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Fowler’s Understanding of Vocation and Adulthood

In his book, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, James W. Fowler presents a comprehensive model for understanding faith development. His theories present a model of faith development that is not necessarily linked with any particular religion. Fowler’s views of faith development are especially interesting when contrasted with other theories on the subject. Due to considerations of length, we will explore only one, in brief.

In V. Bailey Gillespie’s book, The Experience of Faith, Gillespie describes seven stages of faith, which he links with age and experience. According to this theory, as an individual ages and matures, she inevitably passes through these stages. Her life begins with a “borrowed faith” in which her trust of others is learned from her parents. Later, she exhibits “reflected faith”, where she mimics her family and community’s values and stories. This leads to the “personalized faith” of early adolescence, when faith becomes valuable to the individual after a period of questioning and examining. “Interior or established faith” follows, when the individual’s beliefs are more stable and religion becomes less important. A “reordered faith” comes next as the young adult reevaluates her beliefs, having become accustomed to them and their implications. “Reflective faith” follows this as the adult looks back on the first half of life and once again reevaluates her experiences and beliefs, possibly making drastic changes or falling into despair. Eventually, it is expected, the individual will make the transition all the way from the “borrowed faith” of childhood to the “resolute faith” of older adulthood, in which she finds strength, hope, and comfort in God (St. Peter Adult Centre for Alternative Education, 2003).

In contrast to Gillespie’s model, Fowler’s understanding of faith development does not make assumptions about the timing of faith development. Apart from the first three stages, which are linked to normal adult development, Fowler’s stages are not necessarily associated with age or maturity. Even within these first three, he comments that he occasionally finds adults at these stages of development. Furthermore, aside from the first three, he places no time constraints on when, or even if, the individual will progress through the stages. This seems to be a more realistic model for faith development (Fowler, 2000, p. 40-57).

Whereas Gillespie is speaking from within a Christian context, Fowler’s model of faith development does not rely on a religious context. According to Fowler, “we are creatures who live by faith. We live by forming and being formed in images and dispositions toward the ultimate conditions of our existence” (2000, p. 39). Thus, everyone, religious or not, develops faith. It is important to note, therefore, that changing the object of one’s faith does not require the individual to hit the “reset” button on faith. Conversion seems problematic for Gillespie’s model. However, with Fowler’s model, it is the quality of our faith that develops, while the objects of our faith may change or remain the same. Fowler’s model of faith development describes changes in how the experience of faith. It does not describe a particular type of faith, nor a growth to “strong faith” in a biblical sense, but rather how we experience our faith and how we express our faith to others.

Despite the differences, Fowler’s model does find parrallels in Gillespie’s. Fowler’s “primal faith” looks a lot like Gillespie’s “borrowed faith,” in that both are mere impressions of trust which are borrowed from the parents. Gillespie’s “reflected faith” encompases the time span covered by Fowler’s “intuitive-projective” and “mythic-literal” faiths. During this time “children form deep and long-lasting images that hold together their worlds of meaning and wonder [and]… faith becomes a matter of reliance on the stories, rules, and implicit values of the family’s surroundings” (Fowler, 2000, p. 42-43). Fowler’s “synthetic-conventional” faith looks very much like Gillespie’s “personalized faith,” in that both are a time of questioning and sorting out what one believes for oneself. Fowler seems to skip Gillespie’s “interior or established faith,” but his “individuative-reflective” faith roughly corresponds with the “reordered faith” of Gillespie’s model, in that both represent yet another time of questioning and sorting one’s beliefs. After this, both Fowler and Gillespie agree that many adults go through yet another time of questioning, searching, or reevaluation in middle adulthood. Finally, while most of the stages of faith development in Gillespie’s model can find some analogy or similarity in Fowler’s faith development model, Fowler’s final stage of faith development, “universalizing faith,” has no comparison in Gillespie’s model.

Personally, I evaluate my own faith as “individuative-reflective.” Since roughly my grade 12 year, I have attempted to “objectify, examine, and make critical choices about the defining elements of [my] identity and faith” (Fowler, 2000, p. 49). That is not to say that instantly, at some point in grade 12, I developed into this stage, but rather that at that time I began to examine myself and my beliefs from a more objective standpoint. It may have been even earlier that I became aware of the “real me” behind the façades, what Fowler calls the “executive ego” (Fowler, 2000, p. 49), but it was at this time that I began to examine and question my beliefs and convictions. I find that I can identify with many of the ideas in the composite statement in Fowler’s book on pages 49-50. Furthermore, I do not think that I have fully developed into this stage; as time goes on, I am becoming more individuative-reflective. This process is aided by my attendance at a post-secondary institution of education. Here, professors engage me and challenge me to further examine myself and my beliefs. Finally, a key sign that I am individuative-reflective in my faith is that I look forward with dread towards a conjunctive faith and the “humbling awareness of the power and influence of aspects of the unconscious… on our reactions and bahaviour” (Fowler, 2000, p. 51). To me, the loss of “reflective identity, a firm set of ego boundaries, and a confident regard for one’s conscious sense of self as though it were virtually exhaustive of one’s total selfhood” seems not to be worth the gain in perspective.

Fowler claims that our vocation is more than just a job, or even a career. It is a “story of our stories” and ideally should be aligned with the greater story of the human race. In this spirit, I think it is most fitting that I describe my vocation in narrative. Just as my faith changed to individuative-reflective around grade 12, and perhaps as a direct result of that, it was also in grade 12 that I discovered my vocation, though I did not call it that. In that year, I began to question what I wanted to do with my life. Previously I had consistently wanted to be a pilot. As I see now, this was a one-dimensional role, or career, and it no longer fit with my expanding understanding of my own identity behind the network of roles and relationships. My true interests lay in the study of human behavior, or the humanities. I then incorporated my skills into my ideal vocation. This I discovered when people told me that I was good at teaching and making concepts understandable. Thus, I discovered a vocation of learning and teaching others, for the purpose of helping myself and them to become better human beings. I have since clarified parts of that vocation: for instance, I know I want to teach at a post-secondary level in a secular institution. However, all is not set in stone, and Fowler’s book leads me to believe that it never will be.

Fowler sees faith as just one of the components of a vocation that includes all forms of adult development. Our vocational ideals are informed by our understanding of the goals of faith and adult development. According to Fowler (2000)
"Faith is a relation of trust in and loyalty to one’s neighbors, maintained through trust and loyalty to a unifying image of the character of value and power in an ultimate environment. The human calling [vocation]—which we take to be universal—is to undergo and participate in the widening inclusiveness of the circle of those who count as neighbor, from the narrowness of our familial beginnings toward real solidarity with a commonwealth of being." (Fowler, 2000, p. 60)
So my faith informs my vocation, my ideal me in relation and community with others. Because of my faith, I value those who are not part of my own Christian tradition and want to teach them, and I consider important even people who are not yet born, but who will need to be taught.


Fowler, James W. (2000). Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development & Christian Faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

St. Peter Adult Centre for Alternative Education (2003). Stages of Faith Development. (10 Oct. 2003).