At no point in my life did I ever have to deconstruct Santa Claus.
I admit there was a time in my life when I did in fact believe that one man delivered presents to all the good boys and girls in the world all in one night. I believed in Santa. I leaned heavily into the awe and wonder of Christmas Eve. As a child, I would set out cookies and milk on Christmas Eve as gifts to express my gratitude for jolly ol’ St. Nick (Plus, I knew he needed to keep his strength up for a long night’s work. )
I suppose I believed in Santa longer than my friends because I lived in an enchanted world with a pre-adolescent imagination shaped by those who lived a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. While I was a curious and a somewhat studious child, I was drawn to explore a world of fairies, Jedi knights, Hobbits, and the like. Similar to G.K. Chesterton, “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery.”1 Fairy tales seemed reasonable to me when I was a child.
Then I reached an age when my intellectual curiosity overtook my imagination and I thought to myself, “Wait a second. It is impossible for one person to travel to all the homes of all the good boys and girls around the world in one night!” When that sudden realization came to me, I didn’t have to deconstruct Santa. At that moment, I simply grew up. I crossed over a threshold whereby I no longer thought like a child. I still believe in Santa Claus, but my belief matured. When my intellectual curiosity overtook my imagination, I didn’t have to deconstruct Santa. I simply grew up. I crossed over a threshold whereby I no longer thought like a child. I still believe in Santa Claus, but my belief matured. Click To Tweet
Deconstruction as Maturity
While theological deconstruction is certainly in vogue these days, it is not a term I would ever use to describe my faith journey. I have experienced my fair share of twists and turns in my 30-plus years of following Jesus, but I wouldn’t call any of those turns “deconstruction.” I don’t prefer the term because it seems too harsh. A person in a process of rethinking their faith can easily turn deconstruction into demolition. In his book Out of the Embers: Faith After the Great Deconstruction, Brad Jersak offers alternative metaphors to deconstruction, as employed by Jesus and Paul. Metaphors Jesus used include “old and new wineskins,” “water to wine,” and “vine-dressing,” while Jersak observes similar Pauline metaphors, including “reclothed,” “metamorphosis,” and “repentance (metanoia).”2
Of all these options, I still prefer the term “maturity” to describe my spiritual journey. Paul describes the heart of Christian leaders when he writes, “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). While there are many kinds of deconstruction, I define deconstruction in the context of Christian maturity as dismantling theological constructs that fail to lead us to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. While there are many kinds of deconstruction, I define deconstruction in the context of Christian maturity as dismantling theological constructs that fail to lead us to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet
Some people have deconstructed right out of the Christian faith, but one can deconstruct flimsy and harmful theological constructs and still find a much deeper and richer faith. In light of this possibility, here are at least five ways to keep deconstruction from devolving into total demolition.
- Accept Deconstruction as Normal
None of us came through the waters of baptism with perfect theology. If we continue to stay hungry to know the God revealed in Jesus, and we remain curious and inquisitive, we will discover moments when we need to not only learn new things, but unlearn old things. And to be honest, between learning and unlearning, unlearning is the harder task.
If we are growing in our faith, we will at some point discover that what we believe about God does not match our experience. Pete Scazzerro describes this realization of journeying through “the Wall” as a normal part of a growing Christian faith.3 If we continue to follow Jesus in the faith handed down to us, there will come a time, according to Scazzero, when our faith no longer “works” the way we thought it would.
When things no longer work, we hit the wall and are faced with two options: (1) we can ignore it, turn around, and escape into denial, or (2) we can ask the hard questions, seeking to journey through the wall. All Christians growing towards Christian maturity will run into one or more walls in their journey. In this regard, deconstruction, as a process of pressing through the wall, is normal. If we continue to stay hungry to know the God revealed in Jesus, and we remain inquisitive, we will discover when we need to not only learn new things, but unlearn old things. And to be honest, unlearning is the harder task. Click To Tweet
- Believe a Better Christian Faith is Out There
Christians who have grown up in sectarian forms of Christian fundamentalism have assumed that their disfigured form of Christianity is the only expression of the Christian faith that exists. I have heard more than one story of fundamentalists who deconstruct until there is nothing left of their faith, because they didn’t know there was something better out there.
