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:

Day 54 #pornfree

It is now 54 days since I have looked at any porn or masturbated. That’s less than two months, and the new state doesn’t feel entirely secure, but I think this is the longest time I have Gone Without since the late 1980s.

I shan’t crow about this very frequently, but this battle is one of the main points of the blog.

In general, I feel much more clear-headed and directed — though life’s ups and downs are as daunting as ever. Perhaps the biggest change is that I’m more careful that my downtime is nourishing rather than draining.

I’ve never stopped lusting after my wife Sara. The challenges of showing affection, and of encouraging shows of affection, remain.

I have not been good at avoiding pictures of attractive women. Quite the opposite. At times I am leaning heavily on the narrow definition of pornography and going looking. That is a weakness I want to put a stop to. Perhaps find something else mildly attractive, engaging and addictive instead (eg do a quick Duolingo exercise).

The real test will be when either Sara or I go away for a few nights, and I have some evenings alone. I can easily imagine spending some of those evenings “catching up”. … but that day can worry about itself.

In the meantime build my strength and enjoy my freedom.

和而不同 “with but not and”

In Confucianism, 和 (hé) harmony, is an important central concept. This post is first in an occasional series exploring 和 in Confucianism, and how that can inspire my own search for harmony.

The phrase “和而不同” (hé ér bù tóng) could be literally translated as “with but not and”, or more helpfully as “harmonious but not identical”.

Much is made of the difficulty of translating Classical Chinese. A large part of the problem is its extremely telegraphic nature (think shorthand, pre-smartphone text messages, or shopping lists) — problematic especially when the target language is the extremely loquacious style of anglophone intellectual writing.

The phrase is from 13:23 in the Analects:

子曰:“君子和而不同,小人同而不和。”

zǐ yuē: “jūn zǐ hé ér bù tóng, xiǎo rén tóng ér bù hé.”

Zi said: “noble persion harmonious but not identical, small person identical but not harmonious.”

The 君子 (jūn zǐ) noble or exemplary person is the ideal human we should strive to emulate. The 小人 (xiǎo rén) small person (petty might be a good translation) is the opposite. These two characters reappear often in the Analects.

Three real translations:

The Master said: “The noble man is in harmony but does not follow the crowd. The inferior man follows the crowd, but is not in harmony.”
(acmuller.net)

The Master said: “The gentleman, although he behaves in a conciliatory manner, does not make his views coincide with those of others; the small man, although he makes his views coincide with those of others, does not behave in a conciliatory manner.”
(OUP)

The Master said: “Exemplary persons seek harmony not sameness; petty persons, then, are the opposite.”
(Penguin)

I think the OUP translation is embarrassingly bad. The Penguin translation is crisp, but in fairness I should say that it has a footnote that is three and a half pages long. I like the Penguin book. It’s also in parallel so you can see how much shorter the Chinese is:

Readers of the Bible will be familiar with problems of translations, and the strangeness of ancient languages.

Harmonious togetherness is not sameness, not an army of identical people. Harmony is a set of differences which together make up something pleasing and powerful. A new body, not just a bigger louder body.

I think of the body of Christ as a harmony composed of all of us together — a complex harmony with some dissonances as we grow.

Leviticus

So many rules! But as they pile up — rules for diet, medicine, commerce, agriculture — the picture that builds is one of care for the health of the community. It’s a community of a particular kind, with a particular character:

  • Care for outsiders – 23:22
    “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.”

  • Reward planning – 25:20-21
    20 And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ 21 I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years.

This verse — however obvious and true to the story — really shocked me and I couldn’t help taking it personally. Bit mean to call All That “the land of Egypt” but in this personal sense the verse is very true as well.

  • 26:13
    I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. And I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.

37/30 #pornfree

past

I have completed XXXChurch‘s “The 30 Day Porn-Free Challenge”! [emoji here] Day 30 was Tuesday 16th Feb, and I am continuing the porn-free streak making today day 37/30.

