Beyond Deconstruction: A Summary
Many today claim they are in a “phase of deconstruction.” I have not been able to determine just exactly what they mean by deconstruction but the general point is clear. They find the Christian faith as they have experienced it to be inadequate. Whether it is some intellectual problem (science vs. Genesis 1-2 and the creationism they were taught) or the hypocrite problem (well-known pastors collapsing) or social problem (why can’t the church get on board with universal health care?), they are finding the church falling short. The credibility of the church’s claims is withering for them.
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What do they want? Social relations/communion over against atomistic individualism, a way of knowing that is embodied and in communion where reason may assist in understanding over against rationalism which devalues or denies particularity (see McGilchrist’s Master and His Emissary), knowing the self as storied from somewhere over against knowing the self gnosticly from nowhere, acknowledgement that I am social constructed without being socially determined over against (obviously) social determinism or self determinism, a community where awareness of an ideal being situated, awareness of the failure of practice to meet the ideal, and awareness of confession and forgiveness is necessary to balm the tension over against ideals which demand eradication (cancel) or subscription to ideals as sufficient in lieu of practice. So much more, but here’s a start.
I have observed what I will call here three “phases” of this deconstruction.
Deconstruction for many is something like a half-way house between confining church experiences, release, preparation and eventually resocialization. They are dissidents of the system. At this point they know what they don’t believe more than what they do believe. With respect to the church, they are in a liminal space, a space between faith and no faith, between belief and apostasy (in its classical sense).
What many “deconstructors” do is begin to eliminate elements of their previous church life’s beliefs. They discard things like creationism, dispensationalism, Christan nationalism, inerrancy, original sin, evangelism (as commonly practiced), etc.. They enter this phase of not only knowing what they don’t believe but they decisively chuck some things aside. They will say things like “I’m not an evangelical any longer” or “I don’t affirm the institutional church” or “church leadership is nothing but a power game.”
Many deconstructors find a new way, and their new-found confidence in their new way mirrors their former confidence. Their personality type comes to expression again: if they were feisty fundies, they become feisty fundies again; if they were moderates before they become that again; if they were intellectual before, they remain intellectuals.
These deconstructors become, in other words, re-constructors. They reconstruct their Christian faith from the foundations up and they slowly, carefully lay one brick on another until they form a Christian faith that they find consistent with Jesus and what the church should and can be (all over again).
First word: Jesus.
The Christian faith for many has become something along the line of Christianity or Christendom or a philosophy or a set of unalterable beliefs (a kind of systematic theology) or a catechism (what was taught as true in their church). In this world they experienced Jesus as The Agent and as The Christ but not as the Person.
They find Jesus entirely credible and they want to hang on to him. As a person. Not as an Agent in a System but as living person who lived as a marginalized Galilean in a poor family and who along with many struggled to exist. Many deconstructors want to maintain Jesus – the person, the Jew – and they are willing to begin right there, with him, all over again, as if for the first time. They want the Jesus who found various settings – mountainsides, hills, lakeshores, synagogues, tables in the evening, under trees to find shade in the heat of Galilee, in the temple courts – to teach, and announce, and talk, and to converse, and to debate. That’s a Jesus worth hanging onto.
Second word: Justice.
If the heart of the REcostruction is Jesus, justice will be found close to the heart.
Deconstructors are aware of our world and its injustices. The internet makes these injustices palpable. Sometimes daily. Education, whether formal or informal, points responsibility and culpability. Deconstructors aren’t simply seeing a problem but they are feeling responsible for that injustice.
They think the church ought to be involved. No, a church that is not involved is not the church of Jesus. If their church doesn’t want involvement then they’ll follow Jesus. Church or not. The church, in fact, ought to be the vanguard of justice in all its forms, not just expounding it on Sundays but embodying it all week long amongst themselves and expanding that into neighborhoods and communities and states and nations and world. Deconstructors want to see good people do the right thing at the right time. Those who are doing the right thing at the right time are the worthy examples to be followed, and frankly if it’s a non-Christian that doesn’t matter to the deconstructors who are reconstructing.
Third word: Model.
Education is about emulation more than information. What reconstructors do is either form themselves as a prototype to be followed or find someone worthy of a Jesus-Justice shape and get in the group. Deconstructors want a good model, a good example. What one believers will matter less than Who one is and Who one holds up as a good example. They read the Gospels, they see Jesus, and they say, “We need more Jesus.” And at times they say, “We need more people who live like Jesus.” But not those who say they are like Jesus but those who look like Jesus when no one knows who they are and when no one is looking. Those who may not even know they look like Jesus.
Fourth word: Salvation.
