Last time I talked about receiving the building blocks of faith, the stage of the spiritual journey we might call construction. How we begin to become people of faith because of other people of faith. Beliefs get handed down. And at least for a period of our lives, we accept these beliefs without difficulty or question.
For many, however, there inevitably comes a time, an occasion, or an experience that raises doubts. Questions pop up. Bits of what we’ve inherited seem to make less sense. Or how we’ve practiced our faith no longer seems to work.
“Why do we believe this?”
“Does the Bible really say that?”
“Do I have to ignore science to believe in God?”
“I really don’t want to go to church anymore.”
“Why should I believe in God, Jesus, and that what the Bible says is true?”
Or maybe we see stuff happening in churches or the larger Christian world and have trouble squaring that with what Christians say they believe. Christian leaders you admire make big mistakes. Your congregation gets into a fight over something stupid, revealing the spiritual immaturity beneath the facade.
Or maybe someone in the church hurts you. James says that the tongue is a fire (James 3:6). A thoughtless comment or a personal slight has led to many exiting churches. And because churches already are often places where difficulties, conflicts, doubts, and questions are handled poorly, those involved may feel badly but are either unable or unwilling to pursue reconciliation.
All of these questions and experiences, left unaddressed or dealt with poorly, can turn someone into a spiritual and theological refugee. All of these things can cause us to enter that spiritual wilderness we call deconstruction. Deconstruction means going through a season of profound spiritual and theological questioning and doubt. It means no longer being sure of what you were raised to believe. It means entering into the process of trying to figure out what you believe and why you believe it.
It can also be good. Quite possibly necessary. It’s a process whereby you can actually grow and mature in your faith.
For me, it was an opinionated friend who had recently became a Christian, and while reading the Bible began comparing what it said to what different Christian denominations, including Catholicism, taught and believed. Let’s just say this led to several conversations between the two of us, conversations which were hard for me but still forced me to think through what I believed.
When I began to question some of what I was raised to believe, it felt like the ground underneath my feet was shaking. And when what you thought was firm ground begins to crumble, it’s hard to know where you stand. I was experiencing an epistemic earthquake of sorts. Whatever building blocks of faith I had received during my childhood, faith now felt like a game of Jenga. Would the whole thing eventually topple over, leaving me with nothing left to believe?
During this period I felt anxious about what my Mom and other members of my very Catholic family would think if they knew that this good Catholic boy was no longer sure about ideas like transubstantiation, the male priesthood, and praying to Mary and the saints. Piece by piece, I was pulling apart my Catholic upbringing. It was like living a double life. While at university I felt free to question and to explore, whenever I was home or visiting family I kept a tight lid on what was going on in my head and in my heart. Not only was my family thoroughly Catholic, for whatever reason I didn’t feel free or able to express my doubts or to share what I was going through. My being an introvert could very well have had something to do with it. But I also think that there was this underlying sense that you were just to accept what you were taught. Don’t think about it. Don’t express doubts or questions out loud, because they are not the stuff one brings up in polite company.
Here’s the thing about deconstruction. There is a healthy way and an unhealthy way to go through it.
Over the last few years, there have been several stories of prominent Christian leaders not only going through deconstruction but leaving the faith behind altogether. Often they cite a perceived conflict between science and faith, issues around sexuality, or other ways in which their faith comes up short against large, cultural questions and issues. It’s as though they had been living in some sort of impenetrable Christian bubble and were woefully unprepared to handle the intellectual and existential challenges that living as a follower of Jesus in our society involves.
Even more mystifying is the impression they give that somehow these questions and challenges are a huge surprise. Truth is, none of the hard questions we can ask about our faith, about the Bible, about Jesus, about church, and about God are new. Thoughtful Christians have been asking them for about two thousand years. And this means we have a long tradition of people wrestling with all the issues that cause people now to deconstruct their faith that we can draw upon for wisdom and counsel. We are never alone in our questions.
But then I wonder if this is how some of these people feel. Alone. Maybe they grew up in a church that didn’t allow questions or gave unsatisfying, simplistic answers. Perhaps they were never given spiritual and theological resources, to say nothing of the wise pastoral counsel, that would have helped them traverse the difficult terrain of deconstruction.
I’m guessing some feel embarrassed, guilty, or afraid of their doubts and questions, like somehow they are unfaithful and inadequate as believers for having them. Being honest and vulnerable about what they’re going through is too costly. “What will other people think and say?” “Will I be criticized and judged?” “If I don’t believe in a literal 6-day creation, will my church revoke my membership?”
So is it any wonder some simply decide to cut and run?
If that’s the unhealthy way to go through deconstruction, what’s a healthier way?
There’s a few things I would say. First, realize that everyone–and I mean, everyone–experiences doubts and has questions. If they say otherwise, I really wonder if they’re being honest: with themselves and with others. The point is, you’re not alone. Or you don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to come up with answers all by yourself. Nor do you have to feel ashamed or afraid. Questions and doubts are–and hear me on this–perfectly normal and even to be expected. Having doubt isn’t a lack of faith but perhaps is the surest sign that someone has faith. After all, you’re doubting something, aren’t you?
As a pastor, I would want people in my congregation to feel comfortable asking me their difficult questions. I don’t want them simmering in doubt but not addressing it. I don’t want people to hold onto their theological questions out of fear or guilt. Ask your questions. Speak out loud.
Another point to make is that Christianity also has a rich tradition of wrestling with and working through serious doubts and difficult questions. There are plenty of books that can help. Check out C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity or Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God, for starters. Read A.J. Swoboda’s new book After Doubt. I’ll warn you, though. You may very well have to do some work and push yourself a little more to think a little deeper than you are used to doing.
And while there is so much more to say about deconstruction that this little blog post can’t possibly hope to address, I will say one last thing. God is with you in your doubts and questions. It’s one thing to worry that you’re going to disappoint your family or your church, but it’s another thing altogether to worry that you’re going to disappoint God. Maybe we say to ourselves, “God wants me to trust him. He calls me to believe. And if I have doubts and questions, then he’ll be disapppointed in me.” We think having doubt is a failure of faith.
Let me say this: You can never disappoint God because you have honest doubts and questions. Never. Case closed. Full stop. Put that notion out of your mind right now. It’s a satanic lie, an absolute falsehood that, if we believe it, actually keeps us from growing in faith and walking with God more closely.
More to the point, God invites us to wrestle with our questions. See a time of deconstruction as an invitation from God to go deeper in your relationship with him. Let your questions drive you to your knees in prayer. Be willing to take the time to work through your questions. Have patience with yourself and with God. And stay in a worshipping Christian community. For goodness sake, don’t isolate yourself.
Roughly 30 years ago I began to feel the theological ground under my feet quake. I found myself unsettled and uncertain. Questions and doubts filled my mind. It wasn’t an easy process. It took years. Some of the building blocks of faith I received I have discarded. Not everything I was taught to believe do I still believe.
Yet I am still here. I still follow Jesus. The core of my faith has only gotten stronger. Do I have all of my questions and doubts resolved and answered? Not hardly. Do I still wrestle with God? Most definitely. But I am standing on much more solid ground. And part of that solid ground is the freedom of being able to address rather than hide from the questions that I find myself asking.
Next up we’ll talk about reconstruction.