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Glad I'm not the only skeptic. I felt bad making such skeptical comments in David's thread. Especially since I enjoy talking with David. Plus some of the conversation clearly was useful although I think it could easily be divorced from Fowler's categories.

It isn't just Fowler who has observed stages to spiritual development. Hindu Vedanta practitioners, Buddhists, and Christian mystics all describe stages of spiritual development.

Ken Wilber summarizes the "how many levels are there" debate this way:

Stages represent the actual milestones of growth and development. Once you are at a stage, it is an enduring acquisition. For example, once a child develops through the linguistic stages of development, the child has permanent access to language. Language isn’t present one minute and gone the next. The same thing happens with other types of growth. Once you stably reach a stage of growth and development, you can access the capacities of that stage—such as greater consciousness, more embracing love, higher ethical callings, greater intelligence and awareness—virtually any time you want. Passing states have been converted to permanent traits.

How many stages of development are there? Well, remember that in any map, the way you divide and represent the actual territory is somewhat arbitrary. For example, how many degrees are there between freezing and boiling water? If you use a Centigrade scale or “map,” there are 100 degrees between freezing and boiling. But if you use a Fahrenheit scale, freezing is at 32 and boiling is at 212, so there are 180 degrees between them. Which is right? Both of them. It just depends upon how you want to slice that pie.

The same is true of stages. There are all sorts of ways to slice and dice development, and therefore there are all sorts of stage conceptions. All of them can be useful. In the chakra system, for example, there are 7 major stages or levels of consciousness. Jean Gebser, the famous anthropologist, uses 5: archaic, magic, mythic, rational, and integral. Certain Western psychological models have 8, 12, or more levels of development. Which is right? All of them; it just depends on what you want to keep track of in growth and development.

If you're interested in more of his thoughts along these lines, you might start here: http://integrallife.com/learn/levels-development/stages-or-levels-development, or (for a Mormon take on the same concept) here: http://www.integralmormonism.org.

It seems to me that temple-endowment-practicing Mormons, more than any other group out there, should "get" the notion of spiritual development, at least conceptually. The entire ritual presents a stage-by-stage process of development and maturation that would do Fowlerians or developmentally-oriented sorts of other lineages proud. Curiously, it doesn't seem to inspire such thinking, perhaps because it is presented in a single sitting. It is not hard to imagine it divided into four or so stages or chapters, each one presented and received at different stages of one's life and development.

Absolutely there is a stage-by-stage process of development; I don't think anyone would disagree with that. What Dave is getting at, I think, is that Fowler is using a description of the stages through which certain people pass and attempting to universalize it, privileging certain types of interaction with faith over others. That's not to say that people don't go through his stages (whatever they are); it's just saying that there is no Platonic faith-journey wherein his stage 4 must follow stage 3.

"My question is why so many people accept Fowler's stages or categories as anything other than psychobabble."

Feel free to raise this point at FPR. I sure that David Clark can handle it. Clark above is the main discussant on the three mention posts.

Chris, I'm not taking issue with any of David Clark's points in the post, which related primarily to Mormon teaching. I have seen Fowler's categories and analysis adopted by dozens of LDS commentators. I only used the recent FPR posts as a jumping-off point for this discussion. As I'm sure you're aware, I'm a big fan of FPR ... even without the hyphen.

Maybe that makes me a Stage 2 Blogger (linking to posts by others and offering commentary) rather than a Stage 3 Blogger (offering original ideas of my own). I aspire to become a Stage 4 Blogger (getting paid for offering original ideas of my own).

FYI the standard critique of Fowler relative to science is Susan Kwilecki's "A Scientific Approach to Religious Development: Proposals and a Case Illustration" in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Sep., 1988), pp. 307-325

There were then some back and forths in that journal between Kwilecki and Fowler supporters (who acknowledge some of Kwilecki's criticisms are fair). The main criticism is that Fowler imposes his own views of the goals and patterns for religion rather than considering the goals and patterns particular religions set as the standards for that religion. That is Fowler creates a structure based upon his value and then merely finds examples where people fit those structures. But while that is somewhat empirical it doesn't really establish the structures themselves in an empirical way. (i.e. as natural kinds) She also argues that Fowler would intrinsically rank and practitioner of Jehovah's Witnesses, a shaman, or an Islamic fundamentalist as immature.

Put an other way is it a scientific theory or a prescriptive taxonomy? (i.e. that people ought try to move towards the higher levels) The very terminology of "maturity" tends to imply a value judgment.

My own problem with Fowler includes that prescriptive element as well as the way the theory is misused (often to devalue 'others'). But it also has to do with the way Fowler uses the term "faith" whereas faith in his system is much more a kind of general comportment with the world and how one deals with foundational narratives of meaning.

"My question is why so many people accept Fowler's stages or categories as anything other than psychobabble."

My guess is that people accept it because it provides a narrative map of faith instead of the common yes/no dichotomies of believer/unbeliever, faithful/apostate, etc. It's one way of expressing a spectrum.

Sam B,

I'm not persuaded (though I'm curious about contrary evidence/ideas) that stages are as disorderly as the note suggests they must be.

Cognitively, one can't read a sentence before one can read words. And one can't read a paragraph before one can read a sentence.

I think Fowler makes a reasonable case that there are meaningfully distinctive stages to spiritual development (I also avoid the term "faith" because of the difference between his usage of the term and the traditional LDS usage of it). The structure of his original research is such that I don't think he proves that in order to arrive at stage 4, you must first pass through stage 3, though his evidence tends to support the conclusion that his stage 4 cohort reported experiences consistent with a stage 3 prior stage. So while it isn't as clear that one can't be stage 4 without developing through stage 3 as it is that one can't read a sentence before first reading a word, there is at least a body of evidence that seems to suggest that stage 4 doesn't exist without stage 3.

I don't think that evidence is conclusive, so it would be interesting to examine more deeply the extent to which stage 4 characteristics are dependent upon and incorporate stage 3 characteristics, and the extent to which they are independent of stage 3 characteristics. Ideas along those lines might suggest further lines of inquiry.

That said, I think that Fowler's hardly alone in his articulation of stages of spiritual development, and I think that the degree of correlation among independently developed concepts of spirituality strongly suggest that the sequence in stages is neither coincidental, nor random, but rather structural in humans.


I guess I sometimes do the same and hopefully your post will lead others over to the original post. Sorry for being defensive. You are surely a welcome commenter on FPR. I will save my combative comments for your political posts. :)

I find even the label spiritual development problematic. This is the heart of Kwilecki's argument. That when we talk religion or spirituality there is a strong contextual element that Fowler discounts. That is meaning is tied to context. In a way Fowler makes the classic Structuralist mistake by decontextualizing evidence.

Now if you were to make a more cognitive argument independent of questions of faith or religion and say people structure the way they approach reality in a developmental way then there would be no problem. There may be a lot of nits to pick but the basic approach wouldn't be a problem. Where the problem is with Fowler is that he moves beyond this into religious claims in such a fashion that he's merely privileging some religious beliefs above others. In a sense it's not that different than how Protestant scholars "analyzed" non-Christian religions in the late 19th and early 20th century. A kind of cultural imperialism where one imposes one structure on all other structures independent of their own context.

Greenfrog, there's an other problem of your analogy that I think highlights the problem. The structure word -> sentence -> paragraph is true in a certain sense. However before a child can learn a word as a word they probably already speak in connected sentences. Further most linguists would note that the meaning of a word isn't first but that words have meaning only in terms of sentences and paragraphs. Now one could say that one is "progressed" if one moves to understanding paragraphs which affects how one understands words.

The problem though is that as a developmental analogy it fails since "speaking" is always already a kind of "reading." And children simply don't progress in a linear fashion as you assert. It is just much more complex and messy. There is a lot of compelling evidence that at least some part of grammar is innate to the brain and simply applies itself to the data. That is one isn't learning as if from a blank slate at all.

This isn't to deny certain structural developments in the least. It is to suggest that any such development is much more complex than a simple progression through explicit stages suggests.

This isn't to slam Piaget or the like in the least. However the problem with Fowler is much like the problem of assuming a big divide between writing and speaking. Writing is 'already' contaminated and in place by the kind of writing we encounter in speaking. Likewise Fowler's stages are already contaminated. He tries to limit this via talking about master narratives or myths or the like and how they are treated. But this simply won't work - consider scientific theory as a master myth and you can quickly see the problem with his stages.


I accept your point about reading and words-> paragraphs, though I think the point holds with learning to speak. And I also acknowledge that it's "reasoning" by analogy to get from there to stages of spiritual development.

