This page is written for those who have deconstructed their christian faith – that is, they have found they cannot believe and do what they once did as christians, and so they have let go the unbelievable and unacceptable.
If this is you, if you have stripped your beliefs right back, you might be wondering, what next? Am I still a christian? Is there a way forward?
I believe deconstruction, like doubt, can be the gateway to a new and better understanding if we respond positively to it.
So if you want to “build back better”, here’s a way forward.
You don’t have to give it all away
Some christians, faced with doubts and unanswered questions, feel they have no alternative than to walk away from christian belief entirely. But that may mean giving up many things you still believe or still want to hold onto.
There are ways to deconstruct your faith without losing it. And having done that, there are ways to build back better. Here are some steps to consider if they would help you.
Reasons to believe
A good place to start is to consider why we believe. This will be different for each one of us, but will likely include:
- a sense of God’s presence in our lives, perhaps via healing, guidance or comfort, or
- belief in Jesus as a trustworthy revelation of God, or
- a philosophical and evidential belief in a creator God who acts in history and in people’s lives, or
- trust in the religious understanding of someone we know.
It is worthwhile considering whether any of these fundamental bases for belief have been weakened by our deconstruction, or remain as strong as they ever were. If we feel they have been weakened, or if we realise they weren’t very strong before, it may be worth reviewing them. At Why believe? I have listed some pages that may assist you in reviewing your reasons for believing.
Why believe in Jesus?
Christians believe that Jesus was the “son of God”, God in human form, and the best picture we can have of the character of God. So if we can feel sure of why we believe in him and what we believe is true about him, we will have an excellent basis for judging what else we can believe and what we are right to let go of.
Belief in Jesus is well based.
- The gospels are recognised by secular historians as providing reliable historical information about Jesus. Of course historians find much in the gospels to question, but this doesn’t prevent them having confidence in the basic facts about Jesus. Respected historian EP Sanders: “the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said”.
- On the basis of what we know about what Jesus did and said, it is reasonable to conclude that he was indeed the “son of God”:
- he claimed a close relationship with God and claimed to be God’s representative on earth;
- even secular historians agree (generally) that he was known as a miracle-worker, and it is difficult to explain his miracles naturally;
- most historians also believe that Jesus’ disciples saw visions of him alive after his execution and that belief in his resurrection formed a strong basis of the future expansion of the christian church – thus it is difficult to find a plausible explanation of the facts except that he really was raised;
- his character and teachings have inspired billions of people ever since, making his followers the most believed religion in the world.
- Religion has been a force for both good and evil in the world, but when people follow Jesus’ teachings, they live unselfishly and do much good. Jesus said we came to set up a revolutionary community – the kingdom of God – and his call to us to work for the good of others and their inclusion in the kingdom gives life purpose and motivation.
The experience of billions of christians, the scientific evidence and the philosophical arguments all lend support to this conclusion that Jesus gave us true information about God.
- Many people believe they have experienced God unmistakably at work in their lives. Some have been healed miraculously, some have found God give their lives new direction and hope, some found God’s reality so clearly true that they believed in him for the first time.
- The scientific facts about the origin and design of the universe point overwhelmingly to a creator God.
- Discoveries about the brain, and our experience of being conscious, choosing, ethical, rational beings, are very difficult to explain without God. This difficulty leads some non-believers to deny our common human experience that we have free will and to deny that some things are really right and wrong, even though it seems impossible to live consistently with those beliefs.
A strong basis
All this provides a strong basis for belief in Jesus. From that base, we can build back better, holding on to what is consistent with following Jesus, and letting go of what isn’t.
We have two tasks as we build back better. Firstly, to make sense and resolve the matters that brought us to deconstruction in the first place. Then, secondly, to explore our faith from this new vantage point.
1. A faith that makes sense
It may make little sense for anyone who has been hurt by the church to return to where they were hurt. This is certainly true for anyone who experienced abuse. In other cases, it will depend on the nature of the hurt, how strong the person feels and whether they have a good support network.
There will be churches that have a better record on how people are treated and how abuse is addressed if it occurs, and searching for them will generally be worthwhile.
Resolving difficult questions
Many of the problematic teachings that lead people to need to deconstruct their faith arise from a questionable interpretation of the Bible.
Some christians and some churches read the Bible with their modern western scientific mindset. They will likely have a “high” view of scripture (i.e. they believe it is inerrant and totally God’s word to us) and will insist that any other view is departing from scripture. Yet in most cases, the view they hold:
- isn’t explicitly taught in the Bible;
- hasn’t always been the interpretation throughout christian history; and
- is foreign to the way of thinking of the Biblical writers.
Examining the evidence of scripture itself, it is clear that those who wrote or compiled our scriptures:
- weren’t as concerned about historical detail as we tend to be – they seemed more concerned to use the basic facts to get a message across;
- they weren’t worried about having different versions of events and teachings – they seemed happy to allow different viewpoints; and
- Jesus and the apostles were willing to alter Old Testament texts and take them out of context to re-apply them to different situations.
