Sept 12, 2021 Sermon: Faith After Doubt: Simplicity Stage One by Rev. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

James 3:1-12

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

Discouragement seems to be a common sentiment these days as we watch hospitals and health care workers targeted and lambasted after going the extra mile for all of us over the past 1 ½ years. Even though most adults are doubly vaccinated, fear still looms large as schools return in-person with children who cannot be vaccinated. I can only imagine the fear and bravery of teachers.

As we face a fall drain of energy, we may find doubt making its presence known. Will this ever be over? Are we making the right decisions? What if we’re wrong? And where is God in all of this? Is God even there? And then, we may feel guilty having these doubts.

There’s good news in the midst of this and it concerns doubt itself. Over the summer one of the books I read was Brian McLaren’s Faith After Doubt. He talks about the role that doubt plays in our stages of faith. McLaren draws on other theorists to suggest that as we mature in our life, so we mature in our faith. It changes, along with our world view, if we are open to spiritual growth. This spiritual growth takes us through various stages of faith and he suggests that doubt plays a central role in moving from one stage to another. We need doubt to help us grow spiritually.

Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith…Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  And so, echoing Paul Tillich’s mission, to you the faithful, I bring the good news of doubt.

Over the next few Sundays I will walk you through McLaren’s four stages of faith. Today, we will begin with the first stage. It corresponds to childhood, when we teach children right and wrong, good and bad. It is simplistic, but this stage of simplicity is a necessary building block for our maturation in life and in faith. If we don’t get this first stage right, then we will have trouble in the next stages of our lives and faith. Doubt asks the necessary—and often painful—questions that help us transition into the next stage. So—let’s welcome doubt as we begin our exploration into the depths of our very beings.

McLaren suggests that we picture each of these stages of faith as tree rings—not as a ladder of succession that leaves previous stages behind, but as a circle within circles, where each new outer circle continues to draw on the strengths and wisdom of the inner circles.

The first circle or stage of faith focusses on beliefs. We learn about God, Jesus, and the Spirit, and about how we, as the church, are called to partner with God in service and justice-making. We learn how to discern right from wrong, truth from falsehood and delusion. We see God as judge and follow suit. Where we get this stage of faith wrong is when we make these judgements based on selfishness or fear, rather than love. Are our decisions based on how we, ourselves alone, will benefit, or on how they might benefit the greater good of society, and particularly those who are marginalized by poverty and race?

I have some relatives who believe that only those who believe what their own faith community believes are saved. Everyone else is damned. This exclusive type of belief does not seem to resonate with Jesus’ teachings of love for all people of different faiths.

Now to come a little closer to home, Jesus told us to love everyone, even our enemies. Our society is becoming increasingly polarized and volatile and we seem to be collecting some new enemies. I have some close friends who are anti-vaxxers and I am struggling to still have compassion for them as well as for others I don’t even know—including those hurling abuse at health care workers and politicians. I have some choice words for them.

And then, I read our scripture lesson for today. It says some pretty harsh things about our tongues, but indeed our words can be sharper than a two-edged sword. James tells us that our mouths ought not offer both profanities and praises. We ought not bless God while at the same time cursing those made in the image of God.

My inner circle of Stage One faith has taught me how to discern between good and bad, truth and falsehood, healthy and unhealthy. But if it is not based on compassion for everyone, not just for those who believe as I believe, then this Stage One building block is faulty—unable to provide a solid foundation for a mature faith.

The challenge for us is to discern these judgements on the basis of love, not fear, not anger, not revenge, not self-gain—and that is really difficult to maintain. Brian McLaren writes, “even if people do wrong, they are still worthy of love…there is no such thing as being truly right without being truly loving.”[1]

This is where doubt comes into the picture. Love puts out the welcome mat for doubt. While our ability to discern between good and bad is essential to our health and society’s well-being, love begins to question these very categories.

Can anyone be all good or all bad? Is truth pure or can it be tainted with some brush of falsehood? Can the authorities who tell us what is right and wrong always be trusted? How do their biases affect their judgements?

These are questions that doubt brings and that love welcomes. These are the questions that take us into areas of discomfort and possibly distress—certainly unpleasant but necessary if we wish to mature in our faith. These questions of doubt move us into the development of a Stage Two Faith of Complexity—but more on that next week. For now, we stay with our Stage One Faith of Simplicity as we try to reconfigure it with a lens of love.

[1] Brian McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It (New York: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2021): 163.