Margaret Placentra Johnston interviewed on Mormon Discussions podcast


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Hi book club peeps! I thought you all might be interested in checking out this episode of the Mormon Discussions podcast in which the author of our last book (Faith Beyond Belief) was interviewed. I appreciated the Q&A that focused on the faith journey in the Mormon context. Click here for the episode’s webpage, or copy/paste the whole URL below.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/mormon-discussions-podcasts-full-lineup/id562296100?i=1000444684187


 

Spidey the Mystic

Spidey the mystic


cropped-screen-shot-2017-03-13-at-4-09-41-pm.pngWarning: Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t seen the latest installment in Marvel’s Spiderman franchise, Far From Home, you may want to put off reading this post until you have.

Thanks to those of you who attended our last book club discussion of Faith Beyond Belief. Not everyone loved the book, but we had a robust discussion. While I don’t presume to speak for everyone, this post is my best attempt to summarize the ideas that were discussed along with my own response to the book.


In her book Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind, Margaret Placentra Johnston uses Peck’s 4-stage theory of spiritual development as a backdrop against which to present the real stories of people who lived out a god-related twist on the classic Myhrvold drama:

Boy meets god

Of course, the stories were not all about boys. They summarized the experiences of men and women from a range of belief systems, including Mormonism, Islam, and Catholicism, among others. Johnston then used the stories to illustrate key transitional moments in the lives of these individuals, highlighting their progression through Peck’s stages of spiritual development.

What are Peck’s stages of spiritual development?

For those readers who are not in-the-know, here is a quick summary of Peck’s 4 stages, from youngest to oldest (in terms of the age of greatest prevalence):

  • Lawless: Most common in early childhood, this stage is characterized by a lack of principled ethics, where choices are driven by one’s own desires.
  • Faithful: Most people reach this stage later in childhood. It is characterized by black-and-white moral reasoning and blind belief in authority figures, usually out of fear or desire for a promised reward.
  • Rational: In heterogenous religious communities, most reach this stage in late adolescence or early adulthood; in more homogenous religious communities, many reach it later or not at all. This stage is characterized by skepticism and questioning, and much more nuanced moral reasoning. Rational individuals don’t accept things on faith; they require logic and reason.
  • Mystic: Not everyone reaches this stage. Among those who do, it is rarely before mid-life. People in this stage retain their skepticism, but they begin perceiving patterns in nature and developing a deeper understanding of good and evil. Mystics focus on loving others, losing their attachment to the ego, and forgiving their enemies.

The author also maps these stages to the theories of others, including James Fowler. (For those familiar with Fowler’s Stages of Faith, Peck’s “faithful” stage maps to Fowler’s stages 2-3; his “rational” stage maps to Fowler’s stage 4; and his “mystic” stage maps to Fowler’s stages 5-6.)

What does this have to do with Spiderman?

The newest installment in the Spiderman series serves as a useful narrative for understanding Peck’s mystic stage. The villain in the movie, Mysterio, is a highly intelligent inventor and former employee of Tony Stark (who died at the end of the prior Marvel movie). Mysterio is angry at Stark for, among other things, giving stewardship over some fancy piece of tech to the teenaged Spiderman. Mysterio manipulates Spiderman into giving him the tech, which he then uses to create holographic illusions (using pre-programmed drones equipped with holographic projectors) to depict monsters attacking major European cities. The depictions fool everyone. These attacks are followed by further illusions of Mysterio battling and beating the monster. Mysterio does this to persuade the world to see him as a hero.

In the end, Spiderman discovers his mistake and realizes that he must battle the powerful Mysterio, even though he knows that he too is vulnerable to being fooled by the illusions. Spiderman realizes that he can’t rely on his eyes and ears if he is going to win. He must rely on his Spidey-Sense, which is humorously referred to throughout the movie as his Peter-Tingle. (“Don’t call it my Peter-Tingle,” he tells Aunt Mae.) Ultimately, in a scene that is reminiscent of the use-the-Force-Luke TIE-fighter scene in A New Hope (where Luke puts aside his visual sensor and relies on his feelings to destroy the Death Star), Spiderman also has to rely on what seems like a vague, supernatural tingle. In the final fight, his eyes and ears tell him (and the audience) that Mysterio is dying on the floor in front of him, but it turns out to be an illusion. Spiderman surprises us all by reaching up to grab the gun that an invisible Mysterio is actually holding to his head.

Through the lens of Peck’s stages of spiritual development, we can consider both Luke and Spiderman in these scenes to be ignoring their objective (i.e., “rational”) senses and relying exclusively on their “mystical” senses.

Why didn’t everyone in the book group love the book?

Not everyone agreed with the premise that there is a more “advanced” stage of spiritual development beyond the rational stage. I thought this idea could be illustrated by seeing how the Spiderman drama does not have to be seen through the mystical lens. It could be viewed from the rational perspective. The rational person would say that there are scientific explanations for every observable phenomenon. This would include both Mysterio’s holographs, which are produced through the known and quantified (in the movie universe) forces of technology, and Spiderman’s Peter-Tingle. The rational person might point out that the only reason that Spiderman’s Peter-Tingle could be characterized as a sort of supernatural phenomenon is that it is not yet understood as a scientific, measurable phenomenon.

The idea that one man’s science is another man’s supernatural phenomenon is nicely addressed by the hilarious (though potentially offensive to the delicate reader) memes that flooded the internet after the Insane Clown Posse released a song extolling the wondrous “miracles” that are evident in the world — wonders that defy all explanation — such as magnets and rainbows.

To the rational individual, any seemingly supernatural phenomenon will really have scientific explanations. For me, this tendency to explain things with science is useful. But, I admit that it caused me some disappointment when George Lucas demystified the Force in his prequel The Phantom Menace. In that movie, the Force was revealed to be nothing more than microscopic “midichlorians” in the blood of potential Jedi masters like Annakin and Luke Skywalker.

Where do I stand on the idea of a “mystic” stage?

It’s important to keep in mind that these models for faith development are really just constructs — that is, human creations that aid us in our understanding of complex phenomena that are not directly measurable in and of themselves. That said, I lean toward the idea that there is a stage beyond the rational stage as described by Peck. I believe that the rational stage is a transitional stage characterized by grief and anger over having previously allowed feelings to manipulate and shape our worldview. In this window of grief, we temporarily reject all appeals to feeling as flawed, and we attempt to rely exclusively on rationality. We will begin to transition beyond this stage, into Peck’s mystic stage (Fowler’s stage 5), when we begin again to re-integrate feelings into our way of understanding the world.

I don’t believe that the “mystic” stage represents an abandonment of rationality, an idea that is confirmed by Peck’s definitions. Rather, it represents an integration of rationality and feeling, improving humans in two ways:

  1. Feelings can help us bridge the gap between the known and unknown, and
  2. When feelings and reason are in alignment, humans are more successful in their endeavors.
Bridging the gap between the known and unknown

As much as I love science, and as much as I believe that every observable phenomenon will eventually have rational explanations, I also know that there are plenty of things that don’t yet have them. For those things, making use of unexplained phenomena may only be available to those who are open to the mystical.

For example, consider the placebo effect. Science currently cannot explain mechanisms by which the placebo effect works, even among those who know that they are taking a sugar pill. Sure, at some point there will likely be neuroscientific studies that can characterize and quantify every last mechanism by which a sugar pill can improve someone’s depression, but right now it is only an apparently irrational observable phenomenon.

My personal theory is that the mechanisms of the placebo effect will ultimately be revealed to coincide with the mechanisms by which things like prayermeditation, and mindfulness also enable humans to access an as-yet-uncharacterized power for self-healing. Once that power is adequately characterized by science, innovators will likely develop ways to make that power more accessible to all of us. Until then, because they may be the only ones open enough to the unknown to give such strategies a try, that power may only be available to the mystics.

