As a pastor, I have to maintain a healthy interest in the spiritual developments that effect people. Perhaps it’s a new book really encouraging or upsetting people in their faith. Or maybe it’s a Christian leader touting a new idea that impacts how people live. It can also be things like community violence, international war, and family dynamics. Anything really.
That’s why I have watched with interest the current work happening with deconstruction. I’m no expert–at all. But a few things seem pretty obvious even to a novice like me. First, “deconstruction” means a lot of different things to different people. Second, various kinds of things can be “deconstructed,” from Christian beliefs to Christian behaviors to church practices to cultural barnacles. Third, “deconstruction” can reach really different end points, from a firmer, truer faith to outright rejection of the same. So, as a pastor, I’m really interested in what a specific person means when he or she says they are “deconstructing.” I’m interested to help them think well about what’s happening with them with the hopes that they might become more sound in faith.
To that end, it seems to me (again, I’m no expert) that a few questions might be helpful in diagnosing what’s happening when we feel we are deconstructing in some sense. In no particular order, here are a few I hope might be helpful:
Is this deconstruction or “negative learning”? Deconstruction assumes you had a coherent belief or position. But sometimes people are “deconstructing” things they never actually learned or constructed. They’re gathering objections, critiques, and complaints from others without understanding what’s being critiqued or if the critiques are accurate. That’s why I call it “negative learning”–the person is amassing a series of often disparate negations to replace an ill-formed belief or practice. Particularly in a society flooded with hurts, allegations and abuses, polarization and bad faith polemics, we need to be careful that we are constructionists in the first instance and that our deconstruction isn’t mostly a matter of murmuring, complaining, gossiping, and being taken in by every wind or doctrine.
Are your beliefs ever really rooted in the Bible? A lot of people are discovering that what they thought was biblical was actually cultural or political. The ideas of men have been taught to them as if they were the conclusions of God. Those kinds of discoveries ought to result in a kind of deconstruction. We should constantly scrape off the barnacles of cultural and political accretion from the ship of faith. But it also ought to make us wonder whether or not we had been rooting our faith in the word of God. Before we can deconstruct anything in a healthy way, we must go back to the source in a positive way. Can we build our beliefs from the Bible up rather than from a theological system down? Can we construct a position on a doctrine or practice using only the Bible, or are we primarily driven by “pastor says”? If we cannot articulate our beliefs with only the Bible in front of us, finding book chapter and verse, then the first order of business is to actually learn the Bible. Forget about deconstruction until you do some construction.
What specifically am I deconstructing? Is it the whole of Christianity or some specific teaching? Am I rethinking foundational Christian teaching (i.e., the Trinity, hell, the resurrection, atonement, etc) or a secondary doctrine (i.e., baptism, gender roles, spiritual gifts, etc)? Answering this determines whether you’re flirting with apostasy or reforming according to the word of God. Apostasy threatens the soul; reforming strengthens it. So, it’s helpful to do some triage. It’s also helpful to watch out for any instance where a secondary issue (say, baptism) begins to bleed over into primary issues (say, salvation). Theological and doctrinal ideas often hang together. Changes in one place often effect changes in other places. This, in part, is how some people drift into greater error and unbelief. Keep the questions as specific as you can.
Where am I trying to go? This question can help eliminate spiritual wandering. In the name of “deconstructing,” some people experience a loss of purpose and direction. They don’t know where they’re headed or trying to go. As I watch the conversation, it seems to me a crisis of confidence often travels with deconstruction. Some boast about this; they see their deconstruction as a commitment to ambiguity, not knowing, taking a journey being guided mainly by questions or doubts. I don’t think such boasting is healthy. As G. K. Chesterton once observed, “The purpose of having an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close it onto something solid.” But others who are deconstructing have a more specific destination in mind. They can identify the particular issue(s) that need re-examination in light of scripture, history, practice, etc. I’d suggest specificity actually helps with knowing whether you’re making spiritual progress toward anything healthy or toward anything at all. Again, you don’t want to be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine or taken captive by empty philosophy.
