Brian D. McLaren "Faith After Doubt" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who has been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen. We invite you to share the daily meditations of these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and teachings of Henri Nouwen, and remind each listener that they are a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. Today on this podcast, I have the pleasure of talking with Brian D. McLaren, author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. Brian is a passionate advocate for a new kind of Christianity. Brian is a faculty member of the Living School, which is part of Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. In 2015, he was recognized by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Brian is the author of more than 20 books.
Today, we’re going to talk about his latest book, Faith After Doubt. Over the years, I have read many of your books, Brian, and found them such a helpful, honest, and life-giving resource in my own faith journey. You dare to address hard questions, and in this new book you head into, dare I say, really dangerous territory. But in truth, you are fearless and honest about your faith journey. So, it’s no surprise that you focus on the almost terrifying reality of doubt. Can we be doubters and believers at the same time? Let’s start right there, Brian.
Brian McLaren: Well, I suppose that question raises the question: What do we mean by faith? What do we mean by doubt and belief? And one of our challenges is that in English, we have this word, “faith,” that I think could be a broad word. And then we have the word “believe.” And then what many people do is they relate the word “believe” to the word “beliefs,” and so here is where things get interesting. Because for a lot of people, they define Christian as adhering to a list of beliefs, and to doubt those beliefs then makes one vulnerable to not being even considered a Christian anymore. But the fact is, first of all, I think faith is a lot more than beliefs. But also, almost every Christian I’ve ever talked to has told me that at different times they have doubted their beliefs. And sometimes somewhat secondary beliefs and sometimes very primary beliefs. So, the bottom line is, yeah, I think to be human is to live in the tension between faith and doubt.
Karen: In your book, you state that somewhere in the journey of our lives, the faith we inherit often stops working for us. Maybe you could share just a little bit of your own personal journey, because I think there’ll be some that may not know the context of where you’re coming from. Could you help us by just telling us your story a bit?
Brian: Sure, sure. Well, I grew up in a very strict, what you might call fundamentalist Christian family, and my parents were wonderful, loving people. I had nothing but just a great Christian example in my parents, but our religious community, was very, very oriented toward beliefs. And one of our distinctives was that we thought we had the right beliefs and everybody else had the wrong ones.
And underneath that was an assumption that what God was really concerned about in people was not whether they cared for the poor or whether they loved their neighbors as themselves, but what God really cared about was whether you had the right beliefs. And in a lot of fundamentalism, there’s this sense that the Bible is really the center of everything, and so believing in the literal interpretation of the Bible is really essential.
The first time I really think I ran up against that was as a little boy. I was extremely interested in science. I was one of those kids who just loved nature. I loved catching bullfrogs and tadpoles, and I loved looking up at the stars and learning the names of the stars and planets, and I loved trees and plants and all the rest. So, I was interested in science. And when you’re a kid and you read all the children’s books about science, and then you say, “Well, I want more,” then you go for the high school textbooks about science. Then I started learning about evolution and of course, that was just a taboo in my religious setting. And so, I remember one of my Sunday school teachers telling me, “You have to choose, you can either believe in God or evolution.”
I remember thinking, “Well, let’s see, I’m 13 years old; in five, six, seven years from now, I’m outta here.” So, that was the first time. And what I eventually decided was – especially later in my teens, I had a very powerful set of spiritual experiences that just really put me on the path of Christian discipleship. But I realized that I was going to give myself permission to doubt what my church community said I could not doubt. But my faith in God and my commitment to Christ were very, very deep. So that was my first experience with needing to doubt what my community told me.
Karen: There’s a lovely quote here in your book. It says: “For many of us, faith is our map of reality, our map of the universe. It tells us where we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going, where to turn. But as soon as our trusted map stops matching reality, we feel disoriented. We have no idea where to turn, what to do, how to survive.” I think that’s true for so many. How far did you go down that map before you went, “This isn’t working for me?”
