This short piece is the first of six brief weekly reflections surmising on the first ever run through of Left Side Up’s Reconstructions Course. Week One, just passed, was dedicated to the theme of Reconstruction itself, and saw twenty participants across two nights meet for the first ever sessions of this new initiative here in NI. I’ll be offering these little summaries every Sunday for those who haven’t been able to attend but would like to follow along. I am also hoping this piques your interest enough to join a course in the coming months. Enjoy!
When Michael and I first sat down to discuss various ideas for progressive theology courses, ideas flitted back and forward between us. ‘What about an NI liberation theology course? Or ‘Peace, Politics and Jesus?’ ‘Yes, and also one on ‘How Not To Read the Bible’. Eventually we even sketched out sessions on ‘Christianity and culture’, tackling the big issues and a progressive take on them. We quickly made the realisation, however, that, as good as these ideas are, they were simply not going to meet the deepest needs of the people we want to be a part of LSU. In our conversations with folk in our office, and through responses we have had to our podcast (available on iTunes, hehe), we have been left with the very strong sense that what people want here in NI is not yet another content-heavy course. What people are craving is space and community. It is what Michael and I were craving, too.
This is how we came to finally land on the notion of The Reconstructions Course. In our vision of the finished product, we imagined a room in which people shared storied, cups of coffee and discussed —without fear of rebuke — all the doubts, questions and ideas they’d been having for ages and felt they couldn’t say out loud. We wanted to consciously create a physical space in which folks who felt alienated by some elements on mainstream Christianity could come and share their frustrations. But more than that, we wanted to give people the space to imagine and re-imagine a better, more authentic, more inclusive version of the gospel.
On Tuesday and Thursday, our first two groups picked up their Reconstructions Course workbooks and got chatting at their tables, discussing questions like: ‘What has been your experience of deconstructing your faith here in NI?’ and ‘Through telling a story from your own experience, what does God / heaven / the gospel really mean to you?’
To say that people went for it is an understatement. Both groups needed no encouragement to open up, and within the first few minutes we were hearing personal tales that resonated across the room. The Reconstructions Course operates on a principle of strict confidence, and no names or personal stories ever leave our training room. But what struck me on both nights of our course was the sheer level of shared experience between all twenty-two of us.
Many of us ‘reconstructors’, it seems, started our doubting around the same time we were taught the ‘traditional’ view of Hell and the eternal conscious torment that doctrine is felt to imply. For some of us, this little teaching planted a seed that had led to a blossoming of anxiety and doubt many years later. For others, the Reconstructions Course is a place to discuss Christianity as a worldview or way of life distinct from the headlines Christians here often generate. Someone asked a question on one of the nights along the lines of ‘Can Christianity be liberated from the Christians?’ And this is what the course is all about: it is a statement of faith in there being something worth preserving in Christianity distinct from the narrow, dogmatic version of the gospel so many of us were handed. In other words, deconstruction is, paradoxically, an affirmation of the thing being taken down: why else would we bother!?
Week One was all about stories, making connections and having a laugh. For me, the course will have been a success if each of us find at least one person we can meet up with and share a pint or a coffee with and discuss the fundamentals. In other words, the course will succeed to the extent to which it creates a feeling of much needed community. We now have two groups full of people encouraging one another to share, joke and question together. No issue or question is off-limits, and any answers ventured between our four walls are planted firmly in the soil of our stories, not in the pre-programmed answers many of us have found ourselves repeating over the years.