Caught in a Riptide
Thoughts on Deconstruction
I was once caught in a riptide, pulled beneath churning Atlantic waters by an invisible current that sent my knees crashing into coarse sand and broken shells. Acrid water stung my eyes and flooded my nose and mouth. With every tumble, I could see the dry land mere feet away; umbrellas and sand castles and people who had no idea I was struggling. Each push towards shore was like a fevered dream, waterlogged-breaths spilling from terrified lungs as my childish limbs grew heavy and weary.
Spiritual doubt is like a riptide, a foundation made faulty by crashing waves and sinking sand; one instant feeling safe and certain, and the next swept under in a swell of lost footing and control.
Contrary to some popular opinions or warnings, doubt and the deconstruction that often follows, is not sexy or trendy or an excuse to bask in bitterness. Often it’s terrifying, like being swept out to sea by an all-consuming current. For a while I hesitated to use the term deconstruction because many balk against a word they assume means the willy-nilly tearing apart of a precious faith and walking away entirely.
It’s hard to believe a person can get caught up in a two foot riptide until you’ve experienced it yourself.
It’s easy to assume deconstruction is lazy or trendy until you too have been knocked hard from the pulpit of certainty and swept out into a sea of limitless doubt.
Writing Makes it Real
There’s something about written words that make people uncomfortable. Writing makes things real, not necessarily true, but real. Writing puts it all out there in black and white, no turning back, no denying that something’s been said. It’s there, written, the revelation of the heart of the writer and, most likely, the hearts of others who may never write themselves but catch glimmers of their stories revealed in publicly written words.
It’s one thing to doubt and deconstruct internally. It’s another to write about it, to give credence to inward questions some wish we’d bury. Kathleen Norris writes, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt but fear.” And I think it’s particularly true in this conversation about the validity of deconstruction. Doubt is not in opposition to faith. Fear is. And fear is what propels leaders and writers and parents and pastors to ignore conflicting thought and shut down legitimate criticisms.
Fear is what keeps people on safe shores, ignoring the near-drowning ones.
As I’ve written with more direction these past few months, I’ve started using the word deconstruction to refer to my own spiritual wrestling. In his book When Everything’s on Fire, Brain Zahnd writes about the deconstruction movement that began in the 1960’s as a critique of traditional assumptions and language. At the time, it was applied to literature. Today, it’s widely understood within evangelical circles as an untethering of historic faith from culture and tradition. Literally understood, deconstruction is the undoing of construction, tearing down and excavating institutional assumptions and certainties, toxic ideologies and legalism.
Zahnd writes, “Christianity has suffered more casualties from faux faith than from honest doubt.” And honest doubt is the impetus of those deconstructing from high school students to millennials to young parents and elderly grandparents. I have spoken with people in varying demographics, not just millennials, angsty “young people,” or embittered adolescents.
The stories are numerous and diverse; the beliefs vast and scattered. Many (including myself) began seriously questioning in 2016 when too many Christians excused and platformed a brash and pernicious candidate. We witnessed the idolatry of politics rear its head in such a way we couldn’t deny the warning bells. The undercurrent had started and we were already caught in a riptide.
But it’s not only politics. It’s traditionally-held doctrine and beliefs taught and preached and rarely reconsidered. Years ago, I turned to my husband on a normal, unassuming day and said, “I’m not sure I believe in eternal conscious torment for unbelievers anymore.” It wasn’t because of the influence of Rob Bell (an author I never read until this week). It wasn’t because we were unchurched or harboring secrets. I’d begun to find the arguments for hell faulty with the heavy evangelical focus on the afterlife that seemed obsessive and cavalier. The views certain Christians held of a rapture, where a select few escape while millions are left to suffer brutally in an apocalyptic world were never hopeful for me. I never understood the excitement for a rapture. End times propaganda is terrifying on its own, but the thought of image-bearing humans left to suffer a hopeless bloodbath should rattle all of us to our very cores.
I wonder if a disordered view of the afterlife, one of escapism and heavenly crowns for few (hell for everyone else) affects the way many choose to engage with and condemn deconstruction. That some are questioning, doubting, struggling, disbelieving is terrifying for those convinced any deviation from belief is a literal path towards hell.
But some would say, if we can’t question or wrestle or doubt honestly, what kind of faith is that?
In her book Inspired, Rachel Held Evans writes, “A lot of people think the hardest part about religious doubt is feeling isolated from God. It’s not. At least in my experience, the hardest part about doubt is feeling isolated from your community.”
