You are on page 1of 8

Running header: FAITH REVISITED 1

Fowler’s Theory of Faith Development Revisited

TJ Peck

Western Carolina University


Fowler’s Theory of Faith Development Revisited

One’s identities give them lenses in which they view the world. Like other foundations of

one’s identity, such as race, sexual orientation, and social class, faith frames the way one view

and interacts with the world and how the world interacts with them. Faith, whether connected to

a religion or not, is almost always connected to some form of moral code or rules defining right

and wrong. When studying student development theory, there is a noticeable disconnect between

faith and morality symbolized by the pages dividing the sections. Not only is morality

disconnected from faith, but Fowler's Theory of Faith Development is also missing a crucial

stage in a person’s faith development dealing with the crisis found at the discovery of

contradictions between faith-based morals and societal norms or beliefs. The societal norm in

this sense is referring to behavioral customs and societal laws and the expected reaction of those

involved (Mckay & Harvey, 2015). This paper discusses the need for an additional stage in

Fowler’s Theory of Faith Development, which analyzes the development found at the collision

of faith-based morality and society in college.

Fowler’s Theory of Faith Development

First synthesized in 1978, Fowler created six stages, and a pre-stage, that outline the

development of one's faith. The pre-stage is primal faith and discusses the relationship between

God and one's caretakers. During this stage, typically from birth to age three, God is likened to

the person who cares and supports the child. Stages one and two discuss the development from

an imaginative idea of God to one's development of substantive rules and morals based in faith.

These stages typically take place from ages three to twelve and give the adolescent the frame for

shaping a dualistic view of the world. Stage three discusses the permanent place for most adults

as the faith is something not personal, but more obligatory. During this stage, one does not have

a sure enough, grasp on their faith to formulate opinions and beliefs individually. This dualistic

view most often takes shape in the demonizing of another's actions while participating in

"immoral" actions themselves. Stage four is where faith becomes personal, and one is

responsible for developing their beliefs based upon the tenets of their faith. In this stage, most

commonly seen between the ages of twenty-one and thirty, the desire is for an understanding of

oneself through their faith. Stage five is where one begins to ascribe meaning to experiences and

is considered the end-point of the natural progression of development. This stage also

accompanies the ability to respect another's belief even though in contradiction of one's own. The

last stage, six, is rarely achieved, and among its characteristics is the sacrificing of one's own life

to one's spiritual values (Patton, Renn, Guido, & Quaye, 2016). Fowler suggested that the

majority of adults will end their development in stages three, four or five. What this paper is

suggesting, is the addition of Stage 4a in which one’s faith-based morals clash with societal

norms causing dissonance. For this purpose, contextualization is necessary for faith-based


Faith-Based Morals

As other student development theorists, such as Kohlberg suggest, individuals define

morality, and the stage of someone's moral development is a factor of cognitive development and

environment (Patton et al.,.2016). If a follower of a faith, to argue faith is not a defining

component on their morality would be foolhardy. Most practiced forms of faith take shape in a

religion that has some form of moral code. Whether a dominant religion, such as Abrahamic

religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, or less common religions, such as Unitarianism or

Shintoism, they all have some form of code or law that give some definition of morality for their

followers. While these codes are different depending on faith followed, these moral codes assist

the follower toward an end goal, if any, such as Nirvana, heaven, reincarnation, or similar ideas.

These codes can often be found in stark contradiction to societal norms and can cause a stage of

dissonance within the development of a student’s faith. For the sake of objectivity, no discussion

on the morality of societal norms will be discussed, just the existence of absolute morals of right

and wrong found in religious text and teachings.

Clash with Societal Norms

A student that has is encompassed with a like-minded religious community and family

will often not have encountered the right situation in which they witness something societally or

legally correct, but morally wrong in their eyes. The most common and prevalent example of this

clash typically is focused around the topic of sex and sexuality.

A college is a place where the exploration of safe sex and sexuality is thoroughly

encouraged. Research on the subject matter of sex in college even has findings that encourage

students to have sex in college (Patrick, Maggs, & Abar, 2007). Whether statistically correct or

incorrect, the concept of premarital sex is a moral wrong in the belief of the majority of popular

religions found on college campuses. This is an example of a societal norm that clashes with the

faith-based morality of students. Another example of a societal norm that clashes with faith-

based morality, one that is backed up by United States law, is that of same-sex marriage. While

same-sex marriage is now a right protected by the United States government, like pre-marital

sex, the majority of the popular religions found on college campuses have some disagreement

with this form of matrimony and classify it as morally wrong. In research done by the Pew

Research Center (2014), the center found that of those in the sample that opposed same-sex

marriage, 92% were in opposition due to religious beliefs. College campuses are a place of

inclusivity and acceptance, and for someone that comes from a sheltered background or a

profoundly religious community, these societal norms can be a shock to their system of faith.

