Father Mark, Reflections

Faith After Doubt: A Lenten Reflection on the book by Brian McLaren


Why read a book about doubt when the events of the last year or so have tried our faith?  Wouldn’t it be better to read a book about “how to have faith?”  Reason would lead us to seem so.  However there is a higher, Divine Reason, at work in our doubts that I, the author and most likely you have realized that works in our favor.  Notice how I said, “works” as doubt is some of the most grueling inner work we will ever do if we are willing to walk the way of the cross that leads to Good Friday, culminating in Easter’s New Birth. 

I believe that God companions us in our doubt although the pain of it all can lead us to believe that it is difficult to find God during these empty, desolate times.  As we will discuss, working through doubt is not “white knuckling” it nor does it involve the power of positive thinking like the Little Engine that Could:  “I think I can….”  Doubt is a journey of loss and following that loss until we find ourselves face to face with God.  It seems that Jesus was always getting on his disciples, “O ye of little faith” with a blend of what seems to be chastisement and encouragement.  Jesus also was extremely patient with doubters such as Thomas or the man whose son was possessed by an unclean spirit who said: I believe, help my unbelief.  

As normal as doubts are, we sure keep them to ourselves.  There must be an inner terror we possess about being “found out” by the community if we are having doubts like we will be to be defective and shunned like the Puritans used to do.   I am here to tell you that it takes more faith to accept your doubts than to pretend that you don’t have them.  Only by acceptance (a form of confession) can we begin to move through them to meet Jesus face to face—and to be healed.

McLaren’s text consists of fifteen chapters in three parts.  I will be covering approximately four chapters a week.  I will have a question or two for reflection and prayer at the end of each chapter.  The chapters will be done separately so that you can do them at your leisure. 

I remember the words of Paul Tillich: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith…. Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt the faithful.”

The outline of this Lenten reflection will follow McLaren’s text with some of his thoughts with some of my 42 years as a priest, spiritual director and counselor woven throughout.  I suggest you purchase the book which is available at any online retailer.

The Chapters are listed:

  1. Doubt as Loss
  2. Doubt as Loneliness
  3. Doubt as Crisis
  4. Doubt as Doorway
  5. Doubt as Growth
  6. Doubt as Descent
  7. Doubt as Dissent
  8. Doubt as Love
  9. A Human Problem
  10. Faith, Beliefs, and Revolutionary Love
  11. Communities of Harmony
  12. Theologies of Harmony
  13. Spiritualties of Harmony for the Rising Generation
  14. Harmony as a Survival Strategy
  15. A Civilization in Doubt
  16. Afterward:  You’re Not Crazy and You’re Not Alone
  1. Doubt as Loss

As in religious language, grief also does not find words to express its experience.  It is mind disorienting and heart and gut aching experience.  Doubt is one of the words that touches the edge of this experience and can follow the phases of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and the beginning of reintegration and acceptance.  The origin of the word doubt means to be in two mindsone that believes and one that doesn’t, with the appropriate reactions of distress and inner division.   Previous to doubt the world, self and one’s faith was coherent.  When doubt rises the clarity of mind, vision and the peace in the heart begins dissolve.  The familiar now lies behind in the past and everything in us desperately desires to return to its comfort zone.  Faith is our map of reality, orienting us to God, self, others and to life, kind of an internal GPS system.   Even Einstein used language to describe the same when his paradigm of scientific beliefs were shattered: It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under one, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built.  Doubt carries with it great anxiety as the ground beneath us turns to quicksand.  We may be disillusioned with our faith, the church, our relationships as well as God and other important things when we fall off the precipice upon which we stood for so long, assuming a sense of permanence about life.   I once had a spiritual director who taught me that “illusions die hard.”  When we doubt it is possible to feel that we have lost God or even wonder if God exists.  I recall through the years visiting with church members when I ask how they are, the universal response of “fine” emerges from their lips.  Only later do I find the struggle they carry within which they feel terrified to admit to another as if it was something of which to be ashamed.  One of the most difficult things we face is no matter how much we wish that the phantom of doubt takes hold of us, is to accept it.  After all, who wants to accept life and faith when it feels like a dark hole?   

Questions for Reflection

  1. Can you recall periods of doubt throughout your life or perhaps some doubts that you presently are experiencing?  Who has taught you about doubt in your lifetime either in their discussions or in the way they modeled their own behavior in either denying or dealing with it?   Was doubt presented to you as something to resist or accept?
  2. Have any of the examples or descriptions of doubt listed above something that with which you can identify?   How is your experience of doubt in your life both similar and different?  Sometimes our dreams even reveal the struggle between the two worlds of where we were and the nowhere that we seem to be now. 

2. Doubt as Loneliness

Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving. –Frederick Buechner

Even introverts need others.  William Turner @ 1545, who was credited with the idiom: birds of a feather flock together reveals that people seek out people with whom they can identify with similar, character, values, tastes, interests and beliefs.     We have the human innate need to connect with others to find support, be a support and cultivate friendships.  We tend to be clannish, searching to be with those who are like minded.   However, after a number of years or a major life event, our personal experiences may cause us to not identify with members of our peer group as much as in past years.  This process usually evolves slowly unless we are shocked into it by a crisis.  In the case of groups that hold to a set of values and beliefs, to find that we are questioning them can begin to open a caveat of loneliness and isolation that can be quite painful.  We once felt that we belonged. Now we wonder sometimes if we feel that we will belong anywhere.   Social pressure upon which so many of our personal relationships depend can become unstable.  How do we speak of our varying experience with those with whom we once identified? 

Every group, especially religious ones have their “code” of beliefs, practices and values.  Religious groups especially can be sensitive to doubts in any of these areas.  I have rarely met an individual of a religious group who do not feel great stress about admitting and disclosing their doubts in fear of ostracism.   Doubt in this case can lead to a terrible sense of loneliness.  I remember mid-year during my senior year of seminary, when I went through a doubting time known as “the dark night of the soul” when God felt almost non-existent which had never happened to me before.   Even my seminary friends who did not know how to relate to me during this time of doubt withdrew from me and I felt completely isolated except for a professor and chaplain who knew exactly what was happening to me.  This “dark night” began to see rays of light by the time I graduated but I worked with a spiritual director for another year and a half in order to shift from the beliefs that died to the rebirthing that the Spirit was leading me. 

The questions that remain for me are:  can a community of faith with the acceptance and compassion of God be open to those who are doubting and feel alone.  I do not see much of this in the church.  I notice that people who doubt generally tend to drop out of the church community after a period of time.  Members may say, “I wonder what happened to Sam?”  But few if any will go to Sam and ask him how his heart is.   This is all private because it might open a can of worms that might make everyone uncomfortable.  The second question is, do I have the faith to expose my doubts to a few in the community that might hear me?   It takes faith to doubt and even more so to disclose them

Questions for Reflection

  1. From you earliest memory, what did your church, parents, relatives, peers and others teach you about doubt from their words and examples:  What doubt says about your value as a person; and what to do with doubt.  Is doubt something about which we should be ashamed?
  • Can you remember a time in your life when you felt alone in your group “herd” because your doubts about what you once held to believe began to fade?   What did you do with your doubts and how did you choose to relate to your community?
  • We were created to be in a community of faith and to also be ourselves, living in the tension between the two.   Is it possible to do both:  to be able to be ourselves in a community?   How have you managed this tension in your life?   Must there be tension between being oneself and being a part of a community?

