The Birth of the Faith Development Theory of James Fowler

Faith development studies started with the work of the Harvard professor, Lawrence Kohlberg, in the late 1960s. He researched Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development in the context of moral development (Fowler, 2004, p. 409). Fowler became interested in Kohlberg’s work and soon discussed faith development with his students. He said (Fowler, 2004, p. 409) that one of his important experiences was talking to three Jesuit students who were attending his courses in the early 1970s. The encounter with these students had an impact on his spiritual belief and practices: Fowler recognised that at that point in time, his faith was rather cognitively oriented and “that my deeper needs for prayer and spirituality might not be met. They introduced me to the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius” (Fowler, 2004, p. 409). Fowler attended a guided retreat in the Ignatian tradition and gained new experiences, which included not only cognitive, but also emotional development potential.

Originally, Fowler developed his FDT from a multi-perspective paradigm and created a theoretical matrix to structure aspects of faith. It was through listening to individual’s stories on spirituality that Fowler gained interest in developing his empirically based developmental theory (Fowler, 1992, 2004). According to Fowler (2004, p. 412), FDT is characterised by a “phenomenological account of what faith does, with a conceptual model of what faith is”. Faith provides human beings with orientation in life, a life purpose, the creation of life and “its origins, its ordering, its enormity, its hospitality to life in its myriad forms and expressions, and its mystery” (Fowler, 2004, p. 412). The development of the theory and the faith development stages “sought to extend the structural developmental traditions in the research of Piaget, Kohlberg, and others” (Fowler, 2004, p. 412). Fowler (1984) saw his personal motivation founded in the question of what theorists taught referring to maturity, destiny and wholeness. The foundational theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson and Levinson are not discussed in this study in depth.[1] However, it needs to be highlighted that Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s structural development theories contributed to Fowler’s theory in terms of “the broad epistemological focus of the theories, as well as the structure of knowing provided by these theories” (Burnell, 2013, p. 125). These two aspects of the structural development theories influenced the finding and the description of the structural features of faith “to make comparisons possible across a wide range of content differences” (Burnell, 2013, p. 125). The faith theory integrated the concepts and descriptions of cognitive and moral reasoning while integrating those with the newly established modes of knowing and valuing (Fowler, 1981). The psychosocial developmental theories of Erikson and Levinson, however, contributed to Fowler’s FDT in a subtle and pervasive way and became “part of the interpretative mind-set” that affected the development of the FDT (Fowler, 1981, p. 110). According to Coyle (2011), Fowler incorporated perspectives on ‘form of logic’ or cognitive development (drawn from Piaget); the development of the capacity to take the perspectives of others; the development of moral judgment/reasoning (from Kohlberg); the recognition of others as belonging to one’s faith community; the selection of authorities for meaning-making; ‘form of world coherence’ or the development of approaches for ‘unifying meanings’ (from Erikson’s and Levinson’s lifespan developmental theories); the understanding of symbols and of stages of self (from Kegan).

In the beginning, Fowler (1981) developed seven dimensions of faith development, which were later extended to eight dimensions (Moseley et al., 1993). Although the theory was criticised strongly, modified and qualified in several respects, its central features and assumptions remained the same.

  • [1] For a presentation and discussion of these foundational theories and their influences with regardto Fowler’s faith development theory, see the work of Barbara Burnell (2013, 121-133).
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