Fowler’s ‘Stages of Faith’ in Jamieson, Alan, A Churchless Faith; Faith Journeys beyond the Church, SPCK, 2002, pp112-120


This stage is found in pre-school children whose lives are a seamless world of fantasy, stories, experiences and imagery. Their experience of God and faith is understood through the family experience. Where parents talk about God and pray with the children of say grace, some understanding begins to develop, but at this stage there are no inner structures with which to sort out their experiences. Life is therefore a collage of disorganised images including real events of daily life and the imaginary fantasy life of the child. The transition to the next stage involves the child’s growing concern to know now things are and to clarify what is real and what only seems that way (Fowler, 1995, p125-34)


This stage normally begins when the child is around six years of age. Somewhere around this age the child is better able to organise their experience and begins to categorise them. At this stage ideas and stories are interpreted literally. Children at this stage interpret stories and adults’ explanations of life and faith literally. They love the stories from the Bible about Noah’s ark, Jonah and the whale or David and Goliath, often taking enormous interest in the details of the size of the ark, the number of animals or what it would have been like inside the whale.

Although powerfully influenced by narrative and story, children at this stage cannot stand back and view events from the position of a neutral observe as they lack the ability to reflect on their own position or the position of others from a value-free perspective. During this stage the bounds of the children’s world widens. The primary influence of the family is now added to by the influence of teachers, school, other children etc. Here the child typically makes strong associations with people like us and is aware and often critical of those who are different. Although this stage begins in childhood, for many this is the stage at which their faith journey equilibrates during adulthood or at least for a substantial period of their adulthood.

These adults tend to appreciate churches where a more literal interpretation of Scripture is encouraged. This stages brings with it real strengths, offering security for the individual and deep conviction and commitment. Adults at this stage are often strongly influenced by rules and authoritative teaching, their main images of God tending to be of a stern and just, but loving parent.


Stage 3 is a conformist stage in which the individual is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgements of significant others (F, 1995, p173). It is very much a tribal stage, where being part of the tribe is significant to the person. Here the security of the tribe or community of like-minded believers is important to the individual’s own beliefs, values and faiths. Loyalists may hold deep convictions and are often committed workers or servers who have a very strong sense of loyalty. While their beliefs and values are often deeply held they 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. At this stage the person has not stood outside their belief system and made a personal in-depth critique of it. Predominantly these people have a vision of God as an external, transcendent being and in discussion refer little to God as an immanent in-dwelling God. Perhaps because of this many are uncomfortable with the notion of God within.

Among adults, this is the stage most commonly found among church members. This should not be surprising, as this is why we have churches and congregations in which people can find some common faith identity… Often identification with their church is a key identity marker for them. Most find enormous meaning for their faith as they share in the activities of the church… Many experience a strong sense of belonging to their church community … At this stage people tend to become dependent on the church for confirmation of selfhood and faith. They will often work hard to provide support in times of trouble or difficult in others’ lives and maintain a supportive web of relatedness… Because of this, conflict and controversy are threatening to them. They will tend to work for harmony and would often prefer to bury conflict than allow it to surface and potentially destabilise the sense of community that is so important to them.


The transition to the fourth stage is probably the most difficult to traverse and involves the greatest dismantling of what was learnt and experienced in the previous stage. Because of the “walled in”, secure feel of the third stage it often involves a major upset for the transition beyond Stage 3 to begin.

Fowler describes the move as a two-part transition. The first involves the emergence of a new sense of self that will take responsibility for its own actions, beliefs and values and will stand out against the significant others of the past. This is often a courageous and difficult journey. The second aspect is a new objectification and examination of the beliefs, values and expectations they have received. Fowler illustrates this stage using a drawing in which the Critic stands alone outside of any group. It is clear in his illustration that the Critic has removed themselves from the encircling relationship of significant others and is developing an independent position. At this stage the individual in increasingly uncomfortable with being asked to conform to the beliefs, teachings, values and actions of the group.

In their examination of their faith and practice, Critics begin by raising previously accepted beliefs, values, world views and actions for inspection, often as if they were looking at them and analysing them for the first time. In this critical examination flaws, inconsistencies, unanswered aspects and overly simplistic solutions seem to be their primary focus. This is a process of unpicking their previous faith and their communities’ beliefs and practices. It is lonely, uncomfortable and often protracted. But through this process a new respect and trust for one’s inner feelings, intuitions and personal judgement is commonly experienced. In contrast to the previous stage, the Critic trusts their own perception more than the perception and view of any community of others.

