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The Big Bang Theory of Faith: Dr Wendy Dackson



Faith is not always religious in its content or context. . .Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life.  It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives.  Faith is a person’s way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith:  The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning

Probably one of the most intelligently entertaining American situation comedies of the last 15 years is the Big Bang Theory.  Although it is perfect light viewing early on a Thursday evening (in the US, new episodes air on the CBS network at 8 pm eastern time, and there are multiple broadcasts of reruns on cable stations), Big Bang has some of the most thoughtfully developed characters and story lines, and perfectly-timed acting, of any half-hour comedy I can remember over the course of my lifetime.  The series, for those who have not watched it, is focused on the lives of four male colleagues at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstader, experimental and theoretical physicists, are roommates.  Although Sheldon, a child prodigy, has a supposedly slightly higher IQ than Leonard, he lacks his roommate’s social and life-skills.  Rajesh Koothrappali, a particle astrophysicist from New Delhi, experiences such social anxiety that he cannot converse with women without the help of alchohol; his best friend, Howard Wolowitz, is an aerospace engineer, and the only member of the group whose academic credentials do not include a doctoral degree.


I have not been a devotee of the show from its inception (it began in 2007, while I was living in England, and was not available on terrestrial British television during my time there).  However, having been laid up for several months earlier this year, unable to do very much other than watch television, I believe I have seen just about every episode.


Religion is not a major or explicit theme in the Big Bang Theory.  There are references to Howard’s Jewish upbringing, to Raj’s Hindu heritage, and to the “hell” which was the Christian fundamentalist childhood Sheldon endured.  But with little explicit reference to major spiritual traditions, it is fair to ask why, on a re-reading of James Fowler’s classic book on faith stages, I am led to reflect on the inner lives of these four young, hilarious, fictional men.


 Fowler’s stages of faith

The quote that starts off this little exploration is key:  For Fowler, “faith” is not about religious belief, the acceptance of a metaphysical system, or subscription to a particular philosophy. Faith, as Fowler describes it, is how one is oriented to the world and others, the values that one holds as ultimate, and how all lesser values are ordered.  Fowler describes six “stages” of faith, based on (but not exactly correlating with) the developmental models of Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg, beginning in early childhood (around age 2, with a pre-stage of “undifferentiated” faith), and through adulthood.  I summarize them, as follows, using Fowler’s categories, but condensing the descriptions:


Stage 1:  Intuitive-Projective Faith

Fantasy-filled, imitative.  Thought patterns are fluid, with no logical thought to inhibit and restrain imagination and fantasy.  Self-awareness is almost completely ego-centric, although the child can be permanently influenced by the moods and actions of closely-related adults.  The gift of this stage is the birth of imagination, but the danger is that the imagination can be taken over by unrestrained images of terror, or the reinforcement of taboos.  (Pp.133-34)


Stage 2:  Mythic-Literal Faith

This is the stage in which a person starts to take on the stories, beliefs and observances that indicate s/he is a member of a particular community, although usually in a very literal, rule-following manner.  Concrete operations begin to order the imaginative construction of experience.  The sense of reciprocal justice emerges, as does the rise of narrative capacity. The danger is the limitations of literalness and the excessive reliance on reciprocity for constructing relationships, which can lead to an over controlling perfectionism.(pp.140-150)


Stage 3:  Synthetic-Conventional Faith

Experience of the world extends beyond the family, with multiple spheres (school, work, peers, etc) demanding attention and loyalty.  Faith provides a coherent orientation for this more complex environment, as well as a basis of identity and outlook.  Usually this stage arises in adolescence, and it is important to note that Fowler believes many adults find their point of permanent equilibrium here.  The gift of the stage is the formation of a personal myth of one’s own place in the past and anticipated future of their ultimate environment, and a unification of personality characteristics.  The deficiencies are that (a) the expectations and assessments of others become internalized so that autonomy and judgment can be impaired, and Interpersonal betrayals can either give rise to a nihilistic despair or over-reliance on whatever one holds as God (including science) which is unrelated to mundane relations. (Pp.172-173)

Fowler also notes that most American (and I suspect, European) church communities and their ordained leaders are oriented toward bringing people to this stage of faith and no further.


