Understanding Your Biases. (Deconstruction, Part 4)

Deconstruction is the process of undoing something while at the same time affirming it. When applied to the religious realm, it is the process of letting go of or moving on from beliefs that you once had while still clinging to the core tenets of your faith. Jesus was a great Deconstructor, and I think he is with those who are still doing so today. As mentioned in the previous post, John Wesley's Quadrilateral gives us some strong handles on how to know how to know things- Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

In addition to using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, I also think it is extremely important to add another question to the process of exploring your faith- What are my biases? I'm not necessarily talking about racial or gender biases, although those are certainly important to be aware of. I'm talking about cognitive biases. While the list of cognitive biases is long, here are a few key ones in terms of how you shape your faith:

Pre-Bias

If you're trying to nail down what you believe about something, before you even open the text, you should aim to be aware of your pre-bias. Before examining, "What does the Bible say about _________?," you should first ask yourself, "What do I want the Bible to say about _________?"

It is important to be aware of your own desires and biases because they will shape the way you perceive and filter the information you take in. Your own biases may help shape your conclusions as much as anything else.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is similar to pre-bias, and might actually be the appropriate term or at least larger umbrella for the idea. Confirmation bias is the tendency to take in all new information through the filter of what you already believe to be true, only further reinforcing what you already believe. It also means you have a tendency to only pull from sources that affirm what you already think.

Confirmation bias is HARD to overcome, and it usually takes a dramatic experience that flies completely contrary to your previously held beliefs to shake you from it.

Recency Bias (Chronological Snobbery)

The term "Chronological Snobbery" was first coined by C.S. Lewis. It's the idea that beliefs and ideas that were held in the past are inherently inferior to more modern ways of thinking. C.S. Lewis wrote:

“Chronological snobbery” [is] the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them."

As I mentioned in the previous post, in terms of our faith, we should be wary of recency bias and give weight to the historic positions of our faith. We should not easily discard them simply because they are old. We should also be careful to avoid arrogance because we have 'evolved', or become 'enlightened', and know better than those who came before us. Regardless of your stance on any theological position, it is clear that Jesus is for the humble, compassionate, and empathic.

Authority Bias

Authority bias occurs when you place a disproportionate amount of trust or weight in a person's opinion simply because they are in a position of leadership or authority. It can also occur in the opposite way, we distrust a person's opinion disproportionately because they are a leader for the other side. This happens all the time in the church world, and I would encourage all of us to use the example of the Bereans in the book of Acts. After hearing a word from Paul, who was THE leader of his time, the Bereans would then go home and search the Scriptures diligently themselves to confirm that what Paul was saying was true.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect is when you believe something because a large group of people also believe it. This bias explains why it was so difficult for members of either political party to vote against their party despite the lack of a strong candidate. It also explains why it is so hard to break away from groupthink in a church. It is hard to change your mind about something if it will have a significant impact on your social identity.  The fear of being labeled a 'heretic' and being an outcast has kept a lot of people silent (both internally and externally) over the years.

It's important to note that when you do finally have the 'courage' to 'break away from the pack,' it's easy to label it as 'finally thinking for myself.'  You should be honest with yourself if you are simply jumping from one tribe of thinking into another tribe. Once again, be careful of arrogance. (This idea was pulled from the book How to Think)

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Our brain takes in billions of bytes of information all the time, and we are only able to process a small percentage of that. It is easy (and natural) to filter all of that information through what we already 'know' and believe. It is extremely difficult to break out of those habits and consider new perspectives and change our mind on anything. With the aforementioned biases in mind, we can see the difficult task of deconstruction, and why it takes such a catalytic event to even kickstart the process. My encouragement to you is to be aware of the desires, longings, and assumptions behind the questions you are asking.

How Do We Know Anything? (Part 3)

As a person walks through a deconstruction, it is easy to fall into despair. When every part of your faith is considered sacred, it is hard to know how to let go of one thing without feeling like you need to toss out everything. It is hard to know what to believe or how to believe it. This is where epistemology is helpful.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Investigating how we know anything, how we form beliefs, and how we justify those beliefs. This is an entire branch of philosophy, and one I am grossly unqualified to unpack. For a crash course in the philosophy of epistemology, check out this podcast by the Liturgists.

To keep things simple and focused on theology, let's look at John Wesley's Quadrilateral as a form of theological epistemology. (How we know anything about God.) Wesley asserts that we learn things about God through Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. It is important to note that this is not an equilateral. Wesley does not view each of these four as equally valid ways to know God, but ranks them in the given order. For the most part, I agree with him.

wesleyan-quadrilateral.jpg

It is worth noting that various faith traditions emphasize one of these areas over the other. Evangelicals might prioritize Scripture. Catholics might prioritize Tradition. Charismatics might prioritize Experience. Mainline churches might emphasize Reason.

SCRIPTURE

Wesley asserted that Scripture is the foundation on which to build your faith. (By Scripture he meant the 66 books in the traditional canon.) But when you use Scripture as your foundation, you have to admit a few things:

You are trusting that God inspired the original writing of the text and gave it authority. (Well, you have to first believe that God even exists...) You are trusting that the text was faithfully recorded and transmitted and translated down through the centuries. That the church councils that formed the 'canon' of Scripture were being led by God and made the right calls. That what was written then is still as relevant now. That your specific tradition has handled that text correctly. And the real kicker- that you are understanding and applying the text in the correct way.

It is not enough to say, "I'm just standing on what the Bible says." More often than not that statement is made to simplify something that is complex, add an air of superiority and authority to the person using the text for their own purposes, and halt any meaningful dialogue. It is a trump card that can abdicate its wielder of any responsibility.

A person might more accurately say "I'm standing on what my understanding of what the Bible says, based on the faith tradition I currently identify with and my own personal experiences." 

All of that said, I agree with Wesley. If you are a follower of Jesus, it is impossible to understand God apart from the revelation given in Scripture. Jesus is the best explanation of God.  The Bible gives us the best explanation of Jesus.

TRADITION

The second piece of knowing God is tradition. Now, this might simply be the denomination you grew up in or now identify with. That tradition might be the primary filter through which you interpret Scripture. But if you are Protestant, that means your tradition only dates back at best 600ish years of a 2000+ year religion. That's not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things. I'd encourage all of us as followers of Jesus to examine the whole historical context of theology.

I'm only 34 years old, and I'd have to be pretty arrogant to think that I came up with new knowledge in the past few years that contradicts what centuries of Christian tradition have taught. If I'm going to veer away from that kind of history, I better have a very, very, very good reason for doing so.

REASON

God created the universe intentionally with a design in mind. "God is not a God of disorder." (1 Corinthians 14:33) God created us with minds. Science and reason are not opposed to faith, but should often work well together. Wesley believed that we should use our rational minds to understand and flesh out our faith.

Reason often works as a bridge between tradition and experience. When a personal experience flies in conflict with what we were raised to believe, we may be capable of using logic and reason to work out the conflict.

EXPERIENCE

In the circles I grew up in, the idea of forming a theology and faith based on personal experience was considered inferior. That's ludicrous, and here are a few reasons why.

This is what the original writers of the New Testament did. "We are proclaiming to you what we have seen and heard." (1 John 1:3) "Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen." (John 3:11) "We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:20)

It implies that the Holy Spirit cannot speak to us apart from the Biblical Text. Once again, the Bible itself demonstrates that is not the case.

Everyone's theology is based on their experience. This is the crux of the epistemological view called Empiricism. (All knowledge is based on experience.) That's one of the things that is great about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It is forcing honesty about the way that all of us are all already interpreting Scripture. 
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During my limited time as a follower of Jesus, I have found that an experience (or series of experiences) is most often the catalyst for deconstruction. What we 'see and hear' conflicts with what we have 'been taught and believed' and we are caught in the tension. I think using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a helpful way to not completely jump ship but make intentional, grounded, wise decisions towards Jesus, not away from him.

In the next post, we'll add another filter to epistemology, theology, and deconstruction- understanding our biases. It's important to be aware of what we want the answers to be. In doing so, we can notice how we might be bending the text to submit to our desires, not bending our desires to submit to the text.

