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Deconstructing Your Faith Without Sinking It: Drs. Sean McDowell & John Marriott

with John Marriott, Sean McDowell | August 29, 2023
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Can deconstructing faith be healthy? Authors Sean McDowell and John Marriott explore the realities of deconstruction—and the need for each of us to wrestle with doubts, questions, and incongruities toward robust faith.

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Can deconstructing faith be healthy? Authors Sean McDowell and John Marriott explore the need to wrestle with questions & incongruities toward robust faith.

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Deconstructing Your Faith Without Sinking It: Drs. Sean McDowell & John Marriott

With John Marriott, Sean McDowell
|
August 29, 2023
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John: Can I prove to you 100 percent that Jesus rose from the dead? Nope. I can’t and neither can anybody else. Do I think that there is good reason to think that He rose from the dead? I do. Do I think that there are counterarguments? I think that there are, but I find the reasons more persuasive than the counter arguments, and so I choose, based on that, to entrust myself to Jesus every day and try and walk out my life as submitting to His Lordship.

That’s what You’re called to. You’re not called to “I’ll only be a Christian when all of my doubts are gone and when I have everything nailed down,” because if that’s the case, you’ll only be a Christian for about 20 minutes.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: Okay, here’s a stat that will shock you—

Ann: Okay.

Dave: —that I just read.  “2018 Pine Tops Foundation claim that over one million young people will leave the faith per year for the next 30 years.”

Ann: That’s staggering and depressing.

Dave: That means that 35 million walking away from the faith by 2050. Pretty scary, huh?

Ann: It’s terrible.

Dave: Yes, we’re going to talk about it today. We have to understand this. We have to know what this is about. We have two experts. I would call them the experts in the studio. [Laughter] We actually have had both of them in individually but never together, so this could get really interesting. Sean McDowell and John Marriott, both from California. Both teach at Biola [University]. You guys don’t cross paths very often there, do you?

Sean: We do now. Writing this book together made it much more intentional.

John: Yes.

Sean: It should have happened long ago, that’s for sure.

Dave: You guys have written a book called Set Adrift: Deconstructing What You Believe Without Sinking Your Faith. I love the title. Welcome to FamilyLife Today.

John: It’s good to be back.

Dave: How did you two end up saying, “Let’s write a book together about this topic?”

John: Well, I was doing an interview for the Think Biblically podcast that Sean and Scott Ray host, and then afterwards Sean and I got talking about the need for trying to help young Christian college, high school age students think through how to remain in the faith when they don’t really feel like the faith that’s been handed to them really maybe represents what they think is an authentic way of living like Jesus wants them to. And it was from that conversation that the book has eventually come to pass.

Sean: One of the reasons I wanted to do this is because John has written—is this the fifth book on deconstruction?

John: It is, yes.

Sean: He has done the most or some of the most academic, careful research on why young people question their faith, leave the faith, and I have benefited from, read a lot of your stuff, interviewed you. You came with the idea, and I said, “Well, there are other books written on this,” and this unique angle that I think we’re taking, I thought, “Wow, this has been the heart of my ministry. So you can bring the research, I have some stories; this sounds like a perfectly needed book for parents and for young people right now who are really questioning their faith.”

Dave: Yes. When I saw that you two came together to write this book, I thought, “No better two guys to do this.” And when I say ‘experts,’ you guys really have studied this and looked at this. The stat I obviously read was from your book, so you know the research, but talk about what is happening. Deconstruction, deconversion is a pretty well-known term now. Nobody even used that term five years ago. So what is going on?

Ann: Well maybe we should start there, Dave. John, will you reintroduce the term and explain what that is?

John: Yes, sure. To deconvert is when someone says, “I once believed a particular faith.” It could be Islam; it could be Christianity. “But I don’t believe it anymore. Not only do I not believe the truth claims, but I have now removed myself out from the community, and I don’t carry that label anymore. I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I’ve really undone my entire conversion.”

Deconstruction is sometimes associated with deconversion, and often people who deconvert—it’s the end of their deconstruction. But deconstruction doesn’t necessarily even have to end in a deconversion. It can be a rethinking, sort of a “I’ve been handed this faith. It’s the faith of my parents, it’s the faith of my church or the denomination I’m a part of. And you know, my entire life I’ve accepted it, I’ve lived it out, I’ve kind of unquestionably gone along with it and accepted all the tenets, but now I may be a little bit more self-reflective.”

“I’ve intellectually come of age. Some things are not lining up with me and the way I see the life that Jesus calls us to, and so I’m going to rethink some of this. I’m going to take it apart, maybe lay the parts on the table, and evaluate whether or not I think some of the things I’ve inherited really reflect the way of Jesus.” So that would be a deconstruction.

Sean: There’s a lot of debate about what the term ‘deconstruction’ even means.

Dave: Yes.

Sean: If you google it or go on YouTube or talk to people, some will say deconstruction means deconversion. But when John and I started talking, one of the things I appreciate is how he carefully said, “Look, deconstruct is two words. ‘De’ like in ‘destroy’ is to break down. But ‘construct’ is to build back up. So deconstruction doesn’t just have to be a negative process.

Now there are some other Christian writers who will disagree with us and say, “You should never use ‘deconstruction’ in a positive term; use a different term for it.” We differ with them. Partly we’re saying, “People are talking about deconstruction. This is how some people are using it, so let’s define our terms and help take away the stigma. If somebody feels like their faith is slipping away, that they’re going through a period of questioning, it doesn’t have to result in abandoning your faith.”

So we set out to say, “Here’s just some parameters and some guidelines to deconstruct well with the goal of ending with a healthy faith that you really own, that lines up with what Jesus taught.”

Dave: Yes. As I read your book, it was one of the first—maybe the only—you guys would know—book written that made me think deconstruction isn’t a bad thing.

Ann: Necessarily.

Dave: It can end up in deconversion. It often can end up in a better, stronger faith, and I haven’t seen many people saying that. It’s like “Don’t freak out if your child or your spouse is deconstructing.” It could end up to be a really positive thing, right?

John: It can. It can be very fearful for those of us who are watching from the outside, because we don’t know where it’s going to end up.

Ann: Yes, it makes me freak out as a mom.

John: Yes, and I think Sean can speak to that, right? When you went through your period of struggling—

Sean: Yes, I did.

John: --your dad was okay, but your mom—

Sean: Yes, it was a very different response. That’s exactly right. So if you have a spouse or friend deconstructing, the first thing I would say is, “Tell me what you mean by deconstruction.”

A lot of where it ends up is the process we go through with it, and the attitude and approach. So some people have been so hurt by the church that they are intentionally shedding their faith and want to get rid of it. There’s nothing I can do to stop that person unless they have a heart change.

There are a lot of people just saying, “I have questions about this theological idea. I don’t know how to make sense of this. I am questioning my faith. How do I proceed wisely?” So it doesn’t have to be a negative thing, but we have to carefully define our terms. You’re right, with my dad the glass is 99.9 percent full. He just is. [Laughter]

Ann: This is Dave.

Sean: So when I told him I was questioning my faith, I didn’t use the term ‘deconstruction’ but looking back I might have used it to describe that process.

Ann: How old were you?

Sean: I think I was probably 19 years old.

Ann: Okay.

Sean: A sophomore in college. My mom’s response is very different, partly because she’s a mom. She just freaked out and thought she failed in some fashion, which I understand. So those of us who are questioning things—John and I talk about this a lot—-we have to keep in mind how our questioning affects those around us. It really has to go both ways if we’re going to do this well.

Ann: Okay, so what did your mom say versus your dad? What did that look like?

Dave: I know what your dad said. You put that in the book, but I don’t know what your mom said.

Sean: Well, you know, in defense of my mom, I told my mom first, and then looking back, she I’m sure had had a conversation with my dad, [Laughter] so he was able to emotionally prep.

Ann: Yes.

Sean: So there is a difference there, but I have never been an angry rebel, so to speak. I just told my mom, “I’m not sure if I believe this stuff. I don’t know,” and she was just completely taken aback, didn’t know how to respond, somewhat speechless. She didn’t say anything wrong; she just was completely taken aback by this and “could not imagine that this would happen on her watch” kind of thing. So she didn’t have to come back and apologize for anything, but she just was that concerned, worried mom.

