1. General Christian

Brian McLaren, Doubt, and Decoding

I want to talk about remembering my baptism, but first, World War II. 

Thanks to a well received Benedict Cumberbatch movie released in 2014, many of us are familiar with the idea of cipher-breakers or cryptanalysts (those brilliant minds whose work it is to decode machines like the WWII Axis powers’ Enigma, without any prior knowledge of the key). A jumbled mess is what an Enigma Machine message looks like to the untrained eye. But to the decoder? It changes the story—not just for them, but for the masses. 

Now, as a pacifist, I hesitate to begin this reflection on Brian McLaren’s newest book Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It with a war reference, but here we are. This is what came to mind as I made my way through its chapters. Brian (and the friends, theologians, and experiences from which his words pull) has given language to the church—to me—that I think has been needed for quite some time. 

Anyone who may identify with the words “ex-vangelical,” “deconstructed,” or the like, might balk at the title Faith After Doubt. Based on how communities of faith (or, as McLaren specifies, communities of belief) have historically diagnosed and medicated the doubt of our upbringings with easy answers or shame, a reader who doesn’t know Brian may assume that this is another futile prescription for questions that are not going away. But from the very first pages, readers will learn that, through his words, Brian is not serving as a pharmacist of pious placebos. Rather, he’s a prophet, mystic, seer, translator, cryptanalysts of a modern church in a modern world—daring to see and share a way forward together. 

Lovers of Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward or Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence will sense a familiar undercurrent in Faith After Doubt suggesting that we (as individuals, religious communities, and society at large) are not dying so much as we are maybe being born again—or rather, we have the opportunity to be—into a life and life of faith that is actual good news for the world, for our neighbors, and (gasp) even for our enemies. 

McLaren’s book is one of stage theories, which, he notes, are constructs that “can easily be abused” (p. 43), especially if and as the one utilizing them interprets said theories hierarchically, placing themself in a superior location within the map. To help skew this tendency, he encourages readers to imagine his four stages of spiritual development as the rings of a tree rather than a ladder. Each new stage encompasses the other; each new stage teaches us something, offers us something, that we need in order to grow deeper into a life of love. That we need in order to midwife ourselves, the church, and our world into who we can become in God. 

Stage One—simplicity—is marked by dualism, right and wrong, us and them, all or nothing. It is here that we learn how to obey authorities, absorb an understanding of what it means to be good, and mimic the practices necessary for belonging. In its most useful state, Stage One may equip us with tools and an awareness of our own limitations in order to best care for the common good. At its most toxic, it can be the very soil for which Enigma Machines thrive, as war becomes the language of “good vs evil,” feeding the moral policing. 

Stage Two—complexity—McLaren describes, is the pragmatic stage that centers around success and failure. Here in church-speak, we may find communities less bent out of shape around puritanical rules but hyper focused on what the 2000s often labeled “seeker-sensitivity.” I imagine that mega-churches thrive most often at this stage as does the saviorism mentality (i.e. flashy and competitive programming in worship, “rescue” language in missions, etc.). In its most useful state, Stage Two invites us into a version of faith that we can make our own, one that is actionable. At its most toxic, it can become a business and enable moral profiting. 

Stage Three—perplexity—will sound familiar, one way or another, to most readers I imagine. This, Brian shares, is where we as a society exist right now. Gone are the days of unchallenged authority, overlooked inequity, and negligent allegiance to institutions. From defunding the police and abolishing ICE to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, the era of perplexity is the air we now breathe. Depending on their own stage-journey, some may say that this is long-overdue while others make memes out of cancel-culture. In Stage Three, honesty is expected, critique is inevitable, and justice is centered. Doubt is a virtue and any place that does not make space for it is suspect. Maybe this is why, McLaren notes, 65-million American adults have left the church. In its most useful state, Stage Three insists that we function in reality and tell the truth about ourselves so that we may actually have a chance at loving well in this world. At its most toxic, it can become a maze for incapacitated cynics and wittle away at hope through moral outrage. 

The last of the stages explored in Faith After Doubt is Stage Four—harmony. Here, Brian writes, we seek “understanding, connection, and the common good, even with opponents and enemies,” we recognize God as a “loving presence, creative wisdom [who can be] known through experience and metaphor,” and we integrate “previous strengths [from other stages] with greater depth and [a] wider circle of compassion” (p.224). In Harmony, we find and manifest humility, deep forgiveness, and radical love. Stage Four’s music is mercy; its home is everywhere. It both sees and loves the “other” that can be found inside and outside of a person. It knows that we are all becoming, that the church is becoming. It is grateful to play a part in cultivating a moral imagination. 

