Theology & Church

Construction Time Again

Deconstruction is one of the phrases of the moment within church circles.

It describes the process of re-evaluating beliefs you once held dear. Doctrines are questioned; clear boundary-markers of behaviour are replaced with more nuance; black and white is replaced by shades of grey.

Many decide to reject forms of faith which they now perceive as narrow, naïve and, in some cases, dangerous and damaging. 

This trajectory has affected many of the Christians of my generation.  It’s a key theme of the Faith 20 Years On research that I completed last year.

And popular podcasts such as Nomad and the liturgists are examples of online communities framed by a deconstruction narrative.

Strengths and weaknesses

Much of this is understandable. It’s important for people to be honest about their faith struggles and admit to what no longer makes sense. And for those deeply embedded in church cultures, the pain of this journey cannot be over-estimated.

But, having listen to many podcasts and talked with many friends on this trajectory, I want to share three thoughts about what I perceive in the deconstruction narrative.

1. It goes with the cultural flow

We live in a context where the questioning of Christian doctrines will not see you ostracised, imprisoned or executed for heresy.

Actually, in today’s cultural climate often the safest place to be is to question anything perceived as ‘authority’. Stances which deconstruct traditional views are more likely to be received well on social media than ones that defend them. 

In many ways questioning and casting doubt on any traditional or inherited perspective is the new dogma.

2. It is theoretical rather than practical

To deconstruct is to question and challenge what exists. It reflects, stands back, observes, critically evaluates. Therefore it thrives in the world of media; blogs, articles, debates and podcasts, which are essentially worlds of words.

These tendencies can attract those who prefer to theorise and debate rather than do anything practical. These people may associate themselves with causes of social justice in theory but are they actually doing anything in the real world? Rather than representing radical or costly engagement, stances can often be little more than a pose.

3. It struggles to bring hope

Cultures dominated by deconstruction struggle to create and transform. Deconstruction alone does little to build community or create change in people’s lives.

Youthwork is a good example. It is easy to deconstruct Christian youth and children’s work and critique theological simplicity or narrowness. But by itself this does little to provide the energy, commitment and enthusiasm that engages and enthuses young people.

Deconstruction can critique and dissect a message, but that does little to bring hope to people’s lives. It easily hardens into cynicism about any form of transformation.

Half the story

Deconstruction is an important and inevitable part of a journey for many. But I think it should only be half the story.

If we want to be people whose lives are full of faith, hope and love then need to reconstruct what this actually looks like in our lives. We should not settle to be defined by what we are not.

To be authentic, beliefs must be embodied. We need to take the risk to put beliefs into action, to be committed to the change we want to see. What can we do to build and construct a new future?

Biblical balance

The bible shows faith which is both radically deconstructive and radically constructive.

The deconstruction of Israel’s escape from slavery and liberation in Exodus is followed by the construction into a community with laws and structure.

The judges and kings construct a nation, the prophets deconstruct its idolatry and injustice. Ecclesiastes 3 says:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven…
…a time to plant and a time to uproot…
…a time to tear down and a time to build…
…a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them…
…a time to tear and a time to mend…

Re-construction

Jesus deconstructs traditional understandings of sabbath, temple and law and has continual conflict with the religious establishment.  And he reconstructs a new form of community by renewing and fulfilling what has gone before.

Following Jesus involves both. We should not be in thrall to dried out tradition, religious habits or mindless ritual. But we also should not be seduced by what is shiny, trendy or innovative. Jesus said:

“Every student of the Scriptures who becomes a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out new and old treasures from the storeroom.”

If you have got stuck in a purely deconstructive mindset, go back into that storeroom of scripture. Dig out old treasures you have neglected and discover new gems. 

Escape the cul-de-sac of endless reflection. Find others with common cause, take risks to embody what you do believe. Take concrete steps to put faith, hope and love into practice.

Construction Time Again.