Consider Luke Skywalker in A New Hope. When he went into his TIE-fighter battle to destroy the Death Star, he didn’t know about midichlorians as a scientific explanation for the power of the Force any more than the rest of us did in 1978. However, that lack of knowledge did not stop him from being able to access the power of the Force. If he had been too rational, he might have rejected the idea of an apparently supernatural Force granting him telekinetic powers (and more), and the power of the empire to destroy whole worlds might have gone unopposed. (One shudders at the thought!) It’s because he was open to the possibility of something that seemed irrational to him (and to the audience) — because he was a mystic — that he was able to use his feelings to bridge the gap between the concrete/known and the as-yet unknown power of the midichlorians.

Similarly, Spiderman was also able to access his Peter-Tingle to help him take down the powerful Mysterio only because he believed in a seemingly irrational phenomenon.

So, for every potential unexplained phenomenon, until we have rational explanations for them and until technology advances sufficiently that we can all access the powers they contain, perhaps the mystic path can enable us to access powers that we don’t yet fully comprehend.

The importance of aligning reason with feeling

Personally, I don’t actually believe in human rationality as a saving grace for humanity. That’s because even the most rational of humans has great difficulty seeing beyond their own enormous cognitive biases. Most of us believe that we are thinking our way through this existence, but I believe that we humans are mostly just feeling our way through life.

Jonathan Haidt has a useful analogy to describe how two parts of the human brain work together — the emotional and the rational parts. (Again, these are just constructs; we don’t really have two brains, one observably emotional and the other observably rational.) In this analogy, the human brain is like an elephant and rider. The elephant is the two-ton emotional mind that does all the heavy lifting, and the rider is the little hundred-pound guy on the elephant’s back who is, presumably, doing all the planning. In his analogy, if the human wants to go in a particular direction, he is only going to get there if the elephant wants to go there too.

For example, when I was 22 years old and my first child was about to be born, I was considering going back to school the next semester and embarking on a years-long educational journey that would span the next ten-plus years. I knew that it was a pathway to greater financial security for myself and my family. But as I discovered in the subsequent years, if I didn’t feel like slogging through a series of educational programs for more than a decade, I was not going to be successful. In fact, I almost quit more than once in the years that followed. If I had not been able to align my feelings with my rational goals, then I would have quit. By the time I finished my post-doc at the age of 35, I knew that what it had required more than anything else was motivation, which is all about feelings.

Part of why I like Haidt’s analogy is because of the sheer size difference between the elephant and the rider. Personally, I think that it illustrates the relative magnitudes of energy spent thinking versus feeling in the minds of most humans. It may be hard for us to see, given the extent to which we culturally glorify science and reason, but it probably isn’t unfair to say that the average human mind is more than 99% emotional and less than 1% rational. (And yes, that even includes Richard Dawkins.)

In fact, it may even be valid to question whether we are rational agents at all. The idea that humans are capable of rationality may be a cognitive bias in itself. That’s because some neuroscience research validates the conclusion that Haidt’s elephant is really making all of the decisions, and his human rider is just sitting up there making up stories to persuade himself that the direction he’s taking was his idea all along.

Either way, I don’t believe we can simply ignore feelings in our way of understanding the world. If we choose to try, then we are allowing ourselves to be completely blind to what may be the largest influence on our worldview. Our rationality may help us to understand some objective truths, but unless we can feel our way toward them, then we may not be able to make use of them. To be effective in any potentially rational enterprises, at a minimum, requires us to align our thinking and our feelings.

Where do I position myself on Peck’s spectrum?

If Peck’s model is a useful map of faith development, then I would probably plot myself somewhere between the rational and mystic stages. I don’t think I’m quite fully in the mystic stage as defined by Peck because I have not yet truly forgiven myself and others for being so biased. I am still working through quite a bit of grief and anger about the human inability to see clearly.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’m fully in the rational stage. I’m not sure I was ever really there because I never stopped incorporating feelings into the construction of a new worldview after my faith deconstruction. It may be because I work in science (again, I believe in science) that I can see how foolish we are to rely so heavily on rationality. This mistrust of the human capacity for reason draws me toward the mystical stage out of hope that there are forces out there that we don’t yet understand. I hope for the unknown because, for me, none of the forces that I do currently understand appears to be sufficiently oriented around drawing humans closer to a culture of love, peace, and harmony.

