Brian McLaren on faith after doubt

In both the UK and US, church attendance is steadily declining and yet many people still describe themselves as spiritual or say they pray or believe in God.

Popular Christian writer, speaker and activist Brian D McLaren has written his latest book, Faith After Doubt, for the Christians out there who feel that their faith is falling apart or who no longer feel at home in church. 

McLaren speaks to Christian Today about what he thinks is putting so many people - especially the young - off church and what can be done about it. 

CT: Your book approaches doubt as something natural and healthy. Why do you think doubts are something to be embraced?

Brian: It's hard to talk about this without reference to what happened here in the US on January 6, with the storming of the Capitol. There were videos of Christians carrying Bibles, holding 'Jesus saves' signs, prophesying and praying, and the vast majority of them were evangelicals.

What that says to me is that there's something deeply wrong on this side of the pond with what we call 'evangelicalism' and we really have to interrogate that. Part of interrogating something means questioning it - not just giving it single-minded confidence but actually having second thoughts about it.

Essentially that's what doubt is. It's having second thoughts about something. And if you wanted a biblical justification for this kind of doubt, the book of Proverbs would be a great place to start because Proverbs tells us that if we want wisdom and understanding we have to seek beneath the surface and we can't just accept what people say. We have to know that human beings are easily misled - and often misled - by our own desires. That would be my starting point.

CT: Has support for Trump split the Church in the US?

Brian: I wish it had split the Church, especially white evangelical Christians, but the two main factions were those who vocally and enthusiastically supported Trump, and those who were silent and in that way became complicit supporters of Trump.

It's only after January 6 that we started to see many evangelicals speak out with anything close to the appropriate boldness on what's been going on for the last four years.

The silence of moderate evangelicals on the subject has been extremely disturbing and this causes doubt among the younger generations especially. They think 'why should I believe what these people say about theology when they are so obviously wrong about politics?'

CT: What do you think is the biggest turn-off for young people who are perhaps not a 'religious none' because they faith and yet they just don't like the way that the Church is right now or the legacy of the Church?

Brian: We actually have a good bit of survey data here in the US that reveals that one of the biggest turn-offs is the way Christians have become a chaplaincy to right-wing extremist politics. The other issue is the real struggles with professed Christian beliefs.

I think Western Christians - Catholics, Protestants and, most of all, we who come from evangelical backgrounds - tend to define faith as an adherence to a set of beliefs and I think part of what is in play right now is a challenge to that definition of faith.

If we saw faith as a commitment to a way of life that is centred on faith, hope and love, the bringing together of those three primary virtues in 1 Corinthians 13, then I think that kind of faith would be capable of adaptation and self-correction. But when we define faith as adherence to a set of beliefs we will very soon find ourselves so far out of sync with Jesus and the Gospels that we will be worthy of being rejected by the younger generations.

CT: The churches in the UK are really struggling to hold on to young people, especially those around the student age. Is it the same in the US and why do you think it's so hard for the Church to hold onto them?

Brian: There's a good bit of data about this in the US as well and over 80% in all of the studies I have seen suggest that kids who grew up in evangelical churches leave either during high school or in their first year after leaving school. So it's a real problem here as well.

One way to interpret that data is to say that when people reach puberty and begin having some independence and become capable of critical thought, they're not welcome to engage in critical thought in their churches. They have realised: I will not be able to think freely and have any honest conversations with folks in this community, therefore I have to distance myself from this community.

And that's one of the reasons I wrote this book. I was writing this book while the Trump phenomenon was gaining momentum, and I came to see that doubt is not the enemy of faith but rather doubt is the enemy of authoritarianism.

When you think about how authoritarianism works in the Church, it works by telling people what to believe and then rewarding them if they say that they believe certain things or, conversely, punishing them if they don't believe certain things. That kind of authoritarianism leads away from honesty.

Psalm 51:6 tells us that God desires truth in the inmost being. I don't think it's saying that God desires conformity in the inmost being but that God desires authenticity and honesty. If people are going to have faith, they want to have a faith that is beyond authoritarianism.

