Series on "Deconstruction" (Part 1: Defining Our Term)
Updated: Aug 30, 2021
Words can be tricky.
How we use words and what we mean by them are important. All too often today people are using the same words in totally different ways. This results in people talking over one another and being triggered by a word or phrase unnecessarily. We think someone is offending us when perhaps they don't actually mean the same thing we think they mean. Perhaps they are ignorant about what a word means to you and have a completely different conception of it.
It's helpful to clearly define our terms to leave less room for possible misinterpretation.
Of course this can be frustrating. Most people don’t like to have to always explain themselves again and again, but for the sake of good communication, I think it’s always worth making ourselves more clear.
The Word "Deconstruction"
“Deconstruction” has become a tricky word and a hot topic. It means different things to different people.
For some, deconstruction means a reworking of faith and previous assumptions in order to lay a foundation for something better.
For others, deconstruction actually sounds a lot more like destruction. It means taking a sledgehammer to faith until there is nothing left but a hollow and rotting stump; the bigger and faster the sledgehammer, the more one can rightfully call it “deconstruction.”
If you're majoring in philosophy, you may avoid these definitions entirely and go with the Derridan definition (a post-modern philosophical theory begun by Jacques Derrida ).
Words change over time and are used differently in different settings. My apologies to post-modern philosophers as I will not give a philosophy lesson. I didn't want to leave out this original definition of deconstruction. Instead, I'm drawing on popular understandings of deconstruction in Christian culture today and the other words that get connected with it.
For Christians who understand deconstruction in the second way I mentioned (more as destruction), it makes sense that they advocate to stop using the word altogether (except pejoratively). Why would we need a word that is used to justify the destruction of faith?
I’ve personally heard orthodox and faithful Christians refer to "deconstruction" as either wholly good or wholly bad. This is because the way this word has begun to be used specifically in reference to faith is a new phenomenon in popular culture. Many still don't know exactly what it means. They may have heard it used either positively or pejoratively, but they're not sure exactly what to make of it.
Since not everyone in culture has agreed upon a definition, the word is flexible taking on whatever meaning people want it to be. The word “deconstruction” itself is a neutral word, and changes meaning depending on what you are actually “deconstructing.” I'm not sure if I'll help the problem as I'll be giving my own definition. But at least the reader will know what I mean when I use the word.
For me, deconstruction is not simply a bad word that Christians need to avoid. It's a word that can be used productively when viewed on a spectrum. This is why I decided to use the word on the Home page of my website. However, I added the word “faithful” before it to give clarification: "Faithful Deconstruction."
Just like I want to help reclaim a word like "apologetics" which is often hijacked by "fundamentalism," I also want to help reclaim "deconstruction", which is often hijacked by "progressivism." (Fundamentalism and progressivism are also words that need to be defined: a subject for a later post.) I think both words can be productive for an honest and orthodox faith?
So my definition of deconstruction is simply:
The process of shedding beliefs or assumptions about God, faith, or the world.
This process would obviously be on a spectrum, much like the picture one gets at the doctor to show their pain or discomfort level. Some are deconstructing more beliefs more quickly than others. The reasons one may be doing this will vary, and the pain level around deconstructing certain beliefs may vary depending on the value placed on those beliefs in the person's community.
People in our world, especially young people, are deconstructing faith. What I mean is not that they are all losing faith, but many are seeking to deconstruct unhelpful and untrue beliefs in order to replace them with better ones. People are trying to shed what is unhelpful in order to reconstruct something solid.
If we can encourage people who are already deconstructing, or rethinking, some beliefs they held previously to do it “faithfully,” perhaps they may be won to an orthodox faith. If the only places people receive resources for “deconstruction” are unorthodox (those that are overly skeptical of the supernatural, have gutted the core beliefs of the Christian faith, or have rejected Christianity entirely), perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised they are more influenced by these resources.
As Christians, we all should go through times when we must rethink and challenge certain assumptions or doctrines so we can be more faithful. The Bible is full of this kind of thing happening.
Often people get to the point where the theological systems they grew up in do need to be re-thought and reworked. They may have grown up thinking that the only way to do this is to throw the whole thing out the window! But that’s not true. There are non-negotiables (essentials) in our faith, things that are important, and lastly things that are a matter of preference or conscience. Some of us have never learned that this is the case.
In this series of articles on "deconstruction", I will strive to show a few ways the word “deconstruction” can be used in a positive way for re-thinking and exploring faith in a faithful way. Perhaps we can reclaim this word from being used only in a destructive sense and use it instead in a way that allows room for rebuilding in a way that ends up revitalizing our faith and glorifies God.