In his new book, Faith After Doubt, the author, speaker, activist and public theologian Brian McLaren talks about why doubting faith is both so painful—and so necessary.
In his new book, Faith After Doubt, the author, speaker, activist and public theologian Brian McLaren talks about why doubting faith is both so painful—and so necessary. McLaren is a former church founder and pastor, and is a leader in what is being called “Emergence Christianity”: a post-colonial, postmodern Christian faith. His numerous books include The Great Spiritual Migration, A New Kind of Christian, and the upcoming Do I Stay Christian? due out in spring 2022.
S&H: Is doubt a part of all faiths, or a particular issue occurring for modern-day Christians?
Brian McLaren: I can imagine people of any faith dealing with doubt … a young Buddhist meditating and wondering if it makes any difference (especially if he watches a monk repeatedly lose his temper), a Hindu child trying to figure out if he is supposed to believe that Krishna actually existed or exists, a young Muslim wondering if the prohibition against beer is really all that important, a Jew who feels ashamed about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.
But because Christianity is the world’s largest religion, and because Christians have control over more wealth and weapons than any other religion, I think doubts among Christians have outsized significance. For example, Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies. If Christians doubt that, it has far-reaching ramifications. When many of today’s Christian leaders support conspiracy theories and con artists, members of their communities have to decide if they have the courage to doubt those leaders, or if they’ll go along with them.
In the US, over 60 million Christian adults have dropped out of their churches, so there’s ample evidence that something isn’t working.
What is the connection between doubt and shame? In the beginning of your book, you tell some stories about how doubt, such as a young man wondering about how his sexuality will be perceived in his church. I’m wondering how the two are connected.
This is such an important question. As I wrote this book, I began to take more seriously than I ever have before the social dimensions of doubt. Inside my own head and heart, I might have questions. But if I feel that I will be shamed for expressing those doubts publicly in my faith community, then my problem is compounded. If I speak up, I might suffer rejection or pressure to conform. If I keep my doubts hidden, I’ll feel inwardly divided, dishonest, maybe even cowardly. As I say in the book, we humans are hive and herd creatures, so faith, doubt, and thinking are both personal and social acts, with personal and social consequences.
One of my hopes for the book is that it will encourage faith leaders and faith communities to stop shaming doubters, but will instead see doubt as a sign that a person is taking his or her faith seriously.
You talk about doubt as “sacred unrest.” I love that. Can you tell us more about that concept?
The great spiritual writer Fred Buechner used to say that doubt is “the ants in the pants of faith.” Doubt keeps us moving. That’s especially important because faith can make people complacent. It can settle things for people, so they relax in comfort and peace. I’m all for relaxation, comfort, and peace, but when the world is on fire, or when your personal life is falling apart, it’s time for action, for discomfort, for concern. Doubt is often the first step of our complacency being disturbed.
In that way, I think doubt and pain have something in common. If I put my hand on a hot stovetop, the pain makes me react fast so that I won’t be seriously burned. The pain, in a sense, saves us from tissue damage. Doubt does something like that. If my current beliefs are causing me or others harm, doubt raises the alarm and says, “Wake up! Don’t just let this continue!”
Should we expect doubt to come and go in our spiritual lives often, or is it something we move through and resolve?
In the book, I synthesize the research of over a dozen theorists and offer a simple, four-stage model of faith development: simplicity, complexity, perplexity, and harmony. The stages are cumulative rather than sequential. In other words, they work like rings on a tree, each new ring including or embracing or building upon what came before. I believe that doubts increase at the end of each stage. They’re what propel us to dare to move into a new stage. I think Stage Three, Perplexity, is the most intense period of doubt. My guess is that many people who enter Stage Three are the ones who end up leaving their faith community, because so few faith communities are prepared to help people face and deal with serious, deep doubt.
Are there tools to get more comfortable with doubt, such as meditation, exercise or prayer?
I tell a story in the book about a friend who told me the way he dealt with his doubt was by “walking out his questions.” He lived on a farm and would walk the trails each day as a kind of meditative practice. I think many folks find yoga to be helpful in managing the stress that comes from doubt; like walking, it gets people unstuck from their heads and helps them get back in touch with their bodies. I think prayer is especially important in dealing with doubt, but here’s the challenge: if our concept of God is in need of change and maturation, then we can pray our way into a bigger, deeper concept of God … or our prayer can keep us stuck in the old concept.
At some point, I think we have to face our conceptual or intellectual questions head-on, which requires two things: study and at least one good mentor or friend with whom to process our rethinking processes.
We see the United States becoming increasingly radicalized. Can doubt be a way to heal this problem and if so, how?
This is one of the reasons I wrote Faith After Doubt. I’ve been doing a good bit of research into authoritarianism and how authoritarian systems work. One of the core characteristics of authoritarianism is suppression of dissent. In other words, what the leader or regime or boss or cult leader says goes, without question. All of us, it turns out, have a kind of weak spot in our brain structure that makes us susceptible to group-think and social pressure, a downside of us being hive or herd creatures — which, of course, has many upsides as well. So if we can learn now to acknowledge our doubts and process them wisely, doubt can indeed help save us from radicalization.
I should mention, though, that authoritarians also use doubt. They typically attack journalists, for example, calling them “the enemy of the people” or something similar. They spin far-fetched conspiracy theories so that followers will doubt every other source of information — except their propaganda. So doubt, like everything else, can be manipulated.
That’s why I hope a book like this can be helpful at this time, to help us be conscious of our doubts and see them as part of what it means to be human, and to use them as a motivation to seek truth and live by it.
Who are your favorite doubters in Christian tradition and why?
What a great question! Three come to mind right away. First, Gregory of Nyssa. He never could buy into the way his contemporaries fused Christian theology with Greek philosophy. He dared to differ with the majority view on several issues, including the definition of perfection. He dared to say that perfection is infinite progression, which meant that we will never stop learning and growing.
Second has to be St. Francis. In one sense, he was a man of simple and deep faith. But you’ve probably heard the saying that there’s a big difference between the simplicity that comes before complexity and the simplicity that comes after. He showed the simple faith that comes after complexity and perplexity. (That’s what I call Stage Four faith, or Harmony, in the book.)
Third is dear Mother Teresa. Many people were scandalized when excerpts from her diaries were published that showed she faced sustained, profound doubt through much of her life. Yet she kept at it … caring for the most vulnerable, serving, loving. Her love, I believe, shows the measure of her faith. She had great doubts and great faith all at the same time.
Read our review of Faith After Doubt here.