However, as I noted in my original comment, Fowler isn't really writing on a blank slate. The Vedantists, the Buddhists, the Christian mystics, and others have all sketched out fairly clear and remarkably corresponding stages of spiritual development. It isn't just Fowler who has conjured up a set of experiences that may or may not fit a particular worldview. It's different civilizations separated by centuries and thousands of miles.

Either they all stumbled into a remarkable set of coincidentally similar developmental paths, or there's something characteristic to human spiritual development than just Fowler's predisposition toward a particular version of Christianity. More than models to discuss and fit to present circumstance, I am interested in the map and the lands to which they lead.

Again, as I noted in my original comment, we already have a well-developed and institutionalized ceremony that embodies and sacralizes stages of development. IIRC, when Joseph originally transmitted the endowment, he instructed that it was to be provided not in a single sitting, but in stages, as members developed. For historical reasons, the ceremony has been implemented differently. (Perhaps someone with better historical knowledge can confirm or reject my dim recollection of reading that in a generally trustworthy LDS source.) So while we may discuss and disagree whether Fowler has gotten the details right, it's clear that the general contours he posits are substantially similar to other stages of development of spirituality in radically different spiritual traditions, and they're not completely divorced from the stages represented in the endowment ceremony, either, though circumspection on that topic constrains the extent of the discussion on that aspect.

Greenfrog, that's my point, he's privileging a particular belief of what religion ought be and it is that of the allegorical mystic. It's really clear when you read his book, especially stage 6, that he's imposing his ideas of religious progression on everyone else. So of course it's not surprising you see the parallels with Buddhism. But, what if, for instance, Bruce R. McConkie were to generate a set of structures. Wouldn't that also work? Couldn't we also find empirical evidence that 'appears' to fit the data?

It's the old problem of when you are a hammer everything is a nail. The question isn't whether you can impose a structure to produce meaning but whether the structure is natural.

The issue isn't whether we can talk about stages but rather what the nature of the stages are. Those criticizing Fowler aren't criticizing him because he uses stages. Rather they are questioning the scientific relevance of his categories.

I was introduced to this theory on FPR, so while I don't have a deep knowledge of it, I did find it both intuitive and useful. That said, I don't think such theories (including Meyers-Briggs) can be applied rigidly or universally. In other words, I say use it for what it's worth and don't take it so seriously that it becomes a substitute for critical thinking. I have my own big brain for that! (and am even marginally successful at it at times)


We're talking past one another.

You assert that Fowler is privileging a particular belief, I note that his findings are consistent with other findings drawn from a very wide variety of religious beliefs. Either you've defined "particular belief" to mean "a wide variety of differing religious beliefs," or I'm not getting your point or you're not getting mine.

To the extent I understand our differences, part of the separation, I think, is that what Fowler and others view as cognitive frameworks for addressing substantive content, you view as substantive content, itself. It's reasonably responsible post-modernist perception to note that structuralism of any kind can easily embed and conceal value-laden (not value-neutral) contexts, so I don't think your skepticism is a bad thing, at all. But think (as I imagine you do, too) that responsible application of post-modernist critiques can't insist that context is, literally, everything -- only that it's an influence that needs to be taken into account when evaluating data, that care should be taken to sift embedded assumptions from specific data, and a willingness to examine the entire structure of an understanding to see whether there are data that could be gathered from outside the structure that might tend to overturn the paradigm itself.

All of that leads me to conclude not that Fowler's work and other traditions' experiences should be tossed out, but that they should be probed more completely.

FWIW, I've read Fowler's book -- twice. I've also read Vedanta texts, Buddhist texts, and I'm working my way into various early Christian texts, too. None of the people writing them, so far as I've read to date, describe their experiences as "allegorical mysticism" or anything of the sort. To the contrary, the theists (Christians and Hindus) insist that they're experiencing God directly. The nontheists insist that they're experiencing reality directly (and they assert that reality includes the experience of God). None of them say that they're experiencing an allegory.

In the end, as I see it there's two different ways we can reach toward accord on this question, and neither of them involves discussing Fowler's work in the abstract. One entails pursuing Fowler's work: conducting a broader, wider, better-designed survey to see the extent to which Fowler's findings hold up -- the extent to which a single testing sample including diverse substantive religious belief can be meaningfully and accurately divided into cohorts described by the stages he articulates, and the extent to which those in each cohort describe prior experiences consistent with the "earlier" stages involved. The other approach involves following the instructions of those who claim to have found roughly the same stages of spiritual development via contemplation, meditation, and prayer, and replicate their processes to see whether they lead where they say they lead.

