Deconversion, Deconstruction, and Repentance


John Stonestreet

Roberto Rivera

To paraphrase the author of Ecclesiastes, of the writing of “de-conversion” testimonies, there seems to be no end. In a somewhat recent innovation, many have embraced a different term for deconversion. It’s common to hear something like, “I haven’t lost or abandoned my lifelong Christian faith,” I’m merely “deconstructing it.”

John Williamson, the host of the “Deconstructionists Podcast,” defines this kind of “deconstruction” as “examining your faith from the inside looking for potential weaknesses.” He likens the process to prepping a ship before it sails to make sure “it doesn’t sink once you get out to sea.”

In and of itself, to self-examine our faith is a good thing. The eleventh century Christian philosopher Anselm of Canterbury spoke of “faith seeking understanding,” which is “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” Throughout the history of the Church, this “deeper knowledge of God” has included a healthy regard for apologetics and a willingness to ask and seek answers to the hard questions.

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of “faith seeking understanding” that’s going on in much of the “deconstruction” stories. According to Williamson, the process of deconstruction is also “about taking ownership over what you believe and potentially letting go of some of the things that no longer work.”

That kind of talk should set off alarms. In place of Anselm’s deeper knowledge of God, human autonomy and personal ideas about what is best for us has moved to the center of our faith journey. The primary, and maybe even the sole, judge of what works is us. Even worse, the criteria that determines whether beliefs or religious practice “works” is determined by us.

All of which fails to take into account just how often our actual motives are hidden from us. We may tell ourselves that we struggle with a particular reading of Genesis, while our doubts really lie in our inability to live up to Christianity’s moral demands. Or, more to the point within the context of our culture’s reframing of the highest goods, we may simply not like that we don’t get to pick and choose what to believe.

The sort “deconstruction” Williamson describes is more of a demolition. What remains is often a hollow shell of a faith, one lacking any external and fixed points of truth by which we can find orientation in a chaotic world.

Legitimate evaluation and questioning doesn’t have to take this ultimately destructive form. Christian faith not only allows, but encourages honest doubt. Faith and understanding mature as life is lived, and as we learn more of how to connect God’s Word with this world, in humility and repentance.

In fact, the Greek word rendered “repentance,” metanoia, literally means to change your mind or perspective. While we may point to a time and place in which we came to faith, conversion continues as an ongoing process of seeing, understanding, and trusting God’s purposes in ways we had previously missed. Paul described the process to the Corinthians when he said that, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

Doubt is a constant companion for some of us, and takes many forms. In many ways, intellectual doubts are the least difficult to deal with, when compared to doubts about God’s goodness or the emotional struggles that accompany a particular difficult life situation.

Throughout Scripture, God is revealed as One who meets people at the point of their confusion and doubt. Consider how He responded to Mary and Thomas, answering their honest confusion. But, He silenced Zechariah’s demanding spirit and rebuked Job’s comforters’ presumption. The Christian faith is big enough to honestly face the most difficult questions and the deepest despair. What’s required of us, as Hebrews 11 says, is that we “believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek him.”

A wise mentor once pointed out how differently Proverbs describes seekers — those pursuing the truth and willing to reckon with it when they find it — and mockers – those who are cynical truth even exists and are committed to their skepticism even if truth hit them between the eyes.

Get the approach right and ask all the questions you want. After all, God’s big enough for the questions and the doubts. Get the approach wrong, and we won’t be able to hear the answers over the noise of the bulldozer we are taking to our Faith.


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Deconstructing faith: Meet the evangelicals who are questioning everything

Sam Hailes | Premier Christianity | March 17, 2019

Saint Anselm

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy | December 8, 2020

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