Brian: The interesting thing – I mentioned evolution, and what’s part of what was connected to evolution was the idea that the earth was created in about 4,000 BC. And they did that by taking the names of all the people in the Bible and estimating their ages and adding up their ages. And so, the world couldn’t be more than about 6,000 years old. Well, it was interesting for me as a boy interested in science. The universe was billions of years old and the universe was vast and constantly evolving and changing, and that was a very big and dynamic world. And for us, not only was the past very short, but the future was very short, because we believed that Jesus’s coming back soon, and the end of the world would happen soon, and so everything was defined by our religion.
And you might say that our map was a map of 6,000 years of time, and that was it. Before that is eternity and after that is eternity, and we’re in this little, very relatively short parenthesis of time. And so, it’s not just saying, “I’m changing some of my religious beliefs,” it’s saying, “The entire universe is just way too big to fit into this map.” I think as I got older – and in your teenage years and your adolescence, you start exploring things on your own – and I became very interested in music. I played in a rock-and-roll band, but I also loved classical music. And I started getting interested in art, and I ended up being a literature major in college. And when you love literature, literature takes you to very deep places in the human experience. And again, the map I was given was very simple. Some things are good, some things are bad, some things are simple, some things are righteous and there wasn’t really much to think about it in human experience beyond that. And so again, I felt that the reality that I experienced just had so much more texture and depth than the small map I was given.
Karen: It’s interesting, because I see it through reading your books, there’s richness. You’re a gifted writer and communicator, and in a way, it’s no surprise that you ended up as a pastor, because clearly, you can move and inspire. So, you didn’t just kind of grow up in these beliefs, but you began to be the person that was carrying them. That must have been a real challenge. Where did the rubber hit the road here?
Brian: Well, I suppose one thing I should say is the fact that I took my doubts seriously meant that I also took my faith seriously. In other words, for me, religion wasn’t just something I did for an hour on Sunday. If it was legitimate, if it was real, if it was valid and valuable, I really wanted it to shape my life. And so, in some ways, the struggle of doubt intensified my faith and my commitment.
And that led the way for, as I said, I had a couple of very deep kind of encounters with God in my teenage years. And I suppose, because my own faith was a struggle, as I received help, I wanted to pass that help on, and I tended to attract other people who were having spiritual struggles.
I say that because, I suppose some people are just happy all the time and their beliefs work out just fine for them. But I meet very few of those people. The people I meet have stories to tell about ways that their faith not only saves their life, but sometimes threatens to ruin their life. Or faith brings them healing, but it also wounds them and brings them great, great sorrow. And I’ll tell you, one of the gifts that I am so grateful for… This was back when I was in high school and I was part of what was called the Jesus movement, and it was this very dynamic, spiritual time. And someone gave me a book by this fellow named Henri Nouwen. You might be able to remind me, I can’t remember if the title was In God’s Hands, I think it was called In God’s Hands, and there was a beautiful photograph on one side of the page and then words on the other.
And I just remember, because I was a Protestant boy, I just felt there was some of that depth and texture and nuance and artistry that I was encountering in life that I didn’t feel really had a place in my own religious setting. I remember thinking, “Whoever this guy is, he gets it.” And it let me know there were Christians out there who had room for a deeper understanding of life and faith and had a little more flexibility and more permission to think: to think critically, to think artistically, to think with compassion and empathy, not just with judgment.
Karen: I think you and I were drawn to the very same thing. By the way, I think the book was called With Open Hands. It’s a beautiful title. With Open Hands. That’s the title of the one that was your introduction.
Brian: I still can see the cover because there was, as I recall, two halves sort of cupped open together.
Karen: Yeah. Yeah, that is still a treasure on my shelves. I would agree with you on that one. Many of us are drawn to faith communities because they’re places of warmth and safety and belonging, but we don’t buy into all the beliefs of that faith community. And could a faith community use a standard of belonging other than beliefs for membership? I think it’s something that you raise early on in your book. We do long to belong, that is right, and Henri understood that, too, that longing to belong. But at the same time, you don’t want to park your brains at the door, either. I heard there were others that had really influenced you, people like C.S. Lewis and others that were allowing room for you to think and think critically about your faith.
