritual walk, contact us at SpiritualDirection@CatholicCounselors.com And, for a more in-depth look at each of these stages and how you, as a parent, can help your kids grow up to have a healthy, mature faith, check out, Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids