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Over the years it has struck me that our attitude toward theological disagreement is tied to how psychologically tolerant we might be of ambiguity.

Just so I’m clear and nip in the bud a misunderstanding, I am not talking about tolerating the views of others.

I am talking about one’s own inner disposition, whether one can psychologically tolerate what one perceives as ambiguity in matters of faith, allow that ambiguity to remain, and accept it as part of the journey of faith, rather than feel the psychological pressure of quickly moving toward a resolution.

What made me connect some dots about this was reading Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning by James W. Fowler (October 12, 1940 – October 16, 2015) a couple of years ago.

In case you’re not familiar with Fowler’s book, he traces 7 stages of faith development that correspond to human developmental stages from birth through mid-life crisis and beyond.

Here are Fowler’s Stages of Faith.

  • Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
  • Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.
  • Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.
  • Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
  • Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.
  • Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
  • Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment.” The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.

Fowler isn’t saying that stages in faith development move at the same pace as our overall psychological development—you can be in stage 5 in your thirties and stage 4 in your fifties.

These aren’t rigid categories, but more groupings of traits that hold well for psychological development in general and can be transposed to the matter of faith.

With those caveats in mind, perhaps we can say that an intolerance for ambiguity is an important factor for why theological conflicts arise and how they are handled once they do.

Perhaps the kinds of heated, and even vicious, conflicts we come across on the world wide interwebs is more a function of a psychological inability to tolerate theological ambiguity than a sign of theological “courage.”

Maybe “standing one’s ground” theologically is not so much a mark of mature and unwavering fidelity to the true faith as it is an indicator of the psychological need to see the world in terms of a “mythic-literal”(stage 2) or “synthetic-conventional” (stage 3) faith.

Maybe seeing the world in unambiguous “us vs. them,” “black and white,” “right or wrong” categories should not be seen as a qualification for faithful Christian leadership but a disqualification.

And so my mind’s eye goes to Christian leaders I know or have come across who exhibit an intolerance for ambiguity and the avoidance or suppression of potential challenges to theological clarity and certainty.

My intention here is not to sound belittling. But I find Fowler’s stages very useful as I think through my own journey of faith. I think he gives us a lot to ponder.

[Please be patient as your comment is in moderation. Comments are normally posted within 6 hours but may take as long as 24. If you’re annoying, I will be intolerant toward you.]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

92 Comments

  • CrazyDogLady says:

    Fowler’s work would indicate that what I’ve been going though over the last few years (I’m 45) is fairly normal! Here I had been thinking I was some kind of late bloomer or had been on too many antidepressants in my twenties and thirties to ask any questions about my faith, or something like that.
    Since I have felt so abnormal with respect to this experience, I wonder whether (a) many people around me are going though questioning and reforming their faith/beliefs/opinions, and just are not talking about it for the same reasons I keep it quiet, or (b) many people my age or older are just “stuck” in Fowler’s stage 2 or 3 and resist any unraveling of their certainty. Probably it’s both. Perhaps there are more in group (a) than I realized. Thanks for providing my Monday food for thought, and another book to add to my reading list. 🙂

    • Gary says:

      It’s not a lot but there are a good number. That Western Christianity, and especially the dominant form of Evangelical Christianity, has to deal with this on it’s periphery through an arm’s length distancing rather than through a cherished core of discovery is a telltale sign that something isn’t right. In stage 2 every word of the vocabulary of goodness and every ritual of the procession has already been hijacked and while manna doesn’t last the day, and milk cannot sustain the man, meat left out on the counter is soon full of maggots.

      • Stuart Blessman says:

        And chew the meat, spit out the bones is akin to eating that part of the chicken wing most people throw away. Sustainably malnourished.

      • charlesburchfield says:

        well said! I’m thinking of the mana in the desert which became maggoty overnight if you tried to horde it. :::]8•0

  • CrazyDogLady says:

    Fowler’s work would indicate that what I’ve been going though over the last few years (I’m 45) is fairly normal! Here I had been thinking I was some kind of late bloomer or had been on too many antidepressants in my twenties and thirties to ask any questions about my faith, or something like that.
    Since I have felt so abnormal with respect to this experience, I wonder whether (a) many people around me are going though questioning and reforming their faith/beliefs/opinions, and just are not talking about it for the same reasons I keep it quiet, or (b) many people my age or older are just “stuck” in Fowler’s stage 2 or 3 and resist any unraveling of their certainty. Probably it’s both. Perhaps there are more in group (a) than I realized. Thanks for providing my Monday food for thought, and another book to add to my reading list. 🙂

    • Gary says:

      It’s not a lot but there are a good number. That Western Christianity, and especially the dominant form of Evangelical Christianity, has to deal with this on it’s periphery through an arm’s length distancing rather than through a cherished core of discovery is a telltale sign that something isn’t right. In stage 2 every word of the vocabulary of goodness and every ritual of the procession has already been hijacked and while manna doesn’t last the day, and milk cannot sustain the man, meat left out on the counter is soon full of maggots.

  • Gary says:

    Fundamentalist (noun): 1. An adult gun owner in any religion, in a Fowler stage 2 faith.

    I’ve found the framework useful for years.

    One of the things I feel like I’ve anecdotally experienced–that Fowler doesn’t speak on–is how long of journey it is to get to having a Stage 6 stance toward *all*, and most specifically toward those who continue in a Stage 2, where a) their mythic-literal constructs are very similar to one’s own of that prior stage and b) you don’t really see any external stimuli or traits within that would suggest the other person would ever see a different stage. I personally think this is the hardest with family. How does one have mutual and reciprocal intimacy with another person where there are several stages gap between?

