Like many people, I suppose, I have been thinking about the phenomenon known as “deconstruction” since it has become popular to tell deconstruction stories in recent years. A deconstruction story is an “anti-testimony”; it’s a testimony of a journey from belief in the God of the Bible to non-belief in the God of the Bible.
Last summer, a high profile Christian worship leader and the guy who wrote the book urging Christians not to date (that created a generation of non-dating Christians) “deconstructed”. They walked away from their faith and publicly announced it, blogged about it, were interviewed about it and became celebrities of the walk away from faith movement.
Other notables come to mind as well, but I am not going to name them. That isn’t the point. I only recount these stories to demonstrate that “it’s a thing”, as my kids say.
Old timey religious folks used to call it “backsliding”. By that, they meant turning back to a sinful lifestyle, lured away by the temptation of sin. I remember people calling it “falling away”. By that we meant, losing faith, not being able to hold on to it.
Deconstruction seems to be a much more noble and honorable thing to do than backsliding or falling away. (I say that not without my tongue in cheek.) Deconstruction suggests that you had a hand in it. You didn’t backslide against your better judgment or let faith slip through your fingers; you rolled up your sleeves and dismantled your faith, and you found that it didn’t fit back together again.
It’s scientific, right? So it must be a good thing.
Deconstruction is popular, I believe, because skepticism is gaining in popularity. Scientists, like Neil de Grasse Tyson and pseudo-scientists, like Bill Nye, “the Science Guy”, have ridden that wave of popularity scaling away religious (and philosophical) ideas and replacing them with science, because (they say) science has all the answers.
Deconstruction is science, right?
I don’t buy it for a second that science and religion are incompatible, and neither do many scientists. I participated in a Zoom conference just this morning with a biochemist who is a believer. On the other hand, deconstruction might not be the evil that some Christians may believe it is. In fact, I think, deconstruction can be a good thing.
Before explaining, I note that deconstruction seems to be an uniquely evangelical phenomenon. That isn’t my observation, but one made by people who study this stuff. Deconstruction also seems to be an issue more for people who grew up in Christian households and grew up in the church from a young age (pre-adult), than for people who came to faith even as a young adult or later in life.
I don’t know what that says about evangelical faith. I have considered myself “evangelical” since college, so I am not coming at this as an “outsider”. I do have some thoughts about the tendency for deconstruction to “happen” to people who became Christians at a young age, though.
I have written that God has no grandchildren. (Not that this concept is true just because I wrote about; I don’t want to repeat the whole argument here, so I am linking to it so you can read it if you want.) The idea is that belief in God is a personal relationship. We don’t inherit it from our parents. It must be authentic. It can’t be duplicated. It must be produced in us in direct relationship with God Himself.
I think it is easy for children to adopt the attitudes and mimic the actions of their parents and the people they know without really having a personal relationship with God. A young person can learn all the right answers but not know the One who answers the most intimate longings of our hearts.
I realized today as I listened to a deconstruction story (and a comment to it that I will share below) that we (I include myself here) can adopt structures of thinking that make sense to us at the time, but which are a bit off. And even if just slightly off, those preconceptions can inhibit spiritual growth and, eventually, result in the unraveling of our belief as the weaknesses are exposed.
I encourage you to watch the following fifteen minute YouTube video of Matt’s deconstruction story. Matt’s story doesn’t end with deconstruction, though. His deconstruction allowed him to clear away the faulty thinking structures that resulted in his loss of faith. When he approached Scripture afresh (without the faulty preconceptions), faith was rebuilt on a much stronger foundation. But, I will let him describe the process for himself.
We are all familiar with the popular (and unfortunately accurate) criticisms about Christian dogmatism. (Scientists can be just as dogmatic by the way.) Dogmatism gets a bad name because it is the rigid imposition of belief structures on reality without humility or openness to correction.
People in evangelical circles stress the value of faith, and that may be why dogmatism is especially an issue for our more fundamentalist brothers. For many, faith means dogmatically holding on to a particular belief or way of seeing things, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. You might call this blind faith. (I think blind faith is over rated, by the way.)
What Matt did in his deconstruction was to be honest. He let go of the dogmas that propped up his faith as he conceived it as a teenager, and his belief system crumbled. It didn’t crumble because he “lost his faith” or because of sin, but because it just didn’t make sense anymore. It didn’t hold together when he stripped away the artificial structures he constructed to hold it up.
For him, it was a perspective thing. He was approaching Scripture completely from the wrong direction. As he says, “I thought it was all about me!” When he approached Scripture without the preconceptions and with the old filters removed, he realized that Scripture is about God and God’s purposes (not us).
