You would be worried if your kids didn’t eventually outgrow their belief in Santa Claus. So why are you concerned that they are deconstructing their religion?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that God is as fictitious as Santa Claus. What I am saying is that there’s something wrong if people don’t question the mythologies they learned as children. If you knew an adult who said with complete integrity that they believed in a “right jolly old elf” who lives at the North Pole, drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, and delivers toys to all the world’s children on Christmas Eve, you would either question their sanity or their mental development. Even though we think it’s sad when young children outgrow their belief in Saint Nick, it should also give us a sigh of relief. It’s good to watch the mental development of young people and see the way that they grow.
Discouraging Rational Thought
For some reason, though, most Christians do not get the same sense of relief when their children announce that they have a hard time believing some parts of the Bible. Like a man who was swallowed by a whale and barfed up on a beach so he could preach God’s word. When given a choice between scientifically observable evidence for an old Earth, and a literalistic interpretation of a six-day creation, many Christians are horrified when their children choose to believe the science. It makes no sense that we encourage rational thought as it relates to Santa Claus, but we discourage rational thought regarding religion. What if we encouraged critical thinking in both cases?
The Myth of Kris Kringle
Like most parents who celebrate Christmas with children, I raised my kids with the myth of Kris Kringle. But I was careful in my playfulness around the subject. It was more of a game we played than something I taught as a fact. I even bought them a video that we watched over and over during the holiday season, depicting Saint Nicholas of Myra and his benevolence toward children. The video explained how Christians today remember the generosity of Nicholas by exchanging presents in the spirit of Santa Claus. When we talked about the reindeer, there was always a wink and a sideways smile. This mixture of fact-giving on the one hand and playfulness, on the other hand, gave them the freedom to deconstruct when the time was right.
Deconstructing Santa; Deconstructing Religion
A few days ago, my nine-year-old grandson asked me, “Papa, is Santa Claus real?” He told me he was sure it was all made up, but that other kids insisted that Santa was real. We discussed the fact that no one could deliver presents to every child on Earth in one night. Reindeer can’t fly, and they certainly don’t have light bulbs for noses. If the North Pole was too cold for Roald Amundsen, it was too cold for Santa. These were the facts. I congratulated Eli for his critical thinking. Then I explained that these things were symbols for the greater truth about the spirit of giving, generosity, and selflessness. He accepted this new, more mature understanding of Santa Claus without feeling that he had been lied to. He simply had moved into a greater level of understanding.
What if we approach religion the same way? What if we quit trying to preserve a childish faith and instead seek spiritual growth? 1 Peter encourages newborn Christians to crave pure spiritual milk. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he has much more to teach, but that infant Christians can’t bear it. But, he says, the Holy Spirit will come and guide us into all truth. In other words, he expects spiritual growth. The author of Hebrews 5 talks about moving from milk to meat. It’s true that Jesus said that no one comes to the realm of God unless they come with childlike faith. But we need to grow after that.
Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways (1 Corinthians 13.11 NRSVUE).” Just like an older child who deconstructs their belief in Santa Claus, it’s healthy for a Christian to deconstruct certain things about their faith. If your child moved into adulthood still believing in Santa Claus, you would think there was something wrong. So why do we encourage people to continue in a childish faith?
Now, I’m not going to tell you what aspect of faith you should deconstruct. That is a highly individualistic thing. In my life, there were several issues that needed to be dismantled.
- The notion of a violent God;
- Penal substitutionary atonement, which presumes that God solves problems through violence;
- A Hell of eternal conscious torment, which presupposes a violent God;
- The misconception that salvation is only for a select few;
- The idea that anyone is beyond God’s grace because of gender identity or sexual orientation—or for any other reason, for that matter;
- The incorrect belief that the Bible is the Christian’s ultimate authority for Faith and life, rather than Jesus being that authority.
When Your Faith Loses Its Magic
You can see how, for me, these topics are related to one another. Once one thing came unraveled, the whole fabric began to fall apart. It’s the same with children deconstructing their belief in Santa Claus. It starts when they realize that magic isn’t real. Everything else follows from there. If your face seems to have lost its magic, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. Maybe it just means you’re growing up.
Realizing You are a Santa
Some people might look at this list of things I no longer believe and swear that I have quit being a Christian. But this would be like telling someone who no longer believes in Santa Claus that they have abandoned Christmas altogether. In fact, giving up a literal belief in Santa makes a person celebrate Christmas even better than they did as a kid. When a child believes in Santa, it’s all about what they can receive. When you realize that you are a Santa, it becomes a question of how you can give. Growing beyond your belief in a literal Santa doesn’t worsen your Christmas spirit. In fact, it makes it better.
Realizing You are a Christ
The same is true with deconstructing your Christian faith. It doesn’t mean you lose your Christianity. In the end, it might make you a little more like Jesus. As long as Jesus is the only Prince of Peace, it gets us off the hook for being peacemakers. As long as Jesus is the only healer, it excuses us from healing others. If we’re trusting in Jesus to ride in on a white horse and set everything right, we don’t have to work for justice for the oppressed. But when you realize that being a Christian means that you are a Christ, then your focus shifts from what you can get from Jesus to how you can be Jesus by giving yourself to others.
Giving Up Magical Thinking
It’s time for us to grow up and give up certain doctrines and ideas that no longer serve the realm of God. If a belief or idea harms people rather than heals, we must outgrow it. If a doctrine hinders rather than helps people to live in an accepting, loving, Christlike way, we must abandon it. Giving up magical thinking won’t make you less of a Christian; it will make you more Christlike. It will cause you to quit leaving milk and cookies for Santa, and start feeding the hungry instead.