My dad’s like, “Hey, seek after truth, love you no matter what, let’s go get some coffee.” And I actually think kids need both. They need someone who’s concerned, to see that  motional side, and someone who’s like, “Alright, let’s do this. What’s truth? Let’s figure it out.”

Ann: But you started saying to ask those questions: “What do you mean by that?” Is that what you’re saying to start with when your kids come and say, “Hey, I don’t even know if I believe this stuff?”

John: Sure. My daughter is 12 years old, and the other night she said to me, “You know, Dad, I don’t think I believe in heaven.”

Sean: Wow.

Ann: Oooh.

John: My heart sunk. I’m putting her to bed; we’ve prayed together.

Ann: Did you say, “I’ve written a lot of books about this.” [Laughter]

Dave: “You need to read one of them.”

John: No, I didn’t, but I did what Sean said. I kind of tried to gather myself, because when she said that it was really troubling because in a moment’s time I projected where things were going to be going in her life in the next ten years.

Ann: Yes!

Sean: Wow.

John: And that was really disturbing to me, but I said, “So, can you tell me what you mean when you say that?” because she’s 12, and she may not have the ability to really communicate effectively what she’s thinking and feeling in her words. By the end of the conversation, what came out was that she feels as though heaven is so hard to imagine, it’s hard to picture what it’s like, so when you can’t do that it’s really hard to really grab a hold on and enter into that truth.

That made me feel a lot better, because what I wanted to do was to jump in and start giving her answers and explanations for why she should still believe in heaven.

Ann: Yes.

John: So I think when we have young people, whether we’re in ministry and they come and they ask us these questions or they say they’re having doubts, or within our own family, it’s really important to just take a deep breath and pause to ask clarifying questions, to listen really well to what is being said, and then maybe from there, once you have a bit of the lay of the land, then to maybe move forward, asking some more clarifying questions, to find maybe what the heart of the issue really is.

Dave: So is it okay to ask questions? Should we ask questions? Is doubt something that should be expressed?

Sean: I think the research shows that it’s not doubt that hijacks a kid’s faith. It’s unexpressed doubt that hijacks a kid’s faith. So when a kid doesn’t feel permission or invited to ask questions, and then presses it down, so to speak, eventually it’s going to fester and it’s going to hijack a faith.

What’s interesting is the Bible says in Jude, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” Why mercy? Because doubt can be painful. When I started having questions, I started thinking through, “If I don’t believe this, does this affect my relationship with my parents? With my friends? My future?” It was painful, and we miss that with many people who ask questions.

So if there’s any faith that can take questions, it’s Christianity, because it’s true and there are reasons for it. I’m telling you, so many people that not only deconstruct but end up in deconversion, one of the common threads I will hear is the thread you just said: “I was never allowed to ask questions. I was told that doubt was bad.” And in the age of smart phones, where there’s endless information, kids are going to have questions, and that’s okay.

Dave: Yes.

Sean: So we can answer them, but one of the things I’ve found as parents is if we can just live with doubts, even telling our kids, “I don’t know how to answer that, but I know that God does, and I can live in this tension,” gives them permission to do so, and realize that there’s some messiness to faith.

Dave: It’s sort of sad that the disciple Thomas is known as “Doubting Thomas,” and yet you guys tell me—Isn’t it beautiful how Jesus responds to his question of certainty? “I won’t believe unless I can put my fingers in His hand.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Come on, Dude. I can’t believe you doubt.” He says, “Here.”

Sean: Keep this in mind, though. Thomas was not a doubter. We need to stop calling him a doubter.

Dave: I know. I hate that.

Sean: Thomas rejected. He flat out said, “I will not believe unless I can see and touch.” That’s not doubt. That’s a full-on “I do not believe.” Doubt is consistent with faith. You can believe something but have some doubts. You just don’t know, so it’s not the opposite of faith. Thomas was not a doubter, so when we call him a doubter we’re basically saying, “Either you’re like Thomas who completely rejects this; there’s no room for somebody to say, ‘I think I believe this but I have questions.’”

