FINDING FAITH

By Brian D. McLaren

a Book Review byJohn Ed Robertson,February 19, 1999

It is not often that I am as enthusiastic about a book as I am about this one. Brian McLaren has, in my opinion, written a sequel to Mere Christianity for post-modern people. He writes with genuine love and respect for the unbeliever, and in a conversational style, using the first and second persons: "I", "you" and "we". He states his objective as follows:

"Instead of trying to tell you 'the answers' via dogmatic pronouncements (as many well-meaning people have already tried to do for you, no doubt), I would like to help you find the answers you need yourself. Instead of trying to tell you what to believe or focusing on why you should believe, my goal is to help you discover how to believe - how to search for and find a faith that is real, honest, good, enriching and yours." (p. 19)

The book follows a clear, logical outline. In fact, the heart of the book is an examination of the various faith options according to the following logical outline.

IS THERE A GOD? - THREE POSSIBILITIES

I No (Atheism)

A 9 Reasons for Accepting Atheism

B 6 Reasons for Bypassing Atheism

II I Don't Know (Agnosticism)

A Closed Agnosticism (It is impossible for anyone to know)

B "Ignosticism" (I don't know and I don't care to know)

C Open Agnosticism (I don't know, but I am open to find out)

III Yes (Theism)

A Pantheism (God is everything)

B Polytheism (There are many gods)

C Dualism (There are two gods: one good and one evil)

D Monotheism (There is one God)

    1. Is God personal or impersonal?
    2. Is God relational or non-relational?
    3. Is God male or female?
    4. Is God subtle or obvious?

At the same time, the objectives and the questions that each chapter addresses are clearly spelled out at the beginning of the chapter, and the reader is invited to skip around and read the chapters that have the most relevance for him or her personally. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to give the outline of the book.

Introduction: The Predicament of an Intelligent Person Seeking Faith

Part I Faith, Knowledge and Doubt

    1. Does It Really Matter What I Believe?

    2. What Is the Relationship between Faith and Knowledge?

    3. How Does Faith Grow?

      Part II God, for Logical Thinkers

    4. Can I Believe in Atheism?

    5. Which Form of Agnosticism Is Best?

    6. If There Is One God, Why Are There So Many Religions?

    7. Do You Seriously Expect Me To Think of God as an Old Man with a Long White Beard?

    8. Don't All Paths Lead to the Same God?

      Part III Spiritual Experience

    9. How Might God Be Experienced?

    10. How Else Might God Be Experienced?

    11. Can God Be Experienced Through Doubt?

      Part IV Help for the Spiritual Search

    12. Why Is the Church the Last Place I Think of for Help in My Spiritual Search?

    13. Why Is the Bible the Next-to-Last Place I Think Of for Help in My Spiritual Search?

    14. What if I Lose Interest?

      Part V Milestones in My Spiritual Journey

    15. Tadpoles on the Kitchen Table

    16. Jesus Anonymous

    17. On a Maryland Hillside (My Turning)

What I found most refreshing about this book was the author's ability to put himself in the shoes of the unbeliever or seeker, and not polarize the issues that are often hang-ups for post-modern people. For example, he tackles the idea "It doesn't matter what you believe, just so you're sincere" with respect rather than ridicule. He does this by suggesting that what people really mean when they say that is that the quality of one's faith is as important as the content of one's faith. He recognizes that the unbeliever is much more interested in the effect of one's faith (does it make one a better person?) than in the accuracy of the propositions that one believes. If my faith puts a chip on my shoulder, this is not going to win many adherents, despite my brilliant intellectual arguments in defense of it.

