Category Archives: Demystifying Deconstruction
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.
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.
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