McLaren creates a safe place for doubt

Brian McLaren believes the Church is transitioning from an era characterized by words about God to an era of encountering the Spirit. So too, McLaren is shifting his own focus from discussions of theology to the practice of cultivating a spiritual life.

His newest book, Naked Spirituality, is about encountering God in four different stages of spiritual maturity. McLaren says he has attempted to write about a life with God using language that will also speak to those outside the walls of the church.

“I've been writing a lot about theology and culture and philosophy over the last 10 years," said McLaren in an interview at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in February. “I've sensed in the past couple of years a real need to make sure we don't only talk about theology and philosophy and culture, but that we also talk about the heart and the experiential and practice side of things. This book has given me a chance to focus on that."

McLaren, the keynote speaker at CMU's biennial worship conference, drew more than 500 people to his opening lecture - almost tripling the attendance of previous years. In five lectures drawn from his new book, McLaren described four stages of spiritual development he labeled: “simplicity," “complexity," “perplexity" and “harmony."

McLaren speaks with an open, hospitable voice, telling personal stories, gesturing with his hands, his microphone cradled in the crook of his elbow. His ideas have been causing ripples of controversy among evangelical Christians ever since he published A New Kind of Christian in 2004, but his ethos is generous, and his characterization of faith as a process open to growth and re-evaluation rather than a fixed edifice is certainly welcome news to many.

Ian Fergusson, a member of Grain of Wheat church in Winnipeg, wept throughout McLaren's session on “perplexity." “It was good to have words for that struggle," Fergusson said afterwards. “You need a space for doubt."

A safe space to face the difficult questions of faith seems to be exactly what McLaren offers. Many people - especially younger people - approached him after his lectures to thank him for creating a “safe" place for doubt. McLaren encourages churches to make room for this kind of questioning within their own congregations.

Unless one has room to fully experience the questions, doubts and disillusionment of the “perplexity" stage, one can't move beyond it, he said.

McLaren has some “very loyal critics" whom he expects to hear from as soon as his new book comes out on March 15. “There are a number of specific sticking points that really create problems with some people," McLaren said. “The irony is, those sticking points that some people are eager to defend are keeping others away from the faith."

Some people go so far as to question McLaren's Christian faith.

“To those people I say: How do you define Christian?" said McLaren. “If you can't be a Christian unless you believe world is 6,000 years old and was created in seven literal days and anyone who hasn't said a certain prayer will experience eternal conscious torment and literal flames of hell forever, well then by that definition they're speaking the truth. By that definition I don't fit.

“But if you define Christian as someone who is sincerely seeking to follow Christ and acknowledges there's an awful lot of slip-ups and foul-ups and mistakes along the way, well I certainly fit."

Because a spiritual life with God, McLaren says, isn't just about what you believe.

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