(Estimated reading time: four minutes.)
There are a number of people in my circle of relationships who are somewhere in the process of deconstructing their faith. Among millennials, particularly educated white millennials, faith deconstruction is so common as to almost be a pastime. It is, not surprisingly, less common among black millennials.
Charles Holmes, who leads a college ministry in Durham, NC, and who is black, believes that “Deconstruction can be a form of privilege.” He continues: “It’s no accident that people in the Western part of the world are deconstructing the faith that has given many marginalized, persecuted, and oppressed people hope for hundreds of years.”
Does deconstruction pose an existential threat to religious belief? That depends on whether people go on to reconstruct what they have dismantled. Deconstruction is not an end in itself. It should be only the first step in a remodeling process.
I know people who, in the process of deconstructing their faith, concluded that what was left was not worth keeping—and they were probably right. Others, however, get down to the frame and foundation of belief, find it reliable, and rebuild from there. Their faith is more secure and fulfilling after deconstruction than before.
What does it mean to deconstruct faith? There is no simple definition, but a description might be helpful. When someone deconstructs their faith, they dismantle its components, try to understand their origin – Scripture, tradition, superstition, prejudice – and dispose of the ones they do not believe.
The philosopher John D. Caputo, while describing deconstruction in a philosophical context, expresses aptly what is happening in faith deconstruction: “Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell—a secure axiom or a pithy maxim—the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility.”
Many people have been cracking nutshell axioms about creation, sexuality, and eternal destiny, and some have not found a nut within the shell. They have had “a form of godliness” without the godliness, a system of faith without the faith. These will toss the nutshell away and, frankly, will probably not miss it.
Deconstruction begins with doubt, with cognitive dissonance over things that have been believed or at least assumed to be true. It is surprising – I, at least, experience cognitive dissonance over the fact – that so few people doubt their doubts. Why should people only doubt their beliefs? What is good for the proverbial goose of faith is good for the gander of doubt.
For the sake of intellectual integrity, people who doubt their beliefs should also doubt their doubts and consider deconstructing them. Where did the doubt originate? Is it sourced in contemporary ethical opinion, for example? If so, does that ethical opinion also need to be deconstructed? Shouldn’t one reject outright the assumption that an opinion is superior simply because it is contemporary?
If people deconstruct their doubts, they may discover that they are not sourced in the weakness of a belief but in the weakness of the person who transmitted the belief to them. Does that make the belief invalid? Of course not, for that person may have acquired the belief from someone whose strength of character and intellect is unassailable.
These two factors, the assumed superiority of contemporary ethical opinions over earlier ones, and the perceived character failure or intellectual inferiority of belief transmitters – sometimes parents, sometimes church leaders – have motivated people to deconstruct their faith. The fact that neither of these factors could ever disprove the validity of a belief should motivate people to deconstruct their doubt.
Deconstructing faith can be a good thing. Nearly everyone has some dogmatic clutter – ideas that contradict both biblical teaching and common sense – littering their belief system. These need to be discarded or replaced. Deconstruction, as Derrida himself insisted, is not nihilism. The reason to deconstruct is to rebuild, stronger and better.
People who stop after deconstructing their faith have not gone far enough. They should go on to deconstruct their doubt as well. Too many people give their doubts a free pass from intellectual scrutiny. Culture has led them to believe that skepticism is inherently smarter than faith. That is a belief that cries out to be deconstructed.