A Christian’s Guide to Faith Deconstruction
You hear a lot about deconstruction today. The word keeps popping up to describe the experiences of those whose Christianity has undergone a process of transformation or deconversion. It is the label we’ve applied to the process of attempting to walk away from, make sense of, make peace with, reconfigure, forswear, disassemble, critique, poke fun at, or immolate our former religion.
Gallup released a poll recently that reveals church membership in America has dropped below 50 percent, the first time that has happened since Gallup started asking the question in 1937. So, according to Gallup at least, church membership is at an all-time low.
At the same time, religious disaffiliation is at an all-time high. In 1972, the General Social Survey found that only one in 20 had no religious affiliation. Today, that number has climbed to one in four, just under 25 percent, and is showing no signs of slowing. If you plot the trend of the so-called “Rise of the Nones” (the religiously disaffiliated), the line on the graph is just trending up and to the right as time goes on.
Many of those who are leaving church or leaving Christianity altogether have adopted the label “deconstruction” to describe their experiences. The difficult process of making one’s peace with Christianity is not unique to the 21st century, but the experiences and stories that have been gathered together under the heading of deconstruction do have a powerful, new momentum.
These New Deconstructors are not like the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et cetera). They don’t want to destroy; they want to doubt. They don’t want to raze Christianity to the ground. They want to disassemble it and then (sometimes) put it back together again in a different way. They are still cynical, but they are also romantic and idealistic. They still believe parts of Christianity can be kept. They still want spiritual meaning and a spiritual community. They still want a messiah—maybe even Jesus. But who’s Jesus?
Two Kinds of Deconstruction: Soft and Hard
This isn’t to say that deconstruction is monolithic. It isn’t. Rather, the term covers a whole spectrum of responses to the personal, cultural, and intellectual challenges believers face today. Some people want to keep Jesus, but are done with “God.” Some want to keep Christianity but are done with church. Some people even want to keep church but are done with religion.
However, I want to suggest that the most important way to categorize the varieties of deconstruction is to sort them into two types: soft deconstruction and hard deconstruction.
In After Doubt, A. J. Swoboda puts it this way:
“Deconstruction is a double-edged sword. It can edify our faith by helping us critically rethink wrong beliefs. But it can also go too far and bring our faith to nothing. Any belief that we uncritically received at some point that remains hostile or opposed to the biblical message of Jesus Christ needs to be deconstructed. But the minute deconstruction undermines our faith, the gospel, or the Bible, we’ve deconstructed too much.
"There is a world of difference between deconstructing wrong beliefs and deconstructing the faith, just as there’s a world of difference between remodeling a room in our home and tearing down the house. Distinguishing between the two is essential: one is intellectual repentance and the other is faith abandonment.”
Swoboda is saying there is a big difference between soft deconstruction (intellectual repentance) and hard deconstruction (faith abandonment).
Soft deconstruction is the disassembly of one’s faith with the intent of landing further inside the Christian faith’s story of reality. This kind of deconstruction can clear the ground for better belief, separating what needs to go from what needs to stay.
Hard deconstruction is a different beast altogether. It is the disassembly of one’s faith with the intent to abandon the pieces or use them to rebuild something that no longer resembles Christianity.
Swoboda warns that deconstruction can go too far. Once the engines of deconstruction get rolling, they can be hard to shut off, especially when they are energized by a narrative that tells people that that in order to grow up, they have to shed Christianity entirely, like a snake might shed an old layer of skin. Or to become authentic, they need to jettison any set of rules for living that comes from an institution, like the church.
What Is Soft Deconstruction?
Soft deconstruction is the process of releasing your unrealities in an attempt to move further into Christianity.
Even when we have a good community or good teachers to lead us through the early stages of faith formation, the things we believe are always a mixed bag. We build a house of belief because we need a roof over our heads, but as we grow up in the house, sometimes the walls we thought were load-bearing crumble beneath the weight they are trying to carry. Sometimes the floor drops out from under us and we find ourselves falling. Sometimes we realize we need to knock out an entire wing of the house because it was far too small.
At some point on the journey toward maturity, you realize some of the old answers to your old questions don’t cut it anymore. You begin to suspect that some of the old questions weren’t the right ones to ask at all. You wonder if the people you trusted back then knew as much as you thought they did. You begin to feel that the answers that held you aloft back then are the ones holding you back now.
It is hard to tell what the truth is. You have no choice but to roll up your sleeves and go digging. You don’t know what you will find, but now that the questions of deconstruction have begun to fall like dominoes, you sense that avoiding the cascade only makes the questions gather more momentum.
Soft Deconstruction Keeps Faith Both Supple and Strong
To endure, faith needs to become both supple and strong. Supple because even in our 90s, we will just be kids who need to come to learn from the Father about his reality. Strong because God’s reality, though thick, is not a house of mirrors. The truth is not just an illusion; it is out there. We can learn things that are true, and once we have those truths, we should live inside them.
