Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind

Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind

Margaret Placentra Johnston
Wheaton: Quest Books, 2012. x + 300 pages, paper, $17.95.

According to the author of Faith beyond Belief, much of traditional religion puts forth a message that is spiritually immature and lacking in nuance and sophistication. She supports this thesis by recounting her own struggle with traditional religious views, as well as by narrating the real life stories of ten people from diverse backgrounds who had similar struggles and ultimately decided to leave their places of worship.

The stories are both engaging and revealing. They include those of a young mother who was raised as a Mormon; a man who from Kenya who was raised Roman Catholic; a Midwestern woman who began questioning her Presbyterian church at the age of eight; an elderly man who began to question his Muslim faith after the events of 9/11; and a baby boomer who was brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church. Although they left their religions behind, all these individuals felt that they continued to have a deep spiritual life in which truth and ethics play a pivotal part.

In most of these cases, the decision to leave one's religion involved a prolonged and intense psychological battle–an inner tug of war between wanting the continued security of a community with shared beliefs and the ever-increasing doubts raised by the rational mind regarding rigid church doctrine. Those whose stories are told here found that their search for spiritual integrity was stifled and repressed by the narrow parameters of orthodox religious thinking. But it was not uncommon for these inner struggles to endure for years. One can appreciate the great courage and integrity that were required to make those decisions, especially in the face of impassioned pleas from family and members of the congregation to stay within the fold. In some cases, the price paid was complete rejection by family and former friends.

As compelling as these stories are, they serve to make the author's larger point, which is that spirituality evolves through four stages of growth. The first stage includes those who are spiritually undeveloped. These are people who live their lives without any guiding principles and are motivated primarily by selfish and egocentric concerns. Some of them may even attend church, but only for superficial and ulterior motives. The second stage consists of those who are looking for definite answers and tend to read scripture in a literal fashion. They view their religion as the only "correct" one and place great value on the security and comfort that such attitudes bring them. They are not comfortable with ambiguity and prefer cut-and-dried moral directives. Third is the rational stage, in which science and reason play a great role. Individuals at this stage value truth and integrity and therefore cannot accept religious ideas that fly in the face of science. They are often skeptical and ask lots of questions. "Critical reflection," the author notes, "is a necessary step in moving toward spiritual maturity" She observes that for individuals to arrive at the rational level, their sense of self has to be stronger than their identity with a certain group, although this does not necessarily mean they are selfish.

The author characterizes the fourth stage of spiritual growth as the mystical stage. Here scripture is interpreted as metaphor and allegory. There is a comfort with ambiguity and mystery and "an ability to live in the questions" Individuals at this level accept and value paradoxical statements as pointers to truth, while those at an earlier stage of spiritual development are made uneasy and insecure by such apparent contradictions. Mystics value unity over divisiveness, seeing not one group or another, but all as part of one.

While the author presents much evidence to support this theory of spiritual development, she takes pains to emphasize that we should not use this type of knowledge to judge people or categorize them. Also, the stages are not always cut-and-dried, and people often exhibit traits from more than one category. But the overall evidence is persuasive, and the theory is compatible with the Theosophical view of spiritual evolution. Research from a number of sources, as well as the author's own ideas, are presented in a clear and nondogmatic fashion.

Just as the message put out by traditional religion is often immature, according to the author, so are the relentless attacks on organized religion by the new crop of atheists–people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. Although they make some valid criticisms against religion, often in brilliant fashion, they are guilty of making an idol out of the rational mind, failing to understand that there may be other ways of perceiving the ultimate Reality.

Finally, it should be noted that this is not a book about bashing religion. The author stresses, "As a society, we do not want to leave our churches behind. Nor should we; they provide us with a rich cultural heritage and a particular sense of community not available elsewhere. They also serve as an integrating force for good and remind us to focus on issues beyond the material world"

David Bruce

The reviewer is a longtime member of the Theosophical Society, for which he serves as national secretary.