I recently read “Faith after Doubt” by Brian McLaren. I loved this book. I want to take a little bit of time to offer a reflection and response to the book. I’ll do this in sections, by pulling out quotes from the book. I welcome your comments and reflections too.
Overview: The overall theme of the book is that doubt and faith are not in opposition to each other, but actually are a part of one another. To have faith is to have doubts because certainty is the opposite of faith. Certainty has to do with knowing and being in control – the first sin in Scripture. McLaren talks about stages of faith (and acknowledges the danger of talking this way too). But his description is also helpful in gaining an understanding of where people are spiritually. I found the book to be really good and inspired a series of questions and ideas as to how the concepts apply to the church. I’ll share those as I go through specific parts of the book.
pg. 10 – “This terror is especially real for people like Michael and me, who were taught that God is an almighty supreme being who demands absolute perfection and submission, a strict and demanding father, and a tough and exacting judge. Yes, we were also taught God is loving, gracious, and forgiving, but the one requirement God demands above all others is precisely the thing that doubters struggle with most: God demands firm, unwavering faith, which we understood to mean correct beliefs. To question those beliefs throws open the terrifying possibility that God might at any moment turn against us, punish us, reject us, maybe even send us to hell if we don’t get our beliefs striaght and hold them tight, without doubt.”
Wow. That’s intense just to read. Reminds me of Martin Luther who worked tirelessly as a monk in order to amend for his continual sins because he was always afraid of angering God. Where is the Good News in any of this way of thinking? The only Good News that exists is if you are good enough and have enough correct beliefs, then you are spared God’s wrath. That’s not Good News, that just avoiding an abusive person. That’s a belief that God gaslights people into doing what God wants. It’s also a rather small view of God – that God is no different than far too many people in our world who demand compliance and punish those who don’t. Who wants that kind of God? I don’t. this way of thinking also has numerous real-world implications – none of them very positive. If this is the image of God that we encounter, then what does it mean when we encounter others and are supposed to see the image of God in others? Ugg. No thank you. This is right thinking and belief as the most important aspect of faith.
pg. 14 – “…thinking, it turns out, is a social act, and to think freely, to think differently, to think independently, you sometimes need to escape from the herd.”
This is a fascinating idea. I am totally on board with this. We see examples of this from Jesus who often got away from others. Getting away from others allows us to break away from the routines, from the noise, from the talking, from everything that attempts to influence us.
Pg. 16-23. In this section, McLaren talks about modules of our brain – the instinctive brain, the intuitive brain, and the intellectual brain. These deal with survival, belonging, and meaning. People have different relationships of these brains with faith. As McLaren states on pg. 18, “[Some] haven’t had an intellectual question or doubt about their faith for years, or maybe ever, because for them, the conceptual side of faith simply isn’t that important. Especially in comparison to its social and survival dimensions.” He goes on to talk about stress and being uncomfortable and how the brain deals with that and how the survival brain has veto power in matters of belief.
One of the other quotes I was struck by in this portion is by Upton Sinclair who McLaren quotes as saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”
McLaren closes out the chapter talking about the tension that we face – how faith communities can be some of “the most dangerous zones we enter.” That’s because in many cases in order to belong (something that we value, we often have to conform, which means we have to turn of our meaning module that searches. But if we don’t conform, then our survival brain will alert us to danger. Throw in authority figures and the power they hold and it gets even more complicated.
I found all of this really helpful as a foundation for his arguments and for why there is this unresolved tension of faith and doubt. It also allowed me to see that there is vast undercurrent of a more fundamentalist way of experiencing faith in our society, something the McLaren will dive into further later in the book, without calling it that. That’s my own terminology for making sense of a way of thinking that values being right over anything else.
Next time I’ll continue with my reflection on “Faith after Doubt.”