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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Brian McLaren joins Pete and Jared to discuss the prevalence of doubt and stages of faith. Together they explore the following questions: 

  • How do we put the pieces back together after deconstruction? 
  • Why is spiritual doubt such a prevalent topic in today’s society? 
  • According to McLaren, what are the four stages of faith? 
  • What impact do authority figures have on early development of faith? 
  • Why does fundamentalist religion tend to get stuck in the Stage 1/simplicity phase? 
  • What can cause a person to move from Stage 1/Simplicity to Stage 2/Complexity? 
  • What potential problem awaits if you remain in the cynical portion of Stage 3/Perplexity?
  • How do we navigate the stages of faith with our children?
  • Why should we invite children to become part of the interpretive community?
  • How can we get to faith after cynicism and doubt? 
  • What internal shift occurs when you come to terms with authoritarianism?
  • What happens when Stage 1/Simplicity flows into politics?
  • How is placing love at the top of your agenda related to maturity?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Brian McLaren you can share. 

  • “[Parents and children] could have a conversation, and in that sense, the child would be invited to become part of the interpretive community. He’d be invited to have an opinion of his own and taught to respect the opinions of others.” @brianmclaren
  • “I don’t think doubt is the enemy of faith; I think doubt is the best friend of faith. I think doubt is the enemy of authoritarianism.” @brianmclaren
  • “If I’m not going to live my life under the domination of authoritarian leaders and if I’m not going to just spend my life being bitter at them, I’ve got to take authority for my own life.” @brianmclaren
  • “This is my vision, it’s why I can’t give up on the church. To me, the church is a place where there is a core group of people who are learning to live with that maturity Paul talked about where love is the most important thing, where nothing else matters except faith expressing itself through love.” @brianmclaren
  • “You find people for whom love is the guiding force, and in a certain sense, that’s the only simplicity that really will take you very far in life. The simplicity of saying love is most important.” @brianmclaren

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript


Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Jared: Welcome everyone to this episode of the podcast. Two things before we get started.

One – as you all know, there are some great authors out there writing great things and we can’t have them all on the podcast, unfortunately. But we did want to make sure that we gave them a shoutout. So, we have a new program called the Author Spotlight where we highlight these authors here on the podcast as well as on our social media. They write a blog post for us, they’ll have a video from time to time, and today we wanted to highlight Brad Jersak’s new book, A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way. So, if you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you know Brad Jersak, and this book is forwarded by none other than the great Peter Enns. So, pick up a copy today – A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way. And look out for more from Brad on our social media.

Secondly – put this down on your calendar – August 4th we have a one-night class. For the live version, it’ll be pay-what-you-can. I love this title and I love this topic, it’s “Highway to Hell: Where Do the Hell Passages in the Bible Come From and What Do They Mean?” And we have Megan Henning, who you might remember from being on the podcast to talk about this topic, but she’s going to explore more going through Egypt, Greece, Rome, ancient Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament – where do we get this concept of hell and what was the trajectory? What does it mean for today? So, it’s pay-what-you-can. Just go to and sign up.

Pete: That’s awesome. Our topic today for this episode of the podcast is “The Four Stages of Faith,” and our guest is none other than Brian McLaren who is well-known, I’m sure, to many if not most of you. He’s an author, an activist, a theologian who brings a lot of wisdom into many topics, one of which is this topic, faith, and he just wrote a book called Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stop Working and What to Do About It. We just had great time, as always, talking with Brian about this topic.

Jared: Yeah, and if you’re a long-time listener, you might remember, we’ve had Brian on before. He just continues to gain wisdom and experience, especially around this topic that’s becoming more and more prevalent of deconstruction, reconstruction, how do we put the pieces back together and Brian just does a really good job of articulating what some of those paths might look like for people who are in that place.

Pete: All right, well, let’s get into it.

[Music begins]

Brian: The idea that people would help me learn how to study the Bible for myself is like liberation. You’re asking deeper questions. You’re asking whether, it’s not just who’s right, it’s -is the whole idea of somebody being right even a valid idea? And here’s the great tragedy – there are many people who don’t have a single peer who will give them the room to ask these questions.

[Music ends]

Pete: Well, welcome Brian to our podcast, once again!

Brian: Always glad to be with you guys and I always love to listen too, so keep up the good work.

Pete: Well, great. Yeah. Now you can listen to us and listen to yourself when you listen to this episode. Isn’t that great?

Jared: Things just got meta.

Pete: That’s two for one right there.

Brian: [Laughter]

Pete: I hate listening to myself on podcasts, but maybe, I don’t know, maybe you’re not like that.

Brian: No. It’s one of my least favorite things to do.

Pete: Yeah. Well, let’s talk today about faith and doubt, or maybe more specifically Faith After Doubt, which I don’t know if you’re sensing this too, Brian. But it’s just, everybody is talking about this stuff, right?

Brian: Yeah.

Pete: It just, it seems people are more willing to talk about the doubts that they have and then how to come back from that well. Instead of collapsing, I mean sometimes we hear this too, right? People go through a stage of doubt but then they sort of snap back to where they were.