    And then, I also have given thought to this: Is such a scale not a temptation to elitism? I used to not talk to anyone about matters of faith, except paid clergy and those with advanced studies and reflective time spent in either theology or philosophy. These days, I feel as if I had cast too large of net. Most of the clergy I know are at stages 3, 4, and 5. Right now I’m needing a few clergy friends’ support in some matters and it’s hard to get because it doesn’t fit well in their preconceptions–the correspondence between what religious labels people wear and what values they carry and manifest. The clergy member I’m thinking of now has a stage 3 stance toward other religions and non-religion; he’s very Teflon about his views of what Christianity and Christ are. But he has grown; he has a stage 4 and even stage 5 stance within the broader Christian tradition. Unlike many Evangelical clergy, he can grok the rituals, symbols, and even beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, etc. But… I can’t think of one time I’ve observed the pursuit of or exhibition of traits of a stage 6 faith in his life or teachings. I could give many more examples, but I don’t always know how to talk to these persons. I *can* speak in their constructs and metaphors and scope of awareness, but it can feel like I’m tending the nursery. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, it’s just that it’s not reciprocally satisfying. I feel as though when you shift into the higher numbered stages, there are more and more persons you can understand, but fewer and fewer who can understand you. This I don’t know what to do with. I find it impossible to find fulfilling community in contemporary Christianity.

    And finally, it seems the Eastern religions much more centrally accept this kind of development as internal and integral aspects of spirituality and maturation. Within contemporary American Christianity, it seems a lot of megachurch money has been made by having a stage 3 executive pastor preach to a large congregation of stage 2 believers. There will be the delightfully certain guard rails of a certain statement of faith. The Bible will be taught chapter by chapter and verse by verse. But these kinds of environments don’t really know what to do with persons pursuing the higher numbered stages of spirituality within the Christian tradition. That said, over recent years I anecdotally have witnessed much shift. In the de-churching of America, the recipe for 20th-century cookie cutter Christianity is failing left and right. There has been some positive, reflective response. I know of a megachurch pastor friend who has had stage 4 and 5 changes in the last five years. And his preaching and the openness of his ability to grow and change resonates with the 20 and 30 year old laity who are children of Baby Boomers with stage 2 and stage 3 faith. But I don’t see the Evangelical traditional structurally composed to handle the pursuit of stage 6 and often stage 5 faith. This is a place he, and many others, simply can’t go and retain the “non-negotiable” that got them to where they are.

    I’d also be curious to hear what anyone thinks when comparing and contrasting Fowler’s Stages with the Engel Scale.

    Anyhow, these are some of the things I’ve pondered about Fowler’s stages over the years.

    • Mike Nyman says:

      I seem to remember JF touching on some of this in Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, specifically that he would not expect the vast majority of the population to ever reach stage 6. Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and MLK types would be in stage 6, at least partially and at times.

      I have also wondered how well this scales to denomination structures, as you’ve touched upon. My gut says it scales fairly well.

      • Gary says:

        I doubt any religious denomination or tradition of spirituality in any religion less than a thousand years can encompass more than four of the stages in its boundaries. Many Protestant Christians who shift stages often find homes in the Anglican, Roman, and Eastern traditions and their commonalities and diversity before the Great Schism.

        I’d suggest the Filioque was the West’s first coronation of the reign of certainty.

        And even today, nobody really wants a Master of a kenotic Essence of the Father. While you put Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and MLK types at stage 6, I wonder where you’d consider the Donald. I wonder which Evangelicals of which stages would see him as a leader of their ways in which they believe the world will be made right. I even wonder which denominational and non-denominational structures would find affinity with him being worthy of the kinds of titles once defiantly taken from Caesar and attached to a man from Galilee.

        The sin of certainty isn’t an individualistic ill of the 21st century in how to become an adult.

        It’s one or two millennia’s failure of what perhaps could turn into an anthropological hope lost.

        Evangelicals have no ecclesiology. The myopia is personally atomized and temporally isolated; a grand arc is nearly impossible to see. No wonder all associated eschatologies must be escapist in their zeitgeists.

        No wonder a world of a few thousand years–and not billions–can be embraced. No wonder descent with modification cannot be grokked.

        Watch centuries’ overgrowth of now-dried tares burn.

  • Gary says:

    Fundamentalist (noun): 1. An adult gun owner in any religion, in a Fowler stage 2 faith.

    I’ve found the framework useful for years.

    One of the things I feel like I’ve anecdotally experienced–that Fowler doesn’t speak on–is how long of journey it is to get to having a Stage 6 stance toward *all*, and most specifically toward those who continue in a Stage 2, where a) their mythic-literal constructs are very similar to one’s own of that prior stage and b) you don’t really see any external stimuli or traits within that would suggest the other person would ever see a different stage. I personally think this is the hardest with family. How does one have mutual and reciprocal intimacy with another person where there are several stages gap between?

    And then, I also have given thought to this: Is such a scale not a temptation to elitism? I used to not talk to anyone about matters of faith, except paid clergy and those with advanced studies and reflective time spent in either theology or philosophy. These days, I feel as if I had cast too large of net. Most of the clergy I know are at stages 3, 4, and 5. Right now I’m needing a few clergy friends’ support in some matters and it’s hard to get because it doesn’t fit well in their preconceptions–the correspondence between what religious labels people wear and what values they carry and manifest. The clergy member I’m thinking of now has a stage 3 stance toward other religions and non-religion; he’s very Teflon about his views of what Christianity and Christ are. But he has grown; he has a stage 4 and even stage 5 stance within the broader Christian tradition. Unlike many Evangelical clergy, he can grok the rituals, symbols, and even beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, etc. But… I can’t think of one time I’ve observed the pursuit of or exhibition of traits of a stage 6 faith in his life or teachings. I could give many more examples, but I don’t always know how to talk to these persons. I *can* speak in their constructs and metaphors and scope of awareness, but it can feel like I’m tending the nursery. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, it’s just that it’s not reciprocally satisfying. I feel as though when you shift into the higher numbered stages, there are more and more persons you can understand, but fewer and fewer who can understand you. This I don’t know what to do with. I find it impossible to find fulfilling community in contemporary Christianity.