Stage 4:  Individuative-Reflective Faith

If (and it is a big ‘if’) this stage occurs, it is where the person begins to assume responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes.  This will be a time of tensions between self and the community to which the person belongs.  It may even occasion a temporary or permanent breach with the community.  (This is where I think it is important for churches to take special notice.)  Fowler says it is “most appropriate” to young adulthood, although it may be delayed until later, and may never happen at all.  The strength of this stage is the increase in capacity for critical reflection on identity and outlook, but these can be offset by an excessive confidence that results in a narcissism. Unlike Stage 3, it seems rarely to be a stopping place in faith development.  My own thought is that either the Stage 4 person will return to a more synthetic-conventional form of faith (although often in a different setting, but almost always with a deeper capacity for critical reflection) or s/he will progress to Stage 5.(pp.182-183)


Stage 5:  Conjunctive Faith

This is perhaps the most difficult stage to pin down with a short description.  Fowler gives a few analogies as to what its emergence is like; my favorite among them is it is something like “Discovering that a guest, if invited to do so, will generously reveal the treasured wisdom of a lifetime of experience” (pp. 184-85).  Conjunctive faith is characterized by giving up the “either/or” of earlier stages, and the person at this stage can understand many sides of an issue simultaneously.  Fowler claims that conjunctive faith “suspects that things are organically related to each other; it attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting to its own prior mind set.”; there is attention to the ” ‘wisdom’ evolved in things as they are, before seeking to modify, control or order them to fit prior categories”(p. 185). There is a sense here that Rowan Williams, in his 1993 essay “On Theological Integrity“, was hinting at this when he claimed that theological integrity demanded that we talk about what we say we are talking about, without coming to foregone conclusions. Conjunctive faith requires a “conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality”, as well as a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past (p. 197). Because it “knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts”, this fifth stage is unusual before mid-life.  It recognizes the powerful symbols and meanings of one’s group, while :understanding that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.” It can, however, result in a “paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth.”  It “lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision.” (198)


Stage 6:  Universalizing Faith

It is important to note that Fowler considers this to be extremely rare, and most of us will have little personal contact with those who have reached this stage–examples he cites are people such as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi.  I suspect that time will tell if Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis might be among those at Stage 6.  Universalizing Faith is not an indication that someone is a perfect human being.  Fowler claims that this is almost always achieved within the context of a religious outlook (although my personal suspicion is that it need not be).  It is known more in the impact of their vision and leadership than in a particular way of life, and especially in the way they relate to the ordinary person (Fowler’s example for this is King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which was written to moderate/liberal religious leaders–his colleagues, rather than his adversaries). Their visions are not abstract, but “radical acts of identifications with persons and circumstances where the futurity of being is being crushed, blocked, or exploited.”  They are not self-formed, but have been through formation in church (or possibly non-religious communities) and familial relations, and education.  There are multiple acknowledged influences, which have been subjected to critical reflection and consciously chosen or rejected. This is the highest achievement of the life of faith, which all formative institutions should aspire their adherents reach.


Before engaging in a lighthearted categorization of our fictional friends, a few further important points from Fowler should be noted.  First, progression along the stages has nothing to do with the intensity of devotion or knowledge. Someone at Stage 2 is as likely to attend a large number of religious services as someone at a more developed level (possibly more likely); furthermore, the stages (except possibly the sixth) are independent of mastery of the content of belief.  Secondly,  change in the content of faith (whether between religions or secular sources, or a combination), is how Fowler defines conversion. Conversion does not always, or even often, mean that a person’s faith stage changes.  It is entirely possible (even likely) that conversion is lateral or even regressive in terms of stage. Finally, except for the possibility of Stage 6, “goodness”, or even likeability, do not necessarily increase as a person progresses from one stage to another.


It should also be noted that, unlike many personality assessments (such as the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram), Fowler’s six-stage faith development has not been widely adopted as a measurement device by the churches (let alone those for whom “faith” is a somehow suspect word).  Fowler does not encourage his readers to assess others or themselves–and if it were to be done (and the subjects made aware of it), people would probably be quite upset with the analysis.  Personally, I think it could be more widely and productively used than it has been, but for the moment, I will satisfy myself with assessing fictional characters.


 Back to The Big Bang Theory      

So, what can we make of the faith stages of Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj? None of them are particularly religious, in the popular sense of observing the rituals and ethos of any particular faith tradition.  But they are all faithful devotees of the sciences, and their community of meaning is the higher educational institution.  Three–Sheldon, Howard, and Raj–can be said to be converts from the meaning-systems of their families of origin (although Howard and Raj still identifiy to some level with those mythologies as well as the master-narrative of the physical sciences).  Leonard has, in some ways, never left the community of intellectual inquiry in which he was (rather alarmingly) raised; achievement in academic pursuits has defined him from an early age. Let me make some observations about each of these four young men, using James Fowler’s faith stage analysis as an interpretative lens.


