Review:  Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey

by Fenton Johnson

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Also on this website:

Toby Johnson's books:

GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness

GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe

SECRET MATTER: updated, revised & expanded edition from Lethe Press with Afterword by Mark Jordan

GETTING LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE: A romance novel set in the 1980s and the 1890s.

THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil

TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams

CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story


About ordering

Books on Gay Spirituality:

White Crane Gay Spirituality Series

  Articles and Excerpts:

Read Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness

Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"

The Simple Answer to the Gay Marriage Debate

Why gay people should NOT Marry

Wedding Cake Liberation

Gay Marriage in Texas

What's ironic

Shame on the American People

The "highest form of love"

Second March on Washington

A Bifurcation of Gay Spirituality

 The cause of homosexuality

The origins of homophobia

Q&A about Jungian ideas in gay consciousness

What is homosexuality?

What is Gay Spirituality?

My three messages

What Jesus said about Gay Rights

Queering religion

Common Experiences Unique to Gay Men

Is there a "uniquely gay perspective"?

The purpose of homosexuality

The Reincarnation of Edward Carpenter

The Gay Succession

Interview on the Nature of Homosexuality

What the Bible Says about Homosexuality

Mesosexual Ideal for Straight Men

Varieties of Gay Spirituality

Waves of Gay Liberation Activity

Why Gay Spirituality: Spirituality as Artistic Medium

Easton Mountain Retreat Center

Andrew Harvey & Spiritual Activism

The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the  "Statement of Spirituality"

"It's Always About You"

The myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

Joseph Campbell's description of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.

You're Not A Wave

Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging

What is Enlightenment?

What is reincarnation?

How many lifetimes in an ego?

Emptiness & Religious Ideas

Experiencing experiencing experiencing

Going into the Light

Meditations for a Funeral

Meditation Practice

The way to get to heaven

Buddha's father was right

Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal

The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika

Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva

John Boswell was Immanuel Kant

The Two Loves

Curious Bodies

What Toby Johnson Believes

The Joseph Campbell Connection

Campbell & The Pre/Trans Fallacy

The Nature of Religion

What's true about Religion

Being Gay is a Blessing

Drawing Long Straws

Freedom of Religion

The Gay Agenda

Gay Saintliness

Gay Spiritual Functions

The subtle workings of the spirit in gay men's lives.

The Sinfulness of Homosexuality

Proposal for a study of gay nondualism

Priestly Sexuality

 "The Evolution of Gay Identity"

"St. John of the Cross &
the Dark Night of the Soul."

 Eckhart's Eye

Let Me Tell You a Secret

Religious Articulations of the Secret

The Collective Unconscious

Driving as Spiritual Practice


Historicity as Myth


No Stealing

Next Step in Evolution

The New Myth

The Moulting of the Holy Ghost

Gaia is a Bodhisattva

The Hero's Journey as archetype

Marian Doctrines: Immaculate Conception & Assumption

Teenage Prostitution and the Nature of Evil

Allah Hu: "God is present here"
Adam and Steve

The Life is in the Blood

Gay retirement and the "freelance monastery"

Seeing with Different Eyes

The mystical experience at the Servites'  Castle in Riverside

The Great Dance according to C.S.Lewis

The Techniques Of The World Saviors

Part 1: Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby
Part 2:
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Part 3:
Jesus and the Resurrection
Part 4:
A Course in Miracles

The Secret of the Clear Light

Understanding the Clear Light

Mobius Strip

Finding Your Tiger Face

How Gay Souls Get Reincarnated

In honor of Sir Arthur C Clarke

Karellen was a homosexual

About Alien Abduction

What are you looking for in a gay science fiction novel?

The D.A.F.O.D.I.L. Alliance

More about Gay Mental Health

Psych Tech Training

The Rainbow Flag

Ideas for gay mythic stories

Kip and Toby, Activists

Toby's friend and nicknamesake Toby Marotta.

Harry Hay, Founder of the gay movement

About Hay and The New Myth

About Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first man to really "come out"

About Michael Talbot, gay mystic

About Fr. Bernard Lynch

About Richard Baltzell

About Guy Mannheimer

About David Weyrauch

About Dennis Paddie

About Ask the Fire

About Arthur Evans

About Christopher Larkin

About Sterling Houston

About Michael Stevens

Our friend Tom Nash

Book Reviews

Be Done on Earth by Howard E. Cook

Pay Me What I'm Worth by Souldancer

The Way Out by Christopher L  Nutter
The Gay Disciple by John Henson

Art That Dares by Kittredge Cherry

Coming Out, Coming Home by Kennth A. Burr

Extinguishing the Light by B. Alan Bourgeois

Over Coffee: A conversation For Gay Partnership & Conservative Faith by D.a. Thompson

Dark Knowledge by Kenneth Low

Janet Planet by Eleanor Lerman

The Kairos by Paul E. Hartman

Wrestling with Jesus by D.K.Maylor

Kali Rising by Rudolph Ballentine

The Missing Myth by Gilles Herrada

The Secret of the Second Coming by Howard E. Cook

The Scar Letters: A Novel by Richard Alther

The Future is Queer by Labonte & Schimel

Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak

Gay Spirituality 101 by Joe Perez

Cut Hand: A Nineteeth Century Love Story on the American Frontier by Mark Wildyr

Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman

Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano

The Key to Unlocking the Closet Door by Chelsea Griffo

The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar

Occam’s Razor by David Duncan

Grace and Demion by Mel White

Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso

The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery

The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass

Love Together: Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy and Communication by Tim Clausen

War Between Materialism and Spiritual by Jean-Michel Bitar

The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J. Kripal

Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal

The Invitation to Love by Darren Pierre

Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration by Daniel A Helminiak

A Walk with Four Spiritual Guides by Andrew Harvey

Can Christians Be Saved? by Stephenson & Rhodes

The Lost Secrets of the Ancient Mystery Schools by Stephenson & Rhodes

Keys to Spiritual Being by Adrian Ravarour

In Walt We Trust by John Marsh

Solomon's Tantric Song by Rollan McCleary

A Special Illumination by Rollan McCleary

Aelred's Sin by Lawrence Scott

Fruit Basket by Payam Ghassemlou

Internal Landscapes by John Ollom

Princes & Pumpkins by David Hatfield Sparks

Blood of the Goddess by William Schindler

Sanctity & Male Desire by Donald Boisvert

Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom by Jeffrey Kripal

Evolving Dharma by Jay Michaelson

Jesus in Salome's Lot by Brett W. Gillette

The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson

The Vatican Murders by Lucien Gregoire

"Sex Camp" by Brian McNaught

Out & About with Brewer & Berg
Episode One: Searching for a New Mythology

The Soul Beneath the Skin by David Nimmons

Out on Holy Ground by Donald Boisvert

The Revolutionary Psychology of Gay-Centeredness by Mitch Walker

Out There by Perry Brass

The Crucifixion of Hyacinth by Geoff Puterbaugh

The Silence of Sodom by Mark D Jordan

It's Never About What It's About by Krandall Kraus and Paul Borja

ReCREATIONS, edited by Catherine Lake

Gospel: A Novel by WIlton Barnhard

Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey by Fenton Johnson

Scissors, Paper, Rock by Fenton Johnson

 What does Faith Mean Today?

Keeping Faith
Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey 

by Fenton Johnson

Houghton Mifflin, paperback, 336 pages, $19.95

November 2004


Available from -- new and used -- paper and hard cover. Also available for Kindle.

Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey

5 stars

This review appeared in White Crane Journal #60, Spring 2004

I loved this book. Beautifully written, academic but deeply personal, wide-ranging but simultaneously focused and disciplined (like a good meditation), Keeping Faith directly addresses the issues of modern spirituality—and gay spirituality in particular: how to understand and honor the spiritual quest that leads some people to eschew the normal life of marrying and raising a family in order to live as a monk (or at least a full-time, committed meditator) and to be sensible, modern, “scientific,” and psychologically-sophisticated at the same time. That is to say, what does “faith” mean today?