It all began to make sense for him once he cleared away the old ways of thinking. When he let Scripture speak for itself, he began to see how the pieces all fit together on the foundation of Scripture, itself, without the props he previously used to support it.
That was his story. I wouldn’t expect your story to track the same way if you are reading this and identifying with the deconstruction experience.
I have had my own deconstruction experience. I came to Christianity in college. Though I grew up in the Catholic Church (mass every Sunday), I was a fish out of water. I didn’t adopt my parents’ or the church’s attitudes or try very hard to mimic their actions because I couldn’t relate to them. (I was honest at least.)
I became a Christian in a secular college atmosphere by reading the Bible for myself and reading on my own. Still, I went through a long period of deconstruction from my late 20’s when I went to law school that lasted into my 40’s.
I picked up ways of thinking along the way that were off. They became a real drag on my spiritual life, like a lead weight. I stopped reading Scripture and studying. I kept going back to certain ways of thinking that were counterproductive (I realize now). I was no longer reading Scripture or “testing” my thinking against the Word of God and the insights of other people, and these ways of thinking became ruts in which I became stuck.
I also wandered from God during this time. I stopped going to church. I fell back into old sinful habits. My thoughts and my heart were consumed by many things other than God. These idols became my focus instead of God.
I knew it. I had those nagging thoughts in the back of my head telling me I should be going to church; I should be praying; I should be reading my Bible; I shouldn’t be doing things that I knew were wrong. I felt condemned, but my inertia was carrying me along. These were the busiest, most demanding times of my life, and I was floundering spiritually.
I found myself very far from God, empty, spiritually desperate and thinking that I was like salt that had lost its flavor and could not be made salty again. I felt like I had wondered too far from God, after having tasted of His goodness, to be able to come back.
I considered simply walking away, starting over on a new foundation, but where would I go? What foundation? There was nothing sacred left of myself, including my thoughts. So, I let go. I came back without pretense. I let God be God, and He began to renew me.
In the process, those faulty thinking structures that I built and carried with me were slowly deconstructed. They were stripped way. It was painful. It isn’t something I wish on anyone, and I don’t recommend doing what I did.
It doesn’t require distancing oneself from God to go through deconstruction. In fact, God is the one doing the deconstruction… if we let Him do His work in us.
The one thing I did cling to in all my time of deconstruction is that God is God, and He alone is true. This carried me through.
I fully identify with Matt in the requirement of reaching a point of honesty – maybe even brutal honesty. I believe God is able to work most effectively in us when we are honest. He knows our thoughts anyway. We just need to be honest with ourselves and allow ourselves to stand naked before Him.
Many of my ways of thinking and assumptions have changed, not just on Scripture and “spiritual” things, but on politics and other things as well. I have gotten in the habit of allowing my ideas to be challenged, my ways of thinking to be tested, and I don’t hold on to them as tightly as I once did.
The freedom is a breath of fresh air!
I have found that I shouldn’t be afraid of truth. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, so why shouldn’t I embrace truth wherever it is found? Of course, we have Scripture to provide an anchor to keep us from sailing off into the rocks.
I have gone on a bit long, so I want to wrap this up. My point here is to observe that “deconstruction” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Scripture invites us to “test everything”. If we are off on our ways of thinking, we need some deconstructing!
With that said, I will end with the following comment that was made to the YouTube video shared above. I share it verbatim:
This is my story. I left the faith in Bible College. I was selected by my professor to help him write apologetics against the new atheism (at the time). I stop [sic] my theology study and began to study Sagan, Dawkins, and Harris. I began to lose my faith and so did a few highly distinguished students. Word got out on campus and people began to debate us daily. We schooled them and they fell away. This only increased our new beliefs. I remember one night when I said to the night sky that God was not real and I felt liberated. I then believed it my goal to destroy the faiths of Christians since I knew the system too well. This lasted for about 6 years. In 2013 I began to forget all the theology I learned in school. Reformed, dispensational, all of it. Piper, Spurgeon…everyone and began to search the scriptures myself. I read papers from scholars, something many Christians are afraid to do. I also read through the Bible 3x that year. Yahweh had me relearn EVERYTHING! See what I already knew, ie traditions, denominational doctrine couldn’t save me again since it failed the first time. Something new had to renew my faith. Now I am a Christian. It was an incredible ride and I teach and encourage as many Christians as I can to not give [sic] and to really understand theology. And in the end know the Father through our Lord Jesus.
These stories should give some people hope who are feeling a bit “deconstructed” these days. In those times of deconstruction, be honest, hold on to the foundation of what you know to be true, and let the rest fall away. Be open to correction and stay humble. Read Scripture for yourself. Let God build you up on His foundation.