    And finally, it seems the Eastern religions much more centrally accept this kind of development as internal and integral aspects of spirituality and maturation. Within contemporary American Christianity, it seems a lot of megachurch money has been made by having a stage 3 executive pastor preach to a large congregation of stage 2 believers. There will be the delightfully certain guard rails of a certain statement of faith. The Bible will be taught chapter by chapter and verse by verse. But these kinds of environments don’t really know what to do with persons pursuing the higher numbered stages of spirituality within the Christian tradition. That said, over recent years I anecdotally have witnessed much shift. In the de-churching of America, the recipe for 20th-century cookie cutter Christianity is failing left and right. There has been some positive, reflective response. I know of a megachurch pastor friend who has had stage 4 and 5 changes in the last five years. And his preaching and the openness of his ability to grow and change resonates with the 20 and 30 year old laity who are children of Baby Boomers with stage 2 and stage 3 faith. But I don’t see the Evangelical traditional structurally composed to handle the pursuit of stage 6 and often stage 5 faith. This is a place he, and many others, simply can’t go and retain the “non-negotiable” that got them to where they are.

    I’d also be curious to hear what anyone thinks when comparing and contrasting Fowler’s Stages with the Engel Scale.

    Anyhow, these are some of the things I’ve pondered about Fowler’s stages over the years.

    • Mike Nyman says:

      I seem to remember JF touching on some of this in Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, specifically that he would not expect the vast majority of the population to ever reach stage 6. Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and MLK types would be in stage 6, at least partially and at times.

      I have also wondered how well this scales to denomination structures, as you’ve touched upon. My gut says it scales fairly well.

      • Gary says:

        I doubt any religious denomination or tradition of spirituality in any religion less than a thousand years can encompass more than four of the stages in its boundaries. Many Protestant Christians who shift stages often find homes in the Anglican, Roman, and Eastern traditions and their commonalities and diversity before the Great Schism.

        I’d suggest the Filioque was the West’s first coronation of the reign of certainty.

        And even today, nobody really wants a Master of a kenotic Essence of the Father. While you put Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and MLK types at stage 6, I wonder where you’d consider the Donald. I wonder which Evangelicals of which stages would see him as a leader of their ways in which they believe the world will be made right. I even wonder which denominational and non-denominational structures would find affinity with him being worthy of the kinds of titles once defiantly taken from Caesar and attached to a man from Galilee.

        The sin of certainty isn’t an individualistic ill of the 21st century in how to become an adult.

        It’s one or two millennia’s failure of what perhaps could turn into an anthropological hope lost.

        Evangelicals have no ecclesiology. The myopia is personally atomized and temporally isolated; a grand arc is nearly impossible to see. No wonder all associated eschatologies must be escapist in their zeitgeists.

        No wonder a world of a few thousand years–and not billions–can be embraced. No wonder descent with modification cannot be grokked.

        Watch centuries’ overgrowth of now-dried tares burn.

  • NathanShields says:

    The bulk of the teaching I’ve received in Sunday School, Church, Private Christian School, pretty much comes out of keeping people at a Level 2-3. Maybe that is why I was told to quiet down. #noElderBoardInMyFuture

    • Gary says:

      Any level 4 conversation needs to be taking “offline” or done “over coffee.” Structurally nearly all of Western Christianity is designed to reinforce this experience. Sunday school curriculum, the inspirational and pedagogical design of the (non-) liturgy, governance structures, the archetypal contours of good testimonies, etc. Everything is designed to bring level 1 to 2, 2 to 3 and to hold there in a state of dysfunctional tension–offering dosages of cause and cure in subconsciously balanced meting to achieve the stasis. You were told to quiet down because it’s a threat to the system. You’re already “saved.”

      I’d suggest that why many are casting off Christianity in these decades is because this doesn’t robustly satisfy the human soul nor does it make the world right.

  • NathanShields says:

    The bulk of the teaching I’ve received in Sunday School, Church, Private Christian School, pretty much comes out of keeping people at a Level 2-3. Maybe that is why I was told to quiet down. #noElderBoardInMyFuture

    • Gary says:

      Any level 4 conversation needs to be taken “offline” or done “over coffee.” Structurally nearly all of Western Christianity is designed to reinforce this experience. Sunday school curriculum, the inspirational and pedagogical design of the (non-) liturgy, governance structures, the archetypal contours of good testimonies, etc. Everything is designed to bring level 1 to 2, 2 to 3 and to hold there in a state of dysfunctional tension–offering dosages of cause and cure in subconsciously balanced meting to achieve the stasis. You were told to quiet down because it’s a threat to the system. You’re already “saved.”

      I’d suggest that why many are casting off Christianity in these decades is because this doesn’t robustly satisfy the human soul nor does it make the world right.

  • This would suggest compassion for those who “stand their ground” and tolerate no ambiguity. It also suggests something about the merits of having protracted arguments with such people.

    • charlesburchfield says:

      yeah! the merits of protracted arguments with such, oy! but say more about where one’s head is at when one becomes obsessional about debating such. please! *=}:D

  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    This would suggest compassion for those who “stand their ground” and tolerate no ambiguity. It also suggests something about the merits of having protracted arguments with such people.

  • I’m not sure if Fowler’s stages of religion can really be applied to Christianity or most faiths. It works for certain forms of Buddhism I suppose. It almost seems like his stages of faith are from the perspective of an outsider looking in.
    Take people of the pre-Christian era. In the Greco-Roman world they didn’t go through these stages. Besides some schools of philosophy that came and went the vast majority of people would have been on stage 2. But at the same time the Jews were worshipping God who was not anthropomorphic, which I assume would have put them on a higher stage.
    I guess there is some correspondence to Fowler’s stages and the history of Church doctrine. For in the first few centuries the focus seemed to be on the doctrines of the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union. During the Protestant Reformation more attention was paid to Soteriology. And it seems that for the past couple of centuries a lot of the focus has been on Eschatology.
    In any case it seems that Fowler’s stages of faith development really just represents different forms of religion, all of which are currently practiced today. So an attempt to say one is better than or more advanced than the other seems arbitrary. It seems like you and I would go with whichever one best embodies our understanding of whatever we think true religion is.

