I’ve noticed over the last couple of years that there seems to be more and more people going through a period of deconstructing their faith.
Deconstructing faith is a process by which people take all of their previous assumptions about their faith, everything that they have taken for granted, place it in mental file folders, and process through each part of it through the new lenses. As a philosophical system of analysis, deconstruction has its roots in the 1960’s with French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and those who built on his work in the ‘70’s and ‘80's.
For some people, it is a radical, disorienting process, during which they walk away from their faith altogether. For others, it is a reorganization, a system reboot, and they come out the other side stronger in their faith, albeit it looks different than it did before.
I think a large part of what is going on has to do with the current political climate in the United States. The incredible, nonsensical and at times disturbing manner in which conservatives, particularly evangelicals, have supported our current resident of the Oval Office has a lot to do with the increase in deconstruction.
Good people wondered how in the world a person with such glaring character flaws could be supported, even seen as a champion of evangelicalism, and they began to question everything about their faith that they had once just accepted as the only way.
Now, I would argue that what we are calling evangelicalism today is what we called fundamentalism as recently as 20 years ago, but that’s a different pursuit for a different day. Regardless, as it is portrayed and understood by larger society, evangelicalism got itself into some murky waters with its obsession over its political agenda and staving off the so-called liberalism that is “out to destroy” religious liberty… or some crap like that.
There is a reason why we should have a separation of church and state. For one, I don’t want the state messing with my church, but for another, while the church should seek to influence the state toward the goal of a being a better society, the church should not seek to take over that society. When that happens, the diversity of opinions becomes muffled at best, shut down at worst.
As a person of faith, would I like to see society operate a certain way? Of course, who doesn’t. But, also as a person of faith, I realize that this world is not about me. Society has a good number of differing views, and we need to figure out the best way to live while allowing most of these views to thrive. (I say “most” because there are some views that need to be shut down as they have absolutely no benefit to society whatsoever — fascism, totalitarianism, white supremecy, etc.)
This support from evangelical leaders has led to shrugging off things like: affairs and payoffs to members of the adult entertainment industry, loose associations with actual facts, and tacit support for racism. If it doesn’t shrug them off, it implies that they are not really important because they were “in the past” (even though they really aren’t).
In turn, this blanket support, no matter what is said or done, has turned off a lot of people who are not 100% in step with the evangelical leaders who are so vocal about their support. It has led them to question their faith, and, for some, to walk away from it. Not to mention the poor witness it gives to the rest of the world that does not come from an evangelical faith tradition.
The other day, my wife and I had a conversation about deconstructing faith, and I said, “I just don’t get it. It seems like it’s all the rage these days, but to me, it’s just not that big of a deal.”
She replied, “I think you may need to check your privilege here. Haven’t you ever questioned anything about your faith?”
As I thought about it, I realized two things: first, she was right. I was definitely coming from a place of privilege. I’m not looking down on those who are going through a period of deconstruction. I’m just confused by it. More specifically, I confused as to why it seems like such a big deal to them. And the reason for that was my second realization: I have questioned my faith. I am constantly questioning my faith, and I just assumed that it was normal. Let me give you a little bit of background here.
When I was 16, my youth group went on a mission trip. Without going into too many details (I’ll save the full story for another post), I encountered somebody on this trip that caused me to question everything. Not because I didn’t believe, but because I did. I questioned why God would allow atrocities to take place, and asked, “Why don’t you do something about this?”
The response I received would change the direction of my entire life: “Why don’t you?” I didn’t hear that audibly, but I felt it deep within my soul. It was more real to me than the dinner I ate that night (that was rice and beans, and it was disgusting).
That was the week that I felt called to ministry. It took me over a year to come to that realization, but, looking back, I can see it clearly now.
As a United Methodist looking to go into ministry, there are a number of steps that have to be taken. First, graduate from high school. Second, graduate from college. Third, attend seminary. And finally, go through the commissioning and ordination process. It is a long, difficult process that is not for the faint of heart. But I did it.
I went off to college at the University of Evansville with the intent of studying religion. I ended up graduating with a B.A. in Religion with a minor in Biblical Studies. Then I went to seminary at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY where I received my Masters of Divinity. (I still maintain that I should have received a sword upon graduation, so I can hold it over my head in He-Man fashion.)
During those 8 years of advanced study, I learned how to deconstruct my faith. I also learned how to reconstruct it.
Our worldview is shaped by a lot of different influences in our lives. Some of them we are familiar with; others, no so much. Being able to deconstruct and reconstruct your faith is about acknowledging your worldview, looking at it closely, accepting parts of it (and trying to understand why) while reshaping other parts (again, trying to understand why).
During the course of my studies, and in my personal and professional development since, I have learned how to examine ideas, weigh the pros and cons, and reshape them in a way that fits my worldview, which, I believe, is informed by my theology and understanding of faith. It has become second nature to me.
And that’s why I don’t understand these people who are going through their own deconstruction: because it is natural for me to do it on a regular basis.
I grew up in a conservative congregation. Most of my professors in college were very liberal. I wrestled with ideas constantly in my religion classes. I listened and tried to understand opposing points of view. I synthesized a lot. By the time I got to seminary, I had faced a lot of challenges to my faith and came out stronger on the other side.
Asbury is a conservative seminary, so I didn’t come across quite as much opposition. At this point, seminary was more about forming practices and ideas that would help me as a pastor, instead of challenging me to deconstruct and reconstruct my faith.
Since my time in seminary, I would say I have moved more towards the center theologically, which I think is a critical skill for a pastor to develop. It’s hard to walk alongside other people if you are 100% right all the time. A large part of this movement has to do with the constant reevaluation of all things practical (i.e., hands on faith) and theological (i.e., how I think about faith).
But not everybody goes to seminary. Not everybody goes to college to study religion. Not everybody has been afforded the opportunities that I have when it comes to having a safe space to deconstruct (and reconstruct) faith. As a consequence, not everybody knows that it is okay to have questions and doubts.
So, let me encourage you today (hopefully you made it this far!): it is okay to ask questions. It is okay to have doubts. Here’s why: the God that I believe in, the one that is revealed in Scripture, the one that called me to this life of ministry, is bigger than those questions and doubts.
I think too many people think it is a sign of a lack of faith to ask questions and share doubt. I don’t believe that is true. God can overcome them. Our task is to have the persistence to continue in faith, even when we aren’t certain.