Brian McLaren, Author at Center for Action and Contemplation
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An Evolving Faith Includes Doubt

An Evolving Faith

An Evolving Faith Includes Doubt
Wednesday, June 2, 2021

In my mind, one of the markers of an evolving faith is an ability to integrate doubt—to hold the tension between what we’ve been taught and what we’ve come to know as true. When grounded in an experience of Love, doubt does not represent a step backwards, but is a necessary condition for any movement forward. CAC teacher Brian McLaren speaks of his personal journey with doubt as the essential ingredient in the evolution of his faith from “orthodoxy” or right belief to “orthopraxy” or right way of life.

Before doubt, I thought that faith was a matter of correct beliefs. My religious teachers taught me so: that if I didn’t hold the right beliefs, or at least say that I held them, I would be excommunicated from my community, and perhaps, after death, from God’s presence. They taught me this not to be cruel but because they themselves had been taught the same thing, and they were working hard, sometimes desperately, to be faithful to the rules as they understood them. I tried to do the same, and I would still be doing so today if not for doubt.

Doubt chipped away at those beliefs, one agonizing blow at a time, revealing that what actually mattered wasn’t the point of beliefs but the clear window of faith, faith as a life orientation, faith as a framework of values and spirituality, faith as a commitment to live into a deep vision of what life can be, faith as a way of life, faith expressing itself in love.

For all those years, when I said, “I believe,” I thought I understood what I was doing. But more was going on, so much more. . . .

Looking back, I now see that underneath arguments about what I believed to be true factually, something deeper and truer was happening actually.

For example, whether or not the creation story happened factually as described in Genesis, I was committing myself to live in the world as if it actually were a precious, beautiful, meaningful creation, and as if I were too. . . .

What mattered most was not that I believed the stories in a factual sense, but that I believed in the meaning they carried so I could act upon that meaning and embody it in my life, to let that meaning breathe in me, animate me, fill me. . . . Whether I considered the stories factually accurate was never the point; what actually mattered all along was whether I lived a life pregnant with the meaning those stories contained. To my surprise, when I was given permission to doubt the factuality of my beliefs, I discovered their actual life-giving purpose. . . .

Doubt need not be the death of faith. It can be, instead, the birth of a new kind of faith, a faith beyond beliefs, a faith that expresses itself in love, a deepening and expanding faith that can save your life and save the world.

Reference:
Brian D. McLaren, Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It (St. Martins: 2021), 206, 207, 212.

Story from Our Community:
These have been extremely challenging times and, though difficult and often dangerous, inside each of them lay opportunity. I can enmesh myself in ego (my own and of others), yet I do my best to awaken to Christ consciousness. Everything is for the sake of spiritual evolution. It’s all about love for the sake of more love. Each of us has been Divinely granted yet another day to recognize the only real force—LOVE. —Robert L.

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, bamboo 天竹子 (detail), 2015, photograph, Wikiart.
Image inspiration: The capacity of bamboo to grow mirrors our own potential for inner unfolding. As long as there is life, there is evolution. As long as we have breath, our faith can continue to grow.

Making New Friends

Friendship and Grace

Making New Friends
Thursday, April 15, 2021

I’ve known CAC faculty member Brian McLaren for many years; and I deeply admire his gift for making friends through his genuine curiosity, compassion, and unconditional presence to others. In this passage, he encourages us to build relationships outside our comfortable social and religious groups.

Christian mission begins with friendship—not utilitarian friendship, the religious version of network marketing—but genuine friendship, friendship that translates love for neighbors in general into knowing, appreciating, liking, and enjoying this or that neighbor in particular. . . .

