How much are postage stamps these days? My guess is that they cost less than the greatest honor of your life. Let’s go back to 1848. It’s an election year. The issue of slavery is splitting the nation, and everyone is looking for a candidate who will forge a mediating position. Enter Zachary Taylor. Taylor was the perfect choice. He wasn’t a career politician (always a good thing). In fact, he wasn’t even political (even a better thing!). How can I say such a thing? Two reasons. First, he never once voted in any presidential election. That’s not quite true. He voted in one. He voted in 1848 – for himself. Second, any political opinion he did hold was ill-defined and almost incomprehensibly vague.  He was, however, a war hero. And thanks to his exploits in the war with Mexico (a feat that earned him the nickname, “Old Rough and Ready”), he became a national hero and a perfect presidential candidate. And so, in early June of 1848, the national convention of the Whig Party unanimously nominated Zachary Taylor as their candidate for the White House. Immediately, they sent him a letter, informing him of their decision and this great honor. However, Taylor refused the letter, sending it back to Whig Headquarters unopened. Now, one would suspect that he simply had no interest in pursuing the presidency, hence, the reason for rejecting the nomination. But no. And it wasn’t that he no longer saw the Whigs as his party. He most certainly did. The reason he rejected the letter was because he was cheap. See, in 1848, the sender did not pay to post a letter. The recipient did (stamps would not become common for several more years). And since the Mexican War, Taylor received tons of fan mail, all for which he had to pay. It got so draining financially that he finally decided he could not afford any more fans. There was only one way out. He stopped receiving mail. All of it. And so, when the Whigs sent Taylor a letter informing him that he was their candidate for president, he didn’t even look at it. He just returned it to the sender. Far be it for him to be driven to the poor house by people who considered him a hero! A month later, almost accidentally, Taylor discovered that the Whigs had nominated him as their candidate; and in 1849, he became our 12th president. Unfortunately, he died in office in 1850 (some believe he may have been poisoned); and Millard Fillmore completed his term. Twenty-five years after his death, the US Post Office released a postage stamp honoring Taylor. I guess if the Post Office can forgive you, anyone can. (Thanks to Leland Gregory for informing me of this story).

In this series, we’ve covered the first three stages of faith. We have talked about “Receptive Faith” (“I believe what my family believes”), “Concrete Faith” (“I believe that God rewards good behavior”) and “Ecclesiastical Faith” (“I believe what the important people around me believe, especially the people in my church”). The first stage is based (mostly) on love (family); and the second stage is based (again, mostly) on fear (reward and punishment); and the third stage is based mostly on one’s community. But something happens between Stages 3 or 4. We become far more independent. We decide what mail we receive and what mail we don’t want. We decide if we are going to believe what the people around us believe, and we decide what we want to do. And that is why we have labelled Stage 4 faith as “Individualistic Faith.” And in this stage, we choose to believe what we want to believe. It is all up to us. 

Here’s a quick guide to this stage. 

  • I believe in what I believe. I am on my own.  I may abandon what my church believes and go in search of others who believe like me or may remain isolated in my faith without a community.
  • I am guarded about the perspective of others and find some joy in charting my own path. My faith is my faith, and I need to figure it out and not trust simply what my church believes. 
  • I decide what I want to believe, and I move in new directions to live out this new faith. 

No matter how you cut it, this is a hard stage. It is unnerving to cut ties with those around you and start to chart your own path. Not only is there safety in numbers, but there is also comfort, support, and a sense of belonging. To move to Stage 4, generally speaking, you have to leave all that behind. Moving to Stage 4 is also unsettling to the people you left behind in Stage 3. Why? Because most of the time, they won’t understand why you “suddenly” believe differently and will feel like you are rejecting them.

After graduating from college, we moved back to West Palm Beach which was Jo’s hometown. We had been going to a great church before we moved, but now the drive was too much; and so we started looking for a church close by that was truly “us.” Many of Jo’s childhood friends still went to Jo’s former Baptist church in town, and so we felt obligated to give it a try, even though we were sure it was not close to being “us” as we’d grown in our beliefs during college.  For some reason, we ended up sitting in the second or third row, and the pastor saw us. He recognized Jo; and at the end of the service, publicly in front of God and everybody, welcomed her “and her husband” home where they belonged. Let me just say, that was awkward because we were pretty sure we weren’t coming back. But when we didn’t return, all of Jo’s old friends were confused and quite disappointed with us (more precisely, they were mad at me because they felt I had led Jo astray since I was a liberal presbyterian). Long story short, there were a lot of hurt feelings (to be fair, Jo’s best friend, Carole, stuck with us through this time and demonstrated what love and grace looked like, so thanks, Carole!)

