Fowler’s Faith Development Theory in Psychobiographies and Writing Reassessed
Coelho (re)constructs his world and life coherence through writing and is not completely restricted in his writing in times of crisis, competing claims or insecurities in moral decision-making, as explained by Elifson and Stone (1985). For Coelho, crises and insecurities rather restrict him to the moment of crisis, but then lead to transformation and the ability to write to reorganise and transform his own, personal worldview (see Chap. 7). Crises and insecurities thus become an engine of writing ability if transformed into constructive energy through a resilient attitude and the activation of resources.
Critical Responses to Faith Development Theory Reflected in this Study
The FDT of Fowler has been criticised extensively (Astley & Francis, 1992; Dykstra & Parks, 1986; Fowler et al., 1991; Streib, 2001c). This study contributes to the idea that faith can be defined as a “meaning-making” process (as in Hughes, 1997, p. 1), which is shown in the findings on Paulo Coelho’s faith development. Critics refer to the focus of faith development being on the “how” of faith rather than the “object of faith” (Hughes, 1997, p. 1). This criticism is not supported here: The study focuses on the structure as well as on the content of faith and takes both into account. The anchor of faith is Coelho’s relationship with God primarily and secondarily with the saints and other magical influences in his life.
Although Fowler’s theory is cognitively based and has been criticised for it (Reich, 2008), it leaves space for the analysis of emotional processes within its theoretical frame, as shown in this study. In Coelho, the emotional descriptions and expressions are addressed - not least through the HWM and the life task selfdirection, including emotional awareness.
The gendered bias and the theories’ culture-specificity have been criticised (Coyle, 2011, 288). FDT does not account for gender-specific, particularly female faith development needs (Slee, 2004), which are not addressed in the study. However, Harris (1989) has argued from a feminist perspective that the stages of faith development are fluid, dynamic, non-hierarchical and influenced by emotion, cognition, imagination and relationships. This perspective is supported (as explained before), although the study focuses on a male individual.
It is assumed that faith development depends on cultural and social backgrounds (Elifson & Stone, 1985). However, a problem with regard to theory and culture could not explicitly be found. It can be assumed that since Coelho and Fowler are both influenced by a Christian background and the St Ignatius tradition, there will be overlaps in terms of religious and faith development ideas. Since Coelho grew up in an upper middle class family in Brazil with academic and religious parents, it might be assumed that his cultural values might be relatively similar to the values applied to the FDT by Fowler (1981). Therefore, this study might be criticised as culturally biased by reproducing the stages of faith development in a writer who comes from an upper middle class Brazilian background, with an academic father and s stongly Christian mother. Coelho is seen as influenced by Western cultures (as an international celebrity) and the cultural bias and question of the universality of the theory needs to be explored in a different study (as already emphasised by Ashdown and Gibbons, 2012). This exploration of the influence of culture is beyond the frame of this psychobiographical work and is only briefly addressed (Sect. 184.108.40.206).
By comparing participants from Guatemala and the US, Ashdown and Gibbons (2012) 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 describing the transition from lower to higher stages requires the formation of a kind of personal or individual faith (Ashdown & Gibbons,
2012). These findings are supported by this study, since Paulo Coelho, who has been described as strongly individualistic and self-related, displays a high level of faith development throughout his life and a strong faith. This faith development seems to be related to his strong individualistic development, which does not succumb to socio-cultural, political or economic restrictions or values. The development of Paulo Coelho’s identity and the development of particularly his writer’s identity are strongly interlinked with his faith development (as described previously by Barker, 2005).
Further criticism highlights the neglect of transitional stages in the theory (Hamrick, 1988; Rizzuto, 2001) and the lack of research focusing on longitudinal developments (Smith, 2003). In this study, the information on the transition processes is given to a certain degree and shows that transitions reveal ambivalent processes that are combined with dynamic reflection and analysis, crises and questions. The complex pattern of transitions is not easily described in a stage model and the data on Coelho do not provide this deep information on transitional stages. It is suggested that both transitional periods and the refining of stages that have been achieved need to be researched, as emphasised by Nelson (2002) and that regression is part of stage transition and needs to be included in the faith development stages. In this study, the revisions of stages reached before are called “revisions” rather than “regressions”, owing to the fact that the revisions are seen as further and refined developments of faith development and not as regressions, steps back. This supports Streib’s (2001a, 2001b) idea that faith development stages include the replication of earlier stages. He emphasises that faith development is not limited to a certain development path, but occurs in multiple ways (Streib, 2003), such as in Coelho with regard to his two outstanding developments beyond the development stages and the “circular” development.
Finally, the theory has been criticised for its insubstantial methodological empirical foundation (Nelson & Aleshire, 1986), as well as for its inflexibility about accommodating postmodern sensibilities (Coyle, 2011). This study contributes to a stronger and deeper manifestation of an empirical foundation of the theory by this single-case hermeneutical study. As Fowler (2004) points out that faith in postmodern times needs to be addressed with the vision of a global faith, the faith of Paulo Coelho can be described as a post-modern construct that turns towards a global spirituality and faith including many different religious aspects.