Brian: Yes, and it’s interesting as you say that. Yeah, C.S. Lewis was certainly one of them. C.S. Lewis was a literary scholar, right? So, his specialty was literary criticism and, maybe, I believe, it was medieval and Renaissance literature was his specialty. And he wrote fiction as well as nonfiction, and in fact, he wrote the famous Narnia children’s books. So, he had a value of the imagination and so, everything that is out there, whatever is to be known and experienced of God and goodness and creativity and generosity of God, isn’t just known through concepts and doctrines; it’s known through beauty and it’s known through experience, and in many ways, it’s known through suffering. So, C.S. Lewis is in that category. And then another who had just a huge influence on me was a Catholic novelist named Walker Percy.
I often say that Walker Percy, I think, is America’s C.S. Lewis. He wrote amazing novels and also some fascinating and brilliant essays. And again, he brought this sensitivity to the human condition. And here’s the irony: When I was given that permission through people like Henri Nouwen and C.S. Lewis and Walker Percy and later others like Frederick Buechner and oh, so many others, I went back and saw that all of that was there in the Bible, too. It’s just that many of us are brought up in traditions that just made the Bible looking for beliefs to enforce, maybe we could say beliefs to police and rules to enforce, but there’s so much more going on in the Bible itself.
Karen: Let’s dip into your book a little bit. Let’s look at some of the things that you develop within this, because I think they’re quite helpful. You kind of break it down into four stages of faith development. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what you, in a sense, found to be a way of understanding maybe the steps we might go through?
Brian: Yes. Well, first, I should say that there have been, I’m sure, hundreds of theorists who have different schemas or models or stage theories of human development. One of the earliest was the great romantic poet, William Blake. He wrote a series of poems called Songs of Innocence, and then Songs of Experience. And then there were songs that were a higher innocence that had survived, and in some ways been enriched by, experience. Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, around the same time in the early 1800s, had his own, a couple of different, theories. And in more modern times, from Sigmund Freud to John Piaget, to all kinds of other theorists, including a lot of theologians, now people have been developing stage theories. And I became interested in them when I was in graduate school.
And so, I just studied a number of them, and what I tried to do is look for patterns across them and see what resonated the most in my own experience and in my years as a pastor. And so, in some ways I synthesized the work of a lot of brilliant people to talk about four stages of faith development. They’re super-easy to remember. The first stage is simplicity, obviously that’s where we begin. The second stage is complexity. Obviously, if we live long enough, some of our simple ideas are challenged. And third is perplexity, and that’s where, in many ways, we start to lose confidence in the authority figures that taught us those simple answers back in stage one. And then, the fourth stage I call harmony or solidarity.
And I should say that I think a lot of people through a lot of history would start in simplicity and they would stay there their whole lives. I think some people would make it into that second stage of complexity, and then they would get there and they would stay there their whole lives. I think some people would get to perplexity and they would stay there their whole lives – I think in many ways, the people that we think of as saints were very often people who went through all of those stages and then came to that stage of harmony or solidarity, and that’s where a deeper kind of spiritual insight came. And then in my understanding, those four stages become iterative, meaning that that fourth stage, harmony, becomes a new simplicity, and if we live long enough, it gets challenged by a new complexity, and the process repeats itself.
Karen: I found it fascinating and I liked the fact that it can repeat itself. I like that. It’s interesting, as I’m looking right now and thinking about going through this, has this been like a life journey for you? You wrote this book now, but have you been thinking about this, I mean, has it infiltrated your work over the last 20 years? And you’ve just got new words for it?
Brian: So, I remember exactly when I first started thinking that stage theory was going to have some usefulness to me. I was in graduate school and I had a teaching fellowship, which meant that I was working on a master’s in English and literature, but I also had a part-time job teaching freshman English, and some other courses. And so, the university offered us some free training, because a lot of people who become college professors, they’re specialists in their area, but they’ve never actually had education courses. So, they offered us some training. And in one of those training sessions, the work of a human developmental theorist, a psychologist named William Perry, was explained.