The “30 Day Porn-Free Challenge” is based around an ebook of 30 blog posts (let’s not mince words), which were often quite thought-provoking and challenging. I was surprised by that, and I think that helped keep me on the wagon. I also did a “10-day challenge” by XXXChurch’s partner site LiveFree, which was basically the same idea, but

  • delivered as emails: so, that extra nudge. They were also a bit shorter and punchier than the “30 days” blog posts;
  • each concluded with a few pointed questions, prompting me to really interact with and respond to their content.

All highly recommended. I was intending to blog some responses but quite early on all those “urges” seemed a distant memory. Of course 37 days is actually not that long. If I fall back, I’ll come back to these challenges and respond to their challenges more fully.

present

When I’m not thinking about something specific, my head feels kind of empty. Around day 21, at these times my mind would obsessively fill will sex fantasies. Not entirely unpleasant, but ultimately annoying. I seem to be out of that obsessive phase, but those kind of daydreams are never far away. I need to find something else to occupy my mind when it’s idle.

Avoiding pornography is relatively easy — and breaches are easy to identify. Avoiding pictures of attractive women is not really possible (before the Covid lockdown I would just have said avoiding attractive women is not possible). I’m starting to notice more, and question, my lingering attention when online, or even reading the business press.

future

The LiveFree site is based around a private social network — LiveFree.app, themed around “porn abstention”, which looked very good — as well as the direct use-case, it is a network of male Christians so useful there too. However,

  • subscription is $5/month (fine) and they can only accept credit cards, not paypal (bad). I have contacted them about this but had no response.
  • As with blogging my “porn abstention journey”, I already don’t feel the need any more for this kind of support.

By coincidence, the 30 Days Challenge has led me straight into Lent, giving me an excuse to lengthen, and deepen, the streak. By deepen I mean things like:

  • find new ways to occupy my idle mind and keep sexfantasia at bay
  • be stricter, and more honest, with my attention

Procrastination being what it is, Lent has already started, and I am working on these two.

Day 8/30: Rewire Your Brain #pornfree

I have signed up with XXXChurch and am working through their ebook “The 30 Day Porn-Free Challenge”. More on XXXChurch later. Working through the ebook (reading a chapter a day, and avoiding porn) is going quite well — more on that later too. Each day’s reading has quite good ideas. I was going to review at the end, but the backlog is already burdensome. So:

DAY 8: How To Rewire Your Brain And Body From Addiction

Actually the concrete suggestions in today’s reading (practice and patience, connect daily with a community, turn troubles over to God) are fairly predictable (nothing wrong with them, but no surprises). But the title gave me two ideas.

I am a real creature of habit. The bus driver has the ticket printed for me before I fish out my wallet. At one of the places I like to go for breakfast, one morning the waitress brought me my order before I’d ordered it.

The key is not to much to attack old habits, but to create new habits that can become stronger, more attractive, than the old. I need habits to replace what I get from porn (not so much porn itself as the activity that goes with it).

  1. New source of sensual pleasure

    Establishing a daily yoga practice is one of my Harmony goals for this quarter. I love yoga but when I think, “I must do more yoga!” I think of it as exercise for health and fitness. But while I’m doing it, and afterwards when I can feel the effect, it is a sensual pleasure. It’s not as intense, but it can over-ride tensions and stress, it is enjoyable in its own right, and it can be what I turn to for sensual pleasure. (I don’t rule out turning to my wife for sensual pleasure but I’m not setting that as a target this year.)

  2. New fantasies

    Already after just a week, the sexual fantasies I habitually turn to — or which “pop up” alost unbidden — are less attractive, in that they hold my attention less strongly. But I don’t have anything else so my mind at those times often feels empty, or it can skitter into anxiety/worry fantasies.

    I recently read an article in HBR about someone who would catastrophize. Their coach suggested that, every time they catch themselves doing this, they should give themselves a day drawn in the opposite direction: the interview/demo/launch is wildly successful, the boss is overjoyed, promotions, world game, etc. So I am going to try that.

four quarters #harmony

  1. (Jan-Mar) Together
  2. (Apr-Jun) Melody
  3. (Jul-Sep) Matrimony
  4. (Oct-Dec) Desire

** Together

Harmony is togetherness. Togetherness in the communities I am part of (family, work, village, friends, my online “church”); togetherness within me, between my competing interests and desires.

This quarter I want to notice and gravitate towards activities that promote togetherness in both these spheres, and neglect activities that dissipate togetherness.

