On the 20th May this year, Jon Steingard published a post on his Instagram page explaining that he no longer believes in God. This would be a big deal for anyone, but as the frontman for Canadian Christian rock band Hawk Nelson, Jon found that his statement landed him in a feature on Fox News, and his life hasn’t been quite the same since.
You can hear more about what led Jon to begin the journey of deconstruction in his own words here.
The original post resonated strongly with me, and it appeared at a time when my own doubts had more prominently risen to the surface. As several months have since passed since Jon’s original statement was shared with the world, I was fascinated to hear his current thoughts on his former faith, and this was the focus of our discussion below.
The major crux of your initial Instagram post was the idea that you no longer believed in God. But ‘God’ itself is such a loaded term, and I know you’ve reflected quite a bit on it since then, so how do you currently understand ‘God’? What does that term actually mean for you now?
If you say something like, ‘I believe in God,’ you’ve got two words in there that require some serious defining; the word ‘believe’ and the word ‘God’, and how you define those two words changes everything. If you’re going to use those two words in the ways that most people use them, then I would say that at the moment, I don’t believe in God. But I’ve heard people say that they believe in God, and then when you drill down on some of those words, I discover that what they’re talking about I’m fine with.
The God part is a little easier to talk about than the belief part. Do I believe that the typical notion of the Christian God – all-loving, all-powerful, omniscient – do I believe that God exists? I have to confess that it’s possible, but I don’t find myself convinced. But then some people will talk about God as more esoteric, such as the ground of being, which is an idea that Paul Tillich was big on; God is that from which everything arises, and that which sustains it all. Then I can sort of get on board with that, because it’s like you’re basically describing the universe, and you’re saying, ‘God is everything that exists.’ I don’t think that it’s a particularly meaningful description, and it’s certainly not what most people mean when they say ‘God’.
What I’m intrigued by is all of the stories that you read about in the Bible. It seems to me like human beings were always trying to figure out God: who is God? What is God? And very often they’re doing it through the lens of the things that are happening in their life: why is this happening to me? Maybe an explanation is God. Other cultures outside of Judaism would have said ‘gods’ plural, and even if you look at the early parts of the Bible there’s actually a lot of evidence of polytheistic thought.
I suppose a lot of it is swept away in the later editing?
And interpretation as well. The very first word ever used for God in the Hebrew Scriptures is ‘Elohim’, and it’s plural. Then you get to ‘Yahweh’, which from everything that I understand is the very first, singular, clearly defined, monotheistic God. Even the notion in the Ten Commandments that ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ what’s interesting about that to me is that modern Christianity interprets that as sort of metaphorical, like God’s saying, ‘put me first’. But at the time it was a very polytheistic environment that people lived in, so I think he’s literally saying, ‘I’m your God, forget about all these other gods.’
It seems to me that the idea of God is dependent on us, and not the other way around.
I still suspect that the idea of God is something that has arisen as a result of humanity trying to understand its own existence. And very often, it is a projection of our highest ideal. As such, it seems to me that the idea of God is dependent on us, and not the other way around.
That’s really interesting. Do you think there can be a tendency in Christianity to assume that when someone says ‘God’, they mean the personal, Christian God?
Oh yeah, for sure. You see this if you go and look at YouTube debates about atheism versus theism; in almost every one of those debates, there’s an assumption built in that theism is referring to Christianity. Almost every time. Now, maybe that’s because it’s Western culture, and Christianity is obviously the most influential religion. But as soon as you go to the Middle East we’re talking about Islam, and as soon as you go further East than that, we’re very often talking about Hinduism, which is polytheistic. And then we’re talking about Daoism and Buddhism, which is borderline agnostic, and doesn’t really say anything about God either way. So, I think the default position of theism equaling Christianity is a narrow view, but it tends to be the one that gets attention in the circles that we all interact in.
There’s certainly a leap isn’t there, from ‘there is a god’ to, ‘Oh great! Therefore, Jesus was God.’ I often think that I must be missing something, because you could equally assume one of the other gods to be the result of this argument.
Yeah, there is a leap. Even if you concede the existence of a first mover, or a creator of the universe, you still have to get from there to the idea that it’s the Christian God who we read about in the Bible. Now, apologists have plenty of ways to do that, so it’s not like they haven’t thought of that, but that is a leap that they have to find a way to make.
So, if we were then talking about the biblical God, if you found yourself face-to-face with them, what do you think are the most pressing things that you would want to ask?