And I remember when I went home, I felt, “This is not just helping me to be a better teacher. I think this is helping me understand what I’m going through now as a 23- or 24-year-old young man. It’s helping me understand my spiritual life.” And I came home – and I was newly married – and I told my wife that this really, really helped me. And so, that did start me thinking about this. And then in my years as a pastor, I thought about it more and more, and that’s when I started talking about it as a way of trying to help people give themselves permission to grow, because this is one of the things that I think religion does. It happens in Christianity. It happens in other religions, too. Religions often tell people you’ve got the answers now, you know the truth now, you’re not allowed to grow. You’re not allowed. The only thinking you can do is thinking to defend what you already think.
And so, I thought that to talk about stages gave people permission to grow. And in recent years, I’ve been doing a lot of work with the Center for Action and Contemplation, founded by Father Richard Rohr. And what the Center is doing is it’s also giving people language to talk about how they’re looking for something deeper and something more in their faith. And they’re drawn to a way of life characterized by contemplation and action – which, of course, is something that to me, Henri Nouwen was such a beautiful example of, as well – action, compassion for human beings, people with special needs. Compassion for people who struggle with mental illness. And just so much compassion for anyone in need and suffering, drawing from deep roots and knowing his connection to God, his belovedness in God’s presence. So, as I would share that as a pastor, very, very often people would just say, “Yes, that helps me.” I remember people would come up to me after I talked about this, and they’d say, “I remember the day I entered stage three.”
And it really helped them make sense of things that they’ve had, and of course, something I say in the book is that life is messy, life is complicated and stage theories like this are only generalizations, and there are people who don’t fit them. But if you think about it like this: Anytime you see a butterfly, you know that butterfly spent some time in a cocoon, and you know that what went into that cocoon was not a butterfly but a caterpillar. The idea of stages of metamorphosis are there throughout all of creation, and we shouldn’t be surprised that that pattern is often experienced in our lives, too.
Karen: I found it fascinating. When I was reading the comment that you had in 2015 been named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals, I thought it was kind of – forgive me for saying it – a bit amusing, because I tended to think – and I come from an evangelical heritage; I’m not meaning to put this down at all – but I thought you are actually really challenging a lot of the things that just got hammered down in the world of evangelicalism. And you’re saying there’s room to grow and there’s room to . . . and I quite love that about you. I thought it was so interesting that there you were, listed amongst these 25 influential evangelicals. So clearly, you have a liberty to speak to that audience, to all of us, it’s broad – and it’s in fact, in your book, you go beyond speaking to Christians, because you really identify the fact that these stages of faith are a reality for people of other faiths as well – for Muslims, for Buddhists, for Jews, for all sorts of different communities going through this, in a sense, stages of becoming and working towards this keyword of harmony.
Brian: It’s one of the things that’s been interesting for me as I’ve gotten older and I’ve gotten more involved in interfaith work, is to have people of other traditions share with me some of their story. And you start to realize how similar the patterns are, what we go through. I talked about literature a couple of times. I remember many years ago I read the book, My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, and here is the story of a hyper-Orthodox Jewish boy in New York City, who had a very, very different life from mine. And yet I remember as I read the book, I thought I understood his experience because it had so much resonance with my own. One of my mentors used to say, “What is most personal to you is most universal to me.” And I think there’s the sense that when we go down deeper and deeper into our human experience, we find that there’s deep resonance with other people who come from very different backgrounds, that we were in a sense getting in touch with our common humanity.
