One of the difficult things about online discourse is that we’re all working with a different dictionary. Specific, nuanced words like “postmodern,” “woke,” “conservative” and “liberal” get flattened of all meaning and are used to clobber people we don’t like and make snide, pithy points for our team.
This article is part of our New You series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
That’s been particularly true of “deconstruction.” Although the word has a rich history (and the process it describes an even richer one), a lot of people are now using deconstruction to mean something simplistic and one-dimensional. That’s not the best way to engage in a meaningful discussion about an important issue.
That’s the opinion of Nish Weiseth. She’s a spiritual director who has helped lots of people and communities work through the ups and downs of their own spiritual journeys — from deconstruction to reconstruction and everything in between and beyond. She brings some clarity to the conversation around deconstruction, along with some practical tips for how to help friends who are going through it.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
RELEVANT: Let’s start with a defining of terms: What does “deconstruction” mean?
Nish Weiseth: I’ve used this example before: it’s like the game Kerplunk. Have you played that game?
You pull pins out or something, right?
Yeah. It’s this plastic encasement. It’s empty on the bottom, but the top has all these holes in it. You put a bunch of straws through the holes, and then you pour a bunch of marbles on top. Everybody takes turns pulling out the straws. Sometimes you pull out a straw and some of the marble shift.
That’s what I would call lower case deconstruction — just a small shift. Then someone at some point — it can be you or it can be someone else — will pull a straw out and all the marbles fall through. That’s deconstruction. The small shifting of marbles would be, say, changing of a theological opinion on one issue. It would be maybe a change in preference on liturgy or style of church or preaching. It’s not a faith crisis as we would probably define it.
The capital “D” deconstruction, big deconstruction, which is what most people are talking about right now, is when all the marbles fall. It’s a massive faith crisis.
Now, how I see it being misused or misappropriated is I think a lot of people are conflating the process of deconstruction with the end result — sometimes — of deconversion. Those are two different things.
Deconversion is a walking away of the faith or from the faith altogether. Deconstruction is the process that we go through to lay everything out and examine our beliefs and why we believe it and how we ended up here.
Sometimes for some people that ends in deconversion. Sometimes it ends in a rebuilding of faith, a growing of faith, a spiritual formation. It’s just different for everybody.
Why do people start this process? What leads to people deconstructing?
In my work, I have seen people come to me because of deconstruction and it has started because of a betrayal that happened in church. I’ve seen people start the process of deconstruction over bigger systemic issues around racism and white supremacy, and church complicity in those issues. The treatment of LGBTQ people, the treatment of women, and other social issues that have forced them into a period of deconstruction where they’re saying, “Wait a second, I was told this my whole life. Why do I believe this?” Then everything else starts to fall.
I’ve seen people start deconstruction because they felt a restlessness by the spirit of God that something wasn’t right. They went to investigate that in good faith and ended up in a process of deconstruction. Someone re-evaluating white supremacy, I would argue, is probably led by the spirit of God.
There are a million and one reasons why. A big one that I have seen in my own work over the course of the last four years was the disillusionment with the evangelical system around the 2016 election. I think that was a huge catalyst for folks.
This process we’re talking about is very old, but it seems like it’s been mainstreamed in a very new way over the last few years. Do you think the politicization of religion in the U.S. is part of that?
I think so. There are some things that we would look back on Christian history and say, “I think that we would probably qualify that as a form of deconstruction.”
For example, I don’t think you can look at Martin Luther and his nailing of the thesis to the church door as anything but deconstruction. If you know anything about Martin Luther, he worked really hard to try to change the institution, but ultimately had to leave. It was a reevaluation of everything that he thought he believed around church authority and indulgences in the Catholic church.
That is for sure deconstruction. That is a reevaluation and reexamining of one’s beliefs. Coming out on the other end with believing something different. That’s just one small example.
I do think that the election is a reason why we’re seeing it talked about so much right now. Also, frankly, the nature of social media has a lot to do with it. Twitter or Facebook, all that stuff. The relative ease of sharing one’s experience through those venues makes it really easy for us to see it front and center. When people started to speak out about it and how they felt very abandoned and confused and started asking questions about everything that they had believed or had been taught their whole life, they were able to find other people who were experiencing the same thing, which creates this perfect storm of conversation that we see in the mainstream.
It seems to me that this process could be something that people could be going through without even really knowing there’s a name for it. What are some signs that people can look for in their own spiritual life that would suggest maybe you should be paying attention? This could be a process that would be worth paying attention to and taking it on seriously and deliberately?
I think disillusionment or confusion can be an indicator. I think when someone brings up either a social issue, theological issue, you name it, that all of a sudden you feel yourself squirm and tense up, that’s probably an indicator. Again, not necessarily indicator of a big faith crisis deconstruction, but that something is left unresolved that maybe needs some examining.
What would it look like for somebody who is experiencing these things to take this process on with intentionality instead of just passively going through it?
Something that I always say around deconstruction or any sort of faith examination process is that it is deeply individual and personal, but should never be done in isolation.
I’m not saying church is the best place for everybody to do that. I’d actually say for some folks, it’s not wise. If that is your experience, find someone that you trust, that is a good listener, that can offer you compassion and patience and welcome as you examine some things that are really uncomfortable.
That can look like just a good friend. That can look like a mentor. That can look like a pastor. That can look like a spiritual director, or, for some, a life coach. Anything that anyone that is able to sit and journey with you is probably the best way to go about it because it is deeply lonely.
Richard Rohr talks about that period of reconstruction that can follow deconstruction. That process isn’t talked about as much. It has not really had the same cultural Renaissance that we’ve seen with deconstruction. Do you have any wisdom about what that process can look like? Is it just as simple as “I used to believe this and now I believe this”?
It can. Sometimes it can look like just a shift in belief. The question that I ask is always, “what do you want?” That’s a revolutionary question for a lot of people, particularly for women. We’re not asked that question because we are trained to put our emotions and our desires at bay.
One of the questions around deconstruction is: when you’re at the end of deconstruction, you’ve dismantled it all, you take stock of everything, then you’re left with all of this stuff. Now it’s time to figure out, “Well, how the heck am I going to put this back together in a way that makes sense?”
The first question that I ask people is, “What do you want? What do you want it to look like?” I know I’ll get a lot of pushback on that, but I think we need to get in the habit of asking ourselves that question. Because when I do ask that question, most people respond with, “I want to feel a deep connection with God.” That is a God-given desire. It is! That’s a good place to start.
You want a deep connection with God. OK. Let’s think through the context of your life. What does this look like? What are your thoughts on church? Then you start going through all of the things that you dismantled and go, “What would a deep connection with God look like with the things that I can hold to be true?” Then you start to build from there.
For those of us who have a friend going through a process like this, what’s the best way for us to be there for them?
People go wrong here by leading with fear. Remember that deconstruction is a process. It is not the end. It’s not the result. It’s a process. Remember that it is scary for that person. Remember that it is a deeply humbling experience to take stock of what you believe and ask yourself really hard questions about it. Remember that it can often be full of pain that’s in need of healing. Where I see people go wrong is rather than coming alongside with compassion and patience and warmth and hospitality, we see people lead from fear, which then leads to control. Micromanaging, asking leading questions.
I will quote Ted Lasso who said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” Curiosity in this process will take you so far. Whether it’s the person deconstructing or the person coming alongside someone deconstructing. Curiosity is the key to good relationship and good partnership and soul journeying.
One of the best things that you can do as a curious friend for someone going through deconstruction would be to ask, “I know this can be painful. How can I best serve you right now? I know that this process can be lonely, what do you need from me as your friend?” Simple relational curiosity questions can speak volumes to someone who feels alone, isolated, disillusioned and confused.
You don’t have to understand this process to love someone well who’s going through it. To feel seen and heard, isn’t that what we all want? To be seen, heard and known, and loved for who we are. That being curious rather than judgmental is the path to that love and relationship.