 So even the moniker, “Doubting Thomas,” shows how confused we are about what it means to doubt. [Laughter]

Ann: And John, you went through your own period of doubting and kind of looking at your faith and analyzing, “Is this what I really believe?”

John: Oh, I did. And it started at a Bible college, believe it or not.

Ann: Right.

John: It was at a Bible college where I was gung-ho for Jesus but had very little Bible knowledge. I was in my teens; I think I was 15, and I was working with a Bible college student. We were both working on a game, and we were putting it away afterwards. The conversation somehow turned to the sovereignty of God. He raised the paradox that I had never thought of before: If God is completely sovereign, it doesn’t seem like there’s free will. And if people have free will, then maybe God is not completely sovereign.

Then he explained to me how if that’s the case, then God is maybe predetermining or just electing certain people to go to heaven, and other people are going to hell. It was in that moment that I felt all the joy just evaporate out of my Christian life, because up until then God was just good, and He was loving and kind. Really I just had a naïve faith. That really sent me down the rabbit hole of asking all kinds of questions.

For a long period of time I really, really wrestled with Who is God? What is He like? Is He really good? How am I supposed to understand what He has to say? What can I put my trust in? So there is a sense that Sean and I write this book out of our own experience.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: It’s pretty cool. As I read that, I thought, “You illustrate everything you say in the book about that deconstruction journey that led you to a better understanding of your faith, and you say over and over in the book, “So often followers of Christ don’t really even know what we believe anyway.” So then when that starts to crumble, when we start to see ‘Here’s what we believe,’ they fall apart.

Talk about that, because I think as parents that’s our children. We’ve raised them in the church. They don’t even really know what they believe. I’m not even sure we do, often, and then we see deconstruction. They’re deconstructing from something they never really understood anyway, and then they walk away. Am I right? Is that what you’re trying to say?

John: Yes, I think so. Sean and I both teach at Biola, and students come to Biola because they’re Christians. They want to study in a liberal arts Christian environment. And then often when they get there, Biola has a requirement that you have to take so many Bible credits, and maybe for the first time they get exposed to the biblical story in a kind of chronological way.

They realize, “Oh, I never read any of those passages out of Leviticus before, and what’s with all the terror that’s going on in the Old Testament? And then they start to say, “I didn’t realize that Jesus on the cross was being punished by God. Why is God punishing His own Son? Doesn’t that seem like it’s sort of an abusive kind of relationship?”

So a lot of things get exposed when you start doing kind of a systematic study of the Bible, and this is not a criticism of families, Sunday schools, churches, but we don’t really do a great job of going through the Bible, and we do a great job of telling great stories like Abraham and Moses and Samson, but maybe not systematically going through and giving the big picture of the entire text itself.

Ann: Parents now are thinking, “Oh, no! How do I do that? How do I explain that? I don’t have the means to be able to explain that to my kids.”

Sean: I think what happens in this experiential time is people end up rejecting a caricature of the faith, and not the real faith. So when you have that moment, it’s like “Am I going to dig in and figure out what Christianity really is and if it’s defensible, or am I going to reject this child-like faith?”

Not in every case, but in so many cases of people who have left the faith, I’ll ask a simple question. “Tell me about the God that you once believed in,” or “Tell me—" something to the effect of not why did you leave the faith, but “Tell me that moment you came into the faith.” You know what I never hear of that second question? It’s almost never about “I knew that I was a sinner, and I cried out to God for His grace.”

There’s oftentimes a false gospel in there that somebody’s believing of hard work or something else, whatever it is. Or they’ll say, “I just don’t believe in this vindictive, hateful God,” which there is judgment and wrath in the Bible, but that’s only a piece of it. So this is why just good theology is so important. It’s important we keep the main thing the main thing.

So I think both of us wrote this book in a way looking back on our experiences, saying, “What book do we wish we had?” When you’re being challenged by another Christian, for me that moment hit when I was surfing on the internet in the mid-90s, and I’d come across contradictions in the Bible, and these pagan mythical deities. I thought, “I have never heard this, and my dad’s an apologist.” It just rocked me. “Oh, my goodness. What if I’m actually wrong? What if the Bible’s not true? What if Jesus is not God?”

