What is faith? How does it develop?

Jean Piaget was one of the most influential psychological researchers in the area of cognitive development. He developed the four stages of cognitive development theory that shows how an individual’s neurobiological development moves through infancy to adulthood.

In the 1950s, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg began to formulate new ideas based upon Piaget’s theory that analyzed how moral and ethical behavior developed through the lifespan. He coined his theory as the Stages of Moral Development.

In the 1970s, a young psychologist by the name of James Fowler met Kohlberg and was fascinated by his ideas about moral development. Being a man of faith, Fowler wanted to know if spirituality was an experience shared by humans as part of cognitive development. His research would eventually lead him to develop a six-phase theory of faith development and to writing a book called Stages of Faith, which explains how the brain develops to conceptualize ideas about faith and religion.

So, what is faith? Fowler says that faith extends beyond religiosity such as an affiliation with Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc. He says that faith “may be characterized as an integral, centering process, underlying the formation of the beliefs, values, and meanings that:

  1. give coherence and direction to persons’ lives;
  2. link them in shared trusts and loyalties with others;
  3. ground their personal stances and communal loyalties in a sense of relatedness to a larger frame of reference; and
  4. enable them to face and deal with the challenges of human life and death, relying on that which has the quality of ultimacy in their lives.”

In short, faith is higher meaning, awareness, and connectedness.

Looking at the chart above, can you see how an individual would move through each stage as he makes meaning of the world around him? At birth, children are undifferentiated from their parents which means that he does not have his own “will” until around the age of 2 (terrible twos, anyone?). The 2-year-old brain begins to make meaning around the stories of faith told by primary caregivers. This could mean stories of religious experience (Noah’s ark, deities, religious holidays and observance stories) or meaning made around social justice, atheism, nature, etc. He says: we are all this.

As the child moves into childhood, he begins to recognize how the stories told by primary caregivers relate to his place within the community. He makes meaning about himself–his identity–in relation to others. He says: I am this, you are that–is our difference okay?

Teens take this a step further and recognize that the stories told by parents are not always the same story told by those outside of the family. Now, he has a difficult decision to make. Will he retain the story of faith told by the family or choose another for himself? Regardless of his choice, he will hold on to it as an identity. Often, his identity is the right identity. It tends to sound like: I am right, you are wrong–but you can change.

An adult faith means holding multiple paradoxes at once. It means stating: I am this and you are that–and that is okay. And the most rare form of faith is universalizing faith, which recognizing self as part of the whole. Great leaders such as Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Mother Teresa reached this level of universalizing. They saw themselves as trees whose roots were interconnected. There is no one–there is all. They could say: we are all this and that.

Consider your own story. Without judgment, consider how your faith story has moved through the stages of development. Did your story have a religious component? Does it still? What do you understand about your own spirituality? Do you identify with a Higher Power? What do you believe about other religions? About social justice?