Faith Beyond Belief gives a much-needed voice to the “good” people who have left their church but whose spirituality continues to mature. Johnston uses first-person stories as well as known spiritual authorities in describing various stages of religious growth. Some of these real-life accounts are by nonbelievers; others are by those among the growing numbers of the “spiritual but not religious.” All are thoughtful people with too much integrity to live what they consider a lie.
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. But, while that step is a necessary one on the spiritual path, it is only intermediate. Her second set of stories are of people at the “mystic” level who can tolerate paradox and see truth and reality as multidimensional.
Johnston’s book will help doubters to see things in a new light as well as those who are struggling to clarify their own spiritual vision. It also points beyond the atheist/believer controversy wrecking such divisive havoc in our culture today.
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Faith Beyond Belief
Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind
By Margaret Placentra Johnston
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2012 Margaret Placentra Johnston
All rights reserved.
The Surprise behind Door Number Two (Valerie)
Valerie, a young southwestern mother of three, speaks with a very tangible excitement in her voice, demonstrating the enthusiasm she holds for life. As discrepancies in the logic of church stories began to bother her, so did the seemingly naïve acceptance of these concepts by her fellow church members. Valerie's process of letting go entailed four years and several valiant attempts to hold on. Eventually, reason won out over the teachings of her church. The reader will note how the stronger sense of self that emerged opened new doors in Valerie's life.
* * *
Warm, Welcome, and Safe
I was born and reared in a family firmly steeped in the Mormon faith and am a graduate of Brigham Young University. My religion always felt right to me; inside the walls of my church, I was warm, welcome, and safe. A strong church provided a rich sense of community, laid out a set of predetermined rules for good living, and promised answers to questions about my existence. I grew up with all the blessings of one convinced that her religion offered the One and Only True Set of Beliefs. My life was rich; my faith was its own reward.
Never could I have imagined that I would one day find it necessary to pry open "Door Number Two," behind which lurked realities completely at odds with the teachings of my youth. But as an adult, I would spend a full three years pacing in front of that closed door, pretending it was stuck shut. I would spend another year hovering in front of it with my hand poised uncertainly on the knob before I finally summoned the nerve to fling that dark, heavy door wide open. To my great surprise, what I found inside was ... myself.
In my teen years and early twenties, I had completely accepted the Mormon faith—and not merely because my parents had handed it to me on a silver platter. I had sought answers on my own in the form of what the Mormon religion calls a "witness" from the Holy Ghost. One of the foundational beliefs of Mormonism is that if you have sincerity in your heart as you ask God in prayer whether something you are questioning is true, he will give you an answer. Typically, this answer will come in the form of a burning sensation or a sort of peaceful feeling in your heart. I believe one of the reasons the Mormon Church has such devoted followers is that all church members are encouraged to assure themselves of the validity of their faith by seeking out this type of spiritual experience on their own.
I was fourteen when I sought my first witness from the Holy Ghost. I had read the entire Book of Mormon and then set about praying for my own answer as to whether or not it was true. Sure enough, I got the wonderful response I had hoped for! It was a sweet but powerful burning sensation in my heart, like when a song would inspire me, or like the time when I first realized a certain teenage crush might actually develop into a relationship.
After that first witness from the Holy Ghost, I became a sort of spiritual junkie. Seeking out ever more of these witnesses, I asked about Joseph Smith, the Bible, and even our new prophet. Every time I asked, the expected answer would come. Every witnessing I experienced deepened my conviction about the validity of church doctrine–and about the fact that God himself was supplying the answers. The power of these witness experiences formed a very strong basis for the passion I held in my heart for my religion.
Throughout the next decade or so, I had ongoing conversations in my head with God. He would advise me of his wishes on this or that issue and provide inspiration for my daily activities. This would include serving on a mission for the church in the Philippines and holding many leadership positions. Along the way, I allowed a personal passion for performance dance to languish by the wayside in favor of serving the needs of my church. I was certain that I was a member of the one and only true church of Jesus Christ—the Mormon Church. I was content to know that I had the real truth and created a life that revolved around my religion.