Publicly voicing doubt leads to alienation and misunderstandings, blocks and passive aggressive comments, contingent welcomes, the obvious skirting of any uncomfortable conversations or the pretense that things are still the same, the assumptions some writers are stirring up trouble and should be canceled and avoided, the platforming of truly damaging voices while uncharitably interacting with the ones who dare disrupt status quos.
It’s a kind of isolation that makes many feel like prodigal sons and daughters. But they never wanted to leave home in the first place. Doubt pushed us to the edges of our faith.
Zahnd writes, “If Christianity is essentially about learning doctrines about God and adhering to behavioral codes, most of these young people will not remain Christian into their twenties.” Many are so rigid in their personal convictions and tightly held beliefs they cannot make space for the questions that might disrupt their own foundations. We hear warnings to take care against a “religion of our own making.” But for the entirety of church history, many have been creating traditions and doctrines fashioned from their own personal convictions, convictions that are sometimes egregiously wrong. Even today, people fight tooth and nail over the roles of women, belittling and condemning women as little more than sandwich-makers. From stories of abuse and institutional cover-up to corrupt Christian university presidents and widespread denominational racism and the continued denial of the dangers of Christian nationalism, it seems doctrines and mission statements and traditions carry more weight than people, safety, compassion, neighbor love.
Zahnd argues we don’t need more rules and behavioral management to keep the deconstructing folks in check. We need “holy mystery that will last a lifetime.” Perhaps a problem within much of evangelicalism is an expectation to always be on the up and up, to be progressing further from sin, closer to God. But it’s a limited view of the human experience, one filled with toil and grief and addiction and despair. Oftentimes, the focus is on outer signs of sanctification, but many balk at the people who don’t fit tidily into boxes, the ones whose addictions follow them, whose traumas linger, whose diseases remain incurable, whose families are “untraditional,” whose faiths are weak. They bar the communion table from the unbelievers but, if we’re honest, aren’t we all sometimes unbelievers? Disbelieving the overwhelming, all-consuming love of God, our works won’t save, our questions won’t send us to hell…
In the sacraments, Jesus’s holy hospitality to us, we are reminded that even in our shared brokenness we are not beyond hope and redemption.
In the last supper, Jesus fed a ragtag group of disbelieving, distrusting, betraying disciples. He didn’t prepare a 10 point apologetic sermon to prove his divinity or convince them of his eventual resurrection. He knew Judas would turn him over and Peter would betray him and the men would sulk while the women clung to hope.
Still he offered the bread and wine.
In The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes, “One morning at prayer, I heard this word: Little brother, I witnessed a Peter who claimed he did not know Me, a James who wanted power in return for service to the kingdom, a Philip who failed to see the Father in Me, and scores of disciples who were convinced I was finished on Calvary. The New Testament has many examples of men and women who started out well and then faltered along the way. Yet on Easter night I appeared to Peter. James is not remembered for his ambition but for the sacrifice of his life for Me. Philip did see the Father in Me when I pointed the way, and the disciples who despaired had enough courage to recognize Me when we broke bread at the end of the road to Emmaus. My point, little brother, is this: I expect more failure from you than you expect from yourself.”
After the resurrection, following the scattering of the disciples, Jesus shows up for breakfast to break bread once more. It had been days of mistakes, doubt, and grief when they came face to face again with Christ, a Christ who didn’t chastise them for doubting or running or grieving. He entered into their human feelings, spoke to them by gently crashing waves over the smells of grilling fish, an ordinary liturgy of conversation and food. No harsh words, no push for “corrected” doctrine, no worry of the level of doubt or disbelief within these men’s hearts…perhaps in Jesus’s admonishment to Peter to “feed my sheep,” he knew that in feeding and serving and loving, Truth would find him.
Faith is movement, not arrival. And church is not an epicenter for the righteous. Jesus came for the broken, for the ones who believe but need help in their disbelief, for the ones who stray and wander, the ones bogged down by sin management and the sometimes overwhelming pain of this present life. If Jesus can chat with a Samaritan woman and extend compassion his own disciples withheld, if he can receive the tears of a prostitute, the touches of lepers, the doubts of Thomas, the questions of many….can he not do so for us?
It’s easy to communicate and worship and interact with people who think and believe the same. It becomes far more difficult and complicated when common ground isn’t so common. We’ve built such insulated communities of like-mindedness we no longer know how to interact or love the disbelieving believers, the recovering addicts, the walking wounded, the lonely doubters.
We need “holy listeners” (Joan Chittister), patient companions who cannot be rattled by unsanctimonious conversations. We need safe haven to be fully human, welcomed, fed.