Many new friends have come into my life . . . Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, New Agers, and others—including lots of atheists and agnostics, too. One of the most dramatic of those friendships began in the aftermath of 9/11/2001. Like a lot of churches, our little congregation held a prayer service. While praying, I felt a voice speaking, as it were, in my chest: Your Muslim neighbors are in danger of reprisals. You must try to protect them. The next morning, I wrote and made copies of a letter extending, belatedly, friendship toward Muslim communities in my area, and offering solidarity and help if simmering anti-Muslim sentiments should be translated into action. I drove to the three mosques nearby—I had never visited them before—and tried to deliver my letter in person. . . .

[At the third mosque,] I clumsily introduced myself [to the imam] as the pastor from down the street . . . I then handed him my letter, which he opened and read as I stood there awkwardly. I remember the imam, a man short in stature, slowly looking down at the letter in the bright September sun, then up into my face, then down, then up, and each time he looked up, his eyes were more moist. Suddenly, he threw his arms around me—a perfect stranger. . . . I still remember the feeling of his head pressed against my chest, squeezing me as if I were his long-lost brother. . . .

My host welcomed me not with hostility or even suspicion, but with the open heart of a friend. And so that day a friendship began between an Evangelical pastor named Brian and a Muslim imam we’ll call Ahmad. . . .

It’s one thing to say you love humanity in general, whatever their religion; it’s quite another to learn to love this or that specific neighbor with his or her specific religion. So, do you have a Sikh neighbor, a Hindu coworker, a Muslim business associate, a Buddhist member of your PTA, a New Age second cousin? Invite them into companionship over a cup of tea or coffee. Ask them questions. Display unexpected interest in them, their traditions, their beliefs, and their stories. Learn why they left what they left, why they stay where they stay, why they love what they love. Enter their world, and welcome them into your world, without judgment. If they reciprocate, welcome their reciprocation; if not, welcome their nonreciprocation. Experience conviviality. Join the conspiracy of plotting for the common good together.

Reference:
Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (Jericho Books: 2012), 223, 225, 226, 231.

Story from Our Community:
These meditations enrich our lives with different ways of seeing, so important in the narrow tradition I grew up in. I found the gift of Jesus at twelve, but he was wrapped in the culture of the missionary church. We have spent years letting go of the wrapping and keeping the gift. God has used Fr. Richard and Brian McLaren to teach us the depths of meditation, giving us a new awareness of our place in the universe and how connected to everything we are. —Nel S.

Image credit: Suzanne Szasz, Taking a Close Look at Nature at High Rock Park in Staten Island (detail), 1973, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Friends of all kinds surround and hold us.

Overcoming Contact Bias

Learning How to See

Overcoming Contact Bias
Thursday, March 4, 2021

Brian McLaren and Jacqui Lewis, my conversation partners in the recent podcast series, Learning How to See, understand that Jesus’ model of acceptance, inclusion, and love for “the other,” helps us overcome and heal our biases. Brian describes what he calls “contact bias,” when a lack of personal and ongoing contact with people who are different from us causes us to fail to see them for who they truly are:

When I don’t have intense and sustained personal contact with “the other,” my prejudices and false assumptions go unchallenged. Think of the child who is told by people he trusts that people of another race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, or class are dirty and dangerous.

You can immediately see the self-reinforcing cycle: those people are dirty or dangerous, so I will distrust and avoid them, which means I will never have sustained and respectful interactive contact with them, which means I will never discover that they are actually wonderful people to be around. . . .

In this way, the prejudice cycle spins on, unchallenged across generations. As prejudice persists, it becomes embedded in cultures and institutions, creating systems of racism and hatred, marginalizing groups who are stigmatized, dehumanized, scapegoated, exploited, oppressed, or even killed. . . .

But if we are willing to listen to [“the other”] and learn from them, we can break out of our contact bias, which opens us up to seeing in a new way. . . .

On page after page of the gospels, Jesus doesn’t dominate the other, avoid the other, colonize the other, intimidate the other, demonize the other, or marginalize the other. Instead, he incarnates into the other, joins the other in solidarity, protects the other, listens to the other, serves the other, and even lays down his life for the other. [1]

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who leads what she describes as a “multi-everything” congregation in New York City, shares the gifts that embracing the other can bring. She views inclusion as central to the Gospel call to love:

The one we follow into mission and ministry—Jesus the Christ—was an avowed boundary crosser, a reformer of the religious and secular culture of his time. We are in good company when we lead the way on radical inclusion of those different from ourselves. In some contexts that might mean a black church reaching out to Korean neighbors, a Latino congregation starting a ministry to immigrant families from North Africa, or a Chinese church hosting an afterschool program for African American junior high students. . . . We believe the commitment to inclusion and diversity is a high calling, issued to all who count themselves as Christians, no matter what our ethnicity or culture. [2]

The more we bump into the folks who are so-called “other,” the more we are stretched, the more we are pulled out of that bias and have new truths because we have tangible evidence of the beautiful, powerful creativity of our God who made all of this diversity for us to enjoy. [3]

References:
[1] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), [45–46, 90].

[2] Jacqueline J. Lewis and John Janka, The Pentecost Paradigm: Ten Strategies for Becoming a Multiracial Congregation (Westminster John Knox Press: 2018), 8.

[3] Adapted from Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis, with Richard Rohr, “Why Can’t We See?,” October 5, 2020, in Learning How to See, episode 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

Story from Our Community:
I am so grateful for the Daily Meditations and the podcasts on bias [Learning How to See]. They help keep me grounded and hopeful. Surprisingly, for me, I have a sense of peace and awareness of the presence of grace in the midst of this mess. —Angela A.

Image credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953–ca. 1978, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington (detail), photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Much of the work of dismantling systems of oppression involves a continued willingness to learn new ways of seeing. The March on Washington in 1963, where this image was taken, became a major tipping point in the United States’ collective story of learning how to see. May we continue the work of our ever-unfolding ability to see, understand, and act.

Jesus and Bias

Learning How to See

Jesus and Bias
Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Learning how to see our biases is a psychological exercise, but one with immediate theological and social implications. It demands self-knowledge and the crucial need to recognize (1) when we are in denial about our own shadow and capacity for illusion; (2) our capacity to project our own fears and shadows onto other people and groups; (3) our capacity to face and carry our own issues; and (4) the social, institutional, and political implications of not doing this work.

If some Christians think that this is mere psychology, then they surely need to know that Jesus himself was a consummate analyst of human nature. He was really a brilliant psychologist and named many of the issues that we call today “denial,” “bias,” “projection,” and “the shadow self.” He also emphasized the necessity of inner healing of hurts to avoid continuing to hurt others.

Brian McLaren offers this perspective on why Jesus’ teachings were so effective in freeing people from an over-attachment to their own way of seeing:

When you aggressively attack people’s familiar ideas, they tend to respond defensively. They dig in their heels and become even more firmly attached to the very ideas that they need to be liberated from. . . .

That’s why Jesus, like other effective communicators, constantly told stories, stories that grabbed people by the imagination and transported them into another imaginative world:

. . . there once was a woman who put some yeast into a huge batch of dough [Matthew 13:33]

. . . there once was a man who had two sons [Luke 15:11]

. . . this man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho [Luke 10:30]

. . . a woman once lost a coin [Luke 15:8] . . .

Through these short “imaginative vacations” to another world, Jesus helped people see from a new vantage point. He used imagination to punch a tiny hole in their walls of confirmation bias, and through that tiny hole, some new light could stream in and let them know of a bigger world beyond their walls. . . .

[Jesus] didn’t spend a lot of time repeating or refuting the false statements of his critics, and he didn’t counterpunch when he was attacked or insulted, but instead, he used every criticism as an opportunity to restate, clarify, and illustrate his true statements. He had, to use a contemporary phrase, message discipline, which drew people to his central simple message: an invitation to overcome long-held biases, to think again, and to see and live life in a new light. [1]

It’s so hard to be vulnerable, to say to our neighbor, “I don’t know everything” or to say to our soul, “I don’t know anything at all.” Yet Jesus says the only people who can recognize and be ready for what he’s talking about are the ones who come with the mind and heart of a child (see Matthew 18:3). The older we get, the more we’ve been disappointed and betrayed by life and others, the more barriers we put up to what Zen masters call “beginner’s mind.” We must never presume that we see “all” or accurately. We must always be ready to see anew.

