Faith Beyond Belief

Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind

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Margaret Placentra Johnston

As a practicing Optometrist for over three decades, Dr. Margaret Placentra Johnston has spent most of her professional career helping people see better in the physical world. But now she is on a new mission to offer clearer vision of a different kind - a broader perspective about religion and spirituality than what the conventional world typically recognizes. Her book, Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind, was named the GOLD WINNER of the 2013 Nautilus Book Award in Religion/​spirituality.

Margaret brings a concept she calls spiritual development theory down to a level where the average person can understand it. Numerous theorists have described a path to religious and spiritual maturity, but they come from all different disciplines, different countries, and even different centuries. They all use different terminology and they all write from all different perspectives. Dr. Margaret is one of the first people to insist that these various theorists have all been describing a common phenomenon, and that that perspective deserves notice in our society.

Many or most professionally trained clergy have been offered a course at the academic level that covers faith development - as described by at least one of the theorists. But few have actually considered it in depth, and very few have applied it at the practical level in their ministry. Very few religious believers are ever encouraged to proceed through the faith development process. Rather than move boldly forward, they are encouraged to find comfort and security in their separate, literal beliefs.

But the spiritual development process requires that we break out of comfort and security and apply a process of critical reflection to the belief system we were brought up with. This is a bold and scary trip, a “questioning stage” that may cause us to abandon our religious beliefs.

But people who successfully push through this questioning phase may wind up reengaging with spiritual faith in a less rigid and more open way. They may find themselves opening up to a “bigger story” about religion and spirituality.

The spiritual development process allows us to recognize the metaphorical nature of our holy scriptures and our religious stories. Instead of insisting one set of literal religious beliefs is correct, the spiritual development process allows us to recognize the universal human need to connect to something greater than ourselves, and to accept each religion as just one culture’s way of expressing that need. This leads us to the perspective that all religions are right. Beyond separate and literal religious beliefs, there lies a values-based faith that includes a deep trust in the goodness of our existence, and a sense of the unity or oneness of all things, and which leads to Universal Love.

Margaret is confident that an understanding of spiritual development has the power to bring an end to religious intolerance, and that it should be part of the common knowledge in our culture. In Faith Beyond Belief she used ten true stories from real life people to illustrate the theory, and showed the commonalities among the works of twelve spiritual development theorists. She has aimed to show how the spiritual development perspective can lead to a kinder, more gentle world.

Dr. Johnston holds a Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Master of Arts (MA) in Education from the Catholic University of America; a Bachelor of Science (BS) and a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (now called Salus University.) She offers courses and speaks to groups on the topic of spiritual development, and has been interviewed on numerous radio shows. She blogs at and the Huffington Post. Margaret has two grown sons and lives with her husband in Northern Virginia.