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The Other Perspectives On Deconstruction
There are missing pieces that need to be discussed more
I have a particular frustration in regard to the conversation around deconstruction that, frankly, was the catalyst for why I decided to write a book on it. And while I don’t say this as clearly in the book as I will here, I hope (and believe) that the point comes through loud and clear.
My frustration is helpfully illustrated by something that theologian John Frame has made popular, and after I was introduced to it, it helped me realize both the plane that I operate from most and why I’m so dissatisfied with the state of the deconstruction conversation.
The Three Perspectives
Frame employs an epistemological method he calls tri-perspectivalism. The main idea is that while God has infinite knowledge—and therefore, he has knowledge of every possible perspective on every possible thing—humans have limited knowledge, which means that we must always rely on perspectives outside of ourselves in order to advance closer to the knowledge of the truth.
I’m not going to retrace his argument for him, I’m merely going to assume it. But in this framework, there are three perspectives on everything: the normative (God’s design), situational (facts), and existential (experiences). All three of these perspectives are necessary, valid, and needed. So my point isn’t to denigrate any perspective.
That said, what I’ve noticed is that the conversation around deconstruction, particularly among pastors and those who tend to feel more negatively about the topic, functions almost entirely from the situational perspective.
Here’s what I mean.
Just The Facts
When I hear most conservative-leaning people discuss deconstruction, they tend to only talk about the facts of deconstruction. What are the facts?
Deconstruction is a post-modern philosophy that largely comes from Jacques Derrida.
Deconstruction consists of doubting certain beliefs and systematically rethinking your beliefs.
Deconstruction can involve both doctrinal and cultural disentangling.
Some people who deconstruct end up leaving the faith entirely or reconstructing a form of Christianity that is hardly recognizable to the historic witness of the Church if it is recognizable at all.
Some people who deconstruct forsake the authority of scripture and subject God and scripture to their own reason.
I’m sure there are a few other things that I can mention, but you get the gist.
All of these things are true. But when it’s exclusively talked about from this perspective, it seems like it’s primarily a philosophical project or a mechanical process. These observations about deconstruction would be true from a certain perspective. But if this is the only perspective one looks at it from, you would be missing other huge pieces of the puzzle to really understand what is happening when someone (typically) says, “I’m deconstructing my faith.”
The Other Perspectives
You would miss the normative perspective, which sees that God, all throughout scripture, tests people’s faith through trials. You see this with Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac, the people of Israel in the wilderness, David and Bathsheba, Israel exiled in Babylon, and many smaller instances. You even see Jesus tempted in the wilderness the way Israel was before his ministry began, and he even embeds this kind of trial in the prayer he taught us to pray, “Save us from the time of trial.” Trials that test and refine someone’s faith through the experience of God’s absence are a scriptural norm.
Not only that, but you would miss the existential perspective. What does this time of testing feel like? You may not care about that if you’re a data scientist or culture warrior, but you should care about that if you’re a pastor, parent, or friend. The experience of deconstruction is just as valid of a piece of the puzzle as the act of deconstruction.
What did it feel like when Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac? What did it feel like when Israel wandered in the desert for forty years? What did it feel like when Nathan told David, “You are that man!” What did it feel like when Israel was exiled from their homeland into a generation of captivity?
What does it feel like when your pastor sexually abuses you or your friend? What does it feel like when you were told faith meant absolute certainty and you come across passage after passage of scripture that makes you question if God is even good, much less real? What does it feel like when you’ve been ostracized by a community that called you their family until you held to a political position that they didn’t agree with?
What do you think that would feel like?
Putting Down the Sledgehammer
Lots of people have seen the dark underbelly of the church and have been hurt or repulsed by it. That’s not uncommon. Not everyone who sees it or is hurt by it has a crisis of faith. But to expect everyone to simply move past these things and act like it wasn’t a trial would be an impossible standard to impose on anybody. We’re only human.
As Diane Langberg writes in Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, “Abusive power has a profound impact on our relationship with God and with others. Victims of abuse often view God through a gravely distorted lens, seeing him as the source of the evil they experience. The violation and destruction of faith at times of tremendous suffering is one of the greatest tragedies of the abuse of power.”
Add to all of that and more the digital liturgies that erode our identities, make us anxious, and send us on the impossible and exhausting quest of finding meaning by looking within, and you have a recipe for a crisis of faith that will take more than a few Bible verses and a pep talk to quench.
You wouldn’t see that if all you looked at were the “facts.” If all you see is the situational perspective, you wouldn’t see that a time of testing is a pattern God has established and that the test is like walking through a fire that will burn up what isn’t of God and refine that which is. You wouldn’t see that the experience is the same as experiencing loss.
That’s not to take away from the facts. Yes, everything in the situational perspective is true. We need that perspective as well. But it’s incomplete. And if we want to help people rebuild their faith, we may not want to use blunt sledgehammers, but instead, use all of the little nuts and bolts that may seem small and insignificant and help them rebuild one piece at a time.
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