“Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind” by Margaret Placentra Johnston
It took me a while before I was ready to read this book. I knew this book dealt with what are often called “the stages of faith“, and I was already somewhat familiar with them. I knew of James Fowler and how he described these stages. Most active members of the LDS church would mostly be considered to be in Fowler’s stage 3, where people feel the need to conform to an authority for their spiritual needs. When some LDS members disaffect from the church they enter stage 4, where they rationally look at their beliefs and realize many of those beliefs are not literally true. People in this stage might realize there is no one true church, and may begin to wonder if the concept of God as they understood it makes sense anymore. I knew stage 5 was when someone in stage 4 somehow decides there might be something to spirituality after all, even though they know their previously held beliefs weren’t literally true. It took me a few months in my disaffection to get to where I could even entertain the idea of moving from stage 4 to stage 5.
In “Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind”, Margaret Placentra Johnston, an optometrist by profession, weaves in her own story and the stories of others to show how people move through these various stages. She terms her stages as “spiritual development” and defines the stages somewhat differently than Fowler. She also compares the theories of other researchers and writers who have described these same stages, but with different terminologies and emphasis. She names her stages Lawless, Faithful, Rational and Mystic. In Johnston’s own story, she grew up Catholic and learned as a child growing up in a Catholic school to literally believe in the doctrine and Bible stories she was taught. At this point she was in the Faithful stage. In ninth grade, her Catholic school explained the Bible stories and catechisms should not be taken literally, which surprised her quite a bit. But it wasn’t until college when she decided that because the Bible wasn’t literally true, and that there wasn’t a literal God that she could believe in, that she became an atheist. Now she was in the Rational stage. It took her 20 years before she started reading the research of those who describe spiritual development. She began to realize it’s not a question between being in the Faithful stage OR the Rational stage. The paradox is that you can begin to see how both the Faithful stage AND the Rational stage can be right. This is the beginning of the Mystic stage.
Mystic, Not Magic
Johnston calls it “Mystic,” but that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with magic. The idea is that although you know the beliefs of the Faithful stage are not literally true, you can see those beliefs are symbols for something greater, and something that can’t be measured by science. The symbols are useful because they help our finite brains begin to understand the mystery of the spiritual. A Mystic knows from being in the Rational stage that there is not literally an anthropomorphic God sitting on a throne in heaven, but that the Faithful stage version of God can still be useful through metaphor. A Mystic will attempt to seek a unity of truth from many different sources, since the Mystic understands there is no one literal path to God, truth or spirituality. A Mystic will reject the literal interpretation of scripture, but doesn’t need to completely ignore scripture as would a Rational. The Mystic will instead look at scriptures as metaphorical.
The real stories she tells of herself and others moving through these stages are beautiful and powerful. As I said at the beginning of this review, I don’t think I was ready to read this book until just recently. I was too disappointed to find out the beliefs I had in the LDS church and scriptures were not literally true. I had moved from the Faithful stage to the Rational stage, and this can be a painful transition. I wasn’t yet ready to see that what I previously believed to be literally true could be useful to expand my spirituality. The key is to recognize those beliefs can be powerful symbols to expanding a person’s understanding of the mystery of God. “God” for a Mystic is not the same kind of God someone in the Faithful stage envisions.
My One Lowlight: “What Does Politics Have to Do with It?”
My whole life I’ve considered myself a Republican, although the past few years I have felt like the Republicans need to quit harping on the social issues and just stick with fiscal issues. In many ways I’ve become more libertarian. The author spends a chapter beating up “the religious right.” She calls the religious right “a caricature of the Faithful stage.” Personally I see some people in both parties act very dogmatic about their positions. I don’t think this is something only seen in the Republicans. I find orthodoxy and superiority distasteful from both the left and the right, so for me this chapter is the one part I didn’t like.
Why Read This Book?
I highly recommend this book if you want to understand why people can look at religion so differently, depending on their faith stage. If you’re an orthodox believer, you will learn why some people leave their church behind. But hopefully you will also learn this is just a step on someone’s path to increasing their spiritual understanding. You will also hopefully understand how someone can move past the Rational stage and learn to embrace the mystery of “God”–not a literal anthropomorphic God, but a universal principal of love, goodness and interconnectedness. For me, this book was life changing. It’s hard for me to put into words, but I feel like this book has helped me move past the Rational stage to realize it’s not an “or” question of Faithful vs. Rational. It’s an “and”, and that’s a paradox I find fascinating (and maybe a little scary).