The Pilgrim of the Cross at the End of His Journey- Thomas Cole

I am a Mormon. I was raised one, I was baptized one, and I have stayed one all throughout my life so far. Being Mormon is part my identity; it’s what I breathe, it’s my culture and in ways, my ethnicity as a native-born Utahan (though I have lived the majority of my life in Arizona).

I recognize all of this. I love and cherish my Mormon culture and ancestry. I look to the sacrifices many in my pioneer heritage made in crossing the plains, I look to how they clung to their faith and their family to help them endure the unforgiving wilderness as they trudged along, hoping to find the Promised Land of their dreams: Zion. This Hijrah-episode in my ancestry speaks volumes to me of the triumph of the human spirit against highly formidable odds, the value of faith and scripture in the lives of believers, and foremost a deep wellspring of gratitude for those on whose shoulders I now stand.

I love my Mormon identity and without it, I simply just wouldn’t be the same individual. Nonetheless, I do find it a crucial skill and exercise to be able to step back, examine my own perspective, and realize that my story is just one among many. Recently though, I have been studying up on what is referred to as Fowler’s Stages of Faith; which is a system of studying human faith development similar in ways to Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development or Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. After reading such, I thought it would be of great benefit for me to describe and paint my own faith journey within the context of Fowler’s framing. In this, I look to give an honest and vulnerable expression of what I have been through and where I now stand within Mormonism. I find such to be of unique importance in light of the coming 2-year mission that I wish to serve. Anyways, I hope you enjoy as I first 1) define Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development and then 2) depict my own faith journey and present standing within.

What are Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development?

Essentially, Fowler lists six stages representing various periods or kinds of faith development that he observed after studying hundreds of different individuals varying in age, gender, race, and religious backgrounds. The six stages that he lists are as follows:

Stage One: Intuitive-Projective

This stage represents the formulative years in a young child’s development in which basic understandings of morality, God, and reality are often obtained. Due to the infantile or mostly undeveloped state of cognitive development, children in this category often struggle to separate fantasy with reality- myth and legend with fact and objective experience. Nonetheless, this is a vital time in which the individual develops a loving connection between themselves and their caregivers and come to experience ritual and religious life by participating alongside their family in religious settings. The ability to think in abstract ways, understand complex concepts, or entertain various perspectives other than their own have not been developed. Faith, at this stage, is a series of impressions rather than a thoroughly understood base of thoughts and beliefs. Such generally takes place in pre-school age children or younger and will mature as they grow in their own cognitive development.

Stage Two: Mythic-Literal 

The second stage that Fowler presents is one representing a somewhat similar form of the first, though set apart by a matured ability to think logically and understand more abstract concepts. Usually composed of youth age 6-12, Mythic-Literals most often completely accept the stories told to them by their elders and religious leaders; understanding such to be quite literal and as fully representative of reality at large. It is not until adolescence and the further growth of individual identity apart from outside influence, that this stage is usually advanced from, albeit at times in dramatic or sudden ways. Children at this age do gain the ability to separate fact from fiction, but often do not apply these same standards to their own religious or spiritual beliefs to any large extent. Faith at this juncture is mainly concrete and experienced, and it is not until later in this stage that individuals come to an understanding that the world contains many people quite different in belief than their own. An expansion of authority grows in this stage past family and friends to also include teachers and religious instructors. It is quite rare for any person to remain a Stage Two through adulthood.

Stage Three: Synthetic-Conventional

This stage is marked usually by a dramatic awakening into a heightened sense of reality and individualization. Most often composed of teenagers, individuals in this stage feel and intense drive to take the varied points of their own experiences, differing perspectives, and social circles and attempt to construct some continuity or formality to them. Usually, this occurs in the form of one’s true adoption of an organized belief system or school of thought so as to easily explain the world and its chaos. This box that is constructed is often seen as the end-all, be-all for how the world works and as such, individuals often struggle or refuse to step outside of it into a foreign unknown. Many remain in this stage throughout all of life, and place authority in whatever stands at the head of their own worldview, whether it be a religious leader, scripture, or organized dogma. This gives them a sense of internal security and stability allows them to see the world through the concrete lens that they have adopted. In looking towards others who have advanced this stage such as Fours, Fives, or Sixes, such can be seen as compromising of a necessary belief system, of rejecting the status quo, of radicalizing or becoming apostate, or being dangerous and unstable in their beliefs when in reality, they are actually farther along the developmental path. Stage Three’s see their personal beliefs as not being “inside” any belief system but instead being an accurate representation of objective reality as a whole. Adherence to one’s beliefs are often dogmatic and are not welcoming of critical or skeptical examination. The common attitude held here is that there exists a definite answer for everything, and individuals often look to an external belief system to provide such. With a heightening ability to grapple with abstract thought, there now takes place a shift in the individual so that the manifold stories and religious lessons they were taught early on become organized into a cohesive and principled worldview. It is here that multiple layers of symbol and meaning inherent in one’s beliefs can be contemplated. If inconsistencies, contradictions, or issues arise in the worldview, they are often placed on a cognitive “shelf” of sorts to collect dust until a later date. It’s not until this shelf becomes too heavy to further ignore that it often cracks, collapses, and violently forces the individual tumbling into Stage 4. This often occurs during the true period of individual discovery and growth, that journey out of familiarity; college and early adult life. Still though, such is not always the case for everyone, and many individuals can happily live out their lives comfortable within the stability offered by Stage Three.

Stage Four: Individuative-Reflective

Marked by a high degree of internal skepticism, a focus on critical examination, logic, and deductive reasoning, and even heightened rates of distrust or doubt, the Individuative-Reflective Stage for many represents the “crisis of faith” period in their development; and for those who don’t come to find the reconciliation or closure they need, the end of faith altogether. Described by many as the “Dark Night of the Soul”, Stage Four is that time of painful contemplation over one’s preconceived understandings of God, faith, the universe, and reality that they have for so long held as a base of stability and consolation in a confusing world. Individuals in this stage come to recognize that their story represents one among many, that their own worldview creates a box or lens through which they see and judge the world. Critical questions and radical shifts in thinking are rife in this stage, as the individual considers the validity of their deeply held beliefs among the contradictions and problems they come to discover. To fix this they seek answers, but different than in Stage Three, these answers are sought out from a variety of sources both internally, and from outside their since now relied upon base of external authority contained within their original worldview. This stage is painful, the pain stemming from an crumbling in ways of a previous foundation, and a now frightening dance with the unfamiliar. This stage contains both a destruction and reconstruction of one’s previous faith, and while they can and at times do, choose to remain in their original worldview, they do not go back to their old modes or ways of thinking. Once Stage Four is reached, life is never the same. To this, either a perpetual state of disillusionment by remaining here, or a progression towards the reconciliation found in Stage Five, is the answer. Irrespective of the end result, this is usually a stage that individuals reside and struggle through for many years.

Stage Five: Conjunctive Faith

After enduring a long night of self doubt, feelings of foundational instability, and otherwise somewhat of a existential crisis, some exit this tunnel towards the light that lay beyond. This light is new, but upon its introduction feels starkly different than what was previously experienced. Suddenly, individuals realize the limits of their own perspectives, rationality, emotions, spirituality, and experiences. They become comfortable and even nourished by the many at-times paradoxical realities and complexities of life. They thrive in the so-called sacraments of these mysteries and most often return to their original faith as a base from which to view them. The see truth in abstraction, in story, in principle, metaphor, and rich symbol. They place their focus on growing and developing as a person, and embracing life in both its ups and downs. They are aware of the defeat and the triumph, the joy and sadness, the chaos and the simplicity, that comes with living. People in this stage have found some answers, but now they are comfortable and even accepting that the answers might not always come. They are open and receptive on hearing the faith perspectives and journeys of others, cognizant that their views and experiences have the capacity to inform and deepen their own. Complimentary to deep personal introspection is the desire to feed and foster an emphasis on the important role of community in faith development. Stage Fives are often a faith’s brilliant outliers; thinkers, reformers, change-makers, and fringe leaders. As much of Conjunctive Faith is reliant upon a wider scope of life experiences and previous challenges, most, if they ever reach it, don’t due so until their late 30’s or 40’s. Individuals in Stage Five appreciate and thrive in learning about other’s views and enjoy environments that grow and challenge their own. Truth is their ultimate objective, the kind that shapes their character and person to eventually culminate into the Universalizing Faith of Stage Six.

