A Conversation With Brian McLaren (May-Jun 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

by Greg Taylor
May – June, 2003

Managing Editor Greg Taylor spoke with McLaren by phone to ask his input on this issue of New Wineskins on faith and doubt.

NW: Talk about doubt and what it means to developing faith.

McLaren: Well, I suppose there are a number of words that all are closely related; there’s faith, there’s doubt, there’s knowledge, there’s certainty, there’s unbelief–this whole group of words. And the word doubt, I think, always involves faith. Sometimes we just think of it as something negative, but you can’t have doubt unless you have faith. So, in fact the root, ‘doub’ in doubt is the same root as ‘double’; and it means to have two contrary thoughts in your mind at the same time–to be in two minds about something. So, I think, for just about everyone there’s always a mix of faith and doubt–in all of our beliefs. Sometimes we have a psychological state of certainty where there’s no doubt in our minds about something. But some reflective people almost never have that feeling of certainty for very long because they become aware of how other people are completely certain of the very opposite belief. And so we start to realize that certainty can blind someone from the fact that they are wrong.

NW: Right. Well, you speak in A New Kind of Christian about one of the things that creates doubt: the way that we Christians have talked about creationism vs. evolution. Are there other things that you can mark as things that cause either experiential doubt or intellectual doubt?

McLaren: Sure. In a lot of our churches we tell people that certain cultural experiences are evil or dangerous. So we tell people not to go to the movies or we tell people to avoid a philosophy class or we tell people not to listen to people of other religions–that kind of a thing. And then maybe a high school student graduates and goes to college and he takes a philosophy class and he meets people of other religions and he starts going to movies and he realizes that these things are very enriching and that causes him to question the whole belief system that made him so anxious and afraid.

NW: So, new experiences outside of what sort of is the fenced-in reality of a particular church or faith.

McLaren: Yes, that’s right. I think these days a major source of doubt comes for people when they meet people of other religions whose moral character and kindness is exemplary. And then people start to think well, how can I say these people are wrong when their character is so fine.

NW: Well, I wanted to explore how doubt in experiential terms is different from intellectual doubt. There are categories for doubt as far as, for instance, one person coming at it from a very philosophical and intellectual standpoint of the existence of God, existence of evil. Do you find that people you are in contact with in your church and in the D.C. area deal with doubt in that vein or in experiential doubt?

McLaren: Well, let me just say that there was a little booklet by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, I think it was just called, ‘Doubt.’ It might have also been called, ‘Doubters Welcome.’ But if you are looking for some good categorizations, as I recall, that had some good ones. But let me just take two categories. Are the categories you are using Intellectual and Experiential?

NW: Right.

McLaren: Well, let’s just map that out. So, the experiential side of doubt might hit someone when, well, for example when some good friends of mine who are wonderful Christians and real examples of Christian maturity–their eight-year-old daughter was just killed in a car crash–a few months ago. A feeling can come over you at that moment–you are not doubting that God exists–you are just feeling that you have been betrayed by God or let down by God. It might be for a person who experiences a medical depression–in their depression they just feel that somehow–they just feel abandoned by God. It’s really a feeling of abandonment or betrayal. On the intellectual side, I think, it’s helpful to realize that what we are doubting is usually our whole beliefsystem or elements of our belief system. And I think it can help a lot of people who are in the midst of doubt to distinguish the belief system from God himself. So, I can doubt my belief system and in the middle of it grow deeper in my trust in God. But if I doubt God, in a way, my belief system doesn’t even matter.

NW: What about doubting other people? Do you think that is part of faith experience that you have seen?

McLaren: I think that is really helpful to bring up because for most of us our faith in God is interwoven with faith in people who we trust. So sometimes, people in the church trust a pastor or leader, and then there is some terrible moral failure and their faith in God is really shaken because part of their belief in God was related to the example and leadership of this pastor. So, I think this is natural, it’s understandable. And, of course, when it happens then we are forced to disentangle our faith from faith in people and maybe purify our sense of faith in God. But on the other hand, I think that Jesus himself suggested that these things would be connected. He talked about how people could have confidence that Jesus’ message was from God by the way that we love one another. He seems to be saying these two things can and should be connected.

NW: You make reference in one of your books–at least in a fictional sense–to making sense of ministry and, I think, one of the characters in your last book actually lost his ministry. Has there been any kind of battle that you have gone through in ministry that has raised or cured doubts, that has prompted you to deal with a character like that?

McLaren: Well, that’s a really good question. Let me just speak in general for a minute. I think it would be very good for all church members to know that many, many pastors and Christian leaders–they are just human beings–and they have their own struggles with faith. So, in an average month as a pastor, I probably hear more bad news about people’s faith than a lot of people would hear in five years. And sometimes for pastors, they see Christians behave so badly, and very often they see some of the Christians who are the most knowledgeable about the Scriptures and maybe have the longest history in the church, they see them behave in a mean-spirited way that is very, very hurtful. So, I think this does damage the faith of many, many pastors. And I have experienced that at different times in my ministry. On the other side, sometimes in the pastoral role, we also have the front row seat of just seeing very, very beautiful things that show how real God is in people’s lives. But there can be times, I think, where our own Christian leaders’ faith is very, very shaken by our behavior as church members.

NW: In 1994, I was on an international flight going to Africa doing mission work there long term. Across the aisle was a European who, after we had talked about what I was planning to go do, said, “Don’t they already have gods in Africa?” At the time, I really didn’t really know how to respond, but how does that sort of mirror or represent some of your experience you had in the Galapagos Islands–your discussions with Europeans from non-Christian perspectives. You want to talk about one of those?

