The Rev. Brian McLaren: Simplicity: The Season of Spiritual Awakening

Many of us have memories of when our spiritual lives first came alive--the season of our "first love."1 For example, in those initial months after my experience under the stars, I felt the Bible speak to me as never before. The simplest word or phrase would stir my soul. My weeks centered around Tuesday nights, the time of the "Jesus people" prayer-and-teaching gathering I attended with some friends. I started wearing a big wooden cross around my neck, and I carried a big, green Living Bible on top of my high-school books-in hopes that someone would ask me about either of them, so I could "bear witness" to my exuberant, contagious faith. I loved to insert "Praise the Lord!" into my speech as often as possible--which elicited "Amen!" from my Christian friends and surprise or annoyance from my other friends. Speaking of my Christian friends, we could often be found huddling in a stairwell or even the "smoking court" (a fixture of high schools back in those days)--not smoking, but praying for a miraculous intervention of some sort. And our prayers, it seemed to us, were answered way beyond the statistical norm. We seemed to "live and move and have our being" in the holy glow of God's presence. It was spiritual springtime, and we assumed it would never end.

Spring is an amazing mixture of fragility and vitality. Each new sprout is delicate, but what can compare with the combined power of millions of leaves bursting out, drawing energy from the sun? The first season of the spiritual life similarly combines tenderness and toughness as tiny seeds sprout and display the magnificent power of life and growth.

Just as all higher mathematics depends on learning basic arithmetic, and just as all more sophisticated music depends on mastering the basics of tempo, melody, and harmony, the spiritual life depends on learning well the essential lessons of this first season, Simplicity. If these lessons aren't learned well, practitioners will struggle in later seasons. But if in due time this season doesn't give way to the next, the spiritual life can grow stagnant and even toxic.2 Nearly all of us in this dynamic season of Simplicity tend to share a number of characteristics. We see the world in simple dualist terms: we are the good guys who follow the good authority figures and we have the right answers; they are the bad guys who consciously or unconsciously fight on the wrong side of the cosmic struggle between good and evil. We feel a deep sense of identity and belonging in our in-group. This in-group loyalty is constantly reinforced by our Stage One leaders, who offer us clear, authoritative, black-and-white answers to every question of belief or behavior, reminding us of the great danger of being misled by them into accepting wrong answers or following the wrong rules. As a result, our relationships in this stage tend to be dependent or even codependent; we need our in-group and its confident, charismatic leaders to know who we are and what we're about. God, from this vantage point, is our ultimate Authority Figure, giving us simple truths to believe and simple rules to follow, leading us into battle against evil and blessing us by being ever on our side. This simple, dualist faith gives us great confidence.3

This confidence, of course, has a danger, as the old Bob Dylan classic "With God on Our Side" makes clear: "You don't count the dead when God's on your side." The same sense of identification with an in-group that generates a warm glow of belonging and motivates sacrificial action for us can sour into intolerance, hatred, and even violence toward them. And the same easy, black-and-white answers that comfort and reassure us now may later seem arrogant, naive, ignorant, and harmful, if we don't move beyond Simplicity in the fullness of time.

So what are the important and essential lessons of Simplicity, and how can we learn them well without getting stuck there long after the "fullness of time" has expired? Those questions lead us to the first three practices of naked spirituality: awakening, gratitude, and awe.


  1. The phrase "first love" evokes both the romantic experience of being "in love" and the spiritual experience of lost love of Rev. 2:4.

  2. My thinking here is especially indebted to William Perry, Jr., Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970); and ÒCognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning,Ó in Arthur W. Chickering et al., The Modern American College (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1981), pp. 76-116.

  3. It also may give us a few secret moments of great anxiety about the danger of being wrong-or, just as bad, being considered wrong by our in-group, with its strict standards.

[Excerpted from _ Naked Spirituality: A Life with God  **in 12 Simple Words. _Copyright © 2011 by Brian McLaren. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers]**