A Faith (R)evolution: Deconstructing a Queerphobic Faith (Mars' Hill Feature)

- Carter Sawatzky

November 4, 2020

The Christian Church today remains insistent on avoiding accountability for its ongoing queerphobia. In the context of Trinity Western University (TWU), community members and student leaders are still required to adhere to a community covenant that explicitly defines marriage as “between one man and one woman.”


In February this year, Mars’ Hill Newspaper covered the story of a queer student––anonymously named Quinn––who recounted their traumatic experiences of living on-campus. In the article, "Dorm Trauma," Quinn describes the rampant homophobia and hazing that went on in their men’s dorm.


“Dorm Trauma” served as an important reminder that queerphobia is alive and well at TWU. On-campus dorms have proven time and time again to not be safe spaces for queer students, and the unchanged community covenant has proved to aid in queerphobic sentiments against LGBTQ+ students. These anti-queer theologies activiely harm members of the TWU community.


"IF I REALLY SAY THAT I LOVE THESE PEOPLE, I CAN’T SIT BACK AND SAY IT’S A PROBLEM BETWEEN THEM AND GOD. IF WE’RE TRULY ALL SIBLINGS IN CHRIST, THEN IT’S MY BURDEN TO TAKE ON, TOO"


How then, does one reclaim the Christian identity of their childhood which has caused clear harm and religious trauma for the queer community? It’s not so easy.


Faith deconstruction, a trend of evangelicals doubting, re-thinking, and reevaluating their beliefs and relationship with The Church, is now one of the fastest-growing religious movements. The Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Studies reports that the deconstruction movement is growing at at least double the rate of the evangelical church. Renegotiating Faith––a study of young adults from Christian faith backgrounds in––asserts that approximately one in three young adults raised within the Christian faith will deconstruct their faith by the time they graduate from university. While deconstructing one’s faith can lead to agnosticism and atheism, it can also lead to a strengthened faith.


Evolution is a natural part of many people’s faith journeys. Deconstructing Christians begin their faith evolution for a variety of reasons, and they often pay a great price in undergoing deconstruction including the loss of family, friends, community, their previous conception of God, and even their own identity. The journey is not something they engage in lightly. While critics of the movement characterize people of the growing movement as uneducated and disinterested, deconstructing Christians are often the furthest from this portrayal. Their esteem for truth is so earnest that they are no longer happy to accept things at face value; it is almost always their passion for faith and love that inspires them to reevaluate their inherited beliefs. This kind of faith evolution is often isolating and lonely as it is very hard to find others going through a similar process in their own area. Many deconstructing Christians are left to find community online as best they can.


"IF I’M NOT WILLING TO TAKE UP LIFELONG SINGLENESS, THEN HOW CAN I TELL SOMEONE ELSE TO DO SUCH A THING?"


In my own faith exploration, deconstruction has served as an opportunity for vital reorientation. I thought for years that I was among the minority in Christian circles, however, finding online communities with similar experiences of disillusionment provided a remarkable consolation. Rather than a simplistic stripping-away of beliefs, my faith deconstruction has allowed me the space to stay curious and open to change; as I felt free to examine Christian theologies in these non-judgemental spaces, my faith was refreshed from its core.


When I first met Danielle Snider, a TWU alumni who graduated in 2012 as a theatre major, for our interview over Zoom, it was the late evening and her two young kids had already gone to bed. Located in her beige bedroom, Danielle appeared excited to meet despite a long day. With my mid-semester espresso in hand, we jumped into conversation to discuss the developments of her recently evolving faith. Danielle tells me how her journey in becoming theologically affirming of LGBTQ+ folks was 15 years in the making.


Danielle was raised in the Pentecostal church. She had several gay friends in high school and jokes, “I was in theatre. You can’t do musicals without bumping into at least one gay man.” While at TWU, she knew of gay students, but “didn’t make their problems [her] problems.” At the time, she was familiar with few affirming Christians and had little idea that queerness and Christian faith could be integrated. She remembered wrestling with the questions of how to factor LGBTQ+ people into her worldview, and for those 15 years, she pushed the “queer question” away from her thoughts. She says, “I didn’t have answers and I didn’t want to take the time to really search them out. As a privileged, cisgender, white woman, I had the luxury of being able to ignore the issues with a you-do-you attitude. I loved my gay friends, but it took years for their pain to make me face my own discomfort in addressing the beliefs taught by the church.” For over a decade, Danielle did not hold a solid statement on sexuality and faith: the theology of her childhood and her conscience were in conflict.


