Christ and Culture: Faith & Doubt

This is the final week of our Christ and Culture class – and this afternoon I’m going to talk about the Faith and Doubt.

Now, what I have in mind when I’m talking about faith and doubt… are those intellectual or emotional questions that we have as we seek to follow Jesus.

There will be times when we, or people we know, are going to wrestle with intellectual questions or emotional issues that we are having trouble reconciling with Christianity.

What do we do when confronted with those challenges?

This afternoon, I want to present the information in a different format than what I’ve done in previous weeks.

So what I’ll do is provide a general foundation for understanding these issues. But then, I want us to look at some specific examples cultural examples that are representative of why people walk away from the faith.

Let’s start with the foundation:

A few months ago, I had a meeting with an old friend. This was someone who grew up in the faith, grew up in the church. As we talked, he revealed he no longer believed in the faith of his youth. He “deconstructed” his faith.

I want to be clear; I’m not speaking from a place of “superiority” when I talk about this. But this was a conversation that clearly revealed two paths. Psalms and Proverbs often talk about the paths of the righteous and the paths of the wicked. The path of wisdom and the path of foolishness. We had a similar background, but we’ve chosen two entirely different paths.

One of the things that struck me most about that conversation were his “reasons” for walking away from God. It was clear to me that his “reasons” for deconstructing his faith were not primarily intellectual but emotional.

I suspect that’s true for many doubts and crises of faith.

It saddens me that people sometimes feel like they can’t talk about those things with people in the church.

So, if you have doubts that’s okay. Especially if those doubts are intellectual (reconciling Christianity and science, for example). I would be the last person to advocate for an anti-intellectual faith.

Faith is not opposed to doubt. The opposite of faith is unbelief, not doubt. In the Gospel of Mark, a man cries out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” So, it’s okay to express your doubts. But go to God with your doubts, go to others… and you must learn to doubt your doubts. Your doubts are not infallible.

Doubt is not a place that you should stay. It’s not a virtue. You can’t stay in a perpetual state of flux… you eventually need to land on something firm.

To use an analogy, doubt is like concrete that needs to harden. I used to be what they call a “dirt boy” in the Air Force. I worked with big heavy construction equipment and poured a lot of concrete.

Concrete has a “curing time.” This is its hardening time. Concrete will harden in 24-48 hours after pouring it… but even though it looks finished, it’s still “curing.” They actually say you need to wait about 28 days after pouring before you allow traffic on it. If you start driving on it before then, it’s going to cause it to crack… it’s not yet strong enough to handle the weight.

My point is, if you build on a foundation that’s always “curing but never cured,”—you’re building a house of cards. If you’re always doubting but never believing—always “arriving” but never “arrived,” you’re living in an unlivable reality.

“Always arriving but never arrived” can sound somewhat humble. But I think it’s a false humility. Really it’s a clever and convenient way of avoiding having to deal with the truth.

Of course, there are limits to our knowledge, and there is so much that we don’t know, especially about God but that does not mean we cannot have adequate knowledge of who God is and what he is like. God has told us what he’s like. He’s revealed himself to us!

Deuteronomy 29:29 says “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

We cannot know God exhaustively, but we can know him adequately and accurately through what he has revealed to us in his Word.

So, let’s return to my friend, who I said “deconstructed” his faith. Now, those were not his words… but that is what he in fact did.

Let me define this phenomenon known in evangelical circles as “deconstruction.”

Some caveats first– To be sure, the phenomenon itself isn’t new, though the term may be.

1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us…”

So, I don’t mean to suggest that John is writing about those who “deconstructed” in the sense that we might mean… but in the very least, John is writing about people who walked away from the faith. Now, whether or not that means those who “walk away” from the faith ever truly were part of the faith is something theologians will debate… and I’m not going to get into that.

What is deconstruction? In a nutshell, deconstruction is the process of dismantling, dissecting, and/or revising the faith or traditional doctrines.
Sometimes people who “deconstruct” will label themselves as an “ex-evangelical” or they will speak of their “deconversion.”

Here’s an example of how someone might deconstruct their faith. They might say something like, “Our human doctrines are attempts at containing the uncontainable, incomprehensibility of God. So we have to do away with doctrinal formulations traditionally understood because they are restrictive to the true nature of God’s being and nature, etc.”

To be honest, I don’t like the term itself…but for whatever reason it’s the term that contemporary evangelicals have chosen to use to describe doubt and disillusionment with Christianity. I think I just find the term annoying because it sounds complicated and cool or avant-garde, but it’s actually quite simple and stupid.

It’s like modern art… someone puts a crucifix in a jar of urine… “Oh, he did something radical that no one’s ever thought of before.” – No, he’s just being profane. That’s not art. It’s masquerading as art, but it’s childish.

Don’t misunderstand… I don’t mean to say if you have doubts, you’re stupid. That’s not what I’m saying… I’m pushing back on this notion that expressing doubts is something radical and trendy.

People have had doubts about the faith for thousands of years. Granted those doubts can express themselves in different forms… and they can be influenced by new philosophies… but the bottom line is—there have always been people who have held doubts about the Christian faith.

One of the underlying themes to “deconstruction” is this notion of ambiguity.

Now, part of this is new and stems from a new modern philosophy. There is a school of French philosophical thought known as deconstructionism… And it has to do with language and objective meaning.

The idea is that text (or language) does not have objective meaning (or objective truth). So, this is what we most commonly associate with post-modernism. Post-modernism is largely influenced by deconstructionism.

And that’s influenced hermeneutics (how we interpret the Bible). Does the text have meaning? Or can it mean whatever I want it to mean—or can the meaning change when read through a different lens, say through the lens of our experience?

So, a post-structuralist (a deconstructionist) will look at the Bible and rather than arriving at concrete, solid answers, will want to emphasize ambiguities or unresolvable tensions in the text. There’s a whole lot of gray.

That’s the idea that’s very popular today. There is just so much that we don’t know… and to say that we know (with any degree of certainty) is prideful and arrogant. But again—to say that we don’t know is usually only meant to apply to ethics, morality, or theology/doctrine… Not when it comes to “the science” of Covid data… ☺ “Well, we can have objective knowledge there (some people are not afraid to tell you that)… but when it comes to interpreting the Bible—we throw our hands up in the air.”

Is this openness to ambiguity an expression of humility? Is it a good thing?

As I already mentioned, I think it’s a false humility. I think it’s problematic… because ambiguity ultimately suggests that we can’t know.

Now, that is very different from what theologians would call “the incomprehensibility of God.”

The incomprehensibility of God is the idea that there is not exhaustive knowledge of God.

That doesn’t mean there is no knowledge of God or that various doctrines about God are meaningless…

Whereas our culture wants to emphasize “ambiguity” –this idea that we can’t know… traditional Christian theology and the incomprehensibility of God would emphasize “mystery.”

I would argue that mystery is different than ambiguity.

As I mentioned earlier—Dueteronomy 29:29 (the secret things belong to the Lord) or 1 Cor 13 (now we see through a mirror dimly… but then face to face).
Mystery acknowledges with Paul in Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!”

But mystery is different than throwing your hands up in the air and suggesting that we can’t know or that our attempts at seeking understanding are futile.

Mystery acknowledges that God has indeed revealed himself. We can know some things about him.

We cannot know God exhaustively, but we can know him adequately and accurately through what he has revealed to us in his Word.

Deconstructionists may like to say that human knowledge (especially human doctrine) limits God… it puts him in a box.

But our knowledge about God doesn’t limit God…because our knowledge of God comes from God. Our knowledge of God is in and through God.

Or people sometimes say silly things like we need Christianity without doctrine! We need to get rid of things like systematic theology…

But Christianity without doctrine doesn’t exist. (because the belief that Christianity shouldn’t have doctrine… is itself a doctrine – a belief).

Now of course, when it comes to doctrine, our ultimate authority is the Bible. So we must always seek to bring our doctrines under the authority of the God’s Word.

And all of this brings me back to my analogy of the concrete settling.

We need firm convictions… you can’t build on a foundation that is in constant flux.

I hope that gives you a brief understanding of “deconstruction” and some of its central ideas and the problems with it.

I said what I want to do with the time remaining is to look at examples from culture of deconstruction or examples of common themes within deconstruction to demonstrate the ways the culture is shaping us… How are we receiving these messages?

But before I do—Let me recommend a few books on apologetics in general that deal with some of these questions more fully.

The Allure of Gentleness by Dallas Willard
Fool’s Talk by Os Guinness

What I like about Guinness and Willard is both are examples of men who really lived their apologetics philosophy long before they wrote about it. Guinness in particular – it’s the fruit of 50 years of thinking about the subject before writing about it.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin

Cultural examples of deconstruction

I want to begin with the premise that we are always being spiritually formed (sometimes malformed). Culture is shaping us… Through the stories we tell or the things we consume… we are being shaped and formed by cultural values…

And the thing is—this happens at the pre-cognitive level. You are being shaped and formed in ways that you are unconsciously aware of.

Now, I don’t mean to sound like a paranoid fundamentalist as if there’s a demon hiding under every bush.

But the reality is we are always being shaped by culture.

