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Spirituality, a faith development approach: Implications for practice

by Anne Kelliher

Opening remarks

This article outlines Fowler’s (1981) faith development theory (FDT).  FDT gives insight into spiritual and religious development using a non-sectarian approach.  It allows the assessment of clients’ spiritual development free from the specific content of any faith tradition.  FTD is a cognitive developmental model.  For therapists wanting a more relational approach, Shea’s (1999, 2005, 2011) work may be of more benefit.  I will now summarise the main aspects of FDT.  Some issues for clinical practice are noted.

Fowler’s Faith Development Theory

General comments: Faith, for Fowler (1981), relates to humans’ inherent multilayered meaning making pattern throughout the life cycle.  It is their way of making sense of, and committing to, transcendent values and realities; to “ultimate” concerns.  Individuals’ ultimate concerns may be experienced as theistic or non-theistic (Kelliher, 2009).  For some, they may be expressed in a religious manner.  Fowler understood religion as the cultural expression of one’s faith.

Fowler’s (1981) model describes 7 stages of spiritual development, highlighting typical developmental transitions and crises encountered in moving from one stage to the next.  He appreciated the stages as interdependent, changing with life’s circumstances.  One is normally propelled towards the next stage by what Fowler termed a crisis.  Fowler held that “Each stage requires the reworking of past solutions and contains in it an anticipation of the issues in future stages.” (1981:48).  The pain and risk involved in moving through the stages cannot be over-emphasised.  When one’s image of one’s ultimate concern “undergoes a shift of centre” (1981:31) then one’s relationship with the ‘god’ one knew previously is in turmoil.  Dislocation, pain and despair may ensue.  Yet “Only with the death of our previous image can a new and more adequate one arise.  Thus ‘substantive doubt’ is a part of the life of faith.” (1981:31).  Truly, development in the life of faith is no mean feat.

An outline of Fowler’s stages of faith development

Primal Faith: This stage commences in utero and continues for the first few months of the child’s life.   In this stage, infants deal with the struggle between basic trust and mistrust (Erikson, 1980; Fowler, 1981).  When children experience warmth, love and safety from those providing their primary care, then there is free movement to the next stage of development.  The stumbling block at this stage arises from a:

failure of mutuality in either of two directions.  Either there may emerge an excessive narcissism in which the experience of being ‘central’ continues to dominate and distort mutuality, or experiences of neglect or inconsistencies may lock the infant in patterns of isolation and failed mutuality (Fowler, 1981:121).  The long term effects can include a profound lack of confidence in others, in the world at large and “little or no instinctive foundation for belief in a loving God” (Kropf, 1990:44).

1. Intuitive-Projective faith: (Early childhood) Movement into this stage, which Fowler (1981) called stage 1, is facilitated by the emergence of language, which opens up the use of symbols in speech and play.  This is a fantasy-filled, imitative stage.  Now, children are deeply influenced by the visible faith of primary adults in their lives.  Cognition is at a preoperational stage (Piaget, 1952).  Imagination predominates and combines with feelings and perceptions to create long-lasting faith images.  For example, children may imagine a punitive God and develop fear and guilt, or a world of kind angels and develop trust towards reality.  Experiences of powerlessness and power raise deep existential questions regarding safety, security, and the power of those upon whom they depend for protection.  Constructions of faith are linked with symbols and images of visible power and size.

Fowler (1981) highlighted how trust towards God may manifest “totemic” qualities at this stage.  This happens when childrens’ security in their parents becomes identified with certain objects – a teddy bear, an old blanket, or this super-parent called ‘God’.  What is natural to this stage can degenerate into superstition and obsessive-compulsive behaviour in later life for some.  This occurs when “this or that particular medal, cross, rosary, etc., and not simply one similar to it, can be looked upon more as good luck charms or amulets instead of reminders to lead us to prayer” (Kropf, 1990: 47).  Prayer formulas may likewise suffer and be invested with the qualities of incantations used to ward off disasters or bad luck.  People with such tendencies may present themselves in the counselling space and it is imperative that counsellors have some model of faith development to use as a guideline and thus be more alert to where the client’s faith development may have become undone.

If parents are over strict, the reward-punishment understanding of morality (Kohlberg, 1980) that is natural for this aged child may be extended into later life, said Fowler (1981).  Fowler was aware that in extreme cases its pathological potential may surface in the condition known as scrupulosity, a kind of religious hypochondria.  Scrupulous persons sense temptation every-where, are self-condemning and project this sense of harsh judgement onto their God image:

Scrupulous persons, despite their religious preoccupation, seem to be persons of very little faith. … they really do not trust God to forgive them.  They are unwilling to take the risk of faith and leave their salvation in the hands of God.  Instead, they hanker after an impossible ritual purity (it is not insignificant that most such persons worry principally over sexuality).  (Kropf, 1990:47, 48)

The healing for such a condition does not come easily.  The building of therapeutic trust is essential.  Only then can the person be invited to a more healthy faith relationship.