A faith taxonomy

Presentation4


 

“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

                                                                                           -Luke 18:8   


I picked up Fowler’s Stages of Faith when I was in the agonizing throes of what I can only describe as a “faith implosion,” a faith crisis in which my beliefs, one by one, all began to fall away, against my will, and against my better judgment. It was quite a painful process. It was completely unexpected. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what was happening to me. I just began, unwittingly, to dump out the entire contents of my box of beliefs as I faced the trauma of watching the most recent presidential election unfold. My beliefs, in things like humanity, democracy, truth, justice, progress, and love, all of which had been tightly connected to my beliefs about the purpose of human existence and the arc of human history, began to become little more than detritus in the corners of my psyche, waiting to be swept up and thrown away.

When I finally began to realize that my struggle could be called a “faith crisis,” the first book I encountered was the slim and Mormon-centric Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis by McConkie. That book only told me that there was a developmental explanation for what I was going through; but, it didn’t contain a sufficient explanation of the theory of faith stages to help me. That’s why I picked up Fowler’s book, a more academic treatment of the subject. I was hoping to find something like a roadmap, something that could help me navigate the unfamiliar terrain.

The faith taxonomy

Rather than a roadmap, Fowlers book initially seemed more like a narrative description of human faith libraries, a structure-and-function taxonomy naming all the universal and measurable aspects of all possible libraries: the various sizes of the shelves, the sizes and colors of the books’ spines, the languages represented in the works, the publishers, the years of publication. I learned that some faith libraries are like a row of picture books in a child’s nursery. Others are like the makeshift, cinderblock-and-pine libraries of college dorm-dwellers, shelves heaving under a load of overpriced textbooks with unbroken spines. Still other libraries are like the hand-crafted, deep oak, floor-to-ceiling shelves of a life-long book collector, filled with an eclectic mix of well-worn, first-edition, expository tomes in every genre and from every tradition.

While it was all very interesting, I wasn’t sure how it could help me find my way forward without addressing, in some way, the contents of those books, or the contents of faith. I even temporarily gave up on Fowler, midway through, to read The Crucible of Doubt by Givens and Givens, a book for people like me who are in faith crisis agony of the LDS variety. The Givens’ book is decidedly more dedicated to faith contents than Fowler’s, and while the Givens’ book did a great job addressing an array of common faith stumbling blocks, what I really needed was something else. Before I could pick up the detritus of my shattered faith and examine the components one-by-one, checking if they are worthy of their place in my box, I needed to know if and why faith contents matter. So I returned to Fowler and, finally, I encountered a small section, about 5% of the book, dedicated to how we can examine faith contents to ensure the adequacy of faith.

The contents of faith

Fowler classifies the “contents” of human faith in three categories: (1) “centers of value,” (2) “images of power,” and (3) “master stories.”

  • Centers of value are those things that claim our hearts and minds; they are the things we love, the things we devote ourselves to. We choose centers of value because they endow us with worth, they tell us we are important, they give our lives meaning. For example, an LDS person might choose components of their church as centers of value because the ideas of divine heritage, eternal nature, and personal growth as a raison d’être for humans, give meaning to the struggle of our lives. Non-religious centers of value might be equality (all humans have equal worth), democracy (all humans should share power equally), and justice (institutions should be founded on principles of fairness).
  • Images of power are those forces with which we align ourselves because of their ability to make us powerful. Fowler points out that humans are implicitly aware that the world we navigate is one of dangerous, destructive powers that threaten us with easy annihilation. We choose to align with images of power that we perceive as being capable of protecting us. For an LDS woman, this might be priesthood power, the “light of Christ” that is in each of us, and the blessings of being a full tithe-payer. Non-religious centers of power might be the institution that employs us,  the military that fights for our freedom, or the capitalist economic system that some say is responsible for our (relatively) robust economy.
  • Master stories are narratives about the ways that centers of value and images of power work in our lives. This is the stuff of “testimony.” For example, consider a master story about the “light of Christ:” someone who didn’t know something was given a gift of insight, inspiration, or revelation, and then they suddenly knew it, and it blessed their life. This is a story about the power of a belief in Christ to guide someone on a righteous life. Another master story might be about the importance of Christ’s 2 greatest commandments, loving God and loving others, as a measure for keeping one on track.

