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Fully Human: James Fowler's Stages of Faith

Dr. James W. Fowler III is Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, and was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He is a minister in the United Methodist Church, and is best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he sought to develop the idea of a developmental process in faith.

"Faith may be characterized as an integral, centering process underlying the formation of beliefs, values and meanings that (1) gives coherence and direction to persons' lives, (2) links them in shared trusts and loyalties with others, (3) grounds their personal stances and communal loyalties in the sense of relatedness to a larger frame of reference, and (4) enables them to face and deal with the limit conditions of human life, relying upon that which has the quality of ultimacy in their lives.... The stages aim to describe patterned operations of knowing and valuing that underlie our consciousness." – James Fowler

Here is a synopsis of Fowler's stages of faith, in his own words:

• Primal Faith (stage 0): "If we start with infancy-the time from birth to two years-we have what we call undifferentiated faith. It's a time before language and conceptual thought are possible. The infant is forming a basic sense of trust, of being at home in the world. The infant is also forming what I call pre-images of God or the Holy, and of the kind of world we live in. On this foundation of basic trust or mistrust is built all that comes later in terms of faith. Future religious experience will either have to confirm or reground that basic trust."

• Intuitive-Projective Faith: "The first stage we call intuitive/projective faith. It characterizes the child of two to six or seven. It's a changing and growing and dynamic faith. It's marked by the rise of imagination. The child doesn't have the kind of logic that makes possible or necessary the questioning of perceptions or fantasies. Therefore the child's mind is "religiously pregnant," one might say. It is striking how many times in our interviews we find that experiences and images that occur and take form before the child is six have powerful and long-lasting effects on the life of faith both positive and negative."

• Mythic-Literal Faith: "The second stage we call mythic/literal faith. Here the child develops a way of dealing with the world and making meaning that now criticizes and evaluates the previous stage of imagination and fantasy. The gift of this stage is narrative. The child now can really form and re-tell powerful stories that grasp his or her experiences of meaning. There is a quality of literalness about this. The child is not yet ready to step outside the stories and reflect upon their meanings. The child takes symbols and myths at pretty much face value, though they may touch or move him or her at a deeper level."

• Synthetic-Conventional Faith: "There is a third stage we call synthetic/conventional faith which typically has its rise beginning around age 12 or 13. It's marked by the beginning of what Piaget calls formal operational thinking. That simply means that we now can think about our own thinking. It's a time when a person is typically concerned about forming an identity, and is deeply concerned about the evaluations and feedback from significant other people in his or her life. We call this a synthetic/conventional stage; synthetic, not in the sense that it's artificial, but in the sense that it's a pulling together of one's valued images and values, the pulling together of a sense of self or identity.

One of the hallmarks of this stage is that it tends to compose its images of God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Friend, Companion, and Personal Reality, in relationship to which I'm known deeply and valued. I think the true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply, and can be a kind of guarantor of my identity and worth in a world where I'm struggling to find who I can be.

At any of the stages from two on you can find adults who are best described by these stages. Stage Three, thus, can be an adult stage. We do find many persons, in churches and out, who are best described by faith that essentially took form when they were adolescents."

• Individuative-Reflective Faith: "Stage Four, for those who develop it, is a time in which the person is pushed out of, or steps out of, the circle of interpersonal relationships that have sustained his life to that point. Now comes the burden of reflecting upon the self as separate from the groups and the shared world that defines one's life. I sometimes quote Santayana who said that we don't know who discovered water but we know it wasn't fish. The person in Stage Three is like the fish sustained by the water. To enter Stage Four means to spring out of the fish tank and to begin to reflect upon the water. Many people don't complete this transition, but get caught between three and four. The transition to Stage Four can begin as early as 17, but it's usually not completed until the mid-20s, and often doesn't even begin until around 20. It comes most naturally in young adulthood. Some people, however, don't make the transition until their late 30s. It becomes a more traumatic thing then, because they have already built an adult life. Their relationships have to be reworked in light of the stage change.

