Deconstruction starts with the realization that all of reality is constructed. This is so because we can only see, i.e. understand, what we can place in an interpretative structure of understanding. When applied to faith and belief systems deconstruction can have dire, but ultimately healthy, consequences. The movement of those who deconstruct and leave their faith is growing in America. It can no longer be ignored.
When I studied at an evangelical seminary in the Mid-West I encountered the term deconstruction for the first time. I heard it being whispered in the margin of classes on hermeneutics and systematic theology. Before I knew what was happening, I was in the midst of the deconstruction of my theology and soon my faith. On the one hand, I knew what I was doing on the other I didn’t really know why it was happening; only that it was necessary and that there was no way back.
For many at this seminary, deconstruction was the dreaded monster that equaled falling away from the faith. For others, it was a social activity that they participated in only to abandon it again as soon as they got a call to a pastorate. On the other side were those, a minority to be sure, who pursued deconstruction and went down the slippery slope of I-don’t-know-what-is-beyond-but let’s-do-it. Some lost faith altogether while others found faith beyond the boundaries of their previous faith.
So what is deconstruction? What is faith deconstruction? And why should I care?
It all started with the postmodern philosophers, notably Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher of the second half of the 20th century, who did much work to lay bare the hidden assumptions behind that which we assume to be our world. Analyzing texts he pointed out how all of human reality is constructed by humans themselves in ways they don’t recognize. Of course, there are the bare facts of the planet we live on, the bodies we have, the oxygen we breathe, the fact that there are more of us, etc. But even the bare facts of life come to use filtered through complex mental lenses of which we are not aware and which let us see those bare facts and all the rest of the world in a certain way.
These lenses are the product of us, all of us, i.e. our culture, our language, our history, etc. In fact, these lenses are so strong and all-encompassing, that we are not aware of them even when we talk about them. In other words, our world is constructed in such a way that we can’t see the world without that particular structure that gives us the world. A consequence of this is that even when we analyze its structure we are still part of it; when we critique it, we critique only that part of it that we have managed to become aware of. In short, when we deconstruct the world, i.e. attempt to identify the lenses through which we see the world and expose the mind games we subconsciously play, we are still structuring.
That doesn’t mean we can’t really really deconstruct. After all, there is a benefit to realizing that our world is structured and that we only look through lenses. There is a benefit to be able to self-differentiate, to use a psychological term, from your structure and to be in a critical relationship with it.
What Deconstruction Is Not
There is one thing that deconstruction is not, in my opinion (and this is not a judgment of those who do this) and that is to just leave faith behind without giving it too much thought. Of course, abandoning your faith is in a way deconstruction in the sense that something falls apart. But if something falls apart, it simply means it is being destroyed. Deconstruction, however, entails a process of both taking apart and assembling; it is de-con-struction. If I’m correct, this has been the primary mode of the process of dechristianization of Europe in the 60s and 70s. People simply left the Church and that was it.
Another example of deconstruction that is not actually deconstruction but simply a falling apart of faith is found, if I’m correct, among the many ex-evangelicals who have loosely organized themselves in the exvangelical movement like for instance this Exvangelical Facebook Group. I’m not saying this to disparage their struggle, their voice or their stance. In fact, I’m in conversation with a good number of exvangelicals and some are even my friends. However, a lot of these exvangelicals are not de-con-structing; they simply act out the pain of the destruction of their faith and/or rejoice in newfound freedom.
Deconstruction is the opposite of both construction and destruction; it is the responsible identification of the constructed elements of one’s faith and then taking them apart in order to see the underlying layers of construction wondering what might be useful again and in what configuration. It is important to note that we cannot do this as though we were undertaking this labor from a so-called unconstructed, universal, objective standpoint. We deconstruct from a constructed reality. We’re always self-involved as constructed beings in search of truth. We are never there; wherever that is.
Deconstruction and Faith
It was theologian John Caputo in particular who applied Derrida’s thought to theology and faith. His book “What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is an eloquent marvel of deconstruction of hidden assumptions in particularly conservative Christian thinking.
