When you hear the word “deconstruction,” you either relate to it, are afraid of it, or wish everybody would stop talking about it. My goal here is to give language to those who have experienced it or are currently experiencing it and help illuminate its importance to those who are suspicious of it. If you’re sick of hearing about it, you already stopped at the headline. For everybody else, we’ll start with a short note on my assumptions of faith. Then we’re dive into deconstruction as a necessary form of honesty.
Trust, like faith, can never be traded for certainty, always requires risk, and is never fair. For example, say you have ten units of “trust equity” in the bank, and you lose one unit. You don’t now have nine. You now have zero trust equity. If you break someone’s trust or they break yours, it withdraws the whole account. All the trust earned up until that point is now lost or damaged.
Thankfully, many breaches of trust can still be repaired. But to repair it, you can’t just cover up a hole or return the original amount taken. The original flaws that caused harm need to be rebuilt and restructured, as many times as needed. Whatever is wrong needs to be named, torn down, and generously remade with twice the value, strength, or integrity of the original materials. I believe the same is true for faith.
Like trust, it doesn’t matter how much, how miraculous, how authentic or transformative your faith has been up until this point. If there is a hole in your ship, it will sink. The only reliable faith is what you have here right now. This faith has no worries about the future and no regrets of the past— all that matters is your presence in this very moment.
Religious or not, genuine faith is like a compass you freely choose and point towards what’s most important to you. It’s an unpretentious posture towards life that integrates the mind, heart, body, and soul into one purposeful direction. Such faith only grows and matures by staying present within ambiguous tension of honesty between our individual perspective and reality itself. Not to be confused with belief itself, faith is everything about how we hold our beliefs.
In other words, faith is the container reliable enough to carry our most precious cargo we all use— what we actually believe about life and how to live it.
As the life cycle of faith develops, it goes through its own process of 1) CONSTRUCTION, goes through 2) DECONSTRUCTION, and often begins again with 3) RECONSTRUCTION.
Richard Rohr calls this animated pattern: Order, Disorder, and Reorder. In healthy relationships, it’s “connection,” “rupture,” and “repair.” We can also see it in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
This entire process is how healthy faith– of any form– is developed, matured, and maintained. Deconstruction is an essential part of that development for many reasons. The first and foremost is because…
We begin the deconstruction process when we start bringing the light of honesty to things more comfortable staying in the shadows. Take for example the reality we all someday will die. It’s difficult to be honest about this fact and remain emotionally present. Western culture provides plenty of opportunities to avoid accepting death, numb ourselves to the pain of it, or forget about it until it’s too late for us. But does running away from death help life thrive? Or is life somehow renewed and rejuvenated when we accept and welcome death, whenever it comes? I think so. When we acknowledge we will die at a profound and personal level, something else comes into focus– we know we aren’t dead yet. Today now becomes an opportunity to let life thrive.
This is one of the gifts of deconstruction. But to get there, we first must go through it—and there’s the rub.
Deconstruction, at its core, has only one job— to break everything down that will break down. Like bacteria eating decay & turning death into fertilizer to replenish the soil with rich nutrients. Maybe someday, something new will grow (but that’s where deconstruction ends and reconstruction begins). Deconstruction can’t be anything other than exactly what it is— the facing of fear, the excruciating honesty, the pruning of death. To expect anything more from it is to misunderstand it and its role.
Deconstruction is the acceptance of risk. If I can accept losing life or faith, I’m also accepting the risk of never getting it back. There is no guarantee I’ll ever make it to reconstruction.
Can religious deconstruction lead you away from today’s traditionally accepted doctrine? Yes. Will you most likely reject theology deeply enmeshed in modernist thinking and fundamentalism? Yes. Could it lead you to discover a more diverse palate of historical orthodoxy than what’s known inside the American Evangelical tradition? Also yes. What about a different religion entirely or no faith at all? Yes and Yes.
It’s both frightening and dangerous, yes. Absolutely. But not in the ways most people think.
Deconstruction is frightening because it can’t be controlled or predicted or have a predetermined goal (trying to do so is still very much the first phase of faith development). Any attempts to limit or stop deconstruction before it’s done its work exponentially diminishes the potential benefits of engaging in it at all. When you start being completely honest with yourself about your own life, stopping such honesty will require a choice of intentional deception, which is a heavy cost to pay.
We cannot engage in deconstruction by just changing out the wallpaper or hiding foundational wood rot with a shiny new coat of paint, we must clear out the rubble. There are no short-cuts to restoration. An old co-worker I knew from years ago thought he could find a quicker route, but every path leads back to the same fundamental choice.
We went to the same church as young men, and I watched him go from practical-service-of-the-poor-focused Christianity to Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness. He fell into existential despair and found solace in systematic theology. He was an ideal member of his church community until his wife divorced him for being the person I’ve always known him to be. Throughout all of these dramatic changes, nothing ever changed that mattered. Every phase of his faith was just the same old self-centeredness with a different name. His story looks like this classic pattern of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction— but only from the outside. On the inside, his faith remained immature. His goal never went beyond taking the easiest, simplest, most comfortable path.