References:
[1] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), [63–64, 68].

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . . Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013, 2019), 175, 183.

Story from Our Community:
A dear friend introduced me to Richard Rohr’s meditations. At first, I was a bit confused by the ideology of a universal Christ. I was raised Protestant and had God packed neatly into the Ten Commandments. I’ve learned the importance of emptying myself out so that there’s more room for Christ in my heart. Once I began to empty my cup full of ego and fill it with Holy water, the Holy Spirit brought my spiritual senses to life. — Stacey H.

Image credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953–ca. 1978, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington (detail), photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Much of the work of dismantling systems of oppression involves a continued willingness to learn new ways of seeing. The March on Washington in 1963, where this image was taken, became a major tipping point in the United States’ collective story of learning how to see. May we continue the work of our ever-unfolding ability to see, understand, and act.

Confirmation Bias

Learning How to See

Confirmation Bias
Tuesday, March 2, 2021

One of the phrases that has stayed with me from studying Latin in the seminary is “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.” This statement is not only kind of fun to say, but it has been critical to my understanding of how we process information. Directly translated, it means “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” Thirteenth-century scholastics such as John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) intuited this. It was early psychology before we thought we had psychology! What it means, in other words, is that we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. We see the things we want to see, the things that confirm our assumptions and our preferred way of looking at the world. [1] Brian elaborates today on how confirmation bias, which he believes is the most powerful, operates:

We all have filters, [such as] What do I already believe? Does this new idea or piece of information confirm what I already think? Does it fit in the frame I’ve already constructed?

If so, I can accept it.

If not, in all likelihood, I’m simply going to reject it as unreasonable and unbelievable, even though doing so is, well, unreasonable.

I do this, not to be ignorant, but to be efficient. My brain (without my conscious awareness, and certainly without my permission) makes incredibly quick decisions as it evaluates incoming information or ideas. Ideas that fit in are easy and convenient to accept, and they give me pleasure because they confirm what I already think.

But ideas that don’t fit easily will require me to think, and think twice, and maybe even rethink some of my long-held assumptions. That kind of thinking is hard work. It requires a lot of time and energy. My brain has a lot going on, so it interprets hard work like this as pain. . . .

Wanting to save me from that extra reframing work, my brain presses a “reject” or “delete” button when a new idea presents itself. “I’ll stick with my current frame, thank you very much,” it says. And it gives me a little jolt of pleasure to reward me for my efficiency. [2]

The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who is Brian’s and my mutual friend, speaks of confirmation bias in this way: 

“We are all wired by what we’ve experienced to be in search of a story with an
ending . . . that feels like it has a completion. And the stories that we gravitate to are the ones that make sense to us, stories that fit, stories that feel like they have continuity, connection to the past, where we’ve been. . . . Those stories that we will follow are the ones that feel true, feel like they have continuity to our past and that resonate with the trajectory of our lives. So, we’re looking for the story that doesn’t necessarily change our minds; we’re actually looking for the story that confirms what’s in our minds.” [3]

References:
[1] Adapted from Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis, with Richard Rohr, “Why Can’t We See?,” October 5, 2020, in Learning How to See, episode 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

[2] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), [15–16].

[3] Jacqui Lewis, “Why Can’t We See?” podcast.

Story from Our Community:
A dear friend introduced me to Richard Rohr’s meditations. At first, I was a bit confused by the ideology of a universal Christ. I was raised Protestant and had God packed neatly into the Ten Commandments. I’ve learned the importance of emptying myself out so that there’s more room for Christ in my heart. Once I began to empty my cup full of ego and fill it with Holy water, the Holy Spirit brought my spiritual senses to life. —Stacey H.

