When deconstruction is mentioned in most modern news, it doesn’t tend to mean good things for Christians, but what if some of the church forefathers thought it was an important step in spiritual maturity?
“In 2010, right after the Haitian earthquake, 220,000 died in this thing, second largest natural disaster,” shared Natalie Runion on the Truth & Grace podcast*. “We fly into Port-au-Prince, and it's a nightmare. The entire place is just a complete wreck.
“We get in a tap-tap to go to the first orphanage of the day, and the tap-tap stops at this gated structure with these beautiful, green rolling hills. There were these sweet Haitian children in their Sunday best standing at the gate. I said, ‘What is this?’ And he [the driver] said, ‘It's a burial site for those who lost their lives in the earthquake.’ I said, ‘Well, are the kids here to pay their respects?’ He said, ‘No.’”
These children came every Sunday, and they climbed over the rubble of what was left of their country to go wait for their parents to come back and get them. Even though they knew that they were gone, there was a hope still because they hadn’t seen their bodies. …The Lord said, ‘Pay attention to this picture because it's an image of the coming church.’ There's going to be a deconstruction or a destruction that's going to leave an entire civilization in a rubble, and the church is going to have to decide if they're going to remain in position because there are spiritual orphans climbing over the rubble of this deconstruction, of this destruction; and they're hoping somebody's coming for them.
“If the church doesn't get our act together, if we don't figure out how to rebuild after we have handed over our churches to celebrity culture, to policies and politics and to hot takes — If we don't figure out how to rebuild a safe structure, there will be no place for those orphans to go. We as the church have that opportunity to open our arm to these spiritual orphans and say, ‘We know it's a mess. We know there are dead bodies. We know that there is a lot that we need to rebuild, but we still have a safe place for you. Come and be part of this.’ This is what the whole Great Commission is: Love God; love people; go and make disciples. We have to rebuild so that we can keep bringing in the lost and the lonely.”
This vision that Natalie Runion received and detailed in her book Raised to Stay is an urgent plea for the church to not abandon those who ask hard questions.
Eminent theologian Os Guinness once wrote, “If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger. It knows God more certainly and it can enjoy God more deeply.” Almost heroic figures in the faith community such as Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon and Mother Teresa have struggled with doubt and uncertainty. John Calvin insisted that every believer experiences pangs of anxiety over their salvation because unbelief is so deeply rooted in humanity’s heart. He firmly believed that our struggle with doubt is an integral part of maturing in our faith.
The general mentality toward doubt has taken a very different turn in many Christian circles since John Calvin’s day. Deconstruction is the popular term for the act of wrestling with our beliefs, and it holds negative connotations in popular parlance. On Desiring God, Jon Bloom wrote that those who have lost their faith in God often use ‘deconstruction’ incorrectly to describe their experience. He noted, “But because they use deconstruction and deconversion synonymously, when some evangelicals now hear ‘deconstruction,’ they immediately assume ‘deconversion.’ But deconstruction is a process; deconversion is a result. And it’s only one possible result. Others go through a deconstruction process that results in a strengthened, invigorated faith.”
One famous product of healthy deconstruction was C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain book as well as Miracles. He had been skeptical of supernatural occurrences while being raised in church but before he came to faith. Even as a long-time Christian and famous apologist, Lewis still bitterly wrestled with the pain of loss and presence of evil in the world. His struggles produced brilliant musings on the two topics.
Francis Schaeffer also went through an intense period of deconstructionism, although what brought him to it was a very different issue than the ones C. S. Lewis faced. Schaeffer was appalled by the hypocrisy of many Christian communities, and it drove him to question the validity of his faith and where he stood on the institutions of Christianity and the church, which he detailed in his book True Spirituality. “I faced a spiritual crisis in my own life. …I felt a strong burden to stand for the historical Christian position and for the purity of the visible church. Gradually, however, a problem came to me—the problem of reality. This has two parts: first, it seemed to me that among many of those who held the orthodox position one saw little reality in the things that the Bible so clearly says should be the result of Christianity. Second, it gradually grew on me that my reality was less than it had been in the early days after I had become a Christian. I realized that in honesty I had to go back and rethink my whole position.”
The problems that drove C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer to deconstructing their beliefs are nothing new to those who are seriously re-examining their own faith.
The cold reality of chronic suffering or staggering loss and grief rarely factor into many people’s religious instruction. Even fewer ministers tackle how tremendously destructive hypocrisy is, how it regularly manifests in church communities and individuals, and what the Bible says about this issue. When those realities strike, as they almost inevitably will, many people have few or no resources to parse out their experience through a godly lens.
They’re left with questions like “If I’m told God forgives our sins completely and doesn’t hold them against us, that he can heal and restore our lives, why am I still suffering the debilitating fallout from decisions I made before I was saved? If a church leader who reprimanded me for a sin in my life and ‘knocked me down a notch’ turns around and does something unethical or immoral, but it’s swept under the rug, how do I trust church leaders or even church community again?”
It's like how understanding the Pythagorean theorem is foundational to learning trigonometry, but if someone has never been taught anything about reciprocal and quotient identities, they’re going to be very frustrated, no matter how good they were geometry. If we know general biblical truths and the most quotable verses but fail to have a comprehensive understanding of scripture and its instruction, we’re going to hit moments in life where it seems like the Bible offers no answers. Worse yet, some verses will appear contradictory or outright wrong.
Even those with a thorough understanding of scripture as the foundation of their faith will face moments where their faith and the landscape before them don’t seem to match up. “Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods…” C. S. Lewis wrote with his typical slightly sardonic tone, “That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off,’ you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist.”
First, we must thoroughly knowledgeable about what the Bible does and does not say, how the Old Testament prophetic and historic literature are woven throughout the gospel accounts and church letters. Once we begin to have more clarity on the doctrines of scripture, we can hold to those foundational truths in the middle of confusion and anxiety. We can hold up this knowledge as a rubric for our doubts when they arise. With an excellent understanding of scripture and the support of trusted Christian friends, we can move through healthy deconstruction into places of great maturity.
*Interview edited for clarity and brevity.