Doubt and Deconstruction
Tripp Fuller and I are writing a book, doing a podcast class, and holding an in-person lecture tour on the theme, “God After Deconstruction.”
Doubt is a common thread among the deconstruction stories we hear. Here’s a draft of our book-in-progress that explores certainty, doubt, and deconstruction.
Sarah grew up in a “Bible-believing” household. Her family prayed before meals, attended church regularly, and took part in Bible studies throughout the week. From an early age, Sarah was taught that most questions have answers in scripture, and her pastor could resolve other questions using scriptural principles. Only “baby” Christians had doubts.
During her teenage years, Sarah was an active member of the Church youth group. She passionately shared the Gospel with friends who had “problems,” telling them “Jesus is the answer.” Youth leaders praised her for defending absolute Truth.
When she started college, Sarah found herself surrounded by a diverse group of people. Each had their own beliefs, experiences, and ways of seeing the world. She met Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and people with other Christian perspectives. These interactions challenged her. After meeting these people, Sarah wasn’t sure what she believed.
One evening, Sarah attended a campus discussion where the topic was doubt. A philosophy student shared a quote by Rene Descartes, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life that you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
Sarah realized she had never really analyzed what she’d been taught. She just believed it. But she’d grown skeptical of some of her pastor’s answers. Was it possible her views were too narrow? Even wrong?
She dug into theology and religion, reading material that her church leaders would not approve. She considered diverse biblical interpretations, beliefs common in other Christian denominations, and writings from other religions. The more she read, the more she realized her beliefs were built on a shaky foundation.
Sarah’s family noticed a change. Her bold confidence turned into thoughtful silence. She offered alternative perspectives in family discussions, sometimes playing “the Devil’s advocate” or starting sentences with “But what about…?”
Concerned, her father asked one evening, “Are you still a Christian?”
Sarah took a deep breath and replied, “I don’t know. I’m not certain…”
Although deconstruction stories vary, doubt is a common thread. Those who undergo spiritual unraveling come to question the faith they once embraced. Some doubt everything. Beliefs previously assumed justified and true become unbelievable.
Sometimes a minor question turns, over time, into something monumental. Or it leads to other questions, and those to others. For some who deconstruct, crisis leads to a collapse. It may be a tragic accident, admitting same-sex attraction or gender diversity, a religious leader’s failure, or the bald hypocrisy of those once trusted.
For some, deconstruction comes as an intellectual quest. Ideas once reasonable no longer make sense. What was once indisputable becomes one possibility among others. Or even unlikely. Skepticism eats away at beliefs previously rock solid.
When Sarah shared her doubts with family and people at her church, they called into question her experience. And her ability to think clearly. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” said one friend, quoting Jeremiah. “Lean not on your own understanding,” said her pastor, quoting Proverbs.
The biblical passages threw Sarah into a tailspin. Was something wrong with her? Eventually, she realized those verses called into question everyone’s ability to make sense of life. If true, they would apply to the “understanding” and the “heart” of her pastor too.
The House of Knowledge
Many people think of knowledge as the accumulation of facts, information, and skills. Babies start with no education, but as they grow, knowledge increases. Each stage of instruction adds to what was learned earlier. The smartest people know the most, add knowledge quickly, or recall easily what’s stored in their memory banks.
Think of this view like constructing a house. The builder begins with a sure foundation. In terms of building a “worldview,” that means starting with what can be known with certainty. This indubitable knowledge may come from a divinely-revealed book, science, trusted authorities, or logic. A secure house of knowledge has a foundation built upon what is unquestionable.
Upon this foundation are laid truths that families, traditions, and societies provide. Think of them as walls, ceilings, and roofs. Such truths may come from sages or saints of the church, past and present. They may come from successful leaders or get passed down by ancestors.
The last additions to the house of knowledge come from personal experiences. Think of these as pictures on the walls, appliances, rugs, or furniture. Personal experiences are transitory and unstable, so we can’t trust them. They’re the least important. Besides, some say sin distorts experience, and our twisted society or evil ones easily lead us astray.
A well-built house, we’re told, starts from a certain foundation, not personal experience.
This “constructing a house” view of knowledge has problems. One of the biggest is thinking we have certainties with which to start constructing. Many who deconstruct come to realize that absolute and unambiguous knowledge about God and life doesn’t exist… except in the minds of those who choose to be certain, despite the evidence.
Deconstruction is the demolition of the house of knowledge built on absolute certainty. It calls into question not only the decorations, rugs, and furniture but also the walls and foundation. It wrecks most, if not all, of the house structure.