Brian: Yeah.

Pete: You know. I’m not sure if, that’s really not what you’re talking about in your book, Faith After Doubt, but it just seems to be a very popular topic nowadays, would you agree?

Brian: Yeah. Oh yeah, and my inbox says the same thing, Pete. I, people who’ve read my new book, Faith After Doubt, I just get emails, you know, almost every day from people saying yeah, this is right where I am. Including, people would be surprised how many pastors and ministers and not just pastors and ministers, but bishops and people pretty high up in the religious world-

Pete: And professors.

Brian: I just got an email from a seminary professor yesterday who was really, really grateful and she said, “I’m going to use this with my students, but this really helps me understand my own experience.” So, it’s widespread. It always has been, that’s the thing. I think that maybe it’s more intense now, partly because of the crazy things that are going on in the religious world, especially as it relates to the political world. But I also think once a few people start having courage to tell the truth and admit their doubts, other people don’t have to keep the secret anymore.


Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Jared: Right? Well, I wanted to jump in here because I think the framework that you provide is potentially really helpful for a lot of people and I would have to say, you know, one of the things I really respected about you frame Faith After Doubt or this process of faith formation and faith development is you put yourself in the long line of traditions of these stages of faith –

Brian: Yeah.

Jared: In the back of your book, which I really appreciated, you named kind of all these different, William Kierkegaard, I mean William Kierkegaard? William Blake.

Brian: [Laughter]

Jared: Søren Kierkegaard, Kohlberg and Fowler, and all these people who have these stages of faith, so I really appreciated you acknowledging that, but you have your own in these four stages of faith and I think giving people, people like to know where they are in the journey. When you’re wandering in the wilderness, it’s nice to have some signposts and mile markers –

Brian: Yeah.

Jared: Kind of something to help frame where you are. So, maybe, could you give us a little overview of your four stages of faith and what characterizes each of those?

Brian: Sure, I’d be happy to. Um, and the thing I always like to start with when I talk about these stages, Jared, is to say look, these are just a tool. They’re imperfect. They’re a simplification of experiences that are way more complex in daily life and they can be abused. People can use stage theories and put themselves at the top and look down at everyone else and so on.

But, with those provisos out of the way, I also like to say, don’t think of these like, you know, trains on a track and you go from one train to another. Think of them like rings on a tree, and the inner most ring where we all start, I call simplicity and simplicity is this stage of authority figures. It’s this, because when we all start as children, we don’t know what’s going on here and we have to ask authority figures, usually our parents, maybe grandparents, aunts, uncles, eventually pastors and teachers. And we ask them questions, they give us answers, we believe them, and that’s how simplicity works. And, in a sense, very little doubt happens at this stage, especially early on because we have every reason, you know, to believe those authority figures. As a result, this tends to be the stage of dualism. Because we’re children, we’re not capable of a great deal of nuance, we don’t know a lot of history and so on. And so, we ask easy questions, they give easy answers. What is that? How does that work? Where do babies come from? Whatever it is, right? And we get our easy answers, but eventually, we start to realize that our authority figures think that some things are good and other things are bad; some people are right, other people are wrong; some groups and places and ideas are safe, others are dangerous – and we pick up from our authority figures this kind of dualism.

And a really important thing to understand right from the start, I think, is that for a lot of people, this is what religion is. Religion is a Stage 1 simplicity phenomenon. And in fact, a lot of religious leaders, this is what I think fundamentalism is really. Religious leaders in fundamentalist settings, they say we’re giving you the answers, this is it, your only job is to understand it, believe it, accept it, defend it, and that’s the story. So, that’s Stage 1. That’s where a whole lot of us begin. And, by the way, it’s the same if you’re Muslim or Jewish or atheist or Buddhist or whatever. A lot of us are introduced to a Stage 1 Faith.

Then comes Stage 2, for a lot of people, this hits at, begins at puberty, but I think in our culture for a lot of people it’s college that inducts us into Stage 2. And this is where, I call it complexity, because the simple binary options – in/out, us/them, good/evil – start to break down. Maybe, you know, the pastor at your church, you know, runs off and steals money or whatever, and suddenly the guy that you thought was the good guy turns out to be bad. Or your parents who’ve been super strict about morality and give you this very strict morality, you find out they’re getting a divorce, or whatever it is, the simplicity begins to break down. And at this stage then, instead of looking for easy answers, we’re looking for people who kind of serve as coaches to help us cope with a more and more complex world.

Pete: Mm hmm.


