Growing through stages of faith

Amalee Meehan examines how a sense of God develops through childhood

In my faith development work with school communities, one thing has become very clear – people are at different stages on their faith journey. How we imagine God and relate to God, ourselves and the world around us, depends on what stage we are at on that journey. So says James Fowler, former Harvard professor and developmental psychologist. His theory has influenced the entire field of Christian catechesis, religious education and faith development over the last 50 years. It has been very helpful for me in the work of faith development in second level schools.

Of course the idea that we move through stages makes sense: Shakespeare nailed it some time ago. Just as we progress through different physical and psychological stages, from the baby “mewling and peeking in the nurse’s arms” through schoolboy, lover, and “lean and slipper’d pantaloons” . . . so we progress in maturity of faith.

As Fowler sees it, faith has to do with what values have centering power in our lives – what we consider as really important. The ‘god values’ in our lives are the things that concern us ultimately. Whether material, spiritual or emotional, these ultimate concerns draw and drive us. A deep seeded drive to prove oneself to one’s peers is as potent a ‘god value’ as the desire to help those most in need. And they are not always mutually exclusive. Whatever our god values, they shape how we think of God and how we relate to God, which in turn shapes how we relate to ourselves, others and the greater world.

Fowler identifies six stages from early childhood to fully mature adult. Each stage informs the next, we never quite leave it behind. In fact, our experience of each stage can effect not just our progression through subsequent stages, but our entire lives. Let’s focus here on the first three of Fowler’s stages, using Dylan’s (not a real person) path from childhood to early adulthood as an illustration. Because Fowler’s theory suggests that the majority of people in a second level school community are in stage 3, my emphasis is on that stage.

Stage 1
(early childhood)

In the first stage, the stage of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, three-year-old Dylan’s thinking is very fluid and magical. It is filled with fantasy and not bound by logic. Like all stage 1 children, Dylan is egocentric – his world is very small and he is at the centre.

Dylan identifies Barney, a larger than life, singing and dancing purple dinosaur, as his best friend. Barney is as real to Dylan as are his own siblings.

He chats to Barney, cuddles and admonishes him; he relates to Barney exactly as others relate to him. In many ways it is this very blurred line between what’s real and what’s not that makes children of this age such fun to be with.

The god value Fowler identifies at this stage is safety and security. Dylan’s ultimate concerns are of food and warmth and shelter, but most importantly of being loved. The extent to which this god value is present in their infant lives shapes a child’s earliest images of God.

The child who knows s/he is loved will naturally understand a god of love (1 John 4:8,16). 

Stage 1 children learn primarily by imitation and repetition. If those around him frequently bless themselves, Dylan will never need to be taught. A young man I know tells of how his Dad would open the curtains every morning, look out the window and say “thank you God for a good night’s sleep and a brand new day”. The same prayer springs almost involuntarily from his own lips every morning even now.

Stage 2 (primary school)

Stage 2 brings an increased awareness of other people and how we relate with them. Fowler describes how the ‘buzzing confusion’ of stage 1 is replaced with the ability to coordinate one’s own perspective with that of another. During stage 2, Dylan’s egocentrism expands, albeit slowly. Rather than what others think in an objective sense, the nine-year-old Dylan is more concerned with what others think of him. Similarly for stage 2 Dylan, it is not so much what God thinks that matters, but what God thinks of Dylan.

The experience of stage 2 children is of a more predictable and patterned world. Imagination gets a little tempered by logic. It is a time of black and white thinking: right and wrong, good and evil. No wonder Harry Potter appeals so strongly to this age group.  For stage 2 Dylan, justice as a god value is understood in terms of reciprocal fairness. With his seven-year-old sister, Dylan shares a packet of Maltesers by counting them out – “one for you, one for me”.  When there is one left over, they split it down the middle.

These characteristics shape the stage 2 relationship with God. One of Fowler’s interviewees, 10-year-old Beth, gives a wonderful example of this. “I just half believed in God and half didn’t, and then I had to pray extra hard to get his love back because I had been really mean to him. I had not prayed to him for ages, and so I was really mean to him, so I had to give him extra love, and I felt really good after that, but when I wasn’t praying, I felt really, really bad,” she said.

For Fowler, it is hugely significant that stage 2 children can “tell self-generated stories that make it possible to conserve, communicate and compare their experiences and meanings.” In other words, a primary teaching and learning methodology for stage 2 children is story.

Stage 3
(secondary school)

The theme song from High School Musical, We’re All in This Together is a wonderful reflection of stage 3, where the ultimate concern is belonging in a group. The stage 3 god value is acceptance by others where ‘others’ largely refers to one’s peers. For 15-year-old Dylan, symbols identify the groups he is part of. His room is full of Manchester United memorabilia and he wears the Clare colours with pride.

Dylan’s faith is implicit and hard to make explicit. He can’t always explain why something is important to him; he just knows that it is. Personal relationships shape the way he relates to God. Dylan’s popularity influences his view of God as a person, another friend.

To step outside the group is almost impossible at this stage. Conformity with peers governs everything. In another of Fowler’s interviews, Brian, 16, tries to explain why people his age don’t overcome their negativity and apathy and really work together to transform the world.

“There is the peer pressure where, you know, someone should like to get involved, but if his friends found out he was doing something like that they’d all stand around and laugh at him, and he’d be sort of an outcast. So everyone doesn’t want to get involved for the sake of keeping their friends or saving face – which I have done many times.”

Beyoncé’s adoption of an alter ego is an interesting stage 3 characteristic. In order to conform with the world wide stage of female singer/performers from Madonna to Lady Gaga, this practicing Baptist became Sasha Fierce. Indeed, the timeless appeal to teenagers of school plays, musicals and drama makes sense here as it allows them to experiment with another role without risk. Of course this has taken on a whole new dimension with social media sites such as Facebook and Bebo. A sense of belonging and connectedness with the group can be destroyed by a single evening of postings.

Although this stage is typically understood as an attempt to break free from parental authority, Fowler’s research found that those in stage 3 are still very influenced either by an authority figure or the authority of consensus – for better or for worse. In the absence of an authority figure, the authority of the group will prevail. Teaching and learning occur best in a group with a respected authority figure and where positive peer learning is at work. 

It is interesting that Fowler’s research found that 50% of all adults are still in stage 3. Movement towards stage 4 is accompanied by a sense of identity, a “relocation of authority within the self”. As he becomes more aware of social systems, the stage 4 Dylan will no longer be confined by conformity. His growing self-awareness will influence his sense of responsibility for the choices he makes including career, lifestyle, friends and beliefs.

Holding the tension between where people are at and inviting them to expand their thinking, imagining and ways of relating with God is a challenge of faith development. In order to accompany people on their faith journey, we need to recognise where they are and allow them to fully live into that stage.

Fowler’s theory suggests that it is important to understand and honour each stage, and to form our expectations accordingly. His insights on the primary forms of learning relating to each stage are helpful tools in this regard.


Amalee Meehan is a Faith Leadership and Governance Coordinator for CEIST (Catholic Education an Irish Schools Trust).