Foundations of Faith: A Comparative Analysis of Kohlberg, Erikson, and Fowler

Developmental psychologist James W. Fowler (b. 1940) posited in 1981 that the way in which men and women understand faith is determined by his or her construction of knowledge. One’s perception of self and one’s experiences in specific environments are more telling of how meaning is made from faith than how often one attends temple, mosque, or mass services, how well one knows church doctrine, or how much holy scripture one can recite from memory. While it is important to note Fowler writes from a Christian perspective (being professor of theology at the United Methodist-affiliated Emory University in Atlanta, as well as a Methodist minister), his vision of human faith development is not meant to be content-specific. It is meant to be applicable to all faiths, disregarding religious bodies to focus solely on an individual’s spiritual and intellectual growth. Fowler formulated “stages of faith,” drawing inspiration from the developmental theories of Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, among others. Upon exploring Fowler’s stages, this comparative analysis will examine the ideas of Kohlberg and Erikson, analyzing how their theoretical structures influenced the formation of Fowler’s work.

According to Stephen Parker’s “Measuring Faith Development,” Fowler’s idea was that faith was formed by many interrelated and developing structures, the interaction of which pinpointed one’s stage (2006, p. 337). “Stage progression, when it occurs, involves movement toward greater complexity and comprehensiveness in each of these structural aspects” (p. 337). The structures include form of logic (one progresses toward concrete and abstract reasoning), perspective taking (one gains the ability to judge things from various viewpoints), form of moral judgement (the improvement of moral reasoning), bounds of social awareness (becoming more open to changing social groups), locus of authority (moving toward self-confidence in internal decision-making), form of world coherence (growing aware of one’s own consciousness and one’s ability to understand the world using one’s own mental power), and symbolic function (increasing understanding that symbols have multiple meanings) (p. 338). These are the bricks that build each stage of faith; as one is able to think in more complex ways, one advances up Fowler’s spiritual levels.

The stages of faith are primal faith (pre-stage), intuitive-projective faith (1), mythic-literal faith (2), synthetic-conventional faith (3), individuative-reflective faith (4), conjunctive faith (5), and universalizing faith (6). According to Fowler, during the pre-stage, an infant cannot conceptualize the idea of “God,” but learns either trust or mistrust during relations with caretakers, which provides a basis for faith development (Parker, p. 339). More will be discussed on this later. In the intuitive-projective stage, a child of preschool age will conceptualize God, though only as “a powerful creature of the imagination, not unlike Superman or Santa Claus.” During the mythic-literal stage, the child will develop “concrete operational thought,” and will view God as a judge who doles out rewards and punishments in a fair manner. In the synthetic-conventional stage, one will develop “formal operational thought”; the idea of a more personal God arises, and one begins to construct meaning from beliefs. The individuative-reflective stage at last brings about self-reflection of one’s beliefs. Parker writes, “This intense, critical reflection on one’s faith (one’s way of making meaning) requires that inconsistencies and paradoxes are vanquished, which may leave one estranged from previously valued faith groups.” As this occurs, and somewhat ironically, God is viewed as the embodiment of truth. Conjunctive faith is a stage in which one attempts to reconcile contradictions; while staying wary of them, he or she may see the nature of God as inherently unknown, a “paradox,” while still being Truth. Where certainty breaks down, acceptance of the diverse beliefs of others grows more pervasive. Fowler suggests the conjunctive stage may occur during midlife. Finally, if one can attain it, the universalizing stage is when one becomes fully inclusive of other people, faiths, and ideas. People hold “firm and clear commitments to values of universal justice and love” (p. 339).

It is important to note these stages do not represent a universal, concrete timetable for faith development. Each stage requires greater critical thinking and self-reflection (which is what makes Fowler’s model applicable to multiple faiths), and therefore not everyone will progress through them at the same rate or even attain the same level of development. Further, the model does not address those who abandon faith completely; it demonstrates only a progressive scale that suggests one either stops where one is or moves toward greater knowledge of self and one’s values, and more open-mindedness in regards to others and the nature of God Himself. For many, faith development may not be so simple, nor so linear. Regardless, Fowler’s work has had a great impact on religious bodies and developmental psychology (Parker, p. 337).