Fenton Johnson grew up in the little Kentucky town near the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, the monastery made popular, at least among Catholics, by Thomas Merton, probably the best known monk of modern times. Johnson’s family owned and operated the hotel-tavern in the town. He grew up, therefore, with an unusually insider’s view of monasticism. Tourists and visitors staying at the Inn would have come likely with the most traditional, mythologized, and medieval-like views of monks as near-disembodied spirits living a life of total absorption in God. The young Fenton, named for one of the monks at Gethsemani, grew up with these men as friends of his parents and frequent visitors in his mother’s kitchen where the monks occasionally escaped the cloister to come drink beer and carouse. What a perfect image of modern religious consciousness: we all know the  myths of what religion and Church are (and most of us feel them with a certain reverent nostalgia even if we’ve left the institution), yet we also now know the “truth” that priests and monks are just regular human beings like the rest of us, some even with personal foibles that are frankly against “the laws of both God and man,” and the Church as a politically driven, power-hungry institution often at odds with its own teachings. That is, we all inchoately know it’s a put-on. Yet beneath the pretense is potentially something crucially important and potentially life and soul-saving.

Keeping Faith opens with Johnson’s being invited coincidentally (??), while in town for his mother’s 80th birthday, to attend a convocation of Catholic and Buddhist monks, including the Dalai Lama, at Gethesmani Abbey in 1996. By that time, he was an openly gay man living in San Francisco, a veteran--and aggrieved widow--of the AIDS crisis, an observer of the Church’s ineptitude in dealing with gay issues, a sensible modern man who identified himself only as a former Catholic. He was also a writer (and later, we learn, a teacher of writing and an accomplished novelist), and the meeting of monks would make good material for an article, and, having been raised almost with the expectation he’d one day join the monastery, he says, he saw this as a chance for a quick look at the road not taken.

But the article became a book and the research a spiritual journey.

After the convocation, Johnson set out to learn a little more about Buddhist monasticism and meditation practice. The research took him to the S.F. Zen Center, the Center’s hot springs resort at Tassajara, and the Marin County Green Gulch Farm. Most importantly, it took him to his own zafu and into the stillness between breaths.

The book is alternatingly academic, reportorial, and intimately personal—all thoroughly interesting throughout. There are accounts of Eastern and Western history (ancient and modern), analyses of such figures as Buddha and Baker-Roshi, St. Antony of the Desert, Plato, and Augustine. There are interviews with monks and nuns, both Catholic and Zen. There are accounts of the author’s upbringing and adult life as a gay man. There’s even a poignant and sensitive discursus in the middle of the book on priestly pedophilia and secret sexuality. But, most of all, there is an ongoing investigation into the proper nature of faith in contemporary consciousness.

Faith, Johnson concludes, is always a leap into the unknown, into change with no preconceptions of the outcome. Not insistence on dogma or orthodoxy, true faith is the willingness to embrace experience—the great mystery and miracle of life--out of love for knowledge, beauty, and truth. True faith isn’t being right, it’s having a reason for hope.

I’ll repeat my first sentence: I loved this book. It’s beautifully written and a joy to read if only for the style. In a way Fenton Johnson’s homosexuality is tangential to his search for the meaning of faith and in a way it’s central. It is his ability to hold both polarities--East and West, ancient and modern, faithful and skeptical--all at the same time that makes his discoveries meaningful and satisfying. Such wideness of spirit, of course, is incumbent on all people of faith and good will. But the reality is that many of them (too many!) fail—and their handling of gay issues in modern society is a major indicator of their success or failure. Gay people are called upon by something deep inside us to accomplish that wideness of spirit. That, I think, is probably the essence of “gay spirituality.” Fenton Johnson’s contribution is notable.

Fenton Johnson’s Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey won a Lambda Literary Award in the category of Spirituality (beating out this reviewer's also nominated book Gay Perspective).

Reviewed by Toby Johnson, author of Gay Spirituality: Gay Identity and the Transformation of Human Consciousness, The Myth of the Great Secret: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell and other novels and books


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Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.

Johnson's Lammy Award winning book GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated book  GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are available now from Lethe Press.

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