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Entering the unitive life: A study of Fowler's Faith Stages 5 and 6 and the intervening transition

Elizabeth Way Howlett, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The purpose of this study was to determine whether there are any conditions necessary and/or sufficient to facilitate a transition between Stages Five and Six, as described by Fowler's Faith Developmental theory (1981). This transition is currently of significance because of the widespread interest in mystical experiences, many of which occur after Stage Five. Twelve conditions were selected to be studied. The conditions were investigated through in-depth interviews with 4 men and 8 women in or past midlife who were known to be spiritual leaders in some sense. Fowler's Faith Development Interview was used to ascertain the stages of the interviewees, 5 of whom proved to be at Stage Five, 2 at the 5/6 transition. Other questions focused on the particular conditions under consideration. The results showed that all of the subjects had chosen a path before they came to Stage Five. All but one had worked with a teacher. All had a deep motivation to experience self-transcendence. All had some practice of spiritual discipline and of detached living. In addition, books and solitude were found to be important in most spiritual journeys, while Hardy's "triggers" (1979) were present in several. Openness to spiritual experiencing was found to be universally present. Using Underhill's (1961) criteria, the Dark Night of the Soul, "self-naughting" humility, and the Unitive social activism were all absent. Since no subject was found at Stage 6, the conditions were analyzed for their necessity and/or sufficiency in facilitating movement along the Mystic Way. The conclusions pointed to a "trigger" experience and openness to spiritual experiencing as prerequisites to Awakening, motivation to transcend, choice of a path and teacher as prerequisites to Purgation, spiritual disciplines, detachment and solitude as practices emerging in Purgation. Illumination was usually preceded by a shift to an inner teacher. No condition was deemed to be sufficient to facilitate movement. Most interviewees mentioned a sense of "mystery" or "grace" in their discussion of mystical experiences, pointing to "the initiative of the Transcendent," which Fowler (1974) suggests is central in a stage shift from Five to Six.

Subject Area

Religious education

Recommended Citation

Howlett, Elizabeth Way, "Entering the unitive life: A study of Fowler's Faith Stages 5 and 6 and the intervening transition" (1989). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9011742.