When deconstruction is applied to faith something important happens. It is so much more, or rather deeper, than simply starting to question your faith. Above I stated that deconstruction starts with the realization that all of reality is constructed. Well, if you apply that to faith or belief systems you get something very awkward. You start realizing that doctrines, dogmas, and moral rules you once believed to be enshrined truth and not up for discussion are, in fact, things constructed by human beings.
On the one hand, there is something innately liberating about this. You get to separate God from what people believe about God who proceed to claim such beliefs to be ultimate truth. On the other hand, there can be a tremendous sense of loss. With the dogmas gone and the morality no longer absolute, you may experience a certain loss. Maybe you feel you’ve lost God. To the extent that you identified God with the dogmas and the moral rules, you have indeed lost God. But that may be a good thing.
Consequences of Deconstruction
The thing with deconstruction is this: once you see it, you can’t unsee it again. So, once you see the constructed nature of theology and, let’s say, sexual ethics of the church, you can never enshrine them again as absolute. This has various consequences. For one, it sets you at odds with the faith community you belong(ed) to since its members continue to hold on to the absolute nature of the belief system and its morality. Because of the divergent outlooks, you will find it increasingly hard to maintain fellowship. It is not impossible to remain in an open relationship but it will take great effort. Moreover, a continued relationship also depends on the other side. And there lies the rub as the other side holds to an absolute understanding of the belief system and moral outlook. The absoluteness with which they still hold on to that which you have deconstructed may prevent them from remaining in an open relationship with you. They may think you are lost!
The dogmatism can cut both ways though since the person deconstructing may well retain absolute patterns of deconstruction precisely in the way deconstruction is carried out. I call this a halfway deconstruction, as the absolutism that belonged to the old belief system is carried over into the way deconstruction is executed. Deconstruction itself becomes absolute and with it the complete and total rejection of anything that has to do with faith and its adherents. This is what I meant above when I said that deconstruction is still done from embeddedness in a constructed point of view. We can’t really escape all that easily where we come from.
A second consequence is that many people who deconstruct let go of God. They no longer see any point in God when the whole system in which God was encapsulated and made palatable and understandable has gone. For them, God is too much wrapped up in the belief system that they now have deconstructed. It is important to understand that this is the way things can go. We should abandon all kind of talk about backsliding and lostness or going to hell. (Those things are constructions themselves–which you will only be able to see when you are deconstructing.)
The Process of Deconstruction
But how is deconstruction set in motion? Why does it happen? Generally speaking, I believe that there are two components to deconstruction: cultural development and personal history, i.e. the universal and the particular dimension. I will be brief about the cultural one. We have come at a stage in Western thought where we have not only abandoned religion (The Enlightenment) but also realize that our Age of Reason was itself a constructed reality and that as such our rejection of the religious, our trust in human reason, our belief in science, etc. are themselves constructed realities that need a closer examination. We realize that Reason alone does not lead to truth but that the claim to knowledge is used for power, abuse, and self-justification. We have come at a place in our history where we are beginning to better understand our own deceitfulness and how the way we proceed as a culture including its morality, laws, economic behavior together with all its assumptions is the result of subconscious construction work.
In short: we are able to do what in the past we were not able to do, i.e. peek behind the veil of our own reality. Oddly, in many ways, this peeking has some very deep Christian roots even when we use deconstruction to expose the deceitfulness of the Christian religion itself. This is because at heart Christianity is deconstructive even when most of Christianity is one large attempt to erase its subversive element. This cultural reason explains in part why in Europe people simply left the church in the 60 and the 70s while in America, which is experiencing a similar shift in religion today, people talk about deconstruction with the result that they are willing to consider alternative spiritual options.
That’s the cultural side. Now we’ll look at the personal environment in which deconstruction is facilitated. Deconstruction needs two elements for deconstruction to happen. First, there is the appearance of the anomaly. The systemic and absolutist nature of belief systems is specially designed to erase difference and to prevent the anomaly to appear. I’ll get to the anomaly in a bit. The second condition is an environment that fosters deconstruction. Such environments, oddly enough, often exist in places where you’ll find an official intolerance for them. Of course, this is why they exist precisely there. When the anomaly appears you’ll still need the right environment to get the process of deconstruction underway. i.e. you need the right people around you.
