“The fish will be the last to discover water”: Book review of Fowler’s Stages of Faith

Rating: 5/5 stars

I originally found Stages of Faith on a Tumblr post a few months ago, and the systematic approach to faith development immediately sparked my interest. When I additionally found that a speaker at the annual Northstar conference (a venue for Latter-Day Saint LGBT individuals to interact and reflect on the intersection of their faith and sexuality) would be presenting on Fowler’s faith stages, I knew that I wanted to look deeper into the topic.


How does one construct a model of faith development that isn’t limited to one faith tradition? Most faiths are unique enough that they have their own envisioned path (“strait is the gate and narrow is the path that leadeth to eternal life”). In the Latter-Day Saint tradition in particular, we are eager to emphasize the uniqueness of the Restored gospel as opposed to the many Christian sects we generalize as “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.” From an early age, we are taught the basic principles of the gospel (faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end) that eventually blossoms into a covenantal pathway that peaks at eternal marriage. Perhaps the idea that some psychologist somewhere thinks he can put our faith in a box and compare it to other religions seems belittling.

For me, I found it absolutely empowering. I am normally very wary of systems and structures that try to divide up people into types or personalities. First, they seem overconfident in their ability to capture the complexity of the human experience (see this Adam Ruins Everything episode on the Kaplan-Meier personality test). Second, I feel that we see what we want to see when we use such systems, and they can ultimately become self-fulfilling prophecies (“My horoscope said I was going to have a bad day, so don’t try to make me feel better!”) And while it may be fun to find out if you’re a Slytherin or a Gryffindor, would it really be a good thing to split up a school like that? If I am skeptical of such systems, I take them with a grain of salt and try to find what explanatory power they can offer. One system of faith I have found very useful is the concept of centers offered by Stephen Covey, and the aspiration of attaining a divine center. In regards to faith, I found Fowler’s stages of faith also very powerful in explaining certain observations about my faith experience.

To explain how Fowler manages to attain a developmental theory of faith that generalizable, Fowler focuses on the structure of faith rather than its content. The content of faith, he explains, are the values, images of power, and master stories used in each faith tradition. In Mormon lingo, this would be doctrines and principles. Fowler proposes that the structure of faith is generalizable, and he demonstrates a 6-stage system of increasing complexity. They are, in brief:

1. Intuitive-projective faith: the child-like faith where reality and fantasy are mixed
2. Mythic-literal faith: the ability to construct narratives emerges
3. Synthetic-conventional faith: organized faith, used to maintain identity
4. Individuative-reflective faith: able to think outside the box and view faith externally
5. Conjunctive faith: return to symbols of earlier faith, comfortable with paradox

In a separate post, I have included Fowler’s in-depth descriptions of each faith stage if you are interested in learning about them in more detail.The idea of faith stages implies that there are others who are more developed in their faith. This might come off as condescending to some extent, and Fowler acknowledges this in his text:

…the implication that more developed structural stages of knowing are, in important ways, more comprehensive and adequate than the less developed ones; that the more developed stages make possible a knowing that in some sense is “more true” than that of less developed stages. Instinctively many of us reared in a pluralistic, democratic ethos and saturated with an implicit values relativism feel offended by claims like these…

I was also hesitant to try and place myself in any faith stage for that very reason. I mean, a self evaluation probably isn’t fair in and of itself. And I also was also tried to be conscious of such biases when drawing my own conclusions based on Fowler’s theory. I wanted to reflect on a few conclusions I arrived at while reflecting on these faith stages.

Most Mormons have a Stage 3 faith, synthetic conventional. Again, you can read the full description here. One of the primary roles of faith to Mormons is providing identity. To a larger extent than many other Christian denominations, Mormons create a distinct identity for themselves marked by the way they dress, act, and the standards they exhibit in public. We tend to be conformist in the same sense that Fowler outlines: there are expectations and judgments within our wards and stakes that are fairly influential in how we choose to live. We don’t keep the Word of Wisdom just because we feel it is morally wrong, but because we are concerned about how our family and ward members will react if we were to break it. We tend to have tacit beliefs; Mormons don’t often reflect on their beliefs from “outside the stream” meaning being able to look on our faith critically. If a critical evaluation of faith does come up in conversation, it is often looked on with suspicion as out of line, and possibly on the road to apostasy. And Mormons hold their church leaders as the ultimate authority in all things religious.

Being at Stage 3 isn’t “bad” either. Fowler remarks that the majority of adults, regardless of their faith, find an equilibrium in Stage 3. He also states that religious institutions “work best” if the majority are Stage 3 individuals. But he also acknowledges in later chapters that it can be limiting, and, when explaining his own ideas of the content of faith in Christianity, explains that Christ is calling all of us to a Stage 6 faith. Mormonism currently fits into this explanation of modal synthetic conventional faith:

The average expectable level of development for adults in a given community. In faith terms, it refers to the conscious or unconscious image of adult faith toward which the educational practices, religious celebrations and patterns of governance in a community all aim. The modal level operates as a kind of magnet in religious communities. Patterns of nurture prepare children and youth to grow up to the modal level– but not beyond it. Persons from outside the community are attracted to the community because of its modal developmental level. The operation of the modal level in a community sets an effective limit on the ongoing process of growth in faith. My observations lead me to judge that the modal developmental level in most middle-class American churches and synagogues is best described in terms of Synthetic-Conventional faith or perhaps just beyond it.

