Faith after Doubt

Faith after Doubt, Brian Mclaren, 2021

review

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. I found it engaging and inspiring, even (or especially) where I had criticisms.

The core idea of the book, stated early on, is that doubt is not an enemy of faith but a kind of stimulus to faith’s development. Our faith develops and grows by transcending our doubts — not by ignoring them or by bulldozing over them, but by listening, engaging, finding the fit, and restructuring.

This made the book exciting to me from the beginning. The idea that “contradiction is the engine of development” and the importance of a developmental perspective are familiar to me from philosophy and psychology, and very much the way I approach things generally.

Many thanks to Lisa for bringing the book to my attention, and for reading it with me. Reading in company adds an extra set of dimensions to a text, and Lisa is such a generous and positive reader (as shown in the book reviews on her blog). Reading with Lisa helped me see that this story of development applied to my own journey of turning to Jesus.

The first half sets out the idea and outlines four stages through which our faith develops (slogans added by me):

  1. Simplicity: Off the shelf
  2. Complexity: My own personal Jesus
  3. Perplexity: The centre cannot hold
  4. Harmony: Love conquers all

A bit of description:

  1. An unthinking, implicit faith, often inherited or found. Perhaps not experienced as faith or belief, or even noticed at all. eg the atheist who follows an “everything is physics” viewpoint, without much of an idea of what the natural sciences actually do. The realisation that one’s beliefs are just that — beliefs — is the first step to the next stage.
  2. I have a set of beliefs and attitudes, and I notice how this relates to the set of beliefs and attitudes of my community, those of neighbouring communities, … I begin to pick and choose and make my own nest of beliefs. If the goal is to grow in faith, then this stage — of consciously or not selecting beliefs that are easy or convenient or useful to hold — is like putting up scaffolding or putting training wheels on a bike. The transition comes when we start to be self-conscious about this cherry-picking, and when we notice that … everyone is doing it!
  3. This stage seemed to be all transition, characterised by questions like, “is there a faith at all?”, and can lead to dead-ends like postmodernism and nihilism. The move up from here is more of a decision or an act of faith than in previous stages — “yes, there is a faith, and I will find it!”
  4. The realisation that love of God and love of neighbour take many forms, and a realisation that tensions, contradiction and resolution are all part of the process of building love and faith.

“Harmony” was a huge and pleasant surprise! And this stage in the book had a strong Christian humanist flavour, which made it even more attractive to me. In my late-pre-believer days I thought the humanism of Christianity one of its most attractive features. And “strong, confident humanism” is what I thought when reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Mclaren gives a clear disclaimer and caveat about “stage theories”. There are plenty of these in developmental psychology. The important thing is not the number of stages, what they’re called, or even their characteristics; the important thing is what drives development. Here, our exploration of our own faith, and testing it against the world, reveals contradictions and doubts that we overcome to strengthen and transform our faith.

In the second half, Mclaren explores the implications of this developmental idea — the tone is basically, how and why to get everyone up to stage 4.

This was a beautifully encouraging book to read in Q1 of my Year of Harmony. It seemed so rooted in many of the ways I think already. Along with the strong humanism with which Mclaren characterised Stage 4 Harmony, I felt it as a confirmation that I can make Christianity my intellectual home as well as a spiritual home.

A story like this has to be very abstract (in which case nobody will understand it, like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit), or it needs concrete examples. Mclaren gives plenty of stories, … unfortunately they are rather homogeneous. The stories also conflated a faith journey with a policial journey — essentially the adoption of the currently fashionable identity politics of BLM, LGBTQIA++, etc.

This will limit the appeal of the book, it confuses the issues (or at least begs the question), and it denigrates the unique perspective of Christianity and humanism, as if harmonising were merely about “fitting in”.

Ironically, Mclaren’s attitude to identity politics has hallmarks of Stage 1: adopting jargon (“white privilege”, prioritising gender over sex) uncritically and apparently unconsciously; and showing little familiarity with the product (how many Pride marches has he been on if he hasn’t seen all the corporate sponsorsip? Corporate marketing and HR departments love postmodernism and identity politics).

I found this exceedingly annoying while reading, and the book’s ideas will reach a narrower audience than they should because of it. However, I think it is a fairly superficial flaw.

next steps

  • I’d like to find some contemporary “Stage 4” Christian voices who also have “Stage 4” politics. For example, critiquing identity politics from “the left” and/or from a Christian and humanist perspective.
  • Christianity and humanism. Follow up this theme. eg Tom Holland’s “Dominion” caught my eye when it came out. I’ve been reading a chapter on Levinas in a book by Jens Zimmermann called Humanism and Religion. It was a good chapter and he’s written a few attractive books recently on the theme, one of which I shall read soon. eg as well as the above:

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  1. Harmony Q1 Review, Q2 Preview | Luke 7:39

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