What Is Deconstruction?
Deconstruction has become a bit of a buzzword lately. Lots of people are talking about “deconstructing faith,” which is in turn eliciting a variety of reactions from both inside and outside of the church.
Part of the problem is that people are often talking past each other, because they’re operating with different assumptions and definitions of deconstruction.
Some see deconstruction negatively, as a popular fad, a flippant way of discarding one’s beliefs to gain “street cred” with the unbelieving world. To these people, deconstruction looks like an attack on Christianity itself, and therefore something to be dismissed or denounced in no uncertain terms. Others see deconstruction more positively, as a good, necessary step in one’s growth and development.
Deconstruction is a term coined originally by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It described the revealing of our hidden assumptions about the world. Deconstruction was the process of learning to examine the glasses through which we see the world, and it can happen in the context of any philosophy, religion, or worldview.
For our purposes—applying the term to Christian faith—we can define deconstruction as the process of taking apart and examining an idea, tradition, practice, or belief to determine its truthfulness, usefulness, and impact.
Seen in this light, deconstruction is a bit like renovating an older house; removing, adding, modifying, and rearranging various structural elements in order to make it more livable for those who live in the house now.
Father Richard Rohr, friar and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, outlines Christian deconstruction as one of three necessary steps of faith:
- Construction: The building of one’s faith
- Deconstruction: The challenging of one’s faith
- Reconstruction: The formation of new paradigms
Seen in this light, deconstruction is a vital and necessary step in the ongoing faith formation of the Christian. Also, this is not a linear process that ends with a permanent reconstruction, but more like a cycle we keep returning to as we continue to grow and learn.
Christianity itself has been going through this process since the very beginning, too. Derrida’s description of deconstruction was a philosophical descendant of Martin Luther’s work in “deconstructing” the Christian faith he’d inherited. You could say that deconstruction was the driving force of the Protestant Reformation.
What Causes Deconstruction?
Despite some Christian leaders who claim that people choose to deconstruct their faith out of a desire to sin or fit in with the surrounding culture, deconstruction is typically an uninvited, and often painful, process caused by forces outside the control of the individual.
Deconstruction often starts when someone experiences an “anomaly” in their experience of faith. It could be a traumatic experience of harm in the church, a self-contradictory church teaching, or inconsistent praxis from churches and church leaders.
Some common causes of deconstruction are:
- Spiritual abuse or religious trauma (personally experienced or simply witnessed)
- Complicity with sin in the church (racism, patriarchy, misogyny, etc.)
- Personal pain (grief, loss, etc.)
- Theological contradictions
- Platitudes and easy answers from church leaders
- Strict dismissal or punishment of questions/doubts
- Dissonance between church teachings and actions
- Burnout (especially for pastors)
If deconstruction isn’t the wholesale throwing away of one’s faith, what does it actually look like to deconstruct toward a more resilient faith? Here are a few examples.
Years ago, we realized we were reading Scripture and living our faith through the “lens” of individualism, interpreting the Bible as if it were written to individuals trying to live out a predominantly private faith that has to do with internal virtues.
Deconstructing individualism meant relearning how to “hear” Scripture in a new and more faithful way, as if it were written to communities seeking to live out a predominantly public faith that has to do with allegiance. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes was particularly helpful to us in deconstructing our individualistic assumptions about faith..
Deconstructing Inherited Definitions of the Gospel
Another area of deconstruction for us has been in the realm of our assumptions about the gospel. We inherited a description of the gospel that primarily had to do with how individuals can go to heaven when they die. It was transactional, and had very little to do with life here and now. It was basically an insurance policy: good to have, but you don’t really do anything with it until something bad happens.
Deconstructing this version of the gospel opened us up to a more expansive and beautiful vision of the gospel; one that’s less about insurance for the future and more about participation in a new kind of life today. It’s a gospel that leads naturally to discipleship. It’s a gospel that’s less about escaping punishment and more about being healed.
Finally, we’ve been in the process of deconstructing our assumptions about power, especially in how it plays out in race and gender categories. We are waking up to the ways that white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonialism have shaped the way we inhabit and live out our faith.
We don’t have clear conclusions right now on many of these things, but that’s okay, because that’s what deconstruction feels like. Plus, certainty is overrated.
Is Deconstruction Bad?
In all these ways, then, deconstruction in and of itself is NOT a bad thing. In fact, it can be a healthy and vital part of someone’s spiritual journey. As author Andre Henry writes, “Deconstruction has always been part of Christian practice and has been seen through history as a healthy expression of Christian faithfulness.”
For us at Gravity, deconstruction has helped us mature in our faith:
- We are learning to see how we’re connected to each other instead of just thinking individualistically.
- We are learning to “decolonize” our faith away from the imaginative strangleholds of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism.
- We are learning to open social spaces where women and men can lead and relate to each other in mutual flourishing.
- We are beginning to learn what it looks like to move toward more embodied solidarity with marginalized communities, and finding Jesus there.
