Demystifying Deconstruction, Pt 1
Posted by Ted Wueste
When we arrive at the shores of deconstruction, it can feel like our faith as we’ve experienced it has been shipwrecked, and other believers may be quite hasty in pointing out that our boat has run ashore and that we need to push back out to sea. The general confusion and uncertainty around “running ashore” is difficult enough and if others are deriding or dismissing our experience it can be even more difficult.
Deconstruction is a word that has become quite familiar among people of faith to describe the experience of one’s faith being dismantled on some level and to varying degrees. The dismantling often occurs around Christian beliefs and doctrines as well as practice and the nature of the church as one has experienced it.
Often, deconstruction seems to happen upon someone gradually, perhaps even passively, and at other times, it is a very active, intentional process. Deconstruction can occur for various reasons but at the heart of it is the idea that on some level one’s faith no longer “works.” The experience of things “no longer working” can have roots in intellectual exploration, relational hurt/abuse, etc. This may sound scary and dangerous, and for those experiencing deconstruction, it can feel that way and worse. Confusion, anger, doubts, disorientation, feelings of condemnation, loss, betrayal, and insecurity can leave those experiencing deconstruction feeling naked, alone, and desperate. In addition, anger is often present in deep ways as one navigates the experience.
One of the most significant questions to explore is how we interact with deconstruction, whether our own experience or the experience of others.
First, for those experiencing deconstruction, the confusing nature of the experience can leave us wondering what about our faith is worth salvaging, if anything at all. For someone who would have considered themselves a believer (a person of faith), this is incredibly disorienting. Other questions that arise center around: who can I trust? Has it all been a lie? Why am I just now learning certain things? Why can’t the church be healthy? Why doesn’t church practice and what I’ve been taught line up with the way of love that Jesus modeled? Additionally, for most, a season of deconstruction is not something that would have been expected. While perhaps a normal part of a life of faith (more on this later), most have not had exposure to the idea that there are shifts and changes in the life of faith marked by disorientation and deconstruction. However, this is well attested in the tradition of the church fathers and mothers as well as the writings of Christian mystical theology. Many experiencing deconstruction simply have no context for what is happening. And, there are often not companions for such a journey of examining, questioning, and even doubting the nature of God and what it means to have faith.
Second, for those in church leadership and observers of those experiencing deconstruction, it can also be very confusing. The idea of the faith “not working” and being questioned so deeply raises questions and concerns. From that place of confusion, an observers’ response is often to grab for some sense of certainty and perhaps to even try to quiet or quell another’s experience of deconstruction. Much of the current response from leaders is both unhelpful and uninformed. Unhelpful, in the sense that when someone is going through such a difficult experience, suggesting that they are wrong and headed for disaster does not create an environment where someone can interact in meaningful ways regardless of what, how, and why it is happening. People need to feel safe and listened to … and so combative rhetoric can actually do more to traumatize and re-traumatize than help. And, uninformed, because there appears to be a significant misunderstanding of a larger context of what might be going on. In addition, people should not be told how they can and can’t talk about their experience. Many have said that we shouldn’t call it deconstruction or that it is poisonous, etc. Language should be used with care and caution.
Finally, some have suggested that deconstruction is the result of sin and poor teaching. Poor teaching may indeed be involved in how deconstruction is being experienced, but I’d like to suggest that the poor teaching “charge” may not be on the level of needing more or better teaching around what is being “deconstructed” as way to prevent deconstruction, but poor teaching understood as a lack of teaching that could give context to deconstruction. And, the charge of sin? Perhaps, someone may simply be trying to “deconstruct” their faith as an act of rebellion against God but more frequently, it is because one cares so deeply about their faith that they are trying to make sense of it. Doubt and questioning is a function of faith, whereas an actively “sinful” disposition would be more likely to just walk away with a sense of apathy. Most who experience deconstruction do not have issues with God but with the ways they’ve understood Him and the ways others have led them.
To begin to tie some of this together, I want to suggest that a sort of deconstruction is exactly where God often leads us. This may sound strange, but the reality is that all of our conceptions of God are limited and usually even mis-shaped to some degree. Augustine made the observation: “if you understand, it is not God.” The point is not that we cannot understand God. He is understandable and knowable, but He is also beyond our knowing. He is most immediately grasped and experienced in the land of unknowing. Consider that Philippians 4 describes a “peace that surpasses understanding” and Ephesians 3 encourages us to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
C. S. Lewis, in Letter to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, wrote: “God must continually work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking, ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed …’” An iconoclast is someone who attacks beliefs and institutions … one who destroys images used in worship. The naming of God as an iconoclast is the idea that God is in the business of reframing and reshaping how we think about Him and how we interact with Him. And, often, this is experienced in deeply difficult and disturbing ways. God’s heart for us to know Him is so strong that He is continually in the loving process of moving us away from anything less than Himself toward a fullness of experiencing Him as He is. And, He invites us to be a part of the process.
Dr. John DelHousaye states it beautifully: “Deconstruct your inherited god concept and religious self, so that you may know and belong only to the true God (Ephesians 4:22-24).”
However it is that one arrives in the experience of deconstruction, deconstruction in and of itself it not a bad thing. Doubts and questions are good, normal, healthy parts of faith. Doubt actually demonstrates faith. Consider Thomas in John 20:24-29.
Deconstruction is not a problem to be solved but a movement of God to be experienced. And, the movement is from deconstructing that which is ultimately not an accurate understanding or experience of God toward a reconstruction which is more faithful to the reality of who God is. Uninformed and poor teaching is often why people don’t move from deconstruction to reconstruction.
Some may make the argument that what is being “deconstructed” is “off limits” because it belongs to orthodoxy or has long been a part of one’s tradition. It is helpful to remember two things: we never have it right (to claim so is the height of arrogance), and what has been understood as orthodox has certainty shifted over the years. Humility is helpful and needed both in those experiencing deconstruction and those observing.
Finally, it can helpful to say that for many who are experiencing deconstruction, it has risen out of a deep sense that there has to be something more. This may result from hurt and betrayal in the church. It might be spurred on by noticing a significant disparity between what Jesus and Scriptures seem to teach and the actual practice of western expressions of Christianity. And, it may spring from a deep longing for knowing this love and peace of God that is often spoken of but rarely in ways that connect with the heart. In humility, it should always be understood that a longing for more is perhaps one of the healthiest expressions of faith. Because God is infinite and we are not, we would always want to know more and experience more of God.
In part two of this exploration, we will look further at the specifics of what might be happening in deconstruction to give further context and hope that this is indeed a work of the Spirit in most cases. For now, I’d like to offer this for those experiencing deconstruction: when we reach the land of unknowing, we can enter by faith, trusting that God is leading us and loving us. Or, we can get back in the boat of certainty and intellectualize our faith even more. Not that having some sense of certainty as well as deepening doubts are mutually exclusive or contradictory. In fact, it was perhaps the ship of theological certainty that got us this far and we need step out of the boat because it has been a tool that took us this far on our journey. And, it is important to remember that boat is just that, a useful tool, not a place to live.
Coming in subsequent posts:
Part 2: Exploring Deconstruction
Part 3: Embracing Deconstruction