Stage Four is concerned about boundaries: where I stop and you begin; where the group that I can belong to with conviction and authenticity ends and other groups begin. It's very much concerned about authenticity and a fit between the self I feel myself to be in a group and the ideological commitments that I'm attached to."

• Conjunctive Faith: "Sometime around 35 or 40 or beyond some people undergo a change to what we call conjunctive faith, which is a kind of midlife way of being in faith. What Stage Four works so hard to get clear and clean in terms of boundaries and identity, Stage Five makes more permeable and more porous. As one moves into Stage Five one begins to recognize that the conscious self is not all there is of me. I have an unconscious. Much of my behavior and response to things is shaped by dimensions of self that I'm not fully aware of. There is a deepened readiness for a relationship to God that includes God's mystery and unavailability and strangeness as well as God's closeness and clarity.

Stage Five is a time when a person is also ready to look deeply into the social unconscious—those myths and taboos and standards that we took in with our mother's milk and that powerfully shape our behavior and responses. We really do examine those, which means we're ready for a new kind of intimacy with persons and groups that are different from ourselves. We are ready for allegiances beyond our tribal gods and our tribal taboos. Stage Five is a period when one is alive to paradox. One understands that truth has many dimensions which have to be held together in paradoxical tension."

• Universalizing Faith: "Some few persons we find move into Stage Six, which we call universalizing faith. In a sense I think we can describe this stage as one in which persons begin radically to live as though what Christians and Jews call the "kingdom of God" were already a fact. I don't want to confine it to Christian and Jewish images of the kingdom. It's more than that. I'm saying these people experience a shift from the self as the center of experience. Now their center becomes a participation in God or ultimate reality. There's a reversal of figure and ground. They're at home with what I call a commonwealth of being. We experience these people on the one hand as being more lucid and simple than we are, and on the other hand as intensely liberating people, sometimes even subversive in their liberating qualities. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the last years of his life. I think of Thomas Merton. I think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I think of Dag Hammerskjold and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the last years of his imprisonment. These are persons who in a sense have negated the self for the sake of affirming God. And yet in affirming God they became vibrant and powerful selves in our experience. They have a quality of what I call relevant irrelevance. Their `subversiveness' makes our compromises show up as what they are."

For more about James Fowler's work, be sure to check out Stairways to Heaven: Honoring Dr. James Fowler—an extraordinary hour-and-forty-five minute audio presentation of Dr. Fowler's body of work presented by Rollie Stanich, with additional commentary by Ken Wilber.

These stages of faith map quite well against the many other models of human development suggested by the great developmental psychologists of the world, including Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Abraham Maslow, Clare Graves, Jean Gebser, etc. Each of these models focus upon a particular aspect of intelligence or psychological growth (e.g. cognition, values, drives, emotional and psychosexual development, etc.) and unfold in a strictly sequential fashion—meaning that while an individual can be "higher" in some developmental lines and "lower" in others, he or she needs to progress through one stage before moving on to the next. In other words, there is no skipping of developmental stages—you cannot, for example, move from Fowler's stage 2 (Mythic-Literal Faith) to stage 6 (Universalizing faith) without first developing through the three major stages that lie between them—a process that can often take adults years, if not decades, to accomplish.
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Taken together, these psychological models offer a comprehensive map of human growth and development in all its multifarious dimensions. Each successive stage of consciousness adds more complexity and more understanding of the world around us, as well as more capacity for love, compassion, and connection. By ascending the spire of psychological development to higher and higher altitudes of consciousness, humanity becomes increasingly more human with each and every step.

