[Editor’s note: This is a first part in a two-part series on deconstruction. In light of COVID and racial tensions this year––along with a growing list of other issues and debates––the foundation of your faith may feel like it’s shifting. Many people, especially young adults, are reorienting their faith beliefs and seeking to figure out how to apply their faith to their ever-changing context. This process can feel scary and uncertain and we want to support you as you ask questions, dive deeper, and truly discern how you can relate to the person of Jesus.]
What happens when everything you believe about who Jesus is starts to fall apart?
Maybe the pain of a loved one who is suffering, sick, or has passed away has triggered doubts or questions for you. Or perhaps your plans are not going as you thought they would and you’re experiencing some deep disappointment in God. Maybe you’re struggling with questions of identity, self worth, and questions related to God’s goodness? Or maybe you’ve stumbled across an online skeptic’s video, spurring you on to consider objections you had never even thought about before?
In the season where the spiritual rubber seems to be hitting the road of reality, those doubts you’ve buried about God’s goodness, the coherence of Scripture, or the example of fallible believers, start to surface and leave you feeling overwhelmed and drained. Where are the answers? Where do you turn?
Many of us can relate to those struggles of faith. Those aren’t merely hypothetical scenarios; rather, they are daily struggles that many of us are wrestling through currently. We all know a friend, family member, or someone we went to youth group or high school with who is struggling to hold on to their faith.
The statistics over the last decade have been clear: people are walking away from Christianity in ever-increasing numbers. They’re not necessarily becoming atheists, but they no longer claim to adhere to Christian faith. Pew Research shows that “a declining share of Canadians identify as Christians, while an increasing share say they have no religion.” This is true in the US, Europe, and Australia as well. For Generation Z, this experience appears to be even more acute.
Many have given this phenomenon the label “theological deconstruction,” citing public examples like Purity Culture superstar Josh Harris, Hillsong worship leader Marty Sampson, YouTube entertainers Rhett and Link, and Jon Seingard, member of the Canadian Christian band Hawk Nelson. Each were influential individuals who used their substantial public platforms to voice both the “how and why” of their leaving the Christian faith. Deconstruction is simply a term used to describe the process that someone undergoes when the doubts and questions result in a dismantling of their previously held beliefs.
For those going through a deconstruction experience or for those who are journeying with a friend who is in the process, the experience can be both hard and rewarding. The conundrum for those going through it is often how to find one’s footing when this process often feels like you’re in a mental and emotional tailspin. Discerning which of your beliefs are true and good, and which are false and harmful, can be challenging when you’re in the deconstruction process. We see this with YouTuber Rhett’s journey when he describes in his podcast Ear Biscuits the fact that for many years he wore the label of “evangelical Christian,” but at a certain point he could no longer square his ever-changing beliefs with what he saw as faith claims that were untrue at best and wrong-headed at worst.
As Rhett himself describes it:
“I had been pulling on this thread [of belief] for a really long time…Let’s call it the sweater of faith…I had been pulling on this thread until it had sort of turned into a vest…and then a midriff…and then a halter top…and now it was a string bikini. And then I was like, fwip, I’m gonna take the bikini off.”
There’s no doubt (pun intended) that the idea of theological deconstruction is a bit of a catch-all term. Pithy phrases that attempt to summarize thousands, if not millions, of individuals’ spiritual and emotional journeys will never be able to truly communicate the whole story. But it’s no secret that this new generation is craving non-judgmental spaces where they can ask tough questions.
How do I know this? They tell me.
Each month, I receive dozens of emails from young people expressing struggles with intellectual, moral, emotional, and spiritual questions. “Doubt” is not a dirty word, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we have all wrestled with doubt. While you may not have struggled with the really big questions, everyone has struggled to understand something within the pages of Scripture or the corridors of church history.
Of course, mediums like the Alpha Course Online provide a supportive environment for individuals to ask probing questions, especially for those who are new to the Christian faith. But what avenues are there for those who have made the decision to follow Christ to discuss and explore the really hard and nagging questions? Many turn to the internet, only to find a smorgasbord of blogs and videos by ex-Christians who themselves never truly found the answers they were looking for. Deconstruction can be a healthy process in building up a stronger foundation of faith, but it requires a community willing to come alongside with a posture of non-judgmentalism and love.
Asking the ultimate questions is a sign of growth. The answers that satisfy our longings for truth, morality, purpose, and meaning can only work to help us grow more in loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). There is much value behind understanding our own and others’ journeys; however, we also need to be careful not to make an idol out of the journey itself. The road by which we get to truth is key, but if we glorify the road instead of the destination we create an unspoken assumption that God has not comprehensively revealed himself or made his message about salvation clear. The Christian journey is not an endless search of humanity trying to find God but is about a God who has revealed himself to humanity.
The process of questioning cannot be placed over and above the supplying of intellectually reasonable answers. I understand that to some it may seem intellectually irresponsible to make the kind of overarching truth claims that historical Christianity has made. Those claims may even sound arrogant. The more responsible course of action, some may argue, is to simply say, “I don’t know.”
While leaving questions up in the air may give off an air of humility, there are significant issues with this posture. For one, “I don’t know” is only the right answer if in fact there is no reasonable basis by which a person can know something. But what if a person does, in fact, have a basis for knowing? If they do, then saying “I don’t know” could very well be irresponsible.
In the third year of my undergrad, I took an “Intro to Canadian History” class. Let’s say you were in that class with me. If you were to ask me, “Did Jacques Cartier sail up the St. Lawrence River?” and I answered “Yes,” you could hardly fault me as an arrogant smart aleck. Similarly, if I had answered “I don’t know” out of some mistaken notion of intellectual humility, I would be faulted for rejecting historical truth.
We need to ask whether we are deconstructing our faith in a spirit of skepticism or cynicism. What’s the difference? To be a skeptic would be to enter into the deconstruction process with a willingness to reserve judgment until we find a satisfactory answer, knowing that in our learning and searching we will come to a reasonable conclusion. On the other hand, if we are taking on a spirit of cynicism, we are merely asking questions without thinking critically and with no true interest or desire to find the answers to those questions. We need to reflect on whether we’re going through an honest deconstruction process or whether we are being disingenuous in our approach. Adopting the latter posture may lead to the adoption of convenient lies that fit what we want to believe rather than the reality of things. The purpose of deconstruction should be reconstruction. Worldview deconstruction without worldview reconstruction is nothing more than demolition.
Ultimately, questions should be welcomed, nurtured, and understood. As the second century Christian writer Justin Martyr states, “Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true” (The First Apology, Ch. II). If you are going through a season of theological deconstruction, I pray that your questions will lead you back to the One from whom all truth flows.
Power to Change strives to help people understand the relevance of Jesus in all areas of life. We provide a number of helpful resources to encourage your search and journey regarding faith, reason, and worldview questions:
Looking for someone to talk to or mentor you through a time of questioning or deconstruction? P2C Digital Strategies can provide help.
The Ultimate Questions podcast provides bite-sized apologetics to discover the believability of Christianity.
The Undiscussed Podcast touches on topics that Christians should talk about, but often don’t. Check out their 25 episodes to date on a wide range of subjects surrounding the Christian worldview.