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The Rev. James W. Fowler influenced many pastors and others with his book

Photos courtesy HarperOne and Emory University

The Rev. James W. Fowler influenced many pastors and others with his book "Stages of Faith." Photos courtesy HarperOne and Emory University

Scholar left mark with `Stages of Faith’

By Sam Hodges
October 20, 2015 | (UMNS)

James W. Fowler was a preacher’s kid who himself became an ordained United Methodist minister, but it was as a scholar and author that he exerted considerable influence.

Fowler’s 1981 book “Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning,” has gone through more than 50 printings in its U.S. edition and remains required reading in many college and seminary courses.

Through his books, teaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and directing Emory’s Center for Ethics, Fowler would help shape the thinking of many pastors and others.

He died Oct. 16 in Atlanta, at age 75, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

As word of his death spread, fellow United Methodists offered tributes.

“James Fowler was an exemplary Christian scholar who sought to integrate the best in empirical research and theory with theological reflection,” said the Rev. Stephen Rankin, chaplain of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I never met him personally, but I learned much from him through his writings.”

A Methodist upbringing

Fowler was an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference and grew up in that part of the state, including at Lake Junaluska, where his Methodist pastor father was superintendent of the famed conference and retreat center for some years.

“My father and family were neither fundamentalists nor evangelicals, in today’s sense,” Fowler once wrote. “They were Methodists in the tradition of John Wesley’s sacramental, musical, scripturally based and intellectually informed preaching and teaching.”

Fowler graduated with honors from United Methodist-related Duke University. Retired United Methodist Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey roomed with him there, and married Fowler’s sister, Margaret.

“He was hard-working and brilliant, and a real campus leader,” said McCleskey, who will preach at Fowler’s memorial service on Saturday, Oct. 24, at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on the Emory campus in Atlanta.

Fowler and his wife, Lurline Locklair Fowler, both studied at the United Methodist theological school at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He served as youth minister of Madison United Methodist Church and she was director of Christian education.

From there, they went to Harvard University, where Fowler earned his doctorate in the Religion and Society program, studying with such renowned scholars as Robert Bellah, H. Richard Niebuhr, John Rawls and Harvey Cox.

Fowler had already been a civil rights advocate, joining in the 1963 March on Washington. Later in the ’60s he would host young African Americans in leadership workshops at Lake Junaluska. There, he also worked with the Rev. Carlyle Marney in establishing Interpreters’ House, a ministry focused on helping clergy and laity struggling with faith and vocation issues.

Hired to teach at Harvard Divinity School, Fowler encountered Lawrence Kohlberg, a professor in the graduate school of education who had developed the stage theory of moral development. Kohlberg introduced Fowler to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, which Fowler found complemented the work of the psychologist Erik Erikson.

Fowler drew on these influences, as well as 359 interviews done by himself and his graduate students, to produce his own faith development theory. The theory is detailed in “Stages of Faith,” published after he joined the faculty at Candler School of Theology, one of the 13 United Methodist seminaries.

“When the book came out we all knew that it was something groundbreaking and rich and significant,” McCleskey said.

The book differentiates faith from religious beliefs, arguing that faith is a human universal which represents a person’s ongoing, dynamic approach to finding meaning in life.

Fowler lays out six stages of faith development, beginning with early childhood and carrying such titles as mythic-literal, individuative-reflective, conjunctive and (finally) universalizing. That stage of self-sacrifice for social justice was reached, in Fowler’s view, by such figures as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

“Stages of Faith” quickly found its way onto seminary reading lists. The Rev. Sid Hall, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, was introduced to it at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology in the early 1980s. He considers Fowler’s theory crucial to his own understanding of his parishioners’ faith journeys.

“I can’t stress enough how Fowler’s articulation of these stages has helped me navigate language, sermons, liturgy, the type of classes offered and even the children’s curriculum we’ve used,” Hall said.

About 150,000 copies of “Stages of Faith” have been printed since its 1981 publication, and the book has been translated into Danish, German and Portuguese, said HarperOne publicist Suzanne Wickham.

Sharon Daloz Parks was a graduate student of Fowler’s, and would go on to write the book “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith.” She credits Fowler’s ideas as having “core” importance for her and many others.

 “Jim’s work provided the central bridge between constructive developmental psychology, or life-span psychology, and the formation of faith,” she said. “It has had significant influence in pastoral practice, and has informed the work of spiritual directors.”

Ethics Center leader

Fowler would write or edit 10 other books and more than 60 articles on practical theology and theological ethics. There have been four books published about his scholarship. He won major awards from the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association, as well as an honorary doctor of divinity degree from the University of Edinburgh.

Fowler was tapped by Emory to be the first director of its Center for Ethics, holding that position from 1994 until he retired in 2005.

“Under Jim's leadership the Ethics Center grew to become a major force at Emory and across the nation,” said James Laney, former president of Emory and former dean of Candler.

Fowler is survived by his wife, two daughters and their husbands, four grandchildren, and other family members. He donated his neurological organs to the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Emory.

McCleskey said that Fowler, while a busy scholar and voracious reader, did not lead a cloistered life. He was a positive person who lifted others’ spirits, and went out of his way to offer encouragement, the bishop said.

He also was a great storyteller and lover of the North Carolina mountains, as well an accomplished tenor who especially enjoyed singing the hymns he’d grown up with.

As he dealt with Alzheimer’s, his wife would play CDs of hymns for him.

“Even when he couldn’t sing the words any more, he would carry the tune and often the harmony,” McCleskey said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org