In his book and in several podcast interviews, McLaren shares how most churches are in Stage One or Two, most of the world is in Stage Three, while some of our faith leadership and community are in Stage Four. No wonder we have witnessed (and participated in) so much conversation throughout these last few years about how on earth people who claim love for and loyalty to the same God could live so differently. Stage Four pastors strive to craft Stage Two sermons for Stage One congregants while the Stage Three masses run for the hills. How do we move through and/or encourage movement through these stages of development, you may be wondering, if—like me—this concept has connected wild dots for you just in these few minutes. The answer, according to Brian, is doubt in the answers. Doubt is the bridge through the phases and onto a faith that expresses itself in love. 

“Doubt, it turns out, is the passageway from each stage to the next. Without doubt, there can be growth within a stage, but growth from one stage to another usually requires us to doubt the assumptions that give shape to our current stage,” he writes (p. 43). 

And then later on, “Perhaps, in this light, the much-lamented decline in organized religion is simply a consequence of churches’ refusal to stay mindful of the goal of love . . . Of course Stage One religion will go bad if it doesn’t hatch into Stage Two, and Stage Two into Stage Three, and so on. When faith expressing itself in beliefs (Simplicity) and faith expressing itself in activity (Complexity), and faith expressing itself in doubt (Perplexity) start to stink, perhaps only then we will be ready to rethink everything, risk everything, and in fact give everything up to let religion hatch into faith that expresses itself in love” (p. 167). 

Three days before I finished the last chapter of Faith After Doubt, I packed my son and overnight bag into my Subaru to head to my parents’ house for the night. Before we could back-out of the driveway, however, an unruly southern summer storm began bending bush branches and dropping gallon-sized dollops all around us. With my wheels in reverse, I watched as one massive gust sent our dark green trash can flying past our yard and into the street; and I swear, if it weren’t for my Stage One resources, I may have kept driving. Instead, I retrieved it so as to not cause my neighbors any wrecks, while the mission left me drenched and driving, therefore annoyed. Until. 

I began to think about these four stages of development as they could pertain to how one learns water. A human in stage one may learn that water is wet, used (only) for thirst and bathing and swimming; it pools in the lakes and oceans; it’s distinctly different from land and air. In stage two, they may learn that water is all of those things, sure, but that it can also be steam and ice, storms and lakes, puddles and glaciers. It is a beloved, controllable, and hoardable resource—conquered by boat, explored by gear, and shared through wells. Stage three students of water may learn that water can be poisoned, wielded against protestors, commandeered from natives, and kept from the poor. Water—perplexity tells us—will be called “scarce” by some when there is enough for all. It can be weaponized and associated with death when it was meant for life. Then, in stage four, we learn that water is in everything and of everything. It is in the air where we can’t see it and what our bodies mostly consist of. Harmony, reached through doubt, may show us that there are no real lines separating where water is and where it’s not. It is ancient, of us, and outside of us. It is in our neighbors and enemies alike. It fell from Mary’s eyes and Jesus’ side. It firmed under his toes, and filled his nets, and followed his voice. Try as we may to move away from water, water goes with us. It never leaves us nor forsakes us while mysteriously still inviting us to take it in. 

On that drive out of town—curls dripping with rain and Brian’s pages flipping through my mind—I remembered my baptism in a way that I think I never have before. 

“You will be like a well watered garden, like a spring whose waters never faith.”—Isaiah 58:11

“Unless they are born of water and the spirit . . . “—John 3:5

“Let justice roll down like a river . . .”—Amos 5:24

“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”—John 4:10

It’s time, McLaren says with a clear tone of fearless urgency. In a world riddled with division, stuffed with nuclear warheads, and barrelling down a storyline of extinction, we need harmony more than ever. We need Stage Four churches making room for all four stages to exist and lead to love. We need a faith that does not insist on belief as much as it insists on making space for belief to be reconstructed again and again, unto Harmony. He’s confident that each time a person’s doubt moves them through, “our global civilization tips one human closer to having a habit of the heart that will help us survive and even thrive as never before. Each time one of us lets simple faith grow into complex faith, and then lets that complex faith die in perplexity and doubt, and then lets it be reborn as faith expressing itself in love, we are one human closer to a tipping point of hope for our species” (p. 202). 

We have an enigma in the world and in the church right now, there’s no doubt about that. But thanks to the Spirit moving through leaders like Brian, I’m willing to believe we’re also moving toward deciphering our next steps. To be sure, this deepens my well of hope. 

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