I highly recommend James Fowler’s book, The Stages of Faith. It’s an important book in faith development theory I learned about while at Sunstone. Like most people, however, when I first read it I simply didn’t have much of an appreciation for it. To understand why, you need a breakdown of the stages themselves.
According to Fowler, there are six possible stages of faith development throughout life. Stages Three, Four, and Five are what I’ll focus most on because unless you are an adolescent or live in a very oppressive tribal society, you’ll be beyond the first two.
*Stage One is characterized by infant faith — a baby who learns to have faith that her mother or father will return to take care of her.
*Stage Two is primarily characterized by adolescence and includes a world of Gods and Monsters, black and white. Another example of those in Stage Two might be the Taliban.
*According to Fowler, the vast majority of members of organized religions are in Stage Three. This stage is distinguished by a reliance and trust in certain authority figures, literal belief, and an expectation of unity among members of the flock. Stage Three is when it all makes sense, when religion usually fits into life like a glove. Those in Stage Three are good at making connections to their own faith, often without thinking beyond the connection or rationalizing it. For example: God saves a good Christian family from death or destruction while others are not spared. Or a Mormon example might be: God spared Elizabeth Smart because of her and her family’s prayers. Notice, Elizabeth is not necessarily saved because she is Mormon, but because of prayer. However, little thought is given to other parents who prayed for their own lost children to no avail, or superficial explanations might be offered as to why their prayers failed (ie., God is testing them, or wanted their child to return home).
*Stage Four is the angry doubter. Stage Four consists of people who have begun to and eventually lose most of their trust in authority figures, and instead place their trust in themselves. In its simplest terms, it might be, “Why should I believe the Bible is the Word of God, just because I’ve been told that my whole life?” (All examples are oversimplifications, so I don’t ramble on longer than usual.) This stage may be characterized by anger and frustration, coupled with a feeling of betrayal or that one has been lied to. Many in Stage Four want to pull back the curtain for others, so that they might no longer be “ignorant.”
* Stage Five is characterized by a revaluing of one’s faith tradition and belief. Although belief is usually not literal, the metaphorical meanings have significant importance in a Stage Fiver’s life. This stage includes nuance and paradox — the ability to believe two seemingly conflicting ideas at once. It isn’t, for example, characterized by a belief that one must do certain things to earn a ticket to heaven or be damned. Rather, those in Stage Five tend to believe more for what it does for them right now in life, and that might be where they find peace.
* Stage Six is a tough one to both explain and understand. The best way I can put it is that it consists of those who become the embodiment of faith for others — Jesus, Buddha, etc. (though even that isn’t quite right). I’m no psychologist, so I may have bungled this up a bit. I’d love to hear other interpretations from those who have studied Fowler or Wilbur and faith development theory.
The beauty of the stages is the hope they might give for a Stage Four person in particular. They can discover there is more beyond the anger and the frustration. It wasn’t until I reread the book while having this kind of frustration that it really connected with me, and most people I’ve talked to share the same experience. It also helps those who might have conflicts with others of their faith. The book is not derogatory and doesn’t present the stages as though six ought to be the goal of any good human being. In short, the book helps me not storm out of Church every time I hear something that makes me cringe. I can understand where others are coming from better.
There are limitations, of course. First and foremost, whenever you categorize or rank people, there’s bound to be hurt feelings. When I’ve tried to explain the stages, or when I’ve seen others do it, no one first learning Fowler’s theory says they’re in Stage Three. Everyone insists they are Stage Five (which just isn’t true). Part of the problem is understanding that faith development is a lifelong journey. Stage Four, for example, is *not* characterized by reading anti-Mormon literature or simply Bible-bashing a few times and having flashes of doubt. I smile when I hear Mormons say they’ve been through Stage Four, and then tell me what it consists of. I want to be respectful, so I don’t challenge them, but they don’t understand Fowler’s theory. Stage Four is standing on the edge of the abyss and looking down; it means years of clashes, of struggles, of wrestling, of sleepless nights. It often means challenges in marriage and culture. It means fear over whether God is there, what he is like, what life means, etc. I’d also add, it doesn’t mean going inactive for a few years, experiencing disbelief, then returning committed to living the commandments so you can go to heaven or after realizing the error of your way. It’s so much more, and even those there struggle to explain it.
Another limitation comes because each stage believes it’s the right one. As you can imagine, the Taliban (or other Stage Two-like groups) wouldn’t have much tolerance for someone beyond them. The other stages are much the same — Stage Three believes Stage Four is full of apostates, Stage Four thinks Stage Three is deluded, and they also believe Stage Five is a sell-out. Stage Five is more tolerant (as I suggest above), but those in it might become bored with what they consider silly conversations about theology that can never (in their estimation) be known or understood, or assertions from either Stage Three or Stage Four that they have the truth .
Despite the limitations, I know reading the book helped me, and I’ve seen it help others. My friend Tom Kimball organized a phenomenal panel at Sunstone last year talking about the stages in conjunction with Mormonism. If you haven’t read it and you have a chance, pick it up.