Dan Wotherspoon of Mormon Matters on an episode about Mormon Doctrine recently stated (track 2, 1:04:58):
Many people know that I have found a lot of value in James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith.” This sort of human development thing, and he talks explicitly there that every faith tradition basically, generally orients at a conformist sort of authoritarian stance. Where you look to others for external authority, validation, etc. So the religion is very good to say ‘here’s what we believe, here’s who we are, trust us we know better and it brings you up there’. That’s basically the stage of young adulthood, that’s 100% appropriate that you’re in that stage until young adulthood . . .
There comes that next stage though, stage 4. There comes a taking apart, it’s a complicating, it’s a moving from external authority to internal authority, it’s saying ‘I love and honor my parents, I love and honor my teachers, these prophets, these apostles. . . they’re always going to be valuable voices for me, but I’ve got to figure it out for myself, I’ve got to own it.’
I made it through Stage 4 in about 12 years, this was a long period of time. But I continued to hang in there . . . I was still having religious experiences that let me know somehow or other that there is still in the midst of the more chaotic part. . there is still peace to be had, that we’re on the right path. And then slowly but surely we gain that confidence of owning our own spirituality, owning our own truth; to where eventually as it talks about in Stage 5 & 6 that openness to paradox . . .
I’ll tell you, I have found room within Mormonism to hold all those things, to feel oriented even in the midst of the chaos. And if I have my plea. . . Please everybody, stay in this fight. If you can. . . . I tell you I want more people to own their spirituality. . . .
I have a problem with Wotherspoon’s statement in that I think he’s misapplying the Fowler Stages of Faith. I think he’s using the Stages of Faith as a prescriptive tool rather than a descriptive one. What I mean is that he’s setting Stage 6 as a goal for religious believers, as a benchmark of spiritual maturity rather than using Stage 6 as a means of describing a certain type of religious believer.
The problem with viewing Fowler’s theory this way is that it sets progression up Fowler’s Stages as superior over any religious activity or belief strategy. Stage 6 becomes the ultimate goal of religious belief rather than whatever goals or ambitions a religion may prescribe. Mormonism might only produce faith in a way that can be explained by Fowler’s Stage 2. To stretch a religion’s epistemology past Stage 2 might actually violate and do damage to it’s intended practice.
For this reason I don’t think Wotherspoon is at heart a Mormon. Rather he’s a Fowlerist who happens to be practicing his faith within Mormonism. He pursues a religious M&M; where Fowlerism is the center of his faith and Mormonism is the thin candy shell around it. Mormonism is just a tool he is using but the goals and objectives of Fowler Stage 6 are his ultimate aims. Where Mormonism conflicts with Fowler Stage 4 (or 5 or 6) he chooses Fowler over the authority of any Mormon scriptures or Mormon leadership. Wotherspoon isn’t calling people into Mormonism but rather into Fowlerism.
In a strange twist, what Wotherspoon sees as a rejection of authority for autonomy is actually the rejection of one kind of authority for another; in this case he rejects Thomas Monson as an authority and embraces James Fowler in his place.
Fowler may be a better religious role model than Thomas Monson. Fowlerism may be a superior belief system to Mormonism. I’m not really arguing the merits of either right now. But I don’t think anyone should naturally assume that both are naturally compatible. Fowlerism may fit in nicely with any number of belief systems, but it may also severely conflict with them.
If Fowler’s Stage of Faith are a tool for describing the way people live out their faith I don’t think anyone needs to be encouraged to strive for the next Stage. They just will or will not find it. No one needs the admonishment to hang in there and fight for enlightenment. If Fowler’s Stages of Faith are some sort of template for spiritual growth, then I think religious believers should carefully consider if it is inline with their own religion’s teachings or if it conflicts and offers an alternative path of growth and an alternative form of transformation.