Fully Divine: Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was an Anglican writer known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, drawing upon hundreds of different sources to formulate her own version of a universal scheme of spiritual experience. Her groundbreaking book Mysticism (a term defined by Underhill as "the direct intuition or experience of God") is still held as a classic treatise exploring the individual's journey to God, second only to Aldous Huxley's 1946 classic The Perennial Philosophy in terms of its impact and influence upon early 20th-century thinkers. Underhill characterizes the spiritual path as unfolding through five broad states of consciousness—awakening, purgation/purificationilluminationdark night, andunification:

• Awakening: One begins to have some consciousness of absolute or divine reality for the first time and the spiritual identity begins to emerge. This experience is often abrupt and fairly dramatic, and is typically preceded by a period of existential crisis or sense of longing.

"That which the Servitor saw had no form neither any manner of being; yet he had of it a joy such as he might have known in the seeing of shapes and substances of all joyful things. His heart was hungry, yet satisfied, his soul was full of contentment and joy: his prayers and his hopes were fulfilled." – Henry Suso (disciple of Meister Eckhart)

• Purgation: Conscious for the first time of the Divine reality and the immeasurable distance separating it from finite existence, one attempts to bridge the gap with focused discipline and practice—purifying the mortal self to prepare for the emergence of the spiritual Self.

"We must cast all things from us and strip ourselves of them and refrain from claiming anything for our own." - Theologia Germanica (14th-century mystical treatise, often attributed to Meister Eckhart)

• Illumination: Intimate knowledge of Reality, a certain apprehension of the Absolute—but not a true union with it; awareness of a transcendent order and a vision of a universe infused with the love of God.

"Everything in temporal nature is descended out that which is eternal, and stands as a palpable visible outbirth of it, so when we know how to separate out the grossness, death, and darkness of time from it, we find what it is it in its eternal state…. In Eternal Nature, or the Kingdom of Heaven, materiality stands in life and light; it is the light's glorious Body, or that garment wherewith light is clothed, and therefore has all the properties of light in it, and only differs from light as it is its brightness and beauty, as the holder and displayer of all its colours, powers, and virtues." – William Law (English cleric and theologian)

• Dark Night of the Soul: Borrowing the language of John of the Cross, this state is one of final and complete purification and is often marked by confusion, helplessness, stagnation of the will, and a sense of the withdrawal of God's presence. It is the period of final "unselfing" and the surrender to the hidden purposes of the divine will.

"Lord, since Thou hast taken from me all that I had of Thee, yet of Thy grace leave me the gift which every dog has by nature: that of being true to Thee in my distress, when I am deprived of all consolation. This I desire more fervently than Thy heavenly Kingdom." Mechthild of Magdeburg (medieval mystic and Cistercian nun)

• Unification: Nondual union with God, the timeless beloved, Absolute Reality—the spiritual Self has been permanently realized, and the finite self liberated for a new purpose. Filled with the Divine Will, it immerses itself in the world of appearances in order to incarnate the eternal within time, becoming the mediator between humanity and eternity.

"When love has carried us above all things into the Divine Dark, there we are transformed by the Eternal Word Who is the image of the Father; and as the air is penetrated by the sun, thus we receive in peace the Incomprehensible Light, enfolding us, and penetrating us." – John of Ruysbroeck (13th-century Flemish mystic)

"Further, these mystics see in the historic life of Christ an epitome—or if you will, an exhibition—of the essentials of all spiritual life. There they see dramatized not only the cosmic process of the Divine Wisdom, but also the inward experience of every soul on her way to union with that Absolute `to which the whole Creation moves.' This is why the expressions which they use to describe the evolution of the mystical consciousness from the birth of the divine in the spark of the soul to its final unification with the Absolute Life are so constantly chosen from the Drama of Faith. In this drama they see described under the veils the necessary adventures of the spirit. Its obscure and humble birth, its education in poverty, its temptation, mortification and solitude, its `illuminated life` of service and contemplation, the desolation of that `dark night of the soul` in which it seems abandoned by the Divine: the painful death of the self, its resurrection to the glorified existence of the Unitive Way, its final re-absorption in its Source – all these, they say, were lived once in a supreme degree in the flesh. Moreover, the degree of closeness with which the individual experience adheres to this Pattern is always taken by them as a standard of the healthiness, ardor, and success of its transcendental activities." -Evelyn Underhill

