The Messiness of Deconstruction

The Messiness of Deconstruction March 9, 2021

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Everyone is talking about deconstruction. Conservative Christians are talking about it. Progressive Christians are talking about it. Hell, even agnostics and atheists are talking about it. But what is it, exactly? And why are so many groups coming at it from such different angles?

What is Deconstruction?

The term “deconstruction” is nothing new, though the modern, colloquial meaning of the word may be. Although it was around before French philosopher Jacques Derrida, he is basically considered the “founder of deconstruction.” For him, however, it didn’t mean what we mean when we use the word (indeed, even the term itself has been deconstructed). Instead of it being a word that basically describes a rethinking of one’s faith, it was about our use of language and the meaning of terms. Put most simply, deconstruction for Derrida was about semiotics (the study of sign processes [semiosis], which are any activity, conduct, or process that involves signs, where a sign is defined as anything that communicates a meaning that is not the sign itself to the sign’s interpreter). That is to say, what do we mean when we use certain words in certain situations?

Deconstruction Deconstructed

Today, however, the term and its usage has come to mean something a bit different. For many, it is a process that involves a rigorous questioning of one’s faith-based presuppositions. It involves a careful critique of one’s handed-down worldview. It is often painful for it is a process that leads to an epistemological reevaluation (how do we know what we know?) and then from there, some pretty heavy-handed existential crises. Deconstruction is nothing to take lightly, nor is it something that should be explained away. Further, it is not a process with a linear timeline where a person of faith goes from point A to point Z. Deconstruction can be messy. It can be confusing. And often, it leaves you with more questions than answers.

At first, this is not an easy pill to swallow. When you initially question a doctrinal staple like eternal conscious torment, or your inerrant Bible, or your Calvinistic atonement theory, you may think that you’ll easily replace it with something more palatable, something that makes more sense to your curious mind. And perhaps you do. I did, and I’m really quite happy about that. However, as is the nature of deconstruction, even the doctrines you’ve replaced other doctrines with need deconstructing.

What I mean by this is that life and life’s experiences are such that you are always reevaluating what you think you know. For example, you may think that since you’ve replaced Calvin’s penal substitutionary atonement theory with something “better” like Christus Victor that you’ve completed your “deconstruction.” You may think you’ve “reconstructed” something and now you are good to go. But that’s not how this works. Often, you’ll have more life experiences that lead you to a perpetual deconstruction and reconstruction approach. You’ll run into Buddhists, for instance, who have as much to teach you about the cosmos as Christians do. Or, you’ll evaluate Christus Victor and decide you don’t believe in an ontological devil and then have to deconstruct what you mean by that particular atonement theory. And so on and so forth.

Learning To Float

The realization that just because you’ve changed your doctrinal affirmations doesn’t mean you aren’t constantly evaluating and reevaluating things is what led me to coauthor a soon-to-released book called Learning to Float. We landed on this title because what happens in this deconstruction process is that often, you don’t actually go anywhere. You don’t go from believing in hell to believing in Universalism, for example, and then conclude, “I’ve made it to the promised land.” You may change your beliefs in this way (just like I did), and it may totally help you in your journey, but then you’re still left in a place where you are asking yourself, “Now what?” You are always nearly forced to ask, “How does this newly-affirmed doctrine aid me in the present moment? How do my new life experiences fit into this belief system? What about this situation? What about that situation?”

As I said just a moment ago, the deconstruction process is really a perpetual deconstruction and reconstruction process. You don’t go from certainty about your beliefs, to deconstructing them entirely, to finally reconstructing and then reconstructed. You are constantly evaluating your beliefs based on new direct experiences. Sure, when you first start to question, you may have out the sledge hammer only. But as time goes, perhaps you put that away and bust out some sandpaper and a chisel. But there is always something to whittle away at.

This is a good thing, though. It may not be a comfortable thing, especially in the beginning, but as time goes, you learn that it’s okay. Just like a swim in the ocean, it may be unsettling at first. As you sink, you may think that splashing about vigorously is the best way to stay afloat. But then it dawns on you that all you need to do is be still and trust that if you can lie back and relax and you’ll stay at the surface of the water. You may not make it anywhere near the shore, but as long as you can stop flailing about, you’ll be just fine.

A Final Word

So, why are so many dissimilar groups talking about this? Well, because so many people are either going through it or witnessing friends and family go through it.

Conservative Christians – folks like The Gospel Coalition and Alisa Childers – are bemoaning the deconstruction movement. They’ve dipped their toes in the waters and are finding it quite uncomfortable, so they are now speaking out against it. The problem with this, of course, is twofold. First, most of these folks aren’t listening to those who are deconstructing. They aren’t taking seriously their (our) experiences. And second, these folks always have fear imbued in their theology: Hell as eternal conscious torment, atonement laden with violence, an eschatology of wrath and vengeance, and so on and so forth. And, as my best friend Michael Machuga says in A Journey With Two Mystics, “fear is a trap and the fear of hell is the greatest trap of all.”

On the flipside, many Progressive Christians – those who have deconstructed their Evangelical faith – seem to think there is a certain way to deconstruct. I’ve seen books and articles that read as “how-to” guides and, honestly, this seems flippant and irresponsible. Sure, you may have experienced something that is more linear, but that is not the case for many of us. As Michelle Collins will talk about in her soon-to-be-released book, Into the Grey, the deconstruction process is more like the grief cycle. You can be all over the cycle at any given day, and just because you were at point A today, doesn’t mean in 6 months you won’t be right back at point A.

My advice, then? If you know someone who is deconstructing, listen to them. Validate their experiences. They may not be YOUR experiences, but that’s okay. They are their experiences and they are valid. If you are the one deconstructing, know that while it is painful, the only way out is through. Keep asking questions. Keep pursuing the truth. Keep an open mind. And understand that while you may not get from point A to point B, you will learn to at least accept the process of learning to float.

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About Matthew J. Distefano
Matthew is a best-selling author, blogger, podcaster, long-time social worker, and hip-hop artist. He is an outspoken advocate for nonviolence, happily married, with one daughter. Outside of writing, his interests include gardening, hiking, and European football. He lives in Northern California You can read more about the author here.
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