This past week, I went to a mediocre ballet recital. I was duped into it through the participation of our 10-year-old friend, Siya, whose 9 total minutes on stage of a two and a half-hour recital made it almost worth it. An hour and a half in, I began scrolling through the kindle app on my phone for a good read and came across “After Doubt
” by AJ Swoboda. I’m only 1/3rd into it but it is pulling together a lot of threads from other reading I’ve been doing, as well as engaging what might be one of the most significant pastoral issues in our times.
Doubt, deconstruction and deconversion are all words that are increasingly characterising Christian circles many of us find ourselves in. Are we in the middle of a theological epidemic? People have been doubting since Thomas, changing how they believe or leaving the church since there was a church, but what is interesting to me is how and why people are currently leaving.
It is natural when you belong to an institution like the Church or a movement like Christianity, to feel a little defensive when people leave it, but it is worth holding that defensiveness for a time and engaging in some researcher-like curiosity. What is going on here? What motivates people to leave the Church? If anything, what has the Church done wrong?
Are the claims of Christianity harder to believe now than they ever have been?
Leaving: Then and Now
When I became a Christian 20 years ago, I remember times when people left the Church but it felt different then to how it feels now. Back then, as I remember it, people stopped attending a particular community for two reasons. The first is that they had a relational conflict they could not resolve. Secondly, after being challenged when their actions were deemed sinful. Rather than asking for forgiveness they, figuratively speaking, asked directions for the back door. I can’t remember anyone leaving for theological reasons.
What is intriguing to me is how the “leavers” of the Church 20 years ago most often left an embodied community of people because of an in-person conflict or a refusal to change their own actions. In contrast, those who “leave” the Church today seem to have “bigger” reasons and leave the “bigger” church. Leaving is no longer only local. It is leaving the whole thing.
Is this purely another symptom of the increased intensity of our age where many people need to radically align one way or another? The middle way is maybe as narrow as it has ever been.
How people are leaving
However unique and personal every leaver’s journey with doubt and deconstruction is, it seems impossible when viewing leaving as a trend, to ignore the role of social media and the internet. This appears to work in two ways. The first is that everyone now has access to a pulpit from which to shout from. Complaints, accusations and “journeys” are often shared and published with astonishing speed and vitriol. While this may strike you as a bad thing, and in many cases, I think it might be, the democratising of voice that the internet has made possible has arguably done great good. It allows people who don’t have institutional influence to whistleblow on abuses that might otherwise have remained hidden. That is a good thing. But the fact remains, whether social media is a good or bad thing, it has made everything louder.
A whole lot louder.
The second way the Internet has transformed ‘leaving’ is by offering a kind of post-Christian community which allows leavers to find a new place to belong and can even communicate to a leaver a sense of heroic achievement in their “liberation from the oppressions of organised religion.” Whether or not these online post-Christian communities can survive after the often emotional negativity and complaint that characterise them subsides, remains to be seen. But in the short term, they offer solidarity in ways unthinkable to those leaving Christianity in previous generations who would have been, rightly or wrongly, ostracised for such a decision.
Why People are leaving
One of the differences I am wondering about, as mentioned before, is that in the past, leaving meant leaving a place, a people, and a community. It was all done in a very relational context; a conflict or disagreement with this or that person. These days, the picture is bigger and the volume is turned up. So why are people currently leaving the Church?
Firstly, it seems as if leavers increasingly feel that it is implausible to believe in God in the 21st century. The virgin birth. Seriously? The resurrection? Unlikely. The Ten Commandments? Absolute archaic morality.
Secondly, news headlines are full of Christianity’s moral bankruptcy and complicity in injustice. Christianity’s perceived indifference towards the justice-oriented issues of our day around racial division, and lack of care for immigrants and the poor is a hard pill to swallow. The critical mass of abuse scandals is also hard to ignore: the Catholic Church, Ravi Zacharius, Jean Vanier, Bill Hybels, and the list, sadly, goes on.
I share in the lament of the leavers. We live in a cross-pressured context of faith, where doubt is seemingly the very air we breathe. I also share the outrage, tiredness and embarrassment of the endless litany of those profaning the name of Jesus through scandal.
But I am not sure these reasons reach all the way down into the disaffected and disappointed souls of those that leave. While certainly, these represent the precast reasons to hand, few of us can reach all the way down to name the confusing and complex intersection of motivations we experience when navigating big transitions in our lives, religious or otherwise. Potentially, behind these larger reasons, are unresolved personal conflicts, painful disappointments at unanswered prayer and, at times, maybe even temptations to soften the moral lines drawn by a traditional interpretation of the scriptures. While the big reasons I mentioned before might be the iceberg above the waterline, it would do leavers and caring companions well to sensitively and humbly investigate the mass of the deconstruction which sits underneath.