Karen: That’s certainly something that Henri Nouwen quoted many times, “that which is most intimate is most universal,” that business of really looking and finding the truth about ourselves. I think one of Henri’s great gifts was being able to be truthful about what was inside his heart, what was inside his mind, and I think that’s where so many have been nurtured by that kind of level of honesty. They feel, “Oh my goodness. That’s just like me. I’ve been there. I see that. I understand that.” One of the things is this recognizing of belovedness, of understanding that you are beloved and then recognizing it in others. That was another place where as I read your book, I felt the link to Henri, because Henri, in a sense, came through a tremendously deep struggle. In his case, almost a breakdown. He was a fragile person in so many ways, but ultimately, he got very simply that he was God’s beloved child. He was God’s beloved son. That when the voice of the Father said that to Jesus, he said it to Henri and he says it to each one of us. And I think that’s profound, because I feel like that’s where you take us in your book right now, in terms of harmony. Talk a little bit more about that for me.
Brian: Yes. Well, when I was a pastor, Henri’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son came out – do I have the right title? Because now I’m remembering With Open Hands. But that book came out and I was just captivated by it, and so I actually got that image of the painting that Henri references in the book, and I had a poster made of it and I projected it up on the screen and I preached a series of sermons on the story from the gospel and using that painting and Henri’s insights all the way through. And what I think I came to realize is, and I don’t mean to be overly critical, but I think there’s an awful lot of religious activity that gives people the idea that God hates them, gives them the idea that God is disappointed in them, gives them the idea that they’re just nothing but heartache to God.
And part of it is because they’ve given us almost an accounting approach to spirituality where, “How many sins have you committed? How many mortal sins? How many venial sins? Have you done all the things you need to do to make penance?” And just kind of like accounting. One of my teachers called it a “sin-management” approach to God. And because of that, we have this deep sense of shame about who we really are. The perfection that’s held up as being associated with God and spirituality, is so far from where we are, and I’m sure – obviously, I don’t know the details – but I imagine that Henri Nouwen must have grappled with that in himself, and he had wrestled with it and come to a place where, at some deep core of his being, he understood that he was loved with unconditional, non-discriminatory love.
In other words, a divine love that doesn’t love because we are lovable. It loves because that’s the way God is. And here’s the interesting thing: When we are loved that way, we actually come to know ourselves as lovable, and I think that that breakthrough that Henri had is one that is shared among the people we think of as saints or misfits, who encounter a non-discriminatory, unconditional love. And when we receive it, we then become capable of transmitting it, and we become capable of saying, “If that’s the way God is, I want to love other people with a non-discriminatory and unconditional love.” And that to me brings us to the heart of what Jesus is about, the heart of what the gospel is about and the heart of what life is really about. So, that’s why that book will always be so precious to me. And in a way, he challenged us to take this seminal story of Jesus, the story of the loving father with two sons, and say he actually meant what he said in that story.
Karen: I love the journey that Henri goes on to realize that he sees himself first as the son coming home, and then the son standing by and judging, and finally to realize that he is called to be the father. I had the privilege of interviewing Henri, and I just remember his wonderful words about, “I’m so glad you’re back.” That’s what the father said. He didn’t say, “What have you been up to?” Or, “What did you do?” He just said, “I’m just so glad you’re back.” And I think that is the loving God we want to share with the world: “I’m so glad you are there. I love you.” Not a big, long list of what have you done and what you haven’t done, but a big, long list of God’s extravagant, overwhelming love for his creation.
Brian: And of course, this story comes up because people are criticizing Jesus for hanging out with “sinners,” and these are the people who are supposed to be distasteful to God. And if Jesus was a good man, he shouldn’t enjoy the company of these dirty people. And so, Jesus tells this story as a way of answering that question, “Why do you act the way you do?”
“Why do I act the way I do? This is because this is the way I believe God is.”
And now it’s so beautiful that you bring that up, that Henri had the courage to say, where that story takes us is not just to see ourselves as one of the sons, but then to, in a sense, say I want to join God with that kind of love for both of my sons, for the religious and the non-religious, the orthodox and the heretics. I want to have that kind of love. I mean, I know this isn’t in the creeds, but it just makes me think Jesus was brilliant to put together that story. It’s an amazing story.
