What Happened During My Faith Deconstruction

Bailey Confirmation
My confirmation into the Episcopal Church

I received this comment on my post about vocation after faith deconstruction. I’ve been meaning to write all this out, anyway, so I’ll answer M’s questions here.

Help! I feel like I’m going through the same process you articulate here. I only just encountered the term “deconstruction” and I think that’s what’s about to happen to me. My faith has been “presenting itself as a mental illness” for a while now (I have to be Right About Everything or God will hate me), and I’m slowly realizing that a lot of my beliefs are inconsistent with each other and with what I know to be true about the world, and that Rightness-About-Everything might be a lot less accessible to me than I always thought it was. But that’s the most scary thing I’ve ever admitted to myself. What does your faith look like now, “post-deconstruction,” anyway? Do you have any faith left? How did you make it through the crisis with your sanity intact? Sorry for all the questions…

Hi, M! I am excited for your journey. It can lead to so many good and wonderful things you could never ever imagine. I’m also so sorry you’re going through this. Deconstruction was one of the most psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually anguishing times for me, and I would never wish it upon my worst enemy.

What does my faith look like now? My faith is a lot less labelled nowadays, so bear with me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate labels; it’s just that I value nuance, and that makes it difficult for me to fully embrace a term or the community most associated with that term.

At the core of my faith now are love of God via the love of others, and wisdom. I express my deepest faith in Christ through sharing his love with others and receiving his love from others. I deeply, deeply believe that God is love and that there is no fear in love. I relate to God as a parent — a gentle, confident, supportive, firm authority that meets me where I’m at, loves me no matter what, and scaffolds learning so that I’m always pursuing growth without shame. Everything I write here on how I strive to parent — that’s what I believe God to be: no punishment, ever, but steadfast, unconditional love that woos, honors, teaches, models, and in the end transforms our will and desires towards goodness, truth, and spiritual healing.

As I am no longer filled with shame or fear of God, nor do I view my status with him as the accused standing before the accuser, I rarely find the dominant Western narrative of being redeemed or justified through Christ’s blood sacrifice helpful. I’ve soaked in the Eastern Orthodox narrative of sin as sickness and Christ’s death and resurrection as victory over the power of sin and death. That’s the narrative of salvation that produces life, growth, and peace in me, and compassion, understanding, and love for others. Especially as I learn more about early childhood psychology and the effects of trauma, neglect, and experience (the good, the bad, and the ugly), I find the Orthodox perspective most psychologically accurate as well.

We are all God’s children, no matter what we do. We all deserve and need love, understanding, and redemption and healing from past hurts that fuel our impulses and choices. We all must face our humanity, including our brokenness and finiteness. We must all accept and work through what our humanity entails, including the consequences of our own choices and the choices of others that affect us. We must all make changes where we must, and work towards peace, healing, and restitution for others, whether we caused their hurt or not. This is both grace and justice, and God is there with us, now offering rest when we suffer, now strengthening us when we must press on, now firmly setting limits on us when our weakness results in harm — but always for our own good.

Right now, I am not praying or doing daily Bible reading, and I don’t relate to God via a “personal relationship with Jesus” as it is typically presented. I don’t know how to describe this part of my spirituality, and I don’t claim this as an orthodox Christian practice. It’s just where I’m at right now.

I connect to God via sacramentalism, through visual and tangible aids, most especially in community (at church and through my friends and family). But that connection is rarely emotional or “felt,” and it doesn’t feel like I’m relating to God as if he were another human being. I don’t hear him or speak to him like I would with another human. I’m not “in love with Jesus” in the way that people who say they are in love with Jesus are. That feels phony to my experience.

The best way I can describe my relationship with God is how an Orthodox priest described his relationship with his beloved, deceased wife: He can’t “see” her if he tries to “look” at her directly. But when he looks at her slant, she’s so very much there. That’s how I feel about seeing God: I see him when I look at him slant, primarily through another medium. “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church last January. I love Eastern Orthodox theology, worship, and practice, but I am human, and needed a church community that was more accessible to me, a Westerner. Celebrating important feasts and holidays out of sync with our friends and family and in ways that were beautiful but entirely unfamiliar with the things we associated with those holidays, and trying to develop a sense of community when we were the only ones not raised Orthodox or not born into the same culture…it othered me too much at the time, and I couldn’t do it, not with all the other spiritual transitions and questions, not with all the other struggles I was having finding community. Plus, given my specific history with complementarian and patriarchal theology, it was essential to me to belong to and raise my children in a church where women were given full access to serve God as he has called and gifted them.