The continuous work of soft deconstruction can strengthen your faith as you discard old answers for better, deeper, realer ones. It can also keep your faith as supple as a willow branch as you receive reminder after reminder that you still have a lot to learn. As T. S. Eliot said, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless.”
As we orbit God’s grand reality over the decades of our lives, we are guided more deeply into it by the Holy Spirit himself. However, in that guidance, we are often invited to shed some of the unrealities that got us that far.
Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith
Soft deconstruction reminds us that just because you have doubts and questions about Christianity, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a Christian — though many who adopt the term “deconstruction” feel this is exactly the brink their questions have brought them to. However, those whose faith is dead don’t struggle with it; they bury it. The struggle can be a sign of life. Questions are often precursors to the answers you need.
Again, Swoboda is helpful:
“There’s often no greater act of faith and fidelity to God than baring one’s deepest held beliefs to divine criticism so that God might be loved more. To put it more simply: kicking the tires doesn’t mean you hate the car.”
If we can’t encounter the living God in the midst of our darkest hours, our deepest doubts, and our most profound questions, where can we encounter him? Rather, it is in these wilderness seasons of faith when the suspicion begins to dawn that it is God himself who brought us this far in order to take us further. In the book of Hosea, God said of wayward Israel: “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”
God is infinite and the meanings of his reality are infinitely thick, so to get to know him, you need to keep asking questions. If God is alluring you into the wilderness of doubts and questions, but you are resisting him because of your fear of asking questions, it might stall your growth. If you never examine your beliefs but defend them against any change or development, it might not be the result of spiritual maturity, but of immaturity. Sometimes God is present in the doubts of doubters in ways that he couldn’t have been if they’d never been troubled by the questions that are stealing their sleep now.
Is that surprising? Did you think you could get all your questions down by eighteen? Did you think that by the end of college, your faith would reach its zenith? Did you think that by the start of your thirties, you would have the ways of the Almighty all sussed out?
It might be that you need to do some soft deconstruction. If your path to maturity is going to continue, you need to get comfortable with being wrong. And with re-learning things you thought you’d mastered. Anything else is just setting yourself up for a harder deconstruction in the future.
When Soft Deconstruction Becomes Hard Deconstruction
There are ways to question the things you believe without demolishing the house of your Christianity. Doubting your faith doesn’t have to result in abandoning your faith; however, for many people, what begins as soft deconstruction can quickly harden.
Sometimes the hardening is energized by bad experiences with Christians, a nasty theological question that won’t go away and doesn’t find satisfactory answers, or a social milieu that finds Christianity implausible at best, ridiculous at worst. A hundred things can happen when the plausibility web that has kept us stable begins to shake and tremble.
When that happens, one’s confidence in Christianity as a whole can sway and shake and topple over.
What Is Hard Deconstruction?
If soft deconstruction is a process that is intent upon shedding false realities and moving deeper into Christian truth, hard deconstruction locates the false realities within Christianity and sets out to determine what, if any, pieces can be saved from the wreckage of one’s former faith.
Hard deconstruction can become a euphemism for the process of deconversion. In this sense, it is the reexamination of one’s Christianity as one might examine floatation devices on a sinking ship. You know the ship is going down, but you aren’t sure what you’ll need on the lifeboat.
One can tell they have crossed the boundary into hard deconstruction when the dismantling of one’s faith ceases to become what they are doing and becomes something they are becoming. Hard deconstruction can become an identity, rather than a stage of growth. These days, it can even be a brand, a way to make a living.
For all the violence inherent in the metaphor of deconstruction, sometimes it can really feel like progress. If we have been subjected to a reduced form of Christianity, walking away from it can feel like walking out of a cave. It can feel like freedom, like getting whole and free and healed.
But it can also topple headlong into demolition. It can become an ideological hammer that makes everything start to look like a nail. It can be self-reinforcing. Sometimes in the midst of that kind of deconstruction, not much thought is given to the possibility of reconstruction on the far side of the demolition. The important thing for now is to get the house down. We’ll worry about where to live once we’ve reduced our old home to rubble.
What Makes Deconstruction Harden? Lots of Things
Sometimes a committed believer begins to voice her questions in an effort to shore up the integrity of her faith and she is met by judgment and condemnation from her faith community for asking the wrong sorts of questions. In that case, the response she received can inflame her honest questioning into something bigger … and harder to stop.
Other journeys of deconstruction can be launched as a personal quest toward authenticity. As the journey continues, one finds that more and more of one’s old identity gets left by the wayside in the search for a more authentic self.
Sometimes we enter a new environment that looks down on the Christian beliefs of our upbringing and offers deconstruction as a way to grow up. The view that deconstruction is a path to maturity is made all the more plausible for the fact that so much of secular society shares it.
