Over the last ten years my Christian faith has undergone a dramatic transformation. The beliefs that were once absolutely fundamental to my understanding of the universe and my own existence have been gradually deconstructed. It has been a confusing, unsettling and sometimes painful process, but I now feel I have in some way emerged from that confusion, and am feeling a sense of clarity, hope and excitement about my faith that I have never felt before.
In the early stages of deconstruction it felt as if the ground beneath my feet was crumbling. The “unshakeable” truths I had been taught to build my life upon were being dismantled one by one – it was exhilarating but terrifying.
I know far less now than I did ten years ago. I have far more questions than answers, and God seems more mysterious and unfathomable than ever.
I used to have everything sorted, organised into boxes and neatly stacked. Now the boxes are torn open and their contents strewn everywhere, but I am learning to live comfortably in the mess. Free from the constraints of my boxes, God seems bigger and more loving than ever, and the life and message of Jesus seems more real, relevant and fundamentally good.
The core message, or ‘Good News’ of Christianity that I learnt growing up went as follows:
God made people, people ‘sinned’ and went against God. God, being perfect and just, cannot stand sin and therefore must punish it with death and eternal torment. However, God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die and take the punishment for our sin so that we can go to heaven and be with God after we die. All we need to do to be saved is become a Christian, which means admitting that we are sinners bound for hell, believing that Jesus died for us and accepting him as our personal Lord and Saviour. Anyone who fails to do this will go to hell and be punished forever.
This message, or something like it, has been central to Christian teaching (at least western evangelicalism) for a large chunk of history, and it has only started to be seriously challenged in the last few decades. It is a message based on the threat of eternal punishment, and I would argue that it has survived in this form for so long largely because it is based on and fuelled by fear. Questioning and doubting the core Christian beliefs has long been seen as a weakness, as “sinful”, so most people until fairly recently have followed along faithfully, interpreting any doubts as personal problems to be overcome or ignored.
As questioning religious beliefs has become more socially and culturally acceptable, many people have found their faith has been deconstructed to the point where they would no longer call themselves Christians, and have sought other ways to find meaning in life. Through all my own struggles with Christianity and church I have never been able to shake off the sense that there really must be more to life than what we see and experience – science alone cannot explain everything. The life and message of Jesus has continued to captivate me, and the more I have read and thought about it the more I have seen how much his message has been distorted, hijacked and misrepresented over the centuries, often with tragic consequences.
Well known Christian thinkers, speakers and writers who have moved into this new understanding of Christianity have come up against harsh criticism from other Christians. This is to be expected and I really can understand the desire to be conservative, to protect the strong framework of belief that has stood firm for so long. When your whole life and work has been built upon a particular belief system, it is a very unsettling, scary and unpleasant thing to see that system dismantled.
Those who have pioneered this rethinking process are often accused of not taking the Bible seriously. This thinking comes from people who read the Bible as if it were a scientific text book or an instruction manual for life – directly spoken from God to us, and therefore flawless and to be interpreted literally. With this mindset, taking the Bible seriously means taking individual passages, often entirely out of context, and applying them to our lives now. Theological discussions with people whose faith is based on this understanding of the Bible don’t get very far as the answer is always “because the Bible says so”. However, I am yet to meet anyone who takes the whole Bible seriously in this way – it is is just not possible to interpret everything literally. So whether they admit it or not, even the most conservative Christians have projected their own views and opinions onto the Bible, and are being selective about which parts to take seriously.
I have come to see the Bible as a family history – a rich and varied collection of texts spanning over a thousand years, telling the story of how God has interacted with people. It is written by many different people and includes eyewitness accounts, letters, poetry, songs and folklore, all inspired by people’s experiences of God. In understanding our family history we gain a sense of who we are and who God is, and in that sense the Bible is sacred, useful and relevant today. With this understanding, taking individual verses and passages out of context and applying them to our lives makes no sense whatsoever. We need to understand the cultural background, the intention of the writer and what it would have meant to people at the time. When this is done seriously, it can often change the meanings entirely.