  • I’m not sure if Fowler’s stages of religion can really be applied to Christianity or most faiths. It works for certain forms of Buddhism I suppose. It almost seems like his stages of faith are from the perspective of an outsider looking in.
    Take people of the pre-Christian era. In the Greco-Roman world they didn’t go through these stages. Besides some schools of philosophy that came and went the vast majority of people would have been on stage 2. But at the same time the Jews were worshipping God who was not anthropomorphic, which I assume would have put them on a higher stage.
    I guess there is some correspondence to Fowler’s stages and the history of Church doctrine. For in the first few centuries the focus seemed to be on the doctrines of the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union. During the Protestant Reformation more attention was paid to Soteriology. And it seems that for the past couple of centuries a lot of the focus has been on Eschatology.
    In any case it seems that Fowler’s stages of faith development really just represents different forms of religion, all of which are currently practiced today. So an attempt to say one is better than or more advanced than the other seems arbitrary. It seems like you and I would go with whichever one best embodies our understanding of whatever we think true religion is.

  • Glenn says:

    Pete, I’m organizing a personal theological memoir, if just for my posterity. Your post provides an interesting vantage point from which to view my experiences. I think I’m at stage 5. Can anyone shed a little more light on the stage 6 description?

  • Glenn says:

    Pete, I’m organizing a personal theological memoir, if just for my posterity. Your post provides an interesting vantage point from which to view my experiences. I think I’m at stage 5. Can anyone shed a little more light on the stage 6 description?

  • Beth Taylor says:

    Interesting, and makes sense from many respects. I wonder, though, if one can have a Stage 6 attitude towards other people, as individuals created by and loved by God, and still have certainty on some aspects of the faith in Christ? Some of the core basic truths Jesus taught remain unchanged regardless of one’s spiritual progression. I don’t think that retaining belief in the deity of Christ and His atonement for our sin conflicts with a universalist understanding of people.

    • Gary says:

      I agree and I think one could have a very historically orthodox Christian faith and have a universalist understanding of other persons. Would have to discuss a whole lot concerning Trinitarianism, Christologies, anthropologies, and atonement theories why I think a universalist understanding of others is necessitated (or described by?) an orthodox Christian faith.

  • Beth Taylor says:

    Interesting, and makes sense from many respects. I wonder, though, if one can have a Stage 6 attitude towards other people, as individuals created by and loved by God, and still have certainty on some aspects of the faith in Christ? Some of the core basic truths Jesus taught remain unchanged regardless of one’s spiritual progression. I don’t think that retaining belief in the deity of Christ and His atonement for our sin conflicts with a universalist understanding of people.

    • Gary says:

      I agree and I think one could have a very historically orthodox Christian faith and have a universalist understanding of other persons. Would have to discuss a whole lot concerning Trinitarianism, Christologies, anthropologies, and atonement theories why I think a universalist understanding of others is necessitated (or described by?) an orthodox Christian faith.

  • Bev Mitchell says:

    You’re on to something here Pete, and it does give lots of food for thought. This note is just to highlight the fact that there is at least one established group out there who have some years invested in working out what this all means for a 21st century way of doing church. A key element in all of it seems to be centered set vs. bounded set. Or, to use a phrase made much of at high levels last week, bridge builders vs. wall builders.

    To expand a bit, there is a fairly well established group of churches that have been using and exploring Fowler’s insights for quite some time. I know of them only from reading, and first heard of them by reading David Schmelzer’s little book “Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist” – which I recommend highly BTW.

    The churches mentioned above refer to themselves as Blue Ocean Churches, and they can easily be found via any search engine. If you search “Blue Ocean Faith” you will get one angle focusing primarily on Christian faith and how to do church with this approach. If you search “Blue Ocean Strategy” you will get a much broader application, presumably based on Fowler’s insights as well, though I haven’t checked this out.

    Since reading Schmelzer’s book a number of years ago, and then checking a bit into what Blue Ocean Churches have to say on the Internet, I have watched fairly carefully for reactions to them from more conventional Christian quarters. It’s sort of like trying to find a broader view of what’s happening in the world by following Main Stream Media. Not much.

  • Bev Mitchell says:

    You’re on to something here Pete, and it does give lots of food for thought. This note is just to highlight the fact that there is at least one established group out there who have some years invested in working out what this all means for a 21st century way of doing church. A key element in all of it seems to be centered set vs. bounded set. Or, to use a phrase made much of at high levels last week, bridge builders vs. wall builders.

    To expand a bit, there is a fairly well established group of churches that have been using and exploring Fowler’s insights for quite some time. I know of them only from reading, and first heard of them by reading David Schmelzer’s little book “Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist” – which I recommend highly BTW.

    The churches mentioned above refer to themselves as Blue Ocean Churches, and they can easily be found via any search engine. If you search “Blue Ocean Faith” you will get one angle focusing primarily on Christian faith and how to do church with this approach. If you search “Blue Ocean Strategy” you will get a much broader application, presumably based on Fowler’s insights as well, though I haven’t checked this out.

    Since reading Schmelzer’s book a number of years ago, and then checking a bit into what Blue Ocean Churches have to say on the Internet, I have watched fairly carefully for reactions to them from more conventional Christian quarters. It’s sort of like trying to find a broader view of what’s happening in the world by following Main Stream Media. Not much.