The appearance of the anomaly basically consists of something that doesn’t fit into the belief system, something that contradicts its tenets and doesn’t fit well in the firmament of certitudes. During my studies at the aforementioned evangelical seminary, three anomalies appeared. After careful evaluation and analysis, I’ve come to realize that these three represent very common types of occurrences. Basically, anomalies, or so I believe, fall into three categories: traumatic experience, self-contradictory teaching, inconsistent praxis.
When the pastor turns out to be not such a nice person, when the believing husband beats his wife, etc, people are hurt. Beliefs systems are designed to keep people blind for abuse and hurt. They attempt to spiritualize them, draw the attention away from the abuser, aim to gilt the abused, etc.. But once they are exposed and acknowledged they become anomalies that will not go away. Acknowledging religious trauma is an essential part of healing. I’ve written about Religious Trauma Syndrome before.
All human thinking, in fact, reality as we experience it, is marked by paradox, by emerging gaps that leave us speechless. Human construction of reality and belief systems, in particular, are designed to gloss over the paradox and thus provide relief from the anxiety of the existential darkness that surrounds us. Because this is often what belief systems are designed to accomplish they are also designed to keep you blind for this function or it won’t work. However, once you see that, for instance, the evangelical foundation of the Bible as the infallible word of God is merely a humanly created fiction to give believers the illusion of certainty and security (plus a host of other things), you can’t unsee it. The inconsistency looms ever larger.
And then there is the inconsistency in praxis. Though partly related to my first point on trauma, inconsistency primarily pertains to the praxis of the group. The group initially includes the person who is deconstructing, of course, which means that the person deconstructing realizes that her own praxis and that of her community do not line up to the moral teachings of the belief system. For me, it was particularly shocking to see how my own faith community was staunchly opposed to acknowledging the complicity of its own religion in colonialism, racism, and economic exploitation in the world. The process of seeing and understanding this meant that I acknowledged my own racist bias and blindness to the colonialist history of my own culture.
Your Own Path
The process of deconstruction entails not only encountering the anomaly but naming it, identifying it. The necessity of naming the anomaly presents itself as a moral obligation and when it does you realize there is going to be a cost to following the deconstruction rabbit trail. People will reject you, you will find yourself losing everything that provided protection and security, you have to shift gear toward a new outlook, a new belief system and you know that there is no way back and also no way forward to another belief system that provides simply an alternative sense of security.
Deconstruction requires you to realize that you are basically thrown into this world and that there aren’t really that many answers to the deepest questions that haunt us: Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Where will I go when I die? Is there anything I can know for sure?
This doesn’t mean, however, that the end of faith deconstruction looks the same for everyone or that it leads to the same location. It means that we know how to carry our questions with us and find meaning precisely in not having them answered. Some will find new faith communities, others will stop going to church, while yet others find consolation in another religion. This varied outcome is partly the result of the hyper-individualism that marks our modern Western societies. It is also inherent to the nature of deconstruction. In a way, you have to follow your own path and uphold others with regard to their own trajectory. As we meet one another we may hold each other accountable but without forcing a particular mindset on the other.
Why Is Deconstruction Important?
Deconstruction is important because it helps us uncover and expose the hidden mechanisms of oppression and abuse of power. The freedom of all human beings is at stake and deconstruction is, therefore, an ongoing task to identify the yoke of untruth and oppression and throw it off. As it turns out, religious structures can be the most oppressive because they are anchored in a perceived ultimate authority, God. With their proclaimed objective of serving the “most high” God, they enlist that God in the service of the powerful.
But why is deconstruction important if it is still done from a constructed point of view? Deconstruction is not the attempt to critique reality from an objective reference point; that would merely repress one point of view in favor of another. Rather, it is the conscious process of identifying and acknowledging the constructed nature of the tenets of belief. As it does so, deconstruction is not trying to assert that there is no truth whatsoever in those belief systems. It merely insists on the insight that the system in which belief is contained and expressed in itself a constructed reality. It is the insight that whatever the truth is that faith claims to be the referent to might well be out of focus or obstructed from view precisely by the system that pretends to uphold that faith.
