Demystifying Deconstruction, Part 3
Posted by Ted Wueste
When encountering deconstruction, it can be tempting to retreat to places where we think we can find certainty. The “undoing” of deconstruction is painful and we run the risk of not allowing the shaping and reshaping that God desires for us. In his book, Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey shares an interesting insight into the time he spent in the wilderness of Utah and darkness of night. He noticed that at night, if he used a flashlight, he could see what was right around him but not the larger environment and it kept him small and isolated from the broader reality.
“There’s another disadvantage to the use of a flashlight, like many other mechanical devices it tends to separate a man from the world around him. If I switch it on, my eyes adapt to it and I can only see the small pool of light in front of me; I am isolated. Leaving the flashlight in my pocket where it belongs, I remain a part of the environment I walk through and my vision though limited has no sharp or definite boundary.”
This reminds me of a beautiful piece of wisdom from the ancient book of Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” (3:5) Our temptation can be to try to understand and move to places that we understand prematurely. Staying in the uncertainty and disturbance is part of the work of deconstruction. Many have used a lot of “un” words to describe deconstruction: undoing, unraveling, unselfing, unlearning. This can lead us to deeper places of trust in the God who actually exists rather than a constructed God. However, it is painful and can feel a lot like death and loss. It can even feel like the darkness of the wilderness at night. The deep truth is that it is loving to have a God who will risk us going “off the path” with the desire that we partner with Him “to make straight our paths.” (3:6)
Alan Jones makes the observation: “The task of love is to help us rid ourselves of the exoskeleton, to lay us bare, to set us free. But we love the prison house. The place of bondage is, at least, familiar. Love, then, comes as an unwelcomed shock.” God loves us and desires to lead us further and deeper into the new life that the Gospel (the good news) promises. Geoffrey Tristram describes our role: “Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure; unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow. So much of the literature of the world is about this very theme. From the story of Abraham in Genesis, to the great epic stories of the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Lord of the Rings. They all require leaving everything and going on a journey that will lead to a new life, a new identity.”
It may sound strange to be encouraged to “embrace” deconstruction, but perhaps not as we begin to understand deconstruction as a movement of the Spirit in our lives and the lives of others. To embrace deconstruction is to be fully present to what God is up to in one’s life and where one finds themselves in the present moment. In this final exploration, I want to look at a few things as it relates to practical, concrete ways we can be fully present to what God might be doing.
All followers of Christ should find themselves in moments or seasons of deconstruction. Quite simply, if we don’t, we either aren’t paying attention or we’ve hardened our hearts. We never have it all figured out and we will find that we’ve constructed things that are just not consistent with truth and God’s heart. To suggest otherwise is to try to protect something or hold on to something that less than God. Perhaps we’ve become beholden to our experiences of the faith and the theological perspectives that make us the most comfortable.
The challenge is to stay with God in our deconstruction. Deconstruction is not a rejection of God (although it may feel like that) but a rejection of that which is less than and/or contrary to God. However, at the same time, in a season of deconstruction, we may find ourselves so angry and hurt that walking into a church, picking up a Bible, and/or prayer triggers emotions that can seem unbearable. When deconstruction has come about (at least partially) from abuse and/or trauma, there can be a deep wisdom in separating oneself from standard spiritual practices in order to heal.
Years ago, as I pastored a church, I encouraged someone to stop reading their Bible for a period of time because the Bible had been used as a weapon in their previous church and just picking the Scriptures up was painful. Counseling to work through trauma can be incredibly helpful. When dealing with the effects of hurt and abuse, the deep work of deconstruction can be too much for us and we need to stabilize and heal before and as we move forward. Questioning God and finding ourselves angry with Him may also be a normal part of the journey as well. We need to give ourselves space for this and trust that God gives us that space as well. Stanley Hauerwas has suggested: “Anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshipping an idol.” God doesn’t need to be protected and He doesn’t try to protect Himself. He invites our real experience of our lives and Him. Read the Psalms for only a few pages and you see expression of anger, doubt, and questions. “How long, O God, will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13)
Deconstruction really is about loss. It is about losing our misconceptions about God, our ways of being in the world, and our ego. Jesus highlighted loss as a key element of following His way: “And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.  For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:23–25) It might sound good on paper but loss is hard when it comes our way and perhaps even harder when we are invited to voluntarily lose something. How do we do that? How do we open our hands and release that which has given us a sense of safety, security, and control? As Alan Jones suggests, “we love the prison house.” In John 8, Jesus said: “you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” He is not speaking of “truth” generically but about relational truth … specifically, “abiding” (or, remaining present) to what He says. The discussion He was having in this context was about being slaves to sin, or imprisoned. The Pharisees had significant misconceptions about God and how they related to Him. Jesus was seeking to set them free. They had significant superiority issues (or, ego) and Jesus called them to more.
Again, the question remains: how do we live into that? We embrace the ultimate realities of deconstruction as we learn to let go and release … as we learn to open our hands of that to which we cling and empty ourselves of grasping for power and control (Philippians 2). We also have to realize that in letting go of one thing, we can be tempted to pick something else up rather than leaving ourselves empty and surrendered before God.
This is where the contemplative tradition of the Christian faith has so much to say and model for us. I won’t offer a full discussion and exploration of contemplative spirituality, but here a few directions to explore:
- The Psalms can be a wonderful companion because they are prayers (staying connected to God) that are full of interpersonal contradiction, misconceptions about God, questions, doubts, and angst. And … God invites us to pray them and to identify with them. He meets us there. Often, the Psalms give words to things we are experiencing but otherwise could not identify or put into our own words. Also, we see movement (as an invitation) in the Psalms from orientation (being settled to some degree) to disorientation (disrupted in what we have thought and are experiencing) to reorientation (a kind of resettling in a new place).
- Contemplative practices of letting go such as silence and solitude, listening prayer, and holy detachment are critical in seasons of deconstruction. They help us release our grip on what was important and attach to God’s heart more fully and deeply. It is only with empty hands that we can move forward. In Exodus 14, as God led the people of Israel of our enslavement in Egypt, they were experiencing a kind of deconstruction as they were being asked to let go of a way of life they had known for 400 years and embrace a vulnerability and trust in a God they were learning to trust in new ways. They responded by saying, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” It can feel like death and we can begin to believe we are going to die. God responds through Moses and says, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” Some translations read: “you only have to be still.” The ideas of stillness and silence speak to a contemplative approach of letting go of old strategies for survival and our old ways of being in the world.
- Finally, critical in a time of deconstruction is having companions that will hold space and give freedom to explore and discover what is happening in one’s soul. As mentioned previously, we often find counseling helpful. Also helpful is meeting with a spiritual director who can help you notice and discover how God is at work. Most spiritual directors are specifically trained to hold the kind of space we need in a time of deconstruction.
It may be tempting to think that reconstruction will mean that all of our questions are resolved and our hurts repaired, but the reality is that often we find ourselves with more questions and our hurts replaced with a limp. However, we can confidently say we will have a new view of and experience of God: “He put a new song in my mouth.” (Psalm 40:3) In John 6, Jesus and His disciples were experiencing opposition from religious leaders and many of His followers were turning away because Jesus was leading them into things that they couldn’t fully comprehend. Jesus looked at His disciples and said, “Do you want to go away as well?” (vs. 67) Peter responded with: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (vs. 68) That is beauty that can come from deconstruction? A stripping down of our confidence in anything but the One.