Oh, I already know my first question. My first question would be, why did you choose to make yourself not obvious? I look at Adam in the story of Adam and Eve, and even after they had sinned, he still had a direct conversation with God, so Adam would have had no doubt that God existed; not in some mysterious, ‘still voice in your head’ kind of way, but a conversation like you and I are having now. In the Gospels, Thomas doubted even when Jesus was right in front of his face, and Jesus was gracious enough to let Thomas touch his hands, and so Thomas can’t say, ‘I don’t think Jesus is real,’ because he talked to him and he touched him. Even Paul had a mystical experience. Now, you could say that it may have been some sort of psychedelic trip, which it totally could have been, but regardless, he had something that he perceived as being a direct experience with the divine.
So, I look at that and I go, if that’s possible, then I don’t understand why God – if he wants to be in relationship with us like I was taught that he does – can’t do that for everyone, or chooses not to do that for everyone. Because if God is real, and he’s loving, and he wants to have a relationship with me, then I welcome that. Bring it! Why would I not want that? So, if God was real, my biggest frustration with him is, well where are you? And that argument is part reason and part emotion.
I use the illustration of my three year-old son sometimes. I want to be a good dad, and as long as we’re both alive, I want to have a good relationship with him. If I’ve been a loving father, then if he grows up and gets to be my age, even though I’m human so we may have some baggage in our relationship, he won’t be able to say, ‘I don’t think my dad exists.’ If my son got to be mid-thirties and he could even entertain the idea that his father might not be real, then I’ve done something really, really not right as a dad. So I come back to that, and I go, if God is real and he loves me, and he wants to be in relationship with me, then where is he?
How would you imagine that a good relationship with the divine would look?
I don’t even know about good relationship. If God is real, why would he set reality up in such a way that it could be totally plausible that he’s not? Before we even get to the nature of the relationship, some kind of a relationship that’s unmistakable would be a good start. We could talk about the nature of my marriage, and that’s one conversation: ‘How’s your marriage? Is it healthy? How do you relate to each other? How much time do you spend together?’ You can go through all that, but I’m not doubting that my wife exists and that I’m married to her, that’s just a fact.
In order to have a relationship, I need to know that you’re actually there.
So, my thing with God starts there. Before we even talk about the nature of our relationship, we have to have a relationship, and in order to have a relationship, I need to know that you’re actually there. I’m not certain that he’s not, but with what I see in life, it makes more sense to me that he’s not. If he was, then there’s a lot of explaining that has to be done about his hiddenness, and about the problem of evil and suffering. If he’s real, and he’s chosen things to be this way, then he is God, so he can do that if he wants to. I am my son’s father, I can choose to not be close to him if I want to; that’s my prerogative. But, I can’t at the same time say that I was a good dad and I was present if he’s not even sure I’m there.
How would you respond to those who say that it’s not the way God has set things up, and that he intended things to be good, but sin or human nature got in the way?
I’ve heard that argument too, but then I keep on going right back to the fact that God made things this way. Unless you’re willing to concede that God doesn’t know the future – which open theists actually do, but most theists don’t – then he knew it was going to work out this way, so it’s still on him. I hear the response all the time to the problem of suffering where people say, ‘God didn’t cause the suffering, people caused the suffering.’ And I ask, ‘Well who caused the people?’ If I create a computer program and it does a ton of damage, is the program responsible, or am I?
I suppose questions of free will come in at that point?
So they do. But again, we’re still talking about a God who knows everything. Even if God created us with free will, he allegedly still knows the future, which means he knew it would work out this way and so he decided that this was worth doing. It’s possible that there’s such redemption on the other side of the suffering in this world that maybe it is worth it, but I don’t know that; at least, not from where I stand right now. And with the suffering I’ve seen in the world, the idea that God has a plan, and he’s just acting out that plan, is a tough swallow for me.
It is quite a big ask to believe that based on the world we know now, there’s going to be a better one in the future. And then in the afterlife, would we therefore no longer have the free will which allows this suffering?
Early on in this process, I went on Justin Brierley’s show Unbelievable? with Sean McDowell, and I learned later that heaven and free will is a much-debated point. But that thought occurred to me in real time while I was on with him, and so I brought it up. Sean was saying that God doesn’t want to create automatons that just worship him and don’t have the option to sin, and I’m thinking, well it seems like he does want that, because that’s the state in which we’re allegedly going to be in heaven. I don’t see how you can have it both ways; if suffering on earth is due partially to God’s desire for us to have free will here, then the fact that there’s no suffering in heaven would indicate to me that there’s not free will there.
The only somewhat convincing argument I’ve heard is from Jonathan McLatchie. He talked to me about the idea of partial autonomy versus total autonomy, and it does make a sort of sense. He said that here on earth, we don’t even have full autonomy; we’re constrained by many things. I can have the idea that I’d like to fly, but I can’t flap my arms and fly. So, I don’t have complete free will to make things whatever I want. And he indicated that this would also be true in heaven; in both heaven and earth we have partial autonomy. But that still doesn’t really fix it for me, because if it’s possible to have a state where we can have free will and not have suffering or sin, and if that’s what the state is going to be in heaven, then I don’t understand why we can’t just start there.
