Is Your Belief System the Result of Choice -- or Epiphany?

In his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," Barack Obama described the reason he had originally joined the Trinity United Church of Christ . He said "It came about as a choice and not an epiphany." Why would he mention this? Why would it matter?

Up to 12 theorists in spiritual development can be found to largely agree on what spiritual maturity consists of. And selecting a spiritual home "by choice" is usually more mature than finding it "by epiphany."

Probably most of us know, or have known, someone who claims a born-again experience. They were going along leading a relatively chaotic and Lawless existence, devoid of any religious or spiritual connection when, suddenly somehow they were introduced to traditional religion -- usually Christianity. Something about it "caught" and stuck. Suddenly the person was "saved" from his formerly chaotic life. He was transformed into a righteous, law-abiding citizen and now enjoys all the comforts literal religious beliefs can bring.

The change brought about by this epiphany is usually sudden and very fierce. The person will credit a literal, bearded "sky-God" or a literally still-living Jesus for saving him. He is grateful for the ways this religion now keeps him from his prior evil ways. Born-agains tend to be among the most vocal proselytizers. They are quite sure their experience is the only valid path to wholeness, and they want everyone to benefit from the same transformation they enjoyed. This person has come to his religion as a result of an epiphany. No one can disagree that his life was vastly improved when he suddenly "got religion." This person fits the characteristics of the Faithful stage.

Why would we want to distinguish this "epiphany" approach to religion from one that results from a choice? If everyone were coming from the same place -- if all nonbelievers were coming from a Lawless state -- then being born-again thanks to an epiphany would be a valid prescription to cure all spiritual ills. But it is just not that simple.

Some nonbelievers have arrived at their stance through a careful deliberate process of reasoning. They have realized that many religious precepts are not true in a literal sense. No bearded God in the sky demands they follow certain rules; no still living Jesus will save them or comfort their fears. As members of the Rational stage, they have learned to govern themselves for the most part; religious rules are not necessary to keep them from chaotic lawlessness.

French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, called this level the Critical Distance. A person in the Critical Distance has stood back and critically analyzed religious beliefs (and most likely has distanced herself from them). She has grown beyond the need for rules and comfort that leave a person open to conversion to the Faithful level, or what Ricoeur called the First Naïveté. The Critical Distance is a more mature stance than the First Naïveté. The Rational level person has no need of, would not benefit from, and is not a candidate for a born-again experience. She does not need a religious epiphany.

So what if a Rational level person starts feeling the need for connection to something bigger than herself? Joining a church for the usual reasons -- because she literally believes everything it teaches -- would be dishonest. Instead this person may join a church (or may choose any among many other possible spiritual options) out of a desire for community. She probably wishes to contribute to society, and she may see a church community as one way to do this. She may look around to find a group that seems congenial, that seems to espouse values that are similar to her own. This may take months or years before she commits to any particular one. If she joins a church, it is not because she was saved in a momentary epiphany. It was not because she needs rules, comfort or salvation by this church's supernatural characters. It is not because she even really believes those characters are real. If she is joining a Christian church, she may see God and Jesus as metaphors for universal goodness, and Bible stories as allegorical lessons.

Ricoeur, who brought us the words First Naïveté and Critical Distance, had a name for this type of religious engagement too. He called it a Second Naïveté -- a faith stage that comes about as a result of a choice, not an epiphany. It is a choice made outside of the need for religious salvation, and beyond the need for spiritual comfort. It is a choice made out of a desire to connect and contribute to a community of peers.

A person will move into the Second Naïveté, or what I have called elsewhere the Mystic stage, as a result of a conscious choice. He will join a religious or spiritual community (if he so chooses) fully aware that it contains only partial truth, fully aware that he is choosing that particular community as one possibility among many. He chooses it as a way to connect with others, and through them with the larger spiritual reality, which he may or may not call God. He does not join for the purpose of saving his soul from prior chaos or damnation.

If you now go back and reread Obama's "Faith" chapter (Chapter 6) in "The Audacity of Hope," you may understand your president in a new light. He was trying to say, in the most politically correct way possible, that the law and order, family values orientation -- often inspired by a born-again sudden epiphany -- of the Christian (and mostly Republican) right, is more indicative of a less mature spiritual stance, especially when considered in contrast to that of those whose faith is less literal.