Pacing in Front of the Dark and Dangerous Door Number Two
Given the level of my commitment to the church, I was shocked when, in my mid-twenties, soon after I became a mother, the first inkling of doubt crept into my being. I had joined an internet Bible study group and, though I had studied other religions while growing up, this was the first time my studies included input from people of the other Christian religions and non-Mormon interpretations of the Bible.
There had always been points of doctrine and verses in the scriptures that didn't make sense to me. But that hadn't bothered me, because I always figured God would explain it someday. Plus, I already knew that my church considered certain parts of the Bible to have been translated erroneously. But once I heard those issues discussed in more depth by people from other religions, I realized the discrepancies were much larger than I had thought.
Although I was accustomed to studying the Bible every year, I now feared that if I read it any further, I would jeopardize my beliefs. For the first time, I had moments of actual skepticism. This scared me. Up to that point, I had been graced with certainty about nearly everything regarding my religion, so a life that included doubt was hard to fathom.
Moreover, I felt ashamed to question, so I shut those lurking doubts out of my mind and refused to think about them. Life continued as usual.
Also, around this time I started to notice how the demands of church activities could interfere with duty to one's family. For example, in each congregation the bishop was a man whom the church fathers had summarily nominated to this position—a choice supposedly dictated by God. This person would suddenly be expected first to accept the position without hesitation (since he was, after all, chosen by God) and then to devote countless hours to running the local church, all without pay. Meanwhile, he would also have to maintain a full-time job outside the church to support his family.
It suddenly dawned on me what that position would cost this man in terms of time for his family. If my husband were called to be the bishop, I would want him to refuse. I knew that my children needed time and attention from both their parents; to sacrifice their needs to anything or anyone at all during this crucial time in their lives just felt wrong.
Also, I was not pleased with some of the people the Church leaders were putting in charge of the children's groups. There was one particular individual in whose care I simply could not bear to leave my children, even for a few minutes. Though this person was supposedly designated specifically to this position by God through the bishop, it was a choice I knew in my heart I could not trust.
All at once I began to sense that my duty to my family exceeded my duty to the everyday needs of my church. This dampened my religious commitment a bit and paved the way to my eventually opening Door Number Two. However, for the time being I managed to push my concerns down beneath the surface, said nothing to my husband or anyone else about this, and continued my full church participation as before.
Later that same year, I was called to be the leader of the women's organization in our church. Our belief system maintained that God would provide inspiration and guide the actions of those in such leadership positions. As the leader, I was expected to accept his inspiration in choosing the direction this group would take.
Coincidentally, both my mother and my mother-in-law held similar positions in their respective local congregations at the same time. We occasionally got together and shared our stories and experiences. My mother, my mother-in-law, and I are all very different people, and it soon became apparent to me that we were each being "inspired" to act in ways that were typical of our own personality. At this time we also had a fairly new prophet leading the church, and I could see how much his decisions were being determined by his personality.
Why, I wondered, if we were all receiving inspiration directly from God, were all our choices such direct expressions of ourselves? I thought, Are we actually being called by God—or are we each really just doing our own thing? This question caused yet another inkling of doubt. Yet, frightened and ashamed to be questioning everything, once again I told no one of my doubts and plugged away, ever firm in my commitment to the Mormon Church.
Turning the Knob
The next turning point occurred a year later, when my husband went through his own crisis of faith. He phoned me on his way home from work one day, delivering the almost-worst possible news: "Valerie, I no longer believe that our church is true." Shocked and fearful, I got him to promise that he would spend two weeks reading scriptures and praying before making a final decision. I just knew that as long as he tried to get an answer by praying, he would receive that blessed witness from the Holy Ghost, the heart and soul of Mormonism. It had always worked for me. I was certain Mark would receive his witness. Then he would believe again, and things would return to normal. I was not worried.
