Guest blogger Margaret Placentra Johnston, a practicing optometrist, is the author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind, Gold Winner of the 2013 Nautilus Book Award in Religion/spirituality.
I was delighted for the opportunity to read and review Dr. Fred Howard’s timely new title, Transforming Faith: Stories of Change from a Lifelong Spiritual Seeker. In it, he mixes snippets of his own personal faith journey with spiritual development wisdom from the ages. He uses these tools to work his way through to one of the clearest and most inspiring articulations of postreligious, postconventional faith that I have heard yet.
Howard’s book elucidates the spiritual development trajectory on three levels, his own personal journey, a synthesis of the stages other spiritual development theorists have described, and a trip through historical changes in religious authority that suggest our society in general is evolving through the same trajectory an individual might traverse.
A literal Christian in his youth, Howard worked his way through the inevitable religious doubts that anyone honestly engaging with our increasingly postmodern world would encounter. He emerged, as do many people going through these stages, with a deeper, kinder and greatly expanded interpretation of Christianity (and faith in general.) This form of faith allows him to engage more authentically in the world minus the provincial and limited religious beliefs of his youth.
Drawing on commonalities among the works of other spiritual development theorists, Howard refers to the earliest stage as “Adopted Faith*” common to most people in most traditional, organized religions, and similar to what he engaged in during his “born again” stage as a youth.
Howard calls the middle stage Individuating Faith, similar to James Fowler’s Individuative-Reflective Faith**. Here, a person faces down the inevitable doubts the rational mind is likely to impose upon the literal beliefs taught in most churches. This honest open-ended questioning and critical reflection may involve risk of defection from the church. But the benefit is that it can lead a person beyond the spiritual infancy of Adopted Faith, and may result in an individuated form of personal growth that is rarely acknowledged in conventional society.
The greatest gift of Howard’s Transforming Faith is in his articulation of the “final” stage. (I put the word ‘final’ in quotation marks because this is only the final stage we can articulate at this point. Spiritual growth is never finished, and we have no idea to what levels people may one day evolve.) He calls this Holistic Faith*** and says it is “a way of seeing life that [gives] wholeness, meaning and purpose to life,…better understood as a process….a verb rather than a noun…It’s an alignment of one’s heart with the heart of life and the heart of the universe.” Brilliant!!
But Howard lends added richness to the spiritual development concept by mentioning how our understanding of religious authority has continued to evolve throughout history. During the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity, tradition was the primary source of religious authority. Truth was dictated by outer authorities, especially in the form of the hierarchy headed by the pope. With the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, scripture emerged as the primary source of religious authority in the Western world. Together, these two eras may be seen as a society displaying a form of the Adopted Faith that is typical in the development of the individual.
With the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, the emphasis shifted away from outer authority toward greater importance on human reason as the more authentic determinant of reality. This era corresponds to Howard’s Individuating Faith stage.
Finally, in the nineteenth century, individual personal experience began to emerge as the ultimate determinant of reality – a type of faith “people can never fully grasp with analytical minds,” and corresponding roughly to Howard’s Holistic Faith stage – where faith is seen as trust – as opposed to beliefs. Howard wisely tell us: “Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is having enough confidence in the guidance of the heart.”
Transforming Faith serves as an excellent introduction to a hopeful and heartening view of individual spiritual development and overall societal human evolution, that has been articulated in many other books. Lest we be blinded by the “trees” of chaos and discord to which we are exposed through our conventional media, Howard’s perspective shares a glimpse of the “forest” – an optimistic future for humanity.
*referred to by other stage theorists as the Formal, Institutional, Fundamental, the Synthetic, Conventional, the pre-critical, the Faithful stage
**other theorists have called it the Skeptic, Individual stage, Critical Faith, the Rational Level, or the Critical Distance.
***referred to by other stage theorists as Mystic, Communal faith, Conjunctive Faith, post-critical faith, the Mystic level.
Here, Dr. Fred Howard responds to my questions:
MARGARET: What vision inspired your desire to write Transforming Faith?
FRED: When I first learned of the stage theory of spiritual growth, it so resonated with me as a process which I was in the midst of at that very moment. It made so many seemingly disparate parts of my life fall into place. Since then I’ve wanted to find a way to share it with others. Writing a book that included significant turning points in my journey struck me as a good way to do that.
MARGARET: How does your stance within Holistic Faith inform your work as a Unitarian minister?
FRED: Unitarian congregations are really a microcosm of our increasingly diverse religious world and, as such, have the potential to model good interfaith relationships to the rest of our society. Being in community with self-identified Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and even atheists, as is the case in many of our congregations, requires we develop a Holistic Faith approach. The minister must think in terms of both/and rather than either/or. My goal is not to blend religions together. Rather, I ask the members of our congregation to remain steadfast in their religious identity. I encourage everyone to find ways to be true to themselves and yet still be in relationship to one another. As we find ways to creatively accomplish this we develop Holistic Faith. We grow spiritually as individuals and as a community.
MARGARET: I know you are clear about this in your book, but for readers of Becca’s Inspirational Book Blog, could you supply a concise explanation of your view of God?
FRED: The word “God” has different meanings for most everyone. But regardless of whether or not someone takes the notion of God literally, people with all varieties of spiritual sophistication still use the word to speak of a reality beyond the material world. So God, in essence, is a metaphor for meaning – a way for human beings to speak of something greater than ourselves, the great mystery of our existence, which gives life purpose. Heard in this way, it matters little whether or not God “exists” in any conventional sense.
Thank you, Margaret, for this incisive review and interview. Transforming Faith is available now on Amazon.com.
Becca Chopra, author of The Chakra Diaries, Chakra Secrets, Balance Your Chakras – Balance Your Life, and The Chakra Energy Diet
Download my FREE Chakra Balancing Video at www.theChakras.org
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