Deconstructing Faith: Part of the Modern World Since the Beginning

You’ve probably heard people talk about going through times of deconstruction. It seems I’ve heard more people speak of this just in the last few weeks, from articles to students sharing stories. At the same time, this is not new at all. Working in campus ministry, I have always met students who are rethinking and questioning – i.e. deconstructing – their faith.

While I was raised a Christian and still am one, my own faith has changed quite a bit over the years. I believe deconstruction (and reconstruction) are natural parts of the spiritual journey and human development (google James Fowler’s Stages of Faith to see an outline of this). Of course, with the preponderance of social media, the stories of deconstruction are more out there and obvious than ever before.

I have been re-reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Its an 800 page tome that seeks to tell the story of the rise of the modern world. Taylor begins in 1500 where it was taken for granted that God exists and asks the question of how this became a highly contested proposition by the year 2000. Its a brilliant book, and highly influential. Taylor questions the popular “subtraction story” that people learned science and thus jettisoned religion. He proposes a more nuanced and detailed story.

I read it about ten years ago. Its definitely worth the time to wade through (though there are now plenty of books offering summaries or even “application for ministry” based on Taylor’s original work). I wouldn’t dive into an 800 page monster TWICE just for fun (though, it is fun).

Anyway, I was struck by what Taylor said on pages 302-303. He is speaking of the “wide sense of malaise at the disenchanted world” and goes on:

My point is not that everybody feels this, but rather, first, that many people do, and far beyond the ranks of card-carrying theists. Indeed, what is noticeable from the very beginning is the constitution of a growing category of people who while unable to accept Christian orthodoxy are seeking some alternative spiritual sources.”

People questioning Christian orthodoxy and looking for some other spirituality? Sounds familiar…

What this reflects is that in face of the opposition between orthodoxy and unbelief, many, and among them the best and most sensitive minds, were cross-pressured, looking for a third way. . . this predicament was spiritually unstable, offering, on one side motives not to go back to the earlier established faiths, and on the other (among other things), a sense of malaise, emptiness and a need for meaning.”

I’ve met people who feel this. Honestly, I’ve felt this and I imagine if most of us are honest we have as well. We feel a pressure between the form of Christianity we were taught (“orthodoxy”) and simply unbelief. The fundamentalist evangelical (for me) faith pushes us away but we resist going the whole way into unbelief. We look for something more, better or even deeper and more profound.

Taylor continues:

Many, perhaps most, will end up opting for some solution, including the extreme ones of authoritarian orthodoxy and materialist atheism. . . Successive generations keep re-opening the issues in new ways; children desert the solutions of their parents: one generation reacts to the Gibbonian high culture of the eighteenth century by turning evangelical; not very long after their descendants have become unbelievers, and so on.

Deconstruction, and the deconversion that sometimes goes with it, has been going on for centuries. And, as Taylor points out, it often ends up a sort of circle as the children of those who deconvert may end up opting for a more rigid form of the religion their parents left behind. Then their kids deconstruct and walk away.

And so it goes.

Reading Taylor just made me realize that questioning the faith we’ve received is nothing new. We’ve been experiencing this questioning and doubting – cross-pressures as Taylor calls them – for most of the modern era. For, as Taylor argues, the modern secular age is defined by all beliefs being contested and everyone, no matter where they land, being aware of other options.

Which brings me, perhaps pastorally, back to the present day. It is possible a person deconstructing their faith could end up returning to and reaffirming their prior faith. But it is more likely they are going to end up somewhere new. So what is the role of the church? Is it our job to present the doubters and deconstructers with all the clear-cut answers and theologies? Do we say, “this is just the way it is, take it or leave it?”

I don’t think so. And I especially don’t think so if what we are presenting is all the fringe stuff that is not even central to the Christian faith anyway. I think most any doctrine apart from the Apostles and Nicene Creed is secondary and not worth dividing over, but that’s a post for a different day. Besides, I’m comfortable welcoming those who question even such core doctrines. Would we rather have them questioning on social media or in our community?

I’ve been working on a sermon on Ephesians 6:1-3 and feel some of the way we treat people in deconstruction is to basically provoke them in exactly the way Paul says not to do. But I digress.

I think rather than doubling down in a “take it or leave it” style, we create communities where people feel comfortable asking questions, doubting, being unsure and even deconstructing. We do this with the goal of helping work towards reconstruction. Deconstruction may be an essential part of spiritual growth, but if you stay there too long it is easy to become cynical and angry and just tear down everything and everyone. There needs to be a time to build, to reconstruct.

Hopefully the thing built will be even more beautiful than what was knocked down.

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