Yes, it seems like this whole big dip in the middle wasn’t super necessary.
Right, and I’ve heard the argument that it’s only because we are able to feel pain and feel suffering that we can really know what good is; if there were no suffering then everything would just be good, and we wouldn’t have that range of experience. It’s almost like we wouldn’t appreciate good if we didn’t suffer. And I’m just like, I’d take it. Because, how many times have you made a meal, and it was just okay? And then you’ve had another meal, and it was fantastic. You don’t have to eat dog shit in order to know the difference between a good meal and an okay meal. It’s possible to just not have the dog shit and still have okay meals and fantastic meals; there’s still a range of experience there.
That’s a great point. And thinking about a different area, you’ve talked about how a big part of your deconstruction journey is losing belief in the idea of an inerrant Bible. I know that since then you’ve been exploring different ways that you can view the Bible, so, do you think that it’s possible to have a coherent Christian faith with a Bible that’s not inerrant?
The problem here is basically that if the Bible’s not inerrant – so, if it’s not objectively true – then Christians have a very difficult time finding something on which to base their faith. Now, a friend of mine, Dan Koch, runs the podcast called You Have Permission, and he doesn’t believe the Bible’s inerrant either, but he is a Christian. His approach is: ‘I believe that it’s discernment all the way down.’ That’s how he describes it. I’m not sure if he would say that the Holy Spirit has given him discernment. But it does become very subjective; if the Bible’s not inerrant, then what’s true and what we can take from it becomes a subjective thing. I approach the Bible that way now.
The evangelical point of view on the Bible is often that it’s a manual for living: this is your owner’s manual, this is how you should live. And in that context it doesn’t work for me, because it’s so contradictory; it has so many different perspectives. I love a lot about what Rob Bell says, and he talks about how you shouldn’t read the Bible literally, you should read it literately. It’s about taking everything in context: this is a poem, it’s not meant to be taken literally; this section might be historical, but it’s from the perspective of the people writing it, so you know it’s not objective. I think that approach is helpful.
If the Bible’s not inerrant, then Christians have a very difficult time finding something on which to base their faith.
The way that I approach the Bible now, every time I read anything in it, I go: what can I learn from this? Is it speaking to something fundamentally true about reality? Does its perspective have the ability to help me shape my life in a way that is meaningful and good? And I do use the word ‘good’ intentionally, even though I know ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective; but in a way that seems good to me. I actually do think a lot of the words of Jesus – the words attributed to Jesus – in the Gospels have a lot of good things to say about how we could orient our lives. I actually find the Bible more meaningful than I used to in that way.
So, it’s about looking for philosophy and ways of living?
Yeah. I think that actually, at its base that can be part of what philosophy is: the search for answers and how best to live our lives. Most traditional evangelical Christians would say you can’t pick and choose with the Bible; you can’t just pick and choose what verses to believe in and what not to. And I would respond with, yes you can. And I would also add, you are already doing it.
Thinking then in terms of God as the ground of being, do you think there’s anything in the Bible that you would describe as revelation as opposed to simply humans trying to work out the best ways to live? Is there something at all beyond that, or is it just human upwards?
Could be. When I look at the early parts of the Bible, there are things in there that seem deeply meaningful beyond what feels likely for a human being to come up with. First off, the creation poem in Genesis One is beautiful. It’s really beautiful. And then the second creation story – because there are actually two creation stories in Genesis – is much less poetic and more written in prose, and that story is really interesting in a lot of its own ways. If you look at these early stories, particularly in Genesis, there are ideas in there that are so fundamental, and so incredibly expressed, that it’s almost limitless how far you can go in studying them. That’s pretty remarkable, and you could look at that and see it as evidence of some sort of supernatural influence
But there’s another explanation. So, obviously those stories in Genesis weren’t written down in real time; they weren’t written down for thousands of years after they allegedly happened, and so they were passed down by oral tradition. And what happens when you go generation after generation of oral tradition is that only the most meaningful parts of those stories are retained. In a sense they’re condensed, and they almost get denser with time, because anything superfluous is not going to stick. Jordan Peterson talks about this a little bit, and his biblical series of lectures on YouTube is fantastic. He digs into the early biblical stories from a psychological perspective, and it’s super interesting.
So, I think that there’s a lot of meaning in especially that early part of the Bible, and certainly throughout. And it’s difficult to ascertain exactly why that is, but I do think the Bible is the most remarkable document that humanity has ever produced. That doesn’t mean it’s divine in nature, but it depends on how you define ‘divine’.
In part two, Jon will share about his approach to the process of deconstruction, and considers what his next steps might be. Follow along with his journey on Instagram and Twitter @jonsteingard
The above has been lightly edited for clarity.