When I went away to college, I quickly realized something that alarmed me: I had no idea what I believed. Sure, I knew what I had been taught growing up in a conservative Christian context, but I’d never been forced to think deeply about those teachings because they’d never been questioned before. Suddenly, I found myself in a new place full of people who thought differently than I did and wanted to know why I believed what I believed. And I had nothing to tell them. I had grown up in a faith system, but that faith simply had not become my own.
At some point in each of our lives, we’re going to come to a place where our faith is tested. Whether it be a personal tragedy, a major life shift, or (like me) exposure to differing worldviews, something is going to eventually come along that forces us to look at what we claim to believe and think, “Is this actually true for me?” Until that point, faith may seem simple and straightforward, but once you come face to face with something that makes you question everything, nothing will ever be the same.
There is a huge difference between believing something because it was taught to you and believing something because you know it to be true. Whereas teaching is external, experience is internal. Both can be formative, but only one holds true in the face of these faith-testing events. When things get real, you start to find out what you truly believe, and everything else simply falls away.
For many of us, these faith-testing experiences actually serve to reinforce what we’ve already been taught. They give us an opportunity to take what we believe intellectually and put it into practice. You can’t know for sure that you believe God is in control until you find yourself in a situation that’s completely out of your control and have to trust in him. These can be positive experiences that leave us even stronger in our faith than before.
But they’re also edifying. They help us burn away the things that we thought we believed but were never really true for us. The things that don’t make sense when we really consider them. Maybe even the toxic things that held us back from loving ourselves and others the way we’re supposed to. When our faith is tested, we cling to what we know, but we let go of the rest, and it’s a beautiful thing.
And here’s another beautiful thing: You don’t have to wait around for some major life experience to start looking at your faith this way. You can create your own faith-questioning event right here, right now. It’s called deconstruction, and it’s the powerful process of taking your faith system apart piece by piece, questioning every aspect of it, and finding out what’s actually true for you.
In the face of this newfound diversity, I started to question everything I believed about God, the world, and other people. I looked at every single teaching from my childhood and wondered, “Why do I believe that? Is that really true?” I considered how biblical, rational, and compassionate each teaching was and made a judgment call based on those criteria. Some of the stuff I kept, and other parts I threw out completely.
But for a while there, as I was questioning everything, it felt like I didn’t believe much at all. Sure, I clung to the very basics of my Christian faith. But everything else was in flux for a long time. It was scary in a way, but it was also really freeing not to feel weighed down by all of these beliefs that really weren’t mine. It gave me room to figure out what it was that I actually did believe.
People of faith often get freaked out by the idea of deconstruction, and part of that fear is understandable. It’s scary to doubt yourself. We all like to think that we have it all figured out, but the truth is that absolute certainty has never been a part of the deal with God. That’s why it’s called faith. There’s a lot we can know, and we’re called to seek out that knowledge to the best of our ability. But at the end of the day, many matters of theology are simply mysterious because we serve a transcendent God, so we have to be willing to accept the fact that we may not have everything down just right.
Far too often, we witness tragedies of faith when a person starts to question what they believe and eventually gives it up altogether. They think that if part of what they’ve been taught isn’t true, then it must all be worthless. This is a failure on the church’s part to teach nuance, foster humility, and make room for diversity of thought. The truth is that you can question major parts of your faith without throwing everything out, or giving up your faith community. And when we make people feel like they’re doing something wrong by asking questions, we’re setting them up to become frustrated and maybe even walk away altogether.
Wouldn’t it be better, then, for us to create a space within the faith community for people to ask these questions in a safe and loving environment? Instead of twiddling our thumbs hoping no one goes through anything that causes them to question things (which they inevitably will), we should be proactive and encourage people to go through this deconstruction process before life forces them into it. In that way, we can help prevent at least some people of faith from giving up entirely and instead offer them the ability to find and claim a faith of their own.
After all, that’s the whole point of the discipleship process anyway. We’re not trying to create copy-and-pasted, cookie-cutter Christians who robotically repeat what they’ve been taught. No, the goal is to form mature, Christ-following individuals who have experiences with God that have transformed them in ways that they can’t help but share.
And those experiences will lead us down different intellectual and theological paths. I may feel particularly convicted about social justice, whereas someone else’s journey might lead them to focus on apologetics. That’s perfectly acceptable. We don’t need uniformity of thought, but unity of faithfulness to God and his purposes, and that can only come from individuals who have truly experienced faith in their own lives.
Deconstruction is not something to be afraid of. It’s something to encourage and embrace. When we become scared to question our faith, we forget that the people who taught us had to go through this process themselves. They had to make their faith their own, and so do each of us. This process of questioning one’s faith, taking it apart, and finding what is true should be a part of every Christian’s journey into spiritual maturity, and it’s our job as the church to make room for it.
By the time I got to seminary, my faith had been thoroughly deconstructed, which actually put me ahead of the curve. A big portion of my graduate education was made up of teasing apart each and every aspect of my theology and asking, “Why do I believe this?” But seminary also taught me something important: You can’t simply go through the process of deconstruction and leave it there. Before I graduated, I had to go through a rebuilding process, putting my faith back together piece-by-piece and forming something that was true for me. When I left school, I came away not only with an education, but with a faith of my own that I am now able to take with me into my ministry.
Deconstruction is valuable in and of itself, but it is not the end goal. After all, having no faith system isn’t much better than having one that doesn’t fit you. The purpose isn’t to create skeptics who question everything and never come to any conclusions. No, the whole point of deconstruction is to lead the way to something new: reconstruction.
Once one’s faith has been fully taken apart and questioned, a person is left with two things. The first is a set of basic building blocks, the aspects of one’s faith that have survived the deconstruction process. These are the things that you know that you know that you know, and no crisis, question, or alternative worldview could ever change that. These are important, as they form the foundation for one’s faith going forward.
The second thing deconstruction leaves behind is equally important: space. Now that all of the stuff that doesn’t fit has been cleared away, one has plenty of room to fill with things that are true. The basic building blocks of faith are essential, but we are called to move beyond those at some point. Reconstruction includes exploring different answers to theological questions, weighing their merits, and choosing the one that fits. Over time, this will lead to a genuine, cohesive faith system that’s true to you.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t still leave room for space. If the deconstruction/reconstruction process teaches us anything, it should be humility. There are a lot of smart, Christ-loving people who disagree on major theological issues, and that’s perfectly acceptable. As I said before, we’re dealing with mysterious, big-picture questions, so there’s always going to be an element of not knowing to it. But this process allows us to embrace the mystery rather than flee from it.
And that’s where we truly discover faith: in the place where what we know meets the mystery of the God we serve. That faith is authentic, it’s true, and it’s ours, but we can only attain it by going through the process of deconstruction and reconstruction. It’s hard, and it will take some serious time and effort, but once you’ve been through it, your faith will never be the same. I’ve been through a major deconstruction/reconstruction process in my own life, and I’m constantly practicing it in smaller ways, too. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, and I hope that you’ll choose to go through it as well and find it as meaningful as I have.
If you’d like resources or someone to talk to about this topic, feel free to reach out to me anytime. It’s something I’m very passionate about it, and I’d love to chat with anyone who’s interested. I’m currently going through this process with my young adult Sunday school class and would be happy to share resources, swap ideas, and answer any questions you might have about my personal experience with deconstruction or my approach to teaching it. Thanks for reading!