Stage Six: Universalizing Faith

Some might define this stage as the pinnacle of human existence, and indeed it is hard to define one who has entered this stage with few just words alone. A plethora of rich life experiences coupled with a truly enlightened insight leads one in this category to represent what some consider to be the farthest stage of mortal human development. As Christ puts it in Matthew 16:25, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” and indeed these people have. These are your Theresa of Calcutta’s, your Mahatma Gandhi’s, your Buddha’s, and your Saints, Sages, and Gurus throughout the ages. Within these individuals, both those named and unnamed, blazes a simple, undefiled spark of pure humanity. It is the near unanimous mission of all the world’s major faiths to bring an individual to this enlightened and refined state of existence; one characterized by the loss of one’s individual wants and needs into the full service of others. All superficial doubt or worry is cast aside as these individuals have come to understand the real underpinnings of true human existence set around sacrifice, love, compassion, unity, and selflessness. Fowler describes such individuals as having “a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.” At times, radically loving humans such as these who unashamedly challenge the status quo can be seen as threatening to those in authority or power, and thus persecution, alienation, and at times martyrdom have been their fate. These are the rarest of all the stages, but likewise the best equipped to bring real change and justice to the broken world we currently reside in.

And now that I have defined said stages, I wish to track and describe my own faith journey accordingly.

My Journey Along Fowler’s Stages of Faith 

Stage One: Intuitive-Projective

Although this stage would have occurred quite early in my life and personal development, it was here that I was first introduced with love and care from my parents and family. A bond was formed that would be later understood to be the tender and primal connection between child and progenitor. I imagine, like most other children raised in a religious setting, that I quickly learned to imitate those around me in the most simplistic instances of religious action such as formulaically bowing my head and folding my arms in prayer, coming to understand the differentiation of sacred and secular space (such as inside and outside of a church building), and being impressed with the childhood stories retold from both fairytales and scriptures, not quite yet separating the two nor understanding their moral implications. The world was small, simple, and mostly happy. I would have yet to recognize that it existed outside of my own sphere. Although unable to yet read, I became fascinated with books and their illustrations. Color, sight, sound, smell and just life in general was only known to exist within the sphere of my own experience.

Stage Two: Mythic-Literal 

Upon continuing to grow and mature in my cognitive development, I progressed through the juvenile rituals and social circles offered by my faith tradition. Encompassing more of age 5-11 for myself, I spent these years participating in Primary, Sunday School and Cub Scouts while also being happily raised within a loving family. A basic and introductory understanding of Mormonism was imparted to me consisting of basic elements such as the person of Jesus Christ as Savior, the role of Prophets and Apostles as current faith leaders, the importance of scripture contained in both the Bible, Book of Mormon and other texts, the distinction between churches and temples as well as a simple view of the unique rites held within (baptism, sacrament, and marriage), and finally a general narrative of the LDS Plan of Salvation understood in easy-to-recognize illustrated terms such as would be contained within a child’s coloring book. I remember looking to heroes, notable figures, and legendary stories within the scriptures such as in the Bible (like Daniel and the Lion’s Den, Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, and the Passion of the Christ), the Book of Mormon (like Lehi’s Vision, Nephi building a ship to the Promised Land, Ammon dismembering the arms of the king’s enemies, the Brother of Jared, and Christ’s Visit to the Temple at Bountiful), and even early LDS Church History (such as Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the Translation of the Book of Mormon, the Persecutions of the Early Saints, the Martyrdom, and the Exodus to the Utah Territory). These stories were larger than life to me and filled me with a sense of awe and wonder.

I remember being in elementary school and upon New York City being referenced as part the lesson, I raised my hand and proudly told the class that my father had served a mission there. Much to my surprise, I remember both the teacher and the students around me being confused as to what a mission actually was. They asked if it was a business mission, another friend of mine thinking that it was some kind of armed forces- type operation. I remember being just feeling totally misunderstood, questioning why in this environment people didn’t understand even a simple concept such as a “mission”. It would not be until later that it would dawn on me that not everyone in the world was a Mormon. I soon became aware of the presence of other religious vernacular common to Mormonism get thrown around a lot in my parent’s conversations. “Oh, their whole family are members“, “His sister is LDS“, and “They were investigators for several years until they joined the Church.” It didn’t take long for me to learn to separate such language when conversing in non-church related circles.

