Explorations: Unbelief—A Path to Enlightenment

By Clare Goldsberry

Originally printed in the JULY-AUGUST 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Goldsberry, Clare."Explorations: Unbelief—A Path to Enlightenment." Quest  95.4 (JULY-AUGUST 2007): 146-147.

Theosophical Society - Clare Goldsberry is a professional freelance writer and volunteer teacher with RISE, a continuing education program for older adults, on Eastern philosophies, the Ageless Wisdom, Gnosticism, and Kabbalah.

A father approached Jesus out of a crowd of people that always seemed to surround him wherever he traveled. The man begged Jesus to cure his afflicted son. Jesus inquired how long his son had suffered from these fits that often caused the young man to fall on the ground, gnash his teeth, and foam at the mouth. "Since he was a child," the man replied, begging Jesus to have compassion on them. Jesus then said to the man, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." Then the father replied, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."(Mark 9:21-24) At this point, his son was cured.

The interesting thing about this comment is that the father didn't stop with his statement of belief, but went on to request help with his unbelief. This might indicate that a person's unbelief could be as beneficial to the path of enlightenment as a person's belief, perhaps even more so.

Belief often indicates a rigid structure. The term "belief system" is often used to designate a person's religious affiliation. Whether or not one is a believer can indicate whether or not a person is a true member of a specific religious group. Prior to admitting a person as a full-fledged member, religious organizations often require a statement or profession of belief as an indicator of one's commitment to that religious organization's doctrines or dogma.

However, from a theosophical standpoint, belief is something that is fluid, moving, living, breathing, and can change as we journey along various paths of life. Indeed, the ability to allow our beliefs to be flexible enough to lead us into new ways of being and seeing the world is critical to the quest for Self and for God or the Divine within us.

Putting our beliefs in suspended animation long enough to allow us the opportunity to look at something in a different light, and ask questions in the light of new learning or experience, is critical to our spiritual progression. Enlightenment can never become a reality if we are trapped in the darkness of a rigid belief system, unable or unwilling to ask the questions that can lead us forward into the light.

Many people find a sense of security and certainty in blind acceptance of their belief system. Many religious belief systems discourage the quest, telling their followers that questioning can destroy belief. Yet often, just the opposite happens. Questioning can open up new doors and new avenues for self-discovery. Of course, religious leaders fear that if they encourage questioning and questing, it may also lead one out of the particular religious organization to which one belongs. It might lead one to a different religious organization or to no particular religious organization.

In his book The Soul's Religion, Thomas Moore notes that people often use their belief system as a basis for their faith. Yet, he says, "What they call faith looks like its opposite. Like those who whistle in the dark, some seem to parade their beliefs precisely so they don't have to face the anxiety of not knowing the answers to the basic issues in life." Moore agrees that belief should be fluid and flexible. When belief is rigid and inflexible, Moore writes, ". . . there is no room for movement and no motive for reflection. When belief is rigid, it is infinitely more dangerous than unbelief."

I found tremendous resistance from my family, as my own journey led me beyond the belief system of my childhood religious upbringing. In one outburst of rage at my newly chosen path, my brother accused me of not knowing what I believed. My brother can recite his beliefs word-for-word, as if out of a book. His chosen path lies in an organized religion that provides him with structure and certainty, but discourages anyone from asking questions or taking on a quest of their own. Perhaps his anger grows out of a fear that outside the structure of the organization, one becomes lost in a sea of unbelief. Perhaps he fears that when the protective walls come down, one is left standing alone in the darkness, when in actuality, the opposite often happens.

When the walls of rigid belief systems come down, the light begins pouring in and one becomes free to seek enlightenment by asking the questions and embracing the answers; answers which, by the way, might be in the form of more questions that propel one still further along the path. Becoming comfortable with this process requires confidence in the quest and certainty in the path, rather than in any particular belief system. Within the shadows of unbelief lies the openness to receive the light of spiritual possibilities; within the fertile soil of unbelief lies the seeds of new faith that can grow into knowledge and enlightenment. It is what led to the healing of the son of the man who asked Jesus to bless his unbelief.

In the esoteric community, many people on "the path" disdain belief and the connotations it holds as being a dogmatic stricture of the church or of Christianity alone, and think that somehow belief precludes one's ability to be a seeker of truth. That is not the case. As Larry Witham says in his book By Design: Science and the Search for God, "One must believe in something in order to proceed to the next thing."

Belief is only the beginning. Belief is the first step toward understanding, as the father of the sick child knew. St. Anselm, the medieval logician, said, "I believe so that I may understand." As one moves from belief, through the twilight of unbelief, one is ultimately led to the light of knowing, and to enlightenment itself. Unbelief is not something to be avoided as one seeks enlightenment and self-knowledge—it is something to be embraced.


Moore, Thomas. The Soul's Religion. San Francisco: Perennial/HarperCollins, 2003.Witham, Larry. By Design: Science and the Search for God. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003.


Clare Goldsberry is a member of the Phoenix Study Group. She is a professional freelance writer for business and industry trade magazines, and also writes articles on religion and spirituality. Clare is the author of A Stranger in Zion, a non-fiction book that received the 2003 Glyph Award for Best Religion Book from the Arizona Book Publishers Association.