Where it got interesting was where Fowler talked about the ways that centers of value, images of power, and master stories work to guide us. He told of a Fortune magazine article in which a group of recent college graduates were interviewed as they began their careers in business. They talked about their hopes and aspirations for the future, from which Fowler gleaned information about some of their centers of value and images of power: belief in their own superiority relative to the generations that came before them, their good luck and capacity for hard work, and their faith in corporations to bring about a bright global future. These images of power worked with their master stories in the following ways: they can’t afford to share power or its rewards, marriage and family must be delayed if not explicitly avoided, leisure activities should be limited to activities that will help them acquire wealth and power, loyalty to one’s company is misguided, and there is little to learn on the way up the corporate ladder.

Fowler then told a story about a man named Albert Speer, a brilliant young architect and family man who worked in Hitler’s Third Reich. Albert was similar to these young people interviewed by Fortune; he had a vision of himself as a brilliant architect on his way to making a name for himself, and one whose work was worthy of personifying Hitler’s imperial aspirations. Speer’s work became so important to Hitler that Speer became Minister of Armaments in the latter part of the war. The architect’s contribution was so integral to Hitler’s ambitions that Speer, in that role as Minister of Armaments, has been credited with extending the fighting (and killing) by at least 2 years.

When it was all over, Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison at Nuremberg. While serving his sentence, Speer wrote in his memoirs that he had been so absorbed with the idea of being Hitler’s architect that he “chose not to know” about the death camps and failed to reflect on the ways that his activities contributed to suffering and death. In other words, his master story about himself as a brilliant architect was insufficient to prevent his becoming a contributor to a mass genocide. There is good reason to suspect that the master stories described by the American young people who were interviewed by Fortune are similarly insufficient.

A couple of nights after reading this, I had a dream that my husband killed someone. It wasn’t out of anger. It was a friend’s father, someone who was getting old, ill, or demented. My husband has expressed a belief in the right of people to choose how they will go when they get to the end of their lives. The problem was that, in my dream, he really didn’t know about the elderly man’s condition or wishes. He just took his friend’s word that he was being asked to assist a suicide for one of those potentially justifiable reasons and he didn’t ask for more information because he was living out a particular narrative that was a function of how he sees himself.

In the dream, I had dropped him off at the house where the old man was sleeping. We were going to meet up later, when he was done. I didn’t want him to do it, but I hadn’t had the forethought to ask him to think harder about the ethics or to ask more questions until I had no influence on his choice. I began to ask, what if this is the wrong thing to do? What if someone sees him? Will he go to jail? Will I lose him? These questions, and the sudden realization that my husband was on the precipice of doing something with irreversible moral consequences without sufficient guidance, caused me to wake up. Just before waking, in the dream, I had suddenly realized that it was Sunday and I was missing church. When I woke up, my heart heavy with anxiety for my husband, I had a distinct desire, at my very next opportunity, to see myself sitting in the pews among the elderly people in my community that I’ve attended church with for years.

The adequacy of faith

I think the dream was about the importance of faith in our lives and how easy it is to get lost if we don’t have faith in the right things, if we don’t have the right master stories. My dream was about my fears that, if I lose all of the contents of my faith, I will lack sufficient insight to know when I am veering off track, and I might find myself or my family on an irreversible course. Fowler says that one of the ways that we can judge the adequacy of faith is by asking whether our faith is

“…sufficiently inclusive so as to counter and transcend the destructive henotheistic idolatries of national, ethnic, racial and religious identifications and to bind us as a human community in covenantal trust and loyalty to each other and to the Ground of our Being…”

This is a definition that explains why the contents of our faith matter without getting into the particulars. Whether it’s a belief in Christ, Buddha, Elohim, or Allah, do your master stories promote a movement toward greater interconnectedness with others, toward greater love, or do they promote a sense of the relative inferiority of others? If the latter, Fowler would say, your faith is insufficient.

