Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith

In Brief:

The tacit system of the previous stage comes under critical scrutiny. Responsibility for making decisions about one’s goals and values, previously invested in others, is now taken into oneself. A demythologizing stage; symbols are translated into conceptual meanings.

In Detail:

People tend to reach this stage in young adulthood, but Fowler notes that many people do not reach it at all, and a substantial number will reach it only in their mid-thirties or forties.1

The individual at the previous stage tends to identify their inherited belief-system with “the way things really are,” and does not submit it to serious critical scrutiny. When such an individual leaves home—literally or figuratively—this state of affairs is often disrupted. Many people who go off to university or college, for example, encounter for the first time people with very different beliefs and values, and this often drives them to critically examine, for the first time, the assumptive system of values inherited from their family, church, etc.2

In so doing, it becomes possible to see how individuals—including oneself—are shaped by the communities of which they are apart. Beliefs and values that were previously held tacitly—that is, held implicitly, not subjected to critical scrutiny—now become explicit.

Personal identity in the previous stage is derived from membership in the various groups one belongs to, where face-to-face contact takes place—family, school, church, neighbourhood, etc. When we are removed from these various contexts we can gain a critical distance from the conventional beliefs these communities reinforce and explore other possibilities. (This is not to say that this has to happen, only that it is more likely to happen. Sometimes people will fall in with ideologically-composed groups that share the conventional beliefs of the communities they left behind, and this makes it harder for people to individuate with regard to their identity and outlook.)3

Fowler writes,

Many religious groups similarly reinforce a conventionally held and maintained faith system, sanctifying one’s remaining in the dependence on external authority and derivative group identity of Stage 3. Marriage, for many young men and women, can serve to create a new Synthetic-Conventional ethos and because the couple are playing adult roles they are able, at least for a time, to evade the challenges of the individuative transition.4

This distancing from, and critical evaluation of, one’s conventional belief system is the first of two movements that must take place. The other involves an interruption of one’s reliance on external authority. Authority must be relocated within the self. This is not to say that external authorities cease to play a role in the lives of those who attain this stage, however:

While others and their judgments will remain important to the Individuative-Reflective person, their expectations, advice and counsel will be submitted to an internal panel of experts who reserve the right to choose and who are prepared to take responsibility for their choices.5

Sometimes, Fowler notes, people make one of these movements, but not the other. In leaving home—literally or figuratively—people may “undergo the relativization of their inherited world views and value systems,” but their reliance on external authority is not interrupted, and may even be strengthened in order to cope with this relativization.6 On the other hand, some people break their reliance on external authority, but do not critically evaluate their inherited belief system. So in between Stage 3 and 4 are two transitional positions in which people might find a “potentially longlasting equilibrium.”7

Those who do make the transition completely develop a greater awareness of their own ideology, as well as the external factors that have nurtured it, and they can understand the ideologies of other people in the same way. They also understand symbols and rituals in a very different way than before. In the past, these were “taken as mediating the sacred in direct ways” and were therefore seen as “sacred in themselves.”8  In other words, people at Stage 3 tend not to distinguish between the symbol and what the symbol represents. At Stage 4, the meaning of a symbol can be distinguished and expressed without reference to the symbol.

Fowler writes,

This demythologizing strategy, which seems natural to Stage 4, brings both gains and losses. Paul Tillich, writing about religious symbols and their powers, says that when a symbol is recognized to be a symbol by those who relate to the transcendent through it, it becomes a “broken symbol.” A certain naive reliance upon and trust in the sacred power, efficacy and inherent truth of the symbol as representation is interrupted.9

For many people, this transition brings “a sense of loss, dislocation, grief and even guilt.”10

“This transition,” Fowler writes, “represents an upheaval in one’s life at any point and can be protracted in its process for five to seven years or longer.”11 This is less of a problem for younger people, as it can be “a natural accompaniment of leaving home and of the construction of a first, provisional adult life structure” (182). For those who are more established in this structure — those in their 30s or 40s — it can be more disruptive and difficult.

With the transition to Individuative-Reflective, Fowler explains, the individual begins “to take seriously the burden of responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes.”12 Previously, the individual’s faith was in large measure chosen for them. They were Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or Muslim because they were raised that way. Authority is located externally to the self. Beginning with Stage 4, one’s faith is self-chosen, and while external authorities may be consulted, the final authority resides in the individual’s own judgment.13

Fowler writes in his summary,

Stage 4’s ascendant strength has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). Its dangers inhere in its strengths: an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought and a kind of second narcissism in which the now clearly bounded, reflective self overassimilates “reality” and the perspectives of others into its world view.14

Click here to read about Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith.


1. Fowler, Stages of Faith, 182.

2. Fowler, Stages, 177.

3. Fowler, Stages, 178.

4. Fowler, Stages, 178

5. Fowler, Stages, 179.

6. Fowler, Stages, 179.

7. Fowler, Stages, 179.

8. Fowler, Stages, 180.

9. Fowler, Stages, 180.

10. Fowler, Stages, 180.

11. Fowler, Stages, 181.

12. Fowler, Stages, 182.

13. See Fowler, Stages, 243.

14. Fowler, Stages, 182-183. Original in italics.


One Response to Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith

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