Many people consider religious faith to be one of the cornerstones of a relationship. But our guest is going to discuss walking away from instead of towards religious faith … on this edition of Frank Relationships.
FRANK RELATIONSHIPS: GOOD PEOPLE THAT LEAVE THE CHURCH
Guests: Dr. Margaret Placentra-Johnston
Date: May 20, 2013
Frank: Many people consider religious faith to be one of the cornerstones of a relationship, but our guest is going to discuss walking away from, instead of towards religious faith, on this edition of Frank Relationships.
Welcome to Frank Relationships where we provide a candid, fresh and frank look into relationships with goals of acceptance, respect and flexibility. I’m Frank Love and you can find me, my blog and my various social media incarnations at franklove.com.
Once again, I’m joined by the brains of the operation. What’s up, Dr. Gayl?
Dr. Gayl: Hey, hey Frank.
Frank: Religious faith is a major component of many American couples and generally when we’re discussing it, we’re talking about finding it, but there is a balance.
For everyone finding religion, you can reasonably expect that there’s someone walking away from it. Are they heathens? Are they infidels? Are they bad people? If one partner’s faith changes, should the unchanged spouse leave the relationship? Well today, we’re going to discuss these and other topics that many of us regularly face, pertaining to religion.
We, in fact, are going to be guided by a woman that’s researched the subject and she’s found that good people do indeed walk away from their church or religious institutions.
Their stories are often journeys of discovery and clarity. Our guide is none other than the author of Faith Beyond Belief. Stories of good people who left the church behind, a book that discusses the way to a common human faith process by which religious and atheistic righteousness, divisiveness and triumphalism-yes, that is a word, I think-are replaced by the goals of inclusiveness, unity and love.
She’s a 2013 gold winner of the Nautilus Award in the “Religion/Spirituality” category. She is none other than Dr. Margaret Placentra-Johnston. Welcome to Frank Relationships.
Dr. Johnston: Thank you Frank. I’m delighted to be here.
Frank: Well, thank you.
Dr. Gayl: Good morning.
Dr. Johnston: Good morning.
Frank: Why is walking away from religion or religious institutions often synonymous with being troubled or bad?
Dr. Johnston: Well Frank, I think you might have meant to say, “Is it perceived as being synonymous or being bad,” and that is a misperception based on the spiritual development process, which I have studied and which is explained in the book.
I think part of the problem in our society is that people are not aware of this spiritual development process and it has been well written about by many people. My book discusses 12 of them. That it describes, sometimes encrypted ways that in order to get to mature faith, you have to go through a period of questioning or distancing and other than that, you’re just mirroring the religion of your youth or whatever your pastor told you and if you have owned it in your own personal way.
So, when someone walks away, sometimes it’s, because they’re going through the second of three stages or perhaps we could describe it as the third or fourth stages, depending how many we want to talk about. And it is important as a step on the road to spiritual maturity to go through this questioning and sometimes actually walking away.
Frank: That reminds me of a quote that I’ve seen along the way that says, “Decent is the highest form of patriotism.”
Dr. Johnston: Okay, I guess that is an interesting thought. This questioning stage is anything by the question of losing interest. These are people who are direly interested in the truth and they reason themselves. They start thinking about the literal beliefs they were told, and out of respect for truth, they find discrepancies in the belief system and they walk away more, because they can’t believe the truth is the literal level at which it is preached. It’s a form of high respect for truth and for religion.
Frank: Tell us about your upbringing.
Dr. Johnston: I was brought up a Catholic. I happen to have 18 years of Catholic school under my belt. I went to a Catholic college and Catholic grad school; more than enough education. And I was brought up Catholic, but the interesting process started when I was in high school. This was in the late ’60’s.
They were going through this phrase where they were teaching high school aged children that everything they memorize in the Catechism back in grammar school wasn’t really true and God is not really the son of man, because that’s the anthropomorphic language and they went through these constructive–
Frank: Anthropomorphic? Tell me what that is.
Dr. Johnston: This is used in this field as a discussion. Anthropomorphic means, in other words, you take the word God and you say he’s the father and you say Jesus is the son. This is using human language to describe something that’s indescribable and therefore, people take that overly literally and they assume that God is the spirited guy in the sky and is actually a male. And that’s anthropomorphic language.
In other words, you’re envisioning something that’s indescribable in a terminology that you can understand. You’re making him sound like he’s a man and he has an actual son.
In high school deconstructed all these beliefs and this is a Catholic high school. They deconstructed all these beliefs we had learned in elementary school and then didn’t reconstruct anything for us. They left us hanging as far as I’m concerned and I have no complaints about that, because it has lead to a very interesting process in my life.