The inadequacy of some faiths

A major contributor to my faith crisis has been the observation that so many “good Christian people” seem to hold beliefs that are grounded in a master story about their own moral superiority relative to others, and the consequent justification for political movements that validate their wish to exercise political power over those others. This was confusing to me because I failed to see how people who, presumably, believed in the same master stories that I did could come to such different conclusions about what is “right” in the moral and political world. Fowler cleared that up by pointing out that our master stories consist, not only of the narratives that are written in our sacred texts, but also of the narratives that are written in our hearts. They include the moral lessons that we take away from sacred textual narratives.

One man that I know loves to talk about an idea that there are some of us who were more “valiant” than others in the pre-Earth life; those who were more valiant, he presumes, are entitled to greater “blessings” in this life. This is an old idea that emerged in Mormon theology around the middle of the last century as a justification for the Church’s exclusion of Blacks from full participation in priesthood and temple rites at that time (and until 1978). The LDS church has since disavowed the idea officially. However, this man, who I’ve loved as a neighbor for years, and who has a teaching position, returns repeatedly to this idea in nearly every lesson. When he talks, what I hear is that he thinks those of us who had the good fortune of being born white in the American southwest can claim great moral superiority relative to those who have not. This kind of rhetoric is one of the reasons that I’ve had to limit my exposure to church activity while in my vulnerable state of crisis.

Another group of friends, who hail from an evangelical religious tradition in the south, came to visit recently and told us about a “health care club” that they participate in. It’s not insurance exactly, because if it was it would probably be illegal. It’s a group of Christians from their particular denomination who have decided to pay into a health care system that excludes those who are not a member of their denomination. They presume that those who are like them will take better care of themselves compared to the mix of people who are in “secular” health care plans. This choice to cordon themselves off from others who do not share in their religious tradition is based on the idea that others are less worthy of sharing the risks that come as part of our human condition. They may be right that they are lowering their healthcare costs, but they are also failing to see how their own fates are intimately tied with the fates of others.

To me, Christ’s teachings tell a master story about how we are all connected, about how people born in the darkest hovel share a fate with those who are born in the highest tower of the most elaborate palace. To me, Christ’s teachings tell me that, if I can’t see how our fates are shared, then I haven’t talked to enough people yet. To me, Christ’s teachings tell me that, if my master stories tell me that I am morally superior to others, if I see myself as worthy of the trappings of a good life while others are not, then I’m basically one of the pharisees.

I’m certainly not perfect. One of the ways I know that is because every time I point to those who share the “Christian” label with me without seeming to be living by what I would deem as truly Christian master stories, I see 3 fingers pointing right back at myself. I have a similar struggle. In me, it manifests as an inability to see how those who feel self-justified in their racism, sexism, bigotry, and hate are not my moral inferiors. It’s very hard for me right now to love those whose interpretation of Christ’s teachings are antithetical to my own. That’s because I’m still reeling from the realization that such beliefs have real, electoral, consequences. I might struggle with it for as long as we have our current president. (Please let it end in 2020!)

I’m working to eliminate that flaw. Just as Christ said, if our eye offends us, we should get rid of it. It’s not easy. But, the first step is to recognize that it’s there. If my master stories are adequate, Fowler would say, then they are capable of helping me see when I’m on the wrong track and that I need to make a change. If not, it’s easier for me to get stuck in wrong thinking for the rest of my life.

Will He find faith on Earth?

This is what I think Fowler means when he quotes the scripture from Luke at the beginning of this entry. Luke’s question isn’t just about whether Christ, when he returns, will find people professing to be Christians; it’s a question about whether they will be “true” followers in his message. This requires them to have faith that is adequate to keep them from veering too far off-track, into ethnocentrism, white supremacy, bigotry, and xenophobia, and to help them self-correct when they do.

In my church, we have often talked about prophesies that have said that, in the “last days,” the followers Christ will be few. Of course, this is always followed by a self-congratulating pat on the back in which we tell ourselves that the Mormons will be among them. This always makes me think of the Zoramites who (wickedly or cluelessly) loved to congratulate themselves in their Sunday worship while shunning the truly humble seekers of Christ. I fear that my congregation, at least, seems to be dominated by people whose faith is insufficient to allow real self-examination and growth.