People at this stage tend to hold themselves, and others, more accountable for their own “authenticity, congruence, and consistency” (F, in Fowler and Keen, 1985, p70). It is important to people that they take responsibility for their own beliefs, actions and decisions. They will not tolerate following the crowd, or previously held significant others. Freedom to make their own decisions becomes increasingly important to them. Because of these changes the place of relationship changes too. No longer are relationships essential for the formation and maintenance of identity: this is a strongly individualistic stage. Where relationships are built a high priority is placed on each person’s autonomous identity.

As the stage progresses a person’s reference group tends to widen enormously. The person becomes interested in the views, beliefs and practices of groups they may previously have stayed away from. … Where the Stage 4 Critic may also be involved in groups, churches or congregations, they are looking for acknowledgement and support of their self-authorisation. Groups that provide intellectual stimulation and challenge but do not try to impose external or conventional expectations and beliefs are most comfortable to people at this stage. They often appreciate forums which allow them to question, present divergent opinions and in which divergence of belief and practice is appreciated, even celebrated. They are now more comfortable with criticism and debate, even disagreement. The conflict and disagreement that was once seen as potentially threatening is now viewed more positively, perhaps even relished.

At this stage people frequently see themselves as ‘self-sufficient, self-starters, self-managing and self-repairing’ (Fowler, 1987, p91). Because of the strength of the sense of self and the inner determinacy, people at this stage do not sit easily within a leadership structure that requires them to be dependent. They want a leadership structure that acknowledges and respects their personal positions and allows room for them to contribute to the decision-making.


This stage is not as easy to explain as the previous stage, as it encapsulates what seem contradictory aspects. In fact, it is this seeming contradiction that lies at the heart of Stage 5, for at this stage the firm boundaries of the previous stage become more porous. The confident self becomes humblingly aware of the depth of the unconscious and the unknown. This is a process that often coincides with a realisation of the power and reality of death. Although the transition between stages cannot be fixed to certain ages and people move through at different paces and equilibrate at different points, this stage is seldom reached before the onset of mid-life… Fowler describes this stage by outlining four distinctive hallmarks:

• “An awareness of the need to face and hold together several unmistakeable polar tensions in one’s life: the polarities of being both old and young and of being both masculine and feminine … the polarity of having a conscious and a shadow self

• A felt sense that truth is more multiform and complex than most of the clear ‘either/or’ categories of the previous stage. In its richness, ambiguity and multidimensionality, truth must be approached from at least two or more angles of vision simultaneously. People at this level will resist a forced synthesis or reductionist interpretation and are generally prepared to live with ambiguity, mystery, wonder and apparent irrationalities

• Here faith moves beyond the reductive strategy by which the Critic interprets symbol, myth, and liturgy into conceptual meanings … The faith of the Seer gives rise to a second naiveté, a postcritical receptivity and readiness for participation in the reality brought to expression in symbol and myth

• A genuine openness to the truths of traditions and communities other than one’s own. This openness, however, is not to equated with a relativistic agnosticism, [for at this stage] faith exhibits a combination of committed belief in and through the particularities of a tradition, while insisting on the humility that knows that a grasp on ultimate truth that any of our traditions can offer needs continual correction and challenge” (Fowler, 1984, pp65-66) As Fowler’s hallmarks of Stage 5 suggest, people at this stage love mystery and seem to relish the vastness of the unknown. They seek to understand the great unknown, realising the more they understand, the more the unknown is opened up before them. Here people are able to identify with perspectives other than their own… This does not involve an uncritical or total acceptance of these perspectives; rather it is an acknowledgement and incorporation within their own faith and understanding of a number of new perspectives.

The Seer’s faith is clearly the Seer’s own. Although nurtured by the faith of parents, of significant leaders, writers and the lives of others it is the individual’s own compilation and one that is deeply held. Their faith may well be quite orthodox … or it may relish aspects of faith and ideology from other perspectives. What is significant is that it is the owned and firmly rooted faith of the individual, a faith that shapes and connects with all aspects of their lives. Because of the strength of their own stance, people at this stage are able to identify with people of different races, socio-economic status and different belief systems. In fact, such cross-cultural experiences are generally sought after and often important aspects of the individual’s life and faith. The boundaries of faith at this stage are very broad and often difficult for others to identify. For this reason people at Stage 5 are often more confusing, irritating, and even threatening to those at previous stages.


The final stage is the most difficult to understand and is perhaps better described through poetry than by definitions. It involves two major transitions: first, what Fowler calls a ‘decentration from self’ in which the self is removed from the centre or focus of the individual’s life. It is a move beyond the usual human obsession with survival, security and significance coupled with a continued widening of the circle of those who count. The second transition is a shift in motivation to the complete acceptance of the ultimate authority of God in all aspects of life. This shift is perhaps best illustrated when we observe Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine own be done’ (Luke 22.42, RSV).

Mother Teresa, Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King are examples of people operating at the level of Stage 6