Becoming better friends to those with questions
Written by Ruth Chan
“I’m deconstructing.” These are some of the most vulnerable, honest, and frightening words of young people in our churches today. Some have called our era the Age of Deconstruction, as so many young adults are leaving evangelical churches.
The term deconstruction has gained traction in recent years as a new name for the critical questioning of one’s faith. Of course, asking questions has always been intrinsic to the human experience. However, deconstructing faith within the North American context seems to be a uniquely challenging experience.
According to Canadian philosopher James K. A. Smith in his 2014 book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, people in the secular West currently “live in a cross-pressured space, where both [their] agnosticism and [their] devotion are mutually haunted and haunting.”
Strong belief proves extremely difficult in a society of competing worldviews. In this cross-pressured space, belief is constantly aware of the option of unbelief and vice versa. Add the complexities of a generation immersed in the online sphere and its endless worldviews, and suddenly deconstruction is not such a surprising phenomenon.
In one of my earliest seasons of questioning, I spent hours online researching different religions, worldviews, and cultures. Since then, online information has only grown exponentially. A quick scroll through any social media platform reveals varying worldviews about identity, happiness, politics, and religion. I’ve often found myself asking, along with others in my generation, “How can I know anything when I cannot know everything?”
Embracing the tension
Naturally, the deconstructing process is filled with discomfort and fear for both the individual and the Church. The journey is one of tension, and Evangelicals, generally speaking, have not been primed to inhabit tension well. Consider mainstream evangelical culture, often imported to Canada from the United States. Worship songs focus on victory, goodness, and love. Radio stations feature positive and uplifting programs. Churches tell stories that have clear redemptive endings.
These themes are not inherently wrong, but in over-emphasising them, little room has been left for lament, defeat, and unbelief. What of the stories of the messy and broken sides of life?
It is time to embrace tension. A church’s comforts, perspectives, and convictions will be challenged whenever someone in the community deconstructs. If the church is unable to hold tension well, they will be unable to hold those deconstructing well.
They will fail to lend a listening ear—responding instead with argument, forceful correction, even rejection. They will make an already difficult journey even more painful. Those dismantling their religious frameworks are often hurting. The constant unsettledness of asking, “What if none of this is true?” can be vulnerable, disorienting, and exhausting.
To deconstruct is to risk loss of friendship, community, and even relationship with God. This journey requires churches to tread gently.
Perhaps the greatest need for those deconstructing is not deliverance or conversion, but friendship. Anyone who’s been a Christian for a while will attest that salvation doesn’t mean finding all the definitive, final answers. Following Jesus is about presence, relationship, and falling in love with God.
God does not promise everything will be resolved within us as we live on this earth, whether physically, emotionally, or intellectually. Indeed, Jesus speaks as if He expects us to walk the path of faith with doubt and struggle. What God promises is a deeper, more basic need than answered questions—it’s the promise of presence. Even amid doubt and fear, He will never leave nor forsake us.
Keeping company with the arts
Much like the person deconstructing, the artist lives in the cycle of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. As a creative, I often find myself squirming in art galleries, concerts, and movie theatres. I find my own prejudices, self-deceptions, and questions challenged when creating and receiving art. I feel the invitation to enter the cycle.
Artists have long been tasked with inhabiting places of doubt, mystery, and beauty.
It is the work of creatives to approach life with honesty regardless of the cost to personal comfort or convenience. A quick look at history reveals artists wrestling with life and with God. They wrestle, not with a physical force as Jacob did, but with the defying and stubborn strokes of oil, graphite, with the deafening dissonance of orchestras. They wrestle to find cosmos within the chaos, as American author Madeleine L’Engle put it in her 1980 book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.
By cosmos within the chaos she meant a way of making sense of it all, or at least making peace with it all.
For those who have become lonely in their search for God, the arts can provide solidarity and solace. The artist is a fellow pilgrim, a friend who understands how the process feels. The arts can also create space for tension within evangelical churches. Art by nature will challenge one’s perspectives. It will inevitably make us uncomfortable, especially if it is unflinchingly honest about what it means to be a human being living with God. By embracing that discomfort, evangelical churches can become a safer place for those deconstructing to do so within the Body of Christ.
Art and belief
The arts also offer a way to make sense of faith amid a flurry of conflicting and competing views. Julian Barnes, a renowned agnostic, remarks that he is tempted by religion when he encounters art. In How (Not) to Be Secular, Smith quotes him wondering if “religion might just be true simply because it is beautiful.” He says, “missing God is focused for me by missing the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted with religious art.”
Here, Barnes is moved not by clever arguments, but rather by art. In engaging with the arts, human beings understand more of life. They understand more of truth. Perhaps not always in the explicit sense of the word, but in the subtle shifts and turns of the soul, they begin to somehow understand that they understand.
In embracing tension, mystery, and paradox, the arts present a faith with enough elasticity to hold the strain of pluralistic beliefs, counter-beliefs, and unanswered questions. Perhaps it is time once again to grace the walls of churches not merely with logos and branding, but with art. Art that teaches evangelical Christians different ways of inhabiting tension, presence, and belief. Art that rejoices, laments, and tells the hard stories of life, so that we may better extend hands of friendship to those who ask big questions.
Ruth Chan is a multidisciplinary artist living in Ottawa, Ont. She primarily focuses on music and works with photography and design on the side.