Kids have those moments, whether considering chucking their faith or from another Christian, trying to figure out, “How do I balance this?” That’s where it’s really important we ask, “Okay, what is the heart of the Gospel? What is God really like?” And if they walk away, at least make sure they walk away from truly understanding what the heart of the Gospel is.

Dave: Yes, I remember one time I was speaking at our men’s retreat for our church. This guy walks up to me, and I’ll never forget. I had never met him; he was at a different campus; I never knew the guy. He said, “You know, I’ll never believe like you because I’m a doubter.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “I’m here. Somebody dragged me here, and it’s a really cool weekend, but I just don’t believe.”

“There are too many questions, and I read this author, and I read this author,” some atheist stuff, “and I believe they’re right. I think everything you guys believe is wrong.” I said, “Guess what?” He said, “What?” I said, “I have the same doubts.” He said, “What?” “Because I read that guy. In fact, I could probably tell you five things that I agree with him in, and twenty that I don’t. Would you be open to talk about it?”

He said, “No, Dude. You never doubted. You’re the guy up there on that thing.” I said, “It’s an awesome journey, but doubt is part of it. Would you be willing to meet?” He said, “I’ve never heard a Christian leader say they doubted. I’ll meet with you.” The guy came to Christ, but he needed to walk a journey, and I think he needed somebody to say, “I struggle, too, and that’s actually normal.”

It’s part of deconstructing what isn’t real and what isn’t true, and finding out, constructing, like you guys said earlier, what does matter. Is that a pretty common journey?

John: I think so. My son wanted to get baptized. I may have mentioned this last time, but he wanted to get baptized, and we said, “Oh, that’s great. We would love to see that.” And then we said, “So let’s sit down and have a little conversation beforehand.” He’s made a profession in the past, and he said, “Yes, it’s a good idea. I have a couple questions.” I said, “Well, okay. What’s the first one?”

He said, “Well, why do we really think God exists?” [Laughter] I thought, “Wow. Okay. Maybe we need to step back. Maybe baptism is not the first step that we should be taking here, right?” What he really meant by that was, “Hey, look, I really believe this, but is there some intellectual support that I can have other than it just seems really true to me?” So we went through this discussion on the resurrection, and at the end of it I said to him—his name is Cody.

I said, “Cody, look. Can I prove to you 100 percent that Jesus rose from the dead? Nope. I can’t and neither can anybody else. Do I think that there is good reason to think that He rose from the dead? I do. Do I think that there are counter arguments? I think that there are, but I find the reasons more persuasive than the counter arguments, and so I choose, based on that, to entrust myself to Jesus every day and try and walk out my life as submitting to His Lordship.”

I said, “That’s what You’re called to. You’re not called to, ‘I’ll only be a Christian when all of my doubts are gone and when I have everything nailed down,’ because if that’s the case, you’ll only be a Christian for about 20 minutes, if you’re that kind of a thinker.” [Laughter] Right? So I agree with you.

I think that it’s important to share with folks—I met one person in my life who said he never had any doubts whatsoever. That tells me far more about his psychological makeup than it actually does even the depth of his faith—not to question his faith, but it tells me more about him as a person than it necessarily does of having a robust, biblical faith.

Shelby: Let’s understand that we’re called as believers to have faith. Knowing everything with 100 percent certainty doesn’t require faith, and God says that “The righteous shall live by faith.” So let’s lean in, even when we don’t have everything nailed down. I love this conversation.

I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Sean McDowell and John Marriott on FamilyLife Today. Sean and John have written a book called Set Adrift: Deconstructing What You Believe Without Sinking Your Faith. It really talks about how to analyze and reevaluate your Christian beliefs and your Christian experiences in the church, while keeping the core of your faith intact. So if you’d like a copy of Sean and John’s book, you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com.

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Now Dave and Ann Wilson are back again tomorrow with Sean and John, to talk about the importance of parental influence, and really responding with love and understanding when the young people in your life are struggling with what they believe. That’s tomorrow.

 

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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