He notes, for example, that perhaps the worst enemy of monotheism is not pantheism or atheism or some other ism. It is bad monotheism. Deism, for example, was a reaction to the extreme religious intolerance of the Middle Ages (with things like the Inquisition) and the period of religious wars and persecutions after the Reformation. In the chapter on "Jesus Anonymous", he lists 10 things about modern-day Christianity that turn people off and concludes: "But twenty centuries of Christianity have led many people (including Frederch Nietzsche) to say, 'It would be a whole lot easier to believe in Christ if it weren't for the Christians'". (pp. 283-284)

To counter bad monotheism, he gives three characteristics of good monotheism:

    1. Good monotheism makes for peace. We can be irenic, not combative and respectful, not insulting.

    2. Good monotheism affirms God's connection with the universe. The human predicament is being disconnected from God, and God is seeking to reconnect with man.

    3. Good monotheism emphasizes the role of creation in revealing God.

He concludes:

"All we're saying in our pursuit of the monotheist path is that there is one God behind the universe, and this God must be amazing to have created all that exists - amazing and relational - and thus worth knowing or experiencing." (p. 140)

Another example would be the way he addresses the question of whether truth is relative or absolute. He gently points out that "when we say that everything is relative and no one can know anything with certainty, (we) conveniently ignore the fact that we seem to believe that we know with complete certainty that everything is relative." (p. 56) This is not a new observation, of course, but I have seldom heard it made with such respect for the relativists we are seeking to win.

Likewise, he tactfully makes his case that everyone lives by faith, in that we all choose our basic presuppositions as a matter of a faith choice and not by unavoidable logic. He includes several quotes from Einstein to demonstrate that "there is no knowing without believing and believing is the way to knowing." (pp. 58-59 quoting from The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, by Leslie Newbigin.

He writes in a respectful, conversational style as if he were actually in dialogue with an atheist or an agnostic or a struggling believer. In fact, he even asked several of his atheist and agnostic friends to review his manuscript. He does not try to back his interlocutor (i.e. the reader) into a corner, but gently leads him or her through the implications of each choice one can make in thinking about God. For example, he devotes a chapter to the proposition that there is no God (atheism), listing 9 reasons for atheism and six reasons for continuing the search for God (i.e. 6 reasons for questioning atheism). He gently points out that atheism is a faith commitment just as much as theism, but he does it in a way that respects, rather than ridicules, the atheistic reader.

But this book is not just for atheists, agnostics and other unbelieving seekers. He devotes considerable space to discussing the problems of doubt for the believer. Chapter 3 ("How Does Faith Grow?") contains one of the best outlines of spiritual growth that I have ever seen. He breaks the development of faith down into four stages: simplicity, complexity, perplexity, and humility, listing the following characteristics of each stage

SIMPLICITY COMPLEXITY PERPLEXITY HUMILITY

Focus Right & Wrong Effective/Ineffective Honest/Dishonest Wise/Unwise

Motive Pleasing Authorities Reaching Goals Being Authentic Making Best

of Opportunities

Beliefs All Truth Knowable Almost All Is Doable All Is Questionable A Few Universals

Perceptions Dualistic (Black & Pragmatic Relativistic Integrated,

White) Synthesizing

Mottoes All or Nothing Whatever works… All Opinions Focus on a Few

Equally Valid Grand Essentials

Authorities God's Representatives Coaches Demonic Imperfect, Doing

Their Best

Like Bold, Clear Assertive Clear Expectations Other Questioners Thoughtfulness &

Accomplishment

Dislike Tentative, Timid Dogmatic People in Stages

One and Two

Life is… A War A Complex Game A Joke, Mystery A Mixture

Or Search

Strategy Learn Right Answers Learn Techniques Ask Hard Question Learn All You

Can and Admit How Little You Know 

Strengths Commitment, Enthusiasm, Action Depth, Honesty Stability, wisdom

Sacrifice Idealism Sensitivity Humility

Weaknesses Arrogant, Simplistic Superficial, Na´ve Cynical, Withdrawn Weaknesses of

Judgmental, Intolerant Uncommitted, Elitist Earlier Stages

Identity Leader or Group Cause or Achievement Solitude or Relationship

Alienated Friends to God

Relationships Dependent/ Increasingly Counter-dependent Interdependent

Codependent Independent

God is Ultimate Authority Ultimate Guide Myth I've Outgrown Knowable in Part

Figure, Ultimate or Coach or Opiate of Masses Yet Mysterious

Friend or Mystery I'm Seeking

As I read through his descriptions of these four stages, I could put dates and places on each stage. The early years of my Christian life in college and the Navy, for example, were largely spent in the "simplicity" stage. My years of ministry at the Naval Academy and in Ohio were spent in the "Complexity" phase, although I had a "crisis of faith" in Ohio that was undoubtedly part of the "Perplexity" stage. I really hit the "Perplexity" stage, however, after the first 5-7 years of ministry in France, when I "hit the wall" in the ministry.