And so our churches have to become places where honest seekers and honest believers can ask honest questions.

CT: In your book, you write about a conversation with a young doubter called Charis, who felt that the traditional churches aren't really interested in people, they just need them to keep their operations going. Do you think as a Church we can be so focused on the numbers that we forget about the human connection?

Brian: Yes and I think that happens on two levels. First, there are churches that are hungry for growth because growth has become a way to measure success. And so they want more people to reassure themselves that they are succeeding and because they've sincerely believed that this is their mission.

But there's another, even more desperate dimension, which is when churches are really small and realise they're in serious danger of going out of business, and so they just want people in order to remain viable. But what they realise very quickly is that their desire to bring in new people is at odds with their willingness to actually accept those people as they are - with their questions, with their doubts, with their discomfort.

CT: It's clear in your book you think the current way of doing things is not working and so new faith communities should form from all of the doubters out there. Do you see this as being for liberal progressives only?

Brian: I think we face a double problem when it comes to doubt in that it affects both conservative and liberal churches.

For conservatives, the first obstacle for people is this obsession with beliefs and the policing of beliefs. With more liberal churches, they might find more freedom to ask questions about their beliefs but then they tend to find a lack of energy to actually live out the faith.

So one confines you in a set of beliefs and the other confines you in a set of ecclesial structures and liturgies and so on. And what people are really looking for, especially young people who are paying attention to what's going on in the world, is a church that recognises that our world is in crisis. This is a global emergency; we have a warming planet and unstable environment; there is gross economic inequality; a proliferation of weapons and hate and violence; and we have all of these people just quietly, happily going to church and not doing anything about it.

It doesn't matter if it's conservative or liberal if it's not activating people to be a constructive force for good in the world. I think people out there are saying: why would I want to be part of that if it just takes me out of the immediate action and makes me into a more complacent and irrelevant person.

CT: But could these new communities become so disconnected from core Christian beliefs that it reaches the point where 'anything goes'?

Brian: Any of our beliefs take us somewhere so it's not a question of 'anything goes' but rather a question of where our beliefs go. So if we believe, for example, that God is a controlling deity who chooses some people for eternal blessing and others for eternal torment - a belief shared by many conservative evangelicals and Catholics - then that belief goes somewhere.

If we believe that God is a God of love and liberation who cares for all people, starting with those at the bottom of Pharaoh's pyramid so to speak, then that belief goes somewhere too.

So it's not a question of 'anything goes' but a question of where our beliefs go, and many people are looking at the Christian religion and asking questions - and I'm not even talking about outsiders, I'm talking about insiders and the clergy! There are people on the inside who are saying: we don't like where this thing is going; it's not going in a healthy direction!

CT: The pandemic has fast forwarded the expansion of the church from a physical stone building to the online environment. Do you think that communities of doubters may evolve to the point where we can't really call it 'church' anymore?

Brian: Obviously that depends on our starting definition of church. I'm glad people are paying attention to issues of physical architecture but I have to say that the deeper problem is our spiritual architecture and the internal structures and assumptions we share about what the Christian faith is.

I think if we had spiritual leaders who understood how different the conceptual architecture of the average person in the UK or US or wherever is, then I think people would be happy to go and sit in a cold, stone building! Because at the end of the day, what people are really hungry for is a message that brings hope into the world that they actually live in.

CT: There's been a lot of talk in the US about healing since the attack on the Capitol and the Trump presidency ending. Is a time of healing called for within the US Church as well, or do you think that the US Church is so at odds with itself that it's past that point already?

Brian: The status quo of American Christianity has white supremacy running through it. We have a system infection in that we are septic with white supremacy. Unfortunately that white supremacy is often camouflaged by Christian supremacy and many christians don't understand how their view of Christianity is deeply racial.

Even though we would never say so in words, it's evident when we only accept the assumptions of a heritage of white Christianity that justified slavery and segregation and mass incarceration, and all the rest. So I would say: I am all for healing but I'm not for healing symptoms until we can deal with the underlying diseases.