But because I was finishing high school and didn’t really know what to believe, that’s why I chose to go to the Catholic University of America. I thought, “Where better to learn more about my religion?” I was very interested and yet I was taught all these questions about the literal belief. So, to my shock I got to college and they did more of the same. They taught us that you must question everything and they–
Frank: Except religion?
Dr. Johnston: No, religion especially–
Dr. Johnston: In this theology class we we’re required to take the equivalent of a college minor in theology at this college. And so in the religion classes itself, they said, “If you give us catechism answers on these essays, you’re going to fail the course. We want original thought. We want independent original critical thought.”
Frank: And catechism is what?
Dr. Johnston: The catechism is when you’re in catholic school, elementary school, at least back in my day when you were there, they made you memorize. Every day you had to memorize–there’s a book of questions and they had nice pat little answers. “Who was God,” and there was a little one paragraph of who that is and who was Mary? And you had to memorize these and that was basically a religious training, was to memorize the catechism, this book of questions. And I thought that was just sum total of my belief system by eighth grade. I thought that was everything engraved in stone. “They’re handing it to me in a package and this is great.”
When I got to high school and they started telling us, “No, no. It’s not really like that. I was flummoxed. I was thrilled, because I felt, “This is so much more interesting than I thought.” But they didn’t really reconstruct anything for us and I guess I was too young or too immature or not spiritually gifted and therefore, I just walked away.
By the time I got to college and did all this questioning, like any 21 year old would do, I reasoned myself out of my belief system entirely and just became basically agnostic/atheist, whichever term.
Dr. Gayl: Margaret, can’t you–
Dr. Johnston: Yeah.
Dr. Gayl: Isn’t it okay to question religion and your religious beliefs without walking away from it?
Dr. Johnston: Of course, absolutely. It’s just that I think if you question it, you come out on the other side with a different understanding than the absolute literal–and you wouldn’t be triumphalist. I know Frank’s been dealing with this word, whether you like the word triumphalism.
But it’s just for your audience if they don’t know what it means. Triumphalism is saying, “I have arrived, I have found the right religion. I have found the truth and everyone else’s religion is not true and I believe everything exactly the package form that I was handed.” That’s triumphalism. Or the opposite, the people who walk away say, “Oh you know, all those silly religious–other than them, I figured it out.” And that’s also triumphalism.
So there’s atheist triumphalism and there’s religious triumphalism, but the higher spiritual stages, I believe take us beyond that.
Frank: And let’s talk about what are some of those? What are the higher stages?
Dr. Johnston: The difference here is, they all use different number as stages and they all use different terminology, but I’ve tried to simplify it by condensing it to four. So basically, it’s just after that rational questioning stage. If a person keeps on questioning and keeps paying attention, they may start to notice that the skepticism that they had so entrenched themselves in, doesn’t really hold up well either and they start noticing connections among things that happen, coincidences and messages from the higher power or whatever you want to call it.
One of the theorists, James [Cellar] 11:01, uses very interesting terminology. He says, “They start to receive disturbing and anarchic thoughts from–” I’m not quoting exactly. “Disturbing and anarchic thoughts when the inner voices,” or something like that. So, in other words, they start realizing that you just can’t rely on science and reason. It’s just not that all cut and dry. And then they start–go ahead.
Frank: What I hear is, every question is really just the lead into another question.
Dr. Gayl: Right.
Dr. Johnston: Yes, exactly. It gets more deep and more convoluted and even paradoxical. So, yeah, maybe the evolution is true, but maybe there’s some truth in the Bible too and you have to be not see black and white about these things. And that’s how, of what I call the mystic level although and it brings in a lot of confusion when you use the word mystic.
Dr. Gayl: I’m a Christian and being raised as a Christian, there are some things where it’s just understood that it’s just faith and you’re just not going to know. You won’t always know the answer to the question. It seems like one question leads into another question and another question. Do you disagree or agree that, that’s just faith? That you just won’t know, these are questions that you just won’t know, because that’s what it is, that’s what the Bible or the Koran or whatever it is that you believe in. That’s what it is. Would you disagree or agree with that?
Dr. Johnston: No, I agree. I guess a lot of it depends on what type of Christianity you were brought up in. Some of it is very, very divisive and very literal and like, “It’s only our way and we have all the answers. They’re all found in the Bible. It’s there in black and white and that’s the truth and there are no questions.”
But the other forms of Christianity are more open and they say, “It’s just faith. Take it on faith and we don’t have the answers to everything,” and I think that leads a person more easily towards this higher level than the absolute literalists; the absolute people at what I call the faithful level. The pre-critical: the people who haven’t yet gone through the questioning stage.