For the next two weeks, I watched Mark read scriptures and search for an answer. To my shock, after that time was over, he was more certain than ever that he no longer believed. I never imagined he would not get the answer he was supposed to! God had promised to answer prayers about the truthfulness of his church—but it didn't happen this time.
As it turned out, my husband's leaving the church gave me the emotional permission I needed to finally face my own questions. One by one, my doubts from earlier years began creeping out of their hiding places. The doubts I had to face were about scriptures: the more I read, the more contradictions I saw. For example, I wondered, "Why does the Book of Mormon make clear references to God as the Trinity, when it is key Mormon doctrine that God the Father, the Holy Ghost, and Jesus are distinct individuals?" I had always trusted that this inspired key doctrine was absolute, so I was confused by the blatant contradiction of the wording I found right there in black and white in the Book of Mormon.
While in the past I had been able to compartmentalize each inconsistency into its own individual place in my brain, they now all seemed determined to come rushing out at the same time.
The various people in the Book of Mormon were beginning to feel more like flat characters of a poorly written story rather than real, complicated people. Could there really be any such thing as a person who is "all good," like Nephi, or "all bad," like his evil brothers, Laman and Lemuel? Could their dark skin really be a punishment from God for their bad character? Could an all-loving God really be responsible for this racist concept?
Fighting the tide of all these doubts, I began a serious effort to receive an answer from God that the church was true. I wasn't about to throw everything away just because a few things didn't make sense. I continued to go to church every Sunday and participate fully. I maintained all the standards of the Mormon religion. I prayed and read scripture daily. But each reading made the scriptures appear more problematic and cut deeper into that wedge in my once rock-solid faith.
Six months into this process, I was losing hope. I went to the temple, the holiest place. You were more likely to get an answer from God there than anywhere else, and I told God I was staying until he gave me one. I begged him for just the slightest seed of hope. All I needed was to feel that warm glow in my heart, one more witness from the Holy Ghost.
Three hours went by, and the temple was closing. I had felt nothing and was forced to leave without an answer. I returned home in shock. "The church isn't true," I declared to my frowning, bewildered husband as we sat on the bed. He was dumbfounded. I cried and cried.
Still, losing faith in the church was a conclusion I was not yet ready to accept. The following Sunday found me back in church as usual. For the next six months I continued with full involvement in church activities. Even though my hours-long quest in the temple had left me with little hope, I fought desperately to hold on to my traditional beliefs. During this time, I read the Bible and took every opportunity to deepen my understanding of other forms of Christianity. I searched frantically for an answer in other Christian religions, but found none.
Then, in my adult Sunday-school class, we began a new round of studying the Old Testament, as we did every year. We got to the story where Balak, a Moab king, wants the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so they could be driven out of his land. Balaam refuses the king's first request but, at the second request, agrees to accompany the king's messengers to the Israelites' camp. But on the way, his donkey refuses three times to follow Balaam's directions because of an angel he sees blocking the road. So Balaam beats him with a stick. At the third instance of such abuse, the donkey speaks up, asking Balaam, "What have I done to you? Why have you beaten me these three times?"
Well, that talking donkey finally blew it for me. Why, in this single incidence, was this donkey able to speak up and protect himself from his evil master's abuse , when down through the ages so many babies and other beings have remained unable to speak up for themselves against similar violence or mistreatment? I felt embarrassed to be in a room full of adults, who held not the slightest question about the supposedly literal truth of this talking donkey! I was getting tired of crazy, supernatural beliefs.
After this incident, I realized I would leave every church meeting angry about something. I was continuing my attendance not from belief, but from a desire for spiritual sustenance. Instead, the church was becoming a spiritual vacuum. I even allowed myself to become tired of the idea of God. Ever since I had visited the temple, praying for confirmation that the church was indeed true, yet experiencing only more doubt, I watched my relationship with a Being that I thought was my Heavenly Father slip away. I grew very distant from that God, who up to then had always been at my side.