Leonard Hofstadter, PhD:  Leonard’s world view–one shaped by empirical science in the context of the research-driven university–is the most predictable of the four principal male characters. Leonard_HofstadterHaving never really questioned whether this is the right place for him, and having done well at a young age in his field of physics, he appears in many ways to be a straightforward example of Conventional-Synthetic (Stage 3) faith.   He has a high level of mastery of the content of his master-story, and a strong commitment to membership in the academic community of meaning.  However, his widening circle of meaning–represented by his ongoing relationship with Penny, whose formational narratives have little in common with his own–may mean that Leonard is moving toward the more individuative-reflective mode of a Stage 4. Penny’s presence in his life, and her influence, also cause him to question the influence of several things he cherished prior to her arrival.  These include the comic books, video games, and science-fiction movies (and their attendant memorabiia) which were a shared passion with his friends.  He is the first in the group to recognize that they may be hindering him from achieving wider aspirations (including romantic connection).  Even when Leonard and Penny’s relationship was temporarily suspended, it became clear that the fantasy world of graphic novels and Comic-Con, as enjoyable as they might be, threatened his sense of self-worth.  This was most evident in the guilt produced by his truncated hookup with the promiscuous Agnes, a comic-book afficionado Leonard met while attempting a long-distance relationship with Priya, Raj’s sister.  In the way that many at the Individualtive-Reflective stage (4) do, Leonard became more critical of the influences he had chosen to allow to shape his identity and self-worth.


Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D: Sheldon is a classic convert, in the sense of his uncompromising rejection of the meaning-system in which he was raised, and unwavering embrace of one that is (to his, and his mother’s mind) almost mutually exclusive.  Beginning his higher education career at the age of 11, Sheldon precociously assumed an “adult” role in the academy by earning his doctorate when he was Sheldon_Cooper16. His extensive knowledge and raw talent, however, do not mean that he is advanced in the faith life of theoretical physics, or that he will likely be one of the great lights of the tradition.  Sheldon views the world from a narcissistic standpoint, characteristic of the Intuitive-Projective approach of Stage 1.  However, I would say that his is more a Mythic-Literal faith (stage 2), heavily dependent on an absolutely even reciprocity in social exchanges (and a lack of ability to identify and accept social behaviors, which will probably slow his moving into the Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith).  As well, the Mythic-Literal way in which Sheldon has appropriated his meaning system is uncritical.  This is most evident when he tells the story of Madame Curie to a group of middle-school girls to whom the young men have been invited to speak in the hope of encouraging them to careers in the empirical sciences.  Sheldon cannot stop at Madame Curie’s great achievements–he has to carry the story to its finish with her gruesome death from radiation poisoning.  Sheldon’s abilities for logical process and memorization were noticed early on, possibly by adults who confused his logical capacities and eidetic memory with a maturity he did not possess.  He is unlikely to move beyond a Mythic-Literal way of addressing the world and making it meaningful.  As a result, Sheldon will probably remain as something of a wunderkind, a bit of a freak and novelty, but probably never moving into a position of greater responsibility in which technical and relational skills need to be more closely integrated.  The possibility that this has occurred to him is evident in an episode where a 15 year old genius comes to visit Caltech, and Sheldon’s anxiety about no longer being the young prodigy surfaces. However, rather than moving him to greater self-awareness and a more mature approach to his situation, it illustrates how deeply invested he is in staying exactly as he is.


Rajesh “Raj” Koothrappali, PhD:  From New Delhi, on the “exotic subcontinent of India”, Raj has not, in Fowler’s terms, “converted” fully from his cultural and religious heritage to a scientific Rajesh_Koothrappalifaith.  Rather, he picks and chooses which elements of his upbringing he wishes to embrace and integrate into his newfound love of all things American (including the beef forbidden by the Hindu religion).  In terms of his native land, Raj has experienced a fairly privileged upbringing as the son of a gynaecologist, and does not identify with the crowded, noisy, impoverished city of his birth (and doesn’t cope well with Indian food, either).  However, he holds to some values of upper-middle class Indian families, including assuming a “man of the family” relationship with his younger sister Priya, and at one point asking his parents to find him a bride (even though he fully intends to stay in the United States).  Raj is aware and accepting of a number of identity-forming influences from his past and present, including his social anxiety which is so severe he has only recently acquired the ability to speak to women without consuming alcohol; he has a strongly developed feminine side which comes out most pointedly in his friendship with Howard (he self-defines as a metrosexual–“I like women, and their skincare products”). Probably, Raj’s ability to combine, if not integrate, a number of different influences on his identity indicates an Individuative-Reflective (Stage 4) faith.  This, however, is one of the most uncomfortable stages even when one is not in transition to or from another stage, but Raj will probably need to resolve this, either by regressing to a more conventional world view or by advancing to a more conjunctive faith.