The traditional Christian word for being instructed in the Christian faith is catechism. Catechesis is not just a Roman Catholic thing…

Catechesis means “to instruct.” So there might be formal catechism classes (or for us, we might call traditionally call it Sunday School)… or this afternoon—it’s a form of catechism (instruction).

Even our worship service is a form of catechism. Obviously, we are instructed in the faith through the sermon… but the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the habits and routines (dare I say rituals) we do are forming our hearts’ values.

And this happens at the secular (or cultural) level as well. Not just in religious settings.

For example.. the pledge of allegiance in public schools.

The poet Dana Gioia has this great poem called “Shopping” in which he begins by saying “I go to the temple of my people, but not to pray.” And as the poem progresses, he’s describing a mall. And all the ways that consumerism is functioning like a religion—what are the scents, and aromas, and messages that are depicting certain visions of the good life.

The movies, the books, the music, the Facebook scrolling, Instagram, tik tok – we are constantly being inundated with ideas. (and this is especially challenging for youth because their prefrontal cortex is still developing! That’s the decision-making part of your brain… it doesn’t fully mature until you’re about 25 years old ☺ ) So, that’s the great challenge before us. Culture is catechizing us. But we have to think!

We have to become skilled at pausing to consider the “cultural values” that are being fed to us. What cultural assumptions have I unconsciously embraced?

So, for example… one of the shows Elizabeth and I like to watch on Netflix is “Animals.” But threaded throughout and undergirding the entire series is this idea that humans are responsible for destroying the environment and ecosystems of these wonderful animals.

My point is not to debate the validity or the degree to which that message may be true—but I simply use it as an example of the ways in which we are formed by culture. You’re not just watching videos of animals. You’re getting a message with it.

How does this all fit in with faith, doubt, and deconstruction?

As we think about reasons why people may “deconstruct” their faith or grow disillusioned with their faith, we can see some common themes. What’s interesting is that in my observation, many of the reasons for deconstructing the faith or leaving the faith are not what we would consider to be primarily intellectual concerns…

So the old question of God’s creation of the universe (young earth/old earth), questions about evolution or theistic evolution (that God set the evolutionary process in motion)… Those are not the primary questions people are asking today. Don’t get me wrong. People are asking them, but I don’t think they’re of primary importance.

I think Nancy Pearcy is right when she says people aren’t asking “Is Christianity true?” They’re asking, “Why are Christians such bigots?”

Now of course, Pearcy is concerned with truth. But… I think there’s been a shift in Christian apologetics… the old classical apologetics is more evidentialist (concerned with evidence and historicity). Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

I think people are interested in those questions… but I really think at the popular level Pearcy is right… people are asking the emotional questions… That’s because in the modern period, human experience has become central to truth.

So, “I don’t want to sound like a bigot. I don’t want to be intolerant…” Or, you can see how human experience is central when pastors author books talking about how their views on Christian sexual ethics changed when their child came out as gay. Experience becomes the arbiter (the judge) of truth.

Let me give you some examples of some of these emotional reasons for deconstructing.

Here’s one going the rounds on social media…

“Church trauma can look like…” And then there are a series of examples of what is called “church trauma.”

“Purity culture” and “Fear driven theology.”

Purity culture—is resistance to an evangelical desire to pursue the biblical command of sexual purity. (it was a popular movement from the 90s to early 2000s). Think of purity rings, abstinence pledges, “true love waits” etc. Opponents of this movement use “purity culture” as a negative label. Arguing against this so-called purity culture, people claim that traditional Christian sexual ethics is oppressive toward women in particular and LGBT people in the church. They claim that the church teaches that if you have a sexual failure, you are damaged goods. They push back on abstinence education.

They claim that the church teaches singleness is a less than human experience… that you ought to desire to get married so you don’t burn with lust. They claim that shame is an entirely negative experience… and if you feel any shame from the church at all over sexual behavior or certain desires… it’s the church’s fault, not yours.

How should we assess this?

I think the movement had good intentions… I think it was the right battle… but perhaps it was fought in the wrong way.

Biblical purity is a good thing. But I think where the movement failed was its lack of a positive vision of biblical purity and biblical sexuality. So the strategies were merely restrictive.

If the message was “don’t have sex…” The reason given behind that was “you don’t want to get an STD or a teen pregnancy.”

It was a vision for biblical purity pursued through restrictive means. There wasn’t much of a positive vision of biblical sexuality.

In my experience growing up in the church here… that wasn’t the message I received. I’m not going to deny the fact that there probably are some churches who did this very badly.

Given that… I think there are some flaws with the criticism of the so-called purity culture.

One flaw— and I think this is a legitimate question to ask critics of purity culture is… do you think the message received was actually the message sent?