Karen: I do feel it’s reflected, interestingly enough, just as you’re saying, in what you’ve tried to share in your book. I just feel that call to harmony. That call to a place where we love extravagantly. We know we are loved ourselves, that God isn’t up there saying, “I’m so disappointed in you,” but rather loving us like crazy. And then, in a sense, our job is to welcome others home, to welcome them with extravagant joy that they are here: “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad you’re here.” I can still hear Henri saying that “I’m so glad you’re here” as the father. I love that.
Brian: Yes, that’s right, and in a sense that brings everybody joy. That raises the joy level of the universe, because for the person who welcomes someone into their presence, there’s joy. “I’m so glad you’re here.” And for the person who’s welcomed, “Oh, I’m so glad I’m not condemned or looked down upon or hated.” It brings joy there, and of course that’s where the story ends. It ends with a party. It ends up the celebration, so it ends with joy. And then comes that strange – which in many ways is the real – point of the story, that the older brother can’t join the fun, because he just has to keep tabs on who’s good enough, and won’t forgive the past. And of course, it’s a masterful ending to the story. We don’t know what the older brother is going to do. Will he have the courage to join the party? And again, in the context in the gospel of Luke, that’s exactly what Jesus does, because these people who are condemning him for being glad that others are at his table, we don’t know what they’re going to do. Are they going to have a change of heart or dig in their heels?
Karen: There was a phrase I came across in your book that I loved. You said, “I became more comfortable with God being mystery, a mystery too holy for words.” I sensed, as I read this book, that a deeper faith is taking root in you, Brian, and that you say that from that soil, a new sense of God is emerging and arising. Tell me about the God that you want to share with your audience, that know, that you’ve discovered.
Brian: Yes. Well, this is the interesting thing. One of my favorite songwriters is actually a Canadian songwriter named Bruce Cockburn. He has a song, he says, “Those who know, don’t have the words to tell, and the ones with the words don’t know too well.” And this is the thing: It feels that part of that move from perplexity into harmony is an acceptance of the reality that so much of truth, and so much of beauty goes beyond words. Obviously, we use all the words we can – I shudder to think how many words I’ve had published – but at the end of the day, even after all those words, you know, well, God is so far beyond anything we can capture in our words. Even the great St. Thomas Aquinas. There’s a story told that he had an experience late in life, where he just wanted to burn up all his books, because he thought that they were straw compared to this deep experience he had, that went beyond words.
But I think one way to say it is that in loving our neighbor, when we genuinely love our neighbor, we see what my friend, Jim Finley calls “the deathless beauty” of another person. And when we love that person and see that beauty, we are in a sense loving God and seeing the beauty of God. And when we learn to love creation, and whether it’s we love the intricacy of the white blood cells of the immune system in the human body. I mean, when you study that, I have a son who, when he was a boy, he was a cancer survivor, and I remember learning about white blood cells because he had leukemia. And I remember just being in awe. I felt like, “My body’s a civilization and there’s this incredible organizing going on,” and I never even thought of these different kinds of white blood cells and here they’re doing this amazingly complex work.
And you see that beauty and you’re in awe and you love it, and then you find that in loving that, I’m loving God. And so, this is what really has hit me: When it says in the New Testament that God is love, I’m starting to realize, yes, and we encounter God through the experience of love, and that’s where that fourth stage, harmony, I think, takes us to a different place where we realize, “Okay, in simplicity, I thought I would be able to wrestle God into words. And in complexity, I thought it’d be able to sort of do God’s work and become a player in God’s project.” And then stage three becomes the sort of deconstruction and doubt and challenging, where we want to find out what’s really, really, really real. And then in stage four, we find that what’s really real is love, and we encounter God in the experience of love.
Karen: Oh, I really appreciate that little summary of the four. I’m going to encourage everyone. You must get the book. It’s really a good book, and it will meet a thirst that I think we have for honesty, for truthfulness. It’s a truth-y book, I have to say.
I want to take a little turn here, because there was something fascinating that showed up in the middle of your book that was unexpected to me, but I’d love you to tell us a little bit about it. You ended up in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 10th, the night of that horrific march. Could you just tell us a little bit about how did that happen? How were you there and what did you experience?