Going out on your own is also painful in another way. Rachel Held Evans, in her book, Searching for Sunday, tells of her own experience of leaving her church after years of calling it home. In a very emotional and poignant paragraph, she outlines her journey. She writes: 

“All the beliefs I struggled with during the week were taken for granted on Sunday morning, accepted as self-evident fact. This made my own misalignment all the more pronounced. Around me, people nodded their heads and raised their hands and murmured, ‘Amen,’ while I raged internally at their confidence, their blithe acceptance of the very doctrines that kept me awake night after night. I was surrounded by the people who knew me and loved me best in the world, and yet it was the loneliest hour of my week. I didn’t stop going to church [at that time], but I stopped being present. But that decision—to remain silent—split me in two. It convinced me that I could never be myself at church, that I had to check my heart and mind at the door.” 

In another place she writes:

“There are recovery programs for people grieving the loss of a parent, sibling, or spouse. We speak openly about the bereavement that can accompany a layoff, a move, a diagnosis, or a dream deferred. But no one really teaches you how to grieve the loss of your faith. You’re on your own for that.” 

Now, I am not suggesting that all that Evans is describing here corresponds with a move from Stage 3 (Ecclesiastical Faith) to Stage 4 (Individualistic Faith), but the emotions are the same. Embracing a Stage 4 faith always comes at a cost. But there are benefits, as well. It is now YOUR faith. This is what YOU believe.  YOUR faith is now something that is very personal to you, and it is something that defines you. And when people ask you what you believe, you won’t recite what you’ve been taught. You share what is on your heart. 

Two warnings here. First, many people think they are moving from Stage 3 (Ecclesiastical Faith) to Stage 4 (Individualistic Faith) when, in fact, they are just switching communities (they are moving from one particular faith community to a different community). In their hearts, they believe that they are the ones making this change, but there is a lot of pull from this new community that is really behind the switch (perhaps, there are good friends in this new community or it offers better programs or it offers some other sort of reward). In other words, don’t just assume a switch to a different community indicates a switch from Stage 3 to stage 4. 

A second warning. One of the key doctrines of the Reformation was “sola scriptura,” (“by scripture alone”). And one of the key ways the Reformation lived this doctrine out was by putting Scripture in the hands of average people who then “got to” interpret it for themselves. This was a major step forward and a disaster all at the same time (Scot McKnight calls it the “Reformation’s best and most dangerous revolutionary idea.”).  Why? Because people often come up with interpretations that are not based in the Bible. They think the Bible is behind their beliefs, but it is not. Here’s why I bring it up here.  One’s new Stage 4 faith should be rooted in the Scriptures and not just something you come up with on your own. Let me give you an example. If you conclude that the Trinity is simply God appearing in three different modes (one God appearing sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son and sometimes as Holy Spirit), congratulations! That is now your new faith! And congratulations, you are also a heretic (Modalism has been condemned many times in the history of the church). Yes, it is always good to own your own theology, but it is always important to make sure that your theology is well within the confines of the Great Tradition of the Church (we can see the Great Tradition of the Church in its creeds and confessions and prayers). Too many people jump to Stage 4 thinking they are making a great stride in owning their faith, when, really, they are simply buying into someone else’s wacky theology. Yes, Scripture is our final authority, but we should never read Scripture in isolation. We always must read it alongside the Great Tradition.  Don’t just assume that because you “own” a theology that it is a good one. Sometimes you should just stay where you are. 

Many of us can point to a time in our lives where we decided that we needed to move on from identifying with the faith of our church community and embrace a new faith. I remember those days as being very exciting and fresh and meaningful. They were times when I embraced a new mission or understood a new emphasis or charted a new course. They were times when I heard God’s call to action. They were times when I stepped out in newness of faith and became a new person. How would you describe it? What was your “new” mission or direction?

In short, Stage 3 gladly reads mail addressed to your “Church Home” and feels like it is personally addressed to you. But Stage 4 rejects any such mail and is only interested in letters addressed directly to you. After all, it is your faith. And your faith ought to have your own personal stamp on it.