A remarkable synthesis of almost two thousand years of Christian mysticism, Underhill's classification of awakened spiritual states can be seen reflected in the esoteric teachings of almost all the world's religious traditions. There is an abundance of deep-rooted similarities found in the writings and teachings of history's most profoundly realized mystics, East and West. Though the texture, tone, symbolism, and general flavor of these spiritual states vary greatly from culture to culture, when these similarities are taken as a whole, they reveal a remarkable snapshot of the heavenly estate, describing spiritual realities that mirror the broad states of consciousness we experience every single day. Though we can certainly classify these states with much more granularity, we can group the wide variety of state experiences available to us into a minimum of four categories:

Purgation is largely concerned with the fleshy instincts and compulsions found ingross states of everyday waking consciousness.

Illumination reflects the inner light and visions found in subtle states of dreaming consciousness.

The Dark Night of the Soul is a complete collapse of the manifest world before the empty causal state of deep dreamless sleep.

Unification symbolizes the somewhat more elusive (but never eclipsed) nondual state, recognizing emptiness as form, form as emptiness, and the radical "not-two-ness" of all things.

Fully Human, Fully Divine: The Wilber-Combs Lattice

"The mystic cannot wholly do without symbol and image, inadequate to his vision though they must always be: for his experience must be expressed if it is to be communicated, and its actuality is inexpressible except in some hint or parallel which will stimulate the dormant intuition of the reader." – Evelyn Underhill

It is not enough to have direct and immediate experiences of spiritual realities, powerful and life-changing as they are, as these experiences must then be properly interpreted and internalized before it can be communicated to the rest of the world.

After all, what would Moses' fabled encounter with the burning bush have amounted to much if he had not returned from the mountaintop with the Ten Commandments, carving the Divine Will into stone, sculpting the interpretive foundation upon which thousands of years of Western history are built?

What good would St. Teresa of Avila's experiences of the "Interior Castle" have done for the world if she hadn't translated her trans-verbal visions into common language, unveiling the blueprints to the Heavenly Kingdom for all to see?

Would we even be having this discussion if Christ had left his revelations in the desert, lost forever to the scorched sands, without ever coming back to the world to become one of history's greatest exemplars of divine Love?

Our interior states need to be interpreted and communicated to the rest of the world, burning in our hearts and haunting our dreams until we somehow find a way to express them—and this process of expression and communication is almost entirely determined by one's vertical stage of consciousness.

These vertical stages of development act as containers of consciousness—unseen structures that pattern our knowledge and mold our interpretations of the world around and within us. Horizontal states, on the other hand, are the stuff of experience itself—gross physical and emotional experiences; subtle visions, inspirations, and revelations; causal glimpses of transcendence, clarity, and emptiness; nondual states of radical union, flow, and Atonement.

Although spiritual practice such as meditation or contemplative prayer typically work to transform temporary states into permanent traits by stabilizing gross, subtle, causal, and nondual states in succession, we do not experience these horizontal states in a rigidly sequential way like we do vertical stages of development. States are ever-present, meaning they are accessible to all people at all times—"peak experiences" that punctuate our personal narratives with moments of catharsis, epiphany, clarity, and unity. This is true regardless of our psychological and spiritual growth—a person can experience a subtle state of divine Illumination early in life at Fowler's stage 2 (Mythic-Literal), and then again decades later, after developing to stage 6 (Universalizing). Though the actual phenomenological state may be similar, theinterpretations of the experience would differ drastically from different altitudes of consciousness, with an immense chasm of meaning, context, and sense of personal duty separating the two experiences.

