Note: This is an excerpt from my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.
My continuing work with my spiritual director has involved asking questions – lots of them. What do I actually believe about God? What is my position on each of the hot-button issues that consume our nation’s culture warriors? What is my role as a Christian in mitigating society’s problems and fighting its political battles? What is God’s plan for my own life? How do I live in a way that is consistent with my beliefs, values and purpose?
And I’ve discovered there’s a rather trendy word for what I’ve been doing with my faith during my spiritual direction journey of the past few years: “Deconstruction.” Wikipedia defines faith deconstruction as “a phenomenon where people unpack, rethink and examine their belief systems.”
I’ve also learned that deconstruction is nothing, if not controversial. Some folks argue that the process is mostly an excuse to stop going to church. However, while deconstruction may involve walking away from Christianity and becoming an atheist, this is certainly not true for everyone.
For some, it might involve leaving a congregation that has become dysfunctional or even corrupt and finding a healthier church home. For others, it may warn us that we – or our church – are in danger of being co-opted by the secular culture wars. For still others, it can help in sifting through competing truth claims promoted by Christians of differing denominations. Individuals may also use the deconstruction process for everything from addressing doubts and clarifying values to rejecting inaccurate teachings and holding ourselves accountable.
Can deconstruction strengthen our faith?
The Wikipedia article on faith deconstruction acknowledges that the process may lead to dropping one’s faith altogether, but added that it may also result in a stronger faith. Following are what I’ve come to see as potentially positive outcomes for the deconstruction process, based on my own experience and the experience of others who have shared their stories.
Detecting undue political influence. From the beginning, I have been questioning all kinds of dogma, from the religious to the political and ideological, and have been challenging beliefs and values other people – whether progressive or conservative – want me to hold. Where do I honestly, personally, stand on issues ranging from abortion and racism to immigration and the environment? On what authority do I base these positions? Deconstruction can help us discern whether our positions on moral issues (or those of our church congregations) might be overly influenced by secular right-wing or left-wing politics. One clue might be when God starts sounding too much like a conservative Republican or a progressive Democrat. Could we be guilty of creating God in our own image? Shouldn’t we be following the Lamb rather than an elephant or a donkey? What should that look like?
Spotting red flags. If we pay attention to the news at all, we’re aware of the financial corruption and sex abuse scandals that have rocked whole denominations in recent years. In other cases, an individual congregation can have a toxic organizational culture. A number of years ago, my husband and I walked away from a congregation marked by constant bullying, backbiting, infighting and power struggles between rival cliques. If a congregation is dysfunctional in a way that is truly damaging to its members, the discernment encouraged by the deconstruction process can reveal red flags and prompt us to ask the right kinds of questions when seeking a new church home. What characteristics should we look for when evaluating a church? What characteristics should serve as deal-breakers? Note: The church my husband and I belong to now is much healthier than the one we left. Thank God.
Sifting through competing truth claims. One reason we have so many Christian denominations is that Christians have so many different interpretations of “the truth.” The various sects and denominations offer contrasting teachings on nearly everything, it seems. How does one conduct baptism – by sprinkling or immersion? Should communion be open or closed? How does one get “saved” – by baptism or personal decision? What is our authority for what we believe? The Bible? Church tradition? Clergy? Where does science fit in? And don’t even get me going on how progressive Christians would define sin versus how conservative Christians would define it. When Christians can’t agree on the “right” answers, deconstruction can be a valuable tool for sorting out which beliefs and interpretations we adopt for ourselves. Is there a common core of beliefs shared by most Christians, regardless of sect or denomination? Is there a way to heal the divisions between believers and relate respectfully to people whose viewpoints differ from ours?
Rejecting clearly inaccurate teachings. My need to question “received wisdom” began early – at age 8, I listened in shock as a mainline Protestant minister “explained” to the congregation that “God does not intend for black people to be equal to white people.” In college, I listened with equal dismay as members of an evangelical student organization eagerly discussed a best-selling book speculating that the Pope might be the anti-Christ and the Catholic Church the Great Harlot mentioned in the Book of Revelation. During my recovery journey, my 12-Step peers encouraged me to fire the perpetually angry bully God of my childhood nightmares and get in touch with the real one. (One might say 12-Steppers were “deconstructing” before deconstruction was cool.) Over the years I’ve also rejected white Christian nationalism, the so-called “prosperity gospel,” the concept of double predestination, and the notion that God really cares whether we sing traditional hymns or contemporary music at our church services.
