Basic Assumptions in Faith Development Theory

The theoretical framework of faith development is based on certain stages a person goes through in life and can be seen as “faith-as-a-process”. Fowler (1981) believes that the stages usually develop according to the life circumstances and that they are influenced by the life context and the life experiences of an individual (Fowler, 1981). At the same time, Fowler assumes that the faith development stages are universal in terms of referring “to the way in which all human beings make meaning in life” (Hughes, 1997, p. 1). Gollnick (2005), for example, addresses the evolving relationship of spirituality and religion and the consequences for understanding personality development and the way in which personality development and sensemaking are (unconsciously) affected by religion and spirituality.

Fowler and Dell (2004) highlight that the FDT is a

framework for understanding the evolution of how human beings conceptualize God, or a Higher Being, and how the influence of the Higher Being has an impact on core values, beliefs, and meanings in their personal lives and in their relationships with others. (p.17)

Fowler (2004) emphasises that faith

seems to have a broadly recognizable pattern of development. This unfolding pattern can be characterized in terms of developing emotional, cognitive, and moral interpretations and responses. Our ways of imagining and committing in faith correlate significantly with our ways of knowing and valuing more generally. (p. 405)

According to Dell (2000), faith needs to be understood as fundamental to social relations, the making of personal and cultural meanings and personal identity. According to Dell and Fowler (2004), it is a centring process, integral to as well as underlying the formation of meanings, beliefs and values of a person. Fowler (1987, p. 55) states: “The emergence of awareness, of reflective consciousness and eventually of various kinds of self-reflectiveness, comes in humans as a gradual and difficult sequence of developmental construction.”

Fowler (1987) identified four assumptions that are substantial to the FDT:

  • (a) Human beings are “genetically potentiated for partnership with God” (Fowler, 1987, p. 54).
  • (b) Potentiation does not necessarily transfer into the realisation of the partnership of God.
  • (c) The partnership with God develops through the interaction of the creator and human beings.
  • (d) Interaction and dependence upon God and the environment are based on a nonconscious matter.

Fowler developed the faith development stages based on data that were generated from lengthy structured interviews with individuals of different ages, religions, life experiences and meanings attributed to these experiences (Streib, 2005). Fowler and Dell (2004) highlight that FDT aims at giving coherence to people’s lives, links individuals to trust and loyalty to others, creates a sense of relatedness to a larger frame of reference and is seen as an effective coping strategy to deal with daily challenges. It is questioned whether the development theory of Fowler offers a neutral description of how people develop throughout their life or of how they should develop (Astley, 2009, p. 4). However, it is stipulated that:

  • (a) Faith is seen as something we believe in, such as an object of worship, acknowledged influential power, a life-directing narrative or myth of who we are and should be, and of what ‘life is all about’.
  • (b) The theory concentrates on faith as a form, rather than on faith as a content (the “how” of faith).
  • (c) Faith develops and should be called “faithing” (Astley, 2009, pp. 2-3).
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