Stage 0 – “Pre-Faith”

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series The Stages of Spiritual Growth

Ok, I said that in my series ‘The Stages of Spiritual Growth‘, I was going to look at each Stage individually in more detail*. And the first instalment of that is presented here today.

In all of these commentaries, I will of course be using my own ideas, but I will also incorporate ideas and descriptions from others, some of which text will be copied and pasted directly since I consider that they are best expressed like that. I will not differentiate these passages in the text, but I will include links to my source materials (if used) in the References section at the end of each piece.

I should say here that the early Stages of Spiritual Development (Fowler 0, 1 and 2; Peck I) are not what we are mainly concerned with in this series, since most of my readers will no longer be in the ‘early’ stages, although some may yet be, as we shall see. But I will be discussing those early Stages in these first two instalments because they are important and relevant not only to people still in those Stages (and to those caring for these people) but also as a stepping-stone to show how we got here from there.

Today, I’m going to look at the ‘formative’ Stage 0 – a stage mentioned only by Fowler and considered by some to not be a ‘Stage of Faith’.

Stage 0

James Fowler’s stages start with what he calls a “pre-stage” that refers to infancy, called ‘Undifferentiated Faith’. It is also referred to as ‘Stage 0’, and it can also be thought of as “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith. It takes place from birth to approximately 2 years. It is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and language which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.

In this ‘pre-stage’, the infant, (it is surmised, since they are rarely interviewed!) develops basic trust and mutuality (or lack thereof) with the ones providing care. The quality of interactions in this phase underly all future faith development for the individual.

So this means that, despite this Stage being seen by some as not even earning a mention as a recognised Stage, still this is a vital area in a person’s spiritual development. Remember that humans begin their development – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual – from the very moment they are born. It is therefore equally vital that a child at this age is given a safe, secure and well-provided environment in which they can grow healthily in all of the ways mentioned above. As we are talking here about Spiritual Growth, let’s concentrate on that aspect. Interestingly and paradoxically, although we might not see children of this age as having ‘faith’, in actual fact they very much do so.

It is in fact a faith in those who are (or should be) providing that growth environment.

Think about it. A very young child has to have absolute trust – which, at this Stage, is analogous to faith, if you like – in those who provide for them – family, foster parents, whoever. What else can they do but to have that trust? Where else will they get what they need? They certainly cannot provide or obtain anything for themselves; there is a complete helplessness in this Stage that is quite unlike that experienced in any other Stage. Certainly the Biblical phrase ‘defining’ faith (amongst other things) as being ‘… the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb 11:1 (KJV) ) is quite apt in this context!

And therefore the model, if you like, of any object worthy (or otherwise) of our trust is based very strongly on our formative times with these providers and/or carers. If we are well-loved and cared for, we will generally be people who find it easier to trust in God later in life. It’s a very simple form of trust, a ‘childlike faith’, if you like, that simply knows that everything good will be provided by benevolent carers, without needing to worry about the source, frequency or quality of that provision. On the other hand, a bad experience at this age will undoubtedly set the child up for a difficult time in being able to trust. And the main take-home message for us fron this stage is this : Faith and Trust are closely related. In fact, at this Stage, they are indistinguishable.

Fowler himself formally puts it like this:

“In the pre-stage called Undifferentiated faith the seeds of trust, courage, hope and love are fused in an undifferentiated way and contend with sensed threats of abandonment, inconsistencies and deprivations in an infant’s environment. Though really a pre-stage and largely inaccessible to empirical research of the kind we pursue, the quality of mutuality and the strength of trust, autonomy, hope and courage (or their opposites) developed in this stage underlie (or threaten to undermine) all that comes later in faith development

“The emergent strength of faith in this stage is the fund of basic trust and the relational experience of mutuality with the one(s) providing primary love and care.

“The danger or deficiency in the stage is a failure of mutuality in either of two directions. Either there may emerge an excessive narcissism in which the experience of being ‘central’ continues to dominate and distort mutuality, or experiences of neglect or inconsistencies may lock the infant in patterns of isolation and failed mutuality.

“Transition to Stage 1 begins with the convergence of thought and language, opening up the use of symbols in speech in ritual play” (1)

So, when thought and language begin to open the child up to the use of symbols in speech and ritual play, the child moves on to Stage 1: “Intuitive-Projective” Faith which is typical of children ages 2 through 7. We’ll take a look at Stage 1 next time, along with Stage 2, and compare these Stages with Peck’s Stage I.

See you soon.


Wikipedia’s page on James W Fowler

Wikipedia’s page on M. Scott Peck

Website of Margaret Placentra Johnson

1. James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. Harper San Francisco, 1995, p.121

*I must say at this point that although I am a Polymath (that’s someone who knows a lot about/is good at a lot of different things), I am not trained in any form of psychology, psychiatry or anything similar apart from in basic counselling skills, and that was a long time ago 🙂 Much of what I write here is from a layman’s point of view, but based on a fair bit of life-wisdom and personal experience in observing and participating in discussions between people at different Stages of Faith.

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