Deconstruction and Destruction
In his book, Swoboda contrasts the deconstruction of faith with the complete destruction of faith by using the brilliant analogy of a house. He argues that a healthy and even necessary deconstruction is like the renovations and repairs on a house. In order to continue to live in it, for it to be habitable and hospitable, we need at times to replace the roof, repaint walls and open up doorways. But the intensity of rhetoric and real pain that often motivates deconstruction can lead to absolute destruction. The roof is leaking and the walls are wobbly so we knock the whole thing down and, in some cases, build a post-Christian pulpit from the pile of rubble.
Swoboda argues that some deconstruction is necessary for Christian maturity. In the earliest days of our faith, we rightly receive the truth with a child-like acceptance. We are what Jesus’ parable might call “good soil.” Swoboda reminds us that both wheat and weeds grow well in good soil. The process towards Christian maturity requires that we re-examine some of the beliefs we accepted in these early days to identify if there might be unhelpful weeds mixed in with the wheat of faith. Is not drinking alcohol as important as believing in the Resurrection? Is not allowing women to preach truly defensible from the Biblical text? Are we completely sure no babies were baptised in the New Testament? Many of these secondary issues are slotted in with the essentials of faith that we initially received, but these are purely issues of interpretation. Many good and godly people, over Christian history, have disagreed humbly and prayerfully on these (and other) things, which indicates there is space to re-examine these and other perspectives and stay within the community of Christian faith.
I remember reading a story about Western churches sending Bibles to the persecuted Church in China. Initially, Chinese Christians were overjoyed at receiving these Bibles, but after a while, sponsoring churches would include pamphlets with their denominational beliefs included in them. This quickly led to the division and disagreement of the Chinese church that once was held together around persecution. Sadly, it became divided over doctrine around infant or believers baptism, Communion or Eucharist, and the structures of Church government held by the denominational peculiarities of its Western donors. In a similar way, we can adopt beliefs that are like the pamphlets in the Bible: wearing a suit on Sunday, speaking a certain language in prayer, not drinking alcohol, and the role of women, to name a few. If we don’t re-examine our inherited beliefs, our faith is likely to become brittle, allowing disagreement on these issues to eventually crush faith itself.
I studied theology in my younger years and came across perspectives I had never been exposed to before. I had to do the hard work of discernment to sort between the primary things and the secondary things. Jesus literally rising from the dead is a primary thing. The claim that Paul wrote Hebrews is not a primary thing. This learning was a process of investigating my faith but it never became my goal to destroy it. My goal was to learn, and this, by its nature, requires some deconstruction (being willing to unlearn things you have learned). Some concerned Christians were worried that studying theology at university might destroy my faith. I responded by describing the experience as being similar to having a tall and tottering Jenga tower slowly disassembled and being put together stronger, yet not quite so tall.
Faith is a humble thing. The tottering tower would have come catastrophically tumbling down at some point. Instead, I became surer of the things I was sure about, and more humble about the things I was not.
A time to tear down, a time to build
Ecclesiastes 3:1,3 says “There is a time for everything, a time to tear down and a time to build.” Consider this sequence for a moment. Often, in order to build something more beautiful or more appropriate, there is a necessary deconstruction, but that is always followed by building something better. Some of us are uncomfortable with tearing down, and others are indifferent to building back up. The current trend of deconstruction can, unfortunately, lead to the unnecessary end of destruction. What we desperately need is to cast vision for reconstruction after the deconstruction. We become more sure of the central and relational components of faith, and we embrace humility around the pamphlets stuck in our Bibles.
For those of us walking alongside others experiencing deconstruction, consider the wise and gentle words of an apologist to an atheist:
“You don’t believe in God? Tell me about the God you don’t believe in because I probably don’t believe in that God either. ”
Helping people see the good and beautiful God more clearly is the role of every follower of Jesus. Sometimes we might be tempted to demonise deconstruction but instead, it is good to celebrate when people rid themselves of wrong or hurtful pictures of God. As advertisers often quip, we should accept no imitations. The Christian life of the mind and heart is one of continual re-negotiation and renewal as is any other relationship-based reality.
As Swoboda says in the book
“To struggle with one’s faith is often the surest sign we have one.”
If we refuse to deconstruct and reconstruct, we will most likely end up with a weak and brittle faith.
If we deconstruct but don’t healthily reconstruct, we will effectively throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Or the Bible out with the pamphlets.