Brian: Yes. So, I had some friends who were both pastors in Charlottesville, and I got a call. I don’t know if it was in July or early August of that year, and actually, it was an email and the email said, “Brian, you may not have heard this, but there’s been several Ku Klux Klan rallies, and other white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, and we’ve been trying to organize clergy to stand up with a message of love and counter this message of hate. So, there’s a really, really big one coming up in August and we’re really having trouble getting …”
Well, here’s what they told me. They said, “We’ve got people of color who are clergy, who are willing to come.” They said, “We even have white women clergy who are coming. We’re really having a hard time getting white male clergy to show up at this event. And because this is an event where white supremacists who are also very much male supremacists are going to be there in numbers, we’re really hoping to find some white male clergy who would come.” And they said, “We need to tell you there are going to be a lot of guns here,” and they were sort of in on the intelligence of what was going to happen. They said, “There’s going to be militia here. It’s almost certain that the police will be outgunned, and we would not be surprised if there’s violence and maybe killing that happens on that day. But we wondered if you would have the courage and if you’d be willing to come.”
So, it’s very hard to say no to an invitation like that, and so I ended up going for that weekend.
And, the overview is that the big event was going to be on Saturday. And this was about protecting Confederate statues. But there’s another subtext of the story, which was that there’s a group of people in the U.S., white supremacists, who want to have a civil war, and they want to restart the Confederacy. And so their plan was that Charlottesville would be the capital of the new Confederacy, and that’s part of what was behind all of this. And so, on Saturday there was a big event. But clergy gathered on Friday night. And while we were gathering in an Episcopal church in Charlottesville, just across the street, the Unite the Right rally people also had a march, and there was some violence. And we actually were not allowed to leave the church, because there was fear that we might be attacked. And I know as I walked through the campus there, guys were walking around with baseball bats and this sort of thing, looking for trouble. So that was Friday night.
And then Saturday, and it’s an unforgettable day, and I never thought in my life that I would see in an American city, that I would see people walking down the street, carrying Nazi flags, alongside Confederate flags and other flags and shouting Nazi slogans. It was a very sobering experience.
Karen: Yeah. Well, I appreciated reading that part of your book. And so often, we have those moments that we are called to show up and show up when we’re needed most, and it takes a lot of courage. I’m glad you were there. I know that you were part of comforting those who were mowed down in the streets. I mean, it was terrible. It was terrible. What happened?
Brian: Yes. There was a group of us who were up a hill and someone ran up to us and said, “Something’s happened at the bottom of the hill. We need clergy down there.” So, we just went running. And I normally didn’t wear clergy garb, but that day we had collars and stoles and so on, so that people could find us exactly for that reason. And so, we got there and it was just chaos and people were crying, and I was near a woman who I thought had been killed, she’d been knocked over by a car. It turned out she survived, but just around the corner, a woman named Heather Heyer, who was part of the counter-protest, she was killed. And so, there was a lot of hate there that day, and of course what we’ve seen in the United States since tells us that there’s still a lot of hate out there. And that’s one of the reasons we need more and more people to let their faith take them to the place of love, to that place of harmony and solidarity with everyone.
Karen: Yeah. It’s actually interesting, because the question is, “How can we cross this threshold of harmony as a civilization?” I mean, clearly people of faith need to own their faith and wear it and hold it and bring it forward in love, bring it forward in love for sure. There are various things in the book that I have enjoyed so much. I loved your salute to Rachel Held Evans. Tell me a little bit about your friend. I just enjoyed that chapter.
Brian: Well, of course I was writing a book on faith after doubt and on May 4th, a couple of years ago, which happened to be my birthday, word came that she had passed away. And she was, oh, I don’t know, maybe 20 years younger than me, maybe 25 years younger than me, but we had met, and I was just very impressed with her. She was a really gifted writer, and when you were talking about honesty, she had the courage to be honest, and she was honest about her doubts and honest about her faith and what really mattered to her. So, I had so much respect for Rachel. And so many people’s lives were … well, many, many people would say they wouldn’t be Christians today, if it weren’t for her honesty and her example. So, to be writing a book on faith and doubt, and then to have her pass, it just seemed it was the right thing to tell a little bit about the story of our friendship and a few quotes from her at the end.
