Before Belief: Discovering First Spiritual Awareness
by Bruce A. Stevens (Reviewed by Kate Clark)
I was intrigued by the subject matter of this book because I yearn to have a sense of my spirituality beyond and before the received knowledge of the beliefs I was taught by my faith tradition. When I sit with others listening and noticing in the companionship of spiritual direction, I am in awe of the capacity of the spirit to move and shift in ways that are new and unexpected. What is this wonderful capacity we have as human beings? Along with the marvelous movements of the spirit during a spiritual direction conversation is also the influence of deeply held beliefs learned during childhood that may or may not support us in our current lives.
Bruce A. Stevens seeks to explore the earliest experiences of spirituality in our infancy before our cognitive understanding and the language that shapes us are part of the equation. If babies are learning from birth or even in the womb, what might be their unconscious spiritual learning before belief? He seeks an answer using a developmental lens to consider personal growth in the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual realms. This book is intended for clergy, chaplains, spiritual directors, pastoral counselors, and mental health professionals interested in early spiritual formation, particularly the impact of early learning on how adults believe and how their beliefs function in their lives. Stevens notes, “If what has been learned remains inarticulate, there is no possibility of developing a counter-narrative, so that early learning will go unchallenged and remain a silent influence” (2). His goal is to help readers become aware of their early learning so they can reconsider if it remains true to their adult experience.
The chapters in this book combine reviews of the concepts and findings of developmental theories illustrated by an ongoing case study of the conversations of a small study group. While written from a Christian perspective, exercises such as the Attachment to God questionnaire or a creating a genogram of one’s family across generations are useful tools for self-discovery. Prompts about early memories or typical reactions to encounters with nature both guide the conversation in the case study and provide the reader with the opportunity to participate. The Early Spirituality Profile found in an appendix presents the prompts relating to the focus of each chapter, including each of the five senses and other aspects of our experience as infants. In other words, a reader can join group members with different beliefs formed at different developmental stages as they discuss the concepts presented in the chapter and learn from assessment instruments, just as the reader might. Before Belief could serve as a practical textbook but also could be used by self-directed book groups for people seeking to understand their early spiritual learning and its influence in their lives. It has a companion website, https://earlyspirituality.com, for everyone interested in exploring the concepts further with exercises that can be used in spiritual direction.
Kate Clark is a spiritual director in Akron, Ohio, USA, and a professor in the School of Communication at the University of Akron, where she teaches and researches intercultural communication and how communicating brings the spiritual into everyday encounters. She received her Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California, USA (now the divinity school of the University of Redlands). You may contact her at [email protected].