Most likely around age 7 or so, I likewise became aware of the concept of religion as a whole. I recall being at a swim practice late at night, clinging to the wall alongside a friend whose name now escapes me (perhaps such means he was not that good of a friend). While awaiting our turn to do laps, I suddenly felt inclined to ask him as to what religion he was. Such words had never been spoken by myself before and so I felt a bit odd asking. To this, he replied that his family were Lutherans. All I remember is swimming away now wondering what on earth that meant! And so I was baptized later that year upon turning 8. While not necessarily understanding in full the covenants I was making -ironic given that such is deemed the “age of accountability within my tradition- it did represent an important cultural and spiritual milestone that I was happy to oblige in. Only looking back now can I say that time and experience have matured my understanding of said covenants, myself being completely fine with the early age in which such occurred. As I grew in this stage, I became more aware of the “bubble” that I resided in within Mormonism. I wouldn’t find the need to really enter into Stage Three until pushed there by a dramatic and unexpected occurrence within my own life; that is, my mother’s transition out of the faith with which I was raised.

Stage Three: Synthetic-Conventional and Stage Four: Individuative-Reflective

Age 12 was when my mother officially, or more totally, left the Church. I remember not only recognizing the sudden absence of much of our LDS literature from our house, but also going to attend a worship service with her at a local non-denominational one rainy Sunday morning. I was young and so I joined the other pre-teen youth for a Bible study; with my clunky quad –another Mormon colloquialism for our four books of scripture- I stood out like a sore thumb. A student my same age asked if I was new and what church I came from. I told him that this was my first time and that I was a Mormon. In hearing that, his eyes drew wide, he gasped and said, “That’s really bad! My parents told me that Mormons are going to hell!” Looking back now, I harbor no hard feelings to his sentiment, however then such represented the first time someone had suggested that was going to hell. Wasn’t that where all the evil people were sent? It gave me plenty to consider at the time, and as time progressed would become part of a wider question that I would have to come to terms with.

I have chosen to combine both Stage Three and Stage Four together as I feel both were too intertwined within my experience so as to distinctly separate them. Over the course of age 12-16 or so, I was an active participant in both the Evangelical and Mormon faith communities. I would either switch attendance on weekly intervals alongside my siblings, or else go to both churches on Sunday if time permitted. I would go to LDS Boy Scouts on Wednesdays and Christian Small Group Bible Study on Tuesdays. I also went to summer camps for each. As per the account of the Prophet Joseph Smith in reflecting on his upbringing around a similar age in his Joseph Smith- History , it was a time of great religious excitement and confusion for me. As my own cognitive abilities increased, I became more aware at the differences in beliefs being represented at both churches. At the same time, I had decided to research some of the reasons my mother had found that served in ways as a catalyst for her leaving the faith. I dove headlong into what could be considered “Anti-Mormon Literature” by most Mormons, (I prefer the term critical literature nowadays), and quickly became more well-read on the issues than she. I learned of the various criticisms and “problems” surrounding various aspects of Mormonism such as the debated historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon/ Book of Abraham, various issues in Church History spanning subjects from the practice of plural marriage to the Priesthood Ban, and also the personal character of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Much of what I read was shocking and greatly shook my foundations. In many ways they crumbled, barely held together by a tender care to not disturb them further while also remaining deeply embedded in the Mormon community as an active participant in the Boy Scouts and Young Men’s Program. For starters, my view of Joseph Smith was reduced to more a feeling of stark uneasiness bordering outright dislike. My view of the Church as an organization was now one plagued with worries of a leadership or structure containing sinister ulterior motives. While being both intensely skeptical, I also coupled my critical research with Mormon apologetic materials, mostly from FairMormon and the Maxwell Institute (the FARMS Review for sure). While still appreciative of much of their materials, my problem then was that they stood as the external authority to which I clung to retain my faith. If a particular criticism arose that I was largely concerned with, I would simply inoculate myself with whatever answer FAIR had to offer. So while both being an active searcher of stability and Truth by looking to a multitude of both pro and critical sources, I did give favor to the ones which confirmed my preconceived ideas.