Frank: Tell us about your book, Faith Beyond Belief.
Dr. Johnston: Okay, the book is sort of a journey to take. It mirrors my journey somewhat, although I don’t consider myself at this higher level. I’m just somewhere stuck in between, but it does mirror the journey. So part one, is called, “Religion: Who Needs It,” and what it has is four stories of real life people from different religions who reasoned themselves out of their literal level of belief.
They found something to didn’t make sense in their religion and they reasoned themselves out of it and they kind of dismissed it.
Frank: Well, share one of those stories.
Dr. Johnston: Okay, I’ll take the example of Kevin. Kevin is a veterinarian in Canada and he’s one of the few that doesn’t mind using his own name. He was brought up Catholic and always just kind of belonged to the Catholic Church. He wasn’t real involved in it, but he just took it for granted.
And then, at some point he started becoming really, really, really involved in his church and he got on the committee, where they were planning for the arrival of the Pope and they were planning for him to arrive to descend out of the Heavens in helicopters, not one but three helicopters descending out of the Heavens. He just got upset that, they’re spending all this money and the Pope is supposed to be a humble servant of God and here he comes descending out of the Heavens in three helicopters.
And it was that kind of thing that started getting him upset and then his church was going to have something called, The Blessing of the Pets, where they were going to have pets come in and the priest would bless them or something. And he somehow got into a discussion with his parish priest about whether animals have a soul.
And the parish priest just literally said of course animals do not have a soul and that got Kevin thinking, because he already has scientific training. He knows about evolution and he’s very tied into animals, because he’s a veterinarian. And he thought, “Well, either animals have a soul like people do or else people don’t have a soul, because in the evolutionary process, when will the soul be inserted into a human being,” and from that logical discrepancy his whole belief system eventually just tumbled.
“That doesn’t make sense and this doesn’t make sense,” and he just walked away. He’s very, very interested in this belief verses non-belief question. It’s not that he’s lost interest. It’s the opposite, he just become very much captivated by this, “Is it true or is it not true” religion in general. He’s at this rational stage mostly that he just doesn’t believe right now.
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Margaret, would you describe for us spirituality?
Dr. Johnston: Spirituality can be differentiated from religion. I believe it’s becoming a common understanding in our culture, that spirituality is more the attempt to connect with something larger the everyday reality that we live in. And the difference from a set belief system, so where you think of religion, you belong to a particular institution, it’s more outward-based. In other words, it’s more dictated to you. It’s more about conformity.
And it tends to be static. Once you find a religious home it’s considered that you should stay there and the beliefs are static, whereas spirituality is rather than being institutional, it’s more about the individual and their own relationship with whatever the larger reality is.
It’s more inner-based, so its not coming with something dictated from somebody outside. It’s something that they’re developing on their own.
Frank: You said that understanding has been accepted in our culture. What do you think brought upon a general understanding that’s spirituality and religion are not the same now?
Dr. Johnston: There’s a huge spiritual but not religious movement going on and at some level that’s not speaking to spiritual maturity, but in some levels it is. I just think that people are coming to realize that these individual religions really are telling too small of a story.
If you grew up in one town way back in the old days and everyone you knew pretty much believed the same thing and you didn’t have anything rubbing against your belief system, it was very easy to maintain a static system throughout your life, but now we have all sorts of people maybe from country to country, we have global communication.
You’re always rubbed up against people of different beliefs and you just turn on your television or computer, you’re going to hear something that doesn’t conform with your own belief system. And so, you get more of this inner play with different types of belief systems and you cannot maintain that small story. You have to start realizing the story is bigger than what any given religion teaches, because there are commonalities in a different religion.
Yes, there are differences, but these people in different religions they’re also accessing a spiritual something. It’s not false what they’re doing and you come to realize that and that does make people broaden their minds and say, “Well, it can’t be just that one religion I was taught as a child.”
Frank: And what is spiritual development?
Dr. Johnston: Spiritual development is a term I have chosen to use to describe these different stages. In my book, I discuss 12 of them, spiritual development theorists.
None of them use the term spiritual development. They all use different terminology to describe what they are talking about, but sure enough, they all sort of are describing the same trajectory.
So, I thought it was time to give it a general broad term, instead of the commonalities of the writers of these theorists and so I call it spiritual development theory. It has four stages and then I show in the book how the stages that I’ve discovered, fit in with the work of these different theorists.
Frank: Okay, tell us about the pre-critical, critical and post-critical phases of spirituality.
Dr. Johnston: This is where the terminology is different from what most people think of. The pre-critical is that literal–what I call the faithful stages in my book. Different theorists have used different terminology for it, but I’m calling it the faithful.
