By Pieter Valk
Despite differing denominational convictions on more ancient theological questions, Evangelical churches in the rural Tennessee town where I grew up were theologically homogenous on front-of-mind cultural issues, such as the politics of gay marriage and abortion access. When pastors at these churches claimed that all Christians come to the same conclusions after reading the Bible, it was believable. For years, it seemed true.
Then I went to college at a top-15 secular institution, and the precarious foundations of my teenage faith crumbled. My deconstruction began.
I sat in Bible studies, prayed with, and worshiped next to smart, Jesus-loving people with vastly different interpretations of Scripture. Sometimes these interpretations were implausible at face-value. But many explanations seemed just as likely as my understandings of the same passages.
I felt increasingly disoriented. Comforting confidence that I knew what God’s word meant was replaced with an overwhelming sea of similarly plausible, difficult-to-discern interpretations. I spiraled. If the Bible’s meaning was no longer self-evident, how do I understand it? Can God’s wisdom even be known?
At the same time, my experiences of undeniable intimacy with God sputtered. Earlier in college, daily study of his Word, memorizing Scripture, and praying throughout my day whenever I noticed something good or beautiful seemed to produce a renewed sense of closeness to God. But as questions about interpretation of Scripture grew, my intimacy with God seemed to dry up, giving way to a nine-year drought that continues today (and that I’ve since discovered is painfully common among Christians). God felt increasingly distant.
This uncertainty about Biblical authority and distance from God eventually led to deepening doubts about whether God existed at all. If I can’t experience God or know what his words mean, what’s the likelihood that he’s just made up?
If these doubts weren’t enough, I was increasingly disillusioned with “biblical Christians” who were more faithful to the American dream and romance idolatry than the gospel. Offering our whole selves as living sacrifices had been replaced by seeking comfort through wealth, cultural power, and Disney dreams of the nuclear family.
Yet, by God’s grace, deconstruction turned to reconstruction. The search for Biblical authority eventually led to a recognition that Jesus passed down his authority and teachings to the apostles. Successively through the laying on of hands, they then passed down that interpretive responsibility to modern bishops who continue to lead the largest global denominations. Perhaps these bishops didn’t or don’t always interpret perfectly, but their consistent wisdom was much more trustworthy than my own interpretations.
As I researched the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and Anglicanism, I was increasingly drawn to the mix of reformation and catholicism in the Anglican tradition. And having been baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church as a child, Anglicanism felt like a return home to something ancient and trustworthy.
I began attending Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, where I shared my doubts about the existence of God with the late Father Thomas McKenzie. He calmly listened, and then with compassion assured me that I didn’t have to believe in order to participate. In his words, “If this stuff is real, God will minister to you through the liturgy.”
Over the past six years, God has indeed ministered to me through the Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy of Anglican churches. I’m still trying to understand what it means to have a relationship with God. I’m still asking what part God plays in the details of my life and the world around me. But I’m confident God wants to love me through family in the body of Christ, and I’ve leaned into starting an ecumenical monastery where men called to vocational singleness for the Lord can offer each other that love.
My doubt is just as great today as the worst moments of my deconstruction, but I’ve made peace with living as if I believed until that faith comes more easily. As my discernment of ordination in the Anglican tradition continues, I’ve had the privilege of sharing about my reconstruction with Anglican audiences. I’ve been surprised to discover how many fellow Anglicans have experience the same doubts, and I’m eager to minister to these faithful believers if ordained.
As you’ve read, if any parts of my journey remind you of your own pain, please know there is hope, and there are churches where your questions will be honored.
Pieter Valk is a licensed professional counselor, the director of EQUIP (equipyourcommunity.org), and cofounder of the Nashville Family of Brothers, an ecumenically Christian brotherhood for men called to vocational singleness (familyofbrothers.org). Connect with Pieter @pieterlvalk on all platforms.