2. Mythical-Literal faith: (Ages 7 – 12) According to Fowler (1981) the strength of this stage is children’s growing ability to think logically and to put order on their world.  Children now begin to own for themselves the stories, observances and beliefs that symbolize belonging to their community, including their faith community.  These beliefs and symbols are understood literally.

On a moral level, Kohlberg (1980) stated that children at this age worked from the premise of reciprocal fairness.  This imperative of moral reciprocity provides the child with the intuitive basis for a construction of God “seen in anthropomorphic terms on the order of a stern, powerful, but just parent or ruler” (Fowler, 1987:62).    According to Fowler (1981) serious deficiencies of caretakers at this stage may result in a child having an over-controlling, stilted perfectionism or work righteousness,  “or in their opposite, an abasing sense of badness embraced because of mistreatment, neglect or the apparent disfavor of significant others” (Fowler, 1981:150).  In relation to faith, the important connection being made by Fowler was that people’s experiences of ‘self – self’ and ‘self –others’, impinge on how people experience and construct their ‘self-God’ image, their faith.

Fowler (1981) believed that the transition to formal operational thought towards the end of this stage is what initiates movement to stage 3.  This new skill causes previous literalism to break down and awakens the child to the contradictions in what were seen as authoritative stories, for example the two stories of creation in the Bible (Genesis, chs.1, 2), and leads to reflection on meaning.

3. Synthetic-Conventional Faith: (Adolescence). Faith, Fowler (1981) emphasized, is now constructed in interpersonal terms.  Conformity and authority are seen as important.  Adolescents’ belief and value systems, what Sperry termed “ideology of clustering values” (2001:59), are largely unexamined, yet deeply felt and held.  There is a hunger for a more personal relationship with God stoked by a newly developed “reliance on abstract ideas of formal operational thinking” (Hood et al., 1996, p. 53).  Hand in hand with this is an acute attunement to the evaluative expectations and responses of the significant others in one’s life.  This impacts on how adolescents pull into a synthesis, beliefs, allegiances and values that will support and confirm their struggle for a workable sense of identity.  “This conforming quality of the synthesis of faith at this stage is what leads us to describe it as conventional” (Fowler, 1987, p. 65). The moral judgement of adolescents is so influenced by significant others, that Kohlberg (1980) said it was ruled by interpersonal expectations and conformity.  If a sound identity is not developed at this stage then role confusion ensues (Erikson, 1980).  If role confusion ensues in relationship to the ‘seen’ the ‘mundane’, then, role confusion in relation to the ‘unseen’, the ‘sensed’, may abound, affecting one’s self concept and one’s God concept.

When development unfolds relatively normally, the strength of stage 3 is present.  It consists in the ability to form a personal myth:

“the myth of one’s own becoming in identity and faith, incorporating one’s past and anticipated future in an image of the ultimate environment unified by characteristics of personality” (Fowler, 1981:173).

Fowler understood the danger of this stage to be twofold.  Firstly, adolescents can jeopardise their growth towards autonomy of action and judgment if they compellingly internalise and sacrelise the evaluations and expectations of others.  Secondly, interpersonal betrayals at such a tender age can give rise to either a nihilistic despair regarding a personal God or principle of Ultimate Being, or else drive one to a compensatory intimacy with God unrelated to one’s total life situation.

Movement from stage 3 to stage 4 may be activated by serious difference of opinion and value clashes with authority sources or/and by what one considers to be marked changes in practices that were previously deemed “sacred and unbreachable” (Fowler, 1981:173). Fowler suggested that for the majority of people the experience of leaving home, “emotionally or physically, or both” (1981:173) is the precipitating factor for movement into stage 4

Morrison (2002) believed that many individuals may leave their original faith community during the Stage 3 to 4 transition time, “especially when they feel criticism from the conventional majority” (2002:9). He believed that this was especially so in congregations where religious leaders were not encouraging “anyone to grow beyond conventional thinking” (2002:9).  When the loss of one’s former faith community co-occurs with the loss of a significant other in one’s life, e.g., a parent, intense guilt and confusion may follow.  “The counsellor should be able to help the client sort out what belongs to these two losses, making the whole experience less confusing” (Parker, 2011:115).

4. Individuative-Reflective faith: (Young adulthood) According to Fowler (1981), symbols are now translated into concepts for critical reflection and examination.  A reconstitution of values and beliefs takes place including a shift from an external to an internal authority and the creation of an “executive ego” (1981:179).   There is a growing awareness and understanding of social relations in system terms –family systems, social systems, institutional systems (including Church), political systems.  Systems are no longer seen as merely the extension of interpersonal relations, but in terms of objective laws, rules, and the standards that govern social roles.