McLaren: In the comment that that person made to you is kind of the assumption that some kind of vague spirituality is maybe okay, but taking very seriously the specific content of your faith is a waste of time. So if they (Africans) had some kind of belief in God or gods, why bother them? But I think we are at a place in history right now where it shows that what we believe is so tremendously significant. Just on the radio last week, they announced that the experts who study this sort of thing now agree that the terrorists are not insane. They can’t be profiled as insane–they’re just people with very strongly held beliefs. So people who have certain beliefs about God will kill an awful lot of other people–people who have beliefs about God will mistreat people about their races based on their belief about God. So, the way this affects me, when I see people either trivializing the content of one’s faith or just saying it doesn’t matter, I say, “No, it matters all the more,” and it makes me want to grow deeper in my understanding of God. And it makes me want to question areas of my own faith that could be inaccurate or wrong and makes me want to see truth even more. And it also makes me want to be able to communicate with other people more clearly to help them.

NW: How does this all work out for your children–the way you are communicating some of these ideas in your books about process conversion for instance? What is your experience with your children in dealing with how faith comes as a process?

McLaren: Well, I think my children have had some pivotal experiences in their faith, both positive and negative. I think one of the good things is that they feel very free to talk to me about where they are in their faith–to talk to me about their questions and their doubts–to ask me to pray for them. I think we have a very open relationship which to me is a very, very good thing. They are not afraid to tell me when they are struggling because we both understand that struggle is part of the whole process. Maybe, I’ll just add there too…I also think that one of the great joys of my life is that on many occasions my kids will introduce me to their friends whom they are talking to about their spiritual lives and it’s great to be able to then be in conversation with their friends about their questions and doubts and searchings.

NW: You were concerned about reactions to your books on issues related to universal salvation. One of the things that stuck out for me was process vs. event. In our recent review of your book, More Ready Than You Realize, Deron Smith said this: “While I do agree with some of his process theology, salvation is spoken of in the past, present and future tenses. There seems to me to be much more emphasis in Scripture on the event of salvation or conversion [longer portion of review was read to McLaren here…read Smith’s review] How would you respond to that?

McLaren: Well, I wouldn’t want to argue with that. The fact that there are thousands and thousands of people who can point to an exact moment when they were saved, I wouldn’t deny that for a minute. There are millions of people like that. But there are also many, many people who cannot. They either had so many different moments that were significant that they can’t pick which one really marked them as regenerated or whatever. I’m just trying to acknowledge that you have both categories. Now in the New Testament, what’s interesting, to me, is that the moment that seems to be very, very significant is baptism. So, very often when people talk about accepting Christ or being born again that’s always based on an approach to evangelism–that really is pretty hard to find in Scripture. For example, the phrase “praying to receive Christ–I’m not against those at all, but I think we sometimes take an experience that really comes out of nineteenth century revivalism in America and then read it back into Scripture. And I don’t think we should restrict the Holy Spirit to our own practices. I think we should just be glad for however the Holy Spirit chooses to interact with people and bring them to Christ.

NW: Okay…

McLaren: In emphasizing “process,” I hope I didn’t give the impression that there’s no such thing as an “event.” I just want to be sure that we don’t become so focused on the event that we minimize the process. I wonder sometimes if we just should acknowledge that at different times in history there are different ways that are most helpful in bringing people into the life of discipleship. For example, I love Robert Webber’s book, Journey to Jesus, where he talks about–he gives a little window into–how a person was prepared for baptism and acceptance into the church at the time of Hippolytus in the very early centuries of the church. I just think if we study church history, we realize that it has happened differently–the expected processes have been different at different times. Many of our Protestant churches developed in the era of Christendom where almost everyone we’re evangelizing already was familiar in the basic information of the gospel. And so we were calling people to decision based on what they already knew. But I think in the world today we encounter a lot more people who are not familiar with the Christian faith at all. And that’s why the whole issue of process becomes more important. We can’t ask them to make an immediate decision about things they don’t even know.

NW: Is there some sense though that Christians may run into a lot of folks who we assume are not spiritual because they are not Christians–they don’t ask the existential questions?

McLaren: Yes, I think many of us are noticing that the people around us are reading books on spirituality, they’re praying, they’re going to prayer retreats, they’re really eager to learn more about their spiritual life. I think it becomes important for us to ask, “Why aren’t they coming to our churches?” We might point at faults in the people, but this might be an opportunity for us to look at some of the obstacles that our churches place–the “Not Welcome” signs that our churches display to these spiritual seekers.

NW: What are those signs?

McLaren: I think what happens to many people when they visit a church, so many things are said and done that convey to the visitor, “if you are not just like us, we don’t like you.” There might be political statements that are made that say to the person, “if you’re not of our political party, we really think you’re stupid.” Or, for example, let’s say you have a couple who are living together and not legally married and they come to the church–the way that people talk about co-habitation could just be a way of scaring those people off [see Jan/Feb 2003 issue, “The Rise in Co-Habitation”]. So, how can we talk about the sexual standards that we want to uphold without making it sound like we hate people who don’t uphold them or we’re mocking people or we’re afraid of people who don’t uphold them. That becomes a major kind of “Not Welcome” sign.

mclaren picCalled “the guru of younger evangelical pastors” by Robert E. Webber in the book The Younger Evangelicals, Brian McLaren is at the forefront of the Emergent Christianity movement. He is a senior fellow in Emergent (www.emergentvillage.com), an organization dedicated to developing new approaches to Christian theology and new forms of faith communities. McLaren is the founding minister of a nondenominational church in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area. He is author of several books, including The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2003), and A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Jossey-Bass, 2001), winner of Christianity Today’s Award of Merit for Best Christian Living Title for 2002.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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