Practically speaking, if I was having a personal conversation with someone who is critical of purity culture… I would ask for specifics when they speak in generalities…

“The church has made you feel shame for your sexuality.” … Okay, who? What did they say?

The conversation I had with a friend I mentioned earlier… he told me whenever he went to church he just felt guilty. And I tried to help him see – and this question can be uncomfortable—“did you need to feel guilty? Was that the Holy Spirit convicting you of a specific sinful action that you needed to repent of… or did you feel guilty because you were living one way outside church and another way at church?” Was the message sent actually one of guilt and condemnation or was that your perception?

Another problem of this whole purity culture debate is a misapplication of the gospel. So… because purity culture utilized restrictive means in pursuit of its goals… I think people misapplied the gospel. Their idea of their sense of self-worth was entirely works based. I am going to remain pure. I am determined not to fail.

When they do fail… there goes their sense of self-worth. Their worth is determined by their actions.

My thought is- this misapplication of the gospel was perhaps unintentionally communicated through the focus on restriction… But it also could have been a misapplication of the gospel by people themselves.

Some of you may be familiar with “the cycle of grace” that Trace has taught on before. We don’t start with achievement in order to find acceptance from God. (That’s salvation by works) That’s a recipe for burnout! We begin with acceptance (grace) and Christ’s righteousness given to us… and then we abide in him, and our achievement flows out of a heart that’s been transformed by grace.

This is my opinion, and I could be wrong—but I think some people who have “deconstructed” their faith because of this so-called toxic purity culture… have failed to understand the gospel.

And that challenges me—I don’t mean that as a put-down. As someone who preaches occasionally, and leads small group… that challenges me. Am I accurately communicating the gospel? But on the flip side—am I accurately applying the gospel? It cuts both ways.

The other example given up there is “Fear driven theology.”

“The doctrine of hell is a fear tactic.”
“Salvation is lost and is dependent on your strict obedience.”

That last sentence really tells it all doesn’t it… okay—that’s clearly a misunderstanding and misapplication of the gospel.

Some denominations may teach you can lose your salvation… I don’t believe you can… but salvation is not determined by your strict obedience. We are not justified by works. We are justified by grace through faith.

Here’s another example.

Paul Maxwell published a book called The Trauma of Doctrine.

To me, Paul’s story is a very sad one.

He was a writer at Desiring God… went to Westminster Theological Seminary. Went on to get a PhD at Trinity Evangelical Theological Divinity School.

And after publishing his book, The Trauma of Doctrine, which was his dissertation… he announced he was no longer a Christian.

Here’s the thesis of his book made in three main points:

All Christians can lose faith according to a traumatic experience.
Reformed theology can make faith more psychologically difficult to retain.
The loss of such faith does not guarantee the loss of soteric benefits.

So to clarify to help us understand…

By Reformed theology—he is referring to theology that emphasizes the sovereignty of God and total depravity.

(I’ll be honest, I haven’t read his book – I have read through his introduction and read reviews of his book).

The loss of faith (formerly known as apostasy), he argues, does not necessarily mean the loss of salvation.

In a nutshell he is saying—The church and doctrine in particular can traumatize us and cause us to lose our faith—but the loss of faith doesn’t mean we have lost our salvation.

It really is a strange argument—especially for someone who has announced he is no longer a Christian. You would be right in saying “well, what does it matter if you can lose your faith and still retain your salvation if you don’t even believe any of that anymore?” Why even hold on to those categories?

For me—just talking about him makes me really sad. It’s obvious his de-conversion or de-construction is an emotional argument.

He wrote a whole PhD dissertation trying to rationalize his deconversion.

I don’t know all the details of his story… but it’s obvious that he is a wounded person. The thesis implies that he’s still longing for relationship with God… even though he’s trying to justify walking away.

Those are just two representative examples of “deconstruction” or things related to deconstruction… Things that cause people to doubt their faith. And what I’ve tried to show is that I think often, there is an emotional impulse motivating or guiding this whole idea of deconstruction.

For us, as we deal with it… and interact with people who have questions… I think it’s important to do a couple of things.

The first would be – to encourage the questions.

Willard is really good in his book on Allure of Gentleness in arguing that the church should be a safe place for questions…

It’s not a bad thing to have questions. Having robust intellectual answers strengthens faith and discipleship.

Second, while we encourage questions, we need to scrutinize the scrutinizing questions. We must challenge people to continually challenge their cultural assumptions. (Basically, the criticism must cut both ways). This is difficult work. It’s not easy. But we must do it. Don’t just scrutinize the faith—scrutinize the scrutinizing questions.

Lastly, we need to address the deeper underlying emotional concerns driving the questions. That’s life-on-life ministry. That’s the kind of work that’s personal and takes trust. But that’s the work we must do.

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