Sarah Berge '19 is a recent graduate of United hoping to work in chaplaincy. Her background is in systems and family counseling, with a focus on incarcerated populations and restorative justice. Sarah is also a passionate theologian, and integrates her chaplaincy work into theology and arts projects. Deconstructing beliefs is key to her ministry.
What was your experience deconstructing your own beliefs, and how does it inform your work in theology and chaplaincy?
Deconstructing beliefs helps us relate to what others are going through. As religious leaders, we’re meeting people in a crisis. Whether it’s a death or a family conflict, people question their beliefs. Everything becomes unstable. If you have not gone through that experience and you’re talking about certainty, there is a major disconnect. If you haven’t wrestled with serious questions yourself, you might miss what the person’s really going through. Ministers can be “It’s me and God helping other people,” which creates a hierarchy. It’s patronizing.
So that’s not your experience at United?
I could navigate my uncertainty here in a way that was freeing, not in a way that left me nothing to hold on to. Instead of pushing an agenda onto other people, what if you provoke people to ask questions and to really see themselves and others? That was hard for me to learn. If I don’t know all the answers that doesn’t mean I’m not a leader. It’s important to challenge what I think about something, not in order to tear me down, but to expose that that’s impossible.
Can you speak more about the dangers of a leader not deconstructing their views?
It’s about control. If I don’t question my beliefs, maybe they don’t need questioning. So, we don’t question the authority of God, we don’t question the authority of the Bible, we don’t question me! And we tell parishioners,: “Don’t challenge me. Fall in line.” That kind of thinking is not only absurd but it’s authoritarian. It isn’t liberation. It’s not justice. It’s terrifying.
Most people aren’t aiming to be authoritarian. It wasn’t what I was thinking. If I am feeling insecure and have something stable to hold onto, that can give me reassurance. But as you develop in your faith, you have to navigate ambiguity more. If we can’t hold the tension that there are multiple ways to see things, and we’re attached to one linear way, what happens when it’s pointed out that we’re not 100% right? You’re leading people to disaster. The reality is that you’re a human being and there’s no possible way you’re infallible.
I’m hearing that kind of certainty is dishonest: we don’t know everything. Worse, not only is it not true, but when something shakes a faith leader who has this rigid, “stable” mind-frame, they don’t have the skills to deal with it.
Deconstructing beliefs helps us navigate our own doubts and the doubts of others. Without analyzing yourself, you mistake your way as the only natural way. You begin replicating your experience in other people. That’s a lot of hubris. But it’s also an illusion. The people you’re helping can’t bring their full selves. They have to perform what the leader expects, and the leader performs for them.
What were some of the ideas that were challenged when you came to United?
For most of my life I had loved the Bible, memorized it, and found it life giving. But I had an all or nothing approach. I believed that scripture was infallible and literal. As soon as I started to deconstruct it, I threw it all away. I said I wasn’t Christian and couldn’t relate to the Bible anymore. But deconstructing doesn’t mean throwing all the parts away. My classes here showed me that the Bible, instead of being one thing, was multiplicitous. It isn’t a picking and choosing of what I want the Bible to be. It is “wow, look at how many voices and people are in here.” I was exposed to more possibilities. Instead of thinking “I’m a women; either I fall in line and become submissive” or “the Bible is sexist and isn’t for women at all,” I started asking: where are the women? Where are the queer people? They’ve always been there, so hat are they doing in this context? Deconstruction opened up a world of possibilities, where I could still love scripture but realize it’s not one thing.
When we eat food, our bodies break it apart. It doesn’t just go through and stay the same. That doesn’t mean food isn’t nourishing, delightful or necessary. Breaking something apart, and looking into it and reintegrating it in different ways doesn’t mean it’s untrue.
I think that’s a good metaphor. Bible bashing-- just throwing scripture at people-- is different from digesting it. And even as each person digests it differently, it doesn’t mean the food is whatever you want it to be. Acknowledging difference doesn’t mean you’re playing fast and loose. I’m still questioning what I believe about God, but to me it’s more worshipful to say God can hold the multiplicity of all these things! It’s a more awesome vision of the divine who looks at the depth of unlimited possibilities. When it comes to different interpretations, like food, someone could say I didn’t like this or that was uncomfortable or this was the best thing I ever had, but we’re still tasting, experiencing tasting, reflecting on it. The whole process of deconstruction is a spiritual process. It’s more of a focus on meaning making than needing to have something specific at the end.
Any final thoughts?
When I was throwing out the Bible, it wasn’t deconstruction. No! It was abandonment. Deconstruction leads to a rigorous relationship. Now, when it comes to beliefs, I don’t know what to do with having only one option.