3. Doubt as Crisis

Faith is a core foundation of our identity as is the meaning we receive from relationships in the faith community of which we are a part.    Doubt about our faith can leave us experiencing loneliness and lead to an identity crisis especially if doubt is not accepted in the faith community. McLaren states that we live in the tension of wanting to belong while at the same time we desire to be free.  We also want to be honest while at the same time of wanting to be accepted.  There is something within us that wants us to be good while we want to be thought as good by others.  We are tempted to suppress our sense freedom and honesty for the security of belonging.  At my ordinations I had to sign a document called the Oath of Conformity.  We do a similar act when we take our vows for Baptism and Confirmation.  Ideally a mature community allows room for doubt in its various forms and supports a person through their desert experience.  But most communities do not openly advertise this and so people do not know if it is safe to be themselves.  If we suppress doubt enough the resulting tension will eventually lead to a moment of choice to disclose or leave.  The Church could model Jesus’ interaction with Thomas.  We can have compassion and understanding as doubt seeing doubt as a way of our faith development while at the same time encouraging others to search for their faith.   Shaming people for their doubt is a winless situation and does not reflect the nature of God’s revelation. 

I remember the same tension I felt for years when I struggled to accept the Virgin Birth of Jesus.  My reason could not fathom how this might have happened.  This had no bearing on my belief in God.  Then I read Augustine: “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”  This comforting line at least cut my sense of shame because I knew the saints often struggled with doubt.  But it was one day I found myself saying the Nicene Creed and when I got to the part by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man, I no longer had that wrenching in my gut and shame in my mind but was rather set free from it.   I learned important lessons that day.  God still loved me enough to come to me and by revelation lift the doubt that I had carried about this for almost a decade.  To this day I have no problem with the concept.   The purpose of doubt is to lead us into God and that God is in charge of this mystery.   Our identity as children of God is not fully defined for us yet and God continues to reveal to us who we are by our experience of who God is.  The doubt will feel like a crisis because we are letting go of a belief or doubt that we once depended on.  Yet we are trading it for God, himself.   Of course when in the midst of doubts, we have a difficult time remembering this.

Questions for Reflection

  1. McLaren writes: “The greatest threat to our moral and spiritual health wasn’t questions or doubts but rather dishonesty or presence” in our attempt to maintain “moral theological certitude.”   How has doubt led to your moral and spiritual health?
  2. Can you think of a doubt that you had in the past and how you approached it?  What have you learned in your own life about doubt? 
  3. McLaren asks:  “How would you describe your identity as a person of faith at this season of your life:  solid and stable, solid but with a few small cracks, a little uneasy, deeply conflicted, fin full-blown identity crisis, or something else?”   What action on your part might be the best thing for you at this time?

4. Doubt as Doorway

McLaren talks about the difference between certainty and faith to when he played with Legos as a child, saying that later he likened theology to be like a “massive Legos project.”  He would gather answers for beliefs to arrange his world view.  What we don’t realize is that we place our faith in beliefs instead of the living God.  McLaren gives Saul as an example in the Book of Acts where “we have tried to convince ourselves that we are fighting for God, but we begin to wonder if we’re actually fighting against God.”  In our inner need for a sense of safety we can easily choose beliefs for certainty instead of honesty and charity including the experience of the author of Hebrews who wrote: faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  McLaren reveals that faith is not like building a Lego like fortress of beliefs but that faith is more like a road and that beliefs are not the destination, God is.  Beliefs are like road signs on the way to what I like to call our merging with God.  Only God is certainty and truth—much of the time without the details.   Doubt therefore is a doorway to discovering God.  I have often noticed that my beliefs are not destroyed when I choose to follow the path of faith but that they are expanded or transformed, re-fit and adjusted along the way.  It’s like Jesus saying (Mt 5):  Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Questions for Reflection

  1. McLaren was once told by a person who described himself as “addicted to certainty.”  How and why do we sometimes seek certainty instead of God?   Do you recall an episode in your life where you sought certainty instead of trusting the mystery of God?
  2. McLaren:  “How would you describe your own faith using the metaphors of fortresses, prisons, thresholds, doorways, road, and adventures?”  Choose another word(s) if these do not fit your experience.

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