  • charlesburchfield says:

    this has been very helpful to me! I can’t help but compare it to step 4 in the 12 step program: this list is the kind of inventory I need to do right now. I am very happy to be in my sixties and trying the inclusive way of loving all people in the universal category. there is a line by Dar Williams: ‘the only word for love is everybody’s name.’ *]8•D

  • this has been very helpful to me! I can’t help but compare it to step 4 in the 12 step program: this list is the kind of inventory I need to do right now. I am very happy to be in my sixties and trying the inclusive way of loving all people in the universal category. there is a line by Dar Williams: ‘the only word for love is everybody’s name.’ *\]8•D

  • David Michael says:

    Excellent article. I shared it ‘Publicly’ and not just to my friends list. I hope it takes legs. I wonder if we adjust our presentation of the Gospel to include elements of each stage, it might honor everyone where they are in the process. Like Maslows’ Hierarchy, we have to meet a diversity of needs. I see a correlation to Political views, it would be great if we could somehow, operate with less polarization.

  • David Michael says:

    Excellent article. I shared it ‘Publicly’ and not just to my friends list. I hope it takes legs. I wonder if we adjust our presentation of the Gospel to include elements of each stage, it might honor everyone where they are in the process. Like Maslows’ Hierarchy, we have to meet a diversity of needs. I see a correlation to Political views, it would be great if we could somehow, operate with less polarization.

  • I’ve been confronted with Fowler before, and it always annoys me. There’s a crazy-making sense of arrogance around a system’s stages of development where the stages inevitably lead to a final state that describes the thinking of the system’s developer. Ultimately, it reminds me of a way of Christian thinking, that sees the pattern of world religion in terms of stages of development leading to faith in Christ Jesus. I have no problem with anyone thinking that their way of thinking is best, but I get annoyed if they describe my way of thinking as a stepping stone.

    Ultimately, Fowler’s system depends on faith in universalism as the ultimate religious good, which is itself a kind of Christian faith.

    Imagine instead a so-called highest state of development that placed value on particular and individual religious faith, that found truth in something like a Jewish “this, and this” instead of a Christian pronouncement of a single universal truth. You might say that this IS Fowler’s sixth stage, where diversity would be treated in an atmosphere of polite tolerance. I might counter that the fourth or fifth stage better describes where I find my highest value. I think that in conversation, we’d come to see value and problems in just about every stage you’ve described. But I think we’d also decide to shatter this hierarchy altogether, or at least to bifurcate these categories, with one set of stages describing our personal development and a second describing how we interact with the faith systems of others. Surely I can decide to be Stage 2 with my own religiosity, and Stage 6 with yours.

    Universalism is great in theory. In practice, it often amounts to a desire for unity based on the wish that everyone else become like us. This desire is perfectly expressed in a series of developmental stages, leading to that stage we think best describes us. There’s a way in which this entire process resembles Stage 2.

    I should apologize. I know that Fowler has great meaning to some. If for you Fowler means tolerance for ambiguity, then good for Fowler. How Stage 6 of me to say so! ;^)

    • Mike Nyman says:

      Though Fowler certainly focused most on Christianity, I believe he would have taken “faith” to mean any system we construct to help us make sense of the world. I see the Universal stage (and I’m not certain that I can truly understand this stage if I am not there, which I don’t believe I am) not akin to Universalism within Christianity, but as a direction in life that can fully take in the worth and value of all humanity.

      I do also struggle with the hierarchical aspect of this, but I don’t know if it’s avoidable. We aren’t afraid to see hierarchy in the normal maturity level of people from babies to teenagers to hopefully wise old folks.

    • Gary says:

      I understand these gripes and they resonate a lot with me. I would though say for me personally, Fowler’s “universalizing” doesn’t correspond directly to Christianity’s soteriologically-centered “universalism” and that for me, the hope of “universalizing” is much less about a desire for unity based upon others becoming like me or us and much more centered in me being able to enter into the native worlds of others.

      That said, I really like your suggesting that the whole process can be nested (perhaps even infinitely?) with stage 2 as the portal. There’s a fascinating paradox and I personally find layered, if not recursive, ambiguity much more attractive than either binary or linear ambiguity when pitted against the dimensionless spot of “certainty.”

      I find the best ambiguities to be multi-dimensional. Perhaps better than linear stages, we consider a fugue. To borrow a bit from Douglas Hofstadter, perhaps Fowler’s model ought be quined.

  • I’ve been confronted with Fowler before, and it always annoys me. There’s a crazy-making sense of arrogance around a system’s stages of development where the stages inevitably lead to a final state that describes the thinking of the system’s developer. Ultimately, it reminds me of a way of Christian thinking, that sees the pattern of world religion in terms of stages of development leading to faith in Christ Jesus. I have no problem with anyone thinking that their way of thinking is best, but I get annoyed if they describe my way of thinking as a stepping stone.

    Ultimately, Fowler’s system depends on faith in universalism as the ultimate religious good, which is itself a kind of Christian faith.

    Imagine instead a so-called highest state of development that placed value on particular and individual religious faith, that found truth in something like a Jewish “this, and this” instead of a Christian pronouncement of a single universal truth. You might say that this IS Fowler’s sixth stage, where diversity would be treated in an atmosphere of polite tolerance. I might counter that the fourth or fifth stage better describes where I find my highest value. I think that in conversation, we’d come to see value and problems in just about every stage you’ve described. But I think we’d also decide to shatter this hierarchy altogether, or at least to bifurcate these categories, with one set of stages describing our personal development and a second describing how we interact with the faith systems of others. Surely I can decide to be Stage 2 with my own religiosity, and Stage 6 with yours.

    Universalism is great in theory. In practice, it often amounts to a desire for unity based on the wish that everyone else become like us. This desire is perfectly expressed in a series of developmental stages, leading to that stage we think best describes us. There’s a way in which this entire process resembles Stage 2.

