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While over half of Americans claim to be Christian, the number of the unaffiliated has increased from 14 million in 1990 to 34 million in 2008. Insulated Christians rank atheists below criminals on their moral scale. Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind challenges this attitude by giving a much-needed voice to the “good” people who have left their church but whose spirituality continues to mature.
In Faith Beyond Belief, Margaret Placentra Johnston correlates the work of 14 spiritual development theorists into a common thread, defining the spiritual journey as a growth process with several progressive stages. What makes her book so insightful and original is that she illustrates the process through 12 real-life stories, bringing each stage to life for the general reader.
Some of these real-life accounts are by nonbelievers; others are by those among the growing numbers of the “spiritual but not religious.” The stories of the nonbelievers-including an ex-Catholic, a former Mormon and a clandestine Muslim apostate who left his community after the attacks of 9/11- show how complete confidence in human reason can lead away from literal religious interpretation, as exemplified in New Atheist writings. But, Johnston points out, while that step is a necessary one on the spiritual path, it is only intermediate. Beyond it, a person rejects human reason as the ultimate gauge of reality.
Her second set of stories are of people at this “mystic” level who can tolerate paradox, see truth and reality as multidimensional and view spiritual concepts metaphorically. They may even have returned to their original church, but now with the more evolved traits of humility, forgiveness, gratitude, acceptance and a unitive worldview in which religious differences are seen as mere details. An optometrist, Johnston has made a career of helping people with their eyesight. Now she offers to correct blurred misconceptions on another level. Faith Beyond Belief points beyond the atheist/believer controversy wrecking such divisive havoc in our culture today. It will help doubters as well as those who are struggling to clarify their own spiritual vision to see things in a new light.
What brings people to leave their church, the traditions of their faith – and sometimes even their friends and family members – to embark on a personal journey of spiritual discovery? Can we be “good” without the rules of a church to guide us? And is it still possible to find a spiritual home within a church whose creeds and practices we may have outgrown? In Faith Beyond Belief, an ex-Mormon, a Muslim “apostate,” and several former Catholics (including the author herself) are among those who tackle these issues, sharing stories to inform and comfort the ever-increasing numbers of Americans who are leaving their church behind.
Margaret Placentra Johnston takes the stages of spiritual growth out of the realm of theory to a rubber-meets-the-road discussion of the very real difficulties, and the joys, experienced by former believers as they navigate critical turning points on the path to spiritual authenticity. Based on the work of 14 spiritual development theorists, including the postmodern philosopher Ken Wilber, Johnston’s book shows how moving through the stages of spiritual growth must, by its very nature, include a turning away from the dogmas and creeds of organized religion to something much more experiential, inclusive, and liberating.
Johnston’s warm, conversational, and sometimes confrontational book shares her vision for the future of religion and gives even those who do not have a background in theology or philosophy a way to locate their place on the spiritual path and set their sights on a new kind of faith.
“Rather than keep its adherents mired in childish myths, the religion of the future will lead its members toward the more fluid form of faith that can develop beyond belief,” she writes. “The religion of the future will be Love.”
— Spirituality & Health
In approaching this book to review, I thought the personal stories would drive my commentary. Instead, I found myself intently interested in the organizing rubric Johnston built around the commonalities between them. Her line of inquiry leads her to investigate theories of spiritual development as they have been proposed by such divergent personalities as James Fowler, Saint Teresa of Avila and Adolphe Tanquerey. Johnston attempts to integrate the various theories into an accessible sequence for the average reader. She labels these the "Lawless Stage," the "Faithful Stage," the "Rational Stage," and the "Mystic Stage." Johnston's discussions of the spiritual stages and their implications were thought-provoking and I turned down a number of page corners, especially in the second half of the book. I am looking forward to considering these more deeply as a part of my own spiritual study. There is a part of me, however, that is concerned some may see the hierarchical nature of the stages to be parochial in their insistence that individuals must pass through a period of questioning prior to becoming spiritually advanced. Those who remain in the religion of their birth may presume that Johnston is insulting their faithful constancy, though Johnston does state that leaving the religion of one's birth is not endemic to the process. According to an October 14, 2012 Pew Report, 16.1% of Americans have no religious affiliation. Yet 70% of those believe in God. In this context, it is difficult to see the trend toward personal rather than dogmatic faith as step backward in our moral center. Regardless of your position on this matter, however, Faith Beyond Belief provides a framework allowing those without a strong academic background in philosophy to participate in the discussion.
— Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Blogcritics.org
What happens to the spiritual lives of people who leave the traditional Christian churches of their childhood? I’m one of those people, and so is the author of this book. She was curious enough about the question to begin researching it. Writing as neither a scholar nor a member of a religious community, she is free to notate her findings without restraint. The result is an honest look at spirituality without religious affiliation. She shares her own story as well as stories from a diverse group of individuals. There is no one answer to her question, but there are similarities in what she discovered. For ease of understanding, she has organized the answers using four broadly-defined spiritual stages: Lawless, Faithful, Rational, and Mystic. She thought long and hard about the ramifications of putting her thoughts on public display, but having left a thirty-year career as an Optometrist in order to study the topic, she ultimately decided it was time to begin the discussion. In a world where religion is becoming increasingly divisive, and is often used as a political weapon, many of your customers are asking the same question that Johnston did. Her book will not only provide much-needed insight, it can also serve as a guidebook for empowering individual spiritual growth. It is a different kind of Good News.
