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Plausibility and Relationships: You Are What Your Friends Believe
Humanness Channels Plausibility
Plausibility is a word that refers to the believableness of beliefs—the degree of credibility, worth, or trustworthiness we assign to a belief or view of the world.
When our beliefs have a high level of plausibility they are more static, fixed, and stable. Each belief holds its place in the web of ideas that make up our view of reality. But when plausibility ebbs and a belief or cluster of beliefs becomes less believable, the network becomes imbalanced, frangible, and primed to shift.
When people enter a season of deconstruction, it can be understood as a crisis of plausibility.
The attitudes, experiences, and values that once fed and stabilize their beliefs are instead draining the plausibility out of their beliefs, leaving them a husk of what they once were. But what are those aspects of life that channel plausibility? When it ebbs and flows, what paths does it take?
Plausibility is channeled by every aspect of what it means to be human.
Humans are rational, emotional, moral, creative, cultural, spiritual, embodied, limited, and dependent, among many other aspects. When something grabs you by these aspects, it grabs you by your very core.
I want to focus on one in particular: the social aspect.
Let Me Introduce Peter Berger
Peter Berger will be our guide for today’s tour of social plausibility. Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” to refer to the societal contexts of networks of meaning within which these meanings make sense or are made plausible. He is a leading thinker in the field of the “sociology of knowledge,” which, for me, has been a key that unlocks this aspect of the story of modern deconstruction.
Berger lays out his basic perspective in A Rumor Of Angels:
“For better or for worse, [humans] are social beings. Their “sociality” includes what they think, or believe they “know” about the world. Most of what we “know” we have taken on the authority of others, and it is only as others continue to confirm this “knowledge” that it continues to be plausible to us. It is such socially shared, socially taken-for-granted “knowledge” that allows us to move with a measure of confidence through everyday life.”
Berger is saying that our beliefs first come to us through the beliefs of others, and they only remain believable if they continue to be supported and nourished through a believing community that also shares them. In other words, our beliefs become a taken-for-granted part of our paradigm if they are continually confirmed by our social environment. We hold things to be true because people around us also hold them to be true.
We Are Social Chameleons
In other words, we are social chameleons, but it is our beliefs that change color, not our skin.
This doesn’t mean that we are puppets dancing on the strings of our settings. It just means that the process of forming and nurturing our beliefs is more complicated than we might have assumed. This is most helpful in an age like ours when assumptions about belief formation have become overly rationalistic and individualistic (especially in the church).
We understand ourselves and our reality in relationship to others and the way they understand themselves and reality. This runs counter to the idea that in order to be genuine and authentic, people must find their faith for themselves free of input from parents, society, or any institution as if they had to become naked souls to have warranted beliefs—that never really happens. We are inescapably products of our environment. Any choice you make about how much plausibility to assign any idea, view of the world, or lifestyle doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
All of our beliefs are adopted, denied, forsworn, or embraced in the context of the decisions about belief that those around us have already made.
We absorb our beliefs from the plausibility structures in our environment. Those structures proclaim statements of belief to us in a thousand ways every day. We come to accept them through a steady and invisible process of osmosis. We cannot fully shake what we have absorbed. Our social environment is always part of the plausibility structures that channel our belief (even if we are rebelling against it). That is part of the baggage and blessing of being human.
Social Plausibility Sheds A Wider Light On Deconstruction
What does all this have to do with deconstruction?
In order to understand any individual’s journey of deconstruction, it isn’t enough to determine the content of their deconstruction, i. e. the actual questions, doubts, experiences, and desires they identify as driving forces behind their deconstruction. You also have to look at the larger changes in their lives and environment that have moved them into a place where deconstruction has become first possible, then plausible, then actionable.
Have they moved to a new city? Experienced shifts in their group of friends? Started a new job? Dived into a new cabal of Youtubers? Have their reading habits changed? Have they gone to a new church or stopped going to church altogether? Have they had a series of bad experiences with Christians? These could be as serious as chronic spiritual abuse or as seemingly mild as a theological tussle with their pastor.
