Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

James Fowler and Unitarian Universalism

The following is text I drafted for a post I was thinking of posting on my UU church’s online discussion forum:
In UU circles in recent months, there appears to have been an explosion in interest in the work of Methodist minister and Christian theologian Rev. James Fowler--specifically, his theory of faith development, which he first stated in his 1981 book, Stages of Faith. If a Google results page (say, this one) is any indication, Fowler’s theory is extremely “hot” within UUism right now. I know it’s led me to read Stages.

Given the content of Fowler’s system, though, his popularity in our circles frightens me. In his book, and in the many articles he has written since, Fowler forthrightly declares some religious perspectives (including some that are common in UUism) to be inherently superior than others (including some that are common in UUism!), and his treatment of people who are in insufficiently “developed” stages of faith is consistently disrespectful and insulting.

By themselves, those facts would not be terribly troubling. Fowler is presenting:
  • a Theory of All Human Belief
  • concocted by a Christian apologist
  • that serves primarily to aggrandize the author and people who agree with him,
  • while maligning and dismissing his opponents as insufficiently “advanced” in their conceptions of fact and value.
In the hard-core world of Christian apologetics, demeaning material like that is neither new nor surprising. The problem is that a disturbing number of UU ministers are currently buying into the theory, and several of them have not been bashful about parroting the personal attacks Fowler directs at those of us who hold ideas--including UU ones--that he disdains. That development, I think, represents a very serious problem.

Fowler’s theory purports to explain “faith development” starting from birth, but the meat of his system is in the “faith stages” that adults generally achieve (and potentially get “stuck in”)--he denotes these Stage 3, Stage 4, and Stage 5. Fundamental to Fowler’s account, as he has specifically stated, are his claims that (1) every human being “progresses” through these same stages, in the same order, until and unless they get stuck, and (2) later stages (the ones with higher numbers) are superior to earlier ones.

Stage 3, then, is associated with mainstream acceptance of traditional religions; one UU minister pushing Fowler’s theory explained that in Stage 3, “questions are silenced and conformity wins. [....] Most people stop their faith development here, and remain at this stage.” That account is typical of the demeaning attitude Fowler and his fans present toward “most people”’s unenlightened acceptance of the religious traditions they were born into.

Perhaps more alarming in a UU context, however, is the treatment of Stage 4, the stage of “demythologizing”--or, as another UU-clergy fan of Fowler put it, the stage of rationalism.

At this point Fowler and the UUs echoing him bring out a string of cruel assertions to describe how demythologizers end up oppressed and ruined by the very thought processes that allowed us to escape Stage 3. We unfortunates in Stage 4, according to Fowler, suffer from “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 own world view.” Reportedly, Fowler has gone further in other work; as one promoter among the UU clergy put it, allegedly quoting the man himself:
These persons [in Stage 4] are often unaware of the sharp limits of their empathy and their abilities to construct and identify with the interior feelings and processes of others. Religiously, these persons are often drawn to the rigidities and seemingly unambiguous teachings of fundamentalism--and there are liberals and radical fundamentalist spirits. As spouses, parents and bosses, such persons are, at the best, insensitive, and at the worst, rigid, authoritarian, and emotionally abusive.
My goodness, those rationalists are disgusting people.

Never fear, though: some hardy souls have thankfully shed the “second narcissism” of Stage 4. Having advanced beyond Stage 4’s Neanderthal rejection of religious beliefs, Stage 5 residents recognize and rejoice in the enlightened, brilliant post-modern methods of reclaiming those beliefs. Indeed, UU sermons pushing Fowler tell us, in Stage 5 humanity reaches near-perfection:
There’s a reclaiming, a reworking, a new kind of faith[]. And logic becomes dialectic--it results in “both and” rather than “either or” answers, and commitment to justice transcends boundaries of race or class or nationality. And people in this stage develop an ironic imagination that grasps a vision of what can be but isn’t yet. It lives in an untransformed world and tries to maintain both--the simultaneous view of many facets of all issues. The universe is understood as organically related, and people look for patterns and relatedness rather than trying to force fit data into a previous mindset.

At this level of faith[], people can enter into virtually any tradition’s religious festival with an openness to receive whatever truths are convincing and comfortably leave behind the parts of the tradition that don’t speak to truth or to their conscious or unconscious mind. There’s a readiness for significant encounters with other religious traditions.
Every single UU sermon pushing Fowler’s system I have seen treats Stage 5 this way: those of you who have made it there aren’t human beings, you’re demigods. Most clearly of all, the contrast between (1) this sycophancy toward Stage 5 divinities and (2) the personal slights, sometimes brutal ones, that the UU ministers (echoing Fowler) direct at the sorry denizens of Stages 3 and 4 is just shocking.

After a thorough Web search, I’ve found a single UU account--one--that breathes the slightest word of criticism of Fowler and his theory. The critique in question is a scholarly article by Rev. Edward Piper, a UU minister and sometime lecturer at Meadville-Lombard Theological School. It’s available in PDF form here, or directly on the Web (HTML) here.

Piper gives Fowler a substantial amount of credit for the structure his theory (far more credit, as you might guess, than I think it deserves), but he notes two major problems with the “Stages of Faith” account--problems that I would have thought would be blatant to anyone glancing this stuff whose outlook is the slightest bit liberal.