Fowler borrowed much from other theorists. Psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1902-1994) created a model for the psychosocial development of men and women, from which Fowler later drew inspiration. In lieu of a lengthy summary of Erikson’s (and Kohlberg’s) ideas, this comparative analysis will provide a brief overview, and focus more on the aspects that relate closest to Fowler’s finished product. According to Erikson’s “Life Span Theory of Development,” human growth goes through eight stages, each of which featuring a crisis that, if successfully conquered, will result in the development of a valuable virtue, such as hope, love, or wisdom. Erikson’s crises were: Trust vs. mistrust (infancy), autonomy vs. shame (toddlerhood), initiative vs. guilt (preschool), industry vs. inferiority (childhood), identity vs. role confusion (adolescence), intimacy vs. isolation (young adulthood), generativity vs. stagnation (middle adulthood), and integrity vs. despair (late adulthood) (Dunkel & Sefcek, 2009, p. 14). One’s ability to embody the more positive aspect of one of these pairs makes it likely one will do the same with the next positive aspect (p. 14).

Fowler liked Erikson’s trust vs. mistrust idea, seeing it as the very foundation of faith development. Clearly, trust becomes a critical theme as one is exposed to spiritual beliefs, the “known”-yet-unseen. Can one trust the holy book? Can one trust the priest, rabbi, or parent? It is interesting to consider how the development of trusting or distrusting relationships will affect future spiritual development. What are the results of the trust vs. mistrust conflict? Erikson felt that “for basic trust versus mistrust a marked tendency toward trust results in hope” (Dunkel & Sefcek, p. 13), which implies a lack of hope if unresponsive caretakers breed feelings of mistrust. While it was strictly Erikson concerned with virtues gained from each life stage, Fowler, in adapting Erikson’s first stage, provides in his model a single stage with conflict. It begs questions. Can one successfully enter the intuitive-projective stage without building trusting relationships in the infant pre-stage? If so, what is the impact of mistrust in stage 1, and all the following stages? Could it mean different perspectives of God (for instance, perhaps as less fair-minded during the formation of concrete operational thought in the mythic-literal stage)? Would one likely progress through the stages more rapidly, or more slowly? Hypothetically, one less trusting might be quicker to see problems and contradictions in faith, advancing to the individuative-reflective stage sooner. Further, Erikson believed “optimal psychological health is reached when a ‘favorable ratio’ between poles is reached” (p. 13), meaning a positive trust-mistrust ratio is all that’s needed to develop hope and move through the stage. Therefore, “a ‘favorable ratio’ indicates that one can be too trusting” (p. 13). What will be the impact on faith development for someone who has grown too trusting of people? By their nature, both Erikson’s and Fowler’s stages build upon each other. For Erikson, trust made it “more likely the individual will develop along a path that includes a sense of autonomy, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, and integrity” (p. 14). If Fowler’s model is built on the same principle of trust acquisition, what will happen to faith when the foundation is not ideal?

In reality, Fowler’s model parallels Erikson’s even more so, in regards to Erikson’s psychosocial crises. Erikson saw the individual as being pulled by two opposing forces in each stage, the favoring of the positive force leading to new virtues. On the surface, Fowler’s stages may appear simple and gradual, the progression seeming to occur naturally and expectedly, or at least without specifics on how or why individuals progress to higher levels of critical thinking and new perspectives on God. What takes one from an unexamined faith in the synthetic-conventional stage to taking a long, hard look at contradictions and controversies in the next? It cannot be simple maturation, or everyone would make it to the final stages. There must exist something that holds people back, or drives them forward. Que Erikson and his crises. Erikson would say the individual must accept the force pushing forward and resist the one pulling backward. In his fifth stage, for instance, that which Dunkel and Sefcek deem “the most important” (p. 14), an adolescent faces the crisis of identity versus role confusion. The adolescent must form an identity in the social world, build convictions, choose who he or she will be (p. 14). Confusion, temptation, and doubt will impede progress. In Fowler’s model, a crisis certainly makes sense, only perhaps less of a ratio or continuum and more of a single event or confrontation. For example, what better way to explain the transition from the intuitive-projective stage to the mythic-literal stage than the moment when the parent tells the child Santa Claus isn’t real? That could begin the shift from imagination to logic, and with it a change in the child’s perception of God. Personally, this author sees his own transition into Fowler’s individuative-reflective stage as beginning the afternoon he read a work by the late evolutionary biologist and Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould, who pointed out contradictions between the timeline of the Biblical story of Noah and modern archeology. Though different for each individual, such turning points provide Erikson-esque crises that explain one’s advancement through Fowler’s model.

