The Names They Called Me

Previously, we attempted to define deconstruction for anyone on a faith journey. Deconstruction isn’t for everyone. It can be disorienting, disheartening, distressful.

Photo by S Migaj on Pexels.com

I also want to say that deconstruction should be and may actually happen to everyone. It is a natural part of human developmental psychology and developing personal identity and resilience. Pretending it doesn’t and remaining ill-informed about how it happens and how to help people through it is not a plan of action; it is one of many reasons young people leave the Church.

What happens to you socially when you start questioning in a faith group can be as transformational as the spiritual experiences one claims to have that ofttimes get us into the mess of faith to begin with.

When I started deconstructing, I was fortunate enough to have a partner, friends, and a background all supportive of asking questions. No question was off limits and there was often someone I knew who had wrangled with the exact question just before I got to it so they had some good insight to offer right when I needed it most.

Unluckily, my church did not have a functioning Bible study group, cell group (care group, small group), adult Sunday School class, or any formal programming to meet my needs.

Luckily for me, my partner functions more cerebrally than me, I have contacts in higher education even if I haven’t much under my own belt, and I am driven to find and talk openly with people from a variety of different walks of life. You don’t need a church perfectly equipped to predict and meet your every need, or a post-secondary class which can be costly, to think critically about things.

I don’t want this post to be about condemning or shaming the Church’s behaviour. I suppose much of this post can be called out as subjective. And so it is. It’s my story and storytelling is important. I don’t believe in storytelling as personal grandstanding and substitute of personal experience for collective truth. I do believe in speaking truth for the purposes of breaking unspoken rules of silence that need to be broken, finding your tribe so you are functionally less alone, and possibly aiding in another’s ability to empathize, even unto illumination as to the need for change where there was previously no awareness of the need for it. I tell my story for the sake of my own hope and spreading hope to others.

So here is the story of The Names They Called Me when I started deconstructing within the western Evangelical church.

By asking if others were interested in talking about different subjects, I was called selfish.

I remember providing feedback to different small group leaders, asking what the plan was for studying for the year. When expressing interest in doing a deeper dive into theology, social issues, other topics of interest, or anything aside from the group’s regular programming, the suggestion was made that the personal needs I was having were selfish.

“If you’re not getting anything out of the group, then maybe you should remember that it’s not about you.” I’m all about acting of what is in the best interest of a group and a collectivistic society holds great interest to me, but instead of being open to feedback or encouraging a variety of study, the directive was to not pursue any topic but what the current leaders had identified and to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the group as it was currently functioning.

Or better yet, start serving others in a role already identified by the group. As a woman, usually this meant helping with children’s ministries or hospitality teams (serving the coffee and providing the baking) or corporate prayer initiatives. I felt glad when I was given support to propose and then coordinate a committee-led women’s group; less so when the topics of the women’s group events were called into question as not being “Christian enough”.

By asking if everyone really believed something in a certain way, I was called a Doubting Thomas.

There are many difficult to interpret passages in the Bible. Over the past 100 years, Protestant Evangelical fundamentalists have rejected liberal theology and doubled down on what is referred to as the “inerrancy of scripture”. We’ll save both the inerrancy of scripture and the issue with liberal theology for other posts. But the problem with being uncomfortable with basic questioning of congregational or small group teaching is the tendency toward using one interpretation to alienate or harm.

When you ask questions about a traditional practice, a theological position, or a translation or interpretation of a verse of set of verses in the Bible, and realize that you’re one of the only ones in your group asking those questions, you naturally wonder if you’re getting it wrong. If you don’t think about things the way the rest of you homogenous group thinks about things, you must be wrong. You doubt yourself, naturally, but you still have questions, so you ask them.

And so group leaders try to convince you, and now others know you doubt and the position of doubting is condemnable and now there is also lots of scripture to be wielded against ourselves about that, isn’t there?

So we can remove the actual critical thought about X issue and move the argument into whether or not you are believing the One Right Theology or whether you have been afflicted by a Spirit of Doubt, etc. etc.

Convincing someone they are different from the group when they question raises anxieties. Anyone struggling with anxiety or depression, unable to feel lasting periods of peace and joy, and questioning whether the Bible’s “recipe” for “if you ask for faith, you shall have it”, “turning tears to laughter”, is inevitably going to struggle with increased anxiety and depression. If you doubt, you sin.

By asking if anyone saw the harm that condemning questioning does, I was told I was a disturber of the peace, a destroyer of unity.

