A Convicting Book on Being True to Your Own Doubts about Faith
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Faith After Doubt is a tour de force of what happens when you give yourself permission to feel loneliness and embrace the doubt that comes when your struggling with your faith.
My main beef with Brian McLaren’s new book is that he ended the book where he should have begun: “You’re Not Crazy and You’re Not Alone”, which is the title of the afterword.
OK, a little tongue and cheek there, but it’s striking how many of us are saying “I’m a recovering evangelical” and “I miss my community and I don’t know how to find a new one.” There’s a lot of expressed, even acute loneliness out there—a lot—no doubt enhanced by our unfortunately ongoing pandemic.
One of the defining characteristics of McLaren’s writing is that there’s often a palpable, dignified pastoral empathy, and this book is no exception. He recognizes that so many of us indeed feel alone and think we’re crazy. Not only is it quite likely we’ve been told that by others, but we most certainly have also been telling it to ourselves.
I like to say that this loneliness is a defining characteristic of the journey of leaving what is often portrayed as our buttoned up conservative American evangelicalism, of whatever flavor you may have experienced, and McLaren knows this inside and out.
In short, Faith After Doubt is a tour de force of what happens when you give yourself permission to feel that loneliness and embrace the doubt.
First, one of the book's core benefits besides empathy, is that is a full-length meditation on the word doubt, and a worthy spiritual read in that sense.
Inhale… doubt, exhale… faith, repeat for the whole book.
Second, McLaren wants to convey that when you allow yourself to doubt, you’ll find that there’s a whole new spiritual clothing waiting for you to layer on. He spends much of the book explaining the mindset, beliefs, experiences of a four-stage configuration of faith development, going from simplicity, complexity, perplexity, then to harmony. Each stage, somewhat like the rings of a tree, incorporates and transcends the one before it.
The book is a fascinating summary of what the faith journey can look like. Most of all, know that you can take enormous comfort that there are indeed stages.
You might be in one stage, but there are others you can aspire to, where maybe some of the dissonance isn’t quite as pronounced, or one where you’ll find yourself in new relationships you never would have anticipated. Of course, it’s also important to take caution to realize it might not always be a linear progression. It doesn’t make you a better or superior person existentially, but it does help you see a wider view of the world around you, which would hopefully lead to a more moral, inclusive faith that’s expressed primarily in love, not law.
Just to build on the discussion, I would also add to the mix the popular psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who’s seven stages of psychosocial development likewise posits that each stage incorporates the one before. But Erikson also indicates that each stage has a task to complete, which can either lead forward, or cause you to stall if not go backward. Moreover, there’s a sense that even earlier stages contain glimmers of the later and final stages, and vice versa. What do they say about young children and the very elderly? They are the closest to God.
What I appreciate most of all, though, gets back to McLaren’s empathy and his focus on doubt. I don’t think you can overstate the need for these two states of mind for those of us who find our shifting worldviews just rocking our reality. Doubt, in particular, comes with a very strong sense of loss, even sadness and fear, if you allow yourself to feel it, as opposed to the alternative: uncompromising certainty and indifference to the world around you. Doubt can even be considered mourning something that is not working, which is especially difficult when it is an ideology and shared vision.
In American evangelicalism, our muscles for doubt are underdeveloped, as we tend to focus on a “can do”, work-ethic faith. Doubt, however, is less me focused and more us focused. Doubt shows humility, and a willingness to tarry with a topic rather than consume it and move on. What is sometimes or oftentimes worse, doubts and discussion on certain topics can be taboo. Taking an unpopular position, albeit perhaps in exclusive communities, on a topic can bring excommunication and severed relationships, even financial ones for that matter, which is still happening all the time, whether overtly or covertly.
If you discover deep doubt, let it wash over you, McLaren is saying, then you will find a more mature you on the other side, and perhaps new community and added relationships.
Finally, what you will also find in Faith After Doubt is a sense of urgency. Anytime one of us embraces doubt and moves through the stages of spiritual development, a little more hope bursts forth in the world. It may be all we can ask or do, but it matters. Don’t you think we are in an acute time of change or a turning point as a society, a civilization, or a global community? It sure feels that way right now.
Your doubt matters. You’re not crazy and you’re definitely not alone.
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