Howard Wolowitz, MEng:  “And you were the most obnoxious person on a double date that included Howard Wolowitz,”  Penny snaps at Leonard after a dinner out with Howard and his new girlfriend Bernadette.  Howard is possibly the easiest target for ridicule of the four male principals on Big Bang Theory–given his sleazy approach to women and how that contrasts with his bizarre Howard-wolowitz-the-big-bang-theory-16865313-930-1246relationship with his never-seen (but definitely heard) mother.  But there is more to Howard than meets the eye.  Howard is the only one of the four who has family roots in Pasadena, but he obviously left California for at least long enough to earn a Master’s degree in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Leaving and return becomes a major theme in many personal mythologies at the level of Conjunctive (Stage 5) faith.  Howard acknowledges his Jewish roots, and claims them more explicitly than Raj claims his formation as a Hindu–there are frequent references to his Bar Mitzvah bonds, to the trials and misadventures of “my people”, and at least a minimal reference to his observance of Jewish law in his choice to wear “tat sleeves” to a Goth bar so he could pick up women but still be buried in a Jewish cemetery.  However, his frequent ordering of bacon cheeseburgers and shrimp dishes is something he acknowledges as a violation of religious dietary laws. Howard recognizes his formation as a Jew, but integrates it with a pragmatic, sometimes even playful, approach to science (there is a marvelous scene where the boys mix cornstarch and water to make a paste, and marvel at its action over a cling-film clad stereo speaker).  Possibly more than any of the others, he is able to hold in tension his codependent relationship with his mother and his passionate pursuit of women his own age—an ability which creates friction with his beloved Bernadette. Also in contrast to his male companions, Howard is past the conventional stage of participation in his scientific faith community. Of the four, he is the only one without an earned doctorate (the norm in academic research and teaching), and he is the only one whose work is recognized outside the academy–by no less an institution than NASA.  Indeed, Howard can participate without contradiction in more than one community of meaning–he is not only an academic researcher, but an astronaut.  His companions frequently belittle his lack of a PhD qualification, but they are somewhat jealous of his membership in this very small, elite subset of humanity. Without directly referring to it, it is clear that the questioning characteristic of the Individuative-Reflective stage (4) of faith took place during Howard’s time at MIT, and he has come home to integrate the various aspects of his meaning-making journey.  Howard will probably never reach the Universalizing Stage 6 of Fowler’s model (few people do), and there is a two-edged symbolism here.  His adventure as an astronaut on the International Space Station is as close to a universalizing experience as his peer group will ever get, but NASA’s recognition of his abilities is literally $#!+–he is there because he developed the human waste disposal system. (Which, when you think about it, *is* a universal concern…)



The big question, I suppose, is what does any of this have to do with Christian faith communities in the twenty-first century? James Fowler indicates that the goal of all religious communities should be to help people as far along to a Universalizing faith as possible–but that most are geared toward keeping people at the Synthetic-Conventional (stage 3) level, and that most ordained clergy are themselves solidly entrenched at that stage.  I think an appropriate revival of Fowler’s Stages of Faith would be to quietly notice the signs of each stage in members of a congregation, and then find ways of providing people with the best way of moving to the next stage.  Especially in a world that is geared to questioning the influences that individuals accept as authoritative, and where a more internal locus of authority is common (what I would call a Stage 4 world), congregations geared for a Stage 3 church are likely to attract fewer new, and retain fewer existing, members.  This is a situation that the churches cannot sustain if they are to be faithful to their vocation in the human community.

8 comments on this post:

Wendy Dackson said...

Thanks, Laura, for finding great visuals (as always)–makes the words more enjoyable and brings it all to life better!

Lay Anglicana said...

