The ultimate end of deconstruction is a feeling of despair. If everything is called into question – our tradition, our basic beliefs, our way of knowing – it soon becomes hard to figure out how to make sense of the rubble that surrounds us. This is especially true when it comes to faith (by faith here, I mean Christian faith).
It comes as no surprise, then, that many in my own community of faith (which has been foundationally deconstructionist) find themselves not re-invigorated but foundation-less. This is the danger of deconstructing faith: when we deconstruct something that has been in place for years, lifetimes, and longer and do not replace that faith with something solid and life-giving, we ultimately rob people of their faith. This became especially acute for me over the last two weeks through several different conversations with friends.
So, what is the goal of all of the deconstruction? Is it simply to call things into question for the sake of questioning? Or, more helpfully, is intended to expose the false pretenses of our understandings of faith in order to allow us to see things more clearly and accurately now? There seems to be a vast ocean between these two options. I’m afraid that, for many of my friends, this deconstruction has not led to much more than questioning everything and finding no new answers.
For many of us, we were raised in a Christian culture that at best ignored questions and at worst demonized them. For questions are a sign of doubt, which is a sign of a lack of faith, which leads to finding oneself outside the bounds of Christian hope and salvation. We weren’t given permission to ask questions. We were charged with taking the Bible at face-value, even when that face-value was ignorant of first century or ancient Jewish culture and which denied that the New Testament in particular is incredibly political. In fact, we have been fed the rhetoric that Jesus wasn’t political at all, which undermined our ability to understand what exactly the good news of Jesus actually is. Salvation, for us, was personal. Jesus died for/because of our sin. Life is about self-actualization while we wait for heaven. When we call these foundational beliefs into question, it is no surprise that we find ourselves swirling in a sea of despair, wondering what the heck we are supposed to believe about anything.
We weren’t taught to understand the title ‘Son of God’ as anything other than a theological claim about Jesus’ divinity. We miss the intensely political nature of this title, which was the title ascribed to the acting Caesar, a descendent of his father, a god. Caesar Augustus was the ‘Son of God’; for us, we don’t submit to Caesar, but to Jesus. Likewise, we were taught that ‘Son of Man’ was a theological reference to Jesus’ human nature. But, in self-referring as the ‘Son of Man’, Jesus was again speaking politically. He was saying that he was bringing a new Kingdom that will be eternal and indestructible. He was claiming to be the Messiah of the Jews (see Daniel 7 for more). We were taught to understand ‘adoption as sons’ as referring to our personal salvation, which also misses the political nature of the term. Caesar Augustus was adopted by Julius Caesar; he was not technically ‘Son of God’, but his status as son was ascribed to him through adoption. So, when we are told by Paul that we are ‘adopted as sons’, he is definitely referring to our special and honorable status in the way Caesar Augustus was given his status: hence it is a political claim. We are no longer under Rome, but we are co-workers with Jesus, the true ‘Son of God’ as equally adopted sons and daughters.
We understood the Bible to be essentially transcribed by God through the Holy Spirit, robbing each individual book of it’s contemporary (to the times) significance and human purpose and authorship. Understanding that John is written to tell us a specific way of understanding Jesus as Messiah by a human being writing to a human audience is dangerous to that perspective. This does not mean that the Bible is untrustworthy. All this means is that, if we really want to understand the Bible, we need to understand the purpose behind each individual book and the intended audience’s specific needs and concerns. For me, I am beginning to understand that there is a profoundly more significant and beautiful weight to the words of the Gospels in particular as I begin to read them as accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry that were written for a specific purpose. They are not less true if they are understood as being more human. On the contrary, they are loaded with meaning for our time as we come to understand how they were meant to be read in their time.
All this to say, deconstruction needs to lead to reconstruction if it is to be life-giving and faith-affirming. If you find your faith waning as a result of deconstruction, don’t lose heart. Don’t settle for unknowing. Don’t settle for extreme doubt and uncertainty. Push back against even the deconstruction. Ask your hard questions. Don’t be afraid of the answers. Trust that God is indeed reconciling all things to himself, including you, and then look for how that is happening and has happened already in your own story.
If you find yourself in the sea of doubt and unknowing, trust me when I say, you are not alone, and you are in a good place. Just don’t be okay with it. Find something you can affirm, whether that God loves, humans are image-bearers of God, God wants peace and justice, or Jesus was a great teacher and a non-violent political revolutionary to be emulated. Live in those ways, seek answers to your questions, and trust that the grace and truth that came into this world in the human Jesus is going to set everything to right again and wants you to be a part of it.