I can testify that there is an ancient form of the Christian faith fashioned after the ways of Jesus which is rich, intellectually satisfying, and beautiful. Jersak’s words in this regard are helpful:
The Jesus Way of the cross (cruciformity) is just this: “active, voluntary, self-offering love which is the life of God himself.” That’s the light that shines from within, the life that rises from the embers of deconstruction. The faith that is wise but not clever, deep but not ethereal, engaged but not ideological.4
Many of us have discovered a faith that is wise, deep, and engaged. Believe that it is out there and press on.
- Take Comfort, for You are Not Alone
Jersak, drawing upon the work of Simon Weil, notes that the uprootedness experienced in deconstruction can do unforeseen harm. We all have an inherent need for rootedness, and in light of this Jersak asks, “Do we understand the real impact of ‘The Great Deconstruction’ on the souls whose need for roots we may violate?”5 At times it is necessary for people to step away from their community of faith in their process of deconstruction, and that experience of uprootedness may create a sense of isolation and loneliness.
While not all churches are open to the kind of questioning that happens during deconstruction, many local churches are places that welcome doubters, skeptics, and those with profound theological questions. A lot of church leaders, myself included, have gone through some kind of process of deconstruction (even if we don’t use the term), and we are working to create communities of faith that embrace questions and theological diversity. The church is not perfect, but we are still the community Jesus is building! Find a place of belonging. You do not have to deconstruct on our own.
- Lean into ‘The Prayers’
Regardless of the catalyst for one’s theological deconstruction, prayer remains an open conduit to remain connected to the presence of the God you do not fully understand. Theology is important, but what we think and what we are rethinking about God doesn’t necessarily imply connectivity to God. We don’t think our way to God, that is what prayer is for. Learning to pray not only my own spontaneous prayers, but the historic, liturgical prayers of the church has been the single most important thing I have done for my own spiritual formation. Prayer are those practices that draw our attention to the presence of God. We can maintain thoughts about what God is or is not like and never actually experience God. Prayer opens our hearts to the experience of God.
In Acts 2, Luke notes that the early apostolic church was committed to four things, one of which was “the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The prayers speak of memorized formal prayers that have been passed on to us throughout the history and tradition of the Church, including the prayers of the Psalms. In those moments when I do not know what to say in prayer, I have learned the value of praying the prayers that I have learned, prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, and many prayers in The Book of Common Prayer. These prayers have anchored me in the presence of God particularly during times when I found myself in moments of doubt or disillusionment. As Brian Zahnd has said, “If you can’t pray, at least say your prayers.”
- Don’t Give Up on Jesus
At the heart of our faith is Jesus – Immanuel, God with us. For me, Jesus is why I got so wrapped up in this Christian faith to begin with. As we deconstruct, ask our questions, and wrestle with doubt, let’s never let go of Jesus. Whenever the church has gone off the rails (and there are plenty of historical and contemporary moments we can point to!), the corrections and re-calculations that are needed start with a return to Jesus.
Any theological construct that doesn’t look like Jesus needs to be deconstructed. For example, images of God that are harsh, angry, or overtly critical need to be deconstructive because they do not look like the mercy, love, and compassion that we see in Jesus’ life and words. Jesus is what God looks like, as Paul writes in his letter to the church in Colossae:
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels — everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. (Colossians 1:15-18, MSG).
So ask your questions, but don’t quit on Jesus. He has promised to be with us even until the end of the age. Jesus will remain faithful to us. Let’s not give up on him. I can testify that there is an ancient form of the Christian faith fashioned after the ways of Jesus which is rich, intellectually satisfying, and beautiful. Click To Tweet
Derek is the Discipleship Pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He and his wife Jenni have three boys, Wesley, Taylor, and Dylan. He earned a MDiv from Oral Roberts University and a DMin. from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is author of numerous books including By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus (2019), and his newest work, Centering Jesus: How the Lamb of God Transforms Our Communities, Ethics, and Spiritual Lives, which releases in August 2023.
1 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908). Accessed via https://ccel.org/ccel/chesterton/orthodoxy/orthodoxy.vii.html.
2 Bradley Jersak, Out of the Embers: Faith After the Great Deconstruction (New Kinsington, PA: Whitaker House, 2022), 34.
3 Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Updated Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 97-116.
4 Jersak, Out of the Embers, 217.
5 Ibid, 38.