Deconstruction Can Lead to a Stronger Foundation for Faith

I began writing down my thoughts as I was listening to an interview of Lisa Gungor and Alisa Childers on the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierley. Both women went through what we now popularly call a period of deconstruction. We might have formerly called it backsliding (or falling away).

It’s interesting that, for years, we would have put the emphasis on sin (backsliding), rather than doubt (deconstruction). I’m not sure that people have really changed all that much. Is it the same thing? Or something different? Is what might have previously been classified simply as backsliding (or falling away), now what we call deconstruction?

Whatever the answer is, Lisa Gungor describes that she emerged from her period of deconstruction as a progressive Christian, no longer believing that Jesus is the only way, the only truth or the only life, no longer believing that Jesus definitely rose from the dead. Lisa Gungor says she now doubts that truth can really be known in any absolute or definitive way.

Alisa Childers, on the other hand, has come through her period of deconstruction, with a stronger faith and a more certain foundation. She doubled down on her quest for truth, putting her faith to the test, and she is now a Christian apologist. Both woman went through periods that they call a deconstruction of their faith, but one of them came out the other end with a stronger, more resilient and truer faith. In this blog, I explore why that might be.

As I think about these things, it occurs to me that I have come to appreciate truth, and not to fear it. This realization comes in light of the apparent reality that certain Christian circles do truth a disservice by clinging to blind faith concepts – faith that is not supported by evidence.

This kind of faith doesn’t hold up well to the harsh light of scrutiny. It warns, “Don’t go there”, when questions arise. For people who care about truth, this kind of faith poses a real problem.

But it shouldn’t! If Jesus is the way the truth and the life, we shouldn’t be afraid of truth. We need to allow space in our churches and faith communities for people to explore honest doubts. Doubt isn’t the enemy of faith.

The real issue for some people, though might lie elsewhere. We tend to assume that people care about truth. I am not so sure that everyone cares quite as much about truth as we think (or they profess). But, that is another story.

I don’t think that blind faith is consistent with the biblical narrative. The kind of faith that is consistent with the biblical narrative is the kind of faith we have in an elevator. We generally know that elevators are constructed to carry the weight of people up multiple stories from the ground. We trust the design and construction of an elevator when we step into an elevator to carry us up to the top of a building. We trust it precisely because we know and understand its purpose and its design. We also know by experience that elevators generally accomplish that purpose. They do what they are designed and constructed to do.

This is like biblical faith. It isn’t faith with no evidence, or faith “in the teeth of the evidence” (as Richard Dawkins has said). Biblical faith is trusting in what we believe and know to be true. This kind of faith includes experience that it “works” for the people who trust it. Faith, then, is the willingness to step into what we know to be true and to let it carry us.

Of course, some people might be unwilling to trust an elevator, though they know the purpose of it and know that it has been constructed and tested for that purpose. They may be well aware that elevators usually accomplish their purpose, but that might not be enough for them.

I, myself, deal with a kind of claustrophobia that can overwhelm me if I am not attending to my anxiety consciously. Though I know full well that my anxiety is irrational, it can, nevertheless, overcome me. (I often take the stairs instead of the elevator.)

Of course, my fears are not totally irrational. Elevators do break down from time to time. That’s where my claustrophobia kicks in: thinking that an elevator might break down with me in it, even if I know I will eventually be rescued, is enough to cause me to avoid them. Further, elevators could fail completely and plunge to the bottom of the shaft, taking me to my demise. It’s possible.

If I wanted absolute assurance that the elevator I am about to step into will not break down and stall or will not fail completely and fall to the ground, I am not going to get it. I can look at the signature on the last inspector’s report affixed to the inside of the elevator and find some reassurance, but absolute assurance is out of the question. I will never get it.

Even if someone assures me and is willing to guaranty it, I know that no amount of assurance or guaranty is ever going to relieve my anxiety that it just might break down or fail, this time. Just because it didn’t break down or fail in the past, doesn’t mean it won’t break down or fail this time. Proof that it never broke down or failed before is no guaranty that it won’t break down or fail in the future.