Sometimes in the process of soft deconstruction, you hit a question that won’t go away, and like a ship hitting an iceberg, the water of doubt rushes in. If the question doesn’t find a satisfying answer, it can form a fault line in one’s faith. As pressure builds along the fault, your Christian convictions can start to list toward hard deconstruction.
Perhaps more than any other factor, hard deconstruction is energized by wounds and disillusionments that have come at the hands of other Christians. When we experience mistreatment from Christians, it is disillusioning. The disillusionment can apply not only to the person who mistreated us, but to everything they stand for. The damage and its effects compound when the person who hurt us was supposed to be someone we could trust.
The Church and Hard Deconstruction
The thing about hard deconstruction, as opposed to its softer cousin, is that your religious community can (probably) be accepting of the latter, but can find the former disturbing as hell.
People who hold the beliefs that you are now deconstructing can find it unsettling and destabilizing to see your deconstruction progress. They might make an attempt to answer your questions, or, failing that, they might ask you to stop asking them. Unhurried, gentle space in which you can ask your questions can be hard to come by, especially if people are worried about you. This can be especially true if you start saying things we don’t say here and consuming the wrong sorts of podcasts, books, and videos. Suddenly the person in the middle of a crisis of faith can find the dark mark floating above their heads. “Beware!” it signifies. “Someone is deconstructing here! Stay clear.”
It takes a Christian community with big arms and a whole lot of patience to beat the curve on that one. Broad is the way that leads to the excommunication of the doubter, and great is the number of deconstructors who exit through it. Many communities find it easier to get rid of the questioner than deal with the questions. Many communities find the dissonance of living with the questions that are being raised by the person experiencing hard deconstruction more than they can handle.
The stories of those who have deconverted are full of just those experiences.
How Should We Handle Hard Deconstruction?
What a question. Any answer I give at the tail end of this post will only be partial. However, that is the very question that I’ll be asking in this whole series on deconversion. Still, there are a few things to say now:
If someone you know is deconstructing:
- Prayerfully push yourself to tolerate their questions even if they make you uncomfortable. It can be good for your own faith and faithfulness to be stretched into trusting God with another person’s doubts.
- Be gentle with doubters. Remember the prophecy about Jesus: “A bruised reed he will not break, a faintly burning wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42). Healing, patience, and gentleness received inside the Christian community can do a lot to balance out wounds that those who are deconstructing have also received inside the Christian community.
- Take the posture of sitting side by side with them in an attempt to see more deeply into God’s reality together. Try to avoid getting into tit-for-tat, line-in-the-sand debates that only make you both more deeply entrenched in your own positions.
- Make your life a plausibility structure. If people are leaving the faith because they have encountered a more beautiful way to live elsewhere, it might be because the Christian church has failed to live up to its own ideals. When Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by their love, he was issuing a call that his people would become embodied plausibility structures of a better way to live.
- Examine your own faith. Your discomfort might also signify that you have some soft deconstruction of your own to do, especially if you are tempted to blame, shun, and condemn those who are struggling with doubt.
If you are deconstructing:
- Go slowly with your doubts. Life is long and we’re all just kids trying to find the truth of God’s immense reality. This process calls for liberal applications of self-compassion as you endure within your questions.
- Have mercy on others if they don’t have patience with your doubts or if your questions don’t matter to them (or unsettle them).
- Remember that you may not have yet been exposed to real Christianity. A lot of people who leave Christianity are only walking away from their exposure to a pale shadow of the Way of Jesus.
- Every doubt is really a series of alternate beliefs. If you are going to be intellectually honest, you are going to have to find the beliefs underneath your doubts and subject them to equal scrutiny as the Christianity you are deconstructing.
- Try to sort your doubts, wounds, and misgivings into categories. Put labels on the things inside you and figure out where they are coming from. Is your deconstruction energized by wounds you have received inside Christianity? Are your questions heady and rational? Deep and emotional? Do they derive from moral intuitions that have been abraded by your experience of Christianity? Is there a cultural riptide to the force of your deconstruction that is helping pull you out to sea? Sorting out the components and motivations behind your deconstruction can help it feel less overwhelming.
- Remember that hard deconstruction might sometimes be a necessary stage, but it is no place to live. When your deconstruction becomes demolition and your faith becomes only living in the rubble, something has gone wrong. You need to find a way out. Eventually, you need to rebuild a house that is real enough to live in.
Need some hope? In our recent conversation with Mark Sayers, we talk more about faith deconstruction. You’ll definitely want to hear why he claims that the rise of secularism is actually good for Christianity.
Andy Patton is a former staff member at L'Abri Fellowship in England and holds an M. A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Read more from Andy on The Darking Psalter (translations of the Psalms with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Still Point (reflections on deconstruction and why people leave Christianity).
Read more by Andy Patton: https://bit.ly/AndyPatton