As Christians we ought to be all about encouragement: to build up one another in faith and in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16). Building up is of the greatest good; but sometimes one must tear down before one can build up.
In recent years many have begun to speak of “deconstruction” and its relationship to the Christian faith. A few loudly insist that any such “deconstruction” is demonic or demonic-adjacent, a poison inflicted on the church by the French postmodernist Jacques Derrida leading to a denial of the existence of truth and shipwreck in the faith. It is true that the term “deconstruction” comes from Jacques Derrida; nevertheless, Derrida’s concern was with philosophy and the relationship between texts and their meaning, and he imagined himself to be part of the Enlightenment project. Derrida recognized that all communication is mediated and therefore demands context and thus interpretation and encode many socio-cultural aspects and dimensions. To this end Derrida sought to critically reconsider the Western perspective and value system and recognized that texts outlive their authors and get re-appropriated into later contexts for different purposes. It remains possible for such adventures in deconstruction to lead to nihilism, but such is not automatically or intrinsically the necessary result. Derrida is only one of the more recent in a long line of philosophers and literary critics who sought to fundamentally reassess the Western heritage rooted in Greek philosophy; those who would seek to demonize him would first do well to consider how beholden they might be to modernist philosophy and perspectives before they castigate his premises.
Despite what might be imagined based on present discourse, Jacques Derrida did not establish the work of deconstructing Christianity or particular ideologies believed under that umbrella. At best, one could argue that others have since taken the same kind of premises and critical perspective that Derrida directed toward philosophy and texts and have directed them toward Christianity (as well as other disciplines). Most who experience a season of deconstruction in their faith have barely heard of Jacques Derrida and remain unfamiliar with his work. Yet the experiences and trials they endure remain very real, and while “deconstruction” may not be the most technical or ideal term to use, it remains appropriate. We therefore do best to understand “deconstruction” in Christian terms as a critical reassessment of some or all of the beliefs one has accepted regarding the faith in Christ, usually as a result of some crisis experience.
Many have attempted to associate deconstruction with justifying or rationalizing sin: they imagine that only those who want to do things Jesus has told them not to do would want to go through the experience of deconstruction to excuse their behaviors. No doubt there are some who have participated in deconstruction to this end. Stories are also often told of young people who grew up going to church and participating in a Christian environment, expressing (seemingly) robust Christian faith, and then losing that faith through deconstruction in college. This can, and has, happened. Yet these are not the only reasons people find themselves in a season of deconstruction. Some deconstruct their beliefs because they have moved to a new place and are exposed to a different way of living and doing things. Many have deconstructed their beliefs because they have witnessed Christians and churches not upholding what God has made known in Christ and prove more faithful to worldly commitments than to their professed heavenly citizenship. Many are processing the various forms of trauma and/or oppression they have experienced in Christian contexts. Sadly, a good number of those who deconstruct their beliefs are not doing so because they have found the world more attractive than Jesus; they do so because they have not seen Jesus well manifested or represented in the people and institutions who profess Him.
Very few would consider deconstruction to be a pleasant experience; most who undergo a season of deconstruction have found it to be agonizing and alienating. Yet deconstruction is not intrinsically evil, or even necessarily a bad thing. Deconstruction might be unpleasant; deconstruction can certainly be taken too far; yet deconstruction is a necessary process if we would prove faithful to God in Christ.
We do well to consider “deconstruction” according to the image the word immediately conjures: that of taking down part or all of what has been constructed. The specific nomenclature may date to the past few decades, but the concept has been around for as long as people have professed faith in God. And God expressly expected His people to have to undergo trials and crises in faith that would lead to “deconstruction,” or destruction, of some or most of what His people believed and held dear.
Abram’s family in Ur lived as pagan idolaters according to Joshua 24:2-3. Thus, when God called Abram to believe in Him and follow Him, Abram had to change his views and perspectives: he would have to dispense with service to other gods and serve only the God who called him. Time and time again God would have to command His people to tear down idols and break them down; Gideon and Hezekiah were called upon to literally deconstruct the idolatrous service of Israel, breaking down altars, smashing pillars, etc. (Judges 6:25-27, 2 Kings 18:3-4).
Jesus Himself taught about faith in terms of building on the right foundation in Matthew 7:24-27, and Paul expanded upon the theme, expecting everything built on the foundation to be tested as through fire in1 Corinthians 3:9-15. To this end we do well to think about our faith in terms of a construction project we have built. If the house is built well and firmly on Jesus with a healthy understanding of His truth in love, and we experience the storms of life, that house can endure the trial and be sustained with minimal damage. Thus, well and healthy faith rooted in what God has made known in Christ has little to fear from a season of trial and deconstruction, for it is robustly rooted in Jesus. But what if the house we have built has some unsound aspects; perhaps rooted in some aspects more in cultural mores and expectations or designed to address the challenges of a bygone era? When various trials come about, those unsound aspects will be exposed, and will not be able to sustain the challenges and will collapse. The witness of God in Christ has nothing to fear from deconstruction, but all that is built upon cultural assumptions and expectations, looks to win culture wars, or to protect the institution at the expense of faithful witness in Christ has everything to fear from that exposure. It will not, and cannot, stand unless it is properly built in Christ.
The challenge of deconstruction is less in its process and much more in its end. As with doubt and skepticism, so with deconstruction: they prove necessary to a degree, but can go too far and lead to nihilism and despair. It remains true that some deconstruct themselves out of faith in Christ entirely, which is a bitter and lamentable outcome. Deconstruction therefore should never be pursued for its own end; instead, if we find ourselves in a season of deconstruction, we ought to always aspire toward a time of rebuilding in edification and encouragement. We must absolutely remove all unhealthy parts of the foundation and structure of faith which has been built up and which will not sustain the trials and challenges of life and judgment, but we must then seek to re-establish a firm foundation in Jesus and the witness of the Apostles and prophets, and build up our faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:20-22, 4:11-16). That faith will not, and cannot, look exactly like it did before. It is also no excuse to replace one set of cultural assumptions and ideologies with another set of cultural assumptions and ideologies; if it will endure, it must be built on what God has made known in Christ through the apostolic and prophetic witness (Colossians 2:1-10).
Deconstruction is neither easy nor fun, but ultimately it is the demand of repentance in healthy faith. If we would truly change our hearts and minds for the better, we must first clear out all that which was not fully rooted in Jesus. We have no difficulties expecting those who come to Christ from the world to “deconstruct” everything they have learned in the world to effectively put on Christ; the sad reality is that many Christians need to go through the same experience in order to divest themselves of the worldly accretions that have corrupted many institutions and those who have professed Jesus as the Christ. Likewise, the restoration spirit requires the “deconstruction” of all of the human traditions and institutional loyalties that hinder believers from jointly participating in the faith in Christ in its apostolic simplicity. “Deconstruction,” therefore, is not the enemy of the Christian or the faith; it is a season of trial which we must undergo if our faith would result in praise, honor, and glory for Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3-9). May we all seek to root out all forms of worldliness from our lives in faith, and may we provide space, love, and encouragement for all who find themselves in a season of deconstruction, so that we all may ultimately build one another up in love to the glory of God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry