‘Healthy deconstruction also requires some form of reconstruction.’

Under Construction Sign

Melbourne-based writer Nils von Kalm tells the story of moving through deconstruction of his faith, and becoming a “recovering evangelical.” His story raises the topic of what are the core necessary elements of faith – or in the wording of the Anglicans’ 39 Articles (their statement of faith) what are the “things necessary to salvation.”

I would call myself a recovering evangelical these days. I feel like I should start a 12-step group for people like me. “Hi, I’m Nils, and I’m a recovering evangelical. It’s been 32 years since I told someone the four spiritual laws.”

I wouldn’t call myself an “exvangelical” (to borrow from the title of Sarah McCammon’s latest book) as I still hold to some of what I believed in my late teens when I was a card-carrying evangelical (even though I wasn’t fully aware of that back then).

But I’ve done the deconstruction thing and come out with my faith intact (in fact, a journey of integrity is never done with deconstruction. The journey of growth means forever questioning and sometimes doubting. If the you of five years ago wouldn’t think that the you of today is a heretic, you’re not growing spiritually).

Jesus encouraged the ultimate deconstruction when he said,

“You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…”.

This was affirmed at the Transfiguration when the voice from the cloud, with Moses and Elijah present — representing the Law and the Prophets respectively — said,

“This is my Son, whom I love, and with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him”.

It was no longer about nationality or listening to the Jewish Law as the ultimate authority. Jesus was saying that, now, with him, everything has changed. Listen to him.

Healthy deconstruction also requires some form of reconstruction. It’s hopefully coming to a place of knowing who you are. I still believe the firmest foundation for that is knowing we are inherently and unconditionally loved by the God of the universe, incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth.

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

Keeping the good, leaving the bad

Some of the things I was taught in my younger years I now think are absurd. I think the idea of an eternally conscious torment of hell because you didn’t acknowledge the right things is the most unspeakably cruel, callous and despicable idea you could imagine. And I don’t believe it’s biblical when you look at the context of the passages that apparently back it up.

Yet I believed it. And I would have thought that if you didn’t believe it, you weren’t a real Christian. I still think that David Bentley Hart’s magisterial book, That All Shall Be Saved, is the best on this subject.

I also don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. As a pastor of mine said once,

“The Bible is not the final authority. How do we know this? It says so in the Bible”.

Jesus says that all authority has been given to him. He is the ultimate Word of God.

I’ve written elsewhere that I have a deeper love for the Bible today though than I ever did because it shows me Jesus. That’s a result of my early evangelical influence which I’m deeply thankful for. It gave me a love for the Bible, which has never left me.

I do believe the Bible is inspired, but that’s very different from it being infallible. The problem with the Protestant reformers was that, in rightly exposing the absurdity of papal infallibility, they just replaced papal infallibility with Scriptural infallibility.

The Rapture is another one. I used to be convinced and so happy that I was never going to die because we were in the last days and that Jesus was going to come back in my lifetime. I still believe Jesus is coming back, but I’m convinced that the Rapture is not just bad theology; it’s incredibly dangerous theology. It’s dangerous because it doesn’t reflect the Jesus of the gospels who embodies the very opposite of an escapist theology which wisks us away out of the big bad world. Instead, Jesus prayed for God’s kingdom to come right here on earth as in heaven, and that we are to follow him in the here and now. I’ve also written about this elsewhere.

As well as still holding to some of what I was taught in my teens, I also love the wonderful aspects of evangelicalism. For instance, it gave me a love for the Bible, which has never left me.

As a friend of mine noted, though, the term itself has been twisted from its original intent. What I love about the evangelicalism of the John Wesleys and William Wilberforces and Charles Finneys is its demanding social implications. That was all part of their evangelical zeal, and was what drove Wesley in particular to do so much for society in 19th-century England.

Image by Richard Masoner at Flickr

What you might not know about the altar call

What many Christians also don’t realize is that Charles Finney, famous for inventing the altar call, demanded that, if you were going to come up the front to give your life to Jesus, you had to sign on to the anti-slavery cause. If you weren’t willing to sign on to the abolitionist cause, he wouldn’t let you come up the front! The great Charles Finney saw that being a Christian and being an abolitionist were inseparable.

This isn’t to say that belief isn’t important. It is. Good theology literally saves lives, as it has a godly concern for this life. One of the best slogans I ever saw was from the UK-based aid and development organization, Christian Aid. It simply said, “We believe in life before death”.

The problem as evangelicals though is that we’ve equated belief with intellectual assent to a series of doctrines, and de-emphasized the “action” part of our faith. As a friend of mine has pointed out, the author, Karen Armstrong, writes about how early Greek use of the word “credo”, used in the New Testament, roughly meant “commit” or “follow loyally”. But in English, over time, it was lazily translated simply into “believe”, as in intellctual belief to a set of doctrines. So, understandings of “repent and believe” and “believe in Jesus…” etc shifted from emphasizing living a commitment to following Jesus to an emphasis on right doctrine as the determinant of true faith.

The Australian theologian, Rikk Watts, says the same. He’s shown that the word, “belief”, in John’s Gospel, is a verb in the original Greek. It refers to living out and following Jesus. I always remember another Australian, the preacher, John Smith, saying that only once in the gospels does Jesus talk about the need to be born again, but 87 times he says to “follow me”.

There’s so much I don’t believe anymore that I used to be so certain of. But I’m more convinced than ever that the Jesus of the gospels is who he says he is, and my whole sense of identity comes out of that. I believe that surrendering more to him makes me a more complete human.

What about you? What are some things you used to believe that you no longer hold to? Would you call yourself an evangelical, “exvangelical”, agnostic, something else?

First published at Backyard Theology. used with Permission