All of these changes can soften the ground for a paradigm shift.
Peter Berger’s ‘Cognitive Minorities’
When it comes to social plausibility, the odds are stacked on the side of conforming. Communities have 1,000 ways to pull their members back toward the center of their plausibility webs. This is how your beliefs were shaped in the first place and that isn’t a bad part of the process of growing up. It is good. This is the way it is supposed to happen.
But sometimes the ways a community has of gathering its chicks back under the wings of its plausibility structures are too forceful, leave too little room for variation, and exert too much pressure on outlying beliefs. In that case, pressure begins to build.
This is exactly the place that many people in a season of deconstruction find themselves in. It isn’t easy for people who are deconstructing to remain peacefully nestled within their social plausibility structures when the cascade of doubt and questions that deconstruction entails begins. All too easily, a dissonance can begin to rise. There is an unpleasant pressure to being a “cognitive minority,” to use Peter Berger’s memorable phrase.
In A Rumor Of Angels, Berger defines a cognitive minority as
“A group of people whose view of the world differs significantly from the one generally taken for granted in their society… a group formed around a body of deviant knowledge.”
By “knowledge,” Berger means something like “story of reality,” the common assumptions about reality that are taken to be true in a group. The “deviant” knowledge of a cognitive minority is deviant because it goes against the grain of the explicit or implicit consensus of the group.
And Berger cuts to the core of why being a cognitive minority is so dangerous to plausibility:
“The plausibility of “knowledge” that is not socially shared, that is challenged by our fellow men, is imperiled, not just in our dealings with others, but much more importantly in our own minds. The status of a cognitive minority is thus invariably an uncomfortable one—not necessarily because the majority is repressive or intolerant, but simply because it refuses to accept the minority’s definitions of reality as “knowledge.” At best, a minority viewpoint is forced to be defensive. At worst, it ceases to be plausible to anyone.”
When your social environment doesn’t share your answers to important questions (or even the questions themselves), those answers can “become imperiled” even in your own mind. When the dissonance between you and your community rises, the natural human response is to try to resolve that dissonance either by changing your ideas or changing your social environment.
But what do you do if the plausibility of Christian ideas has already started to fray and come apart? What if you feel that you can’t just make the unsettling questions go away and banish the dissonance by moving back to the center of your social plausibility web?
Broad Is The Way That Leads To Excommunication of The Doubter
When a member of a Christian community embraces “deviant” answers and starts asking the kinds of questions we don’t ask here, their community can find it unsettling and destabilizing to see their deconstruction progress. They might make a pass at answering the questions of deconstruction, or, failing that, the deconstructor might be invited to stop asking them.
Unhurried, gentle space in which people in crisis can ask their questions can be hard to come by, especially if people are worried about you. This can be especially true if you start saying things we aren’t supposed to say and consuming the wrong sorts of podcasts, books, and videos. Suddenly the person in the middle of a crisis of faith can find the dark mark floating above their head. “Beware!” it signifies, “Someone is deconstructing here! Stay clear.”
Mike McHargue, co-founder of the post-Christian podcast, The Liturgists, tells the story of the tension he felt with his Christian community when he started to question the faith on the Christian Transhumanist podcast:
“[When my God construct started to fall apart] I tried to moderate Christianity to something more palatable to humanism. When I taught sunday school I emphasized the care for the poor and the widow, but I didn’t talk a lot about eternal damnation or other theological positions that are less acceptable in a modern context…
“You can’t constantly pretend to believe something you don’t. As ideas become less new and more integrated into your idenity they become harder to hide. I would make little tells without realizing it. My wife figured out something was wrong and she confronted me. My secret was out. [But] she didn’t tell [our Christian community]. She was afraid of the ramifications.”
“My God construct fell apart and I was left with no belief and that left me feeling very frightened and vulnerable because I was a sunday school teacher and a deacon and I was married to a Baptist woman and had Baptist children and I worried that I would be shunned or ostracized if I shared how I felt.
