Sam Radford

April 30, 2021

Book Notes: “Faith after Doubt” by Brian McLaren

I’ve been reading books by Brian McLaren for coming up to twenty years. He is someone whose faith journey is several steps ahead of mine and, as such, he’s been a mentor from afar to me.

His latest book, Faith after Doubt, is my favourite of his books to date.

It captures the journey I’ve been on for the last twenty years as well as providing vision and encouragement for the years ahead.

The book offers a map for where I’ve come from. He shares language and frameworks that give definition to the steps I’ve been taking these last two decades.

What’s the point of a map that only covers the territory you’ve been on already though? Plenty, it turns out. Having clarity about where you’ve come from better equips you for whatever challenges lie ahead.

And that’s what I came away with from Brian’s book. I understand, better than ever before, the stages I’ve been evolving through. And, as a result, I am more confident about the future and walking confidently into it.

One of the things I most appreciated about Faith after Doubt, was the way Brian normalised doubt. Too many of us who have spent time in church came away thinking doubt was bad; the enemy even. It’s not. As Brian writes:

The experience of doubt feels like falling, but could it actually be an upward fall?

Yes, he argues. Doubt is necessary and valuable. It’s something we need to learn to live with and learn from. There’s no shame. It’s not something we need to hide.

Is it any wonder so many people abandon church and faith when churches are so rarely safe spaces to explore those doubts? Either people hide their doubts in order to continue to enjoy the belonging that a church can provide. Or, they pretend they don’t have doubts, play the game, until a crisis brings everything crashing down. One way or another, unable to be themselves, people end up leaving.

Thankfully, I have been able to go through my journey of questioning and doubt both alongside my faith community and with their support. Most people don’t get that kind of safe environment. So I know I am very lucky.

And it makes me want to provide that safe space for others.

Losing our faith, feeling overwhelmed by doubt, is too often a lonely experience. An already painful situation is made worse by our sense we have to grapple on our own.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We need faith communities where people can go through all four stages of faith that Brian describes in his book. We need safe, supportive environments where people can be guided through the journey from faith to doubt and then towards a new kind of faith again. It’s sad how many people only ever reach the doubt and deconstruction stage and then don’t have the people or resources to guide them further.

What, though, are the four stages?

Stage 1 is about simplicity. This is when faith is dualistic and everything is either-or. We trust the authority of the church leaders, and don’t question them at all. We’re dependent. The world is black and white. We’re right, they’re wrong. We’re in, they’re out. Disappointingly, all too much faith and religion never moves beyond this stage.

Stage 2 is about complexity. We move to this stage when we begin to doubt the simplicity of Stage 1. We transition from dualism and dependence to pragmatism and independence. ‘Does it work’ is a defining question. The Bible becomes a toolkit for living a better life. We want our leaders to coach us in living life to the full rather than be absolute authority figures. In Stage 1, everything seems known or knowable. In Stage 2, everything becomes learnable and doable. We start to learn and study for ourselves; reach our own conclusions.

Stage 3 is about perplexity. We reach this stage when the steps to a better life start to appear shallow. We have more experiences of the ‘five steps to this’ or ’three keys to that' not working out. We start to crave depth and honesty, and Stage 2 pragmatism can start to seem fake. Easy steps and keys to success aren’t enough. Often a crisis will tip us into searching for more. This is when we start to deconstruct everything. We embrace critical thinking. Everything is relative. We become suspicious of authority and authority figures. And it’s here where we start to feel alone. And like we’re falling. It can seem like a time of loss. It’s a humbling stage; we realise how much we don’t know. Sadly, this is often where the religious and faith journey ends for many.

Stage 4 is about harmony. As with all the transitions from one stage to another, the move from Stage 3 to Stage 4 is enabled through doubt. Doubt keeps us moving forward; keeps us growing. We begin to question whether we want to spend the rest of our lives living as cynics. We start to wonder whether there’s something on the other side of deconstruction. Is there a possible reconstruction? Our eyes are opened to something beyond critical thinking: non-dual thinking. We crave meaning.

It needs to be said that these stage are not levels! And no stage is a bad stage. Each stage makes possible what follows and is necessary. You can’t reach the stage of harmony without going through simplicity, complexity, and perplexity. Each new stage is like a ring on a tree; it includes the previous stage as it transcends it. And, as Brian writes:

Dualism, pragmatism, relativism, and non-dual holism have simply become four ways of seeing or four skillsets at your disposal.

We may journey through the stages, but we still need elements from each one. Stage 1 teaches us to care about right and wrong. Stage 2 encourages us to be curious and flexible. Stage 3 opens the door to humility and self-knowledge. We need all of this!

There’s much more I could say, but I will keep it to one last thing. At the heart of each stage, and the transition from one stage to the next, is revolutionary love. As Brian writes:

Faith was about love all along. We just didn’t realise it, and it took doubt to help us see it.

Though doubt may have been the trigger, it’s actually love which pulls us into the next stage. Faith before doubt, in Brian’s words, is about correct beliefs; faith after doubt is about revolutionary love. In Brian’s words: 

Jesus doesn’t teach a list of beliefs to be memorised and recited. Instead, he teaches a way of life that culminates in a call to revolutionary love... 

...The deeper question is not whether you are a Christian, Buddhist, or atheist, but rather what kind of Christian, Buddhist, or atheist are you?  

I know that, for me, I can’t escape the call to try and live a life of revolutionary love, hard as it may be.

All said, Brian’s book is well worth a read. I have learnt so much and will be referring to it for years to come.

–Sam

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@samradford | samradford.com