Alfred North Whitehead is right when he says, “There are no precisely stated axiomatic certainties from which to start” when trying to make sense of life. PR 13 In fact, says Whitehead, “The merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” PR x At least when it comes to the most important dimensions of life like God, love, beauty, truth, hope, and evil, we can’t be certain.
Add to the lack of certainty the fact that the wisdom of saints, sages, ancestors, and scientists originated from their experiences. The Bible and every sacred text is a collection of personal and collective experiences too. Parents, pastors, professors, and politicians rely upon life experiences. Instead of expendable, experience is essential.
It’s experience, top to bottom.
Not every experience is as meaningful or important as another, of course. Nor does every opinion carry equal weight. We want trained physicians to guide our surgeries rather than inexperienced children, for instance. We’re typically more interested in a biblical scholar’s view of Hosea than someone who reads the Bible for the first time. No human can know all, and no experience is infallible.
Because our experiences change, our knowledge changes. That’s why deconstruction can be unsettling. Our experience of the new places into question what we once thought was true and impenetrable. When beliefs crumble, we doubt.
The Benefit of Doubt
The first step toward making progress after deconstruction is to admit we can’t be certain. In fact, striving for certainty — especially about God — is futile. Certainty about anything except what is trivially true or true by definition is not worthy of our efforts.
After giving up certainty about God, the church, or the Bible, some think another authority or ideology can provide a certain foundation. Some even think deconstruction can become their security. “Coming from a place of rigid certainties,” says Olivia Jackson, “it’s tempting to try and find the certainties in deconstruction. And yet part of deconstruction is learning to be comfortable with uncertainty.” (Jackson, Uncertain, 205)
Some turn to science. It’s often portrayed as a house of knowledge that starts from a certain foundation and builds through the ongoing accumulation of facts. The structure of science grows brick-by-brick, assume many people, as scientists add to what was previously discovered.
In reality, science changes as much as it accumulates. The paradigms by which science operates shift too, and the houses of knowledge scientists build crumble in light of fresh evidence. Given this, wise researchers work from theories and hypotheses susceptible to being set aside when something better comes along.
Rather than search for a different foundation, we recommend embracing doubt. By “doubt,” we don’t mean absolute skepticism about any claim or idea. We don’t mean that the search for meaning is itself meaningless; we don’t recommend nihilism. We’re not throwing out rationality.
In his book, The Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd puts it this way: “Doubt isn’t a problem that needs to be overcome; it’s an invitation that needs to be explored,” says Greg. “It is not an enemy of faith, but a friend.” (Gregory A. Boyd, Benefit of Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2013), 254.)
Pete Enns argues similarly in The Sin of Certainty. “Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe,” says Pete, “and needing to be right in order to maintain healthy faith do not make for a healthy faith in God” (The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016) 18).
“I’ve come to think certainty is the enemy of faith,” said my friend Nancee when explaining how she overcame her desire for certainty. “Instead of clinging to certainty, I try to flow with the energy/power toward the next marker on the journey.”
Shari adds that “it helps to believe the doubts and nagging of my soul were valid. And I don’t have to subscribe to the certainty of leaders in the church.” Peggy agrees. “I don’t have certainty about much of anything anymore,” she says. “But I am usually okay with that.”
Rather than being an enemy of living well, doubt is essential. Believers aren’t “certainers,” to coin a word. To believe, after all, is to be uncertain. Those who grow toward wisdom learn to resist their impulse for certain foundations of knowledge.
Between Blind Faith and Absolute Certainty
Believing after deconstruction means living the questions rather than seeking answers thought to be certain. Those who re-embrace God are skeptical that absolute answers are available. They believe life will always have a measure of mystery and ambiguity. That includes uncertainty about whether God exists, what God wants, and how we might live well. No one can be sure.
While “living the questions” means giving up certainty, it doesn’t mean we stop seeking the most plausible answers. We don’t say, “It’s all mystery, so believe whatever you like.” After all, we all act as if some answers are better than others, and some ways of living are healthier.
Embracing God after deconstruction rejects both absolute certainty and blind faith. The middle way is the way of plausibility or reasonable trust. Aaron Simmons calls this “risk in a direction.” (Aaron Simmons, Camping with Kierkegaard: Faithfulness as a Way of Life (Wisdom/Work, 2023)
This middle way draws from personal experiences and the experiences of others. It gathers the wisdom of religion, science, sages, saints, family, and more. It employs reason and logic and considers emotions and feelings. In this process, we discover good reasons to choose some beliefs over others.