Jesus the Deconstructor. (Part 2)

In the previous post, I said that deconstruction is about undoing something while at the same time affirming it. When you deconstruct your faith, you are pulling apart, examining, and adjusting it so that it becomes more resilient and functional in your current context. You are drilling down what is indestructible and discarding the parts that are not. There’s usually a catalyst that kickstarts the process. Something that catches you by surprise, exposes the rigidness or inconsistency of what you believe and forces you to come to terms with it.

When we look at deconstruction in that light, it seems obvious that Jesus was and is a catalyst for deconstruction. He challenged everyone’s assumptions about God. The people of Israel were longing for a Messiah to come and rescue them from their brokenness and oppression. They had a very specific view of what that would look like. When Jesus showed up, he wasn’t what they were expecting. Listen to how Isaiah described Jesus’ arrival:

"Who can believe what we’ve heard and seen? Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?” -Isaiah 53:1

John echoes the same sentiment in the opening of his gospel:

"He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” -John 1:10

Jesus surprised everyone and pushed the boundaries of how they viewed God, others, and themselves. He told Nicodemus, a religious expert, that he needed to be 'born again' if he wanted to see the kingdom of God. In other words, start over. Challenge your assumptions. View life with the innocence and curiosity of a child.

When the religious leaders were trying to make sense of Jesus and fit him inside their box, Jesus responded: "You wouldn’t pour new wine into old wineskins. If you did, the skins would burst, the wine would run out, and the wineskins would be ruined. No, you would pour new wine into new wineskins—and both the wine and the wineskins would be preserved.” In other words, don’t try to fit what I’m doing into your old construct. It's bigger.

Jesus often told people to repent. The Greek word for repent, metanoia, means to ‘change your mind.’  In other words, think about things differently. Jesus was a great Deconstructor. (Yea, I made that word up.)

When Jesus showed up on the scene, the religious system of the Jews was cumbersome, legalistic, and harmful. It actually prevented people from connecting with God and each other. (EG- John 2 and the Temple Story, John 8 and the story of the adulterous woman, etc., etc., etc.) Jesus began to expose the inconsistencies, oppression, greed, and injustice of this system. He kept paring it down to a simpler, flexible, more resilient system.

The Core Of It- “Love God and love others. The rest of the Law hinges on that.” In my opinion, most of the New Testament (and the Old, but it’s a little harder to explain) are about giving us concrete handles on what it looks like to love God and love others. Any interpretation of the text that doesn’t lead you to a greater love of God and others is a bad interpretation.

In the Church, we can be guilty of creating the same systems of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Legalism that operates out of fear and doesn’t grasp the full grace of God. Legalism that seeks to protect, control, and hold onto power. Legalism that seeks to maintain ‘unity’ at the expense of excluding the other. Legalism that preserves ‘purity’ by lacking honesty. Jesus confronted those things in his day, and I imagine he’s still confronting it in ours.

If you’ve gone through or are going through a deconstruction, there’s a good chance that the catalyst was a deep disappointment from your faith community. My encouragement would be to work through it. To keep affirming even while you are undoing. Trust that Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, is with you in the process.

The next post will be about epistemology- how do we even know anything at all?

Deconstruction. (Part 1)

For most of us who grew up in a religious household, there is a time in our lives when we realize that the faith we were handed as kids isn't capable of handling the complexities, challenges, or disappointments in our lives. There's usually a catalytic event that causes this disillusionment.

Perhaps a family member or spiritual mentor has a huge moral failure. Or you leave your hometown, experience other cultures, and realize that they also have beautiful and vibrant ways of life. Or God doesn't show up for you in the middle of a difficult season. Or you head to college and are exposed to a lot of ideas that threaten the view of God, Bible, and the world you were taught.

Whatever the reason, when you face this crisis of faith, you have a few options on how to respond. (A) You can try to shrink your new experiences through the filter of your old worldview.  (B) You can abandon your old faith model completely in light of what you've experienced.  (C) You can try to expand your faith to accommodate the world you're experiencing while still clinging to the core of what you believe.

I think it's impossible to do the first option without doing serious harm to the relationships around you and without developing some modicum of delusion. The second option doesn't work well either because to completely abandon everything over a pretty specific something might actually do more harm than the thing that caused it. In my mind, the third option, though the hardest, is the path forward. This is the path of deconstruction.

The term deconstruction was originally used around the field of metaphysics, but the term quickly began to be used in the literary, philosophical, and religious worlds as well. It means to undo and affirm at the same time. Or in other words, to pull something apart in order to keep it functional.

Think of an engine that no longer works. The mechanic takes it apart, inspects what went wrong, makes adjustments, replaces parts, makes tweaks...etc...all with the intention of keeping the engine running.

Deconstruction is not the same thing as destruction or apostasy. In terms of our faith, we don't deconstruct in order to completely abandon it. We examine, question, reflect, and shift, in order to build a more resilient faith. G.K. Chesterton said it like this:

“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” 

The goal of deconstruction is to draw closer to God. To find the beliefs, prejudices, and practices that actually keep you from loving God and others and to move past them as you journey closer to being like the Christ.

In my two decades of being a Christian, I've gone through two major shifts in my faith. One came while at seminary (and not in the way you might expect.) One came while living overseas. I'm currently going through a third. I'll write about all three in a later post.

The next series of posts will look at different angles of deconstruction. We'll look at epistemology-  how do we know anything? We'll look at Jesus as the Great Deconstructor. We'll look at how to deconstruct without self-destructing. And as I just mentioned, I'll share some of my own experiences working through the anger and hope of an evolving faith.

If you are currently in a season where you feel like what you believe about God isn't adding up with what you are experiencing in your life, I just want to encourage you- you are in good company. You are not alone. Jesus not only walks with us in our seasons of doubt and struggle, I think He is often the one pushing us to the questions in the first place.

Boulder or Baggage?

Cloud and Townsend's book Boundaries is a must-read in my opinion. So much wisdom found in those pages. One of my favorite sections of the book is when they unpack Galatians 6:2-5:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. – Galatians 6:2-5 

When we look at this passage, it almost seems like Paul gives contradictory advice. First,  "Carry each other's burdens," and then, "Each one should carry their own load."  Which one is it Paul?

When we look deeper into the Greek words that Paul uses here, some important distinctions arise. Cloud and Townsend do a great job explaining it. The first word, burdens, refers to things that come into our lives that are beyond our capacity to handle on our own.

"These burdens are like boulders. They can crush us. We shouldn’t be expected to carry a boulder by ourselves! It would break our backs. We need help with the boulders—those times of crisis and tragedy in our lives."  (Cloud/Townsend)

The second term, load, refers to things that each mature adult is responsible for handling on their own. Their daily responsibilities for taking care of themselves.

"These loads are like knapsacks. Knapsacks are possible to carry. We are expected to carry our own. We are expected to deal with our own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as the responsibilities God has given to each one of us, even though it takes effort." (Cloud/Townsend)

In our relationships, being able to distinguish between Boulders and Baggage is huge. Often times we can become hostages to carrying other people's knapsacks. We often do so with the best intentions in mind, not realizing that not only are we NOT being helpful, we might actually be making matters worse. 

People require tension to develop strength. Being whelmed is an expected and natural part of life that helps us grow and mature. When others are overwhelmed with boulders, step in. But when you take someone's 'knapsack' and carry it yourself, they will remain weak and you will break down because you are now overwhelmed. It is not your responsibility to take care of other people's responsibilities.

While this might seem harsh or even anti-Jesus, it actually is wisdom. Jesus often left people in the tension of being accountable for their own life. (EG- Rich Young Ruler)

This principle is not an excuse to get out of helping the poor and impoverished. Quite the opposite. "Denying ourselves to do for others what they cannot do for themselves is showing the sacrificial love of Christ. This is what Christ did for us. He did what we could not do for ourselves; he saved us. This is being responsible “to.” (Cloud/Townsend)

For some, due to their lack of resources and opportunities, what might seem like knapsacks to us might be a boulder for them. The key is to keep paying attention to the care you are giving to make sure you are not creating an unhealthy and co-dependent relationship. When in doubt, always defer to compassion and empathy.

I'll close with what might be the best summary of Boundaries:

"We are responsible to others and for ourselves."