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Book Review: Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind by Margaret Placentra Johnston

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Lately, there has been much discussion about the growth of the spiritual-but-not-religious identification, much of it negative. From the perspective of those who are actively engaged in religious practice, the spiritual-but-not-religious moniker evokes an image of one who flits from one brand of mythological sorcery to another without concern for community or internal consistency. From the perspective of atheists, it engenders self-righteous disdain based on the assumption that the spiritual-but-not-religious are simply afraid to admit to the truth of their non-belief.

In her book Faith Beyond Belief, Margaret Placentra Johnston offers another perspective. The thesis of the book is that there are stages of spiritual development, akin to those ascribed to child/cognitive development. In the author’s view, spiritual-but-not-religious is a stage of spiritual development that may ultimately lead to fuller expression of religious life. As in other systems of this nature, such as Erik Erikson or Jean Piaget‘s, any individual may progress through all of the stages, or become stalled at one or another level.

The centerpiece of Faith Beyond Belief is a collection of stories about 10 individuals who were raised in specific religious circumstances, each of whom changed their religious affiliation due to various epistemological lines of inquiry. While each person featured in the book undergoes spiritual transformation in one way or another, each ends up in a very different place. In the chapter “My Kind of Hell,” David turns from his Catholic upbringing and ends up teaching Sunday school at a United Methodist Church. In “Lotus Opening,” Jean was raised in a devout Presbyterian household and found her spiritual calling in Wicca.

In approaching this book to review, I thought the personal stories would drive my commentary. Instead, I found myself intently interested in the organizing rubric Johnston built around the commonalities between them. Her line of inquiry leads her to investigate theories of spiritual development as they have been proposed by such divergent personalities as James Fowler, Saint Teresa of Avila and Adolphe Tanquerey.

Johnston attempts to integrate the various theories into an accessible sequence for the average reader. She labels these the “Lawless Stage,” the “Faithful Stage,” the “Rational Stage,” and the “Mystic Stage.”

One important contribution to the public discussion about the decline in participation in structured religion was Johnston’s distinction between the lack of faith of those in the Lawless Stage versus those in the Rational Stage. She expressed the fear many religious have regarding the moral degradation they assume will ensue in the absence of religious guidance.

The Lawless Stage she associates with self-centeredness and lack of concern for one’s impact on the community. In contrast, the Rational Stage is characterized by faith in one’s ability to self-monitor one’s own actions and the recognition that religion is not a necessary tool for having a positive impact on the world. She proposes that society is not moving backward en masse to the Lawless Stage. Rather, she feels we are in flux moving forward toward the Rational Stage and eventually beyond. Ultimately, Faith Beyond Belief interprets current trends as a symbol of hope for spirituality in society.

Johnston’s discussions of the spiritual stages and their implications were thought-provoking and I turned down a number of page corners, especially in the second half of the book. I am looking forward to considering these more deeply as a part of my own spiritual study. There is a part of me, however, that is concerned some may see the hierarchical nature of the stages to be parochial in their insistence that individuals must pass through a period of questioning prior to becoming spiritually advanced. Those who remain in the religion of their birth may presume that Johnston is insulting their faithful constancy, though Johnston does state that leaving the religion of one’s birth is not endemic to the process.

According to an October 14, 2012 Pew Report, 16.1% of Americans have no religious affiliation. Yet 70% of those believe in God. In this context, it is difficult to see the trend toward personal rather than dogmatic faith as step backward in our moral center. Regardless of your position on this matter, however, Faith Beyond Belief provides a framework allowing those without a strong academic background in philosophy to participate in the discussion.

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