Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It by Brian D. McLaren

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Editor's Note: The Banner reviews books/items from various perspectives, including controversial ones, to foster conversations and does not necessarily endorse any of those views. 

In a chaotic and disillusioning time like ours, this is a valuable book for those who are experiencing a faith crisis. When much “deserves to be doubted,” pastor and public theologian Brian D. McLaren calls doubting “this blessed unrest” and hopefully a growth process. This book is a pastoral guide to help people struggling with doubt, not a theological treatment of what faith and doubt should be.

Fifteen chapters of the book are divided into three parts, detailing the emotional turmoil when descending into doubt, the time when doubt dominates one’s life, and life after doubt. First, McLaren pastorally deals with the debilitating effects of doubt, including disorientation, anxiety, grief, disillusionment, loneliness, and a loss of purpose. For those who grew up with normative teachings that our faith should be unwavering, there is often self-blame, shame, and guilt. Some panic that they are losing their faith. 

But this intense experience might also reflect our quest for a kind of moral honesty, showing that we are discontent with a belief system that centers around intellectual certainty. Biblical faith and intellectual certainty are vastly different things. As he puts it, “hypocrisy and self-deception proved to be far greater dangers than uncertainty.” He quotes Frederick Buechner that “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith: they keep it awake and moving.” If intellectual certainty is not the same thing as truth, then doubt may be a doorway to a greater and more lively truth. Understood this way, doubt can be welcomed as our guide to true spiritual growth. 

The second part of the book offers a four-stage theory of faith development: Stage One of Simplicity/Rigidity, Stage Two of Complexity, Stage Three of Perplexity, and Stage Four of Harmony. The first phase centers around dualistic questions of right versus wrong, good versus bad, and us versus them. It demands clear, simple and certain answers to most questions about God and Scripture. This box might become too small for some believers, and the only way out is through doubt. The second phase offers more complexity and opportunities to engage the broader culture and to launch a bigger mission in the world. But its pragmatism might soon prove to be compromising with cultural trends, and many conscientious believers begin to look for an exit ramp. Doubt, again, leads them unto the phase of perplexity—the realization that life is much more mysterious and messy than they thought. Under the surface of a depressing crisis, these doubters crave depth and authenticity. 

The perplexity phase of doubt is the least understood one of all, given the pressure within faith communities. But as McLaren puts it, “doubt is an ethical as well as intellectual matter.” The book encourages doubters to ponder and understand our own life stories and spiritual biographies. The author offers some advice to doubters: “Hang in there and trust the process, and it will become a passageway, a birth canal.” The new life born is one of harmony and holistic living in God’s creation love.

The final part offers stories of earlier doubters who have embarked on the harmony phase, including the author himself. McLaren also reflects on this trend as a civilizational shift, with humanity outgrowing pre modern spirituality, modernity, and postmodernity, to a more ambiguous space where the “sound of the genuine” still rings. 

This book can be a great small group discussion resource, as there are guided questions for reflection and action at the end of each short chapter. (St. Martin’s Essentials)

About the Author

Mary Li Ma, Ph.D., is a a member of Plymouth Heights CRC church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (3)


Brian McLaren echoes the pseudo-Christian liberalism of 100 years ago, but with less intellectual rigor. If your beliefs aren't working, skip McLaren. Read and re-read 1 John. The inspired apostle brings clarity, not confusion; confidence, not doubt: "We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life."

I too would like to express my concern about suggesting a McLaren book!

Brian McLaren is an "Emerging Church" guy and as such he is not consistent with Reformed Theology!

I'm not saying a person shouldn't read outside their comfort zone, but everyone should be aware that McLaren is a false teacher before they might begin this book.

If a person is looking for good Reformed books on Doubt/Assurance, I'd suggest "Knowing & Growing in Assurance of Faith" by Joel Beeke or "The Assurance of Faith" by Louis Berkhof.

If they're concerned about specific questions or criticisms of Christianity, I'd suggest "The Reason for God" by Timothy Keller or "Confronting Christianity" by Rebecca McLaughlin or "The Impossibility of the Contrary" by Greg Bahnsen.

But most of all I'd suggest spending copious amounts of time in the Bible, maybe especially the Psalms? And also to find and talk to some of the elder (lowercase 'e' but also uppercase 'E'!) statesmen and stateswomen in your church and talk to them about what you're struggling with!

Brian McLaren has made no apologies for teaching people to follow an anti-biblical Jesus of his own invention. The simple fact that McLaren’s primary endorsement (on the cover of the book) is from the false teacher Glennon Doyle should alert Christians to this author’s deceptive intent. McLaren has made previous attempts to deconstruct believers’ faith away from the biblical Christ, and the Church would be wise only read this book as an example of deception.

That The Banner recommeds this book for study without warning believers of Brian McLaren’s repeated false teaching means that I must defend my congregation from this magazine’s lack of discernment.