“When All Was Simple and Clear” – Stage One Faith
(Based on I John 3:1-10 and James 1:5-8)
A Message Offered by Toby Jones to the People of ChxUCC on 2/21/21
On Wednesday nights during Lent, a small group of us are studying Brian McLaren’s latest book Faith After Doubt. In this compelling work, McLaren compares the journey of faith with the journey of life, breaking it down into 4 stages. Today I want to introduce you to McLaren’s notion of what faith is like in Stage 1, the earliest, most child-like form of faith.
The hallmarks or characteristics of Stage 1 faith are assent to authority, a need for simplicity, and a desire for absolute certainty. If there were a bumper sticker that captured the mindset and approach of a person in Stage 1 faith, it would have to be “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Perhaps you’ve seen that bumper sticker.
Let’s start with assent to authority. In Stage 1, the person of faith simply grants authority to God and believes the disciple’s job is simply to do what God wants. Stage 1 faith is like a small child learning to please his parents. He very quickly figures out what “no” means and how to make his parents smile and praise him. Doing things like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ picking up after yourself, and sharing your toys all result in the big people in your life responding positively. Hitting, screaming, or biting brings very negative consequences. So people in Stage 1 faith use this very juvenile, child-like understanding of authority and transfer it to God. God, therefore, becomes someone to be feared and obeyed – not messed with and certainly not questioned. There’s a passage in Romans 9 that captures this Stage 1 understanding of faith: “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Doesn’t the potter have the right to make whatever He wants out of the clay?” (Romans 9:20-21)
Our reading from James 1 also grows out of this Stage 1, authoritarian notion of faith. James writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; for he is a double-minded man.” (James 1:5-8)
This same passage introduces us to another characteristic of Stage 1 faith: the need for simplicity. In this earliest stage of faith, everything is black and white; no gray. Everything in life and in faith during Stage One fits into one of two categories: it’s either right or it’s wrong. It’s either good or it’s bad. Something is either of God or it’s of the Devil. Scholars call this “dualistic thinking.” Now this simplistic, child-like way of thinking is related to the whole notion of authority, because to the child, it’s the big people in the world who know what is right and wrong. The adults pronounce what is good and bad, and the kid then knows which is which and what to choose.
So let’s take a look at Stage 1 faith and its need for simplicity in one of our passages for the morning. 1 John 3 really exemplifies the Stage 1 perspective. In fact, the three letters of John toward the end of the New Testament, are probably the most dualistic, most black and white, and most simplistic of any books in the entire Bible. Listen carefully again to this passage, and you’ll understand how someone in Stage 1 faith sees the world. “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness…No one who lives in God keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen God or known him.” Can you hear how black and white that is? It gets even better: “If you sin, you are a lawbreaker…If you know God, you totally stop sinning…” Is that really true? Is that how it works from your experience? No…but that is how people at Stage 1 of their faith believe it works.
Let’s listen to some more of this passage from 1 John 3. “Dear Children, don’t let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil…No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning.” And here’s John’s stunning conclusion: “Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God.”
I said at the outset that the three hallmarks of Stage 1 faith are assent to authority, a need for simplicity, and a desire for absolute certainty. Did you notice how certain the writer of 1 John was about all this. He is so black and white in everything he writes! There is no room for doubt. You are either a sinner or you are a saint. You are either living a perfect, sinless life on God’s team or you are of the devil.
For people in Stage 1, God is simple to understand. He’s a cop – an all-seeing, all-knowing cop in the sky. That’s why I chose that haunting, somewhat creepy song by The Police this morning –“Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, I’ll be watching you. Every single day, every word you say, every game you play, I’ll be watching you…Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, I’ll be watching you.” People in the first phase of the faith journey are constantly looking back over their shoulder for the God who is always watching them, always policing them, and always trying to catch them in the act.
But the good news is that in Stage 1, you always know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s simple and it’s certain. It’s all been spelled out for you, right there in the black and white of the Bible. Just do exactly what the Bible says; follow all the rules; stop sinning, and you’ll be good to go. Just keep the Authority – God – happy and your life will go well.
Stage 1 faith has its advantages. It’s nice to live in a world with clear lines of authority, an indisputable chain of command with God in charge. It can be comforting to think that if I read the Bible and do what it says, everything in my life will go well. It’s appealing to have simple, clear answers for today’s vexing problems. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people in Stage 1 faith take all the horrible problems of the world and say, “All of this bad stuff is happening because we aren’t obeying God anymore…If we’d just go back to living the 10 Commandments and living the way God intended, then all of the world’s troubles would disappear.” Simple answers can be very appealing to some people.