In Stage 4, as a consequence of people’s ability to reflect critically upon their chosen system of meaning, their relation to, and use of symbols, is qualitatively different from that of Stage 3, Fowler (1981) held.  The meaning of symbols in liturgical ritual is now scrutinised, and:

For those who have previously enjoyed an unquestioning relation to the transcendent and to their fellow worshippers through a set of religious symbols, Stage 4’s translations of their meanings into conceptual prose can bring a sense of loss, dislocation, grief and even guilt. . ..  But there are gains as well.  Meanings previously tacitly held become explicit.  Dimensions of depth in symbolic or ritual expression previously felt and responded to without reflection can now be identified and clarified.  The ‘mystification’ of symbols, the tendency to experience them as organically linked with the realities they represent, is broken open. Their meaning, now detachable from the symbolic media, can be communicated in concepts or propositions that may have little direct resonance with the symbolic form or action. (1981:180, 181)

Fowler (1981) held that the transition to Individuative-Reflective faith is less severe for young adults than for those making this shift at an older age, as it fits more naturally into the general re-structering that is a normal part of life as a young adult.  Young adults have the capacity to critically reflect on their identity (self) and ideology or outlook.  This is the strength of Stage 4.  It makes room for a consciously chosen, personalised belief system of explicit meaning to emerge.  In Fowler’s  opinion, the dangers of this stage are inherent in this same capacity for critical reflection:

“an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of second narcissism in which the now clearly bounded reflective self overassimilates ‘reality’ and the perspectives of others into its own world view.” (1981:183)

For certain individuals, their faith journey moves on.  Their eventual disillusionment with their compromises nudges them forward, Fowler (1981) argued. A growing awareness that life is more complex than what can be comprehended by the logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts of Stage 4 adds to the push.  People start attending to “what may seem like anarchic and disturbing inner voices.  …  Stories, symbols, myths and paradoxes from one’s own or other traditions may insist on breaking in upon the neatness of the previous faith” (Fowler, 1981:183).  These press the pilgrims toward a more multileveled and dialectical approach to a life lived in faith.

5. Conjunctive Faith: (Midlife). This stage allows for the emergence and integration of much that was out of awareness, suppressed, or unrecognised here-to-fore.  There is a hunger and readiness for closeness to what is experienced as different, including new depths of experience in religious revelation and spirituality.  This allows polarities and paradoxes to be sorted out as increasing wisdom is used in the service of movement toward a more holistic world view and growth in personal coherence.  With this growth comes a synthesis of opposites, for example, an appreciation and acceptance that each person is both feminine and masculine, young and old, constructive and destructive.  There is a desire for, and commitment to, the nurturing of “a deeper relationship to the reality that symbols mediate” (Fowler, 1991:41).  Symbolic power and conceptual meaning are now reunited. Integration is happening.

Due to the emergence of the capacity for dialogical knowing one is now open to varied perspectives of a complex world, including differing faith perspectives.  Truth is now accepted as “multidimensional and organically interdependent” (Hood at al., 1996:53).  Individuals now appreciate the “possibility of an inclusive community of being” (Sperry, 2001:60), as they move beyond the myths, prejudices and ideal images that are deeply embedded into their self-system by virtue of their particular religious tradition, social class, ethnic group, gender and so forth.  This movement is due to what Fowler (1981) named as the strength of Stage 5 – the rise of the ironic imagination, which allows people the wonderful freedom of being in their group’s most powerful meanings, “while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.” (1981:198).

For people at Stage 5 the divisions in our world, especially between peoples, become more real for them.  They live and act in an untransformed world, declared Fowler (1981), while being drawn by “a transforming vision and loyalties.  In some few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualisation that we call stage 6” (1981:198)

6. Universalising Faith (Mid-life and beyond).   A unity with the power of Being, or God, marks stage 6.  One’s central reference point is no longer the self but the Ultimate.  Stage six is difficult to describe with concrete language.  Mother Teresa (Fowler, 1981), Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi (Chen 2001) are given as examples of stage 6 individuals. Parker (2011) was of the opinion that therapists do not need to pay attention to this stage as stage 6 individuals did not present for counselling!

Concluding remarks

This article has highlighted the main aspects of FDT.  Each stage was shown to be intrinsically linked to the next.  All stages had their own challenges, strengths and weaknesses.  It was suggested that clients may present in therapy due to a stage poorly negotiated.  Fowler’s (1981) model focuses on “universal structures that belong to all faiths” and not content, allowing counsellors to “assess the nature and role of a person’s faith apart from its specific beliefs” (Parker, 2011:117).  It challenges therapists to see faith development as normal and not pathological.  This is of utmost importance as therapists’ attitude towards client’s faith can have a significant impact on counselling outcomes.

Anne Kelliher Ph.D. is Training Director at Kerry Counselling Institute.  Anne also works privately as a psychotherapist and supervisor in Tralee and Cork.

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