An Interview with Brian McLaren on Faith, Doubt, and Atheism

An Interview with Brian McLaren on Faith, Doubt, and Atheism May 1, 2014

I met Brian a few years back when I picked him up from the airport for a conference I was coordinating at Claremont School of Theology.  During our ride back, we chatted about atheism, progressive Christianity, and ways we thought they could work together.  And as much as I wanted to find fault with him, his insipid kindness won me over.

Since that time, I have been working with Churches, trying to find ways in which we can work together.  So I thought I would ask Brian some questions that I am forced to consider when doing this kind of inter (and outer)-faith work.

(KJ) As someone interested in progressive and “forward-thinking” forms of the Christian faith, how do you understand doubt and skepticism as an alternative to “faith”?

(BM) I think doubt and skepticism are part of life, especially for any person who has developed the skills and habits of critical thinking. So doubt and skepticism are necessarily a part of healthy and mature faith, not an alternative to it. What I often call “bad faith” suppresses doubt and questions, but healthy faith, it seems to me, faces doubt and questions openly.

There is a kind of doubt and skepticism, however, that works like an acid or toxin and leaves nothing but a kind of cyclical “Love Canal” in its aftermath. Naive certainty is rightly questioned during a healthy doubt process, but if one is left without commitment, without moral obligation, without any sense of justice or hope or meaning … then one’s doubt has become like an auto-immune disease. The best remedy to that kind of doubt, I think, is to doubt it! In other words, I think that we must think critically not only about our beliefs, but also our doubts.

(KJ) What would you say to someone who thinks that religion, faith, and Christianity–even progressive forms–are under some kind of reason-suspending slumber?

(BM) There is a kind of commitment that takes into account all the intellectual data available to it and steps out into the unknown with commitment and vision. That is what I would call a reasonable and substantial faith. There is a kind of denial that is afraid to face the available intellectual data and chooses “no-nothing” comfort over the disturbance and challenge of open eyes. It’s the latter, I think, that is problematic.

(KJ) Your new book, “We Make the Road by Walking,” deals with the ways in which Christianity changes, morphs, and progresses throughout time.  How do you see the elasticity of Christianity as a problem, and as a opportunity?  What would you say to people who use the shifting nature of Christianity as an argument against its validity?

(BM) I think that Christians have two great gifts…one is the stories of the life and teaching of Jesus (which can be known and shared as a kind of oral tradition), and the other is the biblical library. Taken together, they give a good balance of form and freedom, backbone and flexibility, structure and elasticity.

There are no “fool-proof” guarantees in human affairs, because we humans have an almost unlimited capacity for foolishness. So a Sarah Palin can come along and speak of water-boarding as a kind of “baptism for terrorists,” or a Pat Robertson can blame the Haitian earthquake on the Haitians themselves. Wise people will use the resources of our tradition wisely and foolish people will use it foolishly, and some no doubt will stretch the elasticity beyond where it should be stretched while others will fear any freedom at all, retreating into a kind of rigid bunker of dogmatism. I don’t see that as a problem of Christianity alone, or even religion alone; it happens in science, in politics, in academia, in all areas of religious endeavor.

(KJ) In what ways do you think atheists can get on board with your projects and focus?

(BM) Since writing “Everything Must Change,” I’ve been focused on ways that Christian faith can help us address our four greatest human challenges: caring for the planet, addressing the growing gap between rich and poor, working for peace, and reclaiming religion as a positive resource for human flourishing. I would think that many atheists would be thrilled to collaborate on some or all of those issues. We may do so for different reasons, but we can still join forces in constructive ways.

(KJ) Can you share with us some funny or interesting experience that relates to atheism, doubt, and the peculiarities of your endeavors?

(BM) I was speaking at an event a couple years back when an older woman came up to me and said, “I grew up as a fundamentalist just like you. Then I grew disillusioned with fundamentalism and went on a long journey. I became a New Ager for a while and a practicing Buddhist for a while and lately I guess I’ve been what you would call a secular humanist. I think if I had heard you speak back at the beginning of this long journey, I think I could have stayed a Christian.”

Kile Jones holds two Masters degrees from Boston University (M.T.S., S.T.M.), is the Founder of Claremont Journal of Religion, and is the Director of “Interview an Atheist at Church Day.”  He also blogs for Patheos, Feminism and Religion, and The Secularite.

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is an ecumenical global networker among innovative Christian leaders. Born in 1956, he graduated from University of Maryland with degrees in English (BA, summa cum laude, 1978, and MA, in 1981). His academic interests included Medieval drama, Romantic poets, modern philosophical literature, and the novels of Dr. Walker Percy. In 2004, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity Degree (honoris causa) from Carey Theological Seminary in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and in 2010, he received a second honorary doctorate, this one from Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal).

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  • I greatly admire the progressive faith of Brian Mac Laren and wished that the New Atheists would spend more time dealing with him rather than with Pat Robertson or John Piper who are easy targets.

    I personally don’t view faith as believing what you don’t know but HOPING in the absence of sufficient evidence.

  • RonSimkins

    I have appreciated Brian M’s writings and approach for years now. It seems to me that he is right that doubt is involved in all good thinking processes including the best of faith and trust. And, he is right in maintaining that in every field, but especially in relationships, reductive reasoning can only take us so far. It is a good gift, but all relationships including all spiritual relationships transcend reason. That does not mean that they are irrational or wishful thinking, just that they are more than just reason can fully handle.