Last night my 12-year-old son said to me out of the blue, as I was tucking him into his bed, “Daddy, we should pray before bed just like we used to.”
I felt a pang of guilt in my chest.
The former evangelical Christian in me was inwardly horrified at this apparent failure to administer my parental responsibility: To raise my children in the same way that I was raised — to become faithful, Bible-believing mini Christians.
Indeed, some of my earliest memories are of kneeling with my own father and praying before bed — and they were fond memories, too. It was familiar. It was comforting. It helped me connect with my dad. And, it helped me believe that there was a God out there who was listening. As a seven-year-old, I was certain of that.
The problem is that as a forty-year-old, I am much less certain. Once upon a time, faith and belief had been simple and straightforward, but now I am living in this tension of not knowing. You see, I am smack bang in the middle of my own journey of faith deconstruction.
What is Faith Deconstruction?
In her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans defines faith deconstruction as taking a “massive inventory of your faith, tearing every doctrine from the cupboard and turning each one over in your hand.” The point of faith deconstruction is to break down every idea, practice, belief, and tradition of a religious system into tiny pieces and then examine each fragment one by one to determine the truthfulness and usefulness of each part. In the end, the goal is to piece it all back together minus that which is peripheral, burdensome, and distorted.
The risk, of course, is that one can deconstruct their faith out of existence altogether. Many do. It is a scary place to go — to lay everything you once held true on the table of reasonableness for testing. Yet, I have decided that faith cannot be trusted until it has been tested. So here I am: I am pulling it all apart and trying to put it all back together again.
The problem is, I am being watched.
My son’s simple prayer request has made me painfully aware that my own faith deconstruction journey has consequences for my children. How on earth do I talk to my kids about God when I’m deconstructing my own faith?
It’s a good question.
After some reflection, I developed a few principles — not as one who has mastered the art — but as one who is learning as I go and making mistakes along the way. I trust that they might be, in some way, helpful for you as you embark on your own journey.
Don’t fake it
If you’re anything like me, then your faith crisis might have been precipitated — at least in part — by the sheer level of fakery and hypocrisy you observed both in yourself and, more broadly, in the people who purport to be God’s representatives here on earth.
The word hypocrite — in the first instance — actually was the word for “actor” or “one who wears a mask.” What a pity the church is full of actors performing for God and each other.
I always felt that in church, of all places, we should have been able to express our doubts to each other without fear of reprisal or judgment, but too often, that was not the case. I always longed for a church community that would allow us to be authentic about our struggles, sins, and pain. Too often, though, I felt like we had to check all these things out at the door, put on a big smile and a thin veneer of niceness, before we process through the foyer and into the sanctuary. It’s a sham!
If you find this kind of ‘fakeness’ abhorrent — as you should — why would you fake it with your own children? Besides, they have already seen you at your worst, haven’t they?
Therefore, my strong advice is to be honest about your faith with your children when they ask. I think it is okay to say, “I’m still working out what I believe,” or “There are some things that I used to be sure of that I’m questioning now,” or how about, “Sometimes adults struggle as well. Mummy/Daddy is struggling at the moment.”
You have nothing to gain by pretending to be strong when you are not. And it’s exhausting to maintain this facade.
Talk about the elephant in the room
Children are very observant. If you think you can quietly pull apart all of your long-held beliefs and put them back together without them noticing, then you are kidding yourself.
The first and most obvious change that my children noticed when I began my faith deconstruction journey was that we stopped attending a traditional Sunday church service. For children who had pretty much been to church every Sunday for their entire lives and found comfort and familiarity within its walls, this must have been unsettling.
It didn’t take long for the question to come: “Daddy, why don’t we go to church anymore?”
I don’t know why I was taken by surprise when I was asked. I should have been expecting it. In fact, in retrospect, I feel like we should have sat down as a family and talked about it and then allowed the kids to ask questions. We should have talked about the elephant in the room.
Don’t shy away from tough questions
Of course, if you allow your children the liberty of being able to ask questions, then you can expect a few difficult ones. Unfortunately, when children ask the hard questions, we are tempted to give easy answers — even when they don’t exist.
Sometimes we’re just too exhausted to explain everything. Sometimes we don’t know the answer ourselves, and sometimes we’re afraid that they will stop believing altogether. But we ought not to shy away.
