Some people sail through life serenely, confident of their faith or their lack of belief in God. But many people go through faith transitions in their life – into or out of faith, sometimes more than once.
Those raised in christian families begin with the faith of their parents, believing what they are told just like they believe most things their parents tell them (when they are young, at least!). But as they grow to be adults, their life and worldview must grow too.
This often leads to having doubts about what they have been taught and what they have experienced. And this can be a struggle.
Truth and the marketplace of ideas
When I was a young christian (yes I can still remember – just! 🙂 ) christianity was more or less the only belief system in town. You either believed it or you didn’t. Of course there were atheists and agnostics and Jews around, but I didn’t come across them often and christianity was the default.
It’s not like that now. Migration has introduced other religions into previously nominal christian societies. Atheism has been made a viable option. Questions, doubts and critiques of christian belief are now readily available in books, podcasts, videos and blogs. And churches and youth groups don’t always give adequate answers.
So it is no surprise that young christians today (and some older ones too) struggle to continue to believe.
Plenty to make you think again
Questions and doubts arise (in my experience) from four different causes.
1. Is it all really true?
When I was a child in Sunday School, I accepted the truth of Adam & Eve and Noah’s flood without thinking. But when I read the stories as an adult, I saw them as much more like folk tales than history. The younger me accepted the Bible’s depiction of the genocidal invasion of Canaan as commanded by God, but the older me thought Jesus, who commanded non-violence, wouldn’t have approved of that killing. There are many doctrines and events that I now question, not because I have no faith, but because I know Jesus better.
These are common experiences. Many christians find they cannot believe in hell and patriarchy, in the Old Testament laws and depiction of God. They don’t seem to be consistent with the revelation of God in Jesus. This leads them to deconstruct their faith, to find out what stands and what falls away. To better understand what is the truth.
2. Bad behaviour
In Australia, surveys of non-christians show that some of their biggest reasons against believing are the behaviour of christians and churches. Hypocrisy, exclusion, sexism, pedophilia, racism, materialism, homophobia, sexual abuse, refusal to act on climate change, and so on. In the US, all that, and christian nationalism as well.
Whether you agree with me or not that these things are evils, there’ll be some that we can all agree on, surely. So we can recognise that christians who observe these things within their church, or worse still have experienced abuse and disrespect, will feel they cannot be part of that church. So many people leave the church, not because they disbelieve, but because they have been abused hurt and rejected, or because they cannot condone or accept the behaviour they observe or experience.
3. Feeling let down by God
Perhaps we have experienced bereavement or illness. Perhaps life isn’t just working out for us they way we hoped – a job lost, a relationship broken, a business venture failed. Perhaps we have prayed earnestly for healing or help, believing Jesus’ promises, and have not received what we were asking for.
Disappointment with God can be devastating to faith. Intellectually we know that God cannot answer all our prayers, and may have good reasons for not coming through on a particular occasion. But it still hurts.
4. I don’t feel anything
Christians can talk easily of how they experience God. God spoke to them, or guided them, healed them, or answered their prayers. They feel close to him, especially in worship or when they speak in tongues. God gave them a prophecy. Jesus is a friend they can talk to any time.
These and more can be very real and life-changing experiences. But not everyone has them. For some people, believing in God is a matter of evidence and faith, but not experience. If they are taught that these experiences are promised and can be expected, they can easily feel discouraged. They deconstruct because they feel God hasn’t come through for them.
We’ll call it “deconstruction”
It has become popular to call this process of questioning one’s faith “deconstruction”. It makes sense. Our belief systems are like a web of ideas, or a construction, and dismantling them can be seen as a deconstruction or even demolition.
But not everyone uses this term in the same way, leading to confusion and disagreement.
The term “deconstruction” was used last century by philosopher Jacques Derrida as part of his view that language conveys meaning inadequately, and so needs to be “deconstructed” or analysed to determine its true significance and to identify tensions and contradictions. More or less. I haven’t read Derrida, I’m just going by what people say about him, and they aren’t always consistent.
The term has been applied to christian faith, in three different ways.
1. Destructive process?
Some see deconstruction as a destructive process, leading to a loss of faith. Certainly that is the end result for many people who begin to question the faith they used to believe.
But is that the “fault” of deconstruction, or a weakness in the faith they have been taught?
High profile christian pastor, Matt Chandler, recently ruffled a few feathers by suggesting that if you “experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ” it is “really impossible to deconstruct from” that. He explained he was using “deconstruct” in the sense of believing that truth is unknowable, which is a destructive conclusion for christian faith. But critics said he was painting a much too negative picture of a process that can be helpful to faith.
It seems to me that he can’t know who has actually experienced Jesus’ grace, and Matt’s comments are likely to deeply discourage those who are deconstructing for good reason. It makes them more likely to think they never believed in the first place, it was all a sham, even if this isn’t actually the case. I wonder whether he assumes that his form of faith is the right one, and anyone who questions his Reformed theology is in danger of losing their faith?
Sometimes deconstruction will be destructive of faith, but sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it will really lead to renewal of faith. Time will tell. It doesn’t seem true to me to pre-judge that. If we encourage people to seek truth and seek Jesus, deconstruction will likely be a positive event.
2. A fact of life?
Others see deconstruction as a fact of life, something that happens and we need to deal with it. People have doubts, let’s help them sort them out, and hope they come through OK. To do this we need to be prepared with good answers to questions and doubts and be patient with people going through this experience.
This is certainly a less negative approach, but it assumes we know the answers, and we just have to help doubters see the truth that we know. But what if there are genuine problems with the beliefs a person has been taught and the behaviour they have seen? Then the existing “answers” may be part of the problem and not necessarily helpful.
In the end, seeking truth and seeking Jesus should be our aim. Who knows where that will lead us?
3. A part of growth?
Still others, (including me) see deconstruction as a positive process of unpacking, examining and reviewing, necessary for anyone who is active in their faith and interacting with the world outside the church. We know there is a risk that those who deconstruct may decide they can no longer believe. But we also know that not deconstructing will likely lead to the same result for them.
We believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. We believe him when he said that those who seek will find. We believe with that if we seek truth, we’ll find God in unexpected places. We believe that we should always be growing, which means changing. Which means letting go of some thigs we believe and do, to take up others.
Deconstruction isn’t always a positive. But if we reconstruct as we deconstruct, we will hopefully grow and discover new truths.
Deconstruction to save one’s faith
I first followed Jesus in my late teens. It wasn’t long before I started examining my beliefs and adjusting them as I learnt new facts. When I found an anomaly in the christian belief I was taught, I investigated. One by one, anomalies and difficulties became gateways to new understandings.
I began to understand Jesus as he was in his time. Not the tame Jesus of western theology, but a Jesus who cared passionately for the truth and for the down-trodden, who hated hypocrisy and loved humility.
Gradually my understanding of the Bible shifted, as I saw it more through middle-eastern first century eyes. I learned that Jesus and the apostles didn’t think like modern scientific western men think. And they read, and wrote, the Bible differently than I was taught to.
My faith didn’t leak out, but became more full, more exciting, more holistic.
If I’d stayed with the faith of my teens, I’m not sure I would still be a believer today. And I know others who feel the same.
We each have a choice
If you are happy with your faith as it is, then deconstruction probably isn’t something you need to consider (except I hope you have sensitivity to those who are feeling the need to deconstruct). I’m grateful you have read this far.
But if you have questions and doubts, I hope you feel encouraged to seek God and seek truth, wherever that quest may lead you.
I feel this is so important that I’ve devoted a whole section of this website to providing ideas, encouragement, experiences and references to assist you.
I hope you find peace and truth.