A New Approach to Faith Development Theory

…the study of religion, spirituality, and faith […] cannot be explored through simply descriptive statistics or only quantitative models but rather complex qualitative and empirical methods within sophisticated designs.

A New Approach to Faith Development Theory

By John Rymon Bailey, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 12 March 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Heinz Streib on Faith Development Theory (4 March 2013).

Fowler’s Faith Development Theory has been most influential in guiding religious and spiritual research.  However, while this theory is highly regarded in the realm of developmental psychology, controversy abounds regarding the validity of the faith development model.  Heinz Strieb, an authority on religious studies, is at the forefront of evaluating and expounding on this model.  And, it is in his research that Streib has spent considerable academic effort in discussing the theoretical and empirical implications of Fowlers work.  Before critically reviewing the podcast, it is necessary to give a brief background on both Fowler’s and Streib’s models.

By creating six faith stages based in cognitive, social, and ethical development, Fowler is able to gauge a person’s faith development through a linear and sequential progression.  Fowler states that “stage progression, when it occurs, involves movement toward greater complexity and comprehensiveness in each of the structural aspects.  While such progression is inevitably aided by the contents of one’s faith, it is the complexity of structures, not beliefs, that allows for identification of a person’s faith stage” (Parker 234).  In contrast, Streib sees value in Fowler’s argument but questions the linearity of such a progression.  To Streib, faith development is the composition of many factors including traumas, schemata of interpersonal relationships, structural development, and “themata” or individual experiences.  “The relationship of the individual to interpersonal others in the social environment (external objects) and the relation to objects in terms of object-relations theory (internal objects) parallel each other and interrelate” (Streib 146).  Thus, Streib offers a solution, the Religious Styles Perspective, to Fowler’s traditional viewpoint that religious development is “structural, hierarchical, and sequential” (146). The Religious Styles Perspective seeks to dismiss the notion that religious styles or stages are hierarchical; rather, the layers overlap to form a heterogeneous model.  And, instead of moving in a purely linear fashion, a person is able to fluidly shift and revert back to a previous form of faith styles. Such movement can be by utility such as religious conversion or as a process of gaining the safety of a familiar style of belief as incited by a trauma or stress.  Unlike Fowler’s model, revival/regression is possible in Streib’s.  Perhaps the most interesting of Streib’s five styles is the schema of “do-ut-des,” a style that is alluded to in the podcast.

“Do-ut-des” literally translates into, “I give that you may give.”  In this stage, the child generally comes to terms with the acceptable relationship between him/herself and God.  Taking a fundamentalist approach, Streib characterizes the child as relying on the word and guidance of a higher power.  The child is apprehensive in taking a stance against the higher power because questioning the deity’s power would negate the reciprocal relationship of do-ut-des.  According to Streib, a fundamentalist approach is the key to understanding religious matters.  “Fundamentalism is the prevalence or the revival of literal understanding, of anxiety toward a taskmaster deity, of the do-ut-des juridical structure, a prevalence or revival of the reciprocal-instrumental style and part of the subjective style” (154).  Through Streib’s model and in-depth interviews with participants, he is able to see his stages as an “obstinate stability; “the earlier styles not only reemerge, but they also become predominant in matters of religion” (154).  It is in his qualitative data that Streib gets at the foundation and progression of religious development.

For this reason, in the podcast, the interviewer asks Streib about the application of his modified model in modern psychology.  Streib goes on to explain that this improved model will aid in the understanding of inter-religious relations, which is of utmost significance to Streib and his studies.  When applying the styles theory, Streib maintains that there are several research opportunities that involve the theory.  Streib discusses a few of these opportunities in the interview, and they include studies in deconversion, quantitative opportunities, and religious schemata. According to Streib, studies in deconversion allow the researcher to identify possible correlations between style and differentiation, meaning that an individual who has deconverted is more open to new experiences than someone who has never left his or her religious community. Conducting “faith development interviews” allows the researcher to find and interpret different styles of religion.  These interviews consist of twenty-five questions that review the interviewee’s relationships among his or her religious circle. Because Streib firmly believes that there is logic and causality among religious stages, it is important not to lose differentiation among religious styles, which is what these interviews strive to highlight.

Finally within Streib’s work are hints to the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his writings within the religious field and acceptance that the complexity of religion can be mapped within the sociological and psychological domains of human interaction.  Simply, Bourdieu defines the subjective mental space as “Habitus” and the context and environment around the agent of interaction the “field”. Such interactions are characterized by the interactions between the individual and their social milieu. The boundary of one’s subjectivity is socially created and reinforced. Certainly issues of experience, language, and functional competence all play a role our mental frame. Certainly Streib appears to be open to socially constructed subjectivity of the individual’s experience. The genius of Streib’s work is in recognizing the subjectively driven objective imperative. In other words, given enough subjective individuals recognize the existence of phenomena, that phenomena can shift to the objective domain thereby leaving the individual interpretative frame to the socially constructed reality of the objective. Therefore applying a mixed methodology within research creates opportunity to observe these shifts and changes between the habitus and the field.

Streib’s interest in the empirical application of grand theories such as Fowler shows the utility of visiting the academic voices of the past. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, Streib utilizes Fowler in a more empirical method. The challenge is certainly within the study of religion, spirituality, and faith. Such complex human experiences cannot be explored through simply descriptive statistics or only quantitative models but rather complex qualitative and empirical methods within sophisticated designs. This is the utility of Streib’s work, recognizing the value of grand theory and structuring complex methodological sophistication in exploration of human experience.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Born and raised in Malvern, Arkansas, I was thankful to have lived near such a prominent institution as Henderson State University. I obtained my Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from HSU, and I am currently in HSU’s Master of Liberal Arts program, emphasis in social science. Throughout my college career, I have worked full-time as a residential/commercial carpenter for my father’s construction business. And more recently, along with my full-time jobs as a carpenter and graduate student, I have been employed as a graduate assistant in HSU’s writing center. In my spare time, when I have it, I enjoy volunteering (avid volunteer for the Hot Spring County Boys and Girls Club and Garland County Habitat for Humanity), building furniture, and spending time with my family. I take great pride in everything I do, and I was thankful to have had the opportunity to contribute to the Religious Studies Project.


  • Bourdieu, P. (1980). The Logic of Practice. Stanford, Stanford University Press.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. London, Routledge.
  • Parker, Stephen. “Research in Fowler’s Faith Development Theory: A Review Article.” Review of Religious Research 51.3 (2010): 233-252. JSTOR. Web. 01 March. 2013.
  • Streib, Heinz. “Faith Development Theory Revisited: The Religious Styles Perspective.” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 11.3 (2001): 143-158. Academic Search Premier. Web. 01 March. 2013.
  • Strieb, Heinz. “Heinz Streib on Faith Development Theory.” Host Christopher Silver.  The Religious Studies Project, 2013. Audio file. 04 March. 2013.
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