“[My friends] natural response was to proselytize and counsel me, I didn’t feel like they had anything to share that I hadn’t already researched myself. I had a rebuttal for anything they had to say, which then made me look like a danger to their faith and there would be this very natural, organic shunning and basically excommunicaiton of me by the people I cared about the most. Which is a very scary thing.”
There is a self-reinforcing cycle to deconstruction and you can see it play out in McHargue’s story.
The plausibility of Christianity started to ebb for him. People saw it and tried to help him (as they understood help). But he was a thoughtful person and “had a rebuttal for anything they had to say.” Slowly, inexorably they started to see the questions he was asking as a danger, and then the mercy and generosity of his Christian community hardened into self-protectiveness. He was cast out of his social plausibility structures by “the people I cared about most.”
McHargue’s story is no less harrowing for its familiarity, its seeming inevitability. It takes a Christian community with big arms and a whole lot of patience to beat the curve on that one. Broad is the way that leads to the ex-communication of the doubter, and great is the number of deconstructors who find it.
Many communities find it easier to get rid of the questioner than deal with the questions. Many communities find the dissonance of living with the questions that are being raised by the person experiencing hard deconstruction more than they can handle.
The stories of those who have deconverted are full of just those experiences.
The Power of the Deconstruction Community
Given the power of our social plausibility structures to affect our beliefs, part of the explanation for the increase in deconstruction in our current cultural moment is the rise of communities centered on the experience of deconstruction.
The irony of McHargue’s story is that he went on to found a podcast, the Liturgists, to offer to others the shelter that he didn’t have when he began to question the plausibility of Christianity. The Liturgists podcast has grown into a community that has become a powerful force in the social plausibility web for tens of thousands of people who are deconstructing their faith. Because of the Liturgists, the process of deconstruction is a little less scary, a little less lonely, the path toward deconversion is a little bit better traveled and better marked.
In earlier times, a Christian who is just beginning to enter a season of deconstruction would still be swirling around in the social and existential eddies of faith. But these days, we all float next to a fast-flowing cultural current that, if we are nudged in its direction, can sweep us away and disciple us in new ways of thinking and believing. So when doubts rise in a believer it is easier to find a community of those who have already had those doubts and settled them in a certain way. The deconstruction community can take the doubting believer by the hand and walk them into even more doubts while also handing them a certain set of answers.
These days entering a season of deconstruction can be like a back-stage pass to the community of those who have also deconstructed their Christianity in favor of the cultural chimera of progressive Christianity or have abandoned it altogether.
The internet has played a big role in the rise of the deconstruction community. It has let people build platforms around their experience of deconstruction and deconversion that serve as a gathering point for people with similar experiences. Essentially, there isn’t anything unique about the Liturgist podcast, the Exvangelical Facebook group, or the Unfundamentalists - people have always been discussing objections to Christianity together - but the web has given those discussions the ability to scale up rapidly and reach a mass audience like never before.
So the line between a discussion and a movement gets blurrier and blurrier. All the while the social plausibility structures surrounding Christianity shift and swing.
These new communities can function as an accelerant for the process of shifting one’s identity, midwives for the painful birth of deconstruction. Contrasted with the difficult exit from their former Christian community, the welcome that deconstructors receive among the deconstructed can ripple through their whole plausibility structure. The effect of that welcome can help bridge that painful gap of their plausibility crisis, increasing the odds that they’ll swim for a new lifeboat of post-Christianity than return to the shipwrecked faith they fled.
Ask Your Questions Inside Christian Community. If You Can.
When the dominoes of deconstruction start to fall and the dissonance starts to build between you and the Christian community, you have three options:
Conform: Conform your ideas to those of your community and make the deconstruction stop.
Leave: Leave your current community in an effort to reduce the dissonance.
Abide: Seek for answers while living within the tension the questions provoke and abide in your Christian plausibility structures.
Option #1: Conform
The first option is often only a stop-gap solution. Few of us can really make the questions truly go away. Rather, they linger like the proverbial “splinter in the mind.” So conformity is often just a delaying tactic. It does accomplish the purpose of reducing the outward tension between you and your community, but it might also just be setting up a larger problem in the future. And if the questions have deconstruction have risen to the surface because they were propelled by deeper considerations, they’ll come back with the pressure of lost time.