So these people are, they’ve just absorbed what the preacher has told them and they have not owned the faith in an individual personal or creative way. One theorist used the word, “The beliefs at that level are deeply felt, but passively held.” Yet, they definitely fell their faith, but they’re not really thinking it through on the critical.
The critical stages that rational stages the middle one, where the people are walking away, they have applied critical analysis to their beliefs and they may remain in the church or they may not, it just depends on which way their thinking goes. But the point is, they have done the hard work of saying, “Do I believe this or do I not and does it fit with my overall experiences?” So, that’s the critical stage.
Unfortunately that leads some large number of people to walk away entirely from faith or whether you call fortunate or unfortunate, depends on your point of view. But it does lead them to, sometimes be overly triumphalist. They realize that they have found something that people in the average church have not found and then they–
Frank: “I’m better than you.”
Dr. Johnston: Yes, “I’m better than you.” Exactly. They have this embedded thought that they are better. But the post-critical phase is where if the rational stage person, the critical stage person continues exploring, they’re going to find that not everything is as cut and dry as they thought it was. And they may start re-engaging with some form of spirituality or some church or some faith of some sort. And that’s post-critical phase, that is more mature than pre-critical phase and a large part of our society does not understand the distinction and that’s part of why I wrote the book.
Dr. Gayl: And what type of person decides to walk away and which one returns?
Dr. Johnston: I don’t think it’s a question of whether they walk away or whether they return. It’s a progression over a lifetime. So, the person who might walk away in their start along path of return in their 40’s, but its not like you can tell me one type of person will do. I don’t think you can predict, because who would do it and who won’t, because it’s a question of many, many factors.
Frank: Okay. Relationships, talk about how relationships can be affected by the spiritual journey. And there are many ways we can jump in. Some people are in a relationship and they have a common faith and then one person veers, sometimes they veer together. What have you seen as it pertains to relationships and the spiritual journey?
Dr. Johnston: Of course it has a huge bearing on relationships, because some relationships, like you said, are based on a common faith. But I think if they’re based on a common faith or are faithful, then if the other person in the relationship starts to veering away or moving into the critical stage, the pre-critical person is going to be very threatened and very frightened that their spouse or whatever partner or whatever it is, is not holding the line, not holding to the faith the way they’re expected to.
Whereas, if a person understood the spiritual development process, they would not see it as a fearful thing, they would be glad that their partner is exploring, because they’re likely to wind up with a mature faith.
Dr. Gayl: I would find that very selfish.
Dr. Johnston: What?
Dr. Gayl: If I were the partner that was the one left. My partner determined that he wanted to go on this spiritual journey. That’s fine that he wanted to get a deeper level, but then the fact that he’s going to leave and a lot of relationships are based on spirituality and are based on having the same faith base. So, to leave that partnership wherein faith is so important, I would find that very selfish.
Dr. Johnston: That’s an interesting perspective. The way I see it is that if those partners are open to truth then they will not be threatened when their spouse goes looking for greater truth or broader truth, they would be accepting. But only if they understood the faith development process, because otherwise, they would think that the person who’s leaving the belief system was bad. When, in fact, it isn’t bad.
The story I told you about–Kevin, who was the veterinarian in Canada, his wife is extremely tolerant. It seems they tease him about his lack of belief, but their entire social set is based on belonging to the Catholic Church.
In fact, he was a member of the Knights of Columbus, which requires the statement of belief and apparently all their friends are Knights of Columbus couples and poor Kevin had to write a note, a letter of resignation an official resignation from the Knights of Columbus, because he was–but his wife calls it a mid-life crisis and they tease. Apparently, she’s pretty accepting even though I’m sure she’s concerned, but–
Dr. Gayl: Right. Is she really accepting or does she kind of feel like she has no other choice? Like in that relationship I would think that’s very selfish of Kevin.
Frank: But in many ways you’re saying, “If you have a question, don’t ask?”
Dr. Gayl: No, that’s not what I’m saying. My pastor actually states, “Question me, question him.” It’s okay to have questions at the end of the day. However, when you enter into a relationship, let’s take for instance, your contract Frank. You have your contract and you choose to break that contract and you veer off into a different direction, then you leave your partner kind of at a stand still. “Like what do I do now?”
In Kevin’s situation, he kind of left his wife and she can either jump on his bandwagon and go towards this–as I stated, I agreed to have a deeper understanding. However, the end of it, “Are you just going to leave, when your relationship is kind of based on faith? Are you going to chose, I’m going to go over here and do my own thing?” I kind of think that’s selfish.