Brian: And, um, and so you could say Stage 1 is dualistic, Stage 2 is pragmatic. How do I make this work? Maybe I’ll say one more thing and you guys may have questions about these first two stages, but for those of us who grew up in evangelical settings, parachurch ministries were the core of Stage 2. Groups like Young Life and Navigators and Youth for Christ and Campus Crusade or Intervarsity. And I remember when I was introduced to them, I was introduced to the idea of doing Bible study yourself and the idea that people would help me learn how to study the Bible for myself is like liberation for a Stage 2 person. You’re going to give me tools, you’re going to – in many ways, I think what you guys have offered in The Bible for Normal People starts really helping people in Stage 2 who are looking, who are being given permission to think for themselves and so on.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: But would it be fair to say, because I’m trying to think of my experience and a lot of people I would know where the complexity – there’s, I guess I’m trying to – maybe I’ll ask it as a question. What’s the relationship between those in this way that some of these parachurch organizations or just others present themselves as kind of a complexity thing where you can really wrestle with it, but really, you just have to come back to the simplicity answers or else you cause trouble? It almost seems like it has this facade of allowing for complexity and it feels really good when you’re coming from that simplicity, but if you take that too far, that starts to break down and it feels like it’s really, at its core, still this dualistic framing of faith. Would that be fair to say?

Brian: Well, I think it is in 90% of the settings, I hope that will change, but maybe we’ll come back to that later, Jared. Maybe here is a way to say it, I grew up in a fundamentalist sect really, and I remember when I got a little older and I think I was entering into complexity, I met this youth leader and I can’t even remember the issue, but I said, “Hey, what’s the biblical view…?” Of course, that was the idea, there’s one biblical view –

Pete: -Laughter]

Brian: And when you’re in Stage 1, the purpose of the Bible is to give you the easy in/out. us/them answers. I asked him – what’s the answer to this issue? What’s the right position on this issue? And he says, “You know, Brian, I think there are four different views on that.” And then he ran through each one giving it a very fair description and I said, “Well, which one is right?” And he said, “I don’t really think it matters. I mean, I think each of them has strengths and weaknesses. I tend to lean toward three and four, but whatever they are.” And I just remember –

[Mimics mind blown sound]

My mind was blown because I didn’t – I’d never been able to see an issue be addressed in that way. And showing respect to people who see things differently. But –

Pete: Right.

Jared: That’s great.

Brian: And I wouldn’t say not just parachurch, but in many ways, many megachurches operate this way. They won’t want to talk about theology. They won’t want to talk about free will versus predestination or whatever. They’ll want to talk about, “what are the five steps to a good marriage?” But you still can get in trouble with these people, Jared, as you were saying.

Pete: Yeah.

Brian: And the way you can get in trouble is to have a different agenda than they do. So, if the pastor’s goal is to have a big church, a megachurch, and you do something that might scare people away, like you talk about racism, you’ll be fired really quickly. In other words, they’ll get rid of you just as quickly, but it’ll be because you’re off-brand or you’re off-project, not because you have the wrong idea.

Pete: You have a different pragmatic agenda.

Brian: Yes, yes.

Pete: Right.

Brian: That’s right.

Pete: Just on complexity, because you’ve mentioned this happening in college and I can just attend to that with students teaching at a Christian college. For some of them, the complexity is simply having a roommate-

Brian: Yes.

Pete: Who just believes things differently than they do.

Brian: Yes.

Pete: And that’s a huge shock, because I have students say to me, “When I got here, I didn’t – I thought everybody thought exactly the same way I did and things were pretty simple.” And then they hear things, not just from professors, but from their fellow students and it’s a good place for a faith crisis to happen, I think, in a context like that that supports it. But many others, I think, go it alone and they don’t realize how common this move from simplicity to complexity is.


As it happens, I think it’s – I don’t know. Maybe I’m talking about things I don’t understand, but it seems like almost an unavoidable movement on some level unless you’re really, really just sheltered somehow.

Brian: Yes.

Jared: Yes, and isolated or insulated.

Pete: Right, insulated. I guess that happens too.

Brian: And in fact, not all Christian colleges are like this, but many Christian colleges probably were designed so that people would only learn with other people who think what they think, right?

Pete: Yes. Right.

Brian: But that’s breaking down. I mean social media is another way that breaks down faster and faster. But here’s the thing, even in the world of social media, you know, we have people who get all their news from Fox News, and, in a sense, they build a whole world where everyone sees things like they do. And so, it becomes this big bubble of confirmation bias. And so, a lot of people can live in simplicity their whole lives; a lot of people can live in complexity their whole lives.

I think maybe one way to distinguish is in simplicity, the other people are your enemy: you’re saved, they’re damned; you’re of God, they’re of the devil. In complexity, it’s kind of like, we don’t see it the same way and I’m glad I’m with my people over here, but we’ve got to get along, and so let’s find ways to work together and get along.

Pete: Yeah.

Brian: That would be kind of the Stage 2 thing. But then, for a lot of people, that breaks down because once you encounter enough complexity, you start to feel that what your authority figures told you in simplicity was, much of it was wrong and misguided, and at that point, many people enter perplexity. And perplexity, in a sense, is a rejection of both Stage 1 and Stage 2. There are no simple answers and there are no easy steps to success. Life, it just confounds all the easy answers and easy pragmatics and that’s why you might call Stage 3, perplexity, the stage of relativism and skepticism. And I think graduate school, I knew some people do it, but if you go to a good graduate school, it’s very hard to go through it without entering Stage 3 in some way.

