The win-lose mentality prominent in our society is
a symptom of a much larger problem – a spiritual problem, in fact.
A contagious societal myopia blinds us to the ways that strictly self-serving actions
harm the overall society. As the most spiritually developed humans are aware, we are all part of a greater whole.
– Margaret Placentra Johnston
Another spring season is unfolding to full glory around me these days. As I walk my neighborhood, I am once again awed by the sight of so many colors returning to the land: every shade of green on the trees and bushes; the yellows, pinks, purples, and deep burgundy of the flowers. As I gaze about me, this year I also am particularly moved to a sense of gratitude at the thought that I can actually see these colors. I have the capacity to witness their magnificence through eyes, I recently read, that evolved from mutated chlorophyll molecules, so that like plant leaves, my eyes can capture the light from the sun (Cannato, 65).
Margaret Placentra Johnston is an optometrist who spent her career dedicated to helping her patients to see more clearly. Several years ago, however, she embarked upon a quite different, though similarly motivated task: to help us all see more clearly what it means to evolve toward spiritual maturity on the inside – something she admits is not easily visible to the naked eye and therefore is not as clearly understood by most of us. With her first book, Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind, Placentra Johnston is out to change that. I admire and am deeply grateful to her for taking up the challenge. She is leading the way in our need to develop new understandings of the role of religion, faith, and spirituality in personal and public life.
In her book and on her website [http://www.exploring-spiritual-development.com], Placentra Johnston tells the story of her own spiritual development journey and that of 10 other individuals to illustrate the process of spiritual development and its relationship to religion. Her purpose in writing the book is to help us understand how the process of spiritual development occurs, and through that knowledge to better understand ourselves, one another, and the human events taking place in our world.
From my perspective and the framework of this blog, of special significance to me is that the transformative moment for Placentra Johnston that propelled her toward this new work came through reading a book, specifically M. Scott Peck’s, The Different Drummer. Says Placentra Johnston: “it turned my rather pat view of the world upside down”(9). The same is true for me and for many of the people whose story of growth on the faith journey Placentra Johnston describes in her book. This blog is an attempt to share the new insights I gained from authors I encountered in the various “steps” I have delineated in my own growth story. Many of the people whose story Placentra Johnston tells in her book also speak about the impact of exploring new ideas through reading a book that came into their life intentionally or quite serendipitously. I make note of this because, as Placentra Johnston stresses in telling her own story, one of the key dynamics required in spiritual development is for us to be open to the newness that can come our way from another’s knowledge and thought process. This also implies that questioning our former beliefs is a natural part of the growth process.
Placentra Johnston does not take every book as presenting truth. In fact, she critiques rather severely a particular group of authors known as “the New Atheists.” Placentra Johnston writes: “Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others of their persuasion would have you believe that human reason is the highest god and that the atheist stance is the last word in the believer-versus-nonbeliever controversy” (63). However, ultimately Placentra Johnston is compassionate in her approach, trying to help us to understand the reasons behind the “New Atheists” rational line of thinking about religion and God in the context of her research.
While the subtitle of Placentra Johnston’s book implies that it is about people who have left their traditional religion and churches behind, that subtitle could be extended to say “and at least some of whom later came back.” The book contains stories of people who continue to practice within their original religious tradition, but from what Placentra Johnston calls a more mature spiritual stance that can embrace the positive elements of the tradition while simultaneously questioning elements they find less than helpful.
Placentra Johnston provides a comprehensive introduction in “everyday language” to the stages of spiritual development in both her book and on her website. She has taken theorists ranging from St. Teresa of Avila to M. Scott Peck and summarized their work in four categories of her own, which she names: “Lawless, “Faithful,” “Rational” and “Mystic.” You can find a brief introduction to these stages on her website at: http://www.exploring-spiritual-development.com/Spiritual-Development-Stages.html
Coincidently, during the time I was reading Placentra Johnston’s book, I happened to watch the DVD of the Oscar-winning film, Philomena. If you have not viewed the film, I encourage you to do so, both because of the outstanding performances of its leading actors and because (particularly if you would rather watch a film than read a book) it will help you to understand the important concept of spiritual development.
The film tells the story of an elderly Irish Catholic woman who as a young girl became pregnant out of wedlock, was forced to give up her child at age four, and fifty years later tries to find him.
If you have seen Philomena, I invite you to watch it again after studying Placentra Johnston’s breakdown on the stages of spiritual development on her website. Look for clues and see if you can identify the various stages of spiritual development being exhibited by the characters in the film.
That said, I bring Philomena up for another important reason. It is something Placentra Johnston also argues in her book, and is why she committed so many years of her life to writing it. The stages of spiritual development are not well known outside a very elite group of researchers and authors. As Placentra Johnston notes in her book, “Many in the general public do not recognize what constitutes spiritual maturity”(3).
After I saw Philomena, I read several reviews of the film. I was curious about what I would find, and was not surprised that I did not find in any of them the perspective on the film I developed after reading Placentra Johnston’s book: that the film illustrates the stages of spiritual development in its characters. Yes, I completely agree with reviewers that the plot – based on actual events – is filled with tender and heart-wrenching moments. I agree, too, that if it were not for the performances of the lead actors, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the film would not have gotten the attention it did. I agree also that it depicts a number of different responses toward religion, faith, sin, and evil. However, and this is the point Placentra Johnston and I hope to make, it does not explain why those responses emerge in the different characters portrayed in the film. Placentra Johnston’s clear and intelligent depiction of the stages of spiritual development in her book can help us much more deeply understand and appreciate in a nonjudgmental and compassionate way the events of Philomena.
I hope you will take Placentra Johnston up on her challenge to learn more about spiritual development, and to help lead the way in spreading this knowledge among your family, friends and professional colleagues. As Placentra Johnston suggests, lack of this knowledge “holds back a realization that could move our civilization forward”(227).
Cannato, J. (2006). Radical Amazement: Contemplative Lessons from Black Holes, Supernovas, and Other Wonders of the Universe. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books
Placentra Johnston, Margaret. (2012). Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind, Wheaton, IL: Quest.