Crusin’ Down the Slippery Slope: How I Deconstructed My Faith At Seminary
The following is an excerpt from a chapter that I am contributing to a book about and by evangelicals who fell through the bottom of their faith and deconstructed hard. Except for sharing on social media the following should not be copied or used otherwise. It’s personal and real though there is much more to my story that is in the chapter and not here. But still, enjoy.
The Slippery Slope of Black and White
Given the personal circumstances I found myself in after one year of Seminary, I slowly started dissembling the evangelical bulwark. One beautiful thing with tightly knit systems of thought is that once one piece of it goes broke the whole building disintegrates. Once one piece topples, the whole system becomes a cascading row of dominos. This process can take a couple of years but for those who do not shy away from the challenges and manage to avoid the boomerang effect (the snapping back to the old paradigm upon returning to one’s original community of faith), the collapse is unavoidable.
It was halfway through my second year or so that I realized faith was starting to slip away. Or I should say, I realized that the scaffolding of the theological paradigm that enables a certain imagination of faith (but that also sets its parameters) was slowly breaking down. I did realize where this would end in terms of faith and I determined that the bottom line would be that I should always be able to pray with my parents, no matter where the road was going to take me. I think that was a good thing to decide because a paradigm shift like the one I was embarking on brings genuine existential dangers. You don’t know where you will end up and it can be a real dark place. Some sort of safety mechanism helps to regulate the breakdown somewhat. I’m glad to say I still manage a prayer together with my parents every now and then, though I start staring out of the window the moment divine providence is mentioned by either of them.
Especially in the case of evangelicals, the process can be very painful. The most important reason for this is that as good and faithful fundies they have learned that life is black and white. Things are either bad or good. There is no grayscale. God’s Word is like a sword dividing up our inner thoughts in okay ones and not-okay ones. After the evangelical system has collapsed, such thought patterns are not immediately changed. The black and white mentality continues to wreak havoc. The discovery, for instance, that evangelicalism is not white (well, it actually is very white in racial terms along with all the white privilege evangelicalism denies exists but that’s another story) leads unavoidably to the conclusion it must be black. And if the deconstructing evangelical is not able to see God in the white zone anymore, this god has to go as well. Completely! Radical evangelicals can easily become radical atheists.
I’m not saying that is necessarily bad. In fact, I think atheism should be seen as one of the most significant prophetic voices of our time. But the change to the radical position of atheist is oddly occasioned by the evangelical default thought pattern of black and white thinking. In and of itself this binary thinking is not healthy. Of course, the fact that in tight thought systems like evangelicalism one change leads to a change in everything doesn’t help to ease the pain. It is what it is.
Elements of Deconstruction
But we must discuss the particular elements of my deconstruction. For me, it started where my existential situation and my theological assignments met. I noticed that the Marriage and Family Therapy folk in some of my classes had an interesting way of dealing with issues that in normal theological-spiritual parlance would resort under the heading of sin. Rather than using that hateful word they simply offered an analysis of a problem and helped the client to find a way out of the undesired behavior or thought pattern. In fact, very unlike the biblical counselor who was counseling me and my wife. I started seeing the vast gap between pastoral counseling (the marriage and family therapy folk in my classes) and so-called biblical counseling. Where the former uses professional theories the latter uses the Bible to identify sin based on some wacky axioms and a rigged interpretation theory.
I realized that if I wanted to escape from the suffocating grip our so-called marriage counselor had on me, I would need to declare her method invalid. This person had caused me to have a suicidal panic attack and I realized that all that stood between me and freedom was recognizing that biblical counseling’s way of using the Bible was total bullshit. But I also realized that this harmful method did not stand alone. The idea that Scripture is sufficient for all of life (central to Biblical counseling) feeds off the doctrine of inerrancy, a simplistic self-serving three-step hermeneutics from text to infallible application, and informs not only counseling practices but also the faith-science and creation-evolution debates, social ethics, public discourse, political engagement, and the vision of the future.
