Reminder: ‘Deconstruction’ Does Not Mean ‘Deconversion’

Over the weekend, a clip of a sermon from Village Church pastor Matt Chandler went viral in which he offers a take on deconstruction that illustrates how far off the rails the conversation around this buzzy word has gotten.

“You and I are in an age where deconstruction and the turning away from and leaving the faith has become some sort of sexy thing to do,” he says. “I contend that if you ever experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ actually, that that’s really impossible to deconstruct from.”

“But if all you ever understand Christianity to be is a moral code, then I totally get it,” he continues.

Chandler is arguing for a Calvinist principle that teaches true Christians can never really “walk away” from the faith, because their salvation is dependent on God and not on them — “once saved, always saved.” That’s standard evangelical theology. But in doing so, he is invoking “deconstruction” as a synonym for leaving Christianity altogether. That’s a misunderstanding of the word.

In Chandler’s defense, the definition word deconstruction has evolved a good deal over the last 50 years or so. It originated with French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who coined the term as a criticism of Platonism. But in more recent years, the word has become popularized by theologians like Father Richard Rohr to refer to a cultivation of religious belief. Rohr argues that most Christians begin their faith journey with construction (deciding what they believe, usually by hearing it from others) and then later on, enter a phase of deconstruction (rethinking some of their original beliefs). Anything can ignite a deconstruction process. Sometimes, it’s spurred by internal doubts and tensions. Sometimes, an external event — like spiritual abuse or a church leader scandal — and kick off a deconstruction process.

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This deconstruction phase can be very scary and lonely, and it can look like a lot of different things. Sometimes it leads to a big theological shift — like deconversion or the Dark Night of the Soul. Sometimes, it leads to smaller, more nuanced rethinkings of certain cultural or theological teachings. Often times, people going through deconstruction meet a lot of resistance from their faith communities, who discourage them from asking questions and bring a “shape up or ship out” energy to the proceedings. This really raises the stakes of the person deconstructing, who are now not only asking big questions about their belief system, but feel like they’ll be kicked out if they reach a conclusion their community doesn’t like.

But deconstruction can also be a very positive process, done alongside the Holy Spirit and with the loving encouragement of trusted friends. In fact, deconstruction usually leads to reconstruction, in which you rebuild what you’ve torn down. Maybe it looks very different than it used to. Maybe it looks pretty similar. The important thing to remember is that it’s a natural process that many people go through at some point — between 43 and 44 percent of people undergo some sort of “faith transition” in their life, according to sociologists. And that transition is hard enough without handwringing and shaming those, accusing them of “walking away from the faith.”

Chandler obviously doesn’t intend anything devious by what he said. Over the last few years, as deconstruction has filtered into mainstream discourse, its nuances have been stripped away. Many people now just use “deconstruction” to refer to “deconversion.” That’s not Chandler’s fault, but his talking about “deconstruction” as if it’s only something people who’ve never known the grace of Jesus can do is bound to ostracize people going through this process.

If you’ve ever done any sort of deconstruction, you might be aware that no matter how it may look to observers, you’re actually working very hard to hold onto your faith. It’s isolating, painful and sometimes downright horrible. The best thing anyone can offer someone who’s asking questions about their spiritual beliefs is a friendly ear and, if they need it, a shoulder to cry on. If we can normalize talking about your doubts, seeking answers to your questions and even changing your mind about certain beliefs in the Church, then maybe we won’t be scared about deconstructing being the “sexy thing to do.”

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