The Elements of Faith

I am going to try a new tack on the first five stages of faith by Fowler. I have known about Fowler’s stages of faith for over a decade now and for various reasons I have been unsatisfied with them as a model and yet have been drawn back to them as containing explanations of what I see happening around me. The two major problems I have are that I do not see faith development as the simple progression that is implied by his structure and I find the sixth stage too dependent on Liberal Christian hagiography.

Before I even start, the sense that I mean by faith here has almost nothing to do with salvation. Faith in this entries take is a human activity that most if not all humans partake in or at least most Western humans do. I am not defining what is correct to belief, I am rather describing those activities that create a person as a being of faith or at least a western person as a person of faith. There is space for the development of correct belief in the descriptions but that space could equally lead to false belief.

Equally too often in the past Christians have thought that what it is to belong to another faith is the same as what it is to belong to Christianity. There is a lot of room for different forms of faith, but I am no expert of different faiths, therefore my thinking and data which I have drawn on is at broadest a western perspective and at its narrowest a perspective from within a specific Christian Western tradition.

What I am going to suggest is that there are five elements of faith which are loosely characterised by Fowler’s stages 1 to 5 (I will leave the sixth for the present as I am not so sure about it). I have chosen elements rather than stages as I wish to make it clear that they are no successive, although I freely admit that it is possible for one element to be dominant at any stage of faith development. However, as I see it a fully developed faith would include parts of all five elements. However, it is not essential to develop all five equally or to keep a specific balance between them.

Moving onto the five elements:

  • The element I wish to draw from Fowler’s first stage (which he calls Intuitive-Projective faith), is what I call passive faith. This is perhaps the simplest. It is when the faith of others keep the faith for you. I think it is often derided and forgotten, treated as pre faith, but this simplest form of faith reminds us that at all times our faith is not ours alone but that shared with others. They hold us and we hold them. In this, I am picking up the projective part of his definition. That is the faith is projected onto us by the people around.
  • The second element I want to draw from the second stage (Mythic-Literal faith) is participatory faith. This is about performing the faith, when an individual starts to be involved in active listening and doing within the faith. It is this sort of faith that gets one to pray, read the bible, take communion, do acts of charity. This one concentrates on doing faith in a very active way. The evidence suggests that this is more basic and more important than is given credit. How one what one understands as happening when one performs will vary with age, faith stage and previous experience but the emphasis is on performing of the faith.
  • The third element that seems to predominate in Fowler’s Synthetic-Conventional faith, I call belonging faith as it stressed being part of a faith community. This really becomes about knowing what the group norms are and conforming to them. The norms can be both about the practice and about belief. Under this one also comes the developing of deeper relationships with other believers and participating in communal events. Perhaps to be understood as faith similar to that of a football team supporter.
  • The fourth element which I have drawn from Fowlers Individuative-Reflective faith is owned faith. I might well have called this is a questioning of faith, asking whether you agree with the communal norms. This is when it is no longer good enough to take other’s answers and you want to work out answers for yourself. However, as people inevitably do find answers for themselves by this process and by so doing come to ownership of faith I am referring to this as owned. It should be stressed that the process of developing an owned faith rather than just accepting what is taught often involves searching and asking awkward questions.
  • The fifth element drawn from Fowler’s Conjunctive faith stage is accepting faith; this is about learning to live with the unresolved. The struggle to understand and create a coherent faith, also in the end is doomed to failure. Things can never be that tidily sorted. There comes a stage where a person of faith needs to let go of the questions knowing they have pushed them as fully as they can and the answers that do exist are incomplete. Others may refer to this as learning to live with mystery. It is a coming to terms with the lack of answers, finding that despite not having everything tied down, that somehow faith continues and developing an ability to let go of the questions.

Now at any one stage, an individual’s faith will have different mixes of all five elements. However the lower number an element is the more basic it is. Yes, there are stories of people who have come to faith without contact with others, but I think our most find that something holds or draws them towards a faith, long before they actually make an active personal connection. Equally the second is often held to be the essence of any faith tradition. Please note at this point no intellectual assent is necessary. It is only with the third element that this starts to play a role. I suspect that for an active faith an adult needs some component of all of the first three.

Equally the final two elements are the harder ones to develop, I suspect that fifth is always a struggle and does not come easily to anyone. I am also suspicious that some people only ever have low requirements for these elements of faith. The conventional answers of their faith community, on the whole, satisfy them. For others, the very opposite happens and only when they are practising these elements do they find they can with integrity participate in the participatory and belonging elements of faith. I also suspect that some people with a tendency to approach things with their intelligence rather than emotions may find more need for owned faith than others. That is not to say people who approach things emotionally are without this struggle just that it plays a lesser role.

I also suspect that people who go through a conversion experience go through a process where different elements dominate at different stages of the process. I suspect that at the start people are developing the owned part of their faith, this leads them to question what they have received from their current community. They are then drawn to another community, passive faith if you like, as they start exploring it then participatory faith becomes dominant, finally as they make the commitment belonging faith dominates. I suspect this cycling happens to a lesser degree with those within faith traditions. Some will cycle many times, quite often moving in a consistent trajectory with each cycle, others will never need to make such big changes.

This cycling while distinctive of conversion experience but it is not the only way elements can change. For instance, I suspect that to the strengthening of owned faith leads to a weakening of belonging faith, although I suspect that for many belonging faith is important even when owned faith is quite strong. A growth in accepting faith may well produce a situation where the other four elements of faith can flourish as well.

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4 thoughts on “The Elements of Faith”

  1. I have come to this blog through your link this last week on Ship of Fools (;f=2;t=020402;p=2#000078).

    To me it seems like Fowler’s groupings have a final number 6 because he has taken a sideline into universalism and is unwilling to backtrack onto the track. My view, OK my experience as I am no theologian, is that the track is not linear, but spiral. So your fifth stage is actually a rerun of your 1st stage. The acceptance of mystery is the same as the passive stage only seen through the eyes of having gone through the earlier stages.

    So instead of a linear 5 or 6 stage development I’d have a spiral, where we visit each stage again and again through the experience of the other stages, and gain further development for doing so.

    Unfortunatly without the theological background to develop this, and a reluctance to engage in theology, as I find the use of theological language to be a barrier to ordinary people. Theologt thus hides God rather than doing it’s job of revealing him. — I am myself stuck.

  2. Coming from the tradition I do the line has been given too often that all Christians are theologians (although not all theologians are Christian). That is that all Christians speak of their understanding of God.

    Fowler is actually picking developing Piaget’s ideas on cognitive development and Kohlberg’s on moral development. These both have stage models but are far too restrictive. I have see them described instead as rings of a tree and different individual ones.

    I personally come far more from the sociology of Foucault and I am asking what does a person need to be so as to be recognized as a person of faith? Therefore there are techniques/skills rather than stages that need to be mastered. What precisely is mastered and when depends on individual, faith community and wider society. Basically we are adding tools to our practice and development as we mature. Basically there are seasons where certain elements/skills/types of technique are focused on and seasons when they seem peripheral.

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