Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter F - FOWLER, JAMES

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

James Fowler is well-known in the United States and beyond for his faith development theory. His groundbreaking book of 1981, Stages of Faith, with its 35 printings and several translations has inspired theory and research in religious studies worldwide. More than 80 dissertations focusing on Fowler's theory and research, half of them using his research instrument or a variation thereof, are an indication of the growing attraction of faith-development theory. Two characteristics in particular make Fowler's theory interesting: its open and inclusive concept of faith as meaning making-which, while akin to the concept of spirituality, has the potential of qualifying spirituality- and its detailed analysis of changes of faith occurring during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.


Fowler's background is theology. He earned his Ph.D. in 1971 at Harvard University in Religion and Society with a dissertation on the work of the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. After teaching at Harvard Divinity School (1969-1975), postdoctoral research at Harvard's Center for Moral Development, and teaching at Boston College (1975-1976), Fowler joined the faculty of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1977. He was named a Candler Professor in 1987, and he established and directed the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and has served as Director of Emory's Center for Ethics and Public Policy since 1994. His winning the Oscar Pfister Award from the American Psychiatric Association (1994) and the William James Award from the American Psychological Association (1994) indicates Fowler's recognition in the field of psychology. The honoris causa doctor of divinity awarded from the University of Edinburgh in 1999 indicates again Fowler's worldwide recognition in theology.


Both theology and psychology come together in Fowler's thinking. This is obvious from the basic definitions in faith development theory. In terms of theology, the perspectives of Paul Tillich and H. Richard Niebuhr have influenced Fowler's concept of faith. Tillich and Niebuhr teach us to ask for faith by asking questions like the following: What is the ultimate value and power? To whom am I finally loyal? What am I ultimately concerned about? What gives my life meaning? The work of William Cantwell Smith, a great theorist of religion from a cross-cultural perspective, has also been important for Fowler in obtaining further clarification of this open concept of faith and its demarcation from belief and religion.

In terms of psychology, we see a strong impact from Erik H. Erikson's psychoanalytic view on religion and human development and of psychoanalyst Ana-Maria Rizzuto's developmental account of representations of God, especially in Fowler's 1996 book. However, most influential for Fowler's theory and research has been the theory and research of Lawrence Kohlberg, the well-known developmental psychologist at Harvard University who, influenced by the work of Jean Piaget, constructed a cognitivestructural theory of moral development. It is safe to conclude that Fowler owes his groundbreaking inspiration to envision a developmental schema of faith to his cooperation with Kohlberg. Fowler's concept of faith has, then, received its most characteristic imprint from the Piaget/Kohlberg tradition: Faith as meaning making is understood as a special type of knowing, namely constitutive knowing. Comparing Kohlberg's theory of moral development and Fowler's theory of faith development, one encounters striking parallels. The two theorists debated about whether moral development precedes faith development, or vice versa.


Faith, according to Fowler, undergoes several significant reconstructions during one's life and may proceed progressively through six distinct stages. Since Fowler has given these stages illustrative names, it is informative to attend to this terminology: Faith develops from an intuitive-projective style (Stage 1) in infancy and early childhood to the mythic-literal style (Stage 2), which we should not expect before the age of 6 or 7; the plasticity of a vivid and open imagination turns into a preoccupation with order, narrative realism, and literal truth. Synthetic-conventional faith (Stage 3) can be expected to emerge after age 11 for a majority of individuals. Here, the conventions of one's religious community and the distinction between we and they dominate, and the image of God is structured in terms of personal relations. Not before early adulthood- and not all individuals are expected to reach this stage-the individuative-reflective faith (Stage 4) may develop. In this stage, individuals construct an explicit system of knowledge about their religion and defend it even in opposition to their own groups and traditions.