Brian D. McLaren
St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 256 pages
Reviewed by Andy Nagel
Many religious professionals know the isolating reality that doubt is not particularly welcome in their line of work. Pastors are often expected to be the people with the answers. When doubts emerge, the experience can be disruptive to their own sense of vocational identity as well as to their ministry in congregations that often have appetites for leaders who have doctrinal precision, confidence and vision.
The pastor struggling with doubt would find an empathetic companion in Brian McLaren’s latest book. McLaren charts his own experiences with doubt and questioning, inviting the reader to think of seasons of doubt as opportunity rather than threat — a chance to grow, develop and flourish. The doubting person will appreciate the permission given to lean toward doubt with expectation, rather than lean away in fear.
McLaren does this through a readable combination of personal autobiography, anecdotes from others and an effective summary of brain science and psychology that explains why doubt can feel so destabilizing. He then proposes a four-stage model of spiritual development in which doubt plays a critical role. Careful to avoid a clunky sequentialism, McLaren invites the reader to think of these stages like rings on a tree, which both contain and transcend the inner rings. Stage one, or simplicity, is characterized by clarity and dualism, right and wrong, good and bad. Eventually (often during adolescence) doubt leads a person to stage two: complexity, in which the fundamentals of stage one become oriented toward pragmatic ends. Stage two faith is about how to get faith to work for us. The point at which doubt often becomes most distressing is the transition into stage three: perplexity. McLaren writes: “Stage three feels different, disruptive. Everything we constructed, we now deconstruct. The summits we climbed, we now leave behind. We cut our losses but secretly fear: Will anything be left, or will we end up in a state of spiritual bankruptcy?” It is probably during a season of perplexity that this book would be most helpful to a reader. The last stage McLaren discusses is harmony, in which faith becomes not so much a mental ascription to a set of beliefs as a way of life shaped around Galatians 5:6b: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
The rest of the book consists of McLaren imagining how this “revolutionary love” at the core of the stage of harmony would look if it was enfleshed in human relationships, churches, theology and our posture toward the environment. The scope of the latter half of the book is so broad that it sometimes feels disorganized and unclear, but readers are sure to have their imagination sparked at one of McLaren’s many proposals.
This book contributes a helpful perspective on doubt: not an obstacle to be overcome, but an opportunity to be embraced. McLaren’s kind and wise voice will be a breath of fresh air to many a person who has secretly wondered what to do with their doubts.
Andy Nagel is associate pastor of discipleship and missions at Central Presbyterian Church in Baltimore.