Frank: But you’re not being fair to her experience also, because she has questions of her own. She may not be questioning religious faith, but we are all on a journey, so we’re all questioning something and we’re all interested in experimenting with something. And to say that he’s leaving her, means it insinuates that he’s the only person in a process, when they’re both in a process and it’s not fair to look at it as though it’s just one person.
Dr. Gayl: I absolutely agree to have questions, as I stated. I agree to have questions and I think you should question things in order to evolve as human beings and be more insightful. But as I stated, when you have a relationship and it is based on faith, for one person to leave completely and say, “I’m done with that, I found out that it isn’t what I thought it was,” and the other person is still there, I think it’s selfish.
Dr. Johnston: That’s interesting. The way I see it is, is the marriage or is the partnership or whatever it is based on faith? In other words, did you choose that person because they’re of your same faith or did you choose them because you wanted to make a commitment to that individual? If you made it to the individual, if your commitment is to the individual, you’ll support their growth in any direction that they choose to go.
Frank: Here, here.
Dr. Johnston: But if your relationship is based on, okay I marrying you only because you are a Christian, then of course you would feel betrayed, if the person left.
Dr. Gayl: Right, and its two-fold. Now, I would never marry someone that is of a different faith that has a different faith-base than me, because maybe it wouldn’t work out. There are a lot of variables, that kind of–
Frank: And you’re not willing to test the waters to find out? You’ll say, simply, maybe it wouldn’t work out, but you’re saying never.
Dr. Gayl: Well, I have tested the waters and it didn’t work out, so why enter a marriage saying that, “I’m going to try and see what happens?” Even if someone is Catholic and someone else is Baptist, even those two trying to marry those two faiths, is difficult.
Frank: Anything, Margaret?
Dr. Johnston: Yeah, that’s true. I guess in your case, that is a prime value for you for a person to share your faith. I don’t suspect that all marriages or all relationships are based on that, because there are a tremendous number of inter-faith marriages that are fine, because the commitment is to the individual and not to the belief system and it works fine. I guess they have a little more–
Dr. Gayl: Yeah, other people can do it, I’m just saying–
Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships and we’re talking with Margaret Placentra-Johnston, the author of Faith Beyond Belief, stories of good people who left their church behind.
A book that discovers, discusses the ways to a common human faith process by which religious and atheistic righteousness, divisiveness and triumphalism are replaced by the goals of inclusiveness, unity and love.
Margaret, please tell our listeners and audience, how they can find you and your book.
Dr. Johnston: The book is available or any place where books are sold. Any little book store can order it for you. It’s available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com, and also your larger Barnes and Noble. Some of them are carrying it and if they’re not, they can certainly order it.
So it’s available almost anywhere books are sold. If you want to read more about the book, I suggest they visit my website, which is faithbeyondbelief-book.com, and it has a summary, it has a synopsis, it has some of the endorsements that were written and links to certain extracts, certain short passages from it. There’s an awful lot of information there.
Dr. Gayl: Margaret, on your website, you state that this book may not be for everyone. Can you explain the types of people that you mean this book may not be for?
Dr. Johnston: Okay, sure.
Dr. Gayl: Me, yeah I’ll raise my hand.
Frank: Dr. Gayl.
Dr. Gayl: Open–I just, you know?
Frank: You just would never do x, y, z. I’m open to so and so, but I would never do–
Dr. Gayl: I’m open to certain things and certain individuals. I would never marry someone like you, but I’m open, you know.
Frank: That felt like a little prick.
Dr. Gayl: It’s just me playing.
Frank: Put that tack away.
Dr. Gayl: Margaret, don’t mind us, we do this all the time.
Dr. Johnston: That was cute, that was funny. But certainly, the people who I don’t recommend it for; this faithful or pre-critical level is actually a very, very useful thing in certain people’s lives.
We haven’t talked about the stage that goes before that. Before the faithful stage is a lawless stage and this is like a pre-religious stage, which exists in adults. It’s only at stage of arrested development, because it’s otherwise a stage we should go through as children.
But these people are chaotic and unprincipled and really subjected only to their own will and when that person converts to a normal religion, that’s a really good thing and for some people who have converted from lawless to the pre-critical or faithful religion that it’s such a strong value in their life that the last thing you want to do is disrupt that.
If you disrupt their belief system, they might fall back into a lawless stage, so we don’t want that. So, that type of person I hope, does not read my book.
I had to go to an awful lot of soul searching as I was writing the book, is do I dare put this out there, because I didn’t want to cause harm to people whose belief system is holding their life together and then I–
Frank: How do you snatch the book from that person that picks it up, like, “Whoa, hey, not you.”