11 thoughts on “Construction Time Again”

  1. Gosh, it’s good to read this Jon. I am a member of one of those online communities that talks endlessly of deconstruction. It’s quite alien to me as I consider that I came to Christianity already ‘deconstructed’ as it were (raised atheist, and inspired to follow Jesus by the likes of Gomes, Crossan, Borg, Myers, Spong, etc.) While I understand the need to question a strict, evangelical, sometimes cultish upbringing, and free oneself from imposed beliefs and dogma, I have had the uneasy feeling that the direction of this process is an inward spiral, often accompanied by psychoanalysis which exacerbates its self-obsessed nature. Deconstruction, like psychoanalysis, is a journey into oneself. As a person in recovery—from self-obsession as much as from substances—I need a journey out of myself, and towards some greater good. That is what I hear you suggesting here. It’s very refreshing. “We should not settle to be defined by what we are not.” Indeed. Deconstruction has its place and is an important part of a change process, but as you say, only a /part/. It is not an end in itself, it is a beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tobias – I really appreciate your reply and the deeper issues around ‘the journey into oneself’ and turning the other way. I am glad it was refreshing – though I doubt everyone will receive it as such! If you ever want to write a guest post to build more on this it would be really interesting. Thanks Tobias and thanks for your honesty and openness.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I so often find you are articulating what I am muddling through in my own thoughts, Jon. Thanks so much! Refreshing, kind and honest. I am currently reading (and being very stimulated by) ‘Being Interrupted’: but find myself distanced from some of the liberal theology and so have extra thinking work to do, considering how my evangelical understanding of Scripture intersects with the themes of the book. Even so, they are on to something, and as a distinctive deacon, I rejoice in some of the deconstructing and challenging work they are doing of some church attitudes!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you John, what an important article which helps to show both sides of the deconstruction argument. Living here in Leeds, I gave seen whole churches disappear on the altar of deconstruction, but the dissatisfied souls of many involved are still searching for deep faith and authenticity. Thanks for your honesty about some of the issues here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Andy. Yes, I have been involved in many such discussions over the years and seen similar stories. It is fascinating how dogma recreates itself in different guises and can easily blind us to the truth, even when using the language of liberation and authenticity.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jon – Thank you for this – thought provoking as always. I think for me in my early 70s there is a proper de-construction that comes with growing older. I have been helped by how Richard Rohr differentiates between the first half of life where we need to make sense of life and certainty and clear definitions are what we need, and then the second half of life where we may be lucky enough by the grace of God to know a bit more who we are and to be able to listen more and perhaps accept a call to be elders. Things that seemed very important about being a Christian when we were younger may have a new perspective and loom less large.This seems to me to be entirely healthy because we may, by Grace, come to a stage where we can say “I know in whom I have believed…” Thus you are so right to say “We should not settle to be defined by what we are not.” and to be clear that what we believe must be embodied and lead to action – whatever form that takes. Whatever we end up with must somehow honour the God who is the Father of Jesus and Jesus His Son and be based on a life-giving relationship with Him through the Son

    Andy seems to me to be right and it seems to me more and more that the great failure of the churches has been not to inculcate a sense of Spirituality. It is I think more and more clear that many inside our churches and many many outside are longing for some spirituality with which to live in the world. I am not certain that enough ministers teach people how to pray and help people to discover those who will accompany them as their discipleship and spirituality develop.

    The challenge for the churches and christians is how we best articulate what we have to offer in a way that is appealing because people recognise that that is what they are seeking and that within that there is indeed Life in all its fulness

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for addressing “deconstruction” with it many outworkings. Always great to see a thoughtful and balanced approach: “It’s important for people to be honest about their faith struggles and admit to what no longer makes sense.” Amen. It’s actually hard to compare church experiences: when we spend so many years in a local church, we might lose sight of how other local churches are drifting one way or the other, and how hard it might be in each to bring our doubts.

    The only thing I want to add to your discussion is that the first point, “It goes with the cultural flow” also goes both ways. There is a strong cultural flow to take the bible literally, to reject anything that might not match a church’ historical stance, or to stray from the evangelical pack – even though the Church has updated its thinking through the years (e.g. Galileo and the Earth revolving around the sun). The church likes to think of itself as a-cultural and criticize the influence of “culture”. This was probably the thing that freed me the most: realizing that the church itself was a culture. We can’t avoid the culture/location we are born in, but admitting that culture affects our approach to things – including how we interpret the bible – was a game changer that helped set free some of the dogma and help me find the new life John 10:10 promised.

    Thanks again and keep up the thoughtful approach.

    Like

    1. Thanks for this comment. And yes, of course, church produces it’s one culture, with its own problems and blindspots which needs constant evaluation and self-awareness. The wine skins sometimes need patching up or replacing if they are to do the job of carrying and sharing decent wine

      Liked by 1 person

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