Even those who have realized permanent or semi-permanent nondual awareness—the integrative dissolution of self and other, form and emptiness, the temporal and the eternal—even these people need to continue their vertical growth. To be fully enlightened in today's world is to be both fully human and fully divine, which means developing vertically through all the developmental stages currently available to us,as well as mastering the many horizontal states. We need to continue inching toward that unreachable horizon of human development—or else we miss out on a substantial part of a world that remains "over our heads," limiting the amount of reality we can truly "become one" with. While states of consciousness teach us why we should love, stages of consciousness determine who, what, where, when, and how we love, increasing the heart's capacity for love with every step.

Of course, full enlightenment can never be attained, as Ken Wilber often points out, in much the same way that we could never say that we were "fully educated." We are again asked to love beyond our means, to open our hearts as wide as we possibly can, to the point of breaking forever. We are asked to simply love. And more often than not, we simply say no. And yet we are always loved, exactly as we are—broken, flawed, and perfect.

Only by taking a truly comprehensive approach to psychological and spiritual life can our love make any impact upon the growing complexity of the human condition. Knee-deep in the information age, we are watching every conflicting worldview, interpretation, and experience from every possible coordinate of the Wilber-Combs Lattice coming into contact for the very first time—completely different worlds, realities, and perspectives are all struggling to coexist upon the same planet. Friction and dissonance proliferate within the many developmental gaps, giving rise to just about every religious conflict we can think of: moral absolutism versus moral relativism; traditional religion versus esoteric spirituality; "New Atheism" and the modern battle cry against religion; perpetual culture wars between traditional, modern, and postmodern worldviews; unthinkable violence in the name of God; religious fundamentalism and persecution; terrorism and the desperation of suicide bombings, and so much more.

It requires this sort of comprehensive approach to appreciate the role religion has played as history's greatest source of suffering and liberation alike, and to help us to update our spiritual traditions so that they can offer a path beyond religious fundamentalism and ideological zealotry—carrying people vertically through magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral stages of consciousness, as well as horizontally through gross, subtle, causal, and nondual states, and onward into the limitless heart of human potential.

By understanding and embodying these two directions of human growth and spiritual revelation, our mortal and immortal hearts are able to truly become one, following the path Christ laid down for us two thousand years ago, and fulfilling our evolutionary heritage, billions of years in the making—fully human, fully divine, feeling the blissful union of two hearts beating as one.



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A good addition to this group, RaK.

Pauline xox

This idea fits extremely well with what was shown to near death experiencer Christian Andreason.

"The Man on the Throne


There was a moment during my experience where I saw myself approaching what looked to be a gigantic, magnificent man, sitting on a alabaster throne.  Thru a kind of veil that was partially covering him, I was able to detect that he had very stunning chiseled features.  In fact, he was so perfect looking, he almost looked statuesque.


The man was wearing what appeared to be a gleaming white robe and I saw that he had the most fantastic muscular body.  ...It was not large and gross, but truly beautiful and symmetrical.  The man's arm was resting on a flat smooth surface that was part of the throne, and when he would move his hand (even the slightest amount) a musical, sparkling rainbow colored essence would fall out and away from within his robe, eventually creating a pool of Light around his feet on the floor.


Initially, the thought that came into my mind that I was seeing God!  But then, as soon as I thought this, very quickly, it was revealed to me that this thought was only partially true.


It was immediately made known to me that the physical form I was observing was actually an astral version of "me" in Spirit form, as God saw me existing as already!


I heard inside my mind, "This is your Higher Self."  As I looked deeply into this beings eyes, I saw my own reflection and realized that the "inner voice" I had been hearing my whole life (as the voice of my own conscience) had actually been guidance coming for this personage−−who still resides in Heaven in a greater degree of wholeness and Light than I do here on Earth.  In fact, I realized that I had only taken a very small portion of my Higher Self's Light with me for my journey here this go round.  By doing this I would be encouraged to dig deeper and develop my faith and intuition; and secondly, I do not see how my human brain really could have tolerated too much more Light, as I believe now it would caused my body and mind to short circuit." (Christian Andreason, Chapter 2)


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