Dr. Johnston: Well, actually in the introduction, I put a few little suggestions that it’s not for everyone. I put it in cryptic terms, but if you’re that type of person, pre-critical, faithful, very dependant on the literal truth of your religion, don’t read this book. But also, I guess, at some point I just trusted that the universe will guide it into the right hands and the people that it’s the wrong book for will just either be overcome with disinterest or distracted by other things that just won’t come across in this book.
Dr. Gayl: Now Margaret, at the other end of the spectrum you also state that if you define yourself as an atheist, you also shouldn’t pick this book up. What makes you say that?
Dr. Johnston: I don’t believe I said that. I was actually trying to reach people at this critical level and I did want them. I think what I said was, if you are at that triumphalist stage where your life, your atheism is defining your life, then you’re not going to get anything out of this book, because you’re not open to the message. But otherwise, for people at this critical or rational stage, I was hoping to introduce them to the thought of post-critical faith and maybe consider re-engaging with spirituality in some form. It’s not the evil that you thought it was, when you reasoned yourself out of the smaller story. There’s a bigger story going on.
Frank: What I am about to say is maybe, Baptist-related. I don’t see it that much in the Catholic Church, but a lot of religious leaders are loud and gregarious and they’re out to be exciting, to inspire people to act in a certain way, but you are much more calm. You’re demeanor–
Dr. Gayl: So stereotypical.
Frank: Is more relaxed. How do you speak to the same community that, that loud and “exciting or excited” pastor might be speaking to?
Dr. Johnston: I don’t think Frank, that I’m actually speaking to the same community. The ones that are attracted to the loud and very vivacious, very almost triumphalist, can I use that word? Triumphalist type of preacher–
Dr. Gayl: Why not? We’ve used it all the way through.
Dr. Johnston: Is not who I’m trying to speak to, because they will be attracted to that type of faith, because that’s the level they’re at. I’m really trying to do two things. The people who are at the rational or critical level, who are really attracted to reason and they’re not going to respond to this energetic charismatic preacher.
They really want to reason things out on their own and I was hoping in a quiet way and a humble way, to try to get them to suggest that they should consider a bigger story than just frank disbelief. And then I’m also trying to help people who have come to post-critical faith, because no one speaks about it in our society.
They think they’re alone and they don’t understand what they’ve gone through and their family may shun them, their faith community, they don’t fit in.
Frank: Their wife or husband may shun them. That’s rough.
Dr. Johnston: Totally, totally. The wife or the husband or their parents or their siblings, their own children, who knows, so the point is for them to understand the process, understand what they’ve gone through, whether they’re both irrational and both the critical and post-critical stages, really are sort of in the minority and they’re not well understood and they receive an awful lot of criticism from this faithful level who are loud and verbose and basically dominate our airwaves and no offense Frank, but–
Frank: Alright, cut the interview.
Dr. Gayl: That was so good.
Dr. Johnston: But–
Frank: So, let’s back up. So, you are able to offset it with some humor, I see. Very nice. The win-lose theory. Let’s talk about that, because it goes directly to what you were just saying about how we’re often accepted in society. Let’s hear it.
Dr. Johnston: A large segment of our society and they tend to, again, dominate our air waves. The people who are very finalistic about their beliefs and if it’s in the Bible that’s the truth and we have to even run our country based Bible and they kind of really trying to hold people back at this faithful level and that was part of why I wrote the book.
In order to win elections or whatever they will, start referencing the belief and if it’s not in the Bible then we can’t go there. Take the example of homosexuality. We can’t allow gays to marry, because it’s against the Bible. Well, there’s a bigger story, not everybody lives by the Bible, maybe they have a different Holy book that doesn’t specify anything about homosexual relationships.
In other words, this group, in order to win there own political or whatever sociological goals, they will say anything that they draw from this literal level of belief without allowing any questions to exist and yet if you look at the bigger story, again there are people who don’t use the Bible as their background and it’s kind of a slap in the face to those people, because there’s that literal level of saying, “We’re the only ones that are right and everybody else is wrong. If it’s not the way we say, then–”
Frank: Then you don’t matter.
Dr. Johnston: “You don’t matter and it’s all about winning. They may or may not be doing it out of true faith-based thing, but they’re just trying to win. And when those people win, the other people who don’t fit in with that mindset, they lose. Whereas, you have a bigger story, we’re all one, we’re all equal, we’re all entitled to the same respect and then everyone wins.
Frank: You know that goes hand-and-hand with what we were talking about a few minutes ago with Dr. Gayl pertaining to the spouses getting along. When you’re able to say, “You matter,” then you are able to let go of some of your being right or he’s supposed to do this or she’s supposed to do this and embrace their journey. A few–well go on.
