The Deconversion of Paul Maxwell
I listened to Anthony Bradley’s recent interview of Paul Maxwell with fascination and apprehension. I knew little about Maxwell prior to listening, and the interview proved intriguing. Maxwell had gone from an intellectually robust, thoughtful proponent of Reformed Christianity to an intellectually robust, thoughtful atheist.
And his biography mirrors my own. We were born in the same area of the country a year apart, both became interested in philosophy as a means to power in college, both devoured Van Tillian presuppositionalism, both attended a Westminster school (Redeemer Seminary, in my case) following the Pete Enns debacle, and both left the seminary having been burned by the community. I normally find deconversion narratives personally uncompelling since there is typically dogmatic distance between myself and the other person prior to their deconversion.
Not so with Maxwell. It was like watching a martial artist and realizing that not only did he train at the same dojo as me, he wears a more advanced belt. Usually the motivations and methods of deconversions aren’t capable of landing a blow on me, but Maxwell could not only penetrate my objections, but could anticipate my best counter-attacks. Maxwell is clearly much smarter and more educated than me, which was evident early on in the interview.
But the differences in our biography are what presented the most intriguing contrasts and concerns. Maxwell had an abusive father and childhood, and I did not. My family was and remains warm and supportive. This trauma informed Maxwell’s selection and buy-in to his high school church community, college, and seminary. He talked about different figures at Moody, Westminster, and CCEF in fatherly-terms. When his dad died during Maxwell’s time at Westminster, the apparent lack of support from the community alienated Maxwell and led him to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. All of this was stated by Maxwell in the interview, and he acknowledged that perhaps the CCEF guys actually did right by him, just not what Maxwell expected or needed. His childhood abuse primed him for not being able to effectively weather relational letdowns later in life.
That was not my experience. When my educational and spiritual community became toxic, it hurt and affected me, but my core was unshaken.
What made this all engrossing and terrifying was the question of whether relationships and slight change in choices were all the difference between he and I on the question of Christianity’s truth. He was uprooted from his seminary community, went into academia instead of the pastorate, and experienced a divorce. I have still enduring friendships from seminary and wouldn’t trade my time there for anything (I met my wife there!), have a Christian profession that is more relationally focused than academia and publishing, and a stable, loving family that I need to support. Is that really all the difference between faith and apostasy?
Well, only if Maxwell is right. Or, more accurately, only if the Maxwell of today is correct. If he’s not, if the Holy Spirit is true, then the differences between faith and apostasy are deeper than the sociological.
Another difference between Maxwell and myself was the area of philosophy appreciated. I gravitate towards classical metaphysics and systematic theology, he towards semiotics and biblical theology. His deconversion followed the path of literary deconstruction set by Jacques Derrida. Maxwell talked about how Kierkegaard described falling in doubt and being caught by God, while Derrida’s version of the fall has no one to catch you or anything to land on. Truth is social and socially constructed. Deconstruct the language and signs, and nothing but the barest reality remains.
Maxwell insisted that there is only the human: there are no farmers, no Christians. These are semantic roles inhabited by true people, and the inhabitants, not the role inhabited, are real. True meaning is what you make of it in your life. Will to power, but in an individual life that should be respectful towards the true people around you. This was reminiscent of Abraham Piper’s public deconversion and subsequent articulation of the (lack of and self-created) meaning of life.
The Is-ought problem seems to be resolved by a self-centered (in the best sense of the phrase) and inconsistent nihilism: Nothing has true meaning, so I will create it for myself, but also we ought to respect other people who should do the same. Maxwell’s appreciation of the Objectivist-cum-father of self-esteem Nathaniel Branden appeared to be his channel for reaching this conclusion. Regardless, this is banal. Maxwell’s deconstruction is fascinating but his landing place uncompelling.
True, his conclusions don’t mean that his diagnosis is wrong, but it certainly indicates that some of his underlying values that led to the intellectually unsatisfactory conclusion likely informed that deconversion process. That individual metaphysical inventiveness (masquerading as epistemology and ethics) is his metanarrative, at least as presented in the interview. Everything in his past is explained through this lens, the tale of deconstruction, and serves to justify the conclusion. His landing spot was his original value system, even if not understood by him prior to the deconstruction. The values of his landing spot fueled his deconstruction, something he confided in the interview had been ongoing subconsciously since college. That is another, crucial difference between us. He was unwilling to fall without a landing, and so made one up. His conclusion is semiotically as artificial as everything else.