This shock/crisis that takes place during the transition from stage three and stages four of

Fowler's Theory of Faith Development is of enough consequence to elicit an additional stage.

Theory of Faith Development Stage 4a

Found in most developmental theories, the transformation between stages of development

can be as long and as distinguished as the various stages highlighted. This is the case for the

transition from stage three, where one practices their faith in a literal and impersonal way, to

stage four, where one's faith is self-authored through reflection. Stage 4a is a proposed stage

where the individual is faced with situations that challenge faith found in stage three and begins

to reflect upon their faith in preparation for self-authorship. In the examples of societal norms

proposed above, a student who is in stage three and encounters homosexuality, or the calm

discussion of premarital sex is going to be challenged to question their steadfast rules.

One, someone who is not at a high enough cognitive level of faith development will

consider the variable being introduced and will entrench themselves in their belief, for the time

being, keeping their dualistic view condemning the variable introduced. The second will be the

introduction of the variable, resulting in an acknowledgment of a pluralistic viewpoint, causing

the gradual climb to stage four. One instance of dissonance will not cause the transition from

stage three to four. In the case where someone is susceptible to the acknowledgment of

pluralistic views, in Fowler's Theory of Faith Development, they are caught in limbo between

stages or are in stage 4a. Stage 4a is the stage where one is open to the idea of other viewpoints

and is in the process of researching both their faith and the views of others in order to create their

self-authored faith. The introduction of a multitude of variables is needed, sex, alcohol, drugs,

alternative lifestyles, and alternative faiths are needed for a complete transformation from stage

three to four. These introductions and the resulting dissonance can be immediate as alluded in

Fowler's model, or, as research demonstrates, can span weeks, months or years (Tite, 2003).

Further research, described below, indicates that the introduction of dissonance to these students

does not always sway them away from their religion or faith, but can also act as a humanizing

element to add to their faith.

Stage 6:
Stage 5 Faith
Stage 4a: Faith Faith
Stage 4:
Stage 3: Reflective Faith
Stage 2: Conventional
Stage 1: Faith
Projective Faith

Research on Faith in College Students

Inarguably the time when one ventures out for the first time, alone, from their community

has a drastic effect on who they are as an individual. College serves as this first time for many of

the youth of the United States. The college has a statistically relevant effect on these youth as

demonstrated by the 2004 study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles. In their

study, they found that religious commitment dropped extensively as a student continued through

college. This is most demonstrated by the statistic of only 29% of college students who reported

attending religious services as a freshman had continued to attend religious services as a junior.

Moreover, of all the students in the sample, only 9% reported growth in religiousness from

freshmen to junior (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm 2004). Research on this topic is not all negative,


In the same UCLA study, the researchers discovered a 7% growth in the importance of

spiritual integration, a 9% growth in developing a "meaningful philosophy of life," and a 14%

growth in helping others who are in difficulty (Astin, Astin, & Lindholm., 2004). Another study

hypothesized the inaccuracy of the effect secularization of college campuses has on students of

faith, found a similar positive effect. This study found growth in faith and spirituality even with a

decrease in religious engagement (Hartley, 2004).


Conclusions on what the effect of college is on students of faith are mixed and

demonstrate the need for further investigation. What is clear is the statement that college has an

effect on students of faith and must be considered in Fowler’s Theory of Faith Development. The

introduction of a transitional stage between stage three and four, 4a, gives further depth of

understanding for students who experience faith-related dissonance during their college

experience. The result of this dissonance does not always incorporate progress but can also result

in regression. With the incorporation of Stage 4a, a student affairs practitioner can better assist

the development of a student’s faith, allowing the student to incorporate meaning and humanity

into an otherwise dualistic world.



Astin, A., Astin, W., & Lindholm, J. (2004). The study reveals the influences of college

students' spiritual and religious development. Spirituality in Higher Education

Bell, D., & Cox, M., (2015). Social norms: Do we love norms too much? Journal of

Family Theory and Review 7(1)

Hartley, H. (2004). How college students’ religious faith and practice: A review of

research. College Student Affairs Journal 23(2) 111-129.

McKay, R., & Whitehouse, H. (2015). Religion and morality. Psychological Bulletin

141(2). 113-123

Patrick, M., Maggs, J., & Abar, C., (2007). Reasons to have sex, personal goals, and

sexual behavior during the transition to college. Journal of Sex Research 44(3).

Patton, L., Renn, K., Guido, F., & Quaye, S. (2016). Student development in college:

Theory, research, and practice. San Francisco, California: Josey-Bass.

Pew Research Center (2014). Views about same-sex marriage. Pew Research Center.

Retrieved from:


Tite, P. (2003). On the necessity of crisis: A reflection on pedagogical conflict and the

academic study of religion. Teaching Theology and Religion 6(2). 76-84.