Dr. Johnston: I was just going to say, again, I repeat, it just occurred to me during this discussion, how important it is that if you commit to any individual, because of their own self, then you will allow their growth and if you’re committing to them only, because they belong to your religion, that’s a choice. But it would be good to clarify that with somebody at the outset before you marry them, because I think–
Dr. Gayl: I think you guys are taking it to a different level than I intended to be.
Dr. Johnston: Okay.
Dr. Gayl: I think that it is two-fold. Like yes you commit to an individual. At the same time what are your things that you have to have done or that you have to have?
Yes, I’m going to commit to you. At the same, spirituality is important and they’re important that we share the same thing and that will be our equally yoked, along with other things. It’s okay to question it, but to leave it completely and to say, “This isn’t for me,” that’s completely different for me.
Frank: But different religions don’t mean a lack of understanding and cohesiveness around spirituality.
Dr. Johnston: No, clearly not and also when you look at your lifespan. Let’s say you’re talking about traditional marriages, 40 or 50 or 60 years duration. If you assume that once you believe in your 20’s pertains to when you’re 60, 70 or 80 years old, then you’re committing yourself to a life of no growth.
Seems to me that you have to allow room over that long, long span for the person to evolve maybe forwards, backwards, move a long and they may or may not always hold the same belief system. So the question is which, not to belabor the point, but which are you committing to, the individual or the religion?
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You’re listening to Frank Relationships, and we’re talking with Margaret Placentra-Johnston, the author of Faith Beyond Belief, stories of good people who left their church behind. Dr. Johnston, please tell our listening audience how they can find you and your book.
Dr. Johnston: Okay, my book website is faithbeyondbelief-book.com and there includes some excerpts and it includes synopsis and the table of contents and a lot of other information, so you can find a lot about the book there.
You can order it or buy it anywhere books are sold, any individual bookstore can order it for you and some of the Barnes and Noble physical stores or have it on the shelves, or if they don’t they will order it.
You can certainly go from amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com or any number of other online sources. So, anywhere books are sold, the book can be found.
Dr. Gayl: Does your book simply offer stories or does it also include a how-to? How to get to a more deeper understanding of religious belief?
Dr. Johnston: I did not write a how-to book. It’s not simply the stories. There are four stories of people leaving the church behind and six stories of people who have re-engaged at this post-critical or mystic level and the stories are meant to illustrate the process.
The process is discussed largely in parts four and five. Part four goes through all the different theorists that I had chosen to speak about and it explains how each one of them added something to this concept, to this spiritual development theory. And then part five discusses what meaning can be made of all this.
But as far as telling someone how to, I’m not a preacher; I don’t think I’m the one to be telling people how to. But this gives you an idea that there is somewhere to go, other than just the pack belief system you were handed as a child.
There is movement that can happen going forward and I guess people have to find out their own way, because at that upper level, they have re-engaged in any different type of faith. There’s no one way to do it.
Frank: I’d like to hear a re-engagement story.
Dr. Johnston: Okay, let me think which one I want to choose. I think I’ll use the one of David. David was a brought up Catholic. And by the way, the book contains disproportionate number of former Catholics and I disclaim that in the introduction. It’s not a book against Catholicism, it’s just happens to be the stories that came my way. But David was brought up Catholic and then in college he went to all the questioning.
He tried out Buddhism and he tried being new age and all those didn’t work for him very well. And I guess he had probably, by the time he was a full adult, was not believing anything, really. But then he had a serious, almost fatal biking accident and he was in a coma for a many days and they had almost given him up for lost.
And during the time he was in this coma, he had–he doesn’t use the terminology, but I believe it’s what’s called, a near death experience, where he feels that he was spoken to by a creator of some sort. It was not a being, but he was spoken to and they had a discussion. He said, “I’m not ready to go. I have much to do,” and he was given to understand that, “Okay, if you go back to life and it won’t be easy. You’re going to live a very long life. It won’t be an easy path.”
Long story short, this experience changed him and just changed his whole perspective on life and he became very loving and very kind and he does everything he can to go out of his way to be open and kind to people and to give the gift of his time and his intention; even just the checker at the check-out isle in the grocery store, just to exchange some pleasantries, just to make her day a little bit better.
And at one point when he had children, he said “I need a spiritual home for them.” I want them to be brought up in a faith. It didn’t have to be any particular faith, but he wound up in the Methodist Church and he belongs and he’s very active in this church and he actually disclaims. He said, “I don’t exactly believe what they’re teaching, but the values are good and I want my children to observe these values.”
