For those of us who have left the church — and possibly our Christian faith too — we tend to think oftentimes that “deconstruction IS the goal.” In reality, however, I’ve come to understand that it’s only part of the story. Deconstruction is hugely important for sure, but there’s a lot more to the journey — the reconstruction of our identity.
Church & Theology
According to “the naked pastor,” Canadian ex-pastor, author and cartoonist David Hayward, there are (at least) two different elements of the journey of deconstruction: 1) deconstructing one’s relationship with the church, and 2) deconstructing one’s theological/biblical views. Both aspects are extremely difficult, scary and associated with high levels of costs — both socially and (possibly) financially, especially if one’s livelihood is tied to any aspect of ministry.
Leaving church often means losing many significant relationships one has potentially spent a lifetime building, including family members; and deconstructing one’s views on theology and the Bible can be hugely threatening too, since both played such a significant part of our everyday lives. According to Hayward, “Religion is all-pervasive — down to the ‘cellular level’ as it were.” Religion formed our identities and worldview; therefore, it is extremely difficult to disentangle ourselves from it. It will likely take us the rest of our lives.
Grief, Loss, and Anger
Deconstruction also means dealing with grief over the loss of so much of what was significant to us post-church. Beyond losing relationships with friends and family members, it also represents the loss of much of the close support of the community of which we were once a part. There’s another issue that many ex-evangelicals face too: coping with the anger we may feel toward the church in general, individual Christians, or God himself. We can spend years bashing the church, and much of it is rightly deserved to be sure; but I’ve learned that it’s not healthy to stay angry. As the saying has it — “You can’t live angry.”
Living angry is highly destructive to our psyche, affects us and those around us, and takes a huge amount of energy to maintain. We would be far better off taking that anger energy and channeling it into other, much more productive life pursuits. Somehow, we must find healthy ways to process and move beyond the rage that we may feel toward the evangelical system, Christians, or possibly God too.
Another aspect of deconstruction, for many who walk away, involves dealing with a searching question: “How much damage did I do to others while I was a part of the evangelical system?” For example, those who raised children within an evangelical context may no longer have a relationship with them because of fundamentalist parenting. We need to consider the damage we may have done relationally to others in our attempts to evangelize non-believers, using oftentimes manipulative tactics that were billed as “building relationships to share the gospel.” We may have to face the difficult task of making amends with our children, or mending relationships that were broken or damaged by our attempts to proselytize others.
Lastly, deconstruction also could represent having to deal with various elements from our past experiences in evangelicalism. This could involve, for example, things like spiritual, emotional or sexual abuse; toxic theology; or religious or relational traumas we may have suffered. One might need to seek out professional therapy or counselling for help in dealing with these traumas.
The reality is that many who walk away from their church report that “Deconstruction feels like I’m going through an ugly divorce.” Losing significant relationships, and the support of our former community, is not to be taken lightly. There’s also the time, effort and energy we may have invested into the system that we feel in the end we have no “return on our investment.” What do we have to show for all of the investment? Like in a divorce, one might even feel that they should accept much of the blame, much like children who suffer through their parents’ divorces oftentimes do. Moreover, like the aftermath of a divorce, there’s oftentimes the feeling that we are all alone and isolated; “Nobody else understands what I’m going through” or “I’m the only one who feels this way.”
Therefore, it is clear that deconstruction is neither easy, nor does it happen quickly. It is also not a one-off occurrence either; it is a process, a journey. Much like remodeling a house, the more you get into the project, the more issues and potential problems you may uncover. Each of those must be thoroughly dealt with in order for the reconstruction phase of the project to move forward. Simply covering up problems, or ignoring them altogether, will only come back to bite us later on.
Leaving it all behind, while it may be scary and frightening, offers us the unique chance to reconstruct — or possibly construct for the first time ever — our very identity. Evangelicalism promised the certainty that came from providing “the answers to everything,” including our eternal destiny. It quieted many of our anxieties and concerns, and gave us the feeling of security about so many things, including searching out what God’s will is for every situation and aspect of life.
The loss of those apparently high levels of certitude may indeed prove to be overwhelming, disorienting and bewildering. Now that many of those familiar props — on which we once relied for every face of our lives — are being taken away, what happens next? Where do we go from here?