Unfortunately, this is the reality of many who never leave the comfort of their church. We do not know much of anything outside of context of our culture. And we have very little tools to evaluate if our culture is healthy or not.
When we have friends going through difficulty, how do we know if we are helping, hindering, or harming? For those who have not been through some form of deconstruction themselves, it’s easy to misunderstand and offer trite biblical scripts in sincere efforts to help someone climb out of their deconstruction. But most of the time, even the best intentions resort to fear, shame, and control. If such concern is never examined (in light of its own deconstruction), it’s possible that what really guides us is a desire to maintain comfort of the status quo. This can easily lead us to darker tendencies as we try to protect anything we are afraid of losing.
Encouraging people to stay on the path of least resistance benefits the status quo. Anyone interested in that path is enthusiastically welcomed into the fold of faith. When this becomes the majority of a church community, appearance becomes the defining reality. Decorating walls of the ship is easily confused with its structural integrity. A culture of polite pretending with one another soon establishes the belief pretending is actual faith.
Words like love, faith, and God, are reduced to the conceptional framework and spiritual maturity of one’s experience within that church community. The way people are treated in the name of love is what comes to mind when you hear the word “love.” It’s complicated, because a community might genuinely be someone’s best experience of any love and yet, still be enmeshed with perversions and abuse, creating limits of what they could ever expect from “love.” The same is true for the words “faith” and “God.” No one has to know what divine love actually is; they only have to know how to follow the social and dogmatic scripts. Maintaining this illusion then becomes the mark of steadfast “faithfulness.” Ask such folks to explain their faith in any other words, and they can’t do it. They can only repeat more metaphorical jargon. They know the vernacular but not the heart. Could this “false self,” as the mystics call it, be the wolf in sheep’s clothing Scripture warns about?
Deconstruction is dangerous to those hidden parts of ourselves. It rips out the roots of any, and all, pretending or wishful thinking that can hide behind the veil of faith. Even for those who had great bold faith at one time, who have sincerely abandoned everything for their belief in God, are not exempt. No one can hide from themselves forever. Eventually, we all learn the truth about who we are and what we really believe.
As frightening and dangerous as deconstruction can be, it must not treated like a contagious disease. If the response to deconstruction is fear (for yourself or someone you love), we must dare to take a long, hard look at those fears. These can be the red flags of an unhealed wound– the rotting wood hidden in our own faith, but also an opportunity to accept our own doubts, fears, insecurities. Bravery begins with one small step. What hides in the shadows looses its powerful pull when we bring it out into the light.
It takes tremendous courage to acknowledge all our fears, to face them, and accept the consequences— to examine our ideas of God and accept the possibility they may be just ideas and have no existence outside our imagination. Even rejecting a superstitious idea we still fear might somehow be God himself or defy the real God is like confronting the Wizard of Oz when you don’t yet know there is a man behind the curtain. To do so is simultaneously an act of faith in divine character (like universal benevolence) and a rejection of superstitious ideas (like shame and abuse). It’s what Matthew Korpman calls, “Saying No to God.“
Of course no one does this lightly. It risks far too much. Thus walking away from faith is one of the most courageous acts you can do. Nothing else can so viscerally separate our own finite ideas of God from the reality of an infinite Being (like the Ground of our Being) or discover the God we thought we believed in never existed, not even within the pages of the Bible. Only a few are willing test their faith and “kill [their] God, in the name of God, to find [a real] God.” As consequence, few ever develop a robust faith of the likes described in Scripture. We all know it’s easier for everyone to just pretend.
“I pray therefore, God rid me of God.”—Meister Eckhart
What if we’re honest about what we know, what is actually possible to know, and what’s beyond the limits of our current knowledge but we assume to be true on the basis of our faith? Perhaps we could accept there is no cure or quick fix for uncertainty because all faith is a risk. To let go of pretending, to embrace deconstruction, clears away the old branches that need trimming and opens up possibilities for new reconstruction. As Dallas Willard once said, “Fatih doesn’t grow on dishonesty.” We could call this epistemological humility or maybe the paradox of mature faith. Or as Jesus said, maybe it’s the “life that is found when you lose your life.”
For a more practical explanation, we can suffice to say everyone suffers. Everyone has a choice about what to do with their own individual suffering, deeply personal suffering unique to them and their circumstances of life. Deconstruction is the sobering wake up call inviting us to refuse to minimize and alleviate the suffering of our existence by “harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism,” as Viktor E. Frankl said, holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Only the bravest of souls have the courage to be present to their own specific suffering.
Like a chemical chain reaction, deconstruction can only be neutralized when we dig deep enough to find a genuine, dynamic, holistic, mature faith that cannot be broken down any further. When everything but the most basic building blocks are burned away, you’ve reached what cannot ever be taken from you. Not by anyone. No coercion, manipulation, nor dehumanizing threats can touch it, much less stop it. When you find the bedrock of the lowest common denominator for you and your faith, your eyes are opened— you know the risks & costs of faith. You make your choices & accept the consequences, all without trying to control any of it. You decide to stay present to the direction of your life wherever it takes you. This is the heart of faith.
