DAVID STEINDL-RAST and ANSELM GRÜN
Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2016. 192 pp., paper; $17.95.
As scientific findings have weakened the strength of the Genesis story, and as our horizons expand beyond the limits of our own provincial tribes, the literal teachings of most forms of organized religion hold less and less water. Thus it becomes ever more important to develop forms of spiritual faith that take us past Sunday School teachings.
As the author of a book by the same title, I was particularly interested to read David Steindl-Rast and Anselm Grün’s Faith beyond Belief. While my 2012 title had addressed postcritical faith among people who had largely left traditional religion behind, I knew these authors, both Benedictine monks, would be sharing a form of postliteral faith that allows them to remain within the religious walls. Faith beyond Belief: Spirituality for Our Times was published originally in German in 2015, and oddly, the German title (Das glauben wir: “This We Believe”) makes no reference to the distinction between faith and belief. However, in both languages the subtitle, Spirituality for Our Times, discloses the authors’ appreciation that an update to stagnant dogmatic belief systems is in order. The second subtitle, A Conversation, suggests that we can no longer demand spiritual certainties from our religious authorities, but rather are called to engage actively in discussions that help broaden the spiritual landscape for everyone.
Though his name appears nowhere on the cover, this book owes much of its genius to its editor, Johannes Kaup, a radio journalist in Austria who organized the interviews with Steindl-Rast and Grün on which the book is based. The interview format works well, and when the two monks occasionally veer off into what sounds like standard religious jargon, it is Kaup’s clarifications, and continual efforts to circle the discussion back to his original questions, that keep the book focused on what faith beyond belief really means.
The early chapters seek to distinguish that in our experience which comes from the ego, or fear-based selfishness, from that which comes from the I (as discovered in the process of individuation) and which itself serves as a prerequisite to the experience of “the center where I am one and am joined with others . . . the divine Self.”
A later chapter urges us to bid good-bye to “Infantile Images of God” by considering what images of God would be life-affirming. This is followed by an invitation to join “In Dialog with the Mystery” and “Live Ultimately” by “Being Entirely My Self.”
Reading Faith Beyond Belief is no lightweight experience. It is obvious that Steindl-Rast, Grün, and Kaup are all masters of complex reasoning, and their perspectives serve to expand our thought patterns well beyond the obvious. I particularly liked Steindl-Rast’s description of redemption: “a liberation from encapsulation in sin . . . ‘a dirty spot on my vest’ . . . and into community, not only with other people but also with the animals, the plants, and the whole universe.” All three contributors are well versed in depth psychology, and also seem to live and embody the most advanced faith development stages as described by James Fowler and others, where humility, universality and oneness prevail over the divisive certainties of most of organized religion. Steindl-Rast provides further richness by frequently pointing out connections between Christianity and Buddhism.
This book serves as an excellent resource for anyone inclined toward ongoing allegiance to one of our richest longstanding religious traditions but who has found its dogmatic literalisms too limiting. It is a conversation that may help readers find a way toward a nonliteral faith once their critical minds no longer allow literal acceptance of explicit religious beliefs. Though remaining deeply involved in Christianity, the authors generously share their own form of faith, a “universal human primeval faith [which is] is expressed in the various traditions in quite different ways and is formulated in very different terms. But common to all us humans is trust in life, in the Mystery we point to with the word God . . . trusting in one another [and in] . . . what can join us all together in our innermost being.”
Margaret Placentra Johnston
The reviewer is the author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books, 2012).