Concrete goals: I have ideas for Lent, I want to find some male Christian bloggers to follow, and some online Christian communities to join and take part in.

** Melody

Harmony brings melody.

These beautiful concepts have dark sides, and the dark side of my yearning for Harmony is a tendency for passivity and rule-following, withdrawal, when things aren’t going well.

This quarter I want to “watch” that dark side and “celebrate” the bright, active side of harmony which is melody (and rhythm). The greatest Harmony is God and this quarter I really want to show (first of all to myself) that harmonising with Him lends me Love, Power and Knowledge to be melodious for His glory.

Concrete goals: successes at work (will be one year at my new job during this quarter); attend Easter activities and/or service at a local church or cathedral.

** Matrimony

Matrimony is Harmony. The harmony between two lovers in a permanent relationship … does not look after itself.

My wife Sara’s birthday is during this quarter, and I dedicate the quarter to her, and to harmony in our marriage, to have Sara’s well-being and happiness at the fore of my everything every day.

Concrete goals: I want to monitor and increase my physical displays of affection, just sufficiently for Sara to notice, perhaps enjoy, perhaps reciprocate. Slightly strange to quantify these things but I want to hold myself to daily commitments. I want to end every day with a loving gesture, no matter what quarrels might have just happened.

Why wait till July? Writing these goals today means I might start trying things out tomorrow. I don’t preclude earlier activity, but the quarter around Sara’s birthday is for her.

** Joy

Harmony is joy. Harmony is a smoothly running machine, a symphony helter-skelter but in control of itself, the surprise of truth and the power that comes with it. Harmony is full of laughter and enjoyment.

This quarter looks toward Christmas, and the yearning for Harmony is offset by the Joy of His arrival (like the sharp gin is offset by the smooth vermouth in a Martini, one of my Christmas treats). I want to celebrate Christ, myself, my wife, and all the beautiful people I have met along my journey.

Concrete goals: year-end successes at work; attend Christmas activities and/or service at a local church or cathedral.

And the word of the year is …

Hygiene!

(it was going to be “poetry” but “hygiene” pipped it to the post.)

My focus so far has been “Sleep Hygiene”. This was actually kicked off around New Year by my wife Sara, who decided she was wanted lights out by 22:30 from now on. Initially I chafed at this (but knew it would be a bad idea not to play along). Planning to go to bed so early has gradually affected the shape of the whole evening, so now:

  • I clean up the kitchen soon after dinner (instead of putting it off as long as I can). This makes the evening a single clear time.
  • I have forbidden work, or anything mentally taxing, after 21:00. This gives my mind time to wind down.
  • I have two regular “last thing” activities:
    1. I spend 15 minutes writing on my laptop. It’s kind of a journal but I have rules: I have to write fluidly without stopping to think; it has to be “about” something; it has to be positive. I have to touch-type (this is kind of a diversion mechanism, but it also means that I am getting a lot of typing practice).
    2. I spend 10-15 minutes reading poetry. Poetry is so different — almost like music. This underlines the day and puts my mind in a different state.

I’m impressed with myself how well I’ve stuck to this! Effects are already showing:

  • I seem to have a lot less time in the day! But I feel less rushed. That has led me to make efficiencies (e.g. prompt kitchen cleaning). The day is calmer.
  • Embracing, and thriving on, a constraint that chafed at first has been instructive. It has changed how I experience and respond to constraint. I am applying that pattern successfully to another area.
  • I am spending more time doing things with Sara — and she is driving this time (making the advances), which is a good sign in itself.

Next steps:

  • Actually getting to sleep is still a frustrating challenge, so I need to work on actively pursuing sleep rather than waiting for it to turn up.
  • I am regulary waking up before the alarm goes off (which is nice for Sara, who gets up an hour later). That is starting to open a bit of time for a short yoga session before breakfast.

Lonely

I think I am lonely. This might be completely obvious to readers of the blog (and perhaps to people I meet IRL). It is only just dawning on me.

It feels like a cousin of boredom, a kind of boredom directed inwards. A restlessness, aimlessness, valuelessness inside. Possibly a result of outward boredom: finding nothing of value in the objects of my activity, that lack of value is reflected within. I don’t feel lonely when I’m not bored.

