There’s a lot of talk about faith deconstruction. You can hear that it’s dangerous, dishonest and leads to “warmed over Buddhism”. So don’t even think about it.
On the other hand, you can read how it releases people from toxic religion and frees them to love people the way God intended.
Where’s the truth amongst all this talk? (Spoiler: I think both sides overstate their case and sometimes misrepresent their opponents.)
So, as the comics used to say, now read on.
Deconstruction can mean many things. Here I mean the analysis of previously held beliefs to determine whether they are still right and believable. Obviously deconstruction can be either positive (e.g. reviewing childhood beliefs as an adult) or negative (e.g. walking away from truth on insufficient grounds). This is where there is strong disagreement …..
The case against deconstruction
Critics of deconstruction often point to the people who have left the faith or those whose beliefs have become less recognisable as “historic” christianity.
Well known figures like Bart Campolo and Michael Gungor apparently no longer believe, and there are many others, for example, my internet friend Nate who I’ve written about in Deconstruction stories.
But probably more upsetting to conservative critics are those who have swapped a more traditional christian belief for a “palatable form of faith served with a side of post-liberalism and postmodernism belief”, a faith that “rarely retains any vestiges of actual Christianity.” People like Richard Rohr and Science Mike are often mentioned here.
Those who have deconstructed are accused of believing there are “multiple ways to connect with God.” Progressive christianty “renounces that Jesus is the only way for us to connect with God. It declares that different religions are alternative pathways to connect with a Universal Christ.” Little more than “warmed over Buddhism”.
Weaknesses in the case against
I can sympathise and partly agree with these critics. It is true that many have stopped believing, and I regret that. It is true that others now follow beliefs that are sometimes far removed from traditional christianity and have a doubtful basis in evidence, and I generally regret that too.
But the critics claim too much.
Not all deconstruction
The critics often infer that all deconstruction leads to the somewhat “extreme” examples they give. But many christians (like me) continue to accept the core teachings of the Apostles Creed while reconstructing some less central aspects of faith.
Honesty and truth
Someone, I think it was CS Lewis, said that if God and truth seem to be in different directions, we should follow truth, and we’ll find that was where God was all along. We cannot blame people for seeking the truth, and testing the truth of their beliefs. Sometimes it would be wrong not to do so. And we cannot really say if someone has sought truth honestly or not.
The critics would be wiser (I think) to understand the motives and the journey people are on, and seek to help rather than criticise.
It is claimed that deconstruction “has little to do with objective truth”. That may sometimes be true. But often it is based on facts established by science, history or archaeology, and it may be the critics who are opposing objective truth. This podcast by Jared Byas suggests how Biblical inerrancy may seek certainty while denying objective truth.
Lining up what we believe with scripture?
This is one of the most common criticisms of deconstruction and progressive christianity. They say it doesn’t line up with scripture. But this criticism misses two obvious points.
- Why should our beliefs line up with scripture alone? Are no other forms of knowledge acceptable? The Jews of Jesus’ day allowed rabbinical interpretations outside of scripture. The Catholic Church believes their authority is “Scripture plus apostolic tradition, as manifested in the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church”. The Orthodox Church holds a similar view. And it can be argued that even Protestants who theoretically hold to “scripture alone” actually also value the creeds and teachings of their own denomination. It isn’t unreasonable from those deconstructing to question these teachings.
- More importantly, the correct interpretation of scripture is often very much an open question. Conservative christians often reject the conclusions of Biblical scholars and historians while progressive christians are more likely to accept them. Who is to say which view is correct? Again, it is surely legitimate to question any particular view here.
Sometimes the dispute is framed as “progressive” vs “historical” christianity. But this ignores the fact that there have been many forms of christianity over the centuries and in the present day. Most critics build their beliefs on the Reformation, only half a millennium ago. But Reformation christianity is very different than, for example, the beliefs of the early church fathers.
Critics may say that the Holy Spirit led the church into Reformation christianity to correct past mistakes. I agree. But that is the same claim that progressive christians are now making. How do the critics know this latest move isn’t from God also?
The appeal to “historic christianity” is almost meaningless.
Deconstruction+reconstruction vs reformation+renewal
Most conservative critics accept the need for reformation and renewal in faith. Following Jesus isn’t a static thing, but a dynamic process. I’m not sure there is much difference between deconstruction+reconstruction and reformation+renewal, only the end point. Was Luther deconstructing?
God’s theology cops?
The critics of progressive christianity have been described as “God’s theology cops, policing the borders of orthodoxy”. I feel some of the criticisms of deconstruction are based on fear of change. The critics believe they know the truth, and no-one should challenge it.
But in the end, the “problem” isn’t the deconstruction process, but the reasons that lead christians to deconstruct. Which is what we must examine next.
The view from the other side
Before we criticise (or join) the deconstructors, it is wise to assess the reasons why people walk this path.
Doubtless it is true that some people allow themselves to be too easily led out of faith. HIstory, science and personal experience can all give a strong basis for christian belief. And no doubt some “exvangelicals” present views that I would personally dispute.
But surely it is clear that for many people, the path out of faith was traumatic and catalysed by important and real factors:
- sexual abuse, bullying, spiritual abuse, manipulation or other forms of mistreatment;
- misbehaviour of church leaders;
- faith questions that weren’t answered – often answers weren’t even attempted, but questions were shut down;
- non-core doctrines that were no longer believable, because either they seemed to impugn the character of God, or because science or history throw them into doubt;
- it becomes impossible to believe that Jesus would approve a particular teaching or behaviour.
These are all valid reasons for questioning a church’s beliefs and behaviour, even if they may not all reasonably lead to questioning God’s existence. The real question is whether a positive reconstruction follows.
Positive faith deconstruction
Doubt can be the gateway to a new understanding. We don’t need to be afraid of reconstruction. If our christian belief is really true and properly understood, we can answer doubts in ways that build faith.
Instead of assuming deconstruction is “bad”, we would all do better to accept that questioning and doubt are part of life and generally necessary for growth. If we are doubting, there are better and worse ways to approach deconstruction. And if we are church leaders or parents, we can help people have a positive experience as they question and resolve their doubts.
This isn’t the place to go into detail on that, and I have written much more in Faith deconstruction. But a few quick thoughts:
- Christianity is, in the end, all about Jesus, not all about churches, christian leaders or particular doctrines.
- Bad behaviour by a christian may a good reason to remove yourself from that place, but may not indicate anything untrue about christian belief.
- Doubts about one aspect of christianity are not necessarly a good reason to doubt it all. It may be that a different strand of christian belief may resolve the difficulty.
- It is generally helpful to talk things over with someone we trust, someone who won’t assume that their form of christianity is the only right one.
- It is good to read widely, even if just websites by critics and defenders of the faith we are questioning. There are many good evidences for christian belief.
- It can be helpful to ask what exactly are the implications of jettisoning a particular belief. Sometimes doubts and questions can loom very large until we carefully analyse them, whereupon they can be revealed as not quite as important as we once thought.
- Deconstruction can be followed by reconstruction on a better foundation.
Critics would do well to help resolve these problems, or explain clearly why they believe they aren’t problems at all. That would be more helpful, and, if done honestly, may lead the critics into new understandings.
If you are deconstructing or supporting someone who is, please check out some of the resources on this site, like these (and please feel free to email or comment) …..