I don’t even know what to say about this one. You can probably see the trajectory of my journey of deconstructing within the church as each of these sections illustrates the growing unrest I had while functioning in my corporate church setting. Having made my peace with being called selfish, I was able to use my critical thinking to discern and confirm my leadership skills were not unbiblical; I was able to continue to function within the church and lead women as I knew I was gifted to. Having made my peace with being called a Doubting Thomas, I embraced the role of healthy skeptic and dove deeper into all the topics that made me and the group I was in uncomfortable; if I was going to lead people, I better know the why’s and how’s and what else is there’s about the issues everybody and no one wanted to talk about. And so I continued to function in my corporate church setting, believing I had something to give and that I represented a necessary part of the group, as group’s function through change.

Being a progressive thinker in a conservative group as it functions through change is a tough role to be in, but not one in which I was unwilling to function. I had the social support, resilience, critical thinking skills, mental health and mature spiritual identity to be there.

And then 2020 happened. And the social issues raised because of and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic revealed an Evangelical body in turmoil.

2020 made it necessary for us to deal head-on with issues like anti-science mentality, vaccination, systemic racism, classism, patriarchy, and more. For anyone wrestling through these issues with religious friends and family, first off, I feel ya. And second, while I hope you don’t experience loss of relationship, these are divisive issues because at stake is the very real life and death of people, often the weak and oppressed – you are not crazy if you feel like taking a stand.

If you choose to explore these important issues within the social body in which you operate, expressing different opinions with conviction, you may be ostracized. In religious circles, you may be quoted at with religious texts about how much “God loves unity”. And woe to those who threaten the homogeny of the group.

The Lessons Learned

Upon reflecting on these experiences personal to me, two things stand out:

  1. The intellectual culture of the Evangelical church as I’ve experienced it, is one that lends itself to a consistent set of tactics, including bait and switch argumentation, wherein one issue is subversively replaced for another. An ad hominem fallacy is when an individual argues or reacts to you as a person instead of dealing with your argument or claims. Another way to say that is, they direct their criticism to you as a person rather than to the points of your argument. Many don’t even know that they’re doing it because it seems like they’ve been given insight to you as a person that they are responsible to illumine for you, or for the benefit of people who might be listening. The goal is not to engage the subject at hand, but to preserve the status quo.
  2. Corporately, the Evangelical church fails to empower people to discern and confirm information that does not uphold the status quo. Messaging about the importance of and confidence in critical thinking is nonexistent. At each juncture where I grew with any significance in the past 10 years, I found a way to discern truth and confirm it with people whom I knew were more knowledgeable than me in the area in which I was seeking growth.

    Ultimately for me, most of these people happened to be operational within the Evangelical tradition. Other schools of thought began to inform my position as teachers with knowledge and integrity began to engage with me where Evangelicals would not. Mentors from Christian traditions (Catholic, Benedictine, Lutheran traditions and more), as well as humanist theist and atheist mentors alike, have all shone light on my life’s journey and encouraged me to use everything at my mortal disposal to continue to grow into who I am supposed to be.

Faith, as with anything worth contemplating in life, is both more straightforward and more complicated than many people think. It is simultaneously intensely personal and collective, with implications for living that affect both individual and societal trajectory. It behooves us, then, to approach it with every tool at our disposal – including, especially, critical thinking and encouraging questions.


2 thoughts on “The Names They Called Me

  1. Excellent post!
    While I dont know that ive been called names to my face as you mentioned, it have been stonewalled at almost every turn. Especially as a *woman* who thrills at grappling with the whys and wherefores of spiritual life, the church, her practices, etc.
    I wonder if people realize theyre doing these things – shutting down authentic spiritual questioning for the purpose of growth + maturity – to others? It dawned on me just yesterday how many people could genuinely be unaware of what theyre doing.

    Like

  2. I hear you. I don’t know if people know they are doing it when they shut people down. The benefit of the doubt says, no, they do not know how it impacts others. My experience also gave me the take away that Evangelical group leaders easily, through naivety or love of power, gravitate toward calling out someone’s iniquities and defining questioning or areas of struggle as sin. It is a “duty” to show you you are wrong, lest you fall into more sin.

    I’m learning more and more that trusted mentors and teachers are a fair few in my life; the insight they are able to offer me and that I submit to (telling me where I am wrong or informing me of areas where I need to grow) is an experience I have discerned they earn through relationship. These are people who, if I reject their input, also treat me with grace, accepting they could be wrong. It’s a very patient and respectful interaction, allowing much room for the “I could be wrong here” stance from both parties. Talk about counter-cultural. Meaning, it’s not particularly very North American, I think.

    Like

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