Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A developmental model of religious thinking in the tradition of Piaget and Kohlberg.

The best known model, by James Fowler (1981, 1991), posits six stages in the maturation of faith. Increased sophistication in understanding of symbolism and of authority are the key elements in coding each stage. All six stages may occur within any religion; the stages refer to the cognitive processing of symbols and myths, not to the specific content of a faith.

In the intuitive-projective stage, the world is a magical place, the line between reality and fantasy being indistinct. At this stage, children are not able to understand abstractions. God is viewed most frequently as an elderly man with a long beard.

In the mythic-literal stage, the person tends to be oriented toward acceptance of whatever authority figures say and is extremely literal in acceptance of anything in print. Belief itself is believed to carry sufficient power to obliterate the laws of nature in certain cases. Also characteristic of this stage is a concept of one's relationship with God as being reciprocal. Acts of praise toward God are sometimes done so that God will "owe" the person later on.

Stage 3 religiosity is conventional , with the primary focus on group conformity. Authority is external to the self, residing in the reference group. Faith is not rationally scrutinized, remaining more implicit or unexamined. Symbols are believed to have intrinsic power rather than being abstractions that stand for something else.

In the individuative-reflective stage, the symbol is understood as separable from its meaning. The individual understands that meaning is "constructed" or arbitrarily assigned to symbols. There may even be interest in "demythologizing" the myths of the faith to reduce symbols to logical propositions detached from a carrier. Authority for determination of what is true or false is transferred to an evaluation process occurring within oneself.

At Stage 5conjunctive faith a new openness to nonrational experience allows the individual to affirm the imagery and fantasy that a symbol stimulates. Myths and symbols are appreciated as carriers of truth and wisdom, but, unlike earlier stages, those truths are viewed as relative and as less than complete. Both the myths and the symbols of one's own tradition and those of other traditions are affirmed as carrying wisdom.

Universalizing faith is very difficult to describe briefly, for it occurs in so many diverse forms. The element that Stage 6 persons have in common is that they are driven by a vision of justice that supersedes the normal boundaries between groups and nations. The commitment to one's vision of Truth becomes complete (not compromised by the feeling that one's vision is relativistic). But even though the commitment is uncompromising, it is not exclusive or particularistic.

James W. Fowler III, the first theorist to develop a cognitive theory of faith development, was born in 1940, the son of a Methodist minister. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1971 and currently teaches at Candler School of Theology of Emory University, Atlanta.

See also Moral Development

Keith A. Roberts


J. W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1981)

J. W. Fowler, Weaving the New Creation (San Francisco: Harper, 1991)

M. M. Wilcox, Developmental Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979).

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