Memorial tribute by Amela Couture in honor of James W. Fowler
James W. Fowler III is known to many of us as one of the originators and promotors of practical theology as an academic discipline and the International Academy of Practical Theology as an organization (even though he was not able to attend the Princeton meeting, didn’t make the picture of the “original eight,” so is not counted as a “founding father” as such.) He was famous for his classic work Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Development and the Quest for Meaning, a book that most people with any interests in religious education have read. For many of us in this room, including me, he was a colleague, or a mentor, or a friend, or all three.
Jim was born October 12, 1940 in Reidsville, North Carolina, the son of a Methodist minister and Quaker mother. As a child he loved the North Carolina mountains. But he was a country boy with a big intellect–he took his initial degrees from Duke University and Drew Theological Seminary, and his PhD from Harvard University in religion and society in 1971. In the early 1970s he published his work on adapting Lawence Kohlberg’s moral development theory to faith development, the work that launched him into national and then international fame. Though he taught at Harvard and Boston College, he spent most of his career at Emory University. In 1987 was awarded the distinguished chair, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development. In the 1990s he helped to develop and then directed Emory’s Center for Ethics. He received the Oskar Pfister Award from the American Psychiatric Association and the William James Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science. During all of this time, he found the North Carolina mountains a place of renewal and retreat, where he eventually retired. Sadly, in his mid sixties he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and he died at age seventy-five on October 16, 2015. He and his wife, Lurline, were married 53 years and had two daughters and four grandchildren.
When I taught with Jim at Emory, I was richly rewarded not only by his scholarship and intellect, but by his character–his openness, his willingness to have a friendly and sympathetic conversation, and the sparkle in his eye. When I attended my first IAPT meeting in Bern, and the discussion of organizing the next meeting in Korea arose, I naively volunteered, and Jim, knowing I was already in over my head, offered to help. We worked together, along with the President, Hans van der Ven, to develop the program on globalization and difference. The kind of relationships that Jim established with many people in IAPT—myself included—was the kind that makes this organization so special. Jim’s partook of the every two year ritual of “catching up”—intellectually and personally—and engaging in meaningful conversation, rather than small talk. Many of us will remember our connection with Jim as we think of the crinkle of his eyes when he smiled, his kind and genuine warmth, his coyboyish walk, and the genuine bond he felt with many of us.
For my fortieth birthday party, Jim wrote me a poem around the central metaphor of canoeing, which I did a lot of in those days. So in return, Jim, I’m offering you and your friends this poem by North Carolina Kathryn Stripling Byer from Mountain Time–about faith.
Mountain Time (excerpt)
Kathryn Stripling Beyer,
Black Shawl, 1998