    I should apologize. I know that Fowler has great meaning to some. If for you Fowler means tolerance for ambiguity, then good for Fowler. How Stage 6 of me to say so! ;^)

    • Mike Nyman says:

      Though Fowler certainly focused most on Christianity, I believe he would have taken “faith” to mean any system we construct to help us make sense of the world. I see the Universal stage (and I’m not certain that I can truly understand this stage if I am not there, which I don’t believe I am) not akin to Universalism within Christianity, but as a direction in life that can fully take in the worth and value of all humanity.

      I do also struggle with the hierarchical aspect of this, but I don’t know if it’s avoidable. We aren’t afraid to see hierarchy in the normal maturity level of people from babies to teenagers to hopefully wise old folks.

  • Camo Star says:

    ‘“Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle.’ I thought you said the stages of faith don’t necessarily correspond to the psychological stages? Haha

  • Camo Star says:

    ‘“Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle.’ I thought you said the stages of faith don’t necessarily correspond to the psychological stages? Haha

  • toddh says:

    I wonder if the diversity of scripture itself reflects some of these categories?

  • Kim Watson says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this. I’ve been working on my MA dissertation on mid-life spirituality, using Fowler, and also Hagberg/Guelich, Gerald O’Collins, Murray Stein, Brewi/Brennan, Richard Rohr, and a bunch of Jungians, all of whom see this kind of relationship with God as the natural result of a middle passage where one lets go of the ego and all it’s craving of certainty and control. Taking a good look at the state of your soul, your secrets and your control-freakness is part of the process. I can’t see your bibliography on Amazon, but I’m wondering if there is any way to see the book sooner than April or who else’s work has been significant in your thinking.

    • Gary says:

      In your research, how statistically common is “mid-life spirituality”in Christianity? Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism each have built-in archetypal developmental journeys. In Christianity, such seems much more exceptional to its idealized paths of spiritual transformation. And Christianity seems dysfunctionally split–both in the separation between somebody else (Christ) and the self and also between past (already “saved”) and future (typically imagined nowadays as “going to Heaven.”)

      Christian spirituality, especially with common hermeneutics, seems to be much more reliant on outside-in pivoting theophanies, anglophones, and Christophanies to affect its change.

      I know a lot of Christians–family, friends, and clergy–and the notion of “mid-life spirituality” or anything Jungian would be alien to them. In your research, do you have access to information on an social research on how common it is for a Christian (by geography, denomination, etc.) to actually go on a mid-life journey in mid-life, to actually through a phased-style path of transformation?

      Personally I’m more aware of such in only idealized, literary form, not anecdotally through witnessing others’ lives. If you have access to social research, I’d be interested in what you’ve found.

      • Kim Watson says:

        I haven’t come across any scientific social research on mid-life spirituality, and even Fowler says he does a lot of synthesising of other’s research. I also know a lot of Christians, and lot of them are in midlife, and when I share what I am learning from the Catholic, Jungian and, some Protestant writers, about 80% of them immediately resonate. Authors that are really influencing me are Janice Brewi and Anne Brennan, Gerald O’Collins, Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich, Benedict Groeschel, James Hollis, Murray Stein, and of course Richard Rohr. Bill Plotkin brings in nature so beautifully, but he spirals farther out of an easy way to synthesise with Christian thought, not that bothers me that much in my life at 56, but I do go to an evangelical seminary. I keep coming across more names but have to stop and finish my dissertation. Plenty of Christian mystics and desert fathers including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the Celts have things to say that apply to midlife in that you simply can’t grow a soul into this union with God when you are in the early parts of life. The general literature on soul development and spiritual direction totally applies including David Benner, Merton, Nouwen, and contemporary bloggers like Kathy Escobar, Rachel Held Evans…

        • Gary says:

          I’ve read some of those, especially the more historic. My awkwardness in this is somewhat significantly in being a heretic. The Christians in my life aren’t so much into this kind of spirituality.

          • Kim Watson says:

            I felt that so much when I started this journey, but its gotten better with new adventures and friendships. I now focus on those people who, when I talk about what I’m learning, lean toward me with their eyes lit up. Richard Rohr says we’ll have to let some relationships go in the process of growing up into our true self. I’m noticing that some of those people, who still want me to give a verse by verse Bible study of the “truth,” are coming back to me when overwhelmed with the pain of life. I’m lucky my husband is stumbling along with me because I haven’t been always easy to live with as become more comfortable with paradox. “I don’t need to push the river as much now, or own the river, or get everybody in my precise river; nor do others have to name the river the same way I do in order for me to trust their goodwill. It takes a lot of drowning in your own too tiny river to get to this big and good place.” Falling Upward, p. 155

          • Pete E. says:

            Well put, Kim. You asked me in an earlier comment who my influences have been. I mention them in my book, though my process has been anything but academic/research–more grabbing for lifelines. Here are the books that kick-started it all for me around 2008:
            Gerald G. May, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth
            Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation
            Richard Rohr (Adam’s Return and The Naked Now),
            Thomas Merton (Thoughts in Solitude; also James Martin’s introduction to Merton and others, Becoming Who You Are),
            Henri Nouwen (The Inner Voice of Love), Gregory Mayers (Listen to the Desert),
            Rowan Williams (Tokens of Trust),
            J. Keith Miller (Compelled to Control)
            David Benner (Spirituality and the Awakening Self).
            Frederica Matthews-Green (The Jesus Prayer and At the Corner of East and Now) for gentle and compelling introductions to Eastern Orthodoxy, a direction to which I never once nodded throughout my entire seminary career
            James Fowler’s (Stages of Faith).

            I’d also add:
            Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust
            Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light
            M. Holmes Hartshorne (The Faith to Doubt)
            Daniel Taylor (The Myth of Certainty and The Skeptical Believer).
            Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust
            Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

          • Kim Watson says:

            Thanks! There are some familiar and new names in there. Let’s just hope I can come up with enough credible sources to get my dissertation passed stating my case that a mid-life, mid-faith, adjustment is to be welcomed (and painful) if we want to become people of uncertainty. I look forward to reading your book. I really enjoyed For the Bible… and your blog and other social media postings. If you ever get to London on book tour…or we’ll back in SF in 2017…where I think you’ve spoken at the church we helped to plant and look forward to returning to, City Church…would love to meet.

