Demystifying Deconstruction, Pt 2
Posted by Ted Wueste
Deconstruction leads to reconstruction. That is the heart of God for us as we move through a difficult season of disorientation and wilderness. In general, over the first seasons of our lives, we construct a way of living and moving and being in the world: construction. There comes a time when our “constructed” life and worldview no longer work the way they once did. Things begin to deconstruct so reconstruction can occur. However, this is not always what happens.
It is possible to misunderstand and misidentify the movement and shaping of God in our lives. Deconstruction is painful. It is confusing. It is disorienting. We can lose our bearings. In this second blog post, we will explore what is going on in the movement from construction to deconstruction and then reconstruction. If leaders and spiritual mentors misunderstand what is going on, it can lead to discouragement of and stifling of the good, spiritual growth of followers of Jesus. If one going through deconstruction misidentifies what is happening, deconstruction can become an end in itself and not lead to a reconstruction with God more at the center than ever before.
For those who find themselves suspicious as they encounter deconstruction, we can confidently say that this is a work of the Spirit. John DelHousaye made the observation: “Jesus invites us to join his circle; many of us come with a drawing of him in hand; the depiction – how he was presented by our parents, pastor, or Christian school – is not entirely wrong and had a wholesome purpose, and yet Jesus looks perplexed over why we still cling to paper.” There is a letting go in this process and the goal is deepening experience of union with God as old conceptions of God are shed. However, we may need further discernment as we explore deconstruction. Let me offer three lenses through which can view deconstruction: desire, direction, and doctrine.
But, first, a short but significant caveat is in order as we continue our exploration. There is a kind of deconstruction that does not lead to reconstruction. One of the objections to deconstruction posited by some is that it is because of sin and/or “rebellion.” Often, someone has just made up their mind that they are “done” with Christianity for a variety of reasons and their journey of deconstruction is engaged in a way so as not to continue to journey with Christ in deepening, purifying, more faithful ways. This kind of “deconstruction” is perhaps more about destruction. This is where the first lens of “desire” can be helpful as we explore deconstruction.
As deconstruction is encountered, one’s desire, or heart longing, is a significant part of what is being awakened, shifted, and formed. Alan Jones made the observation that “a human being is a longing for God.” Desire is central to who we are, and specifically a desire for God is at the depths of who we are. Many begin to experience an awakening of desire, a recognition that they were made for something more. For many in deconstruction, phrases like “there has to be more to faith than this” or “what used to satisfy me no longer does.” While this can be unnerving, desire for a deeper, more authentic experience of Christ is something that the Spirit shapes in us. Most often the desire is centered around a disconnect between what one knows cognitively and what one is actually experiencing. The dissatisfaction can appear both internally and around what is being observed in the church. Church attendance and participation may not seem to address this new, awakened desire. These desires can be disorienting because things that have always made sense or satisfied us no longer do, and yet, as spiritual director Thomas Dubay observes: “Most significant spiritual growth is often discerned by the believer as backsliding.” When that is our discernment, we may try to increase our efforts to do what we have always done, we may get discouraged thinking that following Christ “just isn’t for me,” or we may try to ignore it. However, if we can see this awakened desire as the movement of God in our lives to move with Him into deepening experience of Him and a shifted relationship with the church and others, we may find encouragement to engage in the deconstruction/reconstruction process with a measure of joy as we trust that it is God who is at work in us (Phil 2:13).
The second lens through which we can view deconstruction is direction. We can discern that a Spirit led deconstruction is occurring when there is a specific trajectory, or direction, to what is going on. Deconstruction is always a movement to something, not simply away from something. Often, deconstruction is experienced as a leaving behind or a jettisoning of the old as the primary movement with something undiscerned on the other side. However, as we look at the Scriptures and the writing of saints over the ages, we see something very different. Deconstruction is a movement toward God and toward a deepened, purified experience of who He truly is. Certainly, there are things left behind but the direction is toward God Himself.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in observing the prayer life and movements of God in the Psalms, categorized the Psalms along the lines of psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. In those three words, one can see the concepts of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. And rather than being singular events, this threefold movement of God in the lives of His people happens over and over again. Often, the movement is scarcely recognizable and at other times it is painfully (or, confusingly) present.
The early church fathers and mothers observed a similar threefold movement expressed in the words purgation, illumination, and union that focuses on the end result even more than the process. Purgation could be considered akin to deconstruction in that sin, childish/immature ways, and even theological naivite are purged from the follower of Jesus. Illumination is a place where one begins to see God more clearly as opposed to the more immature ways of seeing God as one who produces certain outcomes, etc. Finally, union is a description of a life of life in which intimacy with God and love for others is the clear, defining rubric through which a follower of Jesus exists in the world.
