Is it just me, or is deconstruction everywhere you look right now? I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had where people have shared they are “deconstructing their faith”. There are so many people right now who are determining whether they really believe the Bible is inspired, evaluating whether they want to continue to follow the path of Christianity, revisiting their thoughts on sexual ethics, and so forth. It’s just about everywhere I look right now!
To be sure, a part of this is the current moment. With COVID putting basically the whole world in a state of prolonged stress, many people are taking a long look at what they believe and why. At the same time though, I don’t think this is just a fad that will disappear with the conclusion of the pandemic, whatever exactly that looks like. I believe the phenomenon of deconstruction is the result of two different currents merging together:
- The growing distance between mainstream culture’s values and those that have been the most common for the historical church on a number of issues.
- The increasing centrality of postmodernism as society’s paradigm for understanding truth, and hence evaluating one’s beliefs.
I’m not sure I would say it seems to me that either of these trends is going to decrease in the near future. In fact, I would suggest we are probably going to be seeing more of both of them, which means it seems more than likely to me that deconstruction will only become increasingly prevalent (that is unless you’re in a culture like Europe where it has already become more common than not). Whether we like it in the church or not, many people are or will soon be deconstructing, and unfortunately, it seems that many leaders in the body of Christ don’t have a lot of tools to know how to engage with this process in a way that is fruitful. This thing called “deconstruction” isn’t going anywhere, and I think one of the more important pastoral skills in the next generation is going to be learning how to engage that process effectively.
As I’ve mulled all this over again for the last few months, I thought it would be good to share a few thoughts as to how we may be able to do better than we have been up until this point. For many of the leaders I’ve interacted with, deconstruction is the word that means “the beginning of the end of this person’s faith.” I don’t think that deconstruction needs to feel like a curse word to church leadership, but I often hear is uttered with that tone.
It’s possible to see it differently, but to get there we’re going to need to spend some time and understand what is happening here. What is this deconstruction thing? Why is it everywhere all of a sudden? More importantly, how do we engage people who are heading down this road, and what is God doing in it? Welcome to this article series: Faith and Postmodernism. There are unique challenges and unique opportunities on this terrain; let’s spend some time exploring.
Society’s Current Tilt
To understand the “deconstruction phenomenon”, we