Karen: One of her quotes was, “Most young adults aren’t looking for a religion that answers all their questions, but rather a community of faith in which they feel safe to ask them.” And I kind of felt that was the essence of your book, that the freedom and the honesty to be able to ask the things that are there and not hide from them. You also quoted Howard Thurman several times: “Listen to the sound of the genuine.” Great line.
Brian: Yes. Those words from Rachel remind me of an insight that became clearer and clearer to me in the writing of the book is that doubt is not the enemy of faith, but pretending that you don’t have doubts, that could be a real enemy to your faith. And it’s the pretense and the dishonesty that ultimately really undermines the integrity of our faith.
Karen: I was so struck when I read that the facts are that 65 million adults in America have dropped out of active church attendance. They say about 2.7 million leave every year. I have a feeling more will leave because of this pandemic, because in a way, those that were kind of going to church out of habit, if it’s not meeting them, I don’t know that they’re going to come back. So, it is kind of a moment where, in a way, we see the bottom dropping out of a sense of commitment to church, unless you can create a community where you’re free to ask the questions and you’re free to really seek higher ground.
Brian: That’s right, and the truth is watching people drop out of church involvement is sad for those of us who love the church and love them and so on. But on the other hand, maybe that’s the only way that leaders in the church are going to wake up, is when they realize that they’re driving away people by literally the millions and globally the billions, and we’re at a transition time, at an inflection point. I’ve heard a lot of people say, as you probably have, too, that the pandemic accelerated changes that were already in motion, and that seems to be the case in this regard, too.
Karen: Brian, do you by chance have a copy of the book before you? Because I would love you to read the benediction at the end, “Blessed are the curious.” If you have it before you and you could read that. I just love it, and I want to say to people that are listening, I also want to say there’s some beautiful lyrics from songs in here. You’re a poet, a singer-songwriter, obviously. I want to say before we go to this benediction, that this book is life-giving, it is permission-granting, life-giving and faith-building, because it really is a call to love, which I just hear the saints, Henri, and I certainly hear Jesus echoing that.
Brian: Well, thank you. Thank you for those kind words, and I’ll just say, if this book comes anywhere close to the beautiful example that was set for all of us through Henri’s work, I’m humbled and overjoyed. So here is this benediction:
“Blessed are the curious, for their curiosity honors reality.
Blessed are the uncertain, and those with second thoughts, for their minds are still open.
Blessed are the wonderers, for they shall find what is wonderful.
Blessed are those who question their answers, for their horizons will expand forever.
Blessed are those who often feel foolish, for they are wiser than those who always think themselves wise.
Blessed are those who are scolded, suspected and labeled as heretics by the gatekeepers, for the prophets and mystics were treated in the same way by the gatekeepers of their day.
Blessed are those who know they’re unknowing, for they shall have the last laugh.
Blessed are the perplexed, for they have reached the frontiers of contemplation.
Blessed are they who become cynical about their cynicism and suspicious of their suspicion, for they will enter the second innocence.
Blessed are the doubters, for they shall see through false gods.
And blessed are the lovers, for they shall see God everywhere.”
Karen: That’s really lovely. Brian, thank you so much. It’s really an honor to meet you and to have a chance to chat with you, and I thank you for this good book, and for the many. I looked at the list and there were many that have shaped my life along the way. So, I’m very, very grateful. I thank you. Blessings on you and on your work and on your life. Thank you.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What an honor for me to spend time with Brian McLaren. He’s a wonderful thinker and writer who fearlessly addresses the reality of doubt and where this fits in our world of faith. Ultimately, I’m very grateful for Brian’s latest book, Faith After Doubt. It may be the very book you’re looking for. For more resources related to today’s conversation, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we would be so grateful if you’d take time to give us a review or a thumbs-up or pass this on to your friends and companions on the faith journey. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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