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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)