These clear facts are generally glossed over by those who hold a “high” view of scripture but they are key to understanding the book God has actually given us, especially to reading the Old Testament where many of the problematic teachings are found.
So when our doubts about christian belief come from doctrines such as hell, the Canaanite genocide, treatment of women or the LGBTQI community, we can give ourselves time to work these teachings out, knowing that we don’t necesarily have to interpret the Bible the way we may have been taught. We can remain open and neutral for as long as we need.
There are pages on some of these issues on this website:
- Hell: Hell – what does the Bible say?
- The Canaanite genocide: The Canaanite genocide – a historical perspective
- Evolution: Evolution and christians
- The exodus and history: The Exodus – what can we learn?
- Right wing christianity: When Jesus becomes a slogan
Interpret via Jesus
This is a most useful principle. Since we believe Jesus is the supreme revelation of God and his character, we can ask ourselves if any given teaching or behaviour conforms with his teachings and behaviour. This isn’t an infallible test (after all, we don’t know Jesus perfectly) but it is a guide. If something doesn’t conform, we can justifiably set it aside for a time while we pray and examine the issue.
I have found that this often leads to a new understanding of problematic teachings. For example, I find it easier to believe that the Old testament writers recorded what they believed at the time than to believe that God really did order the wholesale slaughter of whole cities, including non-combatant women and children, and action that would rightly be condemned as a war crime today.
This approach allows us to continue to believe in Jesus and follow him, not get derailed by difficult questions, but allow time, research and the Holy Spirit to lead us.
2. Exploring a renewed faith
Not only does this approach allow us to address difficult questions with peace of mind, but it allows us to explore new understandings.
Understanding Jesus in context
While we believe Jesus was the son of God, we also know he was a man who lived in the culture of first century Judaism. Evangelical teaching often tends to take Jesus out of his context, and interpret his life as if the ony thing that matters is his death and resurrection (a truncation we also find in the Apostles Creed).
But if we learn about the religion, culture and language of his day, we can better understand his message and the important things he can teach us today.
- Jesus called people to more than a passive faith focused on getting to heaven when we die. Instead, he called people to follow him, and when a rabbi made that call, it meant that the follower or disciple was to live a life of learning from the rabbi and living according to that teaching.
- His main message was the arrival (in him) of the rule (or kingdom) of God on earth. The kingdom encompasses all of life, and can be a great motivation for christians to avoid a passive faith and live actively to express the values of the kingdom.
- Jesus’ loving treatment of outcasts and women, even women accused of sexual sin, shows us an example of how we should behave towards those treated as sinners and outcasts by society and even by churches.
- Jesus had a more liberal and flexible attitude to religious observance and ritual than many rabbis, suggesting that we christians today might consider a similar stance.
Living a full life here on earth
Does going to heaven when we die sometimes seem unrealistic (with images of harps, clouds and angel wings) and slightly boring? The antidote is the Biblical teaching of the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15) and the renewal of all creation (Romans 8).
Christianity (and Judaism too) very much recognise that the God-created physical world is good (Genesis 1) and our bodies are temples of God’s Spirit (i.e. where God lives on earth today – 1 Corinthians 6:19). So it is right and proper that we care for all of God’s creation, beginning with our fellow humans, especially those struggling or mistreated, but also the physical world that God has given us to care for.
Like Jesus, we should seek the flourishing of all people. We will lovingly oppose attitudes based on racism, inequality or exclusion. And when we die, we don’t end up in an ethereal existence in heaven, but a robust existence in a resurrected body in a resurrected world.
Not only do I believe this is the truth revealed in scripture, but it is a more satisfying life and more attractive to outsiders.
The Spirit and the scripture
As we have seen, Jesus points us to a new understanding of the Bible. He also told us we would be guided towards truth by God’s Spirit (John 16:12-15).
Paul also emphasises (2 Corinthians 3:6, Romans 7:6) that in the kingdom of God, a pedantic or rules-based interpretation of scripture should give way to an understanding given to us by the Holy Spirit.
So it seems to me that simply quoting scripture and putting a modern western interpretation on it isn’t enough. Surely we have to pray for the Spirit to enlighten our thinking and interpretation, and perhaps lead us to a new understanding of what we have read or of the issues we are considering. And then testing this against how we see the Spirit leading other christians around the world.
A sense of enlightenment and excitement
I have found that putting all this together has given me a sense of making exciting new discoveries – of realising new depths in Jesus’ teachings and behaviour, and new appreciation of what God is saying to the church today through his Spirit.
Go forward in peace!
So if anyone reading this has been deconstructing, and perhaps worried that they may be dishonouring God, I encourage you to pray for the Spirit’s guidance and affirmation, be at peace (unless the Spirit leads you to think again) and go forward into this new adventure of living in God’s kingdom, following Jesus and being led by the Spirit.