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by Mike Fisher

Many survivors of early life trauma, childhood sexual abuse and ritual abuse turn, at some point in their life, to the church or to faith communities for support and hope. Tragically not everyone finds the acceptance and encouragement that was hoped for in such settings. Some even find they are subjected to oppressive teaching, control, and misunderstanding when their behaviour seems perplexing to others.

Given that a person’s faith, beliefs and spirituality are a resource to them, particularly in times of tragedy and pain, how are we to make sense of how other people express their faith or beliefs? This question does not only apply to understanding of values and spirituality when we encounter people of another faith (or no faith at all), but also within the diversity of expressions of Christianity. Antagonism and misunderstanding can arise through a lack of appreciation of the notion of “spiritual journeying” and the diverse ways of expressing faith. One contribution that can assist in this appreciation is James Fowler’s concept of the six stages (or states) of faith shown below.


Stage I - The Innocent - (Intuitive - Projective)

Characteristics - Fantasy, Stories, Experiences and Imagery, both real and fantasy. Children tend to live in this stage, in a magical world where their understanding of God is usually found through family. They believe anything is possible.

Stage II - The literalist (Mythical - Literal)

Characteristics - able to organize experiences and categorise them. Ideas and stories are interpreted literally, as are adults’ explanations of faith. They begin to identify with a faith community, which may be religiously, politically or culturally defined. They locate themselves within the story they are told – the story that tells you who you are. Unable to stand back and view events from the position of a neutral observer and unable to reflect on own position or the position of others from a value free perspective.

“Here the child typically makes strong associations with people like us and is aware and often critical of those who are different.” (Jamieson, 2002:114)

Fowler suggests that 20% of the adult population may best be characterised by this kind of faith. These adults tend to appreciate churches where a more literal interpretation of Scripture is encouraged, along with offering security, deep conviction and commitment. God is viewed as stern, and being a just but loving parent, with rules and authoritative teaching being the norm.

Stage III - The Loyalist (Synthetic - Conventional)

This is a Conformist Stage in which the individual is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgements of significant others. It is a Tribal stage, where being part of the tribe is powerfully significant to the person - and being in a community of like-minded believers. May hold deep convictions and be loyal and committed workers and servers. Beliefs are typically not examined critically and are therefore tacitly held to. That is, they know what they know but are generally unable to tell you how they know something is true, except by referring to an external authority outside of themselves - “The Bible says” or “My Pastor teaches this”.

“We are socialized into our faith community, ‘catching’ our values and ways of thinking unconsciously from our peer and subculture. We are immersed in the thought system of our faith community like a fish that does not perceive the water it which it swims.” (Testerman, 1995)

They predominantly have a vision of God as an external, transcendent being with little reference to God as an imminent indwelling God. Among adults, this is the Stage most commonly found amongst church members. Most find enormous meaning in their faith, as they share in church activities - worship, prayer, mission, teaching etc.

Many express a strong sense of belonging, “being at home” or having “arrived”. Emphasis is on the “family of believers”.

Dualistic thinking is very prevalent: Christian/non-Christian; saved/unsaved, along with being a part of, and being accepted by the faith community.

Stage IV - The Critic (Individual - Reflective)

If the traditional answers stop making sense, Stage III collapses. The transition to Stage IV is probably the most difficult as it involves the greatest dismantling of what has been learnt and experienced. Often major upset precipitates transition beyond Stage III. It is characterised by an overt sense of self that will take responsibility for own actions, beliefs and values, and is prepared to stand against “significant others” of the past. This is often a courageous and difficult journey, with an emphasis on objectification and examination of the beliefs, values and expectations they have received.

