Are you even in the “church world” in 2021 if you don’t hear the term deconstruction at least every other day?
This past year and a half has proven difficult for a variety reasons. One of the main ones is how rapidly language is coming at people. Especially complex philosophical concepts that come out of very specific worldviews.
This is only compounded by the reality that most people don’t have the time to research these things. And thus sometimes don’t fully understand things before they decide whether it’s a helpful concept to describe their life or not.
Which is one of the reasons why I’ve started this Words Matter blog series.
If you didn’t know, the term deconstruction wasn’t made up this past year – though it may feel like it was to some. And it would take far more than this one short blog for me to explain it fully.
I’ve spent much of my adult life wrestling with philosophical concepts, especially those related to communication – like how we explain the experiences of our life. And the biggest tension within these conversations is that they all (whether someone likes it or not) come from a particular worldview.
[A worldview is a way someone thinks that helps them make sense of the world and then is ultimately determinative for how they will live in the world with others.]
In the case of the term deconstruction, especially in how it’s being used in popular Christian circles today, there are multiple problems. But the biggest is that if we look at the dictionary definition of the term, then we will see that what many are calling “deconstruction” in popular Christian circles is not likely deconstruction at all.
Deconstruction can be defined as “the breaking down of an idea or concept into smaller parts to look at how it can imply things that it may not overtly state.” I did this kind of work (though not expressly called deconstruction) in my undergraduate degree. I understand the point of a process like this, how to do the process, and the importance of doing it from a healthy place and not a place of pain (or anger, or dissatisfaction, etc.).
Deconstruction as a philosophical construct and a means of analysis is one thing.
“Deconstruction” as a word Christians are using to explain a more generalized “question everything” mindset seems to be quite another thing.
Basically, whether intended or not, it has become the catch-all term for people wanting to “flip tables” or “burn everything to the ground” or whatever other colloquial phrase we want to use. I get that desire. Believe me, I do. But in my estimate it is not the intention of such an analysis, nor a healthy mindset with which to enter into such a process.
[Spoken as someone who has entered into such a process in an unhealthy way before, and it was very unhelpful and actually caused me to be unable to see the very things I needed to see for the process to be helpful.]
While some are correctly using the term, many are using it in ways that not only doesn’t fit the basic definition but more important doesn’t describe what it is they are actually experiencing (likely unintentionally).
What I’m about to say Christians know better than anyone: Sometimes what someone describes as the reality is not actually what the reality is. We as humans struggle many times to find the words to completely describe what is happening inside us or around us. We may be trying our best, and yet we can miss the full picture.
Therefore, we have to continually try to get at what people are actually experiencing. What are they trying to describe? Not just what word they are using because they’ve heard others use it to try and say “this is what I’m going thru.”
[This blog is way too short to get into this in an in-depth way, but deconstruction is also hugely impacted by someone’s worldview. If you’d like to do some more reading on stuff like this I suggest looking into books on worldviews like James Sire’s book “The Universe Next Door.”]
Which brings me to the main point of this blog: When we talk about deconstructing, what are we saying?
What is the actual experience we are attempting to explain to other people?
Are we just using a word others are using because it’s the word we’ve been told explains what is happening? Does it accurately describe what we are going through?
As a Christian, this should also include us asking 2 other specific questions as followers of Jesus:
- Does God (in the Bible) provide me with language to understand what I am going through?
- Are there Christians in previous generations that have gone thru this experience before and have tried to explain it?
[An observation: I find much of this is happening in “protestant” circles where people have mostly disconnected themselves from the historic Church. There are those who have gone before us who have wrestled with the things we are currently wrestling with. It’s typically helpful to have “spiritual guides” who have walked the path we are walking who can help give us language to understand it. Too often today Christians are looking to words and concepts that come from those who have not walked the path we are walking (and it typically means that language will inevitably be describing quite a different journey or will be an incomplete description of the journey). I know we love to use “new language” for things in our American culture today. But many times the “old language” is the best way of explaining what it is people are going through.]
