Building a Better Faith

In recent years I have met quite a few young people who say that they have deconstructed their faith. They are not using the term “deconstruction” in the technical way philosophers use it. Instead, it functions for them as an image, picturing how they have removed much of what they were taught in church from their set of beliefs. The kind of faith that they learned in evangelical Christian churches is something they no longer find acceptable. What is it about this kind of faith that they reject? While there may be various answers, many who speak of deconstruction reject a faith that 

  1. is focused on preparing for life after death and treats concern with improving life in this world as a distraction from spiritual concerns.
  2. is based on fear and guilt, portraying God as more vindictive than loving and portraying human sinfulness in a way that leaves little room for a more positive view of human beings. 
  3. claims that only those who follow a specified procedure and have the right beliefs are accepted by God, while everyone else is excluded.
  4. takes a dismissive attitude toward scientific evidence that conflicts with how the Bible is understood.
  5. is judgmental toward people with different sexual orientations or more generally toward those who don’t conform to middle-class social expectations.
  6. prescribes a social role for women that puts them under male authority.
  7. exhibits reflexive support for current social structures and insensitivity to the plight of marginalized groups who suffer oppression under the established order.
  8. is receptive to a kind of nationalism that uncritically supports militaristic policies.

Some of what the people I am describing find unacceptable can be called theological, but much of their dissatisfaction stems from moral concerns. Central to their evaluation is a sense that white evangelicals are attached to ways of thinking that make them resistant to claims of social justice. They reflexively blend theological claims with views that are supportive of preserving advantages for the well off and dismissive of claims of marginalized members of society. Even when biblically based movements challenging injustice have arisen, such as the civil rights movement, conservative Christians have resisted change.

For many of those who reject this form of faith, Christianity is regarded as a lost cause. But some who have been disillusioned by the church are receptive to the possibility of a different kind of faith. What often blocks consideration of such a possibility is the claim of conservative evangelical churches that they are teaching just what the Bible says. However, there is reason to think that these churches read sacred texts through the lens of a particular set of presumptions about how they should be understood and that claims about what the Bible says have been mixed with culturally acquired ideas that have little claim to be thought biblical. Part of reimagining faith is learning to read the Bible in different ways and discovering that the lenses you have previously used have resulted in a distorted understanding of its meaning.

Defective habits of Bible reading are difficult to overcome, especially when they have been repeatedly supported by authority figures who told you what you were supposed to find. But one of the first steps to reading better is to ask yourself what interpretive key you are using. I think that the best place to look for such a key is in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus’s central proclamation was of the kingdom of God. There can be different accounts of what the kingdom is, but it is clearly not centered on a transaction between individuals and God that enables them to go to heaven. Jesus was speaking of a fulfillment of what the prophets in Hebrew Scriptures anticipated that would result in a transformation of life on earth through which God’s intentions for human life would finally be fulfilled. The community of those who chose to follow him would have different values than those of existing communities. In this new community the poor, the oppressed, and the low in status receive places of honor, while those who enjoy high positions voluntarily adopt the role of servants. The category of neighbor is extended to include even enemies. Jesus teaches that his followers are to practice nonretaliation and forgiveness instead of seeking to harm those who do them wrong. 

Taking Jesus as the interpretive key enables us to conceive of a form of Christianity very different from the one that many young people say they have deconstructed. Instead of a God who is obsessed with punishing, Jesus describes God as eager to bring healing and restoration. He envisions this work occurring through a counter-cultural community that welcomes the outsider, erases hierarchical distinctions of status and power, and displays the way of love instead of the way of violence. Jesus claimed that in loving enemies his followers act like God, and his life shows what it means to minister to the lowly and refuse to retaliate against those who treat him unjustly. The New Testament hope is that this strange way of living will be the prelude of God’s ultimate transformation of the earthly order.

What is ironic is that those who have rejected truncated and distorted versions of the Christian message they have heard are doing so on the basis of moral stances that are recognizably similar to the ones Jesus takes. The criticisms that they make seem all too reminiscent of the criticisms Jesus made of the religious leaders of his day. In conservative churches people read the story of Jesus through the lens of a particular understanding of the writings of Paul. I agree with major biblical scholars who claim that the understanding of Paul they are using is flawed. But to read Paul better, we may need to start with taking seriously how Jesus conceived of what he was doing and then begin to reimagine the rest of what the Bible says through that lens.