— Anna Jedrziewski, Retailing Insight
In this thought-provoking first book, former optometrist Johnston, who has studied spiritual development, allies herself with the “beyond religion” movement, in which nonbelievers or those who are “post–organized religion” advance toward spiritual maturity through emotional intelligence, psychology, ethics, and critical thinking outside of traditional religious structures and belief systems. Interweaving personal stories from Catholics, a Mormon, a Muslim, Protestants, and others with accumulated core insights from human development experts, including Abraham Maslow, Lawrence Kohlberg, Gordon Allport, and James Fowler, Johnston identifies five stages of “deconversion” and spiritual growth: Lawless, Faithful, Rational, Rational Plus, and Mystic. Understanding this natural movement, indicates Johnston, may shift the expanding “spiritual, but not religious” demographic toward more satisfying spiritual depths. Describing many religious institutions as “exclusionist, ethnocentric, judgmental, and triumphalist,” Johnston maps a future for religion that is “post-critical,” heterodox, mystery-centered, and teaches moral reasoning rather than doctrinal adherence. Building on what psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled (1978) and People of the Lie (1983) did for a segment of Protestantism in the 1980s, Johnston may provide similar direction for the postmodern meaning-starved spiritual seekers who are becoming adults in what philosopher Curtis Carter has termed a “transreligious” world. Agent: Lisa Hagan.
— Lisa Hagan Reviewed on: 08/13/2012 Publishers Weekly
Margaret Placentra Johnston's Faith Beyond Belief gives us a good way to know the experience of those who have rejected their own church, but who are nevertheless engaged in a spiritual search beyond the conventional language and categories that left them feeling empty and could not engage them. As such, it is an excellent way to get a feel for what the issues are and the way they are experienced by a growing segment of American society who are "spiritual but not religious." You can feel the difference in the openness, the inquiring mind, the caring soul that this book unveils.
—Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation and The Left Hand of God
“Faith Beyond Belief is a twofold pleasure. First are the stories of ten courageous people's quests for spiritual integrity. Yet, even more compelling are author Margaret Placentra Johnston's commentaries. She helps us see how these inspiring vignettes illuminate our own search for a form of faith that connects with an ever-evolving understanding of life. Much like the Buddha more than two thousand years ago, Johnston shows us some essential steps we might take in becoming lamps unto themselves.”
—Robert C. Fuller, Author of, Spiritual, But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America .
“Postmodern humanity is hungry for a postmodern faith, and Margaret Placentra Johnston offers us just that. Blending the insights of James Fowler and Paul Ricoeur with the stories of real people grappling with their own spiritual maturation, she offers us a map and a model for our own wrestling with truth. This is an important book.”
—Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of Rabbi Rami's Guide to God
“If you’re looking for smart insights about spiritual growth, grounded in solid research and presented through fascinating real-life stories, you’ve found it. Even if you’re not looking or religion is not your interest, you’ll be glad you picked up Faith Beyond Belief. There’s no denying that our spiritual beliefs impact our lives. Even if we’ve replaced them with rationality or a different teaching, they inform our worldview. Author Margaret P. Johnston gives us a clear-eyed view into the varieties and fascinating food-for-thought about our own spiritual maturity. A darn good book.”
—Reverend Margaret J Shepherd, MBA,MDiv., author of, The Visionbuiders Manual: 9 Steps to Panoramic success for your Company, Career or Cause
"This book will undoubtedly be considered one of the contributing factors in advancing our understanding of evolving human spirituality and its place in our lives in the new millennium. By acknowledging the emergence of mysticism in ordinary lives, Margaret helps to outline a way of living that is relevant, wise and healing."
— Reverend Karen Tudor, Senior Minister, Unity Church of Practical Christianity, New Braunfels, Texas and co-host of "Biblical Power For Your Life" on Unity Online Radio
“This book is a welcome and much needed humanization of the psychological and spiritual conflicts that beset humankind. What rings with a strong clarion call in this book is the psychological truth of the individual stories. There is much pleasure to be had from reading the true stories that are so well presented by the author.”
—R. G. Kainer, Ph.D., Analytic Psychologist and author of The Collapse of the Self and its Therapeutic Restoration
“This book makes an excellent, wise and important contribution to vital contemporary discussions about the role of spirituality and spiritual development at every level – personal, social and global. As the future of humanity may be at stake, how wonderful that this book puts us so firmly back on the right course.”
—Dr. Larry Culliford, author of, The Psychology of Spirituality