Reflections on James Fowler's Stages of Faith

Jesus in Stages

I've been talking about the stages of faith for weeks now and what I've learned from James Fowler is that we have different needs at different times in our life. So it is no surprise that our understanding of Jesus changes as our needs change. Like every other truth we encounter in life, we get to know Jesus in stages. The crowd that lined the parade route in Palestine was made up of people of all different stages of faith and they had very different ideas about Jesus.

Believing in a perfectly logical, rational, and well-ordered universe may work for a while. But somewhere, typically in mid-life, we discover that life is more complex and truth is more multidimensional than we knew. We start to get a gnawing sense that something is missing, that there is a certain flatness to life that is unsatisfying. We start hungering for something deeper and more meaningful. When we start to have these kinds of thoughts and feelings, we are getting ready for Stage Five Faith.

Stages of Faith: Finding Our Way

We are talking about what James Fowler calls the "Individuative-Reflective Stage" of faith development. Up to this point, teenagers have been contained, so to speak, by the value systems of their family, church, and community. But as teenagers mature, they begin to develop the capacity to step back and reflect critically on that value system.... So, it's almost inevitable that teenagers will reject the all-too-human authority figures who have been telling them what to think and what to do their whole lives. We all have a little Bob Dylan in us.

I can't help but think that the people of Nazareth are acting much like teens in Middle School and High School, policing the borders of their town the way teenagers police the boundaries of their cliques. They don't want any outsiders to question their conventional thinking and the stories they like to tell about themselves. And that's because once they reached Stage 3 faith they decided to stay there. Once they learned the traditions of the faith and embraced them as their own, they became unwilling to question them. But because they aren't willing to question their assumptions about faith, they are not prepared to follow Jesus.

We never hear about him again, but I think the character of Nicodemus is meant to be a stand-in for a lot of us who are not quite there yet, but are on the way. He certainly stands in for Christians who seem to be stuck in Stage Two, thinking too literally about the stories of our faith. Whether we regard them as historically and factually true or dismiss them as nonsense—either way, we miss what the Spirit is trying to do: bring us to a deeper, richer, more multi-layered and contextual understanding of these stories and to a more God-filled experience of their truth for our lives today.

This is the first in a series of sermons engaging with the work of James Fowler, a United Methodist pastor Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He also was the Director of the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics at Emory. In 1984, he wrote Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. In this first sermon, I am focusing on the first stage of faith that Fowler calls "Intuitive-Projective" Faith for children from 2 to 6 or 7 years old.