Critical Responses to Faith Development Theory

The FDT of Fowler has been criticised extensively (Astley & Francis, 1992; Dykstra & Parks, 1986; Fowler, Nipkow, & Schweitzer, 1991; Streib, 2001c). Selected critical aspects will be addressed in the following section. For a broader overview on critics, see the work of Heywood (2008).

Many theologians and other researchers have strongly criticised the understanding and definition of faith (Coyle, 2005; Hughes, 1997). Coyle (2011) emphasises that Fowler’s definition of faith appears to be the strongest point of criticism. Dykstra (1986, p. 56), for example, criticises Fowler’s definition of faith as being too broad and too unspecific in theological terms, while Hughes criticises the complexity of his presentations of faith development, which draw on interdisciplinary perspectives. However, Hughes sees the main problem in Fowler’s definition of faith as “meaning-making” (Hughes, 1997, p. 1). Hughes criticises Fowler’s (1980, p. 53) concept and idea that faith “has to do with the making, maintenance, and transformation of human meaning” and accordingly Fowler’s concept of faith is related to “human thinking, rational capacities, personal relationships, social awareness and moral judging” (Hughes, 1997, p. 1). According to Hughes (1997, p. 2), Fowler (1981) is more concerned about the “how” of faith than “the object of faith” in terms of what (or whom) to believe in. Hughes (1997, p. 2) states that is it is critical that Fowler defines Christian faith as a sub-set of the general phenomenon of faith and that his concept differs from a Christian perspective with regard to the possibilities of conversion. At the same time, in Christian faith there is a “supernatural element that makes its origin and growth distinctive”, while in Fowler’s theory on human development, the supernatural aspect is hardly reflected (Hughes, 1997, p. 2). The main criticism from a theological perspective is therefore that particularly in an orthodox Christian understanding, faith is understood as a “human response to God’s grace as a gift from God” (Coyle, 2011). However, Fowler’s (1992) idea of focusing on the human dimension of faith should not deny or replace these kinds of understanding of faith and should rather be seen as additional insights into understanding of the ultimate reality.

Other critical work is to be found in the context of psychology of religion and religious development, primarily criticising the structural logic of development (Reich, 2005, 2008). Reich (2008), for example, highlights that more inclusive and comprehensible models of faith development need to be developed that should not over-emphasise cognition and cognitive development and should include emotional and psychodynamic dimensions as processes of transition and transformation. McDargh (2001) also points out that emotion-focused psycho-dynamic processes need to be addressed to find out why some people do not move beyond certain stages of faith development.

In this context, the gendered bias as well as its cultural specificity has been criticised (Coyle, 2011, p. 288). Elifson and Stone (1985) mention that particular differences in growth are based on culture, on social background, and on gender and are not adequately reflected in developmental theory. Ashdown and Gibbons (2012) highlight that the FDT that has been developed in North America has not been systematically tested cross-culturally. Since Fowler (1981) presents his theory, which explains humans’ faith development regardless of religion, culture, ethnicity or nationality, although the empirical data have only been gathered in North America, the topic of culture still needs to be addressed with regard to FDT (Ashdown & Gibbons, 2012). By comparing participants from Guatemala and the US the authors show that participants with a lower level of collectivism among individuals predict higher levels of faith development. This finding is not surprising, since the faith development model describes the transition from lower to higher stages requiring the formation of a kind of personal or individual faith (Ashdown & Gibbons, 2012).

Barker (2005) shows in her work on contextual influences on FDT that identity development and the contextual frame are highly important in developing faith in terms of developing a spiritual ‘me’ besides developing a social and a material ‘me’ in her sample of religiously diverse adults in England.

Fowler’s theory is influenced by his own socio-cultural and religious background (Baxter, 2006), highlighting that the development of the stages of faith is affected by the cultural environment (Fowler, 2001). Besides the influence of Fowler’s individual, religious and socio-cultural background, De Laurentis (1985) states that the faith theory only refers to monotheistic frames of reference, particularly since the theory is based on a US-Canadian sample. Participants referred to their personal and individual concepts of beliefs, faith-building narratives and stories, while being interviewed in English. It can be assumed that participants from other cultures and religious groups, using a different mother tongue, might not refer to the same terms and value concepts described by Fowler (1981). However, Garland (2002), in Ashdown and Gibbons (2012), highlights that in related research, people described faith similarly by using terms such as trust and loyalty. Recent research therefore suggests that faith development is culturally bound and needs a culture-sensitive approach (Farc, 1999; Ashdown & Gibbons, 2012).

Slee (2004) highlights that - since women usually score lower than men in faith development interviews and proceed to the later stages of faith development at later ages than men - the FDT does not account for gender-specific needs and distinctive patterns of women. Harris (1989) has from a feminist perspective argued that the stages of faith development are to be viewed as fluid, dynamic, non-hierarchical and influenced by emotion, cognition, imagination and relationships.

Several authors have fundamentally criticised the development of stage development models based on structural development theories (Cartwright, 2001; Nelson, 2002; Streib, 2005). Sternberg (2001a, 2001b) has pointed out that development - including faith development - might not proceed in an invariant or coherent series of stages. Cartwright emphasised, however, that in development processes there might be domain-specific progress that might not be reflected or captured in the developmental models.

Another point of criticim is that Fowler does not pay much attention to the processes of transition periods in his model (Hamrick, 1988; Rizzuto, 2001) and that hardly any longitudinal work has been done on FDT (Smith, 2003). Other authors, such as Nelson (2002), refer to the fact that regression needs to be seen as part of stage transition and that regression needs to be included in Fowler’s faith development model as a part of development and transition. Streib (2001a, 2001b) highlights in at least two of his papers on faith development that there needs to be awareness that faith development stages can include the replication of earlier stages. In a later paper, he (Streib, 2003) points out that the development of faith might not be limited only to a certain path of development, but might even occur in multiple ways of development, using various development paths.

In parallel to the content-based and theoretically oriented criticisms, the FDT has been criticised as well for its insubstantial methodological empirical foundation (Nelson & Aleshire, 1986), as well as for its inflexibility to accommodate postmodern sensibilities (Coyle, 2011). Although Fowler (1996, 2001, 2004) refers to postmodernism in the context of theology, he does not deal with postmodernist approaches to faith and theology on a deeper and systematic level with regard to his own theoretical approaches (Coyle, 2011): Fowler postulates, for example, that postmodern approaches have to cope with definitions that are not understood as absolute explanations (Fowler, 1981) At the same time, he rejects in his early work relativist views that religious “claims and experiences have no necessary validity beyond the limits of communities that hold them” (Cloyle, 2011, p. 19). In later publications, Fowler discusses that moral and spiritual demands of postmodern life need to be met by leadership “that, in the power of God’s Spirit, draws us toward a global faith and ethics”, which from his Christian perspective is a desirable goal (Fowler, 2004, pp. 420-421). However, this perspective, as the base for FDT, could be questioned at the same time in terms of the compatibility of a Christian faith for the development of faith theory (Baxter, 2006).


The developmental approach of FDT across the life span makes the theory of James Fowler an interesting and significant one in psychobiographical works on extraordinary individuals. In this chapter the key terms and concepts of Fowler’s FDT were presented and discussed. It was emphasised that his approach can be used in the analysis of a single case study and an individual life study approach and is therefore useful for this study, which focuses on the development of faith in Paulo Coelho. This theory is applied to Coelho’s life in Sect. 7.6. Chapter 6 will provide insight into the research methodology used in this study.

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