No analogies are ever wholly applicable, but similar principals apply with faith. If we insist on absolute proof of the truth of the object of our faith – God – we aren’t going to get it. It doesn’t matter what others say to assure us, they might be wrong. Just because we think we have all the answers, doesn’t mean we actually do. Just because we have good answers today doesn’t mean that those answers will hold up to future evidence.

With faith, however, other things are often going on. It isn’t just the intellectual exercise we popularly suppose. Our own desires shouldn’t be underestimated. People desire to be in control. People desire self-fulfillment and self-actualization, self-sufficiently and pleasure. We want what we want. Taking up a cross and following Jesus is not the kind of thing we would like to do, especially if there is any possibility the truth might lie elsewhere.

The decision we face is whether to trust ourselves and our own instincts or to abandon trust in ourselves and trust only in God. Do we yield in faith to God and His way? Or do we demand strict proof of God because we would rather follow the natural inclinations of our hearts?

It can be complicated.

The ultimate determination may not be so much about a lack of evidence, as unwillingness to yield to the ramifications of the evidence. Our unwillingness to yield to the evidence may have less to do with the weight of the evidence than we like to suppose.

David Hume famously created a way of measuring the veracity of miracle claims. He set the bar so high for the proof of miracle claims that it virtually can’t be attained: basically, the proof of a miracle has to be so strong that believing an occurrence was anything other than a miracle would, itself, require belief in the miraculous.

A skeptic might say that David Hume set that bar high for miracles on purpose, not because he thought it was the appropriate standard, but because he didn’t want to concede the possibility of miracles (and the possibility that a God who could do those miracles might actually exist to whom he might owe some responsibility and allegiance).

As I listen to Lisa Gungor and Alisa Childers, I am hesitant to ascribe any ulterior motives to Lisa, but I think we need to be cognizant of that human tendency in our own selves as we consider these things. Following Jesus can be hard. Denying ourselves goes against the grain of our human tendencies. It’s easier to go the other way.

Whatever is going on in Lisa Gungor’s heart, I am struck that she has embraced her deconstruction and camped there, while Alisa saw has gained knowledge and understanding through her period deconstruction, recognizing that God was at work in her, tearing down flaws in the foundation of her faith and reconstructing it without those flaws.

She gives the example of a Lego toy building. If you have ever tried to construct s complicated Lego structure from the instructions that are given, it can be difficult. If a piece or two are put in the wrong positions, the instructions become increasingly difficult to follow.

The instructions stop making sense at some point. The design doesn’t work. At that point there are a few options. One could press forward anyway and finish the building as best as can be done. The result might be building that kind of looks like the design, but not in every respect. The more flawed it is, the less it looks like the design. If we do that, we might be satisfied with what we have, but it isn’t what the design should look like.

Another option would be to abandon the construction altogether. We might simply tear it all apart down to the base and give up on making the design we set out to make. We might go on to build other things, but none of them would even remotely resemble the original design we set out to build.

Tearing down the building is like deconstruction. With Lisa Gungor, it seems, she has down that and has abandoned (for now) an attempt to build the design that was given. She is now working with other designs of her own making or the making or others – not the design that she tried to hold on to before her deconstruction.

A third option might be to take out the pieces, one after another, while carefully reviewing the instructions until we find the pieces that were misplaced. We might even have to tear the building down to its base and start over in order to reconstruct it. If we follow this third option, and fix the mistakes we made, we will end up with the design that was ultimately intended.

This last option is the path Alisa Childers describes in her own deconstruction story. Through the process of deconstruction, she kept her eyes on God and Scripture, digging in and working hard to submit everything she thought she knew to the test of Scripture, reason and evidence. In this process, she was able to identify and eliminate  flaws in her thinking and replace them with more accurate understandings of truth as revealed by Scripture, reason and the evidence.

The result is that she abandoned the flawed thinking that was tripping her up and warping the design she had constructed in her mind. Ultimately, her faith is now stronger and truer than it ever was before.

This is one positive aspect of deconstruction (over the seemingly futile concept of backsliding or falling away). With deconstruction, at least, we can retrace our steps, examine all of the layers of faith structure, one on top of the other, and determine where the flaws exist. What can emerge from that difficult process of deconstruction is a stronger faith built on a truer foundation that can hold up to the real and imagined doubts that threaten to undo it.

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