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Faith after Doubt: Why your beliefs stopped working and what to do about it, by Brian McLaren

02 July 2021

Across the Atlantic, not all issues are the same, Naomi Starkey decides

BASED on the bold premise that “only doubt can save the world”, this book offers a way of growing the kind of flexible, resilient faith that can cope with the questions, differences, uncertainty, and ambiguity that make up the human condition as experienced (when they’re being honest) by Christians as much as anybody else. If doubt is stigmatised, doubters can end up feeling marginalised and even exiting their churches altogether.

Brian McLaren shows how doubt can be a portal from one stage of spiritual life to another rather than an embarrassing problem. Drawing on his personal journey as a former “child of fundamentalism” and citing authors such as Nadia Bolz Weber, the late Rachel Held Evans, and Richard Rohr, he presents his own four-stage template for faith development.

Charting the path from Simplicity to Harmony, via Complexity and Perplexity, he includes analysis of 18 characteristics of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development. At the same time, he emphasises that we should not see personal growth as linear progression, but more like tree rings, each stage building on what went before. He concedes, too, that not everybody will make the same journey in the same way, including his own elderly parents. Movingly, he describes their refusal to criticise his questioning, aware that, even if they have never doubted their faith, others do.

A number of the tensions that he explores (coping with creationism, white supremacy, and statements of belief that insist on the necessity of hell as eternal conscious torment) are not great problems for most UK Anglicans. Reading Faith after Doubt made me grateful for such diverse and generous influences as C. S. Lewis, Greenbelt, and Joyce Huggett. It’s harder in the UK to live one’s entire life in a particular kind of spiritual “bubble”, given that our church tribes are smaller and generally less well-off than in the US.

Occasionally, I wanted a more explicit acknowledgement that, for Christians, the “universal, non-discriminating love that calls us all together” does have a name and personhood, while that personhood transcends our finite understanding. I also found too much emphasis on what individual congregations could or should do, rather than a wider exploration of how his thesis relates to the whole Church.

This is a challenging, provocative, and, at times, uncomfortable read, but, above all, it demands action. Churches need to listen to millennials and engage with their hopes and fears. They also need to reach out to those who have left, asking why and where they have gone and being prepared for some uncomfortable answers.

The Revd Naomi Starkey ministers in a group of churches in north Anglesey and is also a pioneer evangelist.


Faith after Doubt: Why your beliefs stopped working and what to do about it
Brian McLaren
Hodder & Stoughton £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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