I believe God seeks to change us, shape us, and make us into what he desires, if we let him; he is the Potter, and we are the clay. I’m sure I have often unknowingly failed in allowing his hand to shape me, but at times, I have felt him remaking me, and most often simply reminding me that he is still by my side, and not finished with me yet. As a result, I have a different perception on the world than I had at the age of 12.
Wouldn’t it be odd, and disappointing, if after all life’s experiences, I had not grown, changed, or gained a different perspective? Yet this is precisely what happens with some people — their faith is unfazed by all their experiences. They live unreflective lives, and their faith and theological ideas remain exactly as they were when they were 12, or perhaps even younger.
The ideal is that your faith not be rigid and unpliable, but capable of being stretched and remolded over time, and that your theological and spiritual life grows deeper and more mature with the passing years.
In 1981, Dr. James Fowler of Emory University authored a book entitled Stages of Faith in which he suggested that there are six stages that religious people may experience in their spiritual and psychological development. Whether Fowler or anyone else can clearly identify all the stages of faith development, is uncertain. For many years Adam Hamilton says he dismissed Fowler’s work as presumptuous and biased by his theological perspective on what constitutes the development of faith. But over time Hamilton came to appreciate the general thesis of the work and found that it can be helpful as a way of thinking about the changes that can occur in a faith over time.
A Thumbnail Sketch of Fowler’s Stages
Stage 1: Intuitive Projective Faith. This faith is characteristic of children between the ages of three and seven. In this stage children’s faith is shaped by their parents and their own imaginations and tends towards something akin to a fairy tale. It is difficult for them to differentiate between God and the tooth fairy at this stage.
Stage 2: Mythical Literal Faith. This faith is characteristic of school age children, though some people never emerge from this stage. In stage two the elements of faith, as they are passed on to the child, are all taken literally. Belief is derived from an external authority and the child can only see these beliefs in the most literal of terms. This faith tends towards simple rules. “if I am good, God will bless me.”
Stage 3: Synthetic Conventional Faith. Most make the shift to this phase in the teen years. This stage is characterized by conformity with the expectations and beliefs of particular groups or authority figures with little critical examination of the beliefs. One believes a certain way because this is what everyone in his or her group or church believes. Many people never leave stage 3 but live with an unexamined faith accepted because of the beliefs of others.
Stage 4: Individuative Reflective Faith. This faith is one that has come through trial. Fowler indicates that those who enter this stage do so in their late teens or early 20s, though many don’t reach this place until their 30s or 40s, and some never do. Their faith is hard and sometimes shattered because, perhaps for the first time, the individual is considering questions and challenges to his or her faith. Individuals are claiming their faith for themselves and not simply the faith that belongs to a parent or an authority figure. Individuals will demythologize in this stage, beginning to recognize that some beliefs are more symbolic than literal, and differentiating between them.
Hamilton feels that most people remain in stage 3, with not a few, remaining in stage 2, for most of their lives. Both stages lend themselves to black and white, absolutes and certainties. Stage 4 will represent a faith crisis and struggle, dark nights of the soul and times of intense doubt.
Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith. This stage, in which the word conjunctive means to “join things together,” often occurs around age 40 as the individual passes through the trials of stage 4. They come to accept paradox, in which seemingly contradictory things are at the same time true and in which seemingly irreconcilable ideas can be held together — seemingly absurd things are actually real. In this stage people become more open to and tolerant of the views of others. They come to appreciate that the world is more gray than black and white.
Stage 6: Universalizing Faith. Fowler says that this stage of faith, characterized by selflessness, unconditional love, and a willingness to suffer on behalf of others, is extremely rare. Fowler’s examples would be Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr. John Wesley spoke of this as Christian perfection or sanctification.
Growing Through Stages of Faith
Fowler’s stages have something to say to Christians. One may never move beyond Stage 3, and yet still seek to be yielded to Christ, experience God in profound ways, and live selflessly. The move from Stage 3 to Stage 5 is not easy. It often only comes as a result of hardship, tragedy, or struggle that shatters our simplistic understanding of God, our faith and the world around us and leaves us with a faith that is deeper, more humble, and more open to mystery and paradox.
One of the points of this blog is to encourage people to grow in their faith and be able to experience the love for others that Jesus preached — especially for those who are different than us. This isn’t easy for many, but it is evidence of greater spiritual maturity.
Based on my own experience, I cannot accept that people cannot move beyond Stage 3. With consistent meditation on God, as described in How to Meditate to Reach Greater God Consciousness, one can come to recognize God’s cues by which he leads us to greater spiritual connection with him and others. Additionally, Hamilton says “our culture is in the midst of an important shift in which more people will be able to accept paradox and to hold fast to a compelling faith while living with ambiguity.”
The Growth of a Christian Leader
Billy Graham came from a very conservative church background — the Southern Baptist denomination. He held fast to particular doctrines and views of the Christian gospel yet Dr. Graham experienced times of challenge and tragedy that led him to question his early assumptions about life and faith. He came to the place where he held to his convictions while recognizing that others, with whom he disagreed, could be his brothers and sisters in Christ.
He then embraced paradox and ambiguity even as he held to his strong beliefs. Graham came to mandate that his crusades be integrated events, even as many in the South believed that the “separation of the races” was a biblical idea. He also embraced and worked with Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, and for both decisions he received ample criticism from those in his own movement who felt he was “compromising the gospel.”
In his article published in “Christian Century,” Billy Graham wrote:
“I am now aware that the family of God contains people of various ethnological, cultural, class, and denominational differences…. within the true church there is a mysterious unity that overrides all divisive factors. And groups which in my ignorant piousness I formerly “frowned upon,” I have found men so dedicated to Christ and so in love with the truth that I have felt unworthy to be in their presence. I have learned that although Christians do not always agree, they can disagree agreeably, and that what is most needed today is for us to show an unbelieving world that we love one another.”
Conservative and Liberal Faith Views
Just as those who grew up with a conservative faith community can benefit from a broader belief system, many people who have been brought up to accept ambiguity and raised in the religious left, maturing in the faith may include learning to embrace certainties and gaining a greater comfort with doctrinal foundations and convictions. In the end, perhaps both those on the left and those on the right are meant to meet in the middle.
Faith Like a Child
Jesus taught us to have faith like that of a child. By this I believe he meant the wide-eyed wonder and simple trust that children have in God. I don’t believe he meant that we were to avoid cultivating a faith that is thoughtful, reflective, and able to recognize and embrace paradox and ambiguity. Stages 4 and 5 are the stages where we finally accept that the world is not always black and white and when we come to appreciate the reality of grey.
Further exploration of Jesus’ words of guidance to deeper faith can be found in
Only Children Enter the Kingdom
Fowler is not the only one to analyze the stages of spiritual growth. You can find an inspiring understanding by Brian D. McLaren in the following summary of a portion of his book Naked Spirituality.
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And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3)
Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White by Adam Hamilton
Gerd” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Image by Gerd Altmann