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What Augustine Might Say to Someone Deconstructing

August 18th, 2022 | 11 min read

By Josh Fenska

In my early twenties, I dove deep into questions and doubts about the Christian faith. After hundreds of Sundays, countless youth programs, and a few years at a Christian college, I began dismantling many things I had always assumed. Today we would describe that experience as a kind of deconstruction. To those around me, I appeared argumentative and jaded. Inside, sometimes I felt free, sometimes afraid, sometimes numb. In the middle of that personal journey, I discovered a traveling companion as I began to read Augustine.

What Is Deconstruction?

Before thinking about Augustine’s story, we should pause to address the question, “What is deconstruction?” A recent cover article of Christianity Today is titled, “What, You’re Not Deconstructing?”—underlining the relevance of the topic. In that article, Kirsten Sanders describes deconstruction in a generally positive sense as “the struggle to correct or deepen naive belief.” This positive view often focuses on addressing dissonance between taught beliefs and demonstrated actions of Christian institutions. Others today view deconstruction more cautiously; for example, in a recent book, Alyssa Childers defines deconstruction as “the process of systematically dissecting and often rejecting the beliefs you grew up with,” adding the concerning note that “sometimes the Christian will deconstruct all the way to atheism.”

It is important to recognize that the positive connotations (correcting naive beliefs) and the negative connotations (dissecting and rejecting beliefs) both exist, presumably because each connotation represents something in many people’s experience. Sometimes deconstruction leads to clearer Christian convictions; sometimes it’s a code word for walking away from Christ. If a friend tells me that he is deconstructing his faith, I want to keep in mind both connotations—understanding that we would probably not recognize the ultimate trajectory of his storyline any time soon.

Augustine’s Journey to Faith

It is, of course, somewhat anachronistic to connect Augustine (who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries) with the modern phenomenon of deconstruction. Still, his life story as recounted in his Confessions contains several important parallels. Augustine grew up with a Christian mother who longed for him to join her in the faith. Yet by the time he was in his late teens and early twenties, he found no taste for catholic Christianity. (Note: Throughout this article, I will use the word “catholic” the way that Augustine used it—as a synonym for “global,” representing what he understood to be the consensus of the world-wide Christian tradition.)

For a while, Augustine enthusiastically followed a sect called Manichaeism, a philosophy that claimed to believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, yet deviated widely from the catholic faith. From a later perspective, it is easy to dismiss the Manichees as a heretical group outside the church; however, we also need to recognize that for a time, this was the religious community that shaped Augustine’s view of God, the Bible, evil, the good life, etc. After nine years with the Manichees, he became increasingly disenchanted with their teaching, especially after a disappointing encounter with one of their most prominent leaders. At about the same time, Augustine moved to Milan where he attended a catholic church and heard the teaching of Bishop Ambrose, which led him to reconsider the value of the catholic faith.

At this point in his life, to borrow the categories offered by Childers and Sanders, Augustine had rejected his mother’s faith, and had also begun a struggle to correct naive beliefs absorbed from unsound teachers. This deconstruction left Augustine in what he described as “a period of doubt,” in which “I held all the possibilities in doubt and bobbed around among them all” (Conf. V.25).

From where we sit now, we know where the story goes: Augustine will eventually read from the New Testament and discover “relief and certitude” such that “all the darkness of my hesitation scattered away” (Conf. VIII.29). And after his baptism, Augustine will remain true to the global Christian faith for the rest of his life—more than that, he will spend his remaining years declaring and defending that faith, and training scores of others to do the same. Through his period of doubt, Augustine discovered an enduring love for the faith he once despised.

What Is Faith?

Years later, Augustine continued to consider the relationship between doubts, certainty, and faith. One paragraph from City of God XIX.18 offers a glimpse into Augustine’s mind. As a bishop, Augustine did not want to leave people in boundless and unending doubt. Some schools of philosophy in his day (as in ours) idealized a view that “everything is uncertain.” Augustine goes so far as to say that “the City of God roundly condemns such doubt as being madness.” For Augustine, the way out of such “madness” is to believe in the Holy Scriptures, which offer a “basis…by which we walk on our way without doubting.” In Augustine’s mind, listening to the Holy Scriptures is the key out of the maze of endless doubt.

However, we should also notice that for Augustine, believing the Scriptures does not eliminate all doubt or lead to certainty on any and all topics of human inquiry. He asserts that “so long as this faith is sound and certain we cannot justly be reproached if we have doubts about some matters.” In Augustine’s view, then, a believer may have faith and doubt at the same time. While “the mind and the reason…has most certain knowledge,” it is also true that “that knowledge is of small extent.” And Augustine quotes with approval the saying of Paul that “our knowledge is partial.”

Perhaps this framework of intellectual humility is what led Augustine to write his Retractions later in life, a remarkable survey of his own writings in which he recognizes ways his views developed or changed across the years. He wasn’t afraid of the fact that a thoughtful Christian’s understanding of doctrine will in some ways develop, change, and (hopefully) improve.

If Augustine wanted to maintain boundaries on human doubt (which could lead into one kind of foolish madness), he also wanted to maintain boundaries on human certainty (to protect against a kind of arrogant madness). Sometimes we think of doubt as the opposite of faith. Maybe it is more helpful to think of doubt more simply as the opposite of certainty. And, at least for Augustine, true faith will create some space for legitimate certainty while also carving out some space for legitimate doubts.

Augustine’s Insights When Your Friend Is Deconstructing

What advice might Augustine offer to those whose friends and loved ones are deconstructing? His story in Confessions suggests at least three lessons.

A first lesson comes from the example of Ambrose. Do you know what first struck Augustine about Ambrose’s ministry? It was not Ambrose’s brilliant answers that first reached Augustine’s heart. In Augustine’s own words: “That man of God took me up in his arms as a father takes a newborn baby in his arms, and in the best tradition of bishops, he prized me as a foreign sojourner. I fell in love with him, as it were, not at first as a teacher of the truth—as I had no hope for that whatsoever in your church—but simply as a person who was kind to me” (Conf. V.23). Later on, Ambrose’s insights and teaching would become formative, but only after Augustine was convinced of his genuine love. A first lesson we can learn: show kindness. Or to quote from Scripture, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22).

A second lesson comes from Monica. Surely Augustine would not permit any explanation of the formation of his faith if that explanation did not include his mother’s patient, enduring, and tearful prayers across the years. Year after year, it would have been easy for Monica to assume the story was over and her son was lost. Yet she prayed and prayed. At one point, a certain bishop saw her grief and assured her, “It’s impossible that the son of these tears of yours will perish” (Conf. III.21). Perhaps the bishop’s promise was somehow overstated. But, in this story of redemption, it turned out that the prayers of a righteous woman availed much. Therefore, a second lesson for us is to pray—and keep on praying—for those who are questioning, doubting, or deconstructing.

A third lesson comes from the arc of Augustine’s story. Through his period of doubt, a profound faith was born. Therefore, when our loved ones step back from their parents’ faith and embark into their own seasons of doubt, we can wisely hope that this may turn out to be a path toward a deeper faith. And who knows what the outcome will be? Today’s deconstructor may be training others for faithful Christian ministry in 10 or 15 years.

What Would Augustine Say to Those Who Are Deconstructing?

Believe as much as you can.

For a start, Augustine would encourage those deconstructing to believe as much as they can, even as they ask hard questions. In his discourse on True Religion, he addresses the issue directly:

I have accordingly given long and serious thought to what sort of people in my experience have been barking against [the truth of Christianity], and what sort have been genuine seekers; also to what I was like myself when I was doing the barking, or when I was doing the seeking; and I have decided in consequence that this is the method…to follow: Everything you perceive to be true, hold fast to it…spit out whatever you perceive to be false…whatever is doubtful believe (10.18).

For those today who have participated in churches and stepped away with doubts or disappointments, this may be a helpful guidepost from a previous traveler. Instead of throwing out everything (as if we could), Augustine encourages us to begin with what is clear. Hold fast to what is clearly true and spit out what is clearly false. But what about the things somewhere in between—those concepts that feel “doubtful” or less than certain? Again Augustine does not want to rule out some kinds of reasonable doubt within the Christian faith. It is ok to say that you feel less certain about some things. Yet, throughout the journey, Augustine urges truth seekers to embrace as much as they can along with the global church. This is the kind of gracious but helpful guidance you would expect from a bishop who himself came to faith through his doubts.

Stick with the church.

In his Homilies on 1 John, Augustine speaks very directly to the Donatist sect, a regional group in those days that criticized the global church and drew people away. In light of this phenomenon, Augustine appealed to the supreme ethic of the “double love” of God and neighbor. He argued, “If you keep hold of charity, you shall take offense neither in Christ nor in the church; and you will desert neither Christ nor the church. The deserter of the Church cannot be in Christ, since he is not among Christ’s members: he cannot be in Christ, who is not in Christ’s Body” (I.12). In other words, Augustine warns that you cannot ultimately reject the church without rejecting Christ.