That is, until she and her husband moved back to Canada from Bangladesh. After spending five years abroad as a missionary with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, Danielle found herself returning back home in January to live with her in-laws because of unforeseen immigration and citizenship issues. Once home, she found herself unemployed and overwhelmed with the amount of free time on her hands. She then realized she could no longer ignore the hard questions: “if I really say that I love these people, I can’t sit back and say it’s a problem between them and God. If we’re truly all siblings in Christ, then it’s my burden to take on, too.”


"REFLECTING ON THE FAITH OF HER YOUNGER SELF, DANIELLE DOES NOT ESTEEM THE VIRTUE OF AN UNSHAKEABLE FAITH"


Since deciding it was not good enough for her to stay in the background on these matters, she dove deep into the world of affirming theology––from Matthew Vines and The Queerology Podcast to Sarah Bessey and Matthias Roberts, Danielle read every video, book, and podcast that she could get hold of; “I had to ask the difficult questions and be open to the possibility that what I’d been taught as a child wasn’t true.” Danielle did not shy away from change even when it caused a strain in relationship with her parents: “people were telling me to go against my conscience when the Spirit had already convicted me that the church’s mistreatment and exclusion of LGBTQ+ people was wrong.”


OUR FAITH SHOULD NEVER STOP EVOLVING––AN EVOLVING FAITH IS A STRONG FAITH


When asked how she replies to those who critique her evolving faith, she says, “What do I tell my gay friends then? That they don’t deserve love, family, and a life like mine? If I’m not willing to take up lifelong singleness, then how can I tell someone else to do such a thing?”


Her love for theatre is deeply linked with her journey to become affirming of queer lives in the church: “the reason I’m passionate about theatre is because I’m passionate about stories. You can have all the hypotheticals in the world, but when you hear a person’s story, things become real. Lofty ideas don’t work anymore. It’s about seeing ourselves in people and seeing God in others’ lives.” For inspiration in her faith evolution, Danielle refers to Jesus’s two greatest instructions––to love God and to love one’s neighbours. Through her journey of reconfiguring her beliefs, Danielle evaluates how the path has been tough yet unexpectedly rewarding: “this process of evolving and deconstructing is like taking away speckles that cover up the Image of God. All of these little questions, doubts, Bible verses that don’t make sense, are all speckles that got in the way of me really believing the things I said I believed.” Danielle’s path forward is one of authenticity: “I may not have all the answers, but I can be honest with myself now. As I make peace with each speckle, they start to disappear. With every speckle removed, I begin to see God clearer and clearer—I’m seeing God in new ways.”


Reflecting on the beliefs of her younger self, Danielle does not esteem the virtue of an unshakeable faith. “As we encounter new situations, they should affect the way we see things; we are people of experience and story. If I still have the faith of my five year-old self, there’s a problem.” She recognizes how her faith was able to grow firmer through these hard questions: “all these things have made me strong and actually believe what I’m saying.”


Danielle’s journey of evolving faith is not stopping at affirming the autonomy of LGBTQ+ folks in the church: “I really wanted my adoption of an affirming Christian perspective to be the end of my deconstruction with the rest of my faith remaining untouched––but no. Everything else is connected. I thought that I’d already made my faith my own, yet I realized that there’s still so much to be unpacked.” Her faith evolution now informs her decisions on where she finds her church home. Before her deconstruction, it used to be the style of worship music that was her breaking point: now she asks, “who is excluded from your table? And I don’t mean they can sit in your pews without being stared at––I mean who’s not allowed to sit on your eldership board or lead a ministry? Whose opinions are disqualified, dismissed, or ignored? Who is not represented in your decision-making? Because we are all Image Bearers and we are all the Church.”


Danielle’s story demonstrates how deconstructing her faith has led her to finding spiritual regeneration and fresh perspective. Her advice for TWU students on a similar journey of faith reevaluation is to not to hide from the questions, but to instead ask them boldly. In the rethinking of inherited beliefs, Danielle encourages students to be patient with themselves. She challenges the TWU community to take on a generous imagination and a radical empathy for others’ stories: “our faith should never stop evolving––an evolving faith is a strong faith.”