By taking bits of the Bible out of context and interpreting them literally, Christians have justified a whole range of atrocities and injustices that most of us would now consider to be completely wrong. The Crusades, slavery and the oppression of women are just a few examples. The overarching story of the Bible is one of love, hope and reconciliation, but by taking bits out of context we have managed to construct belief systems based on fear, guilt and oppression.
Having grown up interpreting the Bible in this literal manner, I now see it as at best narrowminded and misguided, and at worst downright dangerous. In my mind, viewing the Bible in this way is not taking it seriously enough.
The result of the deconstruction of my belief framework is that I am more passionate than ever about my Christian faith. For a while I felt like I was ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ – in weeding out the bad bits I was also losing all the good, reassuring, comforting and inspiring aspects of my faith that had once been so central to my life. For a number of years I was confused and angry, and church was a place of frustration and bitterness. I was mourning the loss of the security I had in my neat and tidy belief framework, whilst feeling frustrated that others weren’t thinking the same as me.
I now feel like I am “the other side of angry”, as a friend recently put it; I have regained the hope and security I once felt but the whole thing seems so much bigger and better, and makes so much more sense. The ‘Good News’ seems far, far better than it did before.
I feel that the Christian message as I was taught it massively and devastatingly missed the point, and I feel an increasing sense of urgency that the world desperately needs more of us to realise this.
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12 thoughts on “Rethinking Christianity: Deconstruction”
Great article Emma. Do you know about the Progressive Christian Network ?http://www.pcnbritain.org.uk. There are groups in Exeter and Cornwall.
I’ve heard of it yes. Need to start one in Plymouth!
Are you able to describe what you feel is different in the Good News you understand now to the one you summed up as the’historical view’?
I’ll do my best in the next few posts…
I recommend taking a look at the book ‘Conversations With God’ by Neil Donald Walsh.
After leading a troubled life, Neil encounters a life-changing communication with God/divine source. In a series of questions and answers Neil discovers new truths, the most profound of which is the statement… “You’ve got me all wrong!”
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“I have regained the hope and security I once felt but the whole thing seems so much bigger and better, and makes so much more sense. The ‘Good News’ seems far, far better than it did before.”
This is excellent. Many, many Christians all across the planet are waking up – or maybe I should say ‘growing up’ – in this way. It’s electrifying!
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Greetings, Ms. Higgs, from the beautiful rural mountains of western Panama. I am retired as a pastor and professor, continuing to write books of many genres, but those that will most interest you are the ones that confirm and extend what you have intuitively and (I think) quite correctly arrived at. I have for something like 45 years been working on restoring the original versions of the works of John the Presbyter? He was the only one of Jesus’s disciples who had a university education (at the Mouseion, in Alexandria, Egypt, then the Western world’s greatest university; he mainly studied under Philo of Alexandria). He was also formerly the second-in-command priest in the Second Temple in Jerusalem, but hearing Jesus’s teachings changed all that. His is known for the Gospel of John, three letters, and the Revelation, however those works were distorted with excisions and interpolations in order to bring them into conformation with doctrines that were developed centuries later (read “The Closing of the Western Mind” by Charles Freeman). So my work is painstakingly to restore the originals, something like restoring the Sistene Chapel ceiling, reading manuscripts and fragments in several ancient languages. John also wrote other works that are only known to a handful of experts, including his last work, a series of interconnected poems in Aramaic that are as it were Jesus and Mary “singing songs” to each other in front of the tomb on the morning of resurrection: they are exquisite, theologically profound, and also often beautifully erotic. My point in all this background is to assure you that what you have intuited is a large part of what this trained historian says was Jesus’s actual message, and, as you suggest, it is at considerable variance with what is taught by the established religion. The latter is founded in the teachings of Paul of Tarsus, who never even laid eyes on Jesus, but took his name and repackaged him in the trappings of the then-popular Roman Mystery Religions. Modern Christianity (and you describe it succinctly) is far more Paul than Jesus. So, my best wishes are with you in your spiritual search. You might some day be interested in reading the volumes so far published of the restored original works of John the Presbyter.
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Emma, we seem to have begun in similar places, and we seem to have arrived in similar places. It is quite a journey but a happy one.
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Thanks for another good read. You describe the core message of the Christianity you grew up with as:
And you go on to say:
However, the “large chunk of history” covered by this specific teaching (penal substitution) is only about 1/4 of the total history of Christianity. It started with the Protestant Reformation, and was unknown for 1,500 years of Christianity prior to that. And even in that 500 years, it has always been a minority belief within Christianity as a whole, being confined entirely to Protestantism, which is currently a little over 1/3 of the total Christian population of the world.
So while some Protestants, led by the New Perspective on Paul, are finally beginning to seriously challenge penal substitution, the rest of Christianity has been busily not believing it at all, and no Christians believed it for the first 1,500 years of Christianity.
So I would say that really, you are simply returning to something more like the earlier view of Christianity, and something closer to what the majority of Christians have believed all along.
Having said that, the foundations for penal substitution were laid by Anselm 1,000 years into the Christian era, when he originated the satisfaction theory of atonement. Catholicism adopted the variation of satisfaction theory developed by Aquinas a couple of centuries later, so Catholicism, too, has gotten off track from the understanding of atonement and salvation that existed in Christianity for its first 1,000 years. However, even Catholicism definitely does not accept penal substitution as you describe it here, and as is believed in the bulk of Protestantism.
My main point is that you are not abandoning historical Christianity. Rather, you are moving back toward it. And that also means you are moving back toward how the Bible was read and understood for most of the history of Christianity—and how it still is understood in significant segments of Christianity. (The Eastern Orthodox never even accepted satisfaction theory. They still hold to the original Christus Victor view of atonement and salvation.)
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Indeed, you’re absolutely right. And yet this particular version of Christianity still seems to have such a powerful (I would say damaging) effect on the world.
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Yes. Very damaging. Centuries of bigotry, intolerance, and violence perpetrated by those who claim to follow the one who taught:
And that is the God who supposedly hates sinners so much that he sends them to everlasting torment in hell because he can’t stand to have them in his presence?
I don’t think so.
Whatever that belief is, it is not Christianity.
Unfortunately, its roots go deep. Within a few short centuries after Christ, Christians were locked in internecine battles with each other over doctrine, but really, over power. And the false beliefs flowed from that grasping for power over others, and for worldly fame and wealth. But it took many more centuries for the doctrinal destruction of Christianity to run its full course.
Protestantism did bring about some needed reforms within Christianity, such as returning the Bible to the people. But doctrinally it completed the destruction of Christianity, through Luther’s invented doctrine of justification by faith alone, and Melanchthon’s (? I still haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact human origin of penal substitution) invented doctrine of penal substitution, and especially Calvin’s invented doctrine of predestination to hell. Despite all the Bible-thumping by Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals, none of these things are taught anywhere in the Bible. And Calvinism represents the final destruction of Christianity doctrinally, to the point where there is nothing of real Christianity or of the teachings of Jesus Christ left in it.
But back to penal substitution, it is the very same Christians who vociferously insist upon that doctrine who are still engaged today in bigotry and intolerance against various groups of people whom they see as evil and cursed by God.
That is not what Christ taught.
That is not Christianity.
Hi Emma, I’ve been enjoying your posts. I’m trying to trade ‘blog post for blog post’ but in the interest of wanting to make a comment and not rewrite something, I have a thought here you might enjoy about the version of the Christian message you encapsulated in your post. All the best to you!: https://substandardseminary.wordpress.com/2016/05/16/papa-dont-preach/
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