What should we make of this argument today? A few contextual caveats may help. Augustine would not immediately condemn all who step away—keep in mind that Augustine himself walked away from the church for quite some time in his own journey. And his warnings should not be read as a mandate to remain in an unhealthy congregation—remember that he knew people following fundamentally unhealthy Donatist teachers, people he hoped would eventually return to fellowship with the one holy catholic and apostolic church. . Furthermore, Augustine is not silencing all critique. Augustine’s approach teaches us to distinguish between, on the one hand, unique teachings that have grown up in a particular cultural context and, on the other hand, the stream of orthodoxy rooted in Scripture and recognized around the world. As is obvious throughout Augustine’s Homilies on 1 John, the same Christian charity which creates unity will at times lead us to critique Christian leaders and ideas—however popular—that are not in alignment with the global church, the great tradition, the world-wide stream of orthodoxy.

Within this context, we can affirm that the core of Augustine’s argument is still relevant today: To turn away from what the church has taught around the world and across the centuries is dangerous. The church is so deeply tied to Christ that you cannot hate the one without hating the other. As you learn to love the one, you learn to love the other. As a result, Augustine would urge those who are deconstructing to stick with the church—maybe not this specific congregation or denomination, and maybe sticking with it will involve expressing legitimate critique. Yet there is something vital about staying connected with the body of Christ.

Consider what competing loves exist in your heart.

Here is a deeply Augustinian question: what else do you love? As he tells his own story, the final hurdle in Augustine’s journey back to the universal Christian faith was not an intellectual hurdle. Even as he found reliable answers to the intellectual questions, one hurdle remained, expressed in a memorable prayer, “Lord, give me chastity and self-control, but not yet!” (Conf. VIII.17). For Augustine, the final hurdle related to his sex life.

To be sure, we would be wrong to universalize Augustine’s experience and suggest that all deconstructors are really just resisting a vision for holy sexuality. Many are deconstructing today because of sexual abuse they have experienced, tragically, even from people within the church. And there are many, many other reasons that might steer someone into deconstruction. Yet there is something perennial about Augustine’s insight into his own motivation. He is not alone in resisting Christianity because of competing desires which, for a time, seemed more compelling to him than Christianity.

In our own journeys, as well, the final hurdle may not be an intellectual hurdle. The desires for belonging, success, or wealth may certainly be as powerful as sexual desires, and Augustine had much to say about all of these topics. A rich young ruler once said to Jesus, in effect, “Lord, make me generous, but not yet,” and then he walked away from Jesus with sadness. Whatever the case may be, we may wisely ask ourselves, “What other loves and longings lead me to resist following what I see in scripture?”

Seek him (and not only answers).

If Saint Augustine could sit down with a group of men and women who are deconstructing their faith, he would patiently explore their questions and doubts with them. (His willingness to explore questions others ignore is part of what makes Augustine wonderful!) But he would also emphatically advise others to seek not only answers, but the Lord Himself. In Augustine’s perspective, our Triune God is profoundly personal, and this has massive implications for the life of faith.

I want to interject only a few lines of my own personal story here. When I wandered away from the faith I grew up around, I began to doubt nearly everything. While I never wandered entirely into atheism (as Childers warns may happen to some), I can confirm that my own wandering led me far from Christ—as I doubted even Jesus’s resurrection and any notions of God’s presence. Emotionally, that time was clouded by a kind of existential depression. Yet through the prayers of people who loved me, and through several believers who showed me kindness (even when I didn’t respect the answers of their faith), the root of my faith began to grow back with more strength than before.

During that time, I discovered Augustine’s Confessions, and one obscure line stuck with me. The language of the older translation I was reading said, “Let him rejoice and prefer to seek Thee, even if he fail to find an answer, rather than preferring to find an answer even if he fail to find Thee.” Or in Sarah Ruden’s translation, “What is it to me if someone doesn’t understand? Let even the one who says, ‘What is this?’ have joy. Let him have joy even in saying it, and let him love finding you through not finding you out, rather than not to find you by trying to find you out” (I.10).

There is a way to seek and demand answers which might lead away from God; there is also a way to seek and find God himself—even while some answers remain out of reach. Reflecting on his years of wandering away from his mother’s faith, Augustine exclaims to God in prayer, “it was you yourself—you the truth…for which I was starved and parched” (III.10). Yet, even here, Augustine’s point is not that his seeking led him to figure it all out. Rather, as James K.A. Smith explains it, “If Augustine will later be known as the doctor of grace, it’s because Jesus introduced him to a father who came looking for him. In his search, he was found.”

The most important piece of advice Augustine can offer to those who are deconstructing is to seek the Lord himself—the Lord who is not hiding, but rather who leaves the ninety-nine to seek out the one. Indeed, no matter how rigorously we search for answers, there will be no lasting solution to our questions or doubts apart from him, because, as Augustine discovered, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” (Conf. I.1).

(This piece has been slightly edited.)