Your children are going to ask the hard questions for themselves one day. They might as well get started.
My twelve-year-old son asked me why there are different religions.
My nine-year-old daughter asked me why we can’t see God.
In the past, I might have explained to my son the uniqueness of the Christian faith among the various religions. To my daughter, I might have said that God’s apparent hiddenness was to help build our faith in that which we cannot see. And I would have answered confidently, too.
These days, I reply a simple, “I’m not sure.”
Maybe there are questions that you can give a confident answer to, but we also shouldn’t be scared to say, “I don’t know.”
Teach them how to believe, not what to believe
Throughout my entire childhood, I was told what to believe. In fact, I was taught that Christianity was a set of facts that you had to agree with. Most of these facts were prefaced with the phrase, “The Bible says…”
“The Bible says” meant that the matter was not up for discussion or debate because we were taught that the Bible is one-hundred-percent, the inerrant and inspired word of God. As a child, I imagined that God himself had sat down and written the book.
Later, when I learned that men had written the Bible, I presumed that God had simply taken control of these men’s thoughts and pens and used them as a direct conduit for his literal words.
I simply did not believe that all people come to all texts with their own set of agendas and biases. I have never met a completely neutral person — ever. So, why would the Bible be any different?
Don’t get me wrong. The Bible is inspired and useful. But, there is more truth out there than what is found in the Bible. In fact, truth is all around us and cannot be contained on the pages of any book. That is why we must teach our children how to believe.
Our children need to understand that they do not know what they do not know. As Brian McClaren says, “All people, yes, even me — and more shockingly, even you, have a whole set of assumptions, limitations, prejudices, likes, dislikes, fears, conflicts of interest, blind spots, and obsessions that keep us from seeing what we could and would see if we didn’t have them.”
The way you teach a person how to believe is by teaching them to confront their own biases and agendas and ask questions about others’ real motivation. This is achieved through contemplation and critical thinking, not religious dogma and Bible facts.
Allow them to form different opinions
Your job as a parent is to create out of your child an autonomous, intelligent, well-adjusted adult with the ability to think freely and critically. It is not to create a mini version of yourself.
Therefore, if, for example, you decide (for some reason) that you are a literal seven-day creationist while your child holds to the idea that the universe was formed through some kind of evolutionary process that took millions of years, then congratulations! You achieved the goal of creating an autonomous human being.
Now, are you going to let your different beliefs and opinions get in the way of your parent-child relationship? Do you think that’s what God would want? Do you think that God went to all the trouble of crucifying his own son to restore your relationship to him so that you could then go and destroy your relationship with your own child by crucifying them on the hill of your own personal opinion?
Yet, I see Christian parents cut off their own children for being pro-gay, pro-choice, or for voting for the Democrats time and time again. When it comes to matters of faith, of this I am sure: God is aggrieved by this kind of behavior.
Affirm their faith
Of course, there is also a distinct possibility that your children may decide to cling fervently to their Christian faith, especially if they were brought up with it. They may even become a “better Christian” than you!
The fact that my son still wants to pray with me before bed ought to be congratulated. His faith is stronger than mine at the moment, and he deserves to be affirmed for that.
So, I say to him, “I think it’s really great that you want to pray,” and “I really admire your faith,” and “I’m proud of you for holding on to your beliefs.”
At some point down the line, he will have his own faith crisis to work through. For now, his child-like faith is a thing of beauty and wonder, and I ought not to disrupt that by projecting my adult struggles onto him.
After all, there is a reason why Jesus himself said that we ought to aspire to have faith like a small child. At the end of the day, every answer you find will only lead you to the pain of more questions. There is no end to the deconstruction that one can undertake.
There comes the point where, if one wishes to continue in their faith, they must make their peace with mystery, paradox, and not knowing. After all, faith, by its very nature, is holding to the hope that what you can’t see or know for certain is true. Children do that automatically. Adults can only arrive there after a long and difficult journey. This brings me to my next point:
Learn from them, too
Sometimes when we observe strength in that which we perceive is weak, it both humbles and encourages us. My son’s faith is inspiring to me. I love him so much for it! Perhaps this is why the Bible says in Psalm 8:2, “Out of the mouths of infants and children, God has ordained strength.”
We can learn as much from our children as they can from us.