Welcome to Stage 1 faith. Do you like it? Are you comfortable here? Does your experience in trying to live as a follower of Jesus line up with these Stage 1 passages and pronouncements? “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Really?
All this assent to authority, this need for simplicity and absolute certainty can be appealing to some. But those very same things can be a huge turn-off to others… hundreds of millions of others, who have now left the church. Doubt and questions may be the enemies of those in Stage 1 faith, but to those who have moved beyond Stage 1, doubt and questions can actually be the doorway to a much deeper, more meaningful faith. More on that next week.
According to McLaren’s typology, there are 4 stages of faith, so we’ve only just begun here at Stage 1. I hope you’ll come back next week as we explore what happens when the heaven-sent catalyst of doubt creeps in and pushes us to engage the complexities of life. While Stage 1 people tend to view doubt negatively, theologian Frederich Buechner calls doubt “the ants in the pants of faith,” making us uncomfortable and squirmy enough to advance to the next stage of faith.
But the sad truth about Stage 1 faith is that most adult Christians never graduate and never move on from this infantile level of faith. Their God is an authority figure. Their faith is a reliable formula, a business transaction – if we do this, then God does that. Everything for Stage One folks remains black and white. There is no gray, no room for doubt. So what keeps people from moving on from such a rudimentary level of faith? McLaren thinks it has something to do with the way our brains develop and operate. There are three main parts of the brain – 3 centers of thinking. The first one emerges in the womb. It is purely instinctive and helps us survive. It controls our reflexes, the fight or flight instinct, and our bodily functions. Some neurologists call this our “Reptilian” brain, and it is completely absorbed in the self. In the reptilian brain center, it’s all about me – my biological needs, my safety, my instincts.
The next thinking center to develop is the “Mammalian” brain, our intuition, our heart, that part of our brain that focuses on attachments to others, our social engagement, perhaps even our feelings and emotions. As our world begins to expand, we turn outward, interacting with others in relationships, figuring out how to form bonds of attachment and how to belong. We might think of this second part of our brain as tied to our heart and helping our relationships.
Third and finally, there’s a portion of our brain that develops the ability to engage in rational and analytical thought. This “Primate” brain is our intellectual center. As this function of the brain develops, we begin to stand back from our experience and consider what it all means. We process information, analyze it, and draw conclusions.
What does all this brain stuff have to do with the stages of faith? How could our brains keep us locked in a Stage 1 level of faith? Well, the brain at its best works like a 3-person committee. A well-integrated, mature person won’t be controlled by the most primitive or instinctive brain function. Ideally, all 3 of our thinking centers will be allowed to assert their influence on every decision we make, including our beliefs. As McLaren puts it, “Faith is a matter of head, heart, and gut; of meaning, belonging, and survival; of intellect, intuition, and instinct. It’s a whole-brain, whole-self proposal.”(17) But for many Christians, when it comes to their faith, they allow only their fear (the instinctive brain) or their need for belonging (the intuitive brain) to guide them, shutting out the intellect and the reason. Here’s an example of how all this works. In 1st John 3, we read the line “Anyone who knows God stops sinning,” and, if allowed, the intellectual part of our brain says, ‘That’s not true. Every Christian and every pastor I know keeps sinning. Look at all the clergy sex scandals.’ But as your intellectual brain is making its case, your Intuitive brain says, ‘Yeah, but if I say that, how am I going to be viewed by my church, my Christian community? Will I still belong and have a place here if I voice this kind of doubt or dissent?’ And right about then, your Reptilian or instinctive brain kicks in saying, ‘Danger! Danger! Don’t take this risk! Keep your mouth shut on this one.’ This whole process, McLaren notes, can “leave you feeling torn among competing loyalties, affections, and relationships.” (19)
People in Stage 1 faith have learned to silence the intellectual center of their brains, giving undue influence to their overly developed instinctive and intuitive thinking centers. The end result is a faith that never grows or matures into adulthood. And the big problem, folks, is that our churches are filled with people who have never graduated from this childlike approach to faith; while our streets, lakes, golf courses, and yoga studios are filled with people who won’t come to church because of all the Stage 1 Christians inhabiting the pews. Again, I invite you to come back again next week, when we’ll learn how to move onto the next stage of faith, where we engage complexity and the doubts that come with it. Amen.