Another of my faith journey mentors has passed on to the next stage of faith. The news came in an obituary shared by a colleague on Facebook: James W. Fowler III, Prominent Practical Theologian and Ethicist, Dies at 75.
I discovered the work of James Fowler through his 1981 book, Stages of Faith, when I was working on my doctorate in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. His research and writing on the stages of faith development resonated with my own faith journey from a very concrete-literal understanding of faith to a more universal and inclusive theology and became a central focus of my dissertation on a narrative of moral discourse. That paradigm for how preaching and teaching can promote moral and faith development has been the foundation of my ministry and teaching for the past 35 years. I invite you to read the brief descriptions of Fowler’s 6 stages of faith development at the link below.
In the multi-cultural global village we live in today, the need for a more universal and inclusive faith has never been more needed. I especially like this description of Stage 4, the Individuative-Reflexive stage: “This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes”. They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.”
And when we despair about those who seem de-churched or “post-Christian,” Fowler reminds us that a mature faith comes only with life experience. This is what he says about stage 5, Conjunctive Faith: “It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. This is the point when people begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box.”
Faith is a journey, not a destination. It is not a straight line but a maze of twists and turns, highs and lows. It is a dynamic adventure. The faith stories we live by are never the same when we read or hear them again because we are not the same people we were yesterday or yesteryear. I am so grateful for sages like Jim Fowler who teach us that we are shaped by our past but we are not defined or confined by it.
When I saw the news that he had died this week I was saddened. Many of the mentors who shaped my understanding of myself and the divine are no longer present on this earth. But their legacy lives on in me and countless others who have and will continue to benefit from their wisdom. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. My cloud includes saints like Jim Fowler, Fred Craddock, Paul Tillich, Van Bogard Dunn, Bob Browning, Everett Tilson, Jeff Hopper, Bill Croy, Bob Chiles, my mother and grandparents, and far too many more to name.
When someone important in my life passes on, I try to take time to give thanks for his or her contribution to my life and the larger world. And I also ask God to help me be worthy of that legacy and share it with those who are learning and growing and searching for meaning in their own faith journey at whatever stage or phase they are. My job is not to preach or lecture or insist on my way or any particular way. My job is to come along side others and share the journey with them.
Thanks be to God for people like Jim Fowler who have been my companion on the way.
James W. Fowler, distinguished Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, was Director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics, and also served as an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.