One helpful tool in the effort to find more plausible beliefs is called “the Wesleyan quadrilateral.” It identifies experience, reason, scripture, and tradition as resources from which we might draw to make sense of God and live life well. Rather than sola scriptura, it points to multiple sources.
If we included science, art, culture, and technology, we’d have an “octolateral.” But we might think these additions are also features of human experience, broadly understood. The point is that no one source functions as a certain foundation. All contribute to the quest for greater plausibility for our beliefs.
Nonnegotiables of Living
By the way we live, we all assume some aspects of existence are true. I call these basic truths “experiential nonnegotiables.” We can deny them in theory, but not in practice.
For instance, we live as if values are real, in the sense of better or worse, beautiful and not so beautiful, and so on. We live as if we make free choices. We function day to day as if others exist in the universe, and cause and effect are real. And so on. We differ on the details, but these broad truths apply to all.
The experiential nonnegotiables pertaining to values and meaning lead many to speculate God exists. But we don’t have to assume this is the deity many of us were taught in Sunday School. Something Transcendent or Good is real, but it’s not a Grandpa in the Sky or a parental Punisher.
Most atheists, agnostics, and skeptics are inconsistent in their unbelieving. They operate from deep intuitions about truth, goodness, or hope, but atheism and agnosticism don’t account well for those intuitions. If justice and love apply to all, it makes better sense to speculate that Something Other makes it so.
The nonnegotiables of life aren’t certainties, of course. They reflect the grooves of existence and basic common sense. We can tell ourselves and others we don’t believe them, but we end up living as if they’re true. Living well after deconstruction involves aligning with these experiential nonnegotiables.
Instead of building a house of knowledge, we suggest a different metaphor for life after deconstruction. Given the primacy of ongoing experience, we offer “life is an adventure.”
Think of your existence as a moment-by-moment journey in a multi-dimensional landscape. You live alongside other adventurers, from human to nonhuman, complex to simple, similar to different. This journey is sometimes vibrant and other times mundane, with risks and regularities. Sometimes we experience pain and loss too.
This adventure can sometimes be scary. Not being certain where we’re at and not knowing what happens next can be unsettling. But it’s also liberating! We don’t feel pressure to have it all figured out or think we must follow a predetermined path. It’s okay to be uncertain, because no one can be sure when life is unmapped.
Adventurers sometimes attain a measure of confidence. Some learn how life often works and, despite great diversity, realize that regularities persist. We travel a landscape with sites of historical interest and general trends. The wise adventurer also draws from wisdom in the community of fellow-travelers. In other words, our adventures are not entirely arbitrary, without direction, or absolute chaos.
The values we assume on this adventure reside in a Valuer. Nudges toward something better imply an invisible Nudger. The beauty we see suggests an imperceptible Artist. A sense of friendship hint at the presence of a Companion we cannot perceive with our senses.
God After Certainty and Absolute Mystery
To believe in God on this adventure does not mean embracing absolute mystery. And we don’t need to think one idea about God is as good as another. Not all theologies are equal.
Our experience and the experiences of others — in multifarious forms — provide reasons to believe in God; but we can’t be certain. We have reasons to believe life has meaning, although we can’t be 100% sure. Meaning was not boxed up, labeled, and dropped from heaven’s post office. God’s existence isn’t obvious.
We’re on an adventure to discover meaning, side by side with others. We draw from the past, but we’re encouraged to criticize what’s unhealthy, especially bad views of God. We embrace truths discovered in the present too, because contemporary experiences are crucial. That includes experiences of truth, beauty, goodness, and love. And our lives move into an open future. Our quest is not predetermined but faces multiple possibilities.
Some days on this adventure, we perch upon a muscular stallion, confidently planning our route, boldly facing life in its complexities. Other days, we feel dragged behind that steed, able to make only small decisions as we bump along the rocky terrain. Adventures have peaks and valleys, want and excess.
A reason-and-experience trust in God provides a compass for our journey. We need a sense of direction, after all, to make progress. The compass doesn’t provide a detailed route, however, it points us toward undiscovered horizons. We navigate in response to the influence of God, other fellow-travelers, the nonhuman terrain, and our deepest intuitions.
Believing in God gives purpose. But it doesn’t offer a security blanket, and God is not the tour guide of a pre-selected schedule. Our lives are an expedition in choice and surprise; we’re not robots on a pre-programmed railway.
Life after deconstruction is a free and open, moment-by-moment adventure.