The Spiritual Journey Part 4: Belief, (Un)Certainty, and Why Everyone is a Person of Faith

After my three recent posts on construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, I had a few extra thoughts I thought worth sharing.

To begin, this whole process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction is all about going through a time of serious doubts regarding your faith. It’s a period of profound questioning, one many experience. Some find that they lose their faith altogether. All you have to do is Google “Christian deconstruction” and you will find several examples of prominent Christian leaders and celebrities who have recently deconstructed but not reconstucted their faith. They have left Christianity completely. Others who go through such a season reconstruct their faith so that it is more “progressive,” which means reimagining or even jettisoning some traditional Christian beliefs.

But it is possible to go through this process and simply become more resilient and confident in your faith.

It all depends on how you go through the process, the resources you find to help you, and whether or not you are willing to be honest about your questions and are also willing to doubt your doubts. Especially if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, and know a lot of committed believers who are living out their faith with integrity, you should be willing to take your time. You owe yourself (and those who helped you construct your faith) that much.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a simple and neat process. It’s not necessarily a straightforward, linear path. Nor do I want to give the impression that once you enter the reconstruction phase that all of your questions and doubts will go away. I think part of the experience of this process is not so much ridding yourself of all questions and doubts, but of learning how to deal with them in a more mature, honest way. That is, I think our doubts and questions as Christians are a part of being on this spiritual journey.

Of course, there are some who want an absolute 100% certainty when it comes to questions about their faith. They want definitive, unassailable proof that God exists, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that what the Bible says is reliable and true. Beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Here’s the thing: we can’t be that certain about anything. Not in a modern, scientific sense that people often mean. I would even say that it’s even unreasonable to expect that level of certainty. Indeed, I think this is even true of scientific knowledge. Not only that, but proof is not the same as evidence. I would say there is plenty of evidence that God exists, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that the Bible is reliable and true. But can I 100% prove it? No, I cannot.

But there’s more to it than that. We’re not merely intellectual creatures. It’s not just our rational thoughts that determine how we handle doubts and questions as people of faith. Our experiences, our relationships, our emotions, our temperaments–all of these things bear significantly on how we approach big theological, spiritual, philosophical, and existential questions.

Think of it this way. You might be familiar with the so-called “new atheists,” people like Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Well, the truth is, there was nothing really new about the intellectual arguments these writers used. In fact, in some cases their arguments were quite poor and demonstrated very little understanding of religious faith and the intellectual case that can be made for faith. What was new was the vitriol with which they wrote and spoke. There was almost an anger, or at the very least a deep disdain for religious faith and belief. This is particularly true of Dawkins. Given this, I have to wonder if there is much more going on than simply intellectual questions and arguments.

Whatever their reasoning is for their atheist stance, there is definitely an emotional, personal dimension to their attacks on religion. Or at least it seems that way to me.

Consider the following words from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

So when it comes to doubt and decontruction, remember that it’s not always about ideas. And I think we know that. We know people–maybe you’re one–who have left faith behind because they’ve been hurt by other Christians. Perhaps a trusted pastor has broken that trust in a profound way. Or maybe something in their church experience has made them question their faith. There are people who go through deconstruction who do so precisely in reaction to a legalistic upbringing or a painful experience.

And a process of deconstruction and reconstruction might very well mean having to come to terms with issues that are personal and emotional rather than theological or intellectual. Because of a poor experience of growing up in the church, what you were taught to believe is guilty by association. This fact speaks powerfully to how the credibility of what we believe depends significantly on how our lives reflect (or fail to reflect) that belief. No wonder Paul tells Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16).

And anyone having a conversation with someone for whom this is their experience needs to proceed with great sensitivity. If someone says they don’t believe in God or that Jesus is true, it’s quite possible that what they are saying is about something else much deeper. This is really about that. About the fact that someone in their church abused them when they were young. About the fact that though they grew up in a Christian home, their parents were strict and cold. About the fact that when they expressed doubts or asked questions, they were told to simply believe or were criticized for having weak faith.

Deconstruction is never only intellectual. Often there is something else going on.

That said, let me add this: being disappointed in a Christian leader doesn’t disprove the resurrection of Jesus. Having had a negative church experience doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t reliable and true. The worst of childhood experiences with respect to church and faith needn’t permanently lead anyone to reject belief in God.

So while we our experiences can have a profound impact on our faith, we cannot base our faith (or lack of it) purely on our experiences. When we find that our experiences fall short of our faith, intellectual, historical, and theological arguments and reasons can genuinely help us to trust God.

Another important point to consider is that everyone has faith. None of us believes everything we believe because we have 100% incontrovertible evidence. Being a scientist takes faith, being an atheist takes faith, and being a Christian takes faith. Life requires trust–in someone, in something, in that which is outside of ourselves. Life requires holding beliefs that we cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt. Living otherwise is sheer nonsense and impossibility. It’s never a question of whether one person has faith while another does not. Instead, it’s a question of where (or in who) you place your faith.

The Christian life always includes questions and doubts. Because none of us who follow Jesus can lay claim to having perfect or comprehensive knowledge of everything–including what we claim to believe. Yet we can still have good evidence. One intellectual position–atheism or Christianity–may be more persuasive to someone for various reasons. I believe Christians can make a persuasive case for their truth claims. For that reason, I also believe that this is the reason we can make it through periods of deconstruction with a robust, defensible worldview. That said, as in deconstruction, more is at work in this process than intellectual arguments. Christians who seek to build up and defend their faith, and persuade others of it, need more than well-thought out theology. We need to trust that God is living and active and will draw those to himself who are open to him. Because, ultimately, faith is not an accomplishment, but a gift of the living God to whom our faith ought to be directed.