Fowler's Stages of Faith

Fowler's stages and postfoundational practice

...a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity... Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ Luke 10.33, 37b

"mankind [sic.] is knit together with a holy knot ... we must not live for ourselves, but for our neighbors", John Calvin's Commentary on Acts 13

My friend, Beth, recently posted on Facebook a blog by Brian Zahnd, Beyond Elementary School Christianity, and in which he brought up the old classic by James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning , and old classic that I recently put into a box of books to NOT sell to a used bookstore.  Maybe I’ll have to pull it out of the box again since a friend of mine posted a response to Zahnd on her Facebook page.  She asked “Do you think it's because leaders themselves are mythic-literal or are they simply fostering that viewpoint?”

The mythic-literal approach is also a mythic-linear way of thinking. When I think of myth, it think of imaginative stories of giants, gods, creation and destruction, and other grand over-arching narratives.  Myths are meant to be widely interpreted and have the capacity to infiltrate multiple aspects of our lives, precisely because they are not literal. Literalism narrows and defines with precision the interpretation of the myth, and actually makes it no longer a myth but a literal instruction.  Even literal and historical events can become mythic when they are interpreted widely and appended to our understandings of many events, relationships, and decisions we need to make. 

Beth asked if leaders in churches that reflect Zahnd’s characterization of possessing a mythic-literal faith are that way because they are reflecting the viewpoints of the congregation, or if this faith position is that of the leaders themselves.  Huge question. Basically, the answer is yes, no, and there’s more to it than that.

Conflicted Leaders

I know of leaders who do not share the opinions of the congregations they serve. These pastors maybe trying to lead their congregations to a new view of faith and life, but the congregation is not quite there yet.  In conversations at conferences, coffee shops, and pubs, they confess the dissonance in which they live – trying to communicate at a level the congregation can grasp, but still trying to move them forward. I used to practice a ministry of storytelling. I’d use any good story. Legends, fables, short stories. I would weave these into my sermons.  My first congregation appreciated it. But in another congregation, the chair of the elders reprimanded me, “we don’t need stories, we need facts”.  They didn’t get it, and I failed in getting them there.  The resistance was threatening and passive aggressive.  There are pastors that feel vulnerable for their livelihood and may not have the social capital to challenge the mythic-literal viewpoint of their congregations.  And they may have elders or other leaders to deal with as I had to.

Mythic-Literal Congregations

To a great extent, I suppose mythic-literal congregations would call, or lift up, a mythic-literal leader to be a pastor. They might not mind a synthetic-conventional (stage 3), since that is like a concrete-operational developmental stage.  It is not likely that these congregations would choose a person in the individuative-reflective stage (stage 4) because they aren’t always sure what they are trusting in, the conjunctive faith (stage 5) sounds to ephemeral, and the universal stage (stage 7) would strike them as odd as a Buddhist koan.  

Mythic-Literal Leaders

This is a breed I wish was rare. The trouble is that this is a terribly reassuring viewpoint. It sees the world as controllable, prayer as currency to get what you want, suffering as a sign of failure, and success as a sign that God’s favor is with you.  You can make millions selling that kind of trust to people.  As people eat up this simplistic god-talk, it merely reinforces leaders and prevents them from having to change. As Zahnd puts it, “We can preach the certitude of Proverbs, but not the paradox of Job; we can make sense of the maxims of Deuteronomy, but not the mystery of John.”

Advanced Stages is not “Progressive” or “Liberal”

Zahnd steers clear of the tendency of some, in which the assumption that progressing through the stages is equated with becoming a progressive (a.k.a. “liberal” in some quarters) Christian. Zahnd instead characterizes the higher stages of faith as abilities to enter contemplation and compassion. These are two characteristics are available to conservative and liberal Christians. But the Christians who reside in the post-conventional faith zone, are also less likely to describe their faith as a conservative or liberal position. In fact, they are likely to not think of faith as a position being held as much as a life being lived. A life which encompasses questions, doubts, and people of contrary views.


Stanley Grenz was a friend who got me started on understanding, from a theological perspective that conservatives and liberals are more similar than they are different. Liberals trust the individual perspective, conservative trust the specific Greek words (carefully parsed and clearly defined). Both liberals and conservative build on a foundation of enlightenment epistemology: liberals on a Cartesian assurance of reason; conservatives on the assurance of empiricism.  The foundation shared by both is that we can figure it out clearly, rationally, and absolutely. Grenz wanted to create a different foundation to measure what is normal – worship in a community gathered around scripture (as the “normalizing norm”) being led by the Holy Spirit. That’s a Christian foundation.

So to answer Beth...

My hunch is that with the foundational practices Grenz lifts up, mythic-literals of both stripes, liberal and conservative, might skeptically try out.  But, if clearly practiced in behaviors of worship, Eucharist (sorry Quaker friends, I think the act is important), acts of mercy, and community reflection on scripture and the neighborhoods in which we live, even mythic-literals can be ushered into growing faith. These acts change both parties, both the recipient of mercy and the one who gives it are different, and closer.  The wounded Jew and the Samaritan (Luke 10) certainly looked at each other differently, challenging their previously black-and-white understandings of each other and their cultures. But we have to leave the old foundations, separations, clearly defined "issues" and divides behind.  The degree to which both leaders and congregations become self-absorbed and live only within the narrow confines of the familiar and habitual, the greater the difficulty there will be for them to grow in faith. Conversely, the degree to which leaders and congregations enter into scripture, worship and the lives of real people (not "issues") with an intention toward compassion, the greater the likelihood of spiritual growth.

Beth, I hope that answers your question.