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We have to learn ourselves, and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing [prisoners], that it does not really matter what we expected from life, but rather that life expected from us.”—Viktor E. Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning
Getting to the center point of deconstruction can’t be rushed. We have to go through the dying process. It isn’t safe, controllable, or predictable. But it is essential.
So let the ship be torn down. All of it, if needed! Will it be rebuilt? Maybe. Maybe it’ll be built into something completely and currently unimaginable. Maybe your faith will wither and die. Or maybe you will take a step out in the ocean itself and find yourself walking on water.
What could this possibly look like? In the film Silence, we have a visceral example.
A Jesuit missionary is tortured and forced to watch his parishioners be tortured unless he denies Christ in front of them all, by stepping on a sacred icon of Jesus. The Jesuit endures this punishment for years until he just can’t anymore. Covered in blood, sweat, and dirt, he reaches a breaking point. Crushed wide open, he relents. In the moment he decides to deny his faith, we hear the voice of Christ break through the silence and say:
“Step on me...
“I know your pain. I came here to bear this. You’re with me now...
And so the priest did.
He stepped on the face of Jesus as a symbolic gesture to denounce Christianity. But what exactly does that mean? Did he lack faith or did he act on faith? Did he hear the voice of God? Was it him just talking to himself? Did he walk away from his faith or did he deepen it?
In return, the answer we get is silence.
So we all are left with the same question, along with the burden of deciding for ourselves what it means. No one can answer for anyone else. Which path is true or right?
The only honest answer is we don’t know.
Yet, life still confronts us to make a decision based on the best knowledge, experience, and wisdom we have available to us. Even when we’re confused, life goes on with or without us. But if we really want to live, we must take a risk — the risk of faith that is required for us to fully participate in our own lives. What is actually important to you? What are you willing to risk for it? Or what will you risk being wrong about? Only you can decide.
Regardless of wherever you find yourself in this journey of faith —with or without it— I’m hoping we can find some common ground for everyone who reads this to stand on together. No matter where we find ourselves on the theist/atheist continuum, I think we can all affirm this paradox, if our faith can be destroyed that what was destroyed is only an illusion. Who can honestly disagree?
For the one without faith, God never existed in the first place. For the one with faith, the illusion of God was never the real God. It was just another finite idea of God. Without minimizing any experience or belittling anyone’s decision, it’s a small way to affirm what we still share among vast differences of beliefs and understandings.
We all are really in the same boat. We all need the integrity of a thorough deconstruction process without controlling the results. We all need to hear one another acknowledge our shared human dignity, how we’re all trying to find our way through the same mess of life. Everyone invested (faith or no faith) can help support people through this journey, giving one another vast amounts of freedom, respect, and courage to explore and question what we alone know we need to face.
Real faith can only be developed if no faith is a real and acceptable possibility.Tweet
If you’ve made it to this point, you might be wondering when you’ll know if deconstruction is finished?
The answer is easier said than done. But we can trust you’ll just know.
There is still the real danger of getting stuck in cycles of cynicism. Yes. But just like you know when the breakdown of your muscles from exercise are ready to rebuild their strength, you learn to trust yourself to know the difference. You know when you’re ready to move again. Most likely, this will be a repeated pattern again and again throughout our lives. In any case, you will be the one to decide.
To summarize, deconstruction is the inevitable pruning of death we all must walk through if we want to discover the light of faith beyond the limits of our own experience of that little word, “faith.” We begin to see how if we affirm God is no thing, we also affirm God is nothing and vice versa. It’s the place where atheism and theism touch and overlap without feud. Faith then, isn’t religious hyperbole, wishful thinking, or means for control, but the authentic confidence to freely choose what matters most to you.
Of course you don’t need permission from me, but maybe it’s nice to know it really is yours. You have permission to decide what’s important to you without interference from anyone— especially those claiming to speak for God. You’re here to participate in your own life and choose what you believe to be the best way forward.
Faith is maturity, and deconstruction is holy grief work.
It’s loss. It’s what you give up. It’s the path to finding the foundational pillars to build or support your faith— the ideas or doctrines you need in order to believe that God is good or why life has meaning and is worth living. All the pain, grief, suffering, and love that goes along with it is holy too— as in “whole and complete,” where everything that is, belongs. It’s all an integral part of life. Deconstruction is the shattering of illusion that promises faith can be reached without first dying to the (false) self. It’s all we lose because we take the courageous step to risk everything for what truly matters to us. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk, “It’s only when you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.”
No one knows where any of this will end, but we do know, deconstruction is an important step towards holistic maturity. From the wisdom of Adrian Van Kaam, “Life isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s a mystery to be lived.”
Are you ready to dive directly into the existential ocean? I think you are— I think that’s exactly what you were made for and exactly why you’re here right now.