Pete: Amen

Brian: Partly because what graduate school does, you know, when you’re an undergraduate you’re given a textbook and the textbook, in a sense, presents information as if most folks agree, but you get to graduate school and you find that all the top scholars have vastly different views and they’re arguing with each other and they’re questioning the validity of their whole discipline and all of this critical thinking is going on. And when you enter that world, this doesn’t have to be the case, but it almost always is the case – in your religious life, you’re in trouble because your religious leaders are almost all in Stage 1 or Stage 2, or at least they pretend to be. And now you’re faced with feeling very alone because you’re out of sync. You’re asking deeper questions. You’re asking whether, it’s not just who’s right, it’s – is the whole idea of somebody being right even a valid idea, right?

Pete: Yeah, it’s interesting, Brian, because you just touched on something I think is very important. My own experience and that of others, you know you go to graduate school, but you come back and teach in simplicity or complexity institutions and it’s hard to sort of co-exist like that –

Brian: Yes.

Pete: But it seems that, that’s where, it would seem to me that’s where many of the, at least let’s say, the American evangelical-ish Christian institutions live –

Brian: Yes.

Pete: In simplicity and complexity. I mean, are there institutions of perplexity?

Brian: Well –

Pete: Can you even have an institution of perplexity?

Brian: Yeah. I mean really, to me, that’s why higher education is so powerful at its best, especially at the graduate level. But the best undergraduate professors introduce their students to this and sometimes, you know, a high school student sneaks in. I had two high school teachers who I think gave me a taste for perplexity and I just remember being both drawn to it and a little scared of it, right? But it was this feeling like, they’re in a different world. They see things a little differently than the rest of us do and that can – the students who are ready tend to show up at the professor’s office hours with additional questions to ask. I personally think that this, there’s been a lot more of this through Christian history than we tend to hear partly because people in Stage 1 and Stage 2 told us a lot of our Christian history.


But when you think about many of the monastic orders, when you understand in the Catholic Church, to join an order – in a sense, you’re saying the standard operating procedure of church life is not enough for me. It’s not working for me. I need some people who are looking at this differently.

And so, I think what happens in Stage 3 is you either become a mystic or a cynic. Or you become a cynical mystic or a mystical cynic, but the cynicism is critical thinking, and the mysticism is an ability to live with unknowing and when you are ready to take that step, I think that’s when you move to Stage 4 that I call harmony. It’s where you begin to integrate. You know there are some times where we have to make choices and say this is right, this is wrong. Everything I learned in simplicity wasn’t as simple as they told me, but there was still some value there. And we all have to be pragmatic and get along in the world, there is value in Stage 2 in complexity and great value in Stage 3. But the problem in Stage 3 is I can always critique and take things apart, but I got to, this really hits people often when they have children. I have children. What am I going to teach them? And then this is where things really become interesting because if you become, if you reach Stage 4 while you have children, then you don’t want to raise them to be Stage 1 people. You want to help them. The way you’ll teach them simplicity is a way that invites them to grow beyond it. And the way you teach them complexity is a way that invites them to grow beyond it. The same with perplexity. And this to me is, well, I’ve heard on The Bible for Normal People a couple of really great discussions about how do we teach children? How do we teach them about the Bible? Because now more and more young parents, I think, are reaching Stage 4 and they want a new way, a new approach.

Jared: Within that parenting, just before we move on from that, what have you seen, and I’m just kind of going off my gut here –

Brian: Yeah.

Jared: So if you come to a place, maybe you’re in perplexity and perplexity, I feel like there’s definitely a reactivity of I don’t want my kids to be raised in simplicity or complexity –

Brian: Yes.

Jared: And even within harmony, I feel like there’s a tendency to want to kind of skip steps. So, I’m getting my – my synapses are getting mixed up here because in some ways it feels like this is an experiential process –

Brian: Yes.

Jared: So, I’m not sure you can just decide not to be these things because of the way you framed it at first was almost like childhood development. Like, our brains are wired to be simplistic when we’re younger because that’s what they can handle and then it can be complex. So, maybe that’s different when we’re older, maybe, we can kind of rush through steps more quickly because we’re more developed, but as kids, it’s not that we can – I’ve just seen that some parents approach where they’re trying to rush them through these processes, but also, we don’t want to set them up for a crisis of faith later. It’s not like, let’s set up this house of cards, and you know what? At some point, you’re going to have to knock it down and it’s going to be terrible for you but that’s what I went through.

Pete: That’s why there’s therapy.

Pete and Brian: [Laughter]

Jared: So, how do you, how have you seen, what’s your wisdom on how to navigate those two maybe, polar, or those extremes?

Brian: Well, here’s the interesting thing. This, I mean this is a problem across religious traditions. Let me give you a quick example. I have a friend who is Hindu and when he was a boy, his mother gave him a picture storybook of stories from the Bhagavad Gita and the Rigveda, two of the Hindu scriptures. And it’s remarkable how similar it must have been to Bible storybooks that I had, right? And instead of learning about Moses and David and Jesus and Paul, you’re learning about Ganesh and Krishna and Vishnu and so on. And in Hindu iconography, gods are always pictured with the color blue. They have blue skin. And I probably shouldn’t say they’re always pictured, but typically pictured. And my friend told me he asked his mother one day, “Do gods really have blue skin?” And his mother said, “Yes, they do and don’t ask questions. Just believe what I tell you!” And he said when he heard me talking to Christians in this way, he said, “Oh yeah, I had my version of that too.”