In 1 John 2:12-14 (ESV), we observe a three-fold progression as well: I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
Notice the developmental nature of what is being described: children, young men, and fathers. Children are those whose sins have been forgiven and they know God as Father. The young men are those who have passed through purgation and overcome the evil one and are strong. Finally, the fathers are those who know God as the One who is from the beginning. There is much we could observe about the process and development described here, but perhaps most significant is how one relates to God. The movement is from a child in need of a Father to a strong young man to the father/elder who relates to God as one who is imminently present and yet infinitely eternal. The movement is from simplicity (not a bad thing) to strength to relational absorption in the mystery and depths of experiencing union with one who infinite and intimate all together. The direction of deconstruction is toward experiential, relational trust that goes beyond words and cognitive knowledge (Ephesians 3; Philippians 4). A child knows certain things about a parent but the parent is not a “real person” whereas the fathers relate to God intimately as friend (John 15) and perhaps we might even say lover (Song of Songs).
For many followers of Jesus, we have looked at the Christian experience in very black and white terms with little nuance and very little attention paid to process and depth where intimacy with God is the end goal. Much discussion is either/or rather than both/and. This has not only hurt us in the process of moving into the depths of the union that we already have in Christ, it has stunted, delayed, or derailed the beautiful, while painful, process of deconstruction and reconstruction.
Finally, it is wise to pay attention to how doctrine is engaged in a deconstruction-reconstruction process. Certainly, for many, a deconstruction journey began and can even become centered on doctrine. There is often a sense that some doctrines are just not ringing true. Or perhaps, further study of any range of issues might bring someone to new convictions. There may be an experience of deep pain in seeing how people have been treated in the name of Christ and how theological positions have been used as weapons in culture wars. There are certainly doctrinal teachings that are core and non-negotiable in terms of protecting the essence of being in Christ. However, the list is often shorter than many would imagine or even allow. There are many debatable matters that have been that way over the course of church history. A significant problem in many churches and theological circles is pulling doctrines and particular convictions into the circle of what is essential and calling it “gospel” as though it can never be questioned. The gospel is the simple truth that Jesus died, was buried, rose on the third day, and appeared to many. (1Corinthians 15) Paul makes it clear that this “gospel” is of first importance, meaning that it is primary and foundational. This truth, Paul says in the previous verses, is what “you received, in which you stand in, and by which you are being saved.”
An additional note may be helpful here as well. As someone is engaging deconstruction, the movement is into a depth of relationship with Christ not experienced before. Truth is engaged with differently. In the end, it is not that truth becomes unimportant but for many the shift is toward truth being a person rather than interacting primarily with truth as a set of propositional ideas. Again, not that truth as propositional statement doesn’t have importance but as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:21, “the truth is in Jesus.” In the context, Paul is speaking of putting off the old man and putting on the old man. These are relational realities connected to a renewal of the spirit and being made in the likeness of God. In essence, we might say that truth is Jesus … truth is a person … truth is relational. At the very center of all that exists is a creator who exists in eternal Trinitarian relationship.
Given these things, it might be helpful to suggest that any deconstruction journey will interact with doctrine in ways that seems off limits or at the very least odd to the observer and even the person in deconstruction. It is vital that Christ be at the center and that He is interacted with as Lord. He is faithful on the journey as the Spirit shapes and leads. Within our abiding union with Christ, we can question and deconstruct all kinds of things with Him as our companion. We’ll discuss this further in this next blog post.
Wherever you find yourself, allow me to offer a bit of pastoral encouragement. In Romans 2:4, we read: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” In discussions and debates around deconstruction, kindness is not a word that generally comes to mind and yet it is the kindness of God that draws us to Him and shapes our hearts. The word repentance is a very misunderstood word, and it essentially means to have a change of mind … a shift in direction. It is a beautifully gracious word even though preachers and others have used it to shout at people and shame people. The construction-deconstruction-reconstruction journey is a beautiful journey of repentance … it is a shift from one place to another. Kindness is needed all around. Be assured, God’s kindness in the process is plentiful. For those undergoing deconstruction, allow yourself to feel and receive that kindness. God is not mad at you. He is taking you to places you’ve never gone through terrain that is difficult. For those observers, be kind! If you want to companion and encourage someone along the way, it is kindness that leads us home.