Except when I experience joy — inspiration, success, fulfilment, discovery — and want to share it. Outside of narrow domains (work colleagues will share relevant joys), there is nobody.

My wife is generally not interested in, or is even antagonistic to, many of the things that excite me. I have to think three times before sharing anything in that direction — and indeed I am always on the lookout for things I can and should share — that makes the whole exercise more instrumental and less spontaneous.

I think that loneliness is (at least partly) what drives me to porn. Pretty women smiling at me and welcoming me in the 1980s/90s “top-shelf” softcore images I’ve started browsing (nostalgia in there too of course). Women being bent to my will in the more modern hardcore videos I watch (all mainstream stuff I stress!). Loneliness brings yearning and self-pity and a confusion of darker emotions.

I think loneliness is (at least partly) behind my twitter “addiction”. Searching for a glimpse of a kindred spirit.

Realising this has reduced the tidal pull, although it hasn’t removed the urge completely.

So, what to do about it? What to do about it “as a Christian”?

Boredom and loneliness could easily be described as sins. As well as their superficial sinfulness (There’s plenty to be done! There are plenty of people to befriend!), boredom and loneliness — like shame — lead only to a weakening of the spirit. Indulging loneliness — with porn or social media — doesn’t cure it or lead anywhere. There’s a brief wave of superficial excitement — at best — then less than nothing.

Loneliness is not a “natural” response to … anything. Like shame: I shouldn’t succumb to shame, not because I haven’t done anything shameful — I have, but because Jesus loves and values me, and my sins are washed away in His love. [I should take Baptism more seriously.]

I don’t need to be lonely — even if I “have no friends” (not quite true) — because I have Jesus with me — and sometimes I do feel that. I can tell Jesus the exciting things I discover or read in prayer or in my diary.

Most of all I can learn to love myself and celebrate myself in the way that Jesus loves me. Jesus treasures me for a reason, and He wants to see me grow and thrive.

If I love myself, celebrate myself, enjoy myself — truly, in the way that Jesus loves me — then I thrive, become stronger, fuller of joy, and my love will be stronger, more joyful.

So I will cultivate this garden:

  • I have bought a new Moleskine. I’ll write down the Psalms & other Scriptures I’ve learnt & am learning (& other poems — Shakespeare, Hopkins, …). I’m writing down prayer commitments to cultivate an intentional prayer life too.
  • Love others by loving myself: do something every day that increases my power.
  • Love myself by loving others: serve well, acknowledge the gratitude, and offer it up to God (this morning: getting my 94-yr-old M-i-L into her pressure stockings after she didn’t trust the nurse).
  • Root out the weeds … [that stings like James 4:8b stings]
  • Recognise the weeds as weeds — attractive but draining and invasive. Yes, invasive.
  • Hopkins said immortal diamond. Invest in and treasure that gem which is my immortal soul.

Addiction and Revulsion

tl;dr

I am not repulsed by the object of my addiction. That might be an inconvenience but I don’t think it’s a problem.

I don’t think revulsion is helpful. The point is to look forward: find a way back to the right path and, while on the path, focus on the goal ahead.

comment

I’m not entirely convinced that describing my bad habits as “addiction” is useful, but I did used to smoke cigarettes (most of the 1980s, sometimes quite heavily; haven’t smoked at all since mid 1990s). Smoking cigarettes is uncontroversially an addiction so that habit gives me a comparison.

Recovered or recovering addicts sometimes talk about feeling revulsion for the object of their addiction & how their craving overcomes their revulsion, or how they still indulge in the activities that revolt them.

I’ve never felt that revulsion. e.g. with cigarettes, I never stopped enjoying smoking. I did have several failed attempts at quitting.

Towards the end of an episode when I’ve over-indulged and I’m sated I feel some revulsion bu tI think that’s different. That’s like the revulsion we feel when we’re given another bowl of trifle when we’ve already had four.

I do feel revulsion at myself (mild with smoking, stronger with pr0n) when I relapse — but that revulsion is linked to my weakness of will (or my strength of will in the wrong direction). It’s not linked to the object/activity, which I enjoy.

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