Flinging that Door Wide Open
One year after I allowed myself to begin questioning my faith, I made a final, desperate attempt to find Truth in the church I had once so fervently loved. Every day for two weeks, I spent two solid hours in uninterrupted scripture study and prayer. Just as with my husband, over those two weeks the Holy Ghost sent me no witness, and no warm glow filled my heart. I lost any remaining hope I may have had and finally had to admit that I could find no truth in our church teachings.
For an entire year I had stood with my hand posed lightly on that Door Number Two—the one marked "It's Not True!" After I finally got the nerve to pry that door open, there was no going back—just as there is no way to pretend Santa Claus is real once you've seen your father putting the shiny new bicycle next to the Christmas tree.
When at last I opened that door, it was not demoralizing but liberating. I revisited my time as the leader of the church women's organization, when God was supposedly inspiring my actions and I had questioned why his inspirations sounded so much like they were coming from my own personality. Suddenly I realized: all that inspiration, all those ideas, had not come from God—they had come from within me! All those conversations when I thought God was telling me what he wanted me to do—all of that was actually coming from me. All the strength I'd thought I had derived from this imaginary God-partner throughout my whole life had really come from within myself. This was empowering! Once I finally flung Door Number Two wide open, what I found behind it was my own self.
Excerpted from Faith Beyond Belief by Margaret Placentra Johnston. Copyright © 2012 Margaret Placentra Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Personal Letter to My Readers,
Part One. Religion—Who Needs It?,
1. The Surprise behind Door Number Two (Valerie),
2. Reason ... or Blind Faith? (Abu Ali),
3. Fear, Superstition, God, Religion (Jim),
4. Animals ... Vegetables ... Ethics ... Truth (Kevin),
Part Two. Are They Right?,
5. Are They Right?,
6. Spiritual-Development Theory Simplified,
Part Three. Who Is a Mystic?,
7. What Is a Mystic?,
8. Don't Fence Me In (Nilah),
9. My Kind of Hell (David),
10. My Path (Charles),
11. Lotus Opening (Jean),
12. The Higher Power ... and I (Catherine),
13. Learning to Fly (Inés),
Part Four. Toward an Understanding of Post-critical Faith,
14. Again, What Is a Mystic?,
15. Who Says?,
16. Two Types of Religious People,
17. How Does Spiritual Growth Happen?,
18. Why Do I Want to Know about the Spiritual Stages?,
Part Five. What Does It All Mean?,
19. Is There a God?,
20. What Transformation?,
21. What Does Politics Have to Do with It?,
22. Faith beyond Belief,
23. Where Do We Go from Here?,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In “Faith Beyond Belief, Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind” Margaret Placentra Johnston has succeeded in taking an extremely complex subject, religion and the different levels of spirituality and has made it relevant to everyday life. Margaret has obviously done a lot of research on human development and spirituality and has related this research to real life experiences through honest and poignant stories of people who left their structured religions to experience a more fulfilling spiritual life. All of these journeys were started after much thought and soul searching. Through these people, she is able to explain the differences among spiritual levels from the Lawless to the Mystic. It is a comprehensive study in spiritual development and growth that I could relate to my own life. I found myself identifying with some of the experiences of these story writers. This book has awakened in me a self examination of my own spiritual life and a pondering of where I am on my spiritual journey. I am thankful for that. This book is well written, thought provoking and timely in today’s transforming world. Can churches be transformed from within ‘Into places where spiritually mature values are understood and people are coached into adopting inclusive beliefs.”? I recommend this book to all spiritual searchers, including Christians, Muslims, Atheists and Agnostics.
This book is obviously intended for the "spiritual but not religious" crowd, mostly church dropouts who want to feel good about themselves. I don't think they would enjoy it much, however, as the author overwrites terribly, using 10 words when 2 would suffice. I don't think this is much of a contribution to inspirational or spiritual literature. Someone at the junior high reading level might enjoy it.