          • Gary says:

            On that list, I’ve read Keating, Rohr, Merton, Nouwen, Williams, Mathewes-Green, Fowler, and Manning. Some other related ones too. I read these authors *after* I lost faith. While they didn’t help me really believe anything, I did believe that I found better forms of Christianity. But… quite literary only–not really real in terms of either internal belief or external interaction with Christians.

            The Christians in my midst aren’t really into this sort of thing.

            I no longer really need to push the river or own the river or anything like that. It is more that after years, the depression of disillusionment with Christianity has caught up.

            After two thousand years, this is where we are.

            These influences have as much influenced my lament as anything else.

          • charlesburchfield says:

            I would also recommend ‘way of the wound’, by Robert grant, ‘man’s search for meaning’ by Viktor Frankl & ‘trauma and recovery’ by Judith Herman.

  • Dick Silk says:

    I’ve often been struck by how many people have how many different views of how many different ways “things” can be categorized. I’ve always sought a single point of clarity (for any given premise or “ideal”) that represents the “highest” or “greatest” truth possible, then judging all issues that fall beneath that category by whatever principle found to govern it. For example, the first of the 10 Commandments rules out all forms of idolatry. “No other gods before Me” also includes Jesus, which places Him in the category of “Divinely Inspired” but still a human being. Jesus summarized all 10 into only two: love God, and love your neighbors, which summarizes simply as one command: “Love” — then applied this to “love thine enemy” which sets the highest standard by which everything else may be compared. There is no ambiguity in Christ, but I can certainly point out a boat-load in Christianity as a whole.

  • Dick Silk says:

    I’ve often been struck by how many people have how many different views of how many different ways “things” can be categorized. I’ve always sought a single point of clarity (for any given premise or “ideal”) that represents the “highest” or “greatest” truth possible, then judging all issues that fall beneath that category by whatever principle found to govern it. For example, the first of the 10 Commandments rules out all forms of idolatry. “No other gods before Me” also includes Jesus, which places Him in the category of “Divinely Inspired” but still a human being. Jesus summarized all 10 into only two: love God, and love your neighbors, which summarizes simply as one command: “Love” — then applied this to “love thine enemy” which sets the highest standard by which everything else may be compared. There is no ambiguity in Christ, but I can certainly point out a boat-load in Christianity as a whole.

  • Ross says:

    I’m fairly sure human temperament has a lot to do with how we engage with our “faith”. There are many with a fairly “black and white” view and then those who see things much more complexly. The groupings above seem to have some similarities with Piaget’s theories on cognitive development and also the hierarchy of Maslow. I think though that there is also a fair amount of speculation in how it is thought through and presented.

    I feel that the development of our psyche is fairly complex and not particularly reducible, but a considerable amount is environmental.

    A lot of my own faith journey relates to breaking away from the environment I have grown up in and continues in a sort of rebellion against the “common ground”. I can see this in many instances in the bible as part of “the way”.

    I wonder to what extent the bible is so varied in the narratives which it tells, that anyone can identify to it regardless of their temperament so that it can reinforce almost any sort of “faith approach” or position.

    I am constantly amazed that people can read the bible and have certain views on what “being a Christian” means, E.g how can you possibly be a conservative and claim to know Jesus!! Yet maybe the scriptures are so complex, they actually end up being blank and you can paint any picture with them.

    • Gary says:

      Love that last sentence. Both Scriptures and concepts of God seem to be kinds of Rorschach inkblot tests. If you want to see what a Christian thinks about X, ask them what they think the Bible says about X; you’ll get a clearer answer.

  • Ross says:

    I’m fairly sure human temperament has a lot to do with how we engage with our “faith”. There are many with a fairly “black and white” view and then those who see things much more complexly. The groupings above seem to have some similarities with Piaget’s theories on cognitive development and also the hierarchy of Maslow. I think though that there is also a fair amount of speculation in how it is thought through and presented.

    I feel that the development of our psyche is fairly complex and not particularly reducible, but a considerable amount is environmental.

    A lot of my own faith journey relates to breaking away from the environment I have grown up in and continues in a sort of rebellion against the “common ground”. I can see this in many instances in the bible as part of “the way”.

    I wonder to what extent the bible is so varied in the narratives which it tells, that anyone can identify to it regardless of their temperament so that it can reinforce almost any sort of “faith approach” or position.

    I am constantly amazed that people can read the bible and have certain views on what “being a Christian” means, E.g how can you possibly be a conservative and claim to know Jesus!! Yet maybe the scriptures are so complex, they actually end up being blank and you can paint any picture with them.

    • Gary says:

      Love that last sentence. Both Scriptures and concepts of God seem to be kinds of Rorschach inkblot tests. If you want to see what a Christian thinks about X, ask them what they think the Bible says about X; you’ll get a clearer answer.

  • hoosier_bob says:

    This corresponds well to Rohr’s two halves of life.

    This is very encouraging to read. I’ve been in Stage 5 for a while. With Rohr’s help, I’m moving to Stage 6. I feel like I should have made this lead years ago, but perhaps I’m on schedule.

  • hoosier_bob says:

    This corresponds well to Rohr’s two halves of life.

    This is very encouraging to read. I’ve been in Stage 5 for a while. With Rohr’s help, I’m moving to Stage 6. I feel like I should have made this lead years ago, but perhaps I’m on schedule.

  • Dick Silk says:

    Life is never ambiguous. Grammar, on the other hand, frequently is. I can’t think of any religious ambiguities off the top of my head.

  • Dick Silk says:

    Life is never ambiguous. Grammar, on the other hand, frequently is. I can’t think of any religious ambiguities off the top of my head.

