I’ve recently read about a few Christian leaders who have “deconstructed” their faith*. I don’t think this is a new trend but rather a new buzzword to describe a common process. Like all jargon, the primary danger is that we lose sight of what we’re discussing.
This article is specifically discussing deconstruction as it relates to faith. I’ve elsewhere discussed deconstruction in our view of church, which is a different conversation.
For starters, the idea of a “deconstructed” faith is a myth. Deconstructionism is a process by which we evaluate internal inconsistencies, but it doesn’t speak to any final destination. All of us deconstruct to some extent. The question is where it leads us.
Three distinct terms fall under the label “deconstruction” as it’s being used: Renovation, Resolution, and Conversion.
The process starts with a question(s) within your belief system, perhaps a perceived inconsistency either in intellect or application. Any belief system, be it Christianity, Islam, or Secularism has difficult elements that prompt questions and require us to use critical thinking and reason. Each belief system must also account for science, history, and other data points and work it into it’s overall framework.
The issue is whether we seek answers within our faith or outside of it.
Ultimately, it is a question of authority: What is our final guide for determining truth? When faced with a hard question, where do we go to determine the answers?
Renovation is the process of rebuilding elements of belief and spiritual life within the Christian faith. To use an extreme example, perhaps you grew up in a Fundamentalist home and, as you grew older, you started to grow dissatisfied with your childhood faith and church experience. You questioned core teachings, such as why the KJV translation is sacred or the validity of Premillennialism. Through this process, you discovered a new way of living your Christian faith that rejects many of the assumptions and practices within your Fundamentalist upbringing.
The renovation process requires deconstruction, for example, the recognition that there was nothing inherently more inspired in the KJV as compared to the NASB or the ESV. The process functions like a renovation project, you tear down a wall in order to rebuild, but the overall house is built on the same foundation.
My illustration is a bit extreme to get the point across. I believe most Christians do and should experience renovation processes. This might feel like deconstruction at times but ultimately leads to a stronger foundation. The core differentiating factor is whether the process occurs under the authority of historic Christianity or under the authority of a competing belief system.
Resolution is the process of re-affirming core truth through examining your faith. Similar to Renovation, this also occurs within the Christian faith. For example, you may question the historicity of Jesus and the Resurrection based on exposure to an article you read online. In response, you study NT Wright, CS Lewis, Karl Barth and other theological giants who made this a central point of scholarship. Through this process you strengthen your faith and increase your resolve through critical thinking within a Christian belief system.
One Christian who recently “deconstructed” commented that Christians are unwilling to have difficult conversations. This person’s comment revealed an ignorance of Christian theological development more than a flaw within the Christian tradition. Virtually any topic has been exhaustively discussed and researched by theologians, often in an ongoing conversation that stretches across thousands of years and vastly different cultures.
Many of these topics are disputed within the Christian faith but there is no lack of willingness to ask difficult questions nor is there is a lack of brilliant answers.
I believe a sad by-product of the internet age is how frequently Christians allow random internet articles to guide their faith and, in particular, to call into question their theology. Before criticizing Christian beliefs based on a poorly researched Vox article, start by reading the vast Christian scholarship that discusses whatever question you have. Better yet, seek out a mentor within the church to guide you.
To be clear, even after solid research, plenty of people will still disagree with the results of Christian theology. Generally, this is because they hold assumptions (faith) that conflict with the core assumptions of Christianity. This works both ways, I disagree with humanistic assumptions because it conflicts with the core assumptions of my faith.
The only way to disagree or to doubt is to believe something else that calls your original beliefs into question**. And that brings me to the last term.
Conversion is the process of leaving the authority of one belief system for another. The whole concept of “deconstructed faith” is a fallacy. Based on how it’s currently being used, a more accurate term is a conversion to Naturalistic Humanism***. Former Christians are leaving the authority of Christianity, with its faith assumptions and claim to truth, and coming under the authority of Humanism and its claims to truth. They may still incorporate elements of Christianity, but their primary allegiance has shifted.
The word “deconstructed” is misleading because it indicates that someone no longer believes and instead defaulted into a neutral belief system. I think the term “deconstructed” is popular because it carries the hint of virtue, subtly nodding to the Western ideals of free-thinking and radical individualism.
Everything about this is wrong. First, there is no neutral belief system, just like there is no such thing as universal morality. These people still believe, they just believe differently. No one loses their faith in isolation—they swap their faiths. “Free-thinking” is likewise a fallacy. Our thoughts are necessarily shaped by our social environment. No one “free-thinks,” instead we allow our thinking to be shaped by a different belief system, generally due to socialization****.