Personal discernment. For me, the deconstruction process has been helpful for continued, lifelong personal growth. In fact, it has turned into more of an ongoing journey than a “once and done” activity. Now that I’ve retired, what is God’s plan for the rest of my life? How can I improve my conscious contact with God through prayer and meditation? How do I relate the 10 Commandments and other Biblical teachings to the 21st Century issues in my life? What role should I be playing in our church and in our community? How can my husband and I invest our money in an ethically responsible way? Pete and I have also faced a series of personal crises in recent years – the loss of several loved ones, scary health problems, fatigue from the endless pandemic – that leave us only half-jokingly pondering whether the Book of Job was written especially for us. How do we get through this “midnight of the soul” with our faith intact or maybe even strengthened?
Holding ourselves accountable. My deconstruction process has even involved questioning my own attitudes and behavior. I must admit I occasionally notice cognitive dissonance between my stated values and my actions. For example, I decry crass consumerism, yet can’t seem to stop accumulating STUFF. I’ve also come to realize – to my occasional dismay – how much my own values have been shaped by secular culture-war ideologies rather than by actual spiritual beliefs. I feel constantly pressured, even by other Christians, to adopt positions I don’t fully agree with on a variety of issues so I can be ideologically correct and fit in with the people around me – or at least avoid being the target of shouting and name-calling. So, how have I come by my own worldview? Who or what, inside or outside of church, is influencing my beliefs? How reliable are these “influencers”?
The importance of asking questions
While the word deconstruction may be trendy, the process of unpacking, examining and rethinking belief systems is hardly new. One can make the case that “deconstructors” have populated both the Bible and church history for millennia. When prophets and apostles exhorted us to beware of false doctrines, were they not promoting a form of deconstruction? Before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses that set off the Protestant Reformation, one might say he engaged in some major deconstructing, as did Catholics when they embarked on their own Reformation a short while later. When Jesus repeatedly challenged the religious leaders of his day and asserted “you’ve heard it said … but I say,” I’d propose that he offered us a perfect example of the deconstruction process.
Some would suggest getting around the deconstruction controversy by using a different word – reformation or accountability or discernment. But regardless of which word we use, it all boils down to asking questions – of ourselves, our culture, our leaders, and even our church.
I’ve noticed that some folks get nervous when we ask these kinds of questions. If I’ve heard this admonition once, I’ve heard it a gazillion times: “You mustn’t question God’s will.” Usually this happens when we challenge some aspect of denominational dogma or someone’s interpretation of a Biblical passage. Sometimes our fellow Christians on the political left will imply that we’re complicit in all manner of injustice if we dare to question their ideological dogma, while those on the political right will imply that we want everyone to wink at sin. When people “caution” us not to question God’s will, I suspect what some of them really mean is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.”
I must admit, I become innately suspicious when any person (or church denomination) does not want us to ask questions. In fact, I’ve learned that discouraging questions should be viewed as a red flag. At best, a group or leader who silences questions may have a personal or political agenda that has little to do with anything Jesus taught. At worst, a group whose leaders or truth claims can’t be scrutinized or challenged may be a dangerous cult, and its leader a charismatic demagogue. Whether or not we question God’s will, we can certainly question another human being’s interpretation of it. Sometimes this is exactly what we need to do.
Worth the effort – and the risk
During my spiritual direction journey, I’ve been using my meditation sessions to journal about my beliefs and values and the impact they should be having on my daily life. I want to use my pesky questions to develop a belief/value system that both my rational mind and my conscience can accept, rather than simply parroting a set of values and beliefs that will let me fit in chameleon-like with my peers.
From the beginning of my current deconstruction – or discernment – process, I was aware that the mere act of asking questions carried risks. Would I stop believing in God altogether if I expressed too many doubts out loud, even to myself? Would I decide that yet another church was no longer appropriate for me? Would I lose friends or allies if I stopped agreeing with them on certain issues? Yes, it was possible these things could happen. But it was equally possible that answering questions to my own satisfaction could strengthen my faith, encourage me to appreciate my present church congregation even more, and allow me to discern who my real friends were. That’s largely what has happened – so far, at least.
I strongly believe we are intended to use the mind God gave us to develop our critical thinking skills. Matthew 22:37 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Our mind, it says. Our mind.
Ultimately, I want a personal faith that will stand up to reason and scrutiny. What that means is, I will probably be questioning God, myself and others until I draw my last breath. For now, I’ve decided that’s not only okay, but healthy. As I continue my spiritual journey, I want to keep being honest about the questions I have.
Questions for readers: Have you engaged in “deconstruction”? If so, where has this experience taken you? I’d love to hear your response to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).