Option #2: Leave
The second option also reduces the tension between you and your community. Leaving your community might offer a kind of solution, especially if you leave your current Christian community for one that is still inside the “Christian fold,” but enforces its boundaries with less force. If you can find a community like that, in which you are welcomed despite your differences and given space to ask your questions without fear of excommunications, can do a lot to stabilize what could otherwise be a more violent deconstruction. If you can’t find a community like that, go to L’Abri. It isn’t a perfect community, but it is a place to be held and to ask your questions.
But, because our social plausibility structures play such a key role in building and reinforcing our view of the world, leaving them always has its cost.
It can be lonely and isolating to change your friend group, to break your rhythms and routines, to change cities, to switch churches. When you overturn your social plausibility structures wholesale, you might open yourself to more change than you meant to as you embrace an existential crisis in hopes that you will land in a place with less dissonance. It is hard to predict where you will land after taking such a jump. Meanwhile, you often trade one kind of pain for another until you find another community. Sometimes people find the trade is worth it. Sometimes they don’t.
Option #3: Abide
The third option is, in some ways, the hardest one, but is the one I want to advocate for.
For some, the idea of remaining inside the Christian community is impossible. They’ve been hurt too much. Or Christianity is too ugly compared to the alternatives. Or they have found Christian answers too facile and too flimsy. Or they are set on finding a more authentic way to live. And all that is understandable. Things get messy when the engines of deconstruction get going. Your average church or family or circle of friends doesn’t have the resources to “go there” with people who have come to the conviction that they need to dismantle a large portion of their lives.
But (with the above caveat that you might need to find a different Christian community), if you remain inside the Christian story of the world while you walk the way of deconstruction, your answers when you come out on the other side will be more nuanced, more realistic, and more generous. Living in the tension between yourself and your former community is where the best answers are.
You’ll be less likely to generate straw men answers, fall prey to groupthink, and be unfair to your former Christian beliefs. It will become less likely that your deconstruction will be a noisy, painful conversion to modernity. You will have a better chance of reconstructing some form of faith that isn’t marked with lasting animosity toward Christianity. You will be less prone to demonize Christians if you keep some of them in your life. You might even find that the Christianity you are deconstructing wasn’t even Christianity at all.
It isn’t easy to stand astride separate communities when it comes to something as serious as your view of the world, but doing so might be productive when it comes to the end result of your deconstruction. The difficult place of living with the tension of dissonance can be a very generative, challenging place for dealing with the questions of deconstruction.
Tension is the place of nuanced answers and balanced understandings.
That being said, that advice is not right for everyone. Some people need to get away from the community that formed them, especially if they have experienced spiritual abuse at the hands of that community. If that is you, do what you have to do to remove yourself from danger and find help, whether the danger is acute or chronic. But I would even encourage people in that situation to keep lines of communication open with some Christians who are safe and supportive if they can manage it.
Do Not Excommunicate People Who Are Deconstructing
And now, here at the end of the post, I want to speak specifically to those who are still firmly settled within the Christian plausibility structure.
There may come a time when you will want to cast people who are deconstructing out from the community. If you can muster the maturity, forbearance, patience, and prayerfulness, don’t do it.
Do not drive out people in your community who are in a season of deconstruction. If they lose the voice of their social plausibility structures that reaffirm Christianity’s plausibility, they will lose a vital piece of the thing that may keep them inside the Christian story of the world in the long run.
You need to learn to live within the tension of disagreement too.
What else did you expect life on this side of the Fall to be like? Did you think your Christian community would be all rainbows and consensus? It isn’t your job to zero out all the tension in your life or your community by enforcing conformity on it. You don’t know what end God is leading all this towards.
Push yourself to continue to learn to hold your own humility in both hands. You have also treasured distortions of the truth in your life and your thinking. You also have strongholds of sin in your life that you zealously protect. If yours happen to be ones that are approved of, or winked at, or shrugged off in your particular community, that does not make you any better off than the doubter you are excommunicating. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Besides, for moral teetotalers, it isn’t the sins that a community condemns that get you in the end, but the ones your community condones and abets and applauds.
Do not let yourself become yet another piece of a dark deconversion story someone is going to tell about how intolerant, narrow-minded, and angry their old Christian community used to be. It will only grease the wheels of deconstruction.
So what do you do with people who are deconstructing? Keep them.
If someone in your community is deconstructing, keep them like a precious treasure. You might have something to learn from the outsider—especially if they used to be insiders. They know your community best and might be canaries in your theological or cultural coal mine. (And that might be part of why you feel so much pressure to chase them away.)
Consider this post a challenge to find a way to negotiate a truce on your theological differences. Find a way to integrate their questions and doubts as you walk into the truth together across the span of years. Find a way to listen. Find a way to joke about the separate paths your lives and thinking have taken. Humor can heal a hundred trace wounds of the soul and save our communities from allowing those cracks to grow into fractures, then breakages, then splits. That doesn’t mean you stop taking things seriously, it just means that our theological disagreements don’t always have to be storm clouds and thunder. You can laugh. You can acknowledge differences without shame and blame. You can keep people inside the orbit of your lives and the lives of your communities.
Sure, you could excommunicate them, but why would you throw away your most powerful tool for influencing them? Yes, it is hard to keep people around who disagree with the consensus of the group - very hard. It is much easier to enforce conformity and reduce the tension.
But why not choose instead to pay the cost of living in the tension yourself rather than pass it on to the excommunicated person?
Weren’t you told that you would need to suffer to walk in the way of Christ? Weren’t you warned that it is exactly in the suffering that Christ is formed in you? Did you think the sufferings of Christ were finished with his death? They were not. (Colossians 1:24) You are also the body of Christ and you have your share of the kingdom of God that must be advanced through suffering. That is how it works. The kingdom of God is not all about evangelistic campaigns, rather it advances by the greatening of spirit that happens in God’s people as their longsuffering love flows into and transforms a hurting world.
The Kingdom of God Was Always Supposed To Be A Mixed People
Do you think Jesus administered a theological quiz before telling people to follow him? Jesus seemed to have had a ridiculously low barrier to entry to fellowship with him when it came to what sort of people he accepted. It was exactly the wideness of his community that scandalized the religious teetotalers of his day.
He invited himself to tax collectors’ homes. He let a prostitute wash him with her hair and weep over his feet (that would so soon be pierced by the machinations of the religious set). He called twelve bumbling greenhorns to be his inner circle, and one of them got so twisted in his thinking that he betrayed Jesus to death. But each of them betrayed him in a hundred little ways in the years of his time among them (how could it be otherwise when you keep company with God incarnate?)
Yet he chose them. He abided with them. He went slowly with them, knowing the great distance they still had to go in their wisest, most humble moments. He chose them because, though they were not the people they would eventually become, he was a patient teacher and the Good Sheperd. He suffered the pain of crossing the distance that they could not span themselves. He slowly led them forward, step by step into the dismantling of all the distortions in their lives and thinking.
The Kingdom of God was always to be a mixed people, a ragtag band of folks in whose God’s power stands out not because they have it all together, but because his “power works best in [their] weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12) His grace is sufficient for the weakness.
What would it mean to trust God with the deconstructing people more and trust yourself less? What would it mean to keep them in your community and give yourself a long, long time to influence them?
Here is the kicker: if Peter Berger is right and social plausibility really is as powerful a force in shaping our beliefs, one of the best things you can do for the deconstructing person isn’t to try to tell them the “truth,” but to keep them around. Invite them to your book clubs, gaming groups, and movie nights. If they need a home and you have a spare room, offer it. If the larger church casts them out, take them in. Your kindness, your love, and the invisible, irresistible effects of the plausibility of your lives will have a powerful effect on which way the deconstruction breaks and for how long and what story they tell about it years from now.
Read more from Andy on The Darking Psalter (commentary, translations, and poetry about the Psalms) and Three Things (a monthly digest of worthy resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God.)
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