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.
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.