As for approaching belief, I am forced to be “progressive” and wisdom-focused, as that’s what an honest reading of Scripture and knowledge of church history leads me to be. I do believe in absolute truth. I do believe that beliefs matter and have real consequences. That’s why I’m still passionate and opinionated about what I believe! I also recognize that we are finite, that God is infinite, and that what’s best and right in any given circumstance — that is, wisdom — relies just as much on time, place, culture, and impact as it does on abstract morality. That is to say, I don’t think we can approach absolute truth without our limitations and contexts, and the less we acknowledge our human limitations and contexts, the further we are from absolute truth. To that end, I embrace the Episcopalian understanding of the three-legged stool as a guide towards wisdom and truth — Scripture, tradition, and reason are the legs, and they must all even out.

I value mystery, paradox, nuance, and truth accessed through storytelling. For me, no longer must Biblical accounts be literally true to be true, meaningful, and authoritative. No longer must “divinely inspired” mean “absolutely without historical, scientific, or even moral and theological error.” (Did you know parts of Scripture are written with the assumption that other gods are real, for instance? Or that it assumes morally repugnant things out of line with Christ and basic human decency, like slaughtering enemies’ children or imposing religion by warfare or treating women like property?) Yes, I understand that many fundamentalists will read that and hear, “SHE’S ABANDONED THE FAITH!” instead of hearing what I’m actually saying. And that’s okay with me, because I don’t base my faith or salvation on their doctrinal beliefs that I reject, mostly, because of my earnest study of Scripture.

Besides, I do view Scripture as divinely inspired, authoritative, and essential. I am shaped and guided by Scripture in a way that I’m not shaped and guided by any other text. Like I said, I’m not doing a daily Bible reading — not because I don’t value Scripture but because I haven’t figured out how to study Scripture in a life-giving way — but I studied and memorized so much in the past that it’s with me. It challenges me, corrects me, encourages me, moves me. I love hearing familiar Scripture set to song or reinterpreted in song, or presented in other creative and theological mediums that encourage me to look at it from a fresh perspective.

Those are the details of what my faith looks like now. But the biggest thing I’ve gained through deconstruction is peace. I am at peace with my limitations — primarily that I cannot know everything absolutely or do everything perfectly, and that a God of love understands that and works with that and doesn’t offer me salvation based on that.

I am at peace with truth, because I no longer fear finding it in unexpected places. I no longer see truth-seeking in the secular world as at odds with truth-seeking in the spiritual world. “All truth is God’s truth,” as Augustine said. I no longer fear being wrong — not when I am now able to look at things as objectively as possible without God’s judgment breathing down my neck. I am not saying I’m no longer wrong — I am, often. But I am growing in truth more quickly and painlessly because I can more quickly and painlessly admit when I’m wrong.

My faith isn’t predicated on me being right, or certain, or able to convince a skeptic. Mystery, paradox, and the understanding that nobody can ever be 100% certain are built into my truth-seeking process now, so it’s not surprising or discouraging to me that I get things wrong or can’t figure something out or be completely sure. There’s no pressure to get it all right or burn in hell otherwise. Learning can be an actual process now, with room and time for questions, confusion, mistakes, and do-overs. I can know what I know and wonder at the rest, without worrying that I don’t know enough or that I believe the wrong things.

Says Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox theologian, “…[I]t is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”

The more I know, the less I do, and the more there is to explore.

Most importantly, I am at peace with God. Do you know what a beautiful, joyful, transformational thing it is to be fully confident in God’s love? I didn’t until I deconstructed. I can live now! I can grow. I can accept and give grace. I can be honest with myself. I can suffer and sacrifice and push myself and do all those Christian things, because at the core of my being, I believe that I am beloved by God’s grace alone, that there is absolutely nothing that will stand in the way of him loving me — certainly not my brokenness and hurts and faults and inadequacies. This love challenges and empowers me to be better every day while taking all the pressure off to be perfect.

Please understand that when I say things like, “I’m not certain” or “It’s okay to be wrong” or “Here is where I’m at,” I am not just shrugging my shoulders and advocating for an “anything goes” theology. I care very much about what’s true. I care very much about what counts as Christian. And in that regard, I care about “getting it right.” But I am being honest: I do not know everything, even if it’s possible that I could know all the right things. I am learning. I am a novice. I am young, I am in some ways starting my Christian walk over again from a place of love rather than fear, and I am human. I have grief to walk through, questions to ask, baggage to unpack. Truth-seeking is a process, and I have not finished it.

There are absolutely things I believe to be true — things that I stake my faith on and operate from (like the idea that God is love and that I am beloved because of his grace alone, period). And there are many areas where I don’t know what to believe or how to proceed, but because truth matters, I am taking things slow, like with prayer. I am not forcing myself into a belief or cobbling together a doctrinal statement just to alleviate the fear of being wrong or of not knowing. Sometimes things are so important, they must be approached carefully and slowly, with plenty of time and experience and thought sunk into exploring them. I’ve been hurt and I’ve hurt others through hasty, easy answers that ignore my own doubts and other people’s valid critiques. Never again.

As to how I made it through with my sanity intact? Oh, my. I barely did. Here are the important things: I got counseling from a licensed counselor. I quit identifying as Christian for almost a year because I couldn’t breathe or think from the weight of my doubt, fear, and internal conflict. (This was my first leap of faith toward the idea of a loving, merciful, understanding God.) I married a man who exemplified a slow, quiet, non-pressured faith, who was alternately shocked and amused by the toxic theology I used to believe, and who was always willing to listen to me rant. I joined an online community of people (“Living Life Unfundamentalist”) who “got it” and didn’t pressure me into or out of Christian belief at all. I needed to grieve among grieving people. I needed to laugh at and cry at and rage at and, yes, sometimes sneer at the beliefs that held me captive. And I needed hope that this grief wouldn’t consume me forever. I needed new answers and different angles. This group gave me that. I rarely need to grieve my fundamentalist past as intensely as I did then, so I don’t often find it helpful to immerse myself in that sort of community. But it was so, so, so critical that I found that group and walked with that group for several years until I found my spiritual footing again.

I took another leap of faith in exploring and embracing the parts of Christianity that I just couldn’t shake. I started attending an Orthodox church, and meeting for a Q&A with an Orthodox priest. I read all of Pete Enns’ books, and Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts — Christians who had deconstructed, didn’t sugarcoat or simplify any of my doubts and questions, and still re-imagined faith in Christ in a far more intellectually honest, faithful, traditional, Scriptural way than my former fundamentalist beliefs.

The funny, relieving thing about reconstruction is that you don’t need to build the whole building again to feel at home — that is, you don’t need to answer every question or resolve every doubt or come to a conclusion on everything. It’s a weird paradox: We don’t have to “arrive” to have arrived. We don’t have to get it all right to get it right. We don’t have to be certain to be certain. There’s a lot of clarity in not knowing. None of that would feel compelling or sensible to my deconstructing self, so I’m not sure if that’s at all helpful to you now, or if it’s just confusing or discouraging. But it’s what I know to be true.

What I’ve articulated here is a strong enough foundation for me to find belief, meaning, and peace, even when I worry, doubt, and feel lost. I sincerely wish that you’ll find those things too, M — sooner rather than later, but later enough that you have time to fully deconstruct and reconstruct everything that you need to find them.

3 thoughts on “What Happened During My Faith Deconstruction

  1. milkandpickles

    I relate so much to this. Faith deconstructions are hard, agonizing things, and there’s no way out but through. I began questioning my faith when I was pregnant with my first and living in China, and it’s been a long and slow four years since then. However, I’ve finally felt like this year has been a year of rebuilding instead of deconstructing, a year where I have been able to actually believe in somethings instead of just not believing.

    One thing I have wondered–and it’s fine if it’s too raw or personal for you to write about–but how has your relationship with your parents and siblings changed as you’ve gone through your faith transition and obviously been very public about it?

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      What a great way to put it — believing in something instead of not believing in things. That’s exactly how I feel about reconstructing: defining myself as FOR something instead of AGAINST something. Though I still feel like the most accurate label for me is “unfundamentalist,” simply because I haven’t found an all-encompassing term for what I am for.

      Regarding my family…most of my adult siblings have gone through a similar deconstruction. I don’t know the nuts and bolts about what they believe specifically (and perhaps they don’t either!), but we all are pretty much in agreement about what we’re AGAINST. It’s been really validating to go through the deconstruction process alone for so long only to discover that my siblings experienced fundamentalism similarly. Makes me not feel so crazy! I think discussing our deconstructions brought us closer. My parents are wonderful about letting me be who I am, even if they disagree with me, and we’ve been able to have respectful, curious conversations about differing beliefs. We have lots to talk about and agree on too, and choose to focus on that. Nobody mentions my blog, and I take pains to keep my family out of public writing. It was the beliefs of my past, not necessarily the believers, that harmed me.

      Liked by 1 person

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