Are you being honest about your sin issues and temptations? It’s pretty easy to begin a deconstruction journey by assuming the rightness of our concerns. This is especially true with regard to our personal temptations and sin concerns. We may be facing temptations and sins for which we want approval, however, the Bible condemns it. So, in the name of “deconstruction,” we begin with a forbidden conclusion and work our way toward finding approval either outside the Bible or by twisting the Bible. That’s often times dishonest. It boasts in man’s wisdom rather than boasting in the knowledge of God. I am not here talking about a healthy acceptance of ourselves, including an honest admission of our sins and temptations, which is necessary to understand and fight them. I’m talking about an unhealthy self-deception, calling light darkness and darkness light. That kind of dishonesty might result in temporary relief or happiness, but it ends with eternal judgment. We must be relentlessly honest with ourselves and others about our sins and temptations so we are not deceived by them.
Is your deconstruction driven by hurt or disappointment? This is anecdotal, but it seems hurt or disappointment fuels a lot of deconstruction. it can be hurt suffered personally at the hands of church leaders. It can be disappointment with the failings of congregations or leaders. It can be a sense of betrayal when we disagree with others on a social or political issue important to us (especially given the hyper-polarization of the last decade). Pastorally, I think it’s important that we address our hurts and disappointments as constructively as possible before we turn to deconstruction as an answer. I know that many people find that their efforts at reconciliation and healing are thwarted or unfruitful. That compounds the hurt. But sometimes people give the impression they never sought to address offenses or misunderstandings. They left the hurtful relationship and decided to also leave some aspect of their faith and practice. Again, I think leaving a church or leader(s) is sometimes absolutely warranted. And leaving can be the first step in healing. I’m not cautioning against that. But we must be honest about the difference between when leaving is healing and when we’re leaving to avoid the hard work of reconciliation. Of course, I can’t answer that for anyone. But it seems important for everyone to ask themselves that question. In my anecdotal experience, most Christians try in heroic ways to achieve some reconciliation before deconstructing. So, if that’s not been your story, you might pause to ask why.
Are you in a rush? Sometimes it seems to me people are rushing toward conclusions at the speed of tweets. I wonder, Why be hasty with your soul? The work we do at sanctification, reforming our understanding, deconstructing or reconstructing is the most important work in the universe. We are working out our salvation with fear and trembling. So, we need to do it at a deliberate pace, discerning how God is at work in us to will and do His good pleasure. It’s unwise to rush spiritual formation. In fact, it’s pretty near impossible to do so. In many cases, people have believed something all their life and they learned it from the most trusted persons in their life (parents, pastors, teachers, etc). So, their beliefs and thoughts are often multi-layered, subtle in presence, foundational to more than just the practice or belief itself. Deconstruction can be a massive upheaval of an entire life. You shouldn’t do that unaided by trusted others and you shouldn’t do that as if it must be accomplished before it stops trending on social media. It may have taken you years or a lifetime to arrive at one understanding; give yourself years or even a lifetime to arrive at a better, more rooted, biblical new understanding. Don’t rush your soul’s development or your faith’s practice. Take your time. Jesus has you.
These are questions, not answers. They’re offered in the spirit of helping travelers read some of the signs they may be passing. As a committed Christian and pastor, I would have everyone enter and remain in the faith. But as a long-time Christian and pastor, I know all too well that we Christians and leaders hurt one another. Some do it unintentionally and others intentionally. There are weak sheep in the pews and the pulpit, just as there are wolves in pews and the pulpit. The consequence is hurt, pain, confusion and oftentimes doubt. Deconstruction can be a healthy response to those realities if we are careful to slow down and ask the right questions. Remember: There’s a significant difference between deconstruction and demolition. In demolition, we tear the entire edifice down, usually in one explosive moment. In deconstruction, as with our favorite shows on HGTV, we remove things with care and with an eye toward designing something better in the future.
I hope this helps even a little bit.