Image credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953–ca. 1978, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington (detail), photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Much of the work of dismantling systems of oppression involves a continued willingness to learn new ways of seeing. The March on Washington in 1963, where this image was taken, became a major tipping point in the United States’ collective story of learning how to see. May we continue the work of our ever-unfolding ability to see, understand, and act.

Recognizing Our Biases

Learning How to See

Recognizing Our Biases
Monday, March 1, 2021

CAC faculty member Brian McLaren has done thoughtful and helpful research about what makes us see things so differently from one another. He identified thirteen biases that we outline today. Being a former pastor and an excellent communicator, Brian found a way to make these complex ways of seeing simple and memorable. He writes:

People can’t see what they can’t see. Their biases get in the way, surrounding them like a high wall, trapping them in ignorance, deception, and illusion. No amount of reasoning and argument will get through to them, unless we first learn how to break down the walls of bias. . . .

Confirmation Bias: We judge new ideas based on the ease with which they fit in with and confirm the only standard we have: old ideas, old information, and trusted authorities. As a result, our framing story, belief system, or paradigm excludes whatever doesn’t fit.

Complexity Bias: Our brains prefer a simple falsehood to a complex truth.

Community Bias: It’s almost impossible to see what our community doesn’t, can’t, or won’t see.

Complementarity Bias: If you are hostile to my ideas, I’ll be hostile to yours. If you are curious and respectful toward my ideas, I’ll respond in kind.

Competency Bias: We don’t know how much (or little) we know because we don’t know how much (or little) others know. In other words, incompetent people assume that most other people are about as incompetent as they are. As a result, they underestimate their [own] incompetence, and consider themselves at least of average competence.

Consciousness Bias: Some things simply can’t be seen from where I am right now. But if I keep growing, maturing, and developing, someday I will be able to see what is now inaccessible to me.

Comfort or Complacency Bias: I prefer not to have my comfort disturbed.

Conservative/Liberal Bias: I lean toward nurturing fairness and kindness, or towards strictly enforcing purity, loyalty, liberty, and authority, as an expression of my political identity.

Confidence Bias: I am attracted to confidence, even if it is false. I often prefer the bold lie to the hesitant truth.

Catastrophe or Normalcy Bias: I remember dramatic catastrophes but don’t notice gradual decline (or improvement).

Contact Bias: When I don’t have intense and sustained personal contact with “the other,” my prejudices and false assumptions go unchallenged.

Cash Bias: It’s hard for me to see something when my way of making a living requires me not to see it.

Conspiracy Bias: Under stress or shame, our brains are attracted to stories that relieve us, exonerate us, or portray us as innocent victims of malicious conspirators. [1]

Richard again: I don’t know any other way to be free of all these biases except through the contemplative mind. I see almost every one of them within myself–at least at some point in my life. I also believe there are enough good-willed people out there who, if presented with a list of these biases, have the freedom to investigate, “How can I let go of that? How can I move beyond that?” [2]

References:
[1] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), e-book.

[2] Adapted from Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis, with Richard Rohr, “Why Can’t We See?,” October 5, 2020, in Learning How to See, episode 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

Story from Our Community:
Having had my “feelings hurt” by being overlooked, I was shocked to realize that everything within me seemed to scream out that I surely deserved more credit, greater appreciation, and significant affirmation. In searching for direction, Richard’s astounding words—YOU ARE NOT IMPORTANT—pierced me to the core and then connected me to my real self, whose only desire is to be in union with my beloved Lord. —Jo C.

Image credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953–ca. 1978, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington (detail), photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Much of the work of dismantling systems of oppression involves a continued willingness to learn new ways of seeing. The March on Washington in 1963, where this image was taken, became a major tipping point in the United States’ collective story of learning how to see. May we continue the work of our ever-unfolding ability to see, understand, and act.