Christians are not deconstructing their faith, they are converting to a different faith. There is really no different between this and the process of someone converting from Christianity to Islam or Buddhism, besides the fact that there are similarities between historic Christianity and Naturalistic Humanism as opposed to eastern religions.
This may not appear to be a full conversion, most people who “deconstruct” are embracing syncretism, by which they retain some elements of Christianity mixed in with other beliefs; however, I would still suggest that in most of these situations, their primary allegiance has transferred.
Critics use deconstructed thinking to point out perceived inconsistencies with Christianity, but this is a two-way street. I believe there are far more inconsistencies within naturalistic humanism, so much so that I believe the whole belief system is untenable.
I’m not advocating for a non-intellectual faith, far from it. We should engage in rational thinking—Does our worldview align with our core assumptions? Is it internally consistent? Does it make sense of the human experience? Does it incorporate scientific observations?
In order to engage in rational thinking, you must start with assumptions. This is true regardless of your belief system. The Christian word for this is faith. Faith then forms the foundation about which you build.
It’s worth noting that intellectual questions rarely lead to a conversion, whether into Christianity or into Naturalistic Humanism. The conversion process generally occurs due to emotional discontentment and external social influence. Few people rationally convert, instead we convert and then seek to rationally reinforce our new faith assumptions.
When we face internal discontentment (my dreams are stalled out, I feel isolated, I was hurt by the church, I’m angry at Christian involvement in politics, etc) we seek ways to work through the difficulty. Once again, this can occur within or outside the Christian faith. We can wrestle with our emotions through pressing into God and the church, or we can turn to a competing belief system for answers.
Likewise, our cultural environment has a profound impact on how we handle questions of faith. If my culture tells me that free sexual expression is a necessary part of human fulfillment, then I’m far more likely to embrace this as an answer to my internal discontentment.
Over the past month, I’ve talked with far more people who left the Naturalistic Humanism faith and decided follow Jesus than I have heard from people who left Christianity. These people would each argue that it was the emptiness of Humanism that lead to internal brokenness, which then caused them to find life in Jesus.
I don’t want to minimize the pain people have experienced through a negative church experience or broader Christian culture, I know this is very real and understand why it causes people to ask difficult questions. However, we need to remember that the reverse is also true. And I would argue far more so.
Let me end on a few personal thoughts.
I believe in God as defined in the Scriptures and interpreted through historic Christianity. Based on this foundation I believe God continues to reveal Himself to humanity and recognize that I need other people in order to understand the faith. In other words, I need to encounter God and I need the church. These form the environment for me to then apply my intellect to wrestle through questions of faith.
I’ve wrestled through plenty of questions and have felt the allure of an ever-strengthening humanistic culture. I also believe humanism is fatally flawed and can never provide the hope, life, and truth it claims. In fact, I think the last two hundred years of human history are a testament to this. The more I study and wrestle through hard questions, the more convinced I am that Jesus is the hope of the world.
*I am avoiding any names because I recognize each person’s situation is unique; the goal of this article is to address a perceived trend, not to call out any individuals.
***I’m using the term Naturalistic Humanism as a generic way to describe the default belief system of the Western World. It is shortened to Humanism in most of my writing. I chose this word after reading Arthur Holmes because I believe most accurately describes our society’s dominate belief system.
- Naturalism is a belief system created during the Age of Reason. The core assumption is that the natural world is all that exists and that there is nothing transcendent beyond. As a result, we should only believe what we can prove through research and science. The irony is that this entire belief system is based on an assumption! How do we know nothing else exists? This statement is no more likely to be true than the belief in a transcendent power. I believe Naturalism holds far more intellectual inconsistencies than a belief in God (Why does the universe exist?).
- Humanism is an ethical code that emerged out of Christian morality in the Middle Ages. In modern times, it has been detached from Christianity. It generally teaches that humanity alone holds the power to create meaning and overcome problems. The moral code is based on living true to self and good to others. This can be expressed in Romanticism, Existentialism, or Scientism.
Most importantly, this is a belief system. It is based on faith: The natural world is the only definitive reality, humans can alter the course of the natural world, humans are inherently good, and humans have power to create meaning in their world, etc. It embraces morals: Be true to yourself and good others. It believes in an ultimate authority: Natural laws are the transcendent power in the universe, as opposed to God or gods. And it lives within a worldview and seeks to create a social order accordingly. Western Christians are especially susceptible to this belief system because it is the dominate metaphysic in our culture, but that doesn’t make it any truer.
My book, The Gospel According to Culture, contrasts Humanism and gospel-centered Christianity if you’d like to learn more.
****See my recent article on Social Constructionism for more.