Our fraught faith

Deconstruction in its older modes was less about the self and more about what could reliably be said about God, about texts, about the past, and about the world we inhabit.

Deconstruction is a couple of generations old now. It was originally formulated by Jacques Derrida in the late 1960’s to express the complexity of our relationship to our cultural traditions. It meant accepting that our confident knowing had to be reassessed.

Today, deconstruction is having another moment in the spotlight. Specifically, among those who inhabit (or are adjacent to) the relatively narrow world of post-Evangelicalism. That world also overlaps with post-Fundamentalism, especially in the U.S. In this new framework, the task of deconstruction is about questioning elements of Christian life and faith that once were taken for granted. It suggests a kind of epiphany in which it is realized that beliefs and practices and structures and institutions must be called into question.

Today’s deconstruction is the old become new again. In my world, today’s deconstruction bears a striking resemblance to the demythologizing of German theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Writing in the 1940s, he argued: Since no modern person can believe in things like heaven and hell and miracles and resurrection, we must discover a deeper meaning in the New Testament. There is something to be proclaimed, yes, but it is not resurrection! Bultmann’s work, of course, came at the end of a long historic process of questioning the New Testament and other fundamental elements of Christian faith.

Post-Evangelicals are, in part, catching up on this type of conversation, from which they were largely “sheltered” through past decades. While social and cultural changes mean that deconstruction today has a new form, it also strikes me as a much more fraught exercise in this new world.

Our created selves

The echo-chamber nature of our online lives and a curious elevating of select voices means there is not much breadth or nuance to the deconstruction conversation. A narrow band of Christians, listening to a narrow band of authors, within a narrow band of history, is not a recipe for rich conversation and deeply nourished faith. It is, I worry, a recipe for the kind of reactionary liberalism that fundamentalism has always seemed to produce.

There is also a deeper challenge worth noting. A defining feature of late modern culture is that we view the self as a project. Rather than seeing it primarily as a gift to be received, most live as if the self is primarily something we manufacture. What I wear and consume and read and like and share and reject and affirm is all tied up with the task of creating myself. In this world, the self becomes the measure of deconstruction. The self bears the weight of the question: “Who must I become?”

Deconstruction in its older modes was less about the self and more about what could reliably be said about God, about texts, about the past, and about the world we inhabit. How we answered such questions, evidently, had implications for our faith and our worship. But these questions also carried the promise of opening us to the wide world around us – they were an invitation to faithfully describe the world God created and loves in Christ. Call me old fashioned, but I much prefer to wrestle with deconstruction in that earlier mode.


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