But you could also imagine a parent saying, “Listen, son, whether Vishnu existed or whether Ganesh existed, they’re stories and we look for meaning in the stories. So don’t worry about whether they have blue – if you want to think they have blue skin, you can if you want.


But let me ask you this, son, why do you think an artist would put blue skin on a person?” You know?

And then they could have a conversation, and in that sense, the child would be invited to become part of the interpretive community. He wouldn’t be told, “Stop thinking, we’re telling you what to think.” He’d be invited to have an opinion of his own and taught to respect the opinions of others. And the community that I think does this better than anybody else at this point in history is the Jewish community because when you’re a child and you’re introduced to Torah, you’re introduced to the arguments of the great rabbis through history. I was just with a rabbi friend over the weekend, and I heard him give a couple lectures and it’s exactly what he did. Every lecture was – had stories of the arguments of the great scholars of Judaism and you don’t hate some of them and love the others. You say, “Our community struggles and we have arguments and questions and we see things differently.” And I think that is a wonderful invitation into more of a Stage 4 mindset.

Pete: Brian, can I follow up a little bit because, um, I’m channeling here a lot of, I think, younger parents would say toddlers, that I know – a lot of them through my daughter who has a couple toddlers right now – who are in that stage of, you know, maybe perplexity and harmony and who don’t want to literally traumatize their children with views of God like – if you pray, God will take care of you.

Brian: Yes.

Pete: Until He doesn’t, right? So –

Brian: Yes.

Pete: So, just your experience, talk about that a little bit more. What that might look like

to offer a different model of simplicity for children.

Brian: Yeah. I heard Walter Brueggeman say something once, he said, “Teaching children the Bible is like teaching children about sex, you don’t want to tell them more than they’re ready for, but you never want to tell them anything you’ll have to untell them later.”


Pete: Yes.


Brian: And I think that’s a great way to say it and, you know, we, of course, a lot of us parents don’t do a very good job about with teaching our kids about sex, but we find ways to be honest about their questions and we try to never tell them things that are just not true, right? So, if you’re a Stage 4 parent and your child – well, a story I tell on one of my sons who’s now thirty-nine years old, but when he was, I forget now the age, but let’s say six or seven, maybe eight. We’re driving home from church one Sunday and I said, “How was Sunday School?” And he just rolls his eyes and says, “Oh dad, I don’t want to go into it.”

Pete: [Laughter]

Brian: [Laughter]

And I said, “Oh, what’s wrong?” He said, “Dad, you’re not going to believe this, but they tried to tell us there was this bunch of people who were being chased some bad guys and they got to the edge of a big ocean, and it opened up and they walked across and when they got to the other side, the ocean closed on the bad guys.” And he was just like telling me, “Like, can you believe that some people actually believe that? Like they expect us to believe that?”


And I first thought, wow, I guess I haven’t taught my kids the exodus story yet, but my second thought is I was proud of my son because he felt safe to say to me this just sounds, you know, really, you know, unbelievable or difficult to believe or this sure isn’t my experience that life goes this easily. So, you can imagine a child saying to you, “I don’t really think that happened,” and then you say – and not shaming the child. Saying, “Yeah. You know, did you know that some scholars aren’t really sure that happened either?” And then the son said, “Yeah.” And then maybe you follow up with a question, “Why do you think a group of people would find meaning in a story like that?” Or even whether they make it up or how they maybe exaggerated parts of it, but why do you think people would tell a story like that? Maybe there’s meaning in this story that could help all of us and that’s the direction I’ve tried to go with my children and now my grandchildren. And I’ll tell you, in my own life it pays off.

Well, here’s the way I say it. Instead of interpreting the Bible literally, we interpret it literarily. Meaning, we take it seriously and we look for meaning and we realize that when people make up stories or when they embellish stories or exaggerate stories, especially when the process of generating the story doesn’t just happen in one creative individual’s brain but in a whole community’s brain, important things are going on in the evolution of that story and the story can have meaning whether or not it was true.


And if a Christian finds that hard to believe, then they have to say why did Jesus speak in parables, because he seemed to think that made-up, fictional stories were one of the most important tools in his repertoire.

Jared: I want to get back to the four stages real quick, and now I’m going to have an agenda here.

Brian: Yeah.

Jared: I would, I would put this, you know, this perplexity, I see a lot of people under this label more and more called deconstructionists.

Brian: Yes.

Jared: Uh, critical, you talk about how leaders are starting to be seen more as manipulators who control, and how, what’s the move, because we’re far along enough in this conversation, we have a lot of people maybe who’ve been with us at the podcast for the last five years and kind of joined in the beginning. They’re four or five years in –

Brian: Yes.

Jared: And they’re feeling stuck. Like, okay, I’m in this but I want to move beyond –

Brian: Yes.

