Stages of Faith and Life Stages

Faith is complicated. The term is like LOVE in that its locus of meaning is so broad that it is very hard to utilize it. For some people, the use of the term means “saving faith.” When someone uses the term faith, they think that one is spealking of salvation. Other’s use FAITH as contrast, or even antithetical, to SCIENCE or REASON.

Hebrews 11:1 states that faith is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (NIV) This verse suggests a couple of possibilities. Faith can be seen a pre-rational or post-rational. Faith is the axioms or worldview upon which we understand our place before God and the Universe, or Faith is that which transcends reason and takes us where reason must remain silent.

Further, Hebrews 11 shows that faith is not simply something one possesses, or even believes, it is something lived out. A way of looking at Faith that may be useful for pastoral care and counseling is that faith is a dynamic process made of two flows (following the suggestion of Karen Yust). One flow is from God and that could be described simply with the term faith (or perhaps “given faith”), the other is from us to God that could be described as faithfulness (or perhaps “responding faith”). The Christian life is understood as faith received by God and faithfulness in response to God. As such faith is not so much something one has or doesn’t have. Rather it is something that one has or does not have, but is something that is growing in us and guiding us.

James Fowler take a very different perspective on how to understand faith. However, one major similarity is its dynamic quality. Faith changes and grows with different stages of life— at least ideally. Fowler would see faith as having three major components.

  • Religious Faith (in terms of God and theology)
  • Secular Faith (in terms of family, community and the like)
  • Life purpose, dreams, meaning.

These were chosen to not be specific to one particular religion. It seems to us that Fowler’s perspective is enhanced by combining it with the dynamic process of Faith and Faithfulness suggested by Yust. There are a few reasons for this. First, Fowler’s model CAN be seen as abstract and cognitive. Fowler was trying to make it applicable to theist and non-theist alike, but in so doing can suggest that relationship with God is not important to faith. Second, Fowler’s model can suggest a form of self-enlightenment. An individual works his or her way towards the divine or transcendent. However, Yust points to faith being a process of response to God’s initial working. Third, it points towards a clearer target. With Fowler’s model, the goal is fairly vague. Again, this is partly because of the attempt to be applicable across faith and “non-faith” traditions. Yust narrows it down toward a monotheistic perspective with faithful response to the working of God in our lives. Intimacy with God and faithfulness to His leading would clarify how Fowler’s stages may work for Christians.

The Table shows James Fowler’s six stages of faith (seven if one counts the “Pre-stage,” and he left room for higher stages of faith in future human/societal development). The stages line up loosely with the life stages of Erikson and Lester. The exact years used by Fowler do not necessarily line up exactly with the others, but close enough to share a common table. Additionally, even more so than with the stages of Erikson and Lester, people can “get stuck” in a stage of faith that is considered to be associated with a younger age. In fact, getting stuck at an earlier stage is quite common.

The reader may wonder why stages of faith is listed here. After all there are many different forms of changes that happen in a person’s life.

Stage 0. Undifferentiated Faith. At this stage, the child is learning to trust parents/primary caregivers. This is very much in line with Erikson and Lester, who both emphasize the importance of developing trust during this time. At this stage, there is no relationship with God. Trust is being developed, but the infant has not reached an age to respond with faithfulness.

Stage 1. Intuitive-Projective Faith. With the development of language, faith is connected to experiences in the life of the child. The child may now have some understanding of the concept of God… but that concept is heavily influenced by their experiences with parents and other people the child is attached to. Doesn’t have a real understanding of spiritual concepts, but will imitate the religious/spiritual behaviors of others. The relationship with God at this stage is not quite real since the child confuses God with a parent or another person.

Stage 2. Mythical-Literal Faith. Beliefs are understood through stories and direct guidance of authority figures. Faith is understood in terms of morality where “I do what is right because I will be rewarded, and I avoid what is wrong so that I don’t get punished.” The relationship with God at this point is unnuanced– God blesses and God punishes.

Stage 3. Synthetic-Conventional Faith. Beliefs are now questioned as inconsistencies or seeming contradictions are discovered. One’s faith is now becoming more connected to self as it begins to diverge from one’s social group or training. While this can be of concern for parents or teachers, this is actually healthy, as the person moves from being indoctrinated to being theological and relational in their faith. More concern is placed on being religiously or spiritually productive– “doing stuff for God.”

The Wall” People often get stuck here as doubts and conflicts do not always resolve themselves, and the activity of being BUSY serving God seems pointless, or lacking progress.

Stage 4. Individuative-Reflective Faith. The person is now reflective in their faith and beliefs. God is now becoming more personal. There is a growing recognition of difference between the “God Who Is,” and the “God I Create” (as I imagine him/her/it in my mind). More inwardly focused (being changed) than on simply doing. This may involve a crisis of faith… or crises of faith.

Stage 5. Conjunctive Faith. Issues of faith and truth are becoming integrated. The inward transformation now shows itself by moving outward in new relationships to others and the world, and surrender to God.

Stage 6. Universalizing Faith. Fowler places this level on a pedestal and suggests that relatively few people reach it. However, this stage is considered to be typified by a life of love in which God is placed first and foremost in all things. This stage can be seen as being a bit disconnected from the world. This disconnection may be seen as more of an ideal to some other traditions, such as Buddhism, than to Christianity. That being said, Stage 6 could be refigured for Christians to Christlikeness— living a life of love, godliness, and integrity.

There is much more on faith stages and the reader is encouraged to explore this further.

So is this useful? Well, there are at least two obvious uses— diagnostic, and prescriptive. Diagnostically, it is useful to understand what stage they are in their lives both psychoemotionally, and in their faith. Additionally, since Faith/Belief is an important aspect of pastoral assessment/diagnosis, understanding the nature of their faith is alsom important. Prescriptively, especially when taking on more of a role of spiritual director, know their place in their faith journey can give the director a path to suggest growth.

Some references:

Karen Marie Yust, Real Kids Real Faith (San Francisico, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 6.

James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Dennis Dirks “Faith Development” in Introducing Christian Education: Foundations for the Twenty-first Century, Michael J. Anthony ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 83-90.

Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, 2nd ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing, 2005).

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