Module 2 - Adolescence and Faith: A Development Perspective

The Six Stages of Faith Development

In his book Stages of Faith (Harper & Row, 1981), developmental theorist and theologian James Fowler describes the different stages of faith development which individuals move through. Building on the work of Lawrence Kahlberg (moral development) and Jean Piaget, (cognitive development), Fowler describes the development of faith in six stages.

1. Intuitive - Projective Faith

This stage places great emphasis on the importance of God in child's life, especially by parents and family members. Parents serve as a source of authority regarding religious matters. Children ranging in age from four to eight are typically found in this stage.

2. Mythic - Literal Faith

The person begins to take on for him or herself the stories, beliefs and rituals, which symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. The child is able to make some personal judgments, but still yield to trusted adults for conclusions and guidance (including family, teachers, and religious leaders). Usually this stage begins in middle to late childhood (6 or 7) and lasts until the threshold of adolescence (11-12).

3. Synthetic - Conventional Faith

This stage encompasses both adolescents and adults. The average age of entry into this stage varies from 12 years to adulthood. Departure can begin as early as 17 or 18. The salient characteristic of this stage that corresponds with the emergence of adolescence is the concern with the interpersonal. The adolescent begins to internalize the ideas, expectations and views of others in order to foster a growing identity. Lack of consensus among significant others can lead to "compartmentalization". Symbols are now understood to have a distinctly personal quality; this "God" or Jesus Christ can be both a friend and companion for the adolescent.

4. Individuating - Reflective Faith

Transition from stage 3 to stage 4 can be a protracted process. The onset of transition roughly parallels college entrance (age 17 or 18) and lasts through the early 20’s. However, Fowler notes that for many adults the process can take place in the 30’s and the 40’s. Transition to this stage allows late adolescents to begin viewing a faith that is more and more "their own". Faith is not only more personal, but also produces the need for a faith expression that is both consistent and coherent. Late adolescents who have reached this stage are challenged to critically reflect on their own life and its meaning. The person begins to take seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyles, beliefs, and attitudes.

5. Conjunctive Faith

Rarely seen before the age of thirty. This stage evolves from the person's deepening life experience, including suffering, loss, and injustice. This stage assumes a deepening knowledge of the self in which one explores the depths of his or her own being. Beliefs are accepted and verified not only by external sources, such as parents, authorities, and Scripture, but also by his or her own inner method of relating to the transcendent. The person is open to recognizing truth in faiths other than his or her own, without denying the truth of his or her own faith.

6. Universalizing Faith

Individuals show an overwhelming passion and commitment to the demands of love and justice. The rare person who reaches this stage is consumed with the desire to serve others.

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