The fourth term for many who are moving beyond deconstruction to reconstruction is salvation. It is far more under assault than many think. Even many who have been saved question the category’s gravity and meaningfulness. Yet they have read enough New Testament to know this term matters immensely.The reconstructors want a holistic salvation and not simply a spiritual salvation. So much do they want this that I hear often a radical diminishing of the so-called spiritual side of the equation. For them salvation is personal and corporate, spiritual and social, justification and justice, church-y and politic-y, trauma-sensitive and gender-sensitive, orthodox and innovative … I could go on. A theory of salvation that makes me a loner with God isn’t what the Bible teaches, and they are sure of that. They read Amos and they know otherwise. They read the Gospels and they know otherwise. So, the reconstructors are fine with salvation if it is deep enough to take root in the whole life, if it is wide enough to embrace all that God is redeeming, and high enough to be genuine religion and spirituality, and low enough to matter when they get in the car to fetch the kids at school.
Fifth word: Friendship precedes Fellowship.
So they want to begin with their friends with whom they have learned what actual fellowship is. They know what they experience with their friends is not the fellowship of sitting in a church in distant unknowing. Fellowship, with is a relationship of love and justice and peace and grace with fellow followers of Jesus, begins with friendship, not with distant unknowing. The intimate knowing of friendships-become-fellowship strikes me as what the reconstructors wants as the future of the church.
Sixth word: Honesty.
Church should be a place where honesty reigns. The Deconstructors who become Reconstructors want a space where the bull is dropped and the truth is told.
Gathering with others in a space called “church” has created a false world of performance. People used to put on what my mom called their “Sunday go-to-meetin” clothes and where the starch in their shirts was compatible with the starch in their deportment. To act out in church, to say a no-no or to entertain some idea frowned upon was to get yourself into first class trouble with an angry God behind an angry adult overseer or pastor.
Seventh word: Humility.
I could mention many names but we don’t need to. There is a cocksuredness about many evangelical leaders that turns many totally off. I’m a professor and we’re supposed to be knowledgeable about our field – mine is NT studies – but we know from our knowing that we don’t know jacksquat about other fields, including OT and church history and systematics and pastoral theology and liturgics. I could go on, but you get the idea of specialization. Those who have specialized can know tons about their field and be totally ignorant about other fields. Some preachers give off more than a whiff of knowing everything about everything. One of the most significant thinkers I read in those days was Lesslie Newbigin. As he wrote in his important study Proper Confidence, in coming to faith “There is no possibility of the kind of indubitable certainty that Descartes claimed …. There is no insurance against risk. We are invited to make a personal commitment to a personal Lord and to entrust our lives to his service.” Personal knowledge of a personal Lord is not certaintist, cocksure claims to knowing everything but instead a kind of knowing that finds confidence in the Lord Jesus – who he is, what he teaches, what he reveals about God – but that kind of proper confidence simultaneously unmasks our unknowing.
Here's a motto for the Reconstructors, as I see them:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:22-27).
Scott, I would be really interested to hear how you might respond to the theme of trauma with deconstruction. I found your article to have some interesting insights but I also found it to be missing what I think is an integral link to deconstruction themes that I've seen over the years and that is a response to trauma in different forms including trauma from high control in religion, spiritual trauma, emotional trauma, trauma from abuse in all different forms. Where would you see this fitting into the picture of deconstruction that you see?
I was also curious about how you began your article. You say" I have not been able to determine just exactly what they mean by deconstruction but the general point is clear. They find the Christian faith as they have experienced it to be inadequate." My initial response was actually a bit taken a back, and I had to sit with that feeling. Why do I feel hurt as someone who has deconstructed? As I sat with it I thought your comment actually made a good point and that was that deconstruction is hard to nail down as a term because its so dependent on people's experiences. It by nature means something different to different people because their deconstruction looks different. I think for a lot of people deconstruction means leaving the church and healing from the parts of themselves that were broken and traumatized by their spiritual and religious experiences. When I processed that I realized this is why comments like that may be met with feelings of hurt. People who have deconstructed are used to having people make assumptions about why they left the church, they are used to not being listened to. But if you do listen to them, you'll find a lot of concrete meanings to the word deconstruction...there will just be multiple ones from different voices. It is not necessarily a homogenous movement. It is diverse and I think the lack of a consistent definition actually speaks to the suspicion of creating a homogenous movement related to people's experiences of high control in religion and the trauma they faced from that.
As I process this I hope that it maybe can add another perspective to the conversation on de-construction and contribute to empathy and de-stigmatization around the topic.
How much of the activity of the Holy Spirit should be a part of the “deconstruct”? Surely we won’t fall into the trap of reconstructing in a human reaction.