The Rev. Brian McLaren: Harmony: The Season of Spiritual Deepening

You never knew you were capable of feeling, much less surviving, such pain. You felt that you were about to break open, that all your blood and all your insides would explode out of you if the pressure lasted for one more second. It couldn't get any worse, you thought. But then it did. Contraction after contraction. Worse, and worse, and worse still. And then, grunting, panting, sweating, screaming, you took a deep breath and pushed once more, feeling it was futile to do so, but doing so anyway. Suddenly-it was hard to believe-suddenly there was this gush and the feeling of something slipping between your thighs, and the midwife picked up your daughter and lifted her to your breast. A gasp, a cry, a beautiful cry. Tears-yours, your husband's, even the midwife's. Clean towels, warm blankets, a camera flash, and there in your arms is your little girl, and it's happening without your trying, without her trying; you are bonding to one another, sweaty maternal skin to slippery infant skin, in a bond that can never be broken.

Harmony. It comes through pain, after pain. The artist agonizes, and finally, no not yet, no not yet, yes, yes, at the finally after finally, beauty comes. The team struggles, defeat, defeat, defeat, and then victory. The struggle for liberation faces setbacks, betrayal, duplicity, more betrayal, hope, disappointment, more setbacks, vicious lies, humiliation, defection, despair, and then, almost as an afterthought because it has come so much harder and later than expected, breakthrough.

There are joys in Simplicity. There are victories. There are joys in Complexity too, and even certain satisfactions in Perplexity. But there is a quiet fullness of joy that comes after perplexity. We might call it humility, even maturity, or better, Harmony, because it not only transcends the previous stages, but includes them. It integrates simplicity, complexity, and perplexity into a rich, dynamic four-part harmony. It's a clear and open space, a quiet time and place that makes room for new melodies to take shape and find voice. There is nothing like the life that is born through the hard labor of becoming, enduring, never giving up, never letting go, and then, paradoxically, letting go, and then receiving all you had hoped for and more.1

When Stage Three, Perplexity, gives way to Stage Four, Harmony, there is a quiet transcendence-a transcendence that brings along or includes the previous stages rather than leaving them behind. So the right-versus-wrong dualism of Simplicity, the effective-versus-ineffective pragmatism of Complexity, and the honest-versus-dishonest relativism of Perplexity are taken up and expanded into something bigger in the Harmony of Stage Four.

The first black-and-white simplicity now fills out into a second simplicity that is full-color and alive. If first-simplicity truths were bold, judging, and exclusive, second-simplicity truths are no less bold, but they harmonize, integrate, and reconcile. You can feel this grand second simplicity glowing in elegant, harmonizing words like these:

  "I desire compassion and not sacrifice" (Matt. 12:7).

  "Seek first God's reign and God's justice, and everything else you need will come to you in time" (Matt. 6:33).

  "Love God with all your being, and love your neighbors as yourself" (Matt. 22:36-39).

  "Faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13).

If in Stage One we knew that everything was knowable, in Stage Two we knew that everything was doable, and in Stage Three we knew that everything was relative, now we in some way come to know with the old sage that "everything is suitable for its time" (Eccl. 3:11). We can finally begin to accept that all our knowing, past and present, is partial (1 Cor. 13:12). Harmony requires this posture of humility, which allows us to finally see authority figures neither as godlike (as in Stages One and Two) nor as demonic (as in Stage Three), but rather as human beings like us, often doing the best they can and even then making plenty of mistakes along the way. This newfound humility also allows us to find our identity in a new way in relation to others: not in Stage One dependence, not in Stage Two independence, and not in Stage Three counterdependence, but in the more mature interdependence of mutuality.

And what happens to our view of God in Stage Four? In some ways, this is the stage when faith takes off its dualistic, pragmatic, and relativistic clothing and seeks to encounter God nakedly. Of course, in Stage Four we know we must use words, just as we have in previous stages, but we also know that our words conceal as they reveal. Similarly, we must celebrate the rich heritage of our religious traditions, but those traditions are now the foundation on which we build, not the ceiling under which we are trapped. Stage One orthodoxy now morphs into what some have called paradoxy-the realization that every true statement about God (including this one) cannot fully contain the true majesty and wonder of God. This humility before God helps create harmony among all of us who believe in God, making it harder for us to maintain the old us-versus-them dualisms that have so often animated religious conservatives and liberals alike. (For this reason, Stage Four people will often react against this four-stage framework itself, feeling that it separates them from others to whom they want to be connected and with whom they want to be identified.)

And where from here? Is this the pinnacle? Have we now arrived? As you might expect, this season of Harmony eventually opens into a new Simplicity. This new second Simplicity eventually matures into a new season of higher Complexity, and so on, in an ascending spiral of growth and discovery that continues as long as life itself. Far from feeling we have finally arrived, in Stage Four we finally begin to understand that arrival has never been the point.


  1. In Finding Our Way Again (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008), I expressed a similar idea with similar imagery: "You can't take an epidural shot to ease the pain of giving birth to character. In a sense, every day of your life is labor: the rhythmic agony of producing the person who will wake up in your body tomorrow, creating your reputation, continuing your legacy, and influencing your family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and countless strangers, for better or worse" (p. 11).

[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]**