The Critic is able to stand alone in a group, and look in from the outside, to weigh up and evaluate without surrendering to the need to be “a part of”. There is increased resistance to just conforming to teaching, beliefs and actions, without some degree of analysis. In their critical examination, flaws, inconsistencies, over-simplification and unanswered aspects are all considered in order to be understood and reconciled. There is a greater emphasis on authenticity, congruence and consistency, along with autonomy and individual accountability. Relationships are no longer essential for the formation of personal identity. A person’s reference group tends to widen enormously. Symbols and rituals are only significant if they are experienced as carrying meaning and illustrating truth. Intellectual stimulus and challenge, along with debate are valued. Dependence on external sources of authority is resisted, as is the lack of freedom of choice.

Stage V - The Seer (conjunctive)

This Stage is not so easy to explain, as it encapsulates what seems to be contradicting aspects which, in themselves, are the heart of Stage V. The confident self, in a deeply rooted faith, becomes humbly aware of the depth of both the unconscious and the unknown. This process often coincides with the realization of the power and reality of death. This stage is seldom reached before midlife. In some respects, this Stage is similar to the wonders lived in Stage 1.

“Seeing once more through the lens of the imagination and intuition, we again come to live in a numinous universe of mystery, wonder and paradox.” (Testerman, 1995)

People at this stage love mystery and relish the vastness of the unknown; realizing that the more they understand, the more ‘unknown’ is opened up before them. They accept ‘…as axiomatic that truth is more multidimensional and organically interdependent than most theories or accounts of truth can grasp.’ (Fowler, 1995:186)

Characterised by:

Stage VI - The Saint (Universalizing)

This Stage is the most difficult to understand. It is also very rare. It involves two major transitions:

Fowler found that only 1.6% of the population operated at this stage. Of those over 61 years of age, examples might be Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King.

In identifying the differing stages of faith and the progression through which an individual may travel, Fowler does not seek in any way to diminish or to imply that one stage is better than another. Rather, as Jamieson, (2002:111) writes of Fowler’s work, he is more interested in ‘how we believe (what he calls the operations of faith) than the what we believe (the contents of our faith).’ The earlier stages are identified with stages of childhood development and growing maturation. Just as it is critical for an adult to have had the space to mature through each stage of human development to grow into a secure functioning person, so too is the process of going through each stage of faith crucial to the development of an individual’s faith. Without the journey, much can be lost. However, it is important to emphasise that this journey has nothing to do with the amount of faith someone has, rather the type or way it is expressed.

As Testerman describes: “Life can be viewed as a quest in which we seek to understand the world we find ourselves in, discover its meaning, and locate ourselves within the grand scheme of things. As we go about the lifelong business of constructing our intelligible worlds, we pass through different eras or stages in our life, in each of which we approach our meaning-making task quite differently.” (Testerman, 1995)

Progression to another stage of faith occurs when the current stage collapses. In the same way that a child goes to school and begins to realise that Mummy and Daddy don’t know everything, teacher knows more, so for many Christians, there comes a painful and heart searching time where they can no longer accept the totality of what their Vicar, Minister, Pastor says These transitions from one stage of faith to another can often be very disturbing. Another way of thinking of the stages is like a lens through which we view the world as we journey through life.

Fowler’s work is based on his observations and listening to of hundreds of people. Although he speaks primarily of Christians, the same holds true of those of other faiths or none who are seeking to make sense of the world and their experience of living in it.

As we work with our staff teams and with service users, words they use or values they hold will all be affected by the stage they are at in the way they express their faith. Recognising the diversity and benefits of our differing expression, rather than focussing on the differences, can only seek to enhance our lives together as human beings made in the image of God.


Fisher, L. (2004) Shaftsbury Society, C.P.D. Programme –Christian Distinctiveness (unpublished)

Fisher, M. (2003) Willows Counselling Course – Christian Diversity (unpublished)

Smith, Marion (2003) Ways of Faith – A handbook of adult faith development: North of England Institute for Christian Education, Durham

Jamieson, Alan (2002) A Churchless Faith GB: Cromwell Press

Testerman, John (1995) ‘Stages of Faith’ in A Today: Magazine Archives: Mar/Apr 1995;articles

Fowler, James W. (1995) Stages of Faith USA: Harper Collins

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