What happens when everything you once believed about God begins to crumble? Perhaps you lose a loved one, get ill or are made redundant and start to question whether God really is good.
Or maybe you stumble across sceptical material online or have your beliefs challenged at university. In a moment, those doubts you’ve had about judgement or biblical infallibility come to the fore and you’re left feeling overwhelmed. What do you do?
For many, this question is not theoretical. Most of us can think of people who have walked away from Christianity entirely. In fact, 53 per cent of the UK population now have no faith according to a recent finding, meaning that for the first time in living memory, most of the country is not religious.
But not everyone who doubts their faith ends up rejecting it. In fact, many evangelicals are claiming that an in-depth review of their beliefs has strengthened their faith. It’s a story we’ve heard time and time again from friends, acquaintances and even the odd well-known church leader. So what’s going on?
A new generation is re-thinking what they’ve been told about Christianity, the Bible and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They argue a ‘new reformation’ is taking place as they voice their doubts and embrace a process known as theological deconstruction.
Academics have dubbed it ‘theological deconstruction’, but in simple terms, they’re referring to what happens when a person asks questions that lead to the careful dismantling of their previous beliefs. Some talk about a “mid-faith crisis”, where deeply held doctrines are re-examined and sometimes jettisoned in favour of more progressive ideas.
Many continue to self-identify as Christian throughout this time, others take on another label which they say carries less baggage, such as ‘follower of Jesus’.
Those who have walked this road say it’s a life-giving and ultimately faith-affirming process, but others are quite skeptical.
A Close Look At Theological Deconstruction
This isn’t a path everyone understands (after all, we’re dealing with abstract and sometimes nebulous ideas), but those who have experienced theological deconstruction are convinced of its benefits. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The dilemma for those experiencing a shift in their faith is often figuring out which of their beliefs are true and good, and which are false and harmful.
British blogger and creator of the Poema podcast James Prescott was comfortable wearing the ‘evangelical’ label for many years, but that changed in the year 2000 when his mother passed away.
“Suddenly the God I had known and grown up with was no longer big enough,” he says. “I had questions and doubts and nowhere to take them.”
This period of questioning can be painful and often isolating, as Christians are sometimes afraid to voice their doubts or admit to a change of theology.
Journalist and author Cole Moreton argues that this is a particular problem in evangelical churches, which he says “are not set up to explore the questions of life”, but rather “provide their perceived answers”.
Many say feelings of grief, guilt and anxiety can accompany a period of deconstruction.
The author of The Post-Evangelical (Triangle), Dave Tomlinson, explains that those who raise questions are often treated as if they’re “losing their way or backsliding”. He says this attitude makes it “very hard to be openly authentic” inside many churches.
Prescott says he has now reconstructed his faith and taken on “liberal theological positions”, which stand in stark contrast to his old church.
“I shifted dramatically,” he explains. “I moved to a more mystics-based faith. The biggest shift was I changed how I believed. I found a spiritual path where the divine was wider, deeper and more inclusive. And Celtic liturgies, Taizé, and contemplation, meditation and silence became spiritual practices for me. I am now in a place where I am open, growing and going deeper without the trappings I had before.”
John Williamson said: “It’s examining your faith from the inside looking for potential weaknesses. The analogy I like to use is, before you set sail on a cruise ship, you’ll see it in harbour and people applying a fresh coat of paint, sealing up any gaps and dealing with the rust. This is done so it doesn’t sink once you get out to sea. And that’s essentially the same thing that we’re saying about faith. It’s about taking ownership over what you believe and potentially letting go of some of the things that no longer work.”
Lisa Gungor, writing in The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen (Zondervan):
“Let’s say our faith was like a sweater. Yarn: our ideology. Weave: our tradition. This is how you wear it. Don’t change it, even if the sweater doesn’t keep you warm any more. Even if it’s too tight or the threads cut off oxygen at your neck. This is the way. Doubts and questions mean disrespect, and those are the seeds of evil, so just don’t.
But over the years, a thread comes loose and you try to just tuck it in alongside the others. You can cover the fraying up. You can pull the thread and think, ‘Oh, I don’t need this one, because it is harmful to me; it’s itchy and gets caught on corners.’ It comes out easily. And the sweater stays together. Then you pull another, and another, and soon you find all the yarn is gone. You have deconstructed the entire thing. You are left naked. People gawk and run away, and you feel two opposing things: the freedom of glorious nakedness, and the fear of the same.”
Fr Richard Rohr, speaking on The Deconstructionists podcast:
“Picture three boxes. The first is order, the second is disorder, the third is reorder.
We’re all raised in the first box of order. We were given our explanation of what reality means and what God means. It gives you so much comfort that most people want to stay in the first box forever. But what has to happen between your 30s and 50s, is the glib certitudes of the first box have to fall apart. Who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s holy and who’s a sinner – I know these beliefs gave your ego great comfort – but if you stay inside the first box, it creates angry people, rigid people and unhappy people. When you leave the first box it feels like dying. When I had to leave my early Catholic certitudes it felt like a loss of faith.
But that wonderful early evangelical gospel holds you strong enough to endure the second box and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In the second box you realise ‘it wasn’t as simplistic as I was told, but it’s not all wrong either’. If you can let God lead you through the second box while hanging onto order, God can lead you to the third box, reorder.
People want the first box at all costs but it doesn’t make them love Jesus. The crucified one who identifies with the poor and tells the outsider ‘never have I found such faith inside Israel’ – you see why they killed him! He was so comfortable with disorder inside of his own highly ordered religion. But he never throws it out – he still respects the temple. But he doesn’t waste much time there. That’s the position we’re in. I live with that same tension – figuring out what was good about the tradition I was given and what was accidental and arbitrary.”
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