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Defining Deconstruction pt. 1 | Why We Need A Definition
Working toward an agreed upon definition.
This is part one of a multi-part series. Part one: Defining Deconstruction pt. 1 | Why We Need A Definition. Part two: Defining Deconstruction pt. 2 | A Crisis of Faith. Part three: Defining Deconstruction pt. 3 | Catalysts for a Crisis. Part four: Defining Deconstruction pt. 4 | Doubt and Doctrine. Part five: Defining Deconstruction pt. 5 | Untangling Culture and Politics
What is Deconstruction?
If you ask ten different people you might get ten different answers. Some will say it’s questioning your faith, others will say it’s normal, healthy spiritual growth. Other people say it’s the first stop on the way to apostasy.
I was recently talking with a friend when I briefly mentioned deconstruction as an aside. He later came back to it and said, “I want to talk about that. I sometimes have questions about my faith and I was wondering: am I deconstructing?”
Is that deconstruction? Having questions about your faith? Or is it something more?
The word deconstruction has a bad taste in nearly everyone’s mouth right now because no one knows what we are talking about. It has come to mean whatever the person using it decides it means. There is no agreed-upon definition. I believe we need one. Not to put anyone in a box they can’t escape, but so we know what we are talking about in order to better help people who are experiencing it.
If everyone with questions is deconstructing, then we need to lose the term entirely. Christians have had questions about their faith since the beginning. The disciples who were with the risen Jesus moments before his ascension still doubted (Matthew 28:17).
Were they deconstructing?
If we don’t come up with a definition of deconstruction that people who have actually deconstructed resonate with, then those who want to make deconstruction the evangelical boogyman of the 2020s will come up with their own straw-man definitions to defeat. They already are. See this definition from Stand to Reason.
“Undesirable”? Is that the reason people don’t want to believe specific doctrines? Would an orthodox Christian truly believe that any of their doctrines are undesirable?
“To make them align with culture or your own personal beliefs”? That’s the motivation behind the vast majority of people deconstructing? I don’t think so.
This definition might apply to a small percentage of people claiming to be deconstructing. But I don’t believe it represents the experience as typically understood by those who have gone or are going through it. I would even argue that those who do fit into that definition of deconstruction aren’t actually deconstructing.
This is why we need a better definition.
Considerations for a Definition
A definition of deconstruction needs to be broad enough to account for a wide array of circumstances that people experience while also being narrow enough to not include things that are substantively different things.
Here is a list of questions to consider when thinking through “what is deconstruction?”
What causes deconstruction?
How voluntary or involuntary is the process of deconstruction?
Is deconstruction inherently good, bad, both, or neutral? Why?
Is deconstruction primarily a process, experience, outcome, attitude, belief system, or a mix of all or some of these things and more?
Does deconstruction need to lead to a pre-determined outcome to be considered deconstruction?
Does deconstruction need to lead to a pre-determined outcome to be considered good or bad?
Is it even possible for deconstruction to lead to a pre-determined outcome?
Can you deconstruct in a healthy way? Or is all deconstruction unhealthy? Is it even possible to know?
Is deconstruction/reconstruction a linear experience or a winding journey?
Is reconstruction a necessary outcome of deconstruction?
Does reconstruction have to lead to a pre-determined outcome to be considered reconstruction?
Does the definition of deconstruction fit with the experience of the majority of people who have deconstructed?
Is the definition of deconstruction clear enough that those who have not experienced deconstruction can get an idea of what it is, know how to practice empathy, and extend encouragement and aid when needed?
I’m sure there’s more.
The Need for a Definition
Am I the authority on deconstruction who gets to define it once and for all? No, of course not. To be honest, there is no authority on deconstruction. There are better and worse voices on it. But I don’t believe anyone can be the authority on it. That makes putting together a cogent and agreed-upon definition of a decentralized, deeply personal faith experience even more difficult.
That said, I’ve seen little attempt at an honest definition of deconstruction from either the progressive left or the conservative right that I feel obligated to at least attempt to put forward a definition that hopefully more people can agree to than not.
The progressive left leaves it so wide and vast that it makes it impossible for anyone who hasn’t experienced it to understand what it is. If there are things that churches and pastors can do to better serve someone deconstructing, having an idea of what it is and isn’t would be helpful.
The conservative right doesn’t understand what it is so they view it primarily as a hostile ideology that is a one-way ticket out of the faith. That is also not helpful and probably leads to even more people deconstructing.
As someone who was in the throes of deconstruction and reconstruction for 10 years, I hope to use that experience to capture as diverse experiences as possible into a succinct definition that makes the most sense of them.
And that’s an important point. The goal of defining deconstruction is not so it can become a topic of cold study. The motive is not to gatekeep an experience in order to let some people in and keep others out (though we could probably have another conversation about gatekeeping).
The goal is to provide a definition that helps make sense of people’s experiences and provides empathetic understanding for those who don’t share those experiences.
A Working Definition of Deconstruction
This is simply an introduction that is trying to get at the need for a definition. For now, I will offer my definition of deconstruction without explanation as I will expand on it in subsequent newsletters.
Until then, here is my working definition of deconstruction:
A crisis of faith that leads to the questioning of core doctrines and untangling of cultural ideologies which settles in a faith that was different than before.
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