  • Scott Coulter says:

    What about this way of looking at it? —
    As people have different temperaments, some will be more comfortable ambiguity (or more intolerant of ambiguity) than others. (Or so it seems to me).
    Rather than our rushing to declare which temperament is more “mature” or more “spiritual” or more “Christian”, it seems to me that an application of “love one another” (perhaps especially within the church) would be to recognize that different people are “in different places” (so to speak), but again, this shouldn’t imply that there is one best place in which to be on a spectrum of ambiguity–non-ambiguity. And out of this recognition, to imitate Christ by loving people “where they’re at”.
    So, I would welcome some practical advice from people who possess more years of experience than I: how can we learn (especially within the context of a Christian faith community) to love one another, when some of us embrace ambiguity in our personal faith, and others need more clarity/definiteness/non-ambiguity in their faith?

    • Gary says:

      Honestly, I’ve personally not yet come up with anything much better than grin-and-nod for most Christian faith communities and specifically those needing “more clarity/definiteness/non-ambiguity in their faith.” If you grid, nod, and put money in the offering plate everyone will be happy. Trump might become the US President and receive the designations once stripped of Caesar and given to a beaten man from Galilee, but those who need the appearance of strength, certainty, and victory may indeed get it like never before in my culture, in my lifetime.

    • hoosier_bob says:

      Scott,

      There probably is a temperament issue at play. After all, some people are going to be more comfortable with ambiguity than others. But I don’t see where that undermines the association of this progression with maturity. The world is complex, whether people want to admit that or not. Staying at Stage 3 is not a sign of piety, but a denial of reality.

  • Scott Coulter says:

    What about this way of looking at it? —
    As people have different temperaments, some will be more comfortable ambiguity (or more intolerant of ambiguity) than others. (Or so it seems to me).
    Rather than our rushing to declare which temperament is more “mature” or more “spiritual” or more “Christian”, it seems to me that an application of “love one another” (perhaps especially within the church) would be to recognize that different people are “in different places” (so to speak), but again, this shouldn’t imply that there is one best place in which to be on a spectrum of ambiguity–non-ambiguity. And out of this recognition, to imitate Christ by loving people “where they’re at”.
    So, I would welcome some practical advice from people who possess more years of experience than I: how can we learn (especially within the context of a Christian faith community) to love one another, when some of us embrace ambiguity in our personal faith, and others need more clarity/definiteness/non-ambiguity in their faith?

    • Gary says:

      Honestly, I’ve personally not yet come up with anything much better than grin-and-nod for most Christian faith communities and specifically those needing “more clarity/definiteness/non-ambiguity in their faith.” If you grid, nod, and put money in the offering plate everyone will be happy. Trump might become the US President and receive the designations once stripped of Caesar and given to a beaten man from Galilee, but those who need the appearance of strength, certainty, and victory may indeed get it like never before in my culture, in my lifetime.

    • hoosier_bob says:

      Scott,

      There probably is a temperament issue at play. After all, some people are going to be more comfortable with ambiguity than others. But I don’t see where that undermines the association of this progression with maturity. The world is complex, whether people want to admit that or not. Staying at Stage 3 is not a sign of piety, but a denial of reality.

  • Luke Lindon says:

    Wow Pete! Thanks for posting. I’m so happy to learn I’m an enlightened stage 6. The rest of you morons need to hurry up and learn from my knowledge and read the bible exactly as I do or God won’t love you and let you into heaven like He will me. I’m certain of it.

    This is sarcasm BTW… maybe…

  • Luke Lindon says:

    Wow Pete! Thanks for posting. I’m so happy to learn I’m an enlightened stage 6. The rest of you morons need to hurry up and learn from my knowledge and read the bible exactly as I do or God won’t love you and let you into heaven like He will me. I’m certain of it.

    This is sarcasm BTW… maybe…

  • Derek says:

    “…avoidance or suppression of potential challenges to theological clarity and certainty..” I too have witnessed this on numerous occasions. Such behavior must be a mark of immaturity (among other things). I think an individual who is genuinely convicted of their view will meet and greet challenges with open arms. As for those who avoid and suppress, well, it makes me wonder if their main motivation for believing is rooted in fear (and I don’t mean of the Lord).

  • Derek says:

    “…avoidance or suppression of potential challenges to theological clarity and certainty..” I too have witnessed this on numerous occasions. Such behavior must be a mark of immaturity (among other things). I think an individual who is genuinely convicted of their view will meet and greet challenges with open arms. As for those who avoid and suppress, well, it makes me wonder if their main motivation for believing is rooted in fear (and I don’t mean of the Lord).

  • Dre'as Sanchez says:

    Pete;
    So on point. I think the ideology of supporting our country (over others{God bless America only}) and the big one; sports {My team is better then your team}– gives rise to this “courage” stand that religion seems to make one feel they need to stand up for. Not saying supporting our country or sports are bad…i just think its liken to the “Cocktail” idea that Karen Armstrong presents…..nothing is wrong with religion until it gets this “cocktail” from power and greed……..
    do you see the connection?

  • Dre'as Sanchez says:

    Pete;
    So on point. I think the ideology of supporting our country (over others{God bless America only}) and the big one; sports {My team is better then your team}– gives rise to this “courage” stand that religion seems to make one feel they need to stand up for. Not saying supporting our country or sports are bad…i just think its liken to the “Cocktail” idea that Karen Armstrong presents…..nothing is wrong with religion until it gets this “cocktail” from power and greed……..
    do you see the connection?

  • David says:

    I really needed this today. Was in a discussion with some people last night that went nowhere because they are firmly planted in Stages 2 and 3. I firmly believe it is these stages ( 2 and 3) that the enterprising church want to keep the masses.

  • David says:

    I really needed this today. Was in a discussion with some people last night that went nowhere because they are firmly planted in Stages 2 and 3. I firmly believe it is these stages ( 2 and 3) that the enterprising church want to keep the masses.

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