Lastly, deconstruction is important because the future of Christianity demands it. In the West, we primarily know Christianity as the religion that throughout history aligned itself with the political and military powers. This has done great damage to Christianity’s message. It has more than often been the very opposite of what it proclaimed. Enlightenment, modernity, secularism are all responses to this overbearing systemic presence of Christianity in our history. As Christianity was disestablished, its supernatural claims have become entirely unbelievable. The only way forward is to deconstruct the Christian faith and pick up the pieces that are left and reassemble a post-metaphysical justice-oriented movement of faith that takes the teachings of Christ seriously.
My Personal Path of Deconstruction
Because of the constructed nature of our grid through which we approach the world als well as faith, the outcomes of this process are varied. We need to be okay with that. Yet, I do not want to end this article with an entirely neutral ending. Deconstruction does not demand that we refrain from taking positions or that we have nothing to say to the world or that nothing can be claimed anymore. It simply means that we are done with meta-narratives that absolutize one interpretation of reality over all others. For me, deconstruction meant the following.
My process of deconstruction led me to take apart my own faith. It was not a pretty process. I experienced a lot of anger mixed with a sense of liberation and I deeply felt the anxiety one has when realizing that the old certainties are gone. I wondered if I was going to become an atheist until I deconstructed even atheism and moved beyond that. In the process I discovered that doctrine, dogma, and ethics are constructs that can either be helpful or unhelpful, either facilitate the gospel or hinder it. I began to see how these systems of theological thought are invariably aimed at domesticating God and enlisting Christ into the service of power games, the attempt to reduce existential anxiety or keeping one from facing inherent patterns of justice in one’s own belief system.
But I also arrived at a position where I recognized that the Christian faith contains, behind all the layers of myth, legend, religious embellishment, etc, an unconstructed or non-deconstructable, core. This core is not something we can define or possess; if we could it would itself be a constructed piece of our constructed reality. Yet we attempt to name it, always aware that proper naming both identifies and respects the impenetrability of that which is identified. I realized that when I encountered the figure of Christ in the midst of this deconstructive process, I encountered something that had been deconstructing me all along, almost as if it had been drawing me into the deconstruction process so as to expose who I was in my vulnerable nakedness.
The Christian faith names Christ as the site of the unconditional gift of God’s grace. In traditional parlance: Christ is the incarnation or embodiment of divine reality among humanity. Both the traditional formula and my postmodern one are not attempts to exhaustively say what Christ is but rather that Christ is that which we recognize as the unconditional gift of grace. It is a naming that stops and then stammers out of an inability to come to terms with that reality that is so different from us.
Luther already discovered that as unconditional gift, Christ represents a radically subversive presence that thwarts all power games. That’s how Luther changed the course of Western civilization, religiously and politically. Precisely because Christ is an unconditional gift of goodness, forgiveness, and grace, the cross of Christ stands as original anomaly over against all religious thinking and all meta-narratives that usurp reality into an interpretation that demands assent. For me, Christ does not represent a new meta-narrative (unlike many forms of Christianity) but simply questions ours again and again.
Such deconstruction has, for me, the potential of the beginning of a new Christianity.
The following are some of the many helpful resources for those who need guidance or support in the process of faith deconstruction.
David Hayward a.k.a. the Naked Pastor is the founder of an online community called The Lasting Supper that helps people in their deconstructive process. Having gone through faith deconstruction himself, David, a former pastor in the charismatic movement, is both experienced and highly skilled in exposing the hypocrisy in religious systems and ideas.
What Would Jesus Deconstruct by philosopher John Caputo is an excellent example of deconstruction of self-absorbed and self-affirming religious systems. The book is highly readable and will stir the reader’s mind.
My friend and fellow theologian, Clint Haecock, has a fantastic podcast called MindShift Podcast. He has guests from many walks of life who have all one thing in common: they couldn’t do evangelicalism anymore.
You can also seek out the pastorally sensitive work of Kathy Escobar. She is the author of FaithShift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart and pastors a community of spiritual refugees but can also be found at a Facebook group called Faith Shift.
Collage: Michelangelo’s “God” touching the Tower of Babel in Van Valckenborch’s 1593 painting with on the left Paul Klee’s City of Churches.