But we are much more anchored in our faith when we progress to further faith stages:

The further one moves from a Synthetic-Conventional structuring of faith, the more likely one is to exhibit increased commitment in faith. The incidence of extrinsic motivation (utilitarian commitments to religion which serves other interests one has) virtually disappears. Intrinsic motivation (loyalty and commitment to one’s world view as true, regardless of whether it brings benefits or blame) characterizes postconventional faith.

Coming out for LGBT Mormons can be a precursor to a faith stage transition to Stage 4 Individuative Reflective faith. Fowler explains that a transition to Stage 4 often begins with a “leaving home” experience, either physically or emotionally. When LGBT members first confront their sexuality, which seems so foreign to the Mormon narrative, they are almost forced to examine their faith from outside the normal perspective. This can perhaps lead to a change in the content of faith if they choose to leave the Church. But it can also cause them to become more reflective of their faith and confront paradoxes that could eventually lead to another transition to Stage 5 faith. I found this to be a particularly powerful explanation of the LGBT Mormon experience.

I would also like to make a note regarding relativity. Particularly for Mormon readers, the discussion might arise questions of moral relativity. I think Fowler does a beautiful job throughout the book addressing these concerns. For instance, in his discussion of Stage 5 faith, he states: “Stage 5 also sees however, that the relativity of religious traditions that matters is not their relativity to each other but their relativity– their relateivity– to the reality to which they mediate relation.” And in Stage 6: “Particularities are cherished because they are vessels of the universal, and thereby valuable apart from any utilitarian considerations.” Respecting other people’s faith, finding value and meaning in it doesn’t have to devalue your own or cause you to question your own values and principles. I love this, and I think we need more of it in the world.

I highly recommend this book, and I hope I can convince a few people to give it a look.

P.S. A few other excellent quotes:

Holding ourselves responsible for quality images:  Our research convinces me that education at this age– in home, in synagogues and churches, in nursery schools and kindergartens– has a tremendous responsibility for the quality of images and stories we provide as gifts and guides for our children’s fertile imaginations.  Because the child’s appropriations of and personal constructions of meaning with these symbolic elements is unpredictable and because insisting on conceptual orthodoxy at this age is both premature and dangerous, parents and teachers should create an atmosphere in which the child can freely express, verbally and nonverbally, the images she or he is forming.

Stage 3 faith:  With the emergence of mutual interpersonal perspective taking God undergoes a recomposition.  Both the self and the chum or young love come to be experienced as having a rich, mysterious and finally inaccessible depth of personality.  God– when God remains or becomes salient in a person’s faith at this stage– must also be re-imaged as having inexhaustible depths and being capable of knowing personally those mysterious depths of self and others we know that we ourselves will never know.  Much of the extensive literature about adolescent conversion can be illumined, I believe, by the recognition that the adolescent’s religious hunger is for a God who knows, accepts, and confirms the self deeply, and who serves as an infinite guarantor of the self with its forming myth and of personal identity and faith.

Defining tacit beliefs:  …. the system of informing images and values through which they are committed remains principally a tacit system.  Tacit means unexamined; my tacit knowing is that part of my knowing that plays a role in guiding and shaping my choices, but of which I can give no account.  I cannot tell you how I know with my tacit knowing.  To say that Stage 3’s system of images and values is tacitly held reminds me of a statement attributed to the philosopher George Santayana: “We cannot know who first discovered water.  But we can be sure that it was not the fish.”  To live with a tacit system of meaning and value is analgous to the situation of the fish.  Supported and sustained by water, it has no means of leaping out of the aquarium so as to reflect on the tank and its contents.  A person in Stage 3 is aware of having values and normative images.  He or she articulates them, defends them and feels deep emotional investments in them, but typically has not made the value system, as a system, the object of reflection.

Stage 3 faith isn’t introspective:  As his statement of a personal philosophy his view is not genuinely the result of an introspective process.  Rather, it makes him one with the community– or his perceived community of hard-working men.  This is the central meaning behind the term synthetic-conventional.  The Stage 3 individual’s faith system is conventional, in that it is seen as everybody’s faith system or the faith system of the entire community.  And it is synthetic in that it is nonanalytical; it comes as a sort of unified, global wholeness…. the discussion of values and convictions is a means of asserting his solidarity with the community he calls his own.  He does not discuss values to distinguish himself, or to examine the values, or to be sure that his views are correct.  Rather, in such discussion he seeks to establish a sense of commonality or relatedness with the other person present.

Stage 5 faith accepts paradox:  Stage 5 accepts as axiomatic that truth is more multidimensional and organically interdependent than most theories or accounts of truth can grasp.  Religiously, it knows that the symbols, stories, doctrines and liturgies offered by its own or other traditions are inevitably partial, limited to a particular people’s experience of God and incomplete.  Stage 5 also sees however, that the relativity of religious traditions that matters is not their relativity to each other but their relativity– their relateivity– to the reality to which they mediate relation.  Conjunctive faith, therefore, is ready for significant encoutners with other traditions than its own, expecting that truth has disclosed and will discplose itself in those traditions in ways that may complement or correct its own.  Krister Stendahl is fond of saying that no interfaith conversation is genuinely ecumenical unless the quality of mutual sharing and receptivity is such that each party makes him- or herself vulnerable to conversion to the other’s truth…

The scandal of the particular:  The particular is time-bound, the concrete, the local.  The particular means this relatively undistinguished group, and not another.  The particular has warts, and dust from the road; it has body odors and holes in its sandals.  The scandal of particularity arises from the fact that over and over again disclosures of ultimate moment find expression to and among very finite, undistinguished, local and particular peoples.  Cryptic phrases and questions express our sense of the scandal of the particular: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”… These particulars are scandalous precisely because something of transcendent and universal moment comes to expression in them or through them.

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