“My husband and I had lost one of our children before birth,” says Sarah Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist and Out of Sorts. “And the experience of walking through that meant I didn’t really have the option to choose the intellectual spiritual dishonesty of pretending that I was fine.”
The truth, Bessey says, is that she hadn’t been fine for quite some time, even before her tragic miscarriage.
She’d felt some questions bubbling up in her faith—the sort of questions good Christians aren’t supposed to ask about their beliefs. Like a lot of people, Bessey says she sensed these questions without really acknowledging them.
Every now and then, she’d feel doubt like a brush of cold fingers in her soul, but she successfully avoided facing them head on.
“I think the thicket of questions, doubts, problems and wondering were all well and fine until I actually started experiencing grief on a really personal level,” she says.
The devastation held her face to her doubts, and she realized the system of beliefs she had was no longer adequate.
“So that meant I went in the direction of feeling like I needed to burn it down,” she says.
We’re talking about a process called deconstruction—an academic term for the systematic pulling apart of the belief system you were raised in. It’s what happens when the questions you’ve pushed down your whole life finally bubble over the surface, and you’re forced to stare honestly at your doubts. The infallibility of the Bible. The omniscience of God. The finality of hell.
This is all more common than you might think. “There are a lot of Christians—millions in the U.S.—who are deeply fearful and traumatized by their own curiosity, because of the structure in their community and theology.”
So says Mike McHargue, broadly known as “Science Mike” to fans who relate to his “Christian turned atheist turned follower of Jesus” journey. McHargue started blogging about his experience online and was surprised at the response.
“I started getting hundreds of emails a month from people saying, ‘I’m experiencing that,’” he says. “And then I started podcasting and then I got thousands of emails a month. There [were] so many people— primarily in a post-evangelical context, but also from the mainline and also from the Catholic Church.”
All the attention got McHargue interested in the idea of deconstruction—how beliefs can shift over time.
“Sociologists tell us that—and it varies a percent or two year by year—but 43 to 44 percent of people will go through a major faith transition at some point in their life,” he says. “And that’s any faith transition. So that can be from one Christian denomination to another denomination; that can be from belief to atheism; that can also be—and this happens—from secularism to some form of religiosity. But 44 percent is a huge number.”
Indeed it is, and it’s a number that gets even more interesting when you start to pull it apart. According to McHargue, people raised in more conservative structures— Southern Baptists, for example— are among the least likely to experience a faith transition.
That may not be terribly surprising, but what is surprising is that when people raised in conservative belief systems do have a faith transition, it tends to be a dramatic one.
“So when very conservative religious people go through
a faith transition, they tend to leave faith behind completely,” McHargue explains. “People of a more moderate theological background tend to make a transition from a mainline denomination to universalism or spiritualism or a different mainline product of denomination.
“So that fear comes from how high the fence is around your theological community.”
A big reason, according to McHargue, is the level of fear involved. The more rigid your faith structure, the more drastic the leap of faith required to start asking questions surrounding it.
“You’ve got a very high fence—a very high level of required belief—of fear that asking one question will lead to a lot more,” he says.
“People are very afraid of what looks like deconstruction,” says Father Richard Rohr, friar and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation.
“You go back to the first 1,300 years of Christianity, and faith is defined as a combination of knowing and not knowing. Of
a willingness and readiness by the grace of God to live with a certain degree of unknowing or what the mystics call darkness,” Rohr says. “Now with that out of the picture, and people getting the impression that they have a right to perfect certitude and perfect clarity and perfect order every step of the way, you’ve basically—I’m gonna say it strongly—you’ve basically destroyed the biblical idea of faith to begin with.”
Fear is one of the major things that keeps people from starting the process of deconstruction. Fear of the unknown. Fear of rejection by your community.
For some people, there can be fear of losing work and, of course, depending on what exactly you’re questioning, fear of eternal damnation. That’s why many people’s process of deconstruction begins with an inciting incident—a personal earthquake that shakes them loose from their moorings.
For Bessey, that inciting incident was her miscarriage, but the grief didn’t stop there. If anything, she says, deconstruction opens the door for an even deeper struggle with sadness.
“I think there is always a sense of grief that comes along with deconstruction,” Bessey says. “I think a lot of times, we have that sort of feeling that we only have one of two options, which is to either double down and pretend everything’s fine and stuff your questions down and your doubts and things where you feel like maybe it doesn’t add up or you feel like you don’t belong anymore.”
Rohr agrees. “You don’t move to the next level of faith without going through a necessary period of darkness,” he says. “When you’ve never had that in your background and it’s all about building this coherent, consistent system where you actually love your understanding of faith. This is not the love of God anymore, this is an idol called certitude.” And certitude is a hard thing to leave behind.
“So now when bits of darkness or actual faith journey [are] asked of people, they think they’re losing their faith. When in fact, the great ones would say, ‘You’re finally finding it.’”
It took Bessey a while to allow herself to embrace honest questions but when she did, the experience wasn’t as frightening as she thought it might be.
“The very questions and doubts and things I had been fighting for so long ended up being a really beautiful invitation from the Holy Spirit,” she says. “And I found a third way, which is something between doubling down and burning it all down. … It’s kind of an invitation from God that there is goodness in here, there are good people, and you may not have all the answers, but the journey is good.”
People get stuck in a phase
of deconstruction, partly out of a fear of being hurt again. It’s difficult to pull apart a belief system you’d grown to trust,
so some people never trust
one again and never create a real worldview again. This has the sheen of intelligence—it’s easy to feel smart when you’re nitpicking flaws in other people’s epistemologies—but it’s like giving up on a journey as soon as you lose sight of where you started. Deconstruction is a necessary part of many—if not most—spiritual journeys. But it was never intended to be the whole journey.
“The trick is to find some— what I’d call—consensus of epistemology,” McHargue says. “Something you can hold loosely, just to facilitate conversations with people. For me, that’s a scientific worldview. Most people can agree that what we observe is real and we can make conclusions about what we observe.”
“I feel like everything is different in a lot of ways,” Bessey says, sounding delighted. “I can’t really think of any part of my life that was untouched by everything. I unlearned and relearned who God is.”
It’d be a mistake to say this is the goal of reconstructing your beliefs, because the goal can look different for everyone.
“I look back at who I was 20 years ago, 10 years ago and even five years ago and we are always growing,” Bessey says. “And I think that’s part of the point. If you’re not growing, changing and evolving, you’re not paying attention to what the Holy Spirit is wanting to do.”
Bessey’s realistic about the fact that this changing and evolving process isn’t something you can rush through, and she’s under no delusions about being at the end of her transformation.
“There are a lot of opinions and ideologies and political views that I have now that will probably be very different in five or 10 years from now,” she says. “And that doesn’t scare me anymore, as much as it does feel like this is sort of a journey. If we’re not growing and changing, we’re missing it.”
McHargue went even further on Twitter recently, when he said he was of the mind that every believer should be an atheist at least once in their life.
“After you’ve been really certain that God is real, and you lose that, it’s kind of hard to be full of yourself and your ideas again,” he explains. “It becomes impossible to have your ideas about God become an idol. The biggest thing I got from being a fundamentalist evangelical and then a fundamentalist atheist, was I was fundamentally wrong about how the world works twice. I’m determined to not make that mistake again.”
Bessey feels the same way. “There’s not just one story or one thing that’s happening,” she says. “It’s so generous and big and inclusive and all of a sudden, you end up finding your tribe and your people and finding a path when you used to feel really alone. … You have that seamlessness now to your life.”