My children do not know it, but they have helped undo the damaging and destructive view of God that I had carried around since I was a child myself. The baggage of my evangelical upbringing was the idea that God was angry with me, highly inconvenienced by my waywardness, and that everything he did for me, he did so begrudgingly. God was an eye-rolling, finger-pointing, head-shaking transcendental policeman in the sky, to whom I was a constant disappointment.
When I became a father, I learned something different. The most enduring and prolific metaphor used to describe God in the Bible is the image of him as a loving Father. I want to think of myself as a loving father as well — though I make no claims to being even close to perfect. But, as a loving father, I look at my own children, and I do not see them as depraved and wicked. I actually delight in them.
Even when they disappoint me, my negative emotions towards them are brief and momentary. I quickly surrender to the delight that I experience simply because they are my children, and I love them. Should the situation ever arise — God forbid — where they got into a position where they needed saving at my own expense, I would not even have to think. I would act — almost instinctively. Now, I suppose that if I would do that — even though I am an imperfect Father — that God would feel it all the more.
Therefore, I have dispensed with the idea that God is angry — a positive part of my deconstruction journey — thanks to my children.
Don’t feel like you’re a bad parent
Many in the church will mistakenly view your deconstruction journey as backsliding. They will do unhelpful things like offering to pray for your mortal soul as if you were on the brink of hell for daring to ask the questions that they themselves are probably suppressing.
You might even feel, as I did, like a terrible Christian. You may feel like a terrible parent for not modeling to your children the kind of unwavering faith that you believe you are supposed to.
An older, wiser friend once suggested to me that faith deconstruction is, in fact, a sign of spiritual growth rather than spiritual decline, and he pointed me to the work of James Fowler, a Professor of Theology and Human Development. In 1981, Fowler published a work called Stages of Faith. Without going into too much detail, here is a summary of each of the stages:
In stage one, fantasy and reality often get mixed together. However, our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society during this stage.
When children become school-age, they start understanding the world in more logical ways. They generally accept the stories told to them by their faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. Some people even remain in this stage all through adulthood.
Most people move on to this stage as teenagers. At this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles, and there is a need to pull it all together. When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system. However, at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box and don’t recognize that they are “inside” a belief system. At this stage, authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one’s beliefs. This is the stage that most people remain in for the rest of their lives.
This is the tough stage, and those who go there often begin this stage in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes.” They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. During Stage 4, people may decide that to question everything they have held onto up until this point is too scary and retreat to the safety of Stage 3. Alternatively, they may be unable to reconcile their doubt and abandon faith altogether. A smaller group will press on through to the gold that can be found beyond Stage 4.
It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. This is when people begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols, but this time without being stuck in a theological box. People in this stage become comfortable with not knowing all the answers and not needing to know and, in that sense, actually experience true faith rather than the watered-down version they constructed earlier in life.
Few people reach this stage. Those who do live their lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts.
You might think this is very interesting, but why is it relevant to this conversation? Well, as you can see from Fowler’s Stages of Faith, the person who is experiencing a “faith crisis” may actually be further advanced in their faith development than the person who has never done so.
That is exactly why you ought not to think of yourself as a bad parent or a bad person for embarking on the deconstruction journey. At the end of the day, that journey is necessary for your growth and is, therefore, only going to make you a better parent and a better person.
Take care of yourself
I am a nervous flyer. Whenever I get on a plane, I always listen to the safety briefing even though I’ve heard it a hundred times before. What is interesting to me is the part of the safety briefing where the flight attendant says, “If you are traveling with a small child today, make sure you secure your own oxygen mask first, before you assist your child.”
This got me thinking. I am quite confident that if my wife and children were traveling with me on an airplane and the worst should happen, it would be challenging for my wife to follow that direction. I am reasonably confident that her mothering instinct would push her to care for the kids first, despite the instructions to the contrary. Not me, though. I’m far too selfish!
However, the principle behind the rule is pretty simple. In that situation, if you don’t care for yourself first, you would become incapable of caring for anyone else.
The same is true in life and faith.
Sometimes your own faith needs some air. You can’t really help anyone else if your own oxygen-starved faith has died. There comes a time when you must take care of your spiritual needs before you can capably tend to those in your care.
In the meantime, if you have left any semblance of faith in the all-loving God you’ve been taught about since the days of your youth, entrust your children into his care while you tend to your own wounds. It’s for the best.
This post was previously published on Backyard Church.
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