Deconstruction: How it helps and how it hurts
If you’re in circles where people are discussing faith and theology, you are likely no stranger to the term ‘deconstruction’. Deconstruction is essentially the taking apart of our theological foundation particularly in the ways in which we view God and understand how God views us. Reconstruction is the process of deciding what pieces stay in rebuilding. It’s sort of a death and rebirth of our understanding and interaction with God. As a Spiritual Director, I work with people who are often somewhere along this journey as well. Deconstruction can be incredibly helpful in deepening one’s spiritual life.
Deconstruction can feel terrifying and dangerous – the slipperiest of slippery slopes, especially if your foundation doesn’t hold space for questions. In this extreme, there is a fear that limits curiosity and critical thinking in regard to our theological beliefs. I get it. It can be scary to feel like something is actively challenging some of your deeply held foundational beliefs. For every single person I have had the honor of walking this journey with, I can assure you, it was terrifying to them too. No one wants to have their theological foundation rocked. No one wants to pull on threads they thought were ironclad to discover that there is perhaps more mystery than they thought.
Yet, it is wise to consider our own presuppositions, and to push back on our deeply held beliefs to consider why we believe what we do and consider the possibility of a different perspective. We have (with good intentions and often unknowingly) tried to put God in a box. I say good intentioned because I think it was out of earnest hearts that we wanted to figure out life and align ourselves in the “right” way. Then, one day, something happens to shake that foundation to the core. This is the beginning of deconstruction.
For some, it’s a nagging theological question that just doesn’t have a perfect answer. (This could be its own post, but I want to add a note that an understanding of “The Bible says it, and it’s clear” is a shallow answer. Even during my time at a very conservative college seeking a Biblical Studies degree, we grappled with some “problem passages” that presented contradictions within Scripture. This is why we have historically had disagreements over interpretation, and held councils early in the history of the Church to determine a consensus on theological positions while seeking unity. If we think every instruction or principle is crystal clear, we have not wrestled adequately with the text.) The rumbles of deconstruction could also be caused by a crisis, a season of grief and loss, or spiritual or religious trauma surfacing. It could be any number of things that bring us to a place of feeling like the easy answers and Christian cliches just don’t cut it like they once did.
It may even feel like faith is being lost. You may be thinking, well this person’s connection with God must not have been very strong to begin with. On the contrary, most of the people I have worked with were and are deeply passionate about their relationship with God, and this is accompanied by the fruit of immense personal sacrifice. Contrary to a belief that deconstruction leads people away from God, I think it is God that invites us out of the shallow waters, out past where we can touch and control and explain, to begin to transform us in a different way. We may be calling it deconstruction now, but this process is not new to our generation.
There are many gifts to be received in this place. One of the greatest gifts I received in this season is an understanding God didn’t love me more or less because my theology was correct, or because I was working hard for God. I had an invitation to rest. Nothing made sense and I couldn’t have leaned on theology (which I had proudly done for so long) even if I had wanted to because everything that was formerly a sure and settled issue felt like mystery. I can now see it as a gift, but in that season it was mostly terrifying yet I had a glimmer of hope that it would lead to some kind of interior freedom. The only thing I knew in that season is that I was pretty sure God was guiding me to this place of wilderness and that God is love. Even though it didn’t look like cultural Christianity, God’s presence was heavy in that space with me.
I have heard similar echoes from those I have had the honor to walk with on this road. I cannot plumb the depths in an article as short as this one, but I hope that I have scratched the surface of curiosity and a tenderness to honor where someone is, even if it is different or scary. There was and is much consolation to be had in this place, even if it looks desolate – and sometimes it truly did feel this way. Please don’t discount this journey for those you know. Pray for them, that they might experience God’s nearness, and find comfort in God’s presence even amidst their questions.
Now, I want to turn my attention to those who have walked the deconstruction path and I hope to gently point out some potential pitfalls. You may have experienced an internal freedom, particularly those of you who were steeped in fundamentalism. You have been able to push past the rigid dogma that was stifling and limiting your ability to explore mystery, enter the gray spaces, and be more comfortable with questions – which can lead to increasing surrender of control, of ourselves. Praise God. Yet, I see a cultural shift among some deconstructionists that is causing them to berate and abhor the people the people who still find comfort in certainty. One of your claims of fundamentalism is that it offers too narrow of an approach, yet you are still practicing fundamentalism within liberal causes. Let this be a signal, an invitation, for some inner work.
The point of freedom was to move into a space where we could be welcoming of all. Yet, I see many welcoming those they view as marginalized, yet having no ability to have compassion for those who have not had the same faith-shifting experience of deconstruction in the same way you have. This is also not healthy, and this posture is contributing to polarization.
I experienced and have heard many stories from people wishing that they could have had someone understand what they were going through in the midst of deconstruction. For many of us, we were afraid to share where we are and when we did, we lost friends and relationships that were dear to us. So I ask, if this is you, are you offering the same grace to those on the journey who are simply not at the same place as you? We each have a path that God tenderly and intimately guides us on, deepening us, tending to inner work, and ultimately transforming us. God meets us wherever we are on the journey, full stop.
Both extremes are “tossing the baby out with the bathwater” so to speak, and both struggle with an “enemy style” view toward those who are not presently in their camp. In light of this,
How might we better understand our own spiritual journey and hold space for others who are at a different place in their journey?
1. Take an honest inventory of our own spiritual journey.
2. Proceed with humility. None of us have arrived. If we think we have, let this be a signal to some inner work.
3. Learn to listen, and practice curiosity. This is especially true if we feel particularly enlightened about the “correct” ways to walk with God. Ask God to show us what we might be missing.
4. Examine our hearts toward others. Are we open? Compassionate? Seeking to understand?
5. Find a Spiritual Director to companion with you.
Are we contributing to unity in this area, or are we harming our fellow siblings? We are deeply loved humans, made in the Image of God, and mixed with dust. The invitation is not for us to be perfect, but we do need to be attentive.
Blessings to you, wherever you are on the journey with God.
Dr. Wilson welcomes all clients, all without requiring adherence to any religious belief or creed. She values the diversity of humanity which includes differences in gender, age, race, ethnicity, range of abilities, sexual orientation, financial means, education, and political perspective.