The work of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) also inspired Fowler. Fowler’s form of moral reasoning structure was an adaptation of Kohlberg’s “Six Stages of Development in Moral Thought” (Parker, p. 338). Kohlberg theorized that as one ages, the way in which one justifies actions advances through predictable stages. His Pre-Moral stage saw children motivated to make moral decisions through fear of punishment (Type 1), followed by the desire for reward or personal gain (Type 2). Morality of Conventional Role-Conformity was spurned by the desire to avoid the disapproval of peers and to abide by social norms (Type 3), and later the wish to maintain social order by obeying laws and the authorities who enforce them (Type 4). In the Post-Conventional stage, people acknowledge that laws are social contracts agreed upon democratically for the common good, and are thus motivated to behave morally to gain community respect (Type 5). Finally, one begins to see morality as solely within him- or herself: One must be motivated by universal empathy toward others, acting morally because it is just and true, not because it is the law or socially acceptable (Type 6) (Kohlberg, 2008, p. 9-10). It is not difficult to see how Fowler viewed the development of moral judgement as being a crucial building block to the development of faith. Universal morality, like universal faith, are byproducts of deeper critical thinking, reflection, and cognitive ability.

In that regard, it is easy to see how well Fowler’s six stages and Kohlberg’s six stages align. Both move from perceptions and beliefs borrowed from and influenced by others, and motivated by selfishness, to perceptions and beliefs formed in one’s own mind, motivated by empathy and love. They both advance toward justice for justice’s sake. One might think the stages are pleasantly compatible. What’s fascinating, however, is that Fowler believed the majority of people remained in his third stage, the synthetic-conventional (with the few who advanced usually only doing so in their later years), but Kohlberg showed in his studies with children that “more mature modes of thought (Types 4–6) increased from age 10 through 16, less mature modes (Types 1–2) decreased with age” (Kohlberg, p. 19). (With age, of course, comes factors such as “social experience and cognitive growth” (p. 18).) He saw youths who addressed moral conundrums (such as his famous Heinz Dilemma) with the Golden Rule and utilitarianism (p. 17), noting that “when Type 6 children are asked ‘What is conscience?’, they tend to answer that conscience is a choosing and self-judging function, rather than a feeling of guilt or dread” (p. 18).

Clearly, the post-conventional moral stage can emerge very early in life. While keeping in mind Fowler’s form of moral reasoning structure may not be a perfect reproduction of Kohlberg’s ideas, it is interesting to consider the contradiction between an adolescent in the synthetic-conventional stage, an era marked by unexamined beliefs, conformity to doctrine, and identity heavily influenced by others, and a “Type 6” adolescent in the post-conventional stage of moral thinking, who uses reason, universal ethics, empathy, and justice to solve moral problems. Would not such rapid moral development lead to more rapid progression through Fowler’s model? With Type 4-6 thinking increasing so early, why do so few begin thinking critically of their faith and analyzing contradictions, and so late in life? Perhaps it is simply that Type 6 children are such a minority; perhaps it is they that will go on to reach the individuative-reflective stage. It would be intriguing to compare a child’s ability to answer moral dilemmas with his or her perspective on God and faith. How did the children of Kohlberg’s research view God? Surely some believed in God (and thus could be placed on Fowler’s model) and some did not. Was there a positive or negative correlation between moral decisions and faith? Were the children moving through Fowler’s stages more likely or less likely to develop higher types of moral thinking? Or was there no effect at all? Fowler, of course, might say there are too many variables in faith progression, that it requires advancement in multiple interactive structures; even if a child makes it to Kohlberg’s final stage of moral development, there are six other structures that affect one’s spiritual progress that must be taken into account.

While this comparative analysis places an emphasis on Fowler, that is not to say Erikson and Kohlberg’s works do not stand on their own, or that their theories somehow automatically validate his. Placing them side-by-side simply provides an interesting perspective that both raises and answers questions. Whether examining the moral, the psychosocial, or the spiritual, it is clear self-reflection and critical thinking are paramount to development. Kohlberg, Erikson, and Fowler were leaders in their fields because they understood and based their research on this idea. Their combined theories present a convincing case that as one grows, greater cognitive power and the confrontation of new ideas can change perspectives in positive ways, from forming one’s identity to learning love, empathy, and respect for others.

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Dunkel, C. S., & Sefcek, J. A. (2009). Eriksonian lifespan theory and life history theory: An integration using the example of identity formation. Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 13-23.

Kohlberg, L. (2008). The development of children’s orientations toward a moral order. Human Development, 51, 8-20.

Parker, S. (2006). Measuring faith development. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 34(4), 337-348.