But, what if, for instance, Bruce R. McConkie were to generate a set of structures. Wouldn't that also work? Couldn't we also find empirical evidence that 'appears' to fit the data?

Consulting with Elder McConkie at this point would probably entail more of those mystical experiences you discount. ;-)

But if he were around and ready to participate, by all means, he should generate his model, and then we should test it to see whether it holds up beyond his individual views. Candidly, I'd be interested to see any model of spiritual development crafted from an LDS perspective. As I've alluded in my prior comments here, I think we've got a structure already built to accomodate such an effort, but other than the two-stage process of conversion itself (and its reflection in missionary discussions, the Gospel Principles manual and the YW/YM lesson plans), I'm not aware of any other attempt to implement spiritual development in LDS doctrine.

I wish there were. Do you know of any?

But Greenfrog you didn't list a "very wide variety of religious beliefs" rather you listed some systems with very similar beliefs. I think the examples Kwilecki brings up are good. (Jehovah Witnesses, Fundamentalist Islam, Shamanism)

Also I'm not making the postmodern critique of structuralism here. Far from it. I'm making the scientific critique of poor structuralism (which was what ended up devastating myth-criticism and not postmodernism).

By allegorical mysticism I mean that the texts one reads are meant to be taken allegorically. Certainly mystics of most traditions think they are experiencing God or the One and that the experience is real. That's not really the point. The point is that their view of other aspects of religion is allegorical. Fowler's Stage 6 is explicitly just the mystic critique of other religious traditions.

In the west this allegorical exegesical method arose as Greek thinkers especially under the influence of philosophy took Greek religion to be more allegorical. It became more about the ascent to the one in a kind of mystical experience. This was true of the Stoics, Platonists and many other groups.

James, I see Meyers-Briggs as useful for some loose correlations but pretty useless for much beyond that. It's like the infamous first order approximations in physics.

But Greenfrog you didn't list a "very wide variety of religious beliefs" rather you listed some systems with very similar beliefs.

We differ on this, and our conclusions stem from those differences. You've asserted that they look at things similarly, therefore they've got similar belief sets. I start from the view that they've got substantially different belief systems (i.e., entirely different sets of deity/deities/no-deities beliefs, wildly different rituals, completely different sacred texts, etc.), and the more they pursue contemplation, they develop structures that resemble one another. Your take, so far as I understand it, is that the relevant data points are all content, my take is that the relevant data points are content (where they differ) and structural (where they are similar).

Despite your assertions, I continue to see structural differences where you perceive only content. I take (perhaps mistakenly) your perspective as a post-modern view of the situation. In response you have stated that you're not critiquing structure, but rather content masquerading as structure. I've asked you to help me understand structures in terms of LDS perspectives, where we are more likely to share common ground about contents and structures. You've never responded to that request.

Apparently we reach different conclusions and our respective interests in the discussion differ enough that we're not likely to invest enough additional effort to reach accord or even a great deal of clarity about why we differ.

Not a problem. Thanks for the engagement, nonetheless.

Since this post has generated such a spirited discussion, I'd like to clarify my own position just a bit. There's nothing wrong with the fact that some people really connect with Fowler's analysis or narrative, or that it adds understanding or meaning to the religious experience of some people.

My beef is with the idea that the Fowler narrative sets out a general standard that can be used to critique or evaluate other people (who may march to an entirely different religious drummer) or other religions. So I don't want anyone to take my critique of the Fowler model as a personal criticism.

To add my own caveats, if people like Fowler I certainly have no trouble with that. It's more its presentation as science or something "real" that I have trouble with.


To clarify, you're using an anti-Fowler approach to critique those who use Fowler to critique others? ;-)

The only way I know of to escape the critiquing/evaluating activity is to slip the fetters of dualism altogether. Otherwise, it's all critiquing/evaluating/comparing of one variety or another, which can only happen from a stance (whether Fowlerian, anti-Fowlerian, or any other) one privileges above all others, explicitly or implicitly.

Thanks for providing both the discussion topic and the space to explore it.

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