Deconstruction Disambiguation

Not every experience of disillusionment with the faith begins or ends in the same place.

Guest Contributor / 11.11.21

This article is by Nathan Hoff:

“Do you love me, dear?”
“Oh honey, of course, I love everybody.”

In “Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” Paul Simon sings,

It’s against the law
It was against the law
What the mama saw
It was against the law

In a July 20, 1972 interview for Rolling Stone, Jon Landau asked Simon: “What is it that the mama saw? The whole world wants to know.” Paul Simon responded “I have no idea what it is … Something sexual is what I imagine, but when I say ‘something’, I never bothered to figure out what it was. Didn’t make any difference to me.”

Ambiguity serves the purposes of those who have something to gain from confusion.

As an immature preacher, I remember, and regret, trying to earn cheap points by making ambiguous statements about “the media” or “Hollywood” or “the culture.” Listeners would have to import meaning into my ambiguity, and if they had good will for me they would assume that we shared the same values, the same friends, the same enemies.

Erasmus clearly communicated, “I prefer not to make assertions.” Erasmus’ brilliant ambiguity led Luther to say of his writing, “It is just as if the sweepings of the house or of the stable were borne about on men’s shoulders in vases of gold and silver!” (Introduction to Bondage of the Will). It is as if Luther was saying, “Erasmus, you say nothing, so well!”

False prophets, false news, false lovers, false shepherds have everything to gain from ambiguity.

The discussion around deconstruction, seems to me deeply ambiguous. Not every deconstruction project is the same. Some deconstruction is motivated by a wound, some by wondering, and some by wandering. Some deconstruction is motivated by a kind of doctrinal, moral, ethical questioning. Some deconstruction comes from rebellion and some comes from obedience. In other words, not every experience of disillusionment with the faith begins or ends in the same place. Moving away from one form of Christianity could lead to another, rather than falling into some pre-determined exit door. As it was with the prophet Jeremiah, deconstructing the faith can be in the service of renovation:

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (1.9-10)

The best way to disambiguate deconstruction is a curiosity borne of compassion and humility. To seek a better understanding. Can you name your core struggle you have with the Christian message or movement?

The answers one might have to this are variegated, complicated, nuanced, and personal. Summing them up here is meant to provide a degree of clarity (either for yourself or someone you know). The following are a beginning, not an end — a first crack, not the last word. Add to them, improve them, grapple with them.

The De-tangling Response. “The faith of my childhood was completely tangled with political identity. My political identities have shifted, but I’d probably still call myself a Christian.” I call this detangling. Separating two different allegiances that have been misunderstood as one allegiance might be disruptive to both for a season. This is a work of clarification and, though complicated, is worth it. Beth Moore is not the first person to detangle. She stands in the good company of Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, King, Cyril of Jerusalem, the Desert Fathers and Mothers and, ultimately, Jesus who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18.36).

The De-moralizing Response. “I believe in God and all, but I just think God has more important things to do than care about my private matters.” This is a kind of deconstructing what God never constructed in the first place, a further reducing what was already reduced in the first place. You thought moralistic therapeutic deism was already reduced? Now, take out moralistic. Maybe we could call this de-moralizing? This response isn’t so much a struggle, but an exchange of moral frameworks. The claims of Jesus are either muted, or accepted with caveats. Christianity can easily fall into moralism, but its good news has far more to do with freedom and forgiveness than judgment.

The De-affiliating Response. “My current congregational or denominational affiliation is doing more damage than good to my faith.” Narcissistic leadership, coercive practice, injustice masquerading as theology, or many other perversions suffocate faith instead of vivifying it. Sadly, there is no shortage of true stories of this all-too-frequent experience. From podcasts like “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” or the season about Liberty University from “Gangster Capitalism”, to the hashtags #churchtoo or #exvangelical all painfully explore and expose dangerous rot in the leadership of sick congregations, movements, or systems that push constituents to get out for their own wellbeing. This disaffiliation could be a move toward healthy faith, not away from it.

The De-conversion Response. “I no longer recognize Jesus as Lord.” This one is mostly sad to see, but behind it is an acknowledgment of Christianity’s difficult “leap of faith.” More than skepticism (or even doubt), the de-convert has given up the struggle altogether. Life isn’t as linear as we’d like and Christianity’s boldest claims can easily seem outlandishly incoherent. The gospel is foolishness, after all, but it is so precisely because it seeks out the lost.

Conflating all these responses, and calling all of them “deconstruction” is intellectually ambiguous and pastorally unhelpful. One needs challenge and another needs comfort. One needs warning and another healing. One needs suspicion and another support. Because whether someone’s walked away from the faith or radically restructuring the foundations, God remains ever faithful. The kind of response that’s more like “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and less like “Me and Julio Down By The School Yard.”

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