Picture this. You’ve gone to church most of your life. Your parents are Christians, and they raised you the same way. Maybe you said a prayer of salvation when you were little, or maybe a youth pastor “led you to Jesus” when you were older. Either way, for the most part, it’s been a pretty straightforward journey. Pastors and other trusted Christians in your life told you what being a Christian meant, and you followed their lead.
But now things are getting a little different. You’ve got some questions, and the answers you’ve always had for them aren’t quite as satisfactory as they used to be. Maybe you have doubts, and aren’t quite sure what to do about it. Maybe some parts of the Bible are giving you pause. Maybe you have strong disagreements with some of your fellow Christians’ beliefs. Whatever it is, you feel like you’re reaching a breaking point with it. Something has to change.
For many reading this, none of this is hypothetical. Sociologists tell us that about 45 percent of Americans undergo some sort of “spiritual shift” in their lives. That shift can be minor — like adjusting a theological belief or a church denomination; or it can be big, like converting to a different religion or even out of (or into!) religious belief altogether.
A word has emerged to describe this process: deconstruction. This is a difficult and frequently misunderstood process. It’s not uncommon to hear spiritual leaders discuss deconstruction in threatening terms, as if those who engage in it are risking their connection to Jesus and possibly their very souls.
But the process of deconstruction isn’t an end to itself. It’s not the end of the road, or a death — although it can often feel like that when you’re in the midst of it. But once you’ve started asking these questions and honestly engaging with your doubts, you’re ready to start the process not just of deconstruction but reconstruction. That latter word hasn’t entered the spiritual zeitgeist to the same degree that the former has — possibly because people are so scared of deconstructing that they don’t always get to the other side — but if we can start to accept it as a common and healthy part of our spiritual journey, who knows what sorts of spiritual transformations might be waiting?
To fully understand what reconstruction looks like, we do have to make sure we understand deconstruction, because it’s a poorly understood word.
“It’s like the game Kerplunk,” Nish Weiseth says. “Have you played that game before?”
Weiseth is an author and spiritual director in Idaho who’s had to work with a lot of people through their own deconstruction processes. She says the Kerplunk analogy has been helpful.
For those not familiar with the game, it’s straight forward. A glass tower full of tiny holes is set in the middle of the group playing. Dozens of straws are inserted through the holes in the middle of the tower, creating a rickety barrier halfway through the tower. Then, marbles are poured on top of this barrier. Players take turns withdrawing the straws one at a time. If you withdraw a straw and the marbles shift a little but don’t fall, the game continues. But whoever pulls out the straw that sends all the marbles crashing to the bottom loses.
“That’s deconstruction,” she says. “The small shifting of marbles as it were, would be like 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 is when all the marbles fall.”
The word was originally coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida as a critique of Platonism, but in recent years it’s been popularized by the likes of Father Richard Rohr to refer to a spiritual journey — a cultivation of religious belief. In this framework, most of us start our spiritual journeys through a process of construction, where we build our spiritual worldview, usually with the beliefs handed down to us from authority figures.
Then, at some point, many Christians enter a process of deconstruction, where they start to re-examine those beliefs — pulling the straws out, as it were — and rethinking them.
Obviously, this process hasn’t traditionally been encouraged by the Church. But it’s also been vital to its evolution. If you’re a Protestant, you’re part of a tradition that started because one Christian started to deconstruct his religious beliefs and realized he needed to build something new. The Protestant Reformation began.
“It was a reevaluation of everything that he thought he believed around church authority and indulgences,” Weiseth says. “We would probably qualify that and go, ‘That is for sure deconstruction. That is a reevaluation and reexamining of one’s beliefs.’”
So, clearly, deconstruction doesn’t always end in deconversion or the total destruction of belief. In many cases, we have ample evidence that deconstruction can be, as Weiseth says, “led by the spirit of God.”
So now that we know what deconstruction is, what does reconstruction look like?
“It is deeply individual and personal, but should never be done in isolation,” Weiseth says.
This, she says, is where many people go wrong. The process feels lonely, so they assume they’re all alone. In fact, the very prominence of this term should be proof that while you might feel alone, there are a lot of people out there who know what you’re going through.
“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,” Weiseth says. “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, for some it looks like a life coach. Anyone that is gifted or able to sit and journey with you is probably the best way to go about it.”
Another thing many Christians have to confront as they start to reconstruct is fear. There is a deep fear of getting things wrong, or of coming to a belief that will put you at odds with your community, and that fear can often guide the process in a way that isn’t healthy. We start making decisions based on what will rock the boat the least instead of from our own natural questions. Weiseth says it’s natural to be afraid but that “the process is as scary as we let it be.”
“When someone is afraid of getting it wrong, when someone is afraid of someone else going through a process of deconstructing and asking really hard questions, it’s worth us asking our own selves: What are we afraid of?”
Weiseth says a better guide than fear is to drill deep to our own core. “The question that I ask is always: What do you want? That’s a revolutionary question for a lot of people.”
“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,” she continues. “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?’”
That question can feel pretty uncomfortable for a lot of Christians, since most of us have learned to distrust what we want, but Weiseth says it’s important to listen to the things God may have placed in our hearts. Weiseth says that when people really think about what they want, the answer is simple: to be closer to God.
“Most people respond with, ‘I want to feel a deep connection with God,’” she says. “That is a God-given desire. That’s a good place to start.”
From there, the path forward isn’t exactly simple, but it is a path.
“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?’” Weiseth says. “It has to start with whatever God-given desires are in our hearts and in our spirits and go from there.”
Since all of our constructions are a little different, the process of rebuilding will look a little different too. Maybe the marbles will shift a little. Maybe they’ll all fall down. It’s possible that your reconstruction could end up looking very similar to what you started out with, just with more clarity and confidence in why you believe it. But then, it might look very different. And who knows? Life is long, and our spiritual journeys are long too. Just because you end up one place at the end of this season of your relationship with God doesn’t mean that’s where you’ll stay forever. The key is to take the first step. You never know what God might have in store for you unless you’re willing to abandon the calm and certainty of the shore and step into the unknown.
“We try so hard sometimes to hold really tightly to what we know that we never get the chance to see what else is out there,” Weiseth says. “I wonder what is on the other side of that.”