Faith Beyond Doubt

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

Faith Beyond Doubt, Brian D. McLaren – A Book Review

In his latest book, Faith Beyond Doubt; Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About it, I see McLaren doing two things. First, he makes the case that doubt is an essential prerequisite for growth, and second, he offers a helpful schemata of four natural stages of faith: Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity and Harmony. All, except the first one, are entered through the common denominator of doubt. The passion that permeates the book is the fact that “Sixty-five million adults alive in the United States today have already dropped out of active religious attendance, and that number is growing by 2.7 million every year” (xiv). McLaren’s thesis is that, had these people had a safe place to exercise their doubt in healthy ways, many would have grown in their faith instead of leaving it.

Doubt, says McLaren, is usually seen as negative in stage one Simplicity, and stage two Complexity. “Don’t be a doubting Thomas…” That warning sounds legitimate because there is always a sense of loss when one leaves what is familiar. But what do you do when the black and white answers don’t work for you anymore? According to McLaren, it is helpful to remember that doubting a particular belief about God is not the same as doubting God. Faith in God is something more robust and secure than trusting in a 25-point doctrinal statement.

But living with doubt can be a very lonely experience, especially when you don’t have a safe place to share it. So instead of processing doubt in a healthy way, many people instinctively suppress their doubts in order to survive in their social and religious environments. But when your quest for truth becomes stronger than your desire to belong, and you begin to face your doubts head on, it can feel like you are falling into a deep, dark hole. But, says McLaren; “To our utter surprise, it’s only at the bottom that we find a trapdoor. It opens to a tunnel that leads us to better days” (30).

Stage one Simplicity generally works well for most people until about the age of twelve, says McLaren. At that point we usually want to start thinking for ourselves. As we enter stage two Complexity we learn how to be successful; “…everything is learnable and doable, if only we can find the right models, mentors, and coaches and master the right techniques, skills, and know how” (49). Even though there always remains much to learn, there is a confidence that good teachers will be able to help us all make common sense of faith and life. It is fair to say that many Christians are content to remain in stage one for a lifetime as long as their faith leaders explore stage two Complexity and keep reassuring them that their black and white faith world is legitimate.

But what happens when even sincere and thoughtful persons in stage two Complexity begin to doubt their status quo schemes and dogmas? You guessed it; they find themselves propelled into stage three Perplexity by way of their honest doubts. McLaren’s many anecdotal examples help us understand that usually the move into stage three Perplexity is not something people choose. It happens to them. On an emotional level they might prefer to stay somewhere in the vicinity of stage one Simplicity or stage two Complexity. But their honest questing and questioning – and, yes, doubting rooted in humility and sensitivity, can lead to a “dark night of the soul.”

McLaren’s contention is that if people experiencing the Perplexity of stage three do not have a context within which to wrestle honestly and openly with their doubts, they will most likely simply abandon the faith altogether. His analysis is that all too often faith leaders are threatened by persons who have moved into stage three Perplexity and so double down on reinforcing the certainties of their faith inherent in their communities. And then they wonder why two out of three young persons raised in the church leave it behind in young adulthood.

If we find the strength and wisdom to stick with the journey, says McLaren, we will find ourselves moving into stage four Harmony. (In Richard Rohr’s terms we will have moved from Order, through Disorder to Reorder (See The Universal Christ, p. 244). The final section of the book is devoted to what faith and life is like in stage four Harmony.

  • The only thing that matters is “faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6), which ends up meaning we have reached a new Simplicity. Love simply matters more than doctrinal precision. Reading Paul in light of Jesus helps us understand this truth.
  • We have not lost anything. Each stage is like a box without a lid within a larger box. As one box overflows it begins filling the next box and then the process gets repeated.
  • Stage four Harmony helps us see that our primary task is to “…join the Spirit-inspired movement for the healing of the world” (185). This is the narrow way, according to Jesus, and unfortunately many do not find it (Matthew 7:14).
  • The deeper you go into stage four Harmony, the more you discover the “genuine” in your true self, in the Christian faith story and in the many impulses toward healing and wholeness evident in the larger human community.
  • The journey toward stage four Harmony usually is not linear. Often you get a glimpse of the next stage but are unable to move there directly. There may be a lot of movement back and forth, but with persistence you can eventually find a new home in stage four Harmony.

The challenge, says McLaren, is to find faith communities where stage four Harmony can be nurtured and practiced. Although they are few in number right now, there is hope that more will arise. Meanwhile, many informal groups meet regularly to help participants navigate their way toward stage four Harmony.