Deconstruction is important for the future of Christianity, because it helps us uncover the ways that Christianity has aligned itself with worldly power. Deconstruction helps expose the ways we have been complicit in propping up hidden mechanisms of oppression. Deconstruction helps us name the abuse of power for what it is.
Does Deconstruction Mean Losing Your Faith?
More often than not, deconstruction is a necessary step on the way toward some kind of reconstruction of faith, but deconstruction doesn’t always end with reconstruction. Sometimes people do “lose their faith” and cease identifying as Christians.
The answer to this risk is not to resist the movement into deconstruction. Ultimately, you can’t unsee what deconstruction has enabled you to see. The mistake many leaders and pastors make is to try and keep people away from deconstruction through shame and fear tactics, holding the line on (what they see as) orthodoxy.
But this strategy merely drives people further into despair, convincing them there is no hope for reconstruction. People end up so tightly identifying their Christian faith with what they’re deconstructing that it seems like the same thing, and thus they don’t have any choice but to throw the whole thing out.
They don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but fearful leaders have told them the baby is the bathwater, so they don’t see any other choice, because they’ve seen the truth of the bathwater: it needs to be thrown out.
Deconstruction in the Bible
The Bible describes many ways that deconstruction is helpful and can be faithful.
- The Old Testament prophets deconstructed the ways that Israel’s life and worship had become enmeshed with the pagan practices of the neighboring people groups, calling people back to reconstruct a more faithful way of living with God in the land.
- The Book of Job is essentially one long deconstruction of the standard wisdom of Proverbs. “If you are a good person, good things will happen to you,” Proverbs says. The Book of Job comes along and says, “Not necessarily!”
- Jesus often said, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” He was deconstructing a “standard” interpretation of Scripture and reconstructing a more faithful way of interpreting Scripture.
- The early church had to deconstruct the meaning of circumcision and what it meant to be God’s people in light of God pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles.
Deconstruction for Pastors
What If I Am Deconstructing?
It can feel very lonely to go through deconstruction if you don’t have a safe community to share your doubts and questions with. This loneliness is compounded for many pastors, who don’t feel safe to share their deconstruction with their congregations.
This is part of why we started the Gravity Commons. We need a space to safely explore deconstruction with people whose power isn’t threatened by the questions and struggles, and these are the kinds of conversations we seek to foster in the Commons.
Talking About Deconstruction in Your Church
Here are some resources for pastors who want to cultivate a healthy honest conversation about deconstruction in their church:
- Deconstruction: What It Is, Why It Happens, and What To Do About It (a webinar we led for Missio Alliance).
- The What and Why of Deconstruction and How to Accompany People Through Deconstruction (2-part series by pastor Mac McCarthy)
- Skye Jethani on Reconstructing Faith After Deconstruction (podcast episode)
- Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Atonement with Mako Nagasawa (podcast episode)
- A.J. Swoboda: Deconstructing Without Losing your Faith (podcast episode)
How to Reconstruct Your Faith
Deconstruction can be lonely and distressing, but God meets us in our messy reality, so there is always hope. Here are some practical ways to faithfully undergo deconstruction and reconstruct faith on the other side:
- Find a safe community of love and acceptance (e.g., join the Gravity Commons).
- Practice self-compassion and be patient with yourself.
- Learn about a faith tradition different from your own.
- Remember that God is always present and at work, even in the dark.
- Practice playful contemplative prayer.
- Seek therapy to work through religious trauma.
Resources for Deconstruction
Podcasts About Deconstruction
Here are some episodes from our podcast on deconstruction.
- Navigating Deconstruction with Cyd and Geoff Holsclaw
- Deconstructing How We Read Scripture with Brandon O’Brien
- Brian Zahnd on Deconstructing the Bible, Hell, Politics, and Sexuality
- Spiritual Direction and Deconstruction with Dave and Beth Booram
Articles About Deconstruction
Here are some helpful articles about deconstruction.
- Some Parts of Evangelicalism Do Not Need To be Deconstructed … They Need To Be Destroyed! (Michael Bird)
- Beyond Deconstruction: A Summary (Scot McKnight)
- With this much rot, there’s no choice but to deconstruct (Karen Swallow Prior)
- Can We Still Do Evangelism in Post-Christendom? (Mac McCarthy deconstructing evangelism)
- God Isn’t Trying to Make You Behave Better (Ben Sternke deconstructing how to read God’s commands in Scripture)
- Why the Cost of Discipleship is Lower Than You Think (Ben Sternke deconstructing the “cost” of discipleship)
- The Dangerous Hidden Power Dynamics of Discipleship (Seth Richardson deconstructing power in discipleship relationships)
Books About Deconstruction
Here are a few helpful books about deconstruction.
- What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church by John Caputo
- The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs by Pete Enns
- After Evangelicalism by David Gushee
- When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes by Brian Zahnd
- After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing It by A.J. Swoboda
- Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans