Last night I was doom-scrolling through facebook when I stumbled onto a post by a friend in one of the nicer private Christian discussion groups. She asked for thoughts on how it had become so trendy to talk about deconstructing one’s faith. As I started to write my response I realized I had a lot of thoughts. I actually had to switch to a note-taking app so that I could organize those thoughts and craft my response; which basically turned into a full-blown sociological and philosophical argument. (Which I do not recommend writing at 3AM, and definitely not in a facebook comment box.) I gave the group a lot of food for thought I found out, so I thought I would outline my observations here*, so you can read them too.
As Christians I understand we have a particular affinity for faith topics. But I actually see discussions of deconstructing ones faith as part of larger trends at work in western society as a whole. Trends like millennials (like me) and younger generations growing up with every fact about this world just a mouse click away and in their pockets. There is nothing we cannot google better then our teachers. Other trends too; like the rise in individualized consumption of almost anything. Growing up with services like Netflix and Spotify, we have learned we don’t have to depend on a program, or a super-structure. We can mix and match our shows, create our own playlist, listen and watch whatever we want, whenever we want.
Choices choices choices
I noticed that myself when I discussed media habits with my parents, and how different mine are from theirs. I don’t have a TV guide to see which movies will be on tonight; nor do I enjoy waiting a week for the next episode of my favorite TV show. I rarely keep an entire album after I have listened to it once; rather keeping the songs I enjoyed and discarding the rest. And these may seem trivial issues; but the same goes for our news and information consumption. I rarely watch the evening news or read a news paper; preferring to get my news online, tailored to my interests. I am not saying this is right or wrong; and I am aware of the pitfalls this can and does have. But for me it is simply a reality that I value being able to choose what I consume and when. I value that choice over submitting to tv-programming and scheduling I have no influence on.
I think that this value of choice plays a major role in faith deconstruction. Because for most people going through deconstruction, it means finding out that there is not only one single absolute right way to think about any given topic. It often includes learning that other faithful Christians look at that topic differently, interpret that story differently, read the Bible differently. Often they begin to understand that Christianity actually offers us many different choices in what faith looks like and entails; and you don’t simply have to accept what you learned growing up.
Even though Deconstruction as a concept is mostly applied to the faith of an individual, I see similar processes happening in western society at large with many things besides faith. Since I am now starting to stretch the concept slightly, I guess a working definition of deconstruction is in order. Deconstruction is a term originally coined by the philosopher Jacques Derrida, who has defined is in many different ways depending on the context. In this context i would define it as the taking apart of an idea, practice, tradition, belief, or system into smaller components in order to examine their foundation, truthfulness, usefulness, and impact according to Melanie Mudge. Or, similar to what Rachel Held Evans wrote in her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, it is taking stock of your faith and beliefs. Holding up their component parts to the light; examining, scrutinizing, critiquing them; “turning each one over in [your] hand” (p. 50).
So with that definition in mind, I think as a society we are in the midst of deconstructing some very large and heavy concepts. Some of which form the very foundation of who we are and how we relate to one another. For example; We are deconstructing what history is. Is it really only written by the victor? Why were those victors almost always white, old, Christian and male? And what spin did those victors give the story they wrote down? Who was written out of the story? How much do we know about what other people were involved? Does having multiple perspectives make history better? How can we write better histories in the future? And how does our history impact how we interact with others today?
We are all deconstructing giant concepts like race, gender, identity. We ask our selves and others what it means to be a man? , a woman? ; what roles, if any, does that imply? how does a person know their gender? How does our society influence those ideas? What does it mean that people look different? Do I treated a person of colour differently, than I do a white person? Do I? What makes me, me? Who decides who or what a person is? Can we change our identities? Can we even truly know our own identities?
We are deconstructing authority; where we no longer trust any kind of authority by default, since we have the world’s facts ideas and opinions in our pockets. School teachers get corrected by their wiki-savvy students all the time. We visit a doctor with our own diagnosis in hand. We rage silently in the pews, (or out loud on the car ride home), when the preacher takes individual bible verses out of context; and we want te tackle him after service and shove the latest N.T. Wright tome down his throat. We are constantly comparing any ‘authority’ with what our idols, influencers and friends are saying, and judge them accordingly. Authority no longer comes automatically with a position; rather we confer it on people when we decide to take what they say seriously.
We are also deconstructing some important relational values, like who deserves to be protected?, what makes someone worthy to be protected?, whose responsibility is it to protect others? how far do my rights stretch when they impede the rights of others? How do we talk to people who don’t share the same values? What do we do when our sense of fairness and equal rights conflicts with someone else’ s sense of freedom and self-determination? How do we see people we disagree with? How do we think and talk about them?
And finally, we are even deconstructing truth itself. I mean; large amounts of scientific data get dismissed in public discourse every day. Whenever someone starts a sentence with “I feel….” or “In my experience….” the merits of what they say are of limits, since personal experience cannot be judged. Opinions get stated as facts; and accepted as such. And you can always find someone with a PhD to support your claim, no matter how farfetched.
When truth resists simplicity and faith is on shaky ground
So I see the popularity of faith deconstruction in this same line. Though deconstructing faith is often a much more personal, individual process, that has much more individual impact than some of these larger societal processes. But almost all of us are sense that a lot of the ideas, values and systems we grew up with are being tested, scrutinized and often they are found wanting. The binaries we grew up wit; of good and bad(or evil), right and wrong, no longer reflect what we see in the world around us. Truth resists simplicity; rather it insists on complexity. But complexity is not an easy story to tell or to sell. It’s enough to throw any person off balance. And in almost any other circumstance; faith would provide a support system to guide us through these uncertain times. But many of us are doing both. And when scrutinizing our religious beliefs is often not always welcomed by those in our faith community, we move online in search of a new community to be with us in the midst of our wrestling.