Jared: I do want to get to that faith after the doubt and after the cynicism. What’s the move from perplexity to harmony, and maybe even, what’s the blockages that keep people from making that move?

Brian: So, Jared, that is a question I, boy, I just think, is really important and I think I have a better answer for that now than I did when I wrote the book and here’s what I would say. I think that our religious communities don’t just have a problem with doubt, I think they have a problem with authoritarianism and I like to say I don’t think doubt is the enemy of faith; I think doubt is the best friend of faith. I think doubt is the enemy of authoritarianism. And I think in Stage 3, we’re so angry at the authoritarian at the authority figures that told us what to think and said they knew things that they didn’t know and required us to say things that say we believe things that we have no way of knowing whether we believed or not. We didn’t even understand them, right? And especially when you look back in history and you think that, you know, how many Jews were killed and their lives were lived under horrible oppression and bigotry by Christians and all their problems would’ve been solved if they just said, “I believe in the Holy Trinity, right?” In other words, they just had to play a game and then they’re no longer stigmatized.

So, when you come to terms with authoritarianism, here’s where I think you go through a shift in Stage 3. First, you’re pissed off at those authoritarians. You’re angry at them. And then you start to realize, but you know what, there’s a story about why they were authoritarians. And you know what? I could’ve been like that and maybe I have been like that. And you know what? They’re just human beings. And there’s a sense when you say, they’re just human beings, then you are faced with a personal question and that is, if I’m not going to live my life under the domination of authoritarian leaders and if I’m not going to just spend my life being bitter at them, I’ve got to take authority for my own life. And that, to me, is this step of growing up and sadly it’s a step that will be opposed. You know?

We see it like with teenagers. Many parents don’t want their kids to grow up, right? They want their kids to stay obedient and quiet and cooperative (if they ever were). They certainly don’t want them to go through puberty because now to have another sexual being in the house just complicates everything, and so these parents just squash their children, don’t want them to grow up. Well, you know what? There’s a lot of religious leaders and doubt is like puberty and they just want to keep things simple and when people say, “Okay, I’m done with that, those religious leaders have no more magic for me and I’m not going to live my life just reacting to them. I’ve got to take authority, I’ve got to grow up, I’ve got to make some decisions for myself, and I have to be willing to live with the consequences,” that to me is a step of maturity and I think it’s what nudges you into that fourth stage. Does that, does that ring true, Jared? And don’t, you know, if I, if that isn’t satisfactory, keep pushing because I’m interested –

Jared: Well, no, I think it does, and you know, when you said that, I don’t want to shoehorn my guy Kierkegaard in here, but it sounds to me, in some ways, I really appreciated the phrase you used of taking authority for your own life.

Brian: Yes.

Jared: Which, just frankly, a lot of people I know that they’re feeling this arrested development. Like they were stunted –

Brian: Yes.

Jared: From doing what would maybe come more naturally, like literally in a pubescent or post-pubescent –

Brian: Yes, yes.

Jared: Stage of life where you do take ownership of your own life, they were taught that they can’t trust that authority.

Brian: Yes.

Jared: And so, they had to continue to hand it over to these authority figures and now they’re thirty-five, forty years old and realizing they’ve missed the boat and now they’re basically having to go back to be teenagers and that’s, for me, where I see that angsty, pissed off is like a normal –

Brian: Yes.


Jared: Do that because that’s the stage that you missed that you need to go back and recapture and reclaim. And I think of just Kierkegaard when he talks about this move, for me, could also be reframed as the move from objectivity where all meaning and, you know, purpose and things are found external to ourselves and we’re searching for it, to subjectivity, where we find it within ourselves.

Brian: Yes.

Jared: And that, is that, I think for me, that’s what I heard you say that to move between perplexity and harmony is I’m starting to move to own my own subjectivity, not relativism, but subjectivity.

Brian: Yes, I think that’s it. And you and I can both see how Kierkegaard’s life and work exemplifies that so powerfully.

Jared: Yeah.

Brian: He has to look around at all of his comrades in Denmark and say most of these people are just following the crowd and they’ve never learned how to be individuals. They’ve never learned how to take responsibility for their own thinking and so on. And obviously, there’s a kind of individualism that we’re not talking about where you just don’t, you know, give a rip about anybody else.

Jared: Right.

Brian: That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about basic adulthood and basic maturity. Maybe one other thing that I could say that might help folks see how this process works and how you don’t have to just blame anybody for being what they’ve become, you can maybe have empathy and even compassion on them. If you think about it like this, in cultures and through periods of history when most people had their first child when they were fourteen or fifteen years old, maybe sixteen or seventeen, you think, they maybe are in Stage 1. Maybe they edge into Stage 2 and now they have a child, and guess what? They’re going to teach their children what their parents taught them in the way their own parents taught them. So, in a sense now, they spend the next sixteen years of their lives teaching Stage 1 to other people. So first, they learn Stage 1 and now they teach Stage 1. And if they, in those days, might have had four or five or eight or ten children, so now from, you know, sixteen to forty-five or fifty, they’re preoccupied with teaching to children who are in simplicity. You can’t blame them for not growing beyond simplicity. It, especially if life was hard, and one of the things that’s happening to us through all kinds of things that are, have a mix of good and bad, we don’t have to be dualistic about it, is that many of us have a lot more leisure. We have fewer children. We have children later. We’re exposed to people of many different cultures. All of these things push us into places where our grandparents maybe never really had to go.

