This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 9-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has the opportunity to publish their work at Bearings Online. Click here to read more essays from the Emerging Writers Program.
One of my guilty pleasures is watching cooking competitions. I especially enjoy when a contestant produces a deconstructed dish. Deconstructed cooking or baking happens when a chef or baker rethinks a popular or beloved dish. Take, for instance, apple pie. When deconstructed, one might get a dessert that has all the familiar ingredients, but not presented in the traditional sense: apples and spices tucked neatly inside a pie crust. Instead, what you may get is a bowl of cooked apples, topped with chunks of pie crust and garnished with powdered sugar and cinnamon sticks. It’s still an apple pie; it just looks different.
Over the past few years, I have been doing something similar, though I did not know what to call it initially. No, I am not talking about deconstructing in the culinary sense. I am talking about deconstructing my faith.
Admitting publicly that I am deconstructing my faith is scary.
Admitting publicly that I am deconstructing my faith is scary. Many of the people I am connected to are deeply committed to their traditional beliefs, church work, and ministries. As a same-gender-loving preacher, there is already a distance – albeit subtle – between myself and many of my ministry colleagues. Because of the polity of their denominational or congregational leadership, having me around isn’t ideal for their ministerial success. Admitting I am interrogating my faith could potentially create more isolation for me.
What am I doing, exactly? The easiest way to explain it is there are some things I was taught growing up that I no longer believe. For example, I was taught the Bible is the infallible word of God. I was taught to believe that the Bible is perfect, without error, and without contradiction. I simply don’t believe that anymore.
Let’s go down the list!
I no longer believe that Jesus is the only way to God.
I see the Christian Bible (and by extension the Hebrew Bible) as a collection of writings portraying the lived experiences of a people trying to understand their lives and God’s role in their lives. I no longer believe that Jesus is the only way to God. In other words, I do not negate the Divine access of those who practice Hinduism, Buddhism, or Wicca; or identify as Yoruba, Islamic, Sikh, or Jewish; or subscribe to other monotheistic and polytheistic belief systems. For me, they are all my cousins, brothers, and sisters, speaking to the Deity or Deities that fit their unique identities, beliefs, and ways of being in the world.
Furthermore, I don’t believe that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about homosexuality. Nor do I believe that we must sacrifice everything about ourselves, abandon our wants, needs, and desires, for the sake of religious acceptance and divine love. I do not ascribe to the narrative that the Bible supports marriage as between one man and one woman, or that if I live a certain way and act a certain way God will bless me with the luxury BMW truck I have always wanted.
I don’t believe that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about homosexuality.
Sometimes I don’t realize that I no longer believe aspects of my faith until I am in the middle of conversation with others or listening to someone preach.
The roots of faith deconstruction, some believe, lie in the literary concepts of French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s – the ongoing process of questioning the accepted basis of meaning. His ideas spread to other disciplines, especially in the 1980s-90s, including theology. Some dismiss faith deconstruction as a newfangled and faddish threat to the church, while many who have gone through their own process of faith deconstruction no longer see the value of being affiliated with any faith-based community. While this is not the case for me, I respect their choices.
I did not “grow up” in the church. From time to time, I attended church services with friends from school and their families until I was about 11 or 12 years old. It was then that we began going to church as a family – attending the Simon family church. However, my upbringing was influenced by religion. There were rules that were religiously influenced. No cursing. No drinking. No playing cards. And no gossiping!
I also remember that when my brother was dying from HIV complications, suggestions were made that his diagnosis was an indictment of his “lifestyle.”
The one directive I remember most to this day: never question God. I was not really told why not. Oh, and never read the Book of Revelation. That was another non-negotiable growing up. To this day, no one has explained that one to me either. But I had lots and lots of questions, like how is it that nothing can separate me from God’s love, but being same sex attracted is the ultimate sin?
Attending seminary granted me the opportunity to question and decipher meaning for myself.
Attending seminary granted me the opportunity to question and decipher meaning for myself. From the “Introduction to the Old Testament” and “Introduction to the New Testament” courses, to “Systematic Theology” and “Christian History,” my professors invited me to analyze and decipher; dissect and investigate. During my second year I collided with the work of Howard Thurman and the theological writings of Frederick Douglass.
I cannot say anything I read by Thurman or Douglass changed my mind about anything I believed. But Thurman and Douglass exposed me to ideas I had not considered and narratives I had never encountered. They helped me to rethink who and what I considered to be voices of theological authority. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman questioned how anyone with authority could use the Christian faith to oppress others when it’s a faith for the oppressed. Douglass pointed out similar hypocrisies. They also affirmed Black religiosity for me, creating space for Black theological perspectives and making them valid in place of “forefathers of the faith” who were exclusively white and European. They also led me to other Black theological voices like Katie Cannon, Jarena Lee, James Cone, and Anthony Pinn.
Encountering Thurman, Douglass, Cannon, Lee, Cone, and Pinn caused me to reconsider whether the messages given to me as a child about faith, about sin, about oppression, about divine selection, even good and evil, served me. I also wondered whether these lessons served the people I eventually pastored.
Not only have I experimented in baking, I’ve also experimented with my faith.
My questioning came to the final point when, in the fall of 2021, my father died. Before he passed, he used to say, “One of the best parts of cooking is experimenting. You won’t know what you have or what can be until you test it out.” Not only have I experimented in my baking, but I’ve also experimented with my faith.
His passing gave me the courage needed to take an inventory of my life and my questions, and the courage to embrace my interrogation. This process has been necessary for my peace, growth, and well-being.
While I may not believe some of the things I was taught to believe, my relationship with my faith does not have to be tossed out because I am deconstructing. For me, deconstruction has not only been about seeking and processing, but also experimenting. I have approached the process the same way chefs and bakers deconstruct their dishes: taking the main ingredients and repurposing/re-imagining them to better serve me and those I am called to serve.
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Ruth Johnston says
Thank you so much for this thoughtful essay. I was happy to read the theme of your doctoral research. I have been a grief counselor for a large hospice for years and often feel that grief has not been explored deeply enough for it’s implications for society. My unscientific hunch is that some of the violence in society stems from disenfranchised grief. Thank you for your work.
Robert tegart says
Once the inspiration of scripture is abandoned by anyone, there follows a lost of authority. Christianity is a faith for the oppressed. Romans 3:23 says that all have sinned and fallen short of The glory of God”. Jesus is the only way because He was the only one who becomes our Substitute for sin. He was the only one who ever lived a perfect life. God is holy and only the holiness of God is in heavan. We must place our faith in Christ’s sacrifice for forgiveness of sin
Bill Griffin says
Thoughtful and engaging — faith described as a journey with no foreordained destination. Thank you for sharing this invitational message.
Rich S says
No offense, but you sound like just about every other “deconstructionist” I’ve read. Is the point of one’s Christian faith to “serve” them?