Although one may be deconstructing her views on the church, God, the Bible, and theology, she may not believe she has “reconstructed” in any sense of the word. But one way to gauge how far you’ve come is to engage in a series of reflective questions, such as the following: “What are my views of God, the Bible, heaven/hell, theology and salvation, now that I’ve left evangelicalism? What did I formerly believe, and what elements of it have I jettisoned? Have my views changed regarding a person’s sexual orientation, the treatment and acceptance of LGBTQ people, women, etc.? And finally, how have all of these evolved, and why?”
Additionally, ask yourself: “Has reconstruction changed my relationships with others, now that I no longer have to view every non-believer as a project for evangelism?” What you’ll discover, I believe, is that although you may think you haven’t been “reconstructing” at all, and have been focusing more on deconstructing, the reality is that you have most likely changed in a number of deeply significant ways. But just because we’ve changed doesn’t mean jettisoning entirely our past experiences. Somehow, we need to discover healthy and productive ways in which to embrace and integrate our past lives into the person that we are in the process of becoming.
I believe that spirituality is incredibly important to humanity. Historically this has always been the case, right across various cultures and time periods. In order to live fully integrated lives, therefore, I maintain that spirituality should be incorporated into our lives in both healthy and holistic ways. Oftentimes, however, for the ex-evangelical, “spirituality” was too often associated with God, toxic theology, or religious fervor. One the one hand, many of us feel we should reject it entirely, and wall off that entire component of our lives. On the other hand, some might say that post-deconstruction, their spirituality is still there; it is merely “functioning at a lot lower level until they can figure out what to do with it.”
Perhaps one way forward is to explore experiences of spirituality without the religious component, or spirituality without any aspect of the notion of “connecting to the divine” in any way. But is there such a thing as “spirituality” without a requisite spiritual component? This is a difficult subject, and will certainly need more research and exploration. People are highly divided — and can be very opinionated — on the subject, for sure.
Despite the multiplicity of views on the subject, nonetheless there are a variety of spiritual practices that ex-evangelicals report have proven to be very beneficial on many levels. For example, exercises such as meditation and “centering prayers” can help us to find calm, to relax and focus. Practices such as these can provide us with valuable tools such that we no longer to react (or overreact) to stressful life situations, or when we’re triggered by things from our past in evangelicalism. Whether or not you attach any sort of “divine component” to your spirituality is entirely up to you; but this is something I personally plan on exploring further.
A New Identity, a New Community
Reconstruction offers us the chance to re-form and shape identities, free from the strictures (and structures) of dogma and religion. Along the journey of forming a new identity, finding a new, supportive and empowering community is hugely important also. Sharing experiences with like-minded people, who have similar stories to ours, is hugely empowering, and can enable us to “find the language” to describe and process our experiences. Validation of our stories is critically important along the journey of reconstruction.
Additionally, the support of others, who have gone through what we’re going through, assists us in dealing with issues such as the very real fear: “What if I’m wrong about beliefs like Hell? Will I end up there, because I left the church?” People who have left religion behind have experienced panic attacks and extreme, debilitating trauma as they worry about “getting it wrong” — since so much of their lives were entirely consumed by the pervasiveness of religious beliefs.
Both deconstruction and reconstruction should not be thought of as “separate and distinct entities.” Rather, perhaps they should be more conceived of as intertwining processes in which we engage throughout the rest of our lives, post-religion. At times there may well be more of an emphasis on one aspect over against the other, but it certainly doesn’t mean that we are somehow “finished” with one or the other.
It’s also worth nothing that this entire journey is non-linear, but rather organic. It’s not like we are progressing somewhere in a straight line, or that there are “final answers” to be had out there somewhere, and that someday we’ll be finished and complete. Deconstruction looks different for every person, and by extension so must reconstruction. Where you are today is most likely not the same place you were at 6 months or a year or two ago; we are on a spectrum, and are all in process.
Finally, it is helpful to note that this is not a “one size fits all” type of an approach. What works for me may not work for you; and what works for you may not work for me. There are no right and wrong answers here, but we all must discover that which works, and helps us move on to encounter new discoveries.
Whatever path on which we are journeying, the bottom line is this: ultimately, we need to have ownership over the person we are becoming, or the entire enterprise will fundamentally be devoid of both authenticity and integrity.