Well, I much enjoyed the piece – now to get people to comment here, rather than on Facebook! :>)

18 October 2013 13:25
18 October 2013 12:45
Wendy Dackson said...

Well, then, let me say a few things I won’t say elsewhere.

First, I think that all of the current waffle about “why people don’t want to come to church any more” fails to recognize the cultural shift from a society that usually does not go beyond a Stage 3 world outlook to one that is practically destined for Stage 4–and a church that insists on staying at Stage 3. Sure, we are more inclusive (whatever that really means), but it just means we are making a wider range of things conventional, not that we are stepping beyond convention.

Because of this, we have trouble when people *do* come back to church (if they have left and returned). The Return (Joseph Campbell was big on the “return of the hero” theme in personal mythologies) usually means that the person who left comes back *changed* (Howard`s principal source of friction with his mother probably stems from this–he repeatedly reminds her that he is grown now, even though there is still much of the little boy that he consciously retains). This inability to (a) encourage and even celebrate a *leaving* for the purposes of expanding one’s faith horizons, and (b) reincorporate the spiritual traveler, not by pretending they’re the “same old” as they were when they left, but to embrace their new insights and by extension expand the community’s vision.

18 October 2013 14:34
Wendy Dackson said...

As well, I hear a lot of talk about ministry or outreach “to” particular groups. That to me seems at best a Stage 3–“We have what you don’t, and so we must give you what we have” (whether or not you want it). And we will assume you do not have anything of value to us. So sure of ourselves, is that Stage 3 faith. A stage 4 will be questioning that (for him/herself and for the community), and a Stage 5 will not ask “to” whom, but *with* whom we will minister and do outreach. This is very scary to the status-quo Stage 3 religious institutions (and to the Stage 3 training institutions that prepare ordained leadership).

18 October 2013 15:05
Pam Smith said...

What an interesting article – I’ve loved Big Bang Theory since I first saw it, I’m less familiar with – though have heard of – Fowler’s theory. The obvious problem I can see in applying Fowler is that if clergy (of whom I am one) and others immersed in church life are at stage 3, how can they enable other people to work through to stages beyond that?

My own journey into Christianity as an adult involved a stage at the charismatic/evangelical end of things before developing a more rounded view of what Christianity is – I now value that tradition as part of my faith but don’t look to it for a Christian narrative, tending more to what might be termed an ‘open evangelical’ position. It has occurred to me that those people and churches who helped me at an earlier stage of faith still need to be there for others who are making the same journey – so to an extent it benefits other people’s faith development if some people or institutions are ‘stuck’ in certain positions. Not sure if this makes sense!

19 October 2013 12:05
Joyce said...

Yes, Pam. It makes sense to me. It’s an excellent point.
I hadn’t noticed Howard was the returning hero,Wendy, but I see it now. It’s also interesting that he married someone so like his mother even though Bernadette’s not Jewish. Perhaps his attraction to her was another way of his coming home. Her parents live close enough for them to go to dinner. So she’s home too.
Frasier’s another one who came home, but Niles never left except to go to university. We don’t know where Daphne was trained, but she’s the furthest from her home town of any of them. As a physiotherpaist she has to be as highly-educated as the Crane brothers, but she looks down on their pretensions.The mainly Jewish writers didn’t hesitate to refer to religion throughout the Frasier series,nor in Cheers.
I was reflecting the other day on how far the educated women in TBBT – Amy, Bernadette and Leslie, plus the grad students and Howard’s mother – are concerned with their sex lives or lack of them. It was because I’d been remembering an article I read in The Spectator some years ago about the rise in the number of autistic children. It suggested that the increase was not only down to wider and better diagnosis, but to more babies inheriting genes for autism. It put forward the idea that as more women entered scientific academe, asperger’s-type people were better able to meet potential spouses like themselves. Imagine the offspring of a couple like Amy and Sheldon. Or of Raj and whoever at his intellectual level his family eventually picks for him..
In the way Sheldon,like Luke Smith ( Sarah Jane’s alien son ), takes everything literally I’m a bit like him. It annoys me no end when people say things that mean something else. Unlike them, however, I know where it stems from.

19 October 2013 21:50

[…] I also, a few months ago, wrote a little lighthearted summary on Fowler, which you can find here. […]

03 June 2014 18:24

[…] can, once again, read the entire essay on Laura Sykes’ excellent Lay Anglicana.  Please visit, have a look around, benefit from the […]

18 September 2014 13:27

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