James W. Fowler

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James W. Fowler III (October 12, 1940 – October 16, 2015) was an American theologian who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was a minister in the United Methodist Church.[1][2]

Stages of Faith[edit]

He is best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he sought to develop the idea of a developmental process in "human faith". [2]

These stages of faith development were along the lines of Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development and Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development.[3]

Description of the stages[edit]

No. Fowler Age Piaget
6 Universalizing 45+? Formal-operational
5 Conjunctive 35+ years?
4 Individual-Reflective 21+ years?
3 Synthetic-
12+ years
2 Mythic-
7–12 years Concrete operational
1 Intuitive-
2–7 years Pre-operational
0 Undifferentiated
0–2 years Sensoric-motorical
  • Stage 0"Primal or Undifferentiated" faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and language which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
  • Stage 1"Intuitive-Projective" faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche's unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns.[4] Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.
  • Stage 2"Mythic-Literal" faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.
  • Stage 3"Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to authority and the religious development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one's beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
  • Stage 4"Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one's own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one's belief.
  • Stage 5"Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent "truth" that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
  • Stage 6"Universalizing" faith, or what some might call "enlightenment". The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.

Empirical research[edit]

Fowler's model has inspired a considerable body of empirical research into faith development, although little of such research was ever conducted by Fowler himself. A useful tool here has been Gary Leak's Faith Development Scale, or FDS, which has been subject to factor analysis by Leak (Leak, 2008). For criticism see Developmental approaches to religion.


  • Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (1981) ISBN 0-06-062866-9
  • Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith (1984) (revised 1999 ISBN 0-7879-5134-X)
  • To See the Kingdom: The Theological Vision of H. Richard Niebuhr (1974), ISBN 978-0-687-42300-2
  • Faith Development and Pastoral Care (1987) ISBN 0-8006-1739-8
  • Weaving the New Creation: Stages of Faith and the Public Church (1991) ISBN 0-06-062845-6
  • Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life (1996) ISBN 978-0-687-01730-0

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.myajc.com/news/news/local-obituaries/james-w-fowler-75-theologian-author-embodied-the-f/nn7P7/
  2. ^ a b Evans 2010, p. 196.
  3. ^ Evans 2010, pp. 196-197.
  4. ^ Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232


  • Evans, Nancy; Forney, Deanna; Guido, Florence; Patton, Lori; Renn, Kristen (2010). Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice (Second ed.). Jossey-Bass. ISBN 978-0787978099.

Further reading[edit]

  • Fowler, James W. (1981). Stages of Faith, Harper & Row ISBN 0-06-062866-9.
  • Leak, G. (2008). Factorial validity of the Faith Development Scale. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 18 (2) pp123ff.
  • Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte (2005) "Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty," The Forum: Vol. 3 : Iss. 1, Article 2. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20120111103650/http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss1/art2/
  • Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, Fundamentals and Fundamentalists: A Reply to Ames et al.2 (July 2005)
  • Wulff, D. M., Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary (2nd ed), New York, Wiley, 1997.
  • Zastrow, C., Kirst-Ashman, K. (2007). Understanding human behavior and the social environment (7th ed.) Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • Volume dedicated to the Faith Development Theory of James Fowler in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 11(3). 2001. For example:
    • Heinz Streib, "The Symposium on Faith Development Theory and the Modern Paradigm", pp. 141–142.
    • John McDargh "Faith Development Theory and the Postmodern Problem of Foundations", pp. 185–199
    • Howard Kurtz, "College Faculties a Most Liberal Lot, Study Finds", WP, Tuesday 29 Mar 2005, p. C1.

External links[edit]