It took some time, but it went downhill from there. The slippery slope did not allow a way to backtrack upward to where I came from, but still allowed me to navigate to the left and to the right and even allowed me to gain speed so as to find new heights that were (and still are) wildly exhilarating with much wider visions of God and the world.
Another thing that set me in motion was that I did not find much interest in apologetics among my professors even though the Christian Thought program at my institution was originally set up to train students to become effective defenders of the faith. Instead, I was immersed in a hermeneutics that was decidedly beyond the standard evangelical 3-step method of exegesis-interpretation-application. Not only that, we were reading some Polyani, heard Gadamer mentioned (only mentioned, I have to admit), read a postmodern primer and were introduced to postmodern epistemology (the fancy philosophical term for how we know stuff).
Foundationalism went out of the door in favor of a coherentist model of knowledge. (Some more fancy words here that basically mean that theology is not done on the basis of an absolute footing but rather comes into existence as we weave our web of theological thinking.) It didn’t take me long to realize what such a shift meant for the role of the Bible and the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy: if all this talk about foundations is nonsense the urgent need for an inerrant Bible to provide an infallible basis for thinking is slowly erased. Oops!
A Different Well
No wonder, then, that in my evangelical seminary, I managed to hardly read any evangelical theologians. The Germans were hot instead. Barth (actually Swiss, but German-speaking), Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, Rahner and various liberation theologians were mentioned and studied. I realized that the turn to the dialectical German theologians was basically a return of sorts. I had to go the USA in order to discover the true roots of the European spirituality I belong to, that of the German Lutheran theologians. Although I should probably mention that this also involved at the same time a shift.
The rejection of evangelicalism implied a rejection of Calvinism (i.e. the Dutch Reformed faith) in the strongest possible manner. The sovereign God of predestination with its insane dialectic of soteriological uncertainty (I cannot know whether I’m saved) and overbearing epistemological certainty (I know everything about God because I have an inerrant Bible) had to be denied and buried. I felt this with an ever stronger urgency. The paradigm shift not only necessitated a re-arranging of the elements and order of theological components, no, the God of the old paradigm was a false god. I’m running ahead of myself because this insight of having to reject this god came only at the end of a long trajectory that stretches beyond the Ph.D. study that was to follow.
While I studied at the evangelical seminary it didn’t occur to me that god as such had to be rejected. I merely wanted to start thinking right about God. So my anger—and those who deconstruct know how much anger and indignation there can be about all the nonsense, lying, self-deceit, and self-justification— was initially directed at evangelical theologians in general and some of the profs I studied under. I came to see that evangelical theology isn’t real theology. Rather, it is a combination of disaster management (“Ooo, look at all these people in our seminary thinking things we don’t agree with”) and border patrol (“You must believe what the Bible teaches, which equals what we say. And please don’t read liberal theology because them liberal theologians ain’t real Christians”).
I became angry too at evangelical theologians for this whole nonsense with inerrancy and the claim that inerrancy had been the teaching of the Church throughout its history. A brief glance at the history of the work of Charles Hodge, Old Princeton theologian in the 19th century, is enough to know that he basically invented inerrancy in order to have so-called scientific facts to feed his so-called scientific theology. A theological method that attempts to mimic the scientific method; good grief, how can we still participate in that? I also questioned the circularity involved in the evangelical doctrine of revelation: The Bible is God’s Word and we know this because the Bible says so. Although we are all involved in the hermeneutical circle of interpretative knowing that feeds more knowing, you cannot use such circularity to claim absolute knowledge; the hermeneutical circle expressly denies such a possibility.
I simply could not understand how it was that most of my profs staunchly defended inerrancy when a little douche bag from Europe, i.e. me, in a meager attempt to start a second career, took less than two years to see through it. My anger accelerated my deconstruction process that continued on even beyond my doctoral study that was to follow.
But in the meantime, something else had happened. I had audited a class on the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer…