A New Way of Thinking About Church: Part 3

In this continuing series of notes from talks presented at the Refreshing Winds Conference at Canadian Mennonite University by keynote speaker Brian McLaren, we explore Stage 3 of a four-stage framework for understanding the spiritual life.  

McLaren begins this exploration of Stage 3 by examining the disillusionment that can develop as part of the Christian journey.  As pastors, McLaren says, “we preach about good marriages and then get divorced, we believe that if we follow all the books and programs about how to raise our kids, they will grow up to be Christians, if we look to the Bible it will have the answers to all our questions”.  When we realize that the old answers have stopped working, we may begin to feel that we have swung out on the trapeze bar and let go and we are now reaching for the next bar.  We enter this stage with a sense that everything is knowable and everything is doable and everyone has an opinion.

At this stage, people are learning to live with ambiguity, seeing God as a mythic authority that’s been outgrown and yet a mysterious reality being sought.

McLaren points out that when we engage in higher education, every discipline that we could study engages in self criticism which opens the learner to new possibilities – new ways of seeing and understanding things.  But in Christianity, new ways of thinking about faith and, indeed, any kind of self-criticism is seen as heresy and folks engaging in this kind of thinking are generally asked to leave the church.  McLaren recounts a story of a group of Christian missionaries who invited him to come and speak with them.  These missionaries all met together regularly as friends.  They were all questioning their faith and the reasons they were engaging in the work they had chosen to do.  They kept encountering people who were some of the finest people they knew, but didn’t share their faith and it was leading them to a faith crisis.  Behind the facade of simplicity and complexity, these people had slipped into a different zone and hadn’t felt comfortable talking about it.  They had discovered that the old answers had stopped working – they hoped that the answers might start working again.  In the meantime, they met together as a small band of similarly alienated friends.

Stage 3: Perplexity / Surviving

In this stage, the focus is on honesty or dishonesty.  Little or nothing is known or knowable and authorities are seen as the controllers, trying to impose easy answers.  At this stage, people are learning to live with ambiguity, seeing God as a mythic authority that’s been outgrown and yet a mysterious reality being sought.  The strengths of this stage are depth, honesty, sensitivity to suffering, and ironic humour.  The weakness of those in this stage is cynicism and being uncommitted.

there is a difference between having faith in your beliefs about God and having faith in God

McLaren explains that part of the experience of the cross was going all the way through perplexity.  Going into the dark space was the portal for developing a deeper understanding of God.  McLaren says there is a difference between having faith in your beliefs about God and having faith in God.

McLaren tells the story of a person who came to see him for a pastoral visit.  The man explained that he was worried that after the appointment, he wouldn’t be welcome in the church anymore.  The man said he loved coming to church – that he had been an atheist and was now a theist.  But he found that Jesus made no more sense to him now than ever before.  He couldn’t understand why Jesus had to die – how Jesus dying solved the problem of sin – how God killing an innocent person could be fair? – How two wrongs could make a right.  McLaren was able to explain that this was penal substitutionary atonement theory but pointed out that no one had ever asked this question of him before and he really didn’t have an answer.  McLaren took some time and consulted his classical theological sources and did some deep thinking but was unable to come up with an adequate answer.  Finally in a conversation around the swimming pool with his brother-in-law who had no theological training, he simply reminded McLaren that “you’ll never figure that out – Jesus didn’t have the answer to that either”.  At first, this seemed heretical to McLaren but he realized this answer is rooted in scripture.  In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had raised his questions and doubts to God.  We are often in agony because we have to live with not knowing something.  McLaren says, in the end, it’s all just opinions – the only good people are the ones who are honest enough to admit they don’t know.   McLaren identifies a counter-dependency in this stage – defining myself against those who have the answers.

When (How Long): The practice of aspiration, exasperation and frustration

We need safe places for people to ask the difficult questions.

McLaren believes we need safe places for people to ask the difficult questions.  When doubts arise, we have the option of faking it or, if you are a pastor, of getting fired.  People face these doubts by reading the Bible more, praying more, getting the demons cast out.  But McLaren says that Stage 3 is not a defection from faith, it’s not a mistake or a failure.   Rather, in Stage 3 we encounter an important place in which to deepen our faith and it’s a normal part of faith development.

McLaren quotes from Psalm 13 and pointed out that Steve Bell’s song, entitled, How Long is about holding the question of When before God.  We are calling out to God in the middle of difficulty and engaging in the practice of aspiration, exasperation and frustration.  McLaren points out that with the imagery of Psalm 42, we imagine a pastoral scene of deer drinking from a lovely brook.  In reality, McLaren says, deer don’t belong in the desert – the deer would be desperate, out of place and dying of thirst.  Desire, he says, can never be deepened when it has already been satisfied.  McLaren suggests we hold our pure, unsatisfied desire before God – not giving up – still waiting.

No: The practice of refusal

When Job’s friends were spouting piety, Job wouldn’t buy it – it didn’t solve any of his problems.

The struggle in Stage 3, McLaren says, is dying of thirst and only having a tiny glass of water available.  Beyond the practice of when is the practice of no – of recognizing that it is unacceptable, the jig is up, something is wrong.  In Psalm 77 the psalmist refuses to be comforted, is too troubled to speak and wonders if the Lord will ever show his favour again.  In Psalm 88, the psalmist cries out with a soul full of trouble.  McLaren explains that we need to hold that “no” in front of God with an absolute refusal to be satisfied with the status quo.  He points out that Job expressed that he would rather die than go back to Stage 1 and 2.  When Job’s friends were spouting piety, Job wouldn’t buy it – it didn’t solve any of his problems.

Why: The practice of lament

McLaren explains that our expression of “why” is our surrender to not knowing.  He reminds us that at Golgotha, Jesus asked this question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.  Jesus asks for a drink in his suffering.  McLaren says if you are in this space, there aren’t three easy steps to get out.  People tend to keep their journey through this stage a secret – they know they’ll never fit back into Stage 1 and 2.  But McLaren suggests that we thank God for honest voices– that going into the dark places is the portal to discovering a deeper dimension of God than you have ever known.    Trust in the Lord – do not lean on your own understanding, but in all your ways know God.

The series “A New way of Thinking about Church” is written by Nancy Phillips. This is the third article in the series.
Up next… the fourth stage of spiritual development