Deconstructing: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
It seems as though deconstructing one’s faith is all the rage. It is the subject of books, videos and podcasts. Among conservatives and evangelicals, deconstruction is viewed as a threat. Among liberals and many moderates it is viewed almost as an article of faith. We might, however, be well advised to define what faith deconstruction entails before discussing its merits or dangers. One source defines 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.” My friend, the late Rachel Held Evans, considered it as taking a “massive inventory of faith, tearing every doctrine from the cupboard and turning each one over in hand”.
I will say from the outset that I really see no danger in the exercise of the examination of what one believes. Indeed, for most believers I see it as a life long and essential task. To question, or even to doubt, is, I believe, not antithetical to faith. In fact, I consider questions and doubts to be essential stepping stones that eventually lead to a stronger, more informed faith. Such a faith, however, will likely be more nuanced and reflective. As Pope Francis wrote:
“We do not need to be afraid of questions and doubts, because they are the beginning of a path of knowledge and going deeper; one who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith.”
There are, however, some attending guidelines in deconstructing one’s faith. There is a difference between carefully removing items from a cupboard and turning them over in your hand and taking the self-same items and throwing them to the floor where they shatter in a hundred pieces. That is to say, there is a difference between examination and destruction, just as there is a difference between questioning and unbelief. Moreover, even in the examination of what is believed, there are caveats. You see, faith and belief have theological underpinnings and, most usually, it is these theological underpinnings that are under examination. Yet, in that theology is an inter-related field with all of its parts appertaining to each and to all of the other parts, it leaves little room for revolutionary changes. Once again, therefore, our examination is nuanced, often rendered in shades of gray rather than black and white. In this regard, we might remember that the opposite of doubt is not faith. The opposite of doubt is certitude and, at its most dogmatic, absolute certainty is but a caricature of faith.
All this is to say, I think there is value in examining our faith and structure of belief.
As an example, such an approach and examination might allow us to hold seemingly different constructs within, for lack of a better term, the same cupboard. For instance, in the passion and death of Christ, which approach is correct, that of penal substitutionary atonement or the Christus Victor motif of Gustaf Aulen? In theological terms Eastern Orthodoxy tends to give greater weight to the Resurrection of Christ than we do in the West. Who’s right? +Michael Ramsey used the template of the Incarnation and the Transfiguration for his entire body of theology. Was he correct? How do we define what takes place in the Eucharist? Do we use the definition of Rome, or the Orthodox, or the Lutherans, or the Anglicans? You see, in deconstructing our faith, we might find that all these approaches are equally true, even while each approach contains varied strengths and weaknesses. All is not black and white. An examined faith allows us nuance, highlights and shadows. It allows for mystery even as it allows for faith.
It should be said, however, that deconstructing and examining one’s faith is not an end in itself. Once deconstructed and examined, the task is not finished. We still must reconstruct, keeping and using that which is precious to build.