This is a pre-stage because it begins prior to language. In this stage, the seeds of trust, courage, hope, and love are fused together and help to minimize anxiety from fear of abandonment and deprivation in an infant’s environment. At this stage, trust and the relationship with parents or a primary care giver form the foundation of later faith development. Transition from this stage begins as language and thought develop.
This stage is a time of fantasy and imitation. Children are influenced by examples, actions, and stories of care giving adults. Children’s imaginative processes are uninhibited by logical thought. At this stage, the child has a first sense of self-awareness and the strong taboos families establish around death and sex. The strength of this stage is the imagination and the interest in rich stories that provide images and symbols for their feelings and story and the ultimate conditions of existence. Transition from this stage occurs as concrete thinking develops. Children begin to make a distinction between what is real and what is imaginary. Mythic-Literal Faith: At this stage children construct a more orderly and dependable world. School-aged children begin to internalize the stories, beliefs, and observances of the communities to which they belong. The source of authority moves beyond parents to teachers and friends. Beliefs are adopted literally as are moral rules and attitudes. Stories are still a prominent way of understanding, but symbols are interpreted in a literal way. At this stage, there are right and wrong ways of behaving. Transition from this stage occurs when the child (or even some adults) begin to see contradictions in the community’s stories and myths. Literalism begins to break down and paves the way to see another’s point of view that might be different.
The first of the adult stages of faith is the synthetic-conventional. It begins in adolescence and continues through young adulthood. At this stage, individuals can reflect on past experiences to better understand what they mean. A person’s identity at this stage is shaped by roles and relationships; authority resides outside the self. Much of what a person believes at this stage has been uncritically adopted from family, background, and the surrounding culture. Expectations and judgments of others play a role in shaping how people make sense of their experiences. At this stage, people have not critically examined their values and beliefs. The beginning of a transition to the next stage often occurs when a person has a conflict with the established norms, such as wondering why one’s family approves of dating only certain kinds of people, or encountering people with different values and beliefs and questioning how people come to believe what they do. Although this stage starts in adolescence, some adults remain at this stage and do not progress to the next stage. Transition from this stage may come from contradictions among valued authority figures or critical reflection on how one’s own beliefs came to be.
In this stage, there is a shift from less reliance on external authority to more reliance on one’s own authority. People begin to question the assumptions they have made about their values and beliefs and test whether or not they are still valid. In this process, they assume responsibility for what they believe. The person’s worldview is no longer defined solely by worldviews of family or friends, and the group has less influence on values and beliefs. An individual is freer to choose friends based on her values and beliefs. People may become disillusioned with what they had formerly believed. During this time of questioning, individuals who have had a strong faith tradition may leave it for another tradition or no tradition at all. If they don’t leave it, they accept it after critically reflecting on it. This stage can occur from age 20 to age 40, but like the previous stage, some people stay at this stage for the remainder of their lives. Transition from this stage often represents an upheaval in one’s life. Disillusionment with one’s beliefs and a sense of flatness or sterility signal a readiness for something new.
This stage of faith development moves outward, away from preoccupation with the self. There is an acceptance of paradox—that something can be both positive and negative, restraining and liberating. At this stage, there is more of an acceptance that life is a mystery and that values and beliefs cannot be sorted into tidy categories of good and bad. There is an understanding that there might be more than one way of understanding truth and this allows for more tolerance and acceptance of others. The limitations of faith traditions are more apparent. The desire for balance may lead to more of an interest in community and service to others. Fowler’s research suggests that it is rare for people to reach this stage before middle age; very few people transition to the next stage.
This stage of faith is so rare that Fowler was able to document only one case in his research. People at this stage live based on the principles that they have developed over their lifetime. They are highly individual and at the same time are devoted to the welfare of others and social justice. They challenge the status quo without regard for their own welfare. People like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa are said to have lived out this stage of faith.