Pete: Right.

Pete: You know, something is striking me here if I can just have a moment and do a little self-therapy. I, you know, I taught for many years at an institution that I think it’s fair to say was marked by simplicity. And Jared is nodding his head.

Brian: Yes.

Pete: And again, I don’t say that as a judgment, just an observation, but I was a person of perplexity because of, you know, graduate school. But after I left that institution, it took a few months for me to have a real existential crisis, because it came down to – Pete, you no longer have people circumscribing what you believe –

Brian: Yes.

Pete: Now you’re on your own. So, what are you going to do?

Brian: Yes.

Pete: And that’s that movement toward authority, self-authority, right? Just, I mean that’s – that’s – I even sort of shake saying that because of the de-, you know, having to detox from, you know, you’re not your own authority. God’s the authority. Yeah, but, you know we have to trust sometimes our inner voice too about what God is doing, what God is saying, and it’s not just what the system tells you, but that was, I remember, I remember the day I came to that realization standing in my bedroom staring out the window saying, “Well, Pete, what do you believe?” and start thinking through this without those authority figures over you. You have to become someone who is steering his own ship. And I, I just want to bring that out because I just, I can imagine people listening and reading your book and listening to this discussion being in a very, very similar place because that is a very frightening place to be to own your own subjectivity, right, as Jared says. We’re not taught to do that as religious beings in, again, not to be simplistic, but the evangelical West and fundamentalist West –

Brian: Yes.

Pete: We’re not taught that’s part of a journey as people of faith. And we pay the price for it eventually.


Brian: We do, and other people do too because that’s where all of this stuff flows into politics. So, if you’re brought up in a family of white supremacists, you believe white supremacy is right. You have no reason to doubt it. The best people, the people who fed you and nourished you and cleaned your butt when you dirtied your diaper, those are the people who, along with the milk of your nourishment, taught you white supremacy. And you’re going to stay a white supremacist unless, at some point, you have the courage to differentiate and say, my grandfather believed that, my dad believed that, my mom believed that, I will not believe that. And in fact, the next time I’m home for Thanksgiving dinner and my dad says that racist statement, I am going to stand up and say, I cannot be in the room and hear you say that without telling you I find what you just said is appalling. And, you know, life gets complicated, right? But that’s part of growing up. And what religious, a certain kind of fundamentalist religion keeps people from being able to being able to stand up to their parents that way.

By the way, if people are struggling with this in terms of the Bible, try this one on. Here is like, to me, this is one of those texts that freaks people out. It freaked me out. But there’s a passage where Jesus says, “Don’t think I came to bring peace, but a sword.” And then, and I don’t think he means a literal sword, right? He’s a man of peace. He never kills anybody or anything like that. I think Jesus is thoroughly non-violent, but He uses that violent image and follows it up like this: “For I have come to set a man against his father, a woman against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law,” I forget exactly, but everyone is I have come to set the younger generation against the older generation. It’s what’s there in the text. And I – when I take that seriously, I think Jesus is saying, I’m here to upset the apple cart. I’m here to upset things. I’m here to say the younger generation has their own dreams and their own visions and they don’t just have to endlessly repeat what their elders are saying. I think that’s what Jesus is about. Frankly, you see it all through the Bible too as you both well know. But boy we’re taught to miss that when we read the Bible, when certain people teach it to us.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: It seems like there’s some, a level of to be able to do what you just said, there almost has to be a non-dualistic way of thinking or at least a complex way of thinking because there’s a sense where the loyalty to my tribe, the loyalty to the person who fed me, for me to disagree is considered an act of disloyalty –

Brian: Yes.

Jared: Not by just them, but by me. And so, it takes being able to have that nuanced thought to say I can disagree with you and still love you and still respect you and still be grateful to you. That’s a complex thought that I think is maybe difficult for some people.

Brian: I think you’re so right, Jared. And here is where, again, it’s such a tragedy that the Bible has only been taught as a Stage 1 document by Stage 1 teachers because, like, you go in the New Testament to Romans 13 and I Corinthians 11-14 and there’s, they’re dealing with issues like meat sacrificed to idols and Paul refuses to say who’s right and who’s wrong. He recasts it. It’s not a matter of right and wrong. It’s a matter of freedom and conscience. And suddenly, that becomes more of a Stage 2 problem. How are you going to manage this? And then, to me, and Jared this is where when you asked before about Stage 4, what gets people there? At the middle of both of those passages in Romans and I Corinthians comes this call to love. And what does he say? “When I was a child, I spoke like a child. When I became mature…” you know, things were different. And what’s maturity about? It says that love is even better than faith and hope, so it pushes love to the top of the agenda. So now, driven by love, I, in a sense, that becomes my guiding force into Stage 4 and so it means when I stand up to my parents, I have to do it in a loving way. When I confront Pharoah, I don’t hate Pharoah. I say, “Let my people go.” Right?

Pete: Yeah, right.

Brian: And so, to me, that’s exactly where the scriptures take us again and again. But we just have centuries of tradition as if the whole hermeneutical, the whole interpretive framework is within this very small dome. I’m thinking of the Truman Show, you know?

Pete: [Light laughter]

Brian: Where everything happens within the dome of Stage 1, maybe stretched to Stage 2.


Pete: Yeah. Well, you know I think Brian, that there is so much going on here in this discussion. Maybe just one more thing to talk about very briefly, but it’s being stuck between knowing what you don’t believe and then, like, what to believe. And –

Brian: Yes.

Pete: And I know sometimes that’s a complicated discussion because sometimes, this is my experience, sometimes people ask that because, okay, Pete, thanks for this that you’ve written. You’ve taken away my Bible from me –

Brian: Yes.

Pete: Now what do I replace it with? That’s one way of looking at it, or just having rigid beliefs but then saying, do I just believe anything? How do – and that’s a difficult thing for people to navigate. So, could you speak to that? Just briefly and maybe how people can conceptualize that?

Brian: Sure. Well, first thing I want to say, Pete, is that you and Jared are doing this, I see every episode it’s what you’re doing. You’re modeling a way of taking the Bible seriously, even reverently, but also playfully and having permission to think critically and you’re modeling this for people. And I think what’s in the back of a person’s mind when they say you’ve taken something away from here, here’s what I think is really there. You’ve created a social dilemma for me because the way you’re reading the Bible will never be acceptable to my pastor or my uncle or my parents or the church I go to. And you’ve created a social dilemma for me, and I would just say, yeah. That’s right. And you’re growing up and you’re an adult and this is part of growing up. You know, that’s reality.

Pete: Yeah.

Brian: That’s the challenge.

Pete: Sometimes hell is on the table too, Brian. I think for some people that they need to have some sense of that simplicity –

Brian: Yes.

Pete: Amid the complexity. You know, maybe that’s a little simplistic, but that’s at least my experience. Like, what’s going to happen to me when I die?

Brian: Yes.

Pete: That comes up a lot.

Brian: Yes. Yeah. I just think that, yeah, and this is part of the totalizing framework of a sort of very simplistic version of –

Pete: Right.

Brian: Christianity. And, by the way, we’ve got to remind people that there are Catholic versions of this. Protestant versions, Orthodox versions, and there are Muslim versions and Buddhist versions. This isn’t just a Christian problem; it’s a human problem. And, um, here’s the irony: If you want to become an individual, you need at least a few friends who want you to become an individual. In other words, you need to find some group of people because, you know, we human beings are social creatures. Even the word consciousness, to know with, we need other people to even know to help figure out who we are and here’s the great tragedy – there are many people who don’t have a single peer who will give them the room to ask these questions. And frankly, these days, you know, whatever Martin Luther did with the 95 Theses, I think that the counterpart to that today is podcasts. And I think every episode you guys create a space where people listen and they hear people who are thinking in ways that they have never been given permission to think and it’s modeled for them and to me this is my vision, it’s why I can’t give up on the church. To me, the church is a place where there are a core group of people who are learning to live with that maturity Paul talked about where love is the most important thing, where nothing else matters except faith expressing itself through love. And you find people for whom love is the guiding force, and in a certain sense, that’s the, that’s the only simplicity that really will take you very far in life. The simplicity of saying love is the most important, love is preeminent and, of course, suddenly we’re back to the Great Commandment of Jesus of loving God, loving our neighbor, loving ourselves, and I think we have to add in today’s world loving the world, loving the earth itself.

Jared: Well, I think that’s a great place for us to wrap this. To end in love. To end in that, the Great Commandment as sort of the way to navigate these stages of faith and the complexities of the world and I think I speak for Pete here to say, appreciate your affirmation of the podcast and the community and the conversations that happen here on the podcast. But we were just saying before we got started, you know, we, the place that we find ourselves in, or the story we find ourselves in, owes a lot to you, Brian, for the work you’ve been doing for just a long time. Not to say you’re old, but you know –

Pete: Well, he is.

Jared: You’ve been doing this for a long time.

Pete: He’s pretty old.

Brian: [Laughter]

Pete: [Laughter]


Jared: And you know you’ve been beating that drum for a really long time and just your persistence and patience with people to come along for the journey, I think, is admirable. So, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and continuing to have the conversation and speak up about these things.

Pete: What Jared said.

Brian: Well, it’s, I mean, here’s the thing – we’re all in this together. And it’s not just happening to us as individuals. I think it’s happening, it’s like the human race the human community at large is trying to mature and we all get to work out part of that process in our own lives and stories.

Jared: Well, thanks for dropping by. We really appreciate it, Brian.

Pete: Thanks, Brian.

[Music begins]

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In other words…

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Dave: For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.

[Music ends] [End of recorded material]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.