First, Piper takes Fowler to task for his methodology; his account reveals that Fowler’s attempt to support his theory with actual data is garden-variety pseudoscience. As Piper notes, Fowler conducted a bunch of interviews with selected test subjects, imposed his preconceived theory on the transcripts, and then disregarded all of the (profuse) data that didn’t fit. Ordinarily, tactics like those from a Christian theologian are just silly and easy to ignore--but in the current context, Fowler’s pretense of conducting a scientific investigation allows him (and his fans in the UU clergy) to cloak arrogant theological decrees in the language of social science. That’s not good.

Second, though, Piper turns to Fowler’s adamant demand that the stages he’s invented are a normative, hierarchical system that all human beings follow until we get stuck somewhere on our way up the ladder to demigod-hood. Fowler has specifically declared his Stages of Faith to be “hierarchical, sequential, and invariant”; “in other words,” Piper explains, “higher stages are preferable to lower ones, the stages are always experienced in the same order, and none can be left out.” (The fact that Fowler believes this, of course, was already plenty clear from his treatments of the various stages, both in Stages of Faith and elsewhere.)

Piper, unlike every other UU I have ever seen deal with this stuff, notices that Fowler’s insistence on treating differences in belief as “hierarchical and normative” presents a severe conflict with UU ideals. Criticizing Fowler’s “vertical” model (in which, indeed, Stage 5 is far above 4 and 3), Piper argues:
It is more appropriate to speak of adult faith development in terms of faith styles rather than faith stages. To do so, we must devise a model that is holistic rather than cognitive- structural, “horizontal” as well as vertical/hierarchical, and dynamic rather than invariant.
Piper then proceeds to suggest just such a “faith styles” model.

Unfortunately, the chorus of UU ministers bringing James Fowler’s religious supremacism into their congregations has failed to take the slightest notice of the concerns Piper highlights. I’m flabbergasted that these ministers see fit to follow Fowler’s model and present differences of belief as a matter of DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY. I don’t think I can state sufficiently how offensive that is.

As some of you may remember, in July 2006 I delivered a sermon entitled “Saying ‘No,’ Theologically” to our congregation. (I can e-mail the full text of the sermon to anyone who’s interested in it.) In my sermon, I recounted a search I had made on the Web, and the frightening number of UU sermons, magazine articles, and blog posts I found that denigrated and demeaned atheists, non-”spiritual” humanists, and other nonbelievers. As I said then, some of the pieces I found were unkind in ways that seem inadvertent, albeit still troubling.

Worse, though, was the considerable evidence that I found that there are more than a few UU clergy who have clearly established themselves in bitter opposition to skeptical worldviews, including the ones held by tens of thousands of UUs. These ministers have shown no qualms about writing and preaching offensive, cruel, and personal attacks on UUs whose beliefs these clergy disdain. The attacks, in turn, have seen wide circulation in official UUA publications, and their authors have occupied the most powerful posts in the Association.

My sermon was, in part, a protest of the attacks launched by these clergy, attacks which I regard as serious violations of our Principles. From the pulpit, I stated:
I think we atheists, like everyone else, are on a search for truth and meaning, and many of us have worked very hard at it. But these sermons and speeches and articles--and I'm afraid to report that I've found a lot of them--they send the message that some of my most fundamental beliefs are just the result of emotional scars, or pettiness, or ignorance. My thesis this morning is that that message violates our principles. If the only image of religious doubt that UU churches deliver is the picture of the atheist jerk on the corner haranguing innocent Christians, then our search for truth and meaning isn't free. If people who are uncomfortable with ideas like “God” or the Bible or Jesus are told that we're spiritually handicapped, “tin eared,” then our search isn't free. If we aren't allowed to say “no,” theologically, to ideas that are popular and beloved, then our search isn't free.
Today I’m sorry to add that if James Fowler’s religious-supremacist ideas are allowed to define what the stages, progression, and development of “faith” mean within UUism, then our search for truth and meaning is not free.

With the same clergy who use their hate-filled sermons (and Beacon Press books, G.A. speeches, blog posts, etc.) to bash their skeptical enemies now using James Fowler as a whip and a cudgel against us, this issue has reached a level of very uncomfortable salience for me. Which is a major reason I have composed and posted this lengthy treatise.

This is more an illustrative example than it is my central concern, but: for more than a year, I have participated as a member of an official church body called the “Faith Development Council.” As a person who doesn’t believe that he has or wants “faith” in the way he understands the term, I have never been entirely comfortable with working on a body whose aim is to promote “faith” or its “development.” It takes a significant amount of trust in my fellow members of this community to put that concern aside and rest myself on the notion that “faith” means something different, and less troublesome, to the FDC and this community in general than it does to me personally.

But things are much, much worse--and trust is simply out of the question--if, as it appears may be the case, the FDC (or our church) is officially deriving its notion of what “faith development” means from Methodist Reverend James Fowler. In that case, “faith development” is a name for a system that fundamentally marginalizes and dehumanizes anyone who believes the things that I do. Actually, I think accepting Fowler’s theory means kissing the entire First and Fourth Principles good-bye, but more to the point it means that I can’t stay here.

As is probably evident to anyone who has read this far, I am deeply uncertain whether James Fowler’s ideas, and their application to our church, leave any room for me (and indeed a large number of my UU friends and neighbors) in this community. At the moment, I confess that I am not optimistic.

- [Rieux]
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