“Faith after Doubt” response/reflection – part 2

(You can read part 1 here)

As I continued through the book, I found McLaren’s beliefs about doubt helpful. He talked about doubt as a tool and a part of a spiritual journey and how that was complicated on his own journey. In one section he talks about having absolute certainty and seeing doubt as this type of enemy. Certainty is this alluring drug that draws many people in. If you have certainty, then you know and if you know, then you probably think you are in control. That’s why it’s addicting. But that’s not what faith is. When we put up a large defense of something, it’s usually because we don’t feel confident it can withstand critique and scrutiny. Yet faith is all about mystery and unanswered and unanswerable questions. It’s often all about scrutiny.

One passage in the book that I found helpful was on page 39:

“‘You have heard it said,’ Jesus said in Matthew 5:21, and then added, ‘but I say to you.’…Each time, Jesus took an ancient and generally accepted belief and dared to say but, implying that the conventional belief was only partial, or temporary, or otherwise insufficient. Each belief needed to be challenged, subverted, expanded, reinterpreted, or in some other way further developed. These conventional beliefs didn’t have the last word. They needed to be given a second though. They deserved to be doubted.”

In other words, Jesus wasn’t interested in certainty, or making sure that we got it right. Jesus was interested in moving people along a path of faith. We see it best expressed in the Road to Emmaus story in which the disciples’ encounter with Jesus continues to change them and open them to new understanding as they go along.

Then McLaren dives into the main part of his argument – a version of stages of faith. He talks about how we have the ability to progress through these stages, but also highlights the danger of talking about stages of faith. But he uses it as a framework for discussion.

Here’s the quick view of the different stages:

Stage 1 – simplicity. This is about dualism – either/or, right/wrong, left/right, orthodoxy/heresy, us/them. This stage has to do with simple trust, obedience, and loyalty.

Stage 2 – complexity. This is about pragmatism and independence. There are choices. This is about accomplishing something and moving towards something that we can succeed at.

Stage 3 – Perplexity. Life is mysterious and perplexing. There are rarely satisfactory answers. Unanswerable questions.

Stage 4 – Harmony. We see past divisions to the unity of all things. Non-dual ways of looking at the world.

Within this section, McLaren talks about the challenges seminaries, pastors, and congregations face due to what often happens – pastors and congregations being at different stages.

He also talks about conservative and progressive worldviews – which is helpful to understand why people believe what they believe – here’s the quick version – there are different emphasis between these two outlooks.

One of the helpful parts of the book was talking about how congregations should rethink their role with faith formation:

“One of the key functions of families and congregations will be to help people develop the sequential capacity for dualistic thinking (in Simplicity), pragmatic thinking (in Complexity), critical thinking (in Perplexity), and non-dual seeing (in Harmony.” (pg. 95)

McLaren then lays out what that might look like in a congregation. This will take more thought on my part to see how this works in a realistic sense. While I love the idea, it also feels a bit of a heavy weight since it means having the resources (people, time, money, etc) to be where everyone is all at the same time, on top of other challenges that churches face daily. Yet, I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor because the payoff is huge and helpful.

McLaren goes on to talk about where people are getting faith (regardless of what that faith is. He talks about dangerous outlets like extremist groups. They provide what religions used to – “meaning, belonging, and purpose.” (pg. 111). He goes on to say this:

“That’s why I take the risk of saying something that sounds outrageous to some people, blasphemous and unpatriotic even, but is necessary, I think, to help them wake up: only doubt can save the world. Only doubt will open a doorway out of hostile orthodoxies – whether religious, cultural, economic, or political.” (pg. 112-3)

The last half of the book focuses on Harmony – that fourth stage of faith. Here McLaren focuses on two ideas. The first is a contrast – “belief clings, but faith lets go.” (pg. 117). Here, McLaren is defining the difference between faith and belief. This is interesting to me since the Greek for faith and belief are the same work in Scripture. And they are related to each other. But McLaren is drawing a distinction that is important. I describe faith as coming from God, while belief is our response to that faith. It is our effort to make sense of faith and put boundaries around faith.

The second idea is a major point – faith is love expressing itself. In other words, faith isn’t focused on making sure the beliefs are right. Rather it is living into what we have been given. McLaren says this about what is needed: “So we need faith communities that are big on action, and big on love, but small on belief and bureaucracy.” (pg. 136).

At the very end of the book, McLaren includes several appendices on the stages of faith and how each stage views a different topic. These include how each stage views God, core questions, identity, etc. For me, the essential one is how each stage views Good News. Here’s what he writes: “Stage 1 – Wrongs can be forgiven. Stage 2 – Help is available. Stage 3 – You are encouraged to question and challenge the status quo. Stage 4 – Everything belongs, all are connected, all life is sacred.” This is a good summary that helps explain each of the stages.

Overall, this was a great book and I highly recommend it to anyone who has struggled with doubt and anyone looking grow in their faith.

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