Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

In Brief:

A movement beyond the dichotomizing logic of Stage 4, into a more dialogical or dialectical mode of thinking; develops a “second naiveté” in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings; greater openness to one’s “deeper self,” and recognition of the ways in which one’s socialisation influences one’s unconscious.

In Detail:

This stage is normally attained, if it’s attained at all, in early mid-life, though some will reach it earlier than that.1

“The name of this stage,” Fowler explains, “implies a rejoining or a union of that which previously has been separated.”2 Whereas those at the previous stage are prone to a dichotomizing logic (i.e., a tendency to think in terms of “either/or”), a more dialogical or dialectical way of thinking is characteristic of those in Stage 5.3 The name of this stage was inspired by Nicolas of Cusa’s notion of the coincidentia oppositorum, “the ‘coincidence of opposites’ in our apprehensions of truth.”4

Someone at this stage grasps the interrelatedness or interconnectedness of things. “In dialogical knowing,” Fowler writes, “the known is invited to speak its own language… The knower seeks to accommodate her or his knowledge to the structure of that which is known before imposing her or his own categories upon it.”5 This requires a certain amount of confidence on the part of the individual: “What the mystics call ‘detachment’ characterizes Stage 5’s willingness to let reality speak its word, regardless of the impact of that word on the security or self-esteem of the knower.”6

Fowler notes that the methods of reading the scriptures he learned in seminary—source criticism, form criticism, text criticism, etc.—were very Stage 4. It was only when he underwent spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition (i.e., the Spiritual Exercises) that he learned “a method of working with scripture that breathed more of the spirit of Stage 5.”7

His explanation of this is worth quoting at length:

The Ignatian approach did not require me to give up or negate my critical skills, but it did teach me to supplement them with a method in which I learned to relinquish initiative to the text. Instead of my reading, analyzing and extracting the meaning of a Biblical text, in Ignatian contemplative prayer I began to learn how to let the text read me and to let it bring my needs and the Spirit’s movements within me to consciousness.8

He is describing, as he notes elsewhere, a movement beyond a merely critical way of reading into a post-critical mode. This applies not only to the reading of scripture, but to one’s relationship with symbols in general.

We can best appreciate this by contrasting it with the previous two stages. Stage 3 (Synthetic-Conventional) does not separate symbols from their meaning. Not surprisingly, Stage 3 regards the “demythologization” strategy of Stage 4 as threatening.9 Those at Stage 4 (Individuative-Reflective) tend to see symbols as “media for meanings that can be expressed in other ways.”

“Conjunctive faith,” Fowler writes, “cannot live with the demythologizing strategy of Stage 4 as regards the interpretation of story or myth or the understanding of symbol and liturgy”:

Stage 4 is concerned to question symbolic representations and enactments and to force them to yield their meaning for translation into conceptual or propositional statements. As such, Individuative-Reflective faith wants to bring the symbolic representations into its (Stage 4’s) circle of light and to operate on it, extracting its meanings. This leaves the person or group in Stage 4 clearly in control. The meaning so grasped may be illuminating, confronting, harshly judgmental or gently reassuring. But whatever its potential impact, its authentication and weight will be assigned in accordance with the assumptions and commitments that already shape the circle of light in which it is being question. It will not be granted the initiative.10

Conjunctive faith moves beyond the critical approach, not by retreating into the pre-critical mode of Stage 3, but by moving further into a post-critical mode. The critical skills are maintained, but the individual understands that they will not be transformed by that which is under their control. The critical tools of Stage 4 are trusted only “as tools to avoid self-deception and to order truths encountered in other ways.”11

An individual at Stage 4 is content to equate “self” with their own conscious awareness of self, but at Stage 5 they will come to terms with their unconscious—“the unconscious personal, social and species or archetypal elements that are partly determinative of our actions and responses.. Stage 5 comes to terms with the fact that the conscious ego is not master in its own house.”12

Finally, Stage 5 recognises that the symbols, doctrines, myths, etc., of their tradition are incomplete and partial. They are inevitable conditioned by the circumstances out of which they emerged. Therefore, many individuals at this stage will look beyond their own tradition:

Conjunctive faith…is ready for significant encounters with other traditions than its own, expecting that truth has disclosed and will disclose itself in those traditions in ways that may complement or correct its own.13


1. James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith, 198. The age distribution chart in Stages, 318 shows that 14.6% of Fowler’s subjects aged 31-40 were solidly at Stage 5, and 3.3% of those were in Stages 4-5. This reflects research done in the 1970s; I suspect the number might be higher today.

2. Fowler, Faithful Change, 64.

3. Fowler, Stages, 185.

4. Fowler, Faithful, 64.

5. Fowler, Stages, 185.

6. Fowler, Stages, 185.

7. Fowler, Stages, 185-186. See Walter Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation, for a pretty good explanation of the difference between Stage 4 and Stage 5 ways of reading scripture. Unfortunately, Wink does not seem to appreciate that the ability to read scripture in the way he advocates requires a higher level of spiritual development than many historical critics have attained.

8. Fowler, Stages, 186.

9. Fowler, Stages, 163. Fundamentalism was largely a Stage 3 reaction to critical, Stage 4 methods of reading scripture. The fearful reaction against “modernism” in the Catholic Church, which is still ongoing, is similar, though not limited to ways of reading scripture.

10. Fowler, Stages, 187.

11. Fowler, Stages, 188.

12. Fowler, Stages, 186.

4 Responses to Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

  1. For starters, I find this fascinating and I’m convinced it has some truth in it. But one area of skepticism I have is that the model of faith defined as ‘most advanced’ is the model that tends most towards Western ideals of religious pluralism (or syncretism) and individualism. I am not saying that this discounts the model completely, but the correlation between specifically Western (and not necessarily Biblical) ideals, and the fact that the author was raised in a Western milieu, raises doubts as to whether this can be called a universal model of faith, rather than a pattern that has been observed to recur among persons of faith in Western (anglophone) society.

    • I don’t think it necessarily involves individualism or pluralism. Stage six is mostly about finding a greater community and connectedness which is something that unites people, and admitting the paradox or that there are multiple sides when viewing the truth is not to say that one must believe that everything is right. Rather, everyone has something to contribute, and that you can learn from. Further, the deepest needs of a person may in fact be the same needs that led someone else to believe in something else that on the outside seems completely different. And so I often feel that people have a lot more in common with one another than they realize.

  2. I disagree with littlecloudsong.
    Having studied indigenous cultures, I believe they are very comfortable with a Stage 5 Faith. The idea that it is “individualistic” is a mistaken interpretation.

  3. Alina Calin says:

    I believe this works even in the Eastern world (where I come from). Being comfortable or not in a Stage is up to an individual openness to God’s plan with each of us and trusting him to lead us. It has to do with culture only as much as it accepts those stages providing support or makes it more of a struggle for those who feel inclined to move beyond, because that’s where they find truth. In my culture most religious people ignore, avoid or pretend Stage 4 does not exist (and whatever would be afterwards), for which reason some people leave their religion and seek something else. But this is uncontrollable by us, while truth and God is present in every stage and salvation exists in all of them, it is up to God to lead a person further regardless of the cultural comfort/openness of the society, but depending on one’s openness to God’s work and God’s plan – so this is lived at individual level in silence or perhaps under persecution of a culture that does not want it/accept it/see it as good.

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