So for a while, as long as my faith was being assaulted and battered, I was also trying to put up fortifications and scaffolding to hold it all together. It wasn’t until age 15 and 16, after an advanced period of exposure to non-Christian and irreligious worldviews, that I had realized the error in my line of thinking and so really made the effort to broaden my horizons and seriously consider a wide spectrum of beliefs and opinions made by all kinds of religious and philosophical schools of thought. I would slowly emerge from years of internal doubt, confusion, and anxiety over my own state of beliefs to change into a collective which was comfortable amidst seeking answers and inviting of personal growth and development. The more I did this and studied other faith traditions, the less painful Stage Four became. I was slowly gaining Stage Five outlooks and perspectives and allowing them to mature and develop with added life experiences.

Stage Five: Conjunctive Faith

I can’t say with complete confidence that I am fully in Stage Five. As much as I would like to be and feel in ways that my thinking and current spiritual state is reflective of much of Conjunctive Faith, I am hesitant to peg myself fully within due to lack of life experience commonly only attained within one’s mid-life years. I can say that the Mormonism that I now believe in and am drawn towards is quite different in ways than that with which I believed in at Stage Two and Three. Many of my views are nuanced, progressive, and adapted so as to fit consistently with how I really see Truth, God, and the world. I don’t consider this cherry-picking by any means, instead I have attempted to understand Mormonism in all its abstractions, data points, and paradoxes as best I can and such is the end result. In many ways, I appreciate the term coined by the online ghost-writer Randall Bowen from LDS Church is True Blog as the “Sacramental/Metaphorical” paradigm of Mormonism, although I cannot say that I hold to many of his same views. How I do see the world is almost entirely through symbol, principle, metaphor, myth, and abstraction. I do believe in Absolute Truth, I have a strong testimony of the foundational truth claims of Mormonism, and I am actively prepared to devote the next two years of my life in sharing that message.

At the same time I love to embrace and explore Truth wherever I can find it. As Brigham Young can be quoted in saying, in far stronger language than I would use I might add, as:

“It is our duty and calling, as ministers of the same salvation and Gospel, to gather every item of truth and reject every error. Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth, it is the business of the Elders of this Church (Jesus, their Elder Brother, being at their head) to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, … to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion.” (DBY, 248)

At times it can be difficult seeing the world (and Mormonism) in this way. Seminary, Sunday School, and interactions with other members on different stages can produce a feeling of loneliness, anomaly, and hesitancy in expressing my faith in a manner which is authentic to me personally, but potentially foreign or threatening to others. Having a Stage Five outlook within a largely Stage Three faith community can be intimidating, and I say none of this out of personal pride or arrogance. I have come to respect and honor where everyone is at in their individual journey, and try mainly to keep to myself and invite positive change where appropriate. As for my mission, I will protect the need to remain personally authentic, with my focus being on individual development, loss in the service of my fellow man and the Savior, and an open desire to share light and Truth where I can in order to make a positive impact in the lives of those I will surround myself with. After the mission, I will come back to continue this search for Truth by majoring in Religious Studies at Arizona State University. My life is centered upon Truth as my ultimate objective, the kind that will gradually shape and perfect my character and person to eventually culminate into the Universalizing Faith of Stage Six; my own apotheosis.

Stage Six: Universalizing Faith

I doubt that I could or will attain to this within my mortal experience here on earth. Nonetheless, in this journey that is life, I will continue to do my best to learn, grow, develop, and progress in the example of my Savior Jesus Christ. Irrespective of the Christ found in history or scripture is the one I have found as the most personally impactful and powerful symbol of Stage Six. The Act of His Atonement is one that I see, regardless of one’s own theological views, as a universal symbol of selflessness, sacrifice, and pure mercy, charity, and love. It is this force that draws me to Him, inviting me to participate in a state of “At-One-Ment” with Himself. I cannot readily imagine what this kind of Universalizing Faith truly feels like, however it is in the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Christ that I see this as my potential future. Such is my hope, may I not easily lose focus on this.


Life is long. I am young. I am quite aware of my limitations and my own finite perspective. Despite all this, I wish to love, I wish to learn, and I wish to grow into the person that Christ would have me be. By studying Fowler’s Stages of Faith, I have been able to gain validation in much of what I have experienced. May we all continue in our journeys, I know that they are ours for a reason.

-Jaxon Washburn


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