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Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning Paperback – September 15, 1995
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"The classic book on the subject of faith development....An extremely important work, integral to the understanding of the human condition and our sense of meaning."--M. Scott Peck
From the Publisher
Groundbreaking study shows how human life is progressively centered around a basic set of meanings and values that shape the faith people live by.
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In a fictional conversation with Lawrence Kohlberg, Erik Erikson, and Jean Piaget - Fowler discusses their ideas including their influences on his conception of faith development. He provides a useful comparative from Infancy through maturity highlight each theorists' ideas. As Fowler indicated about developmental theories, "[they] allow us to speak of the dynamics of change and transformation" (p. 89). He then described his VI faith stages.
"Stages of Faith" is the first and perhaps best known work of James Fowler, who is particularly remembered in Roman Catholic circles for his influence upon the structure and content of religious education programs and study books for the young. Fowler himself appears to have been profoundly influenced by the study of Paul Tillich and particularly Richard Niebuhr, about whom the author would produce another book years later. Fowler credits both theologians for their seminal systematic work on the distinction between personal spiritual experience and cultic religious belief. [I did find Fowler's omission of Rudolf Otto's groundbreaking work on religious experience from his primary sources as curious.]
The scholarly quest for systematic recognition of personal religious experience was a new venture for mainstream Protestant and Roman Catholic academics. The established theories of human development-notably Piaget and Erikson-provided theologians with something of a language for further theorizing. But I suspect that Lawrence Kohlberg's appearance on the scene was perhaps the flash point for scholars like Fowler. Kohlberg's stages of moral development looked for all the world liked psychological theology and practically begged theologians of all faiths to recouch their thinking on religious experience and faith in a new developmental and epistemological framework.
This essentially is what "Stages of Faith" tries to do, ponderously at times. Fowler attempts to integrate the thinking of Piaget, Erikson, and Kohlberg and apply this synthesis to the religious journeys of adults, one of whom is chronicled extensively toward the end of this work. I wish he had used several more actual biographies. Despite the fact that subject Mary's roller-coaster life brings spice to an otherwise admittedly dry read, it becomes clear immediately that Mary is not "typical," so that she becomes a poster child for abnormality. She does not integrate or learn from experience [Piaget], she is dreadfully deficient in meeting age appropriate challenges [Erikson], and her moral reasoning is little more than sensory [Kolhberg]. By the end of the interview Tillich and Niebuhr are at best distant memories. Presumably the merits of a marriage between psychology and theology are in its formative possibilities [hence the great interest in Fowler by Catholic educators and catechists, for example], but Mary regrettably is an indicator of what happens when those opportunities are lost. Our biography here has diagnostic value at best.
There is another issue at hand as well, the one raised by my former professor. As I read Mary's case study, I wondered to myself: how would this scattered woman's life be different were she taking Strattera, the new ADD medication for adults? I am not arguing that pills are a panacea, but rather that biology-along with sociology, environment, family structure, economic opportunity, physical or psychological trauma-are critical formative factors in the development of children and adults. In an interdisciplinary study of faith, one must ask just how many disciplines are necessary for a valid synthesis.
I was pleased to discover that Fowler published what is described as a revised edition of "Stages of Faith" under a different title in 1999. I will be curious to see where his thinking and research have taken him over two decades.