When I talk to many Christians today who would consider themselves “deconstructing” (and I’ve found it’s actually less people than gets portrayed on social media), I find that most are experiencing what other Christians who have gone before us have described as a “dark night of the soul” (John of the Cross), or “the wall” (Hagberg & Guelich), or “the second half of life” (Richard Rohr). And there’s several other descriptions that seem to fit in various ways.
This experience that people are attempting to describe as a part of the Christian journey is not unknown to Christianity. While we may be experiencing it as a new thing, it is also not actually new at all. Which shouldn’t surprise us since the Bible teaches us that there is “nothing new under the sun.”
God is not caught off-guard by it.
We are not the first generation of Christians to experience it.
We likely only didn’t see it coming because no one informed us that it would.
And it’s not actually the process of deconstruction for most.
Since words matter greatly, because they shape the way we navigate the world around us, I am suggesting we reframe the conversation using different language. Deconstruction does not seem to fit what many people are trying to describe as their experience. There are those who are actually participating in a genuine deconstruction, but most seem to be experiencing something else and need more helpful language to describe it.
[I know, because until I explored this experience more deeply, I would have used the word deconstruction to describe what I had gone thru multiple times in my life up to this point.]
The reality is also that we ultimately need to more often use Biblical language to talk about a Biblical faith journey.
That we should look to the language that is used in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.
And that we should look to the language that is used by Jesus.
So, after much thought about my own experiences and much time spent listening to people attempting to describe similar experiences, my suggestion would be to focus on the concept of refining or purification.
Specifically a refining by fire.
Whether it’s in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Zechariah, Malachi, 2 Corinthians, 1 Peter, Revelation or even in Jesus’ own teachings that direct us toward the imagery of the “refiner’s fire,” this seems to be a much more helpful imagery and concept for describing what many are describing that they are going thru in this season (and what I’ve gone thru several times in my life at this point, including a pretty serious one this past year and a half).
Why does this matter? Why would this language and imagery be more helpful?
And why do I think it’s unhelpful to use a term like deconstruction to describe what most are going thru during this season?
Because in a relationship with Jesus we have a foundation upon which everything is built. We have valuable frameworks that are built upon that foundation. And simply demolishing the entire thing (including the framework and foundation) will not actually produce the result some may think it will. It usually isn’t even what they say they want and is certainly not God’s desire based upon what we read in the Bible.
But refining fire language will help us navigate these things.
One important reason why a refining fire is more helpful language is that it places the emphasis of the process upon the fire itself (a consistent Biblical image for God) instead of on ourselves. Which is the reality of what we go thru anyways…whether we acknowledge it or not.
God is the one directing or allowing the process to happen. So we might as well just name it up front.
A refining by fire certainly does mean questioning whether things belong (are they actually framework or foundation, or are they easily burned up by fire?).
But it also means you acknowledge from the start that there is a foundation and a framework (made of stone and precious metal) that will remain when the questioning is over.
Which is why listening to Christians who have described this experience historically is also important. Because they remind us that this is an experience God actually meets us in and walks with us thru (and maybe even initiates). Even if it doesn’t seem like He’s there. And that the foundation and framework will remain (even though much of this experience may be disorienting).
It’s also helpful language because going thru a refining fire is evidence of faith.
It actually requires faith to enter the difficulty of the fire and come out the other side purified.
Philosophy and faith are not diametrically opposed. But that doesn’t mean all philosophical language is always helpful in navigating faith.
In this instance, I would say that the philosophical language of deconstruction is not helpful in describing this experience of the faith journey that many are currently going through.
So maybe we could try using the language of refining fire instead, and see what happens.
I mean, what do you have to lose? If you are someone who is already “questioning everything” (I’ve been there, so I’m not speaking negatively about doing that), then you might as well question the word you’ve been using to see if it accurately describes what you’re going through anyway…
If you’re interested in exploring this more, feel free to reach out. It’s a journey I’m on. Maybe you’re on it too. And it’s always helpful to have companions on this kind of journey.