Lean Not on Your Own Understanding

Unknowing

Lean Not on Your Own Understanding
Thursday, February 4, 2021

If you understand it, it is not God. —St. Augustine, Sermon 117 on John 1:1

God is Mystery and not any “thing” we can wrap our little brains around. Brian McLaren shares how he realized this during a time of deep doubt and perplexity in his life:

A verse I had memorized in my childhood came to mind: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” [Proverbs 3:5]. For the first time, it dawned on me: there’s a difference between doubting God and doubting my understanding of God, just as there’s a difference between trusting God and trusting my understanding of God. Would I be able to doubt my understanding of God while simultaneously trusting God beyond my understanding? In a strange way, that question for the first time in my life allowed me to see God as a mystery distinct from my concepts of God. [1]

It’s wonderful to be blessed with such a clarifying insight! Yet, it sometimes takes a longer and more painful “dark night of the soul” to free us from our inadequate concepts of God. Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, another good friend, explains:

[John of the Cross] says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.

All of these are substitutes for God, John says. They all get in God’s way. . . .

Yet it would be a mistake to attach the promise of more spiritual benefits to a night that is designed to obliterate them. Those who have come through dark nights of their own, not just once but over and over again, often cannot find the words to say why they would not trade those nights for anything. Yes, they were nights of great loss. Yes, the soul suffered from fearful subtraction. Yes, a great emptiness opened up where I had stored all my spiritual treasures, and yet. And yet what? And yet what remained when everything else was gone was more real than anything I could have imagined. I was no longer apart from what I sought; I was part of it, or in it. I’m sorry I can’t say it any better than that. There was no place else I wanted to be. [2] (italics in original)

Richard again: This description of the “dark night” as a gift can be misleading because such times of unknowing are almost always endured more than enjoyed. However, the experience of mystery, paradox, and not-knowing brings to our lives a rich and unexpected grounding.

References:
[1] Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (St. Martin’s Essentials: 2021), 92.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperOne: 2014), 145, 146.

Story from Our Community:
I live in an assisted living facility with my husband. I have been writing a haiku a day during the pandemic. The great unknowing / This 2020 vision. / Seeing with new eyes. —Juliana H.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.

Love Is the Movement; Doubt Is the Method

Unknowing

Love Is the Movement; Doubt Is the Method
Tuesday, February 2, 2021
Candlemas Day [1]

Today Brian McLaren shares brilliantly how doubt has often been a tool of love, drawing him ever closer to the heart of God. Applying his four-fold spiritual growth process of Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony to himself, Brian writes:

Paul makes clear that nearly everything religious people strive for will eventually be swallowed up in something deeper, and in and of itself, is of no real worth. Even faith and hope don’t have the last word. Only love, he says, is the more excellent way [1 Corinthians 12:31]. . . . In fact, he dares to say, nothing else matters except faith expressing itself in love [Galatians 5:6].

Looking back on my own spiritual pilgrimage, I have come to see “the still more excellent way of love” as the telos [ultimate purpose] whose gravitational pull has been drawing me first through Simplicity, then through Complexity, then downward through Perplexity, and then deeper still, toward an experience that is too profound for words, the experience of Harmony. When I loved correctness in Stage One, yes, correctness mattered, but the love with which I pursued correctness mattered still more. When I loved effectiveness in Stage Two, yes, effectiveness mattered, but the love that moved me to pursue it mattered still more. When I loved honesty and justice in Stage Three, yes, honesty and justice mattered, but the love that burned in my heart for them mattered still more. . . .

Faith was about love all along. We just didn’t realize it, and it took doubt to help us see it. . . .

I wish I could go back to that younger, agonized me [in Stage Three Perplexity] and bring this message:

I know that your perplexity feels like a dead end. But wait, wait, endure, persist, do your work, see it through, hang in there, trust the process, and it will become a passageway, a birth canal. You actually need this purgation and unknowing to prepare you for a new depth of living, knowing, and loving. There is much that deserves to be doubted, and if you really care about the truth, you must pursue it, using doubt as a necessary tool. (It’s not your only tool, but it is one of your tools.)

I know you feel that everything you value is slipping through your fingers. But don’t clench your fists. Open your hands. Your open hands, open eyes, and open heart will prepare the way for new gains, not just new thoughts, but new ways of thinking. You have already added dualistic thinking, pragmatic thinking, and critical/deconstructive thinking to your skill set. You will soon learn a new skill: unitive or nondual seeing, in which knowing and unknowing, faith and doubt, clarity and mystery are not opposites, but complements. [2]

In this final stage, what Brian calls “Harmony,” we are not returned to certainty or knowing in any concrete way, but we are gifted with the “okayness” of not knowing and the coherence of “non-discriminatory love.” [3] Brian, raised Evangelical, really gets it! I do not believe Evangelicalism or street-corner Catholicism can be renewed at any depth without the discovery of the contemplative mind.

References:
[1] Candles were historically blessed on this day to mark the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and the slow return of light. Secular America created Groundhog Day with the same unconscious hope.

[2] Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (St. Martin’s Essentials: 2021), 87, 88, 91.

[3] McLaren, 94.

Story from Our Community:
In this time of universal powerlessness and complete unknowing, I find true peace in the ability to completely turn my will and my life over to the care of God, understanding that I can never ‘figure this out.’ I pray for a great awakening for all of us and balm for the suffering across the planet. . . I ask each day to be shown what I can do to help. —Shaun P.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.

Doubt: A Necessary Tool for Growth

Unknowing

Doubt: A Necessary Tool for Growth
Monday, February 1, 2021

My good friend and colleague Brian McLaren’s recently published book, Faith After Doubt, shows how doubt and periods of unknowing are necessary for spiritual growth. Brian proposes a four-stage growth process of Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony. He writes:

Doubt, it turns out, is the passageway from each stage to the next. Without doubt, there can be growth within a stage, but growth from one stage to another usually requires us to doubt the assumptions that give shape to our current stage. . . .

At the Center for Action and Contemplation, one of our core teachings is “the path of descent,” the idea that the spiritual life will eventually require us to descend into a dark tunnel, to descend into unknowing and doubt, to descend into a loss of certainty, to descend through a process that feels like dying. As with Jesus in the Gospels, we find ourselves crying, “Let this cup of suffering be taken from me” [Matthew 26:39] and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matthew 27:46]

This deep anguish characterizes what Brian calls Stage Three: Perplexity. Brian continues:

When I studied the mystics . . .  I learned that they spoke often of purgation (or katharsis) as the portal to illumination (or fotosis) and union (or theosis). They saw purgation as the painful and necessary process by which we are stripped of know-it-all arrogance, ego, and self-will. Perplexity, I realized, was working like an X-ray of my soul, exposing much of my so-called spirituality as a vanity project of my ego, an expression of my arrogant desire to always be right, my desperate and fearful need to always be in control, my unexamined drive to tame the wildness of life by naming it and dominating it with words. The doubt of Perplexity, the mystics helped me see, was just the fire I needed to purge me of previously unacknowledged arrogance. In this way, self-knowledge was another gift that came, unwanted, during my Stage Three descent.

[Through the Christian mystics,] I was exposed to “the dark night of the soul,” a period of desolation in which God feels absent, a period in which one can’t see or understand what is going on, a deep valley during which one feels abandoned and lost. To my surprise, the mystics believed this was not something to be avoided, but rather it was a passageway into something deeper and greater. In fact, only the path of descent into spiritual dryness and soul-darkness could lead the soul to a deeper experience of union with God (or theosis).

Richard again: Ironically, one of the few things I can say I truly know is that not-knowing and often not even needing to know is—surprise of surprises—a deeper way of knowing and a deeper falling into compassion. This is surely what the mystics mean by “death” and why they talk of it with so many metaphors. It is the essential transitioning.

Reference:
Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (St. Martin’s Essentials: 2021), 43, 72, 78.

Story from Our Community:
My calling in my retirement years has not been my choice—I am sole caretaker for my husband who is physically disabled, has dementia and multiple medical diagnoses. Some days are good and some days I have less patience, stamina and hope. Reading Richard Rohr’s words first thing in the morning helps keep me fortified. There is such beauty in this world and small miracles and blessings occur each day if we quiet our minds enough to notice them. —Eileen A.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.

A New Story: Weekly Summary

A New Story

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Week Two Summary and Practice

Sunday, January 10—Friday, January 15, 2021

Sunday
A Great Story connects our little lives to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and uses the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts.

Monday
A “framing story” gives people direction, values, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives. It tells them who they are, where they come from, where they are, what’s going on, where things are going, and what they should do. —Brian McLaren

Tuesday
The story we believe and live in today has a lot to do with the world we create for our children, our grandchildren, and our descendants one hundred thousand years from now (if?). —Brian McLaren

Wednesday
We are all looking for a larger and more loving story in which to participate. This is what God gives us!

Thursday
The new story sees the universe as primarily consciousness and the human being as body, mind, and spirit, able to locate and carry out their life’s purpose in a meaningful—indeed, fundamentally benevolent—universe. —Michael Nagler

Friday
The deepest truth is our union with the Absolute, Infinite Being, with God. That’s the root of our reality. —Beatrice Bruteau

 

Living a New Story

True conversion doesn’t happen just because we change our minds about something. Our choices won’t change until we truly believe a more compelling story. And as much as we want it to, the world won’t change until we ourselves become active participants in the expansion of consciousness and the restoration and healing of all things. This week’s practice from Brian McLaren provides steps we can take toward living a New Story.

If we disbelieve the dominant framing story and instead believe Jesus’ good news of the kingdom of God, we will suddenly find ourselves making new personal decisions—not because we have to, as a duty, but because we want to, because we are now liberated from the cramped possibilities of the old framing story. . . . “Saved by our faith,” we will pray differently. Prayer will cease to be a technique for enlisting God to help us “make it” in the dominant system; it will instead become a way of bathing our inner world in the transforming presence of God, a way we seek to be shaped by the new framing story, the new reality, the good news, so that we can be catalysts bringing transformation to the dominant system.

If we disbelieve the old framing story and believe the good news, we will also work differently. When we realize that the most powerful world-changing work we can do is simply to believe, as Jesus told his original disciples (John 6:29), we experience liberation from panicked, frantic, desperate, incoherent, and often fruitless or counterproductive action. We rediscover Sabbath and rest and even play, and we come to our work with a new sense of energy and purpose. We will no longer be “just” anything—just a homemaker, just a laborer, just an accountant, just a kindergarten teacher. No, whatever our work, we will do it as agents of the kingdom of God, builders of a new world.

We will also buy differently. For example, when faced with a choice between an inexpensive pair of pants produced by a corporation that exploits workers (whom we now see to be our neighbors), we will choose a more expensive pair produced by a corporation that treats its workers fairly. Maybe we’ll own fewer pairs of pants, but we’ll feel better wearing them. We will vote differently, drive differently, invest differently, eat differently, volunteer differently, treat our neighbors differently, and so much more. Multiply all these kinds of daily personal decisions by the increasing numbers of people for whom they make sense, and you begin to see the power of personal action inspired by a new kind of faith.

Experience a version of this practice through video and sound.

Reference:
Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Thomas Nelson: 2007), 297‒298.

Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (New World Library: 2012).

Pearson, Paul M, ed., Beholding Paradise: The Photographs of Thomas Merton (Paulist Press: 2020).

Image credit: Tree Trunks near Hermitage, Gethsemani (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
We can’t always see the ways trees are in relationship because their complex world of roots lives underground. We, the human family, are also inextricably interconnected.
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