And he even manages to teach Sunday school in a non-literal or metaphorical way. In other words, he’ll say to the children, “This story is Noah, do you think it’s really about a boat and animals and do you really think they could fit all the animals on this boat or do you think this is a larger message in this story?” So, in other words, he’s leading them towards this post-critical understanding. It’s not about the individual specifics, it’s about the messages that these stories teach.
Frank: I’m surprised they let him teach Sunday school.
Dr. Johnston: Well, apparently there are churches that actually engage with this post-critical level and there are some that aren’t. It must be one of those kinds of churches. And I don’t believe any particular denomination is always the same. I’m not that familiar with Methodist but there might be some Methodist churches that are very literal and some that are not and it happens that he’s in one that’s not.
Frank: Is society acceptable to being spiritual as opposed to being religious on a whole?
Dr. Johnston: On a whole, not really getting a dominant message in our society is still, “You must belong to a church and you must believe in a literal sense,” but you do have this rising group of people who are rejecting that notion and looking for a bigger story than any given religion.
They know that spirituality is important and yet they cannot limit themselves to one set of beliefs. I think it’s becoming more acceptable to call yourself spiritual than not religious. There is a rising swell of people in that mindset.
Dr. Gayl: What do you think the cause of that is?
Dr. Johnston: The cause of people becoming less–
Dr. Gayl: Yeah, becoming more liberal about it, things in our society all things are becoming more literal and people as a whole are becoming accepting of different things, such as same-sex marriage and even interracial marriages. So what do you think is making people be more open to the whole idea in your prospective of where you’re coming from?
Dr. Johnston: Well again, I think it’s this inner play. Our world is so much less encapsulated than it used to be. Again, you were brought up in a certain religion and years ago you couldn’t communicate with anyone outside your own town, so everyone believed more or less. There were a few oddballs in there, but mostly everyone believed kind of the same thing.
And now you’re constantly thrown up against all different types of thought processes, all different belief systems, all different lifestyles and if you happen to live next door to someone who has some divergent belief system or some divergent lifestyle and you’re talking over the back fence and you find, “Hey, he’s a good guy anyway,” and you certainly start to learn that it’s not just that small world you were brought up in. You can’t hold these limiting sort of parochial viewpoints where, “Only my church is right.”
You kind of have to see the bigger story. The bigger story is that if it were just Christianity, what about all the people in the world, who will never have a chance to hear about Christianity. Do you want a God that small who would only love and what about the people who were born before Jesus, I mean those are all them are not subject to any grace is a limit, if there is an afterlife.”
People start engaging with a larger story and it just becomes obvious every time that you can’t hold these single belief systems to be as literal as they used to be.
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Margaret, what is your view on atheism?
Dr. Johnston: Interesting question for you to ask me. One thing I think our society doesn’t realize is, the atheist is portrayed as this evil person who has may be all about himself and no particular interest in anyone else, but what spiritual development teaches us is that, there in very general broad terms.
There are two types of atheists, there’s the lawless pre-critical and pre-religious, so that the person who just never really grow up spiritually from his childhood, who is self-centered, ego-based, selfish, manipulative, seeks out personal pleasure at the expense of everyone and everything and tends to lead a chaotic lifestyle.
They might call themselves an atheist, because they are pre-religious, but the other type of atheist is someone who–and they are probably less mature than that pre-religious person or less mature than the regular religious person. And if that person converts to religion, obviously that’s a huge step forward spiritually, so they become this pre-critical faithful, literal believer. That’s a wonderful thing, because they need the structure of that religion to hold their life together.
But if you have the person whose already been brought up in a secure home and is of stable religion and they have appropriated all those rules that come from religion, they’ve taken it inside themselves they no longer need the rules of religion so much and they are free to question and engage and move into this critical stage or rational stage and they may also call themselves an atheist.
Basically, my feelings about atheism is there are two types of atheists, and if only people understood spiritual development we would not be as condemning of atheists when we realize some of them have worked through and worked beyond to traditional religion and actually enter into the questioning stage.
Dr. Johnston: And may be getting ready to move up to the mystic or post-critical phase.
Frank: Along today’s journey we’ve discussed various stories pertaining to walking away from and refining religion or spirituality, atheism and the win-lose theory.
I hope you had as much fun as I’ve had talking with Dr. Margaret Placentra-Johnston about finding spirituality outside the church, when you are in a church.
I’m certainly grateful for the opportunity and this information. As always it’s my wish for you to walk away from this conversation with a heaping helping of useful information that’ll help you create a relationship that’s as loving and accepting as possible. Let us know what you thought of today’s show at facebook/relationshipflove, on Twitter @mrfranklove or at franklove.com. On behalf of my producer, Phileta Legette, keep rising. This is Frank Love.
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