Chapter 11 also contains an excellent treatment of questions of doubt, where he points out that doubting my faith is not the same thing as doubting God and that one can learn to doubt with God, rather than against God. The cry of the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9 would be a good example of doubting with God: "Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief!"

All of Part IV, in fact, is excellent advice for the seeker, with guidelines on how to approach the church. He suggests that there are three types of churches:

    1. Type 1 for "finders", or insiders, only. This type of church is for people who are already convinced, and the seeker or doubter will likely feel uncomfortable here.

    2. Type 2 for seekers, or the unconvinced, only.

    3. Type 3 for both seekers and the already convinced.

He recommends Type 3 as the best solution for the seeking or unconvinced, since he will run into people who have answers, but who don't marginalize those who have not yet arrived at faith. He also gives 10 guidelines for seeking a church that will help one on his or her spiritual journey.

In conclusion, it is clear that the author is much more interested in winning people than he is in winning arguments. He has the rare ability of seeing things from the other person's point of view. In this case, it is the point of view of the spiritual seeker, be he or she atheist, agnostic, or doubter. I would heartily recommend this book to any friend who is unconvinced or doubtful about the veracity of the Christian faith. It may or may not answer all his or her questions, but it will help the person to know how to go about finding answers.

It is not often that I am as enthusiastic about a book as I am about this one. Brian McLaren has, in my opinion, written a sequel to Mere Christianity for post-modern people. He writes with genuine love and respect for the unbeliever in a conversational style. He focuses on how to believe more than on what to believe or why one should believe.

What I found most refreshing about this book was the author's ability to put himself in the shoes of the unbeliever or seeker, and not polarize the issues that are often hang-ups for post-modern people. For example, he tackles the idea "It doesn't matter what you believe, just so you're sincere" with respect rather than ridicule. He does this by suggesting that what people really mean when they say that is that the quality of one's faith is as important as the content of one's faith.

Another example would be the way he addresses the question of whether truth is relative or absolute. He gently points out that "when we say that everything is relative and no one can know anything with certainty, (we) conveniently ignore the fact that we seem to believe that we know with complete certainty that everything is relative." (p. 56) This is not a new observation, of course, but I have seldom heard it made with such respect for the relativists we are seeking to win.

Likewise, he tactfully makes his case that everyone lives by faith, in that we all choose our basic presuppositions as a matter of a faith choice and not by unavoidable logic. He includes several quotes from Einstein to demonstrate that "there is no knowing without believing and believing is the way to knowing."

He writes in a respectful, conversational style as if he were actually in dialogue with an atheist or an agnostic or a struggling believer. In fact, he even asked several of his atheist and agnostic friends to review his manuscript. He does not try to back his interlocutor (i.e. the reader) into a corner, but gently leads him or her through the implications of each choice one can make in thinking about God.

But this book is not just for atheists, agnostics and other unbelieving seekers. He devotes considerable space to discussing the problems of doubt for the believer. Chapter 3 ("How Does Faith Grow?") contains one of the best outlines of spiritual growth that I have ever seen. He breaks the development of faith down into four stages: simplicity, complexity, perplexity, and humility.

In conclusion, it is clear that the author is much more interested in winning people than he is in winning arguments. He has the rare ability of seeing things from the point of view of the spiritual seeker, be he or she atheist, agnostic, or doubter. I would heartily recommend this book to any friend who is unconvinced or doubtful about the veracity of the Christian faith.


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