Don’t fear deconstruction
Perhaps it is easy enough for me to tell you not to fear deconstruction, since I have always really loved the discipline. To be fair, I haven’t studied it in several years, but find that even the most sincere academics misunderstand an important aspect of the theory. I believe it all has to do with the name.
If we separate the prefix, we get an easy sense of the principle task: we de-construct something, like a story or a theory. To de-construct implies taking something apart with the care and skill it to took to construct it. Oh, but it sounds a little like destruct [de(con)struct if you will], so a thinking of carelessness and manipulation enters in uninvited. The simple practitioner may also think that the story ends there—that, like the idea of construction goes in one direction: from pieces to new thing—when something is deconstructed, it ends up in pieces. To imply such a simplistic view suggests that Jacques Derrida should have called it Deconstruction & New Construction. What silliness. It is not his fault that you make irrational assumptions!
The Second Half
Think about it this way: we examine the whole, then its parts, and then what? We figure out not only how it works, but how to rebuild it to better do what we think it ought to do. Deconstruction has always had reconstruction as its second half; and yet we criticize it for being something it isn’t: destructive!
A toy example
If we think about an older child playing with a toy, we get an image of a youth, trying to figure out how things function and how she is able to manipulate it. The toy serves an obvious purpose (the fun of the individual) but also a less obvious purpose (teaching the child how to interact with her environment).
- For some older children, they may touch the toy, but see it as too delicate, and will put the toy back down out of fear they will break it (and then will get yelled at).
- For others, they will start pulling the toy apart, eager to see how it works. But the first time a joint shifts out of place, or the casing cracks, they stop playing and put the toy down.
- For another group, they will pull the toy into its many pieces, glorifying in the act, happy to see how it came together and how it works, but then toss the pieces in the trash, naming it useless and destroyed.
- The last group doesn’t just see a toy but this thing as the toy. It is the full embodiment of playing and interaction in the world. Too heady? As they pull the toy apart (playfully!), they are seeing not only how each piece fit together into the toy that was, but how they might fit together in a new creation—a toy that is wholly theirs. The new toy embodies their vision of the world and how that toy functions within it.
With the toy example, we see the fear that many have in even playing with our toys, to even see what they are about. That fear prevents us from understanding how they work, leading us to assume how it functions. But the playing isn’t only destructive, but constructive, because in the end, the toy becomes something original and more fully ours.
A lake example
Imagine driving along a highway through the woods and you come upon a lake off to your right.
…avoid looking at the lake at all, trusting that it must be how you imagine it to be.
…pull to the side of the road and observe the appearance of the lake from your car.
…park the car, walk up to the lake, dip your toe in, and declare the lake to be “cold”.
…dive into the lake to feel the water, and emerge from the lake in a new state: wet.
With this example, we get a more metaphorical view of how we see our faith. The first group is too fearful to even entertain the prospect that their understanding of what the lake is could be different from the lake that is in front of them. The second group act as objective observerers, not participating in what the lake offers, but judging it based on assumptions. The third group takes a marginally participatory, but analytical (scientific?) view that is eager to categorize and define what “lake” means, comparing it to previous experience. The last group fully immerses themselves in the “lake,” not to analyze it, but to be transformed by it. In these, the place of deconstruction is not simply a matter of change or disconnected observation, but engaging with what the “lake” actually means.
Deconstruction and the Church
As you can see in the above examples, deconstruction is simply the tool that reveals the assumptions behind our current behaviors so that we can behave more honestly. This means that it certainly isn’t dangerous for the church, but only for the status quo. As John Caputo argues in What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, deconstruction is the essential tool of the Christian. As Jesus deconstructed the world built by the Romans, Pharisees, high priests, and scribes in collusion so as to reveal The Way, the most important tool in our tool box is that same one: examining our world, our institutions, and our behaviors for a more authentic practice.
It is far too easy to think that we know what a lake is without seeing it (as if faith requires blindness) or to avoid messing with our precious toys (as if liturgy can’t be altered) out of fear of what will be revealed or that we will destroy them for ever (destruction). But this is (de)construction. We come out the other side with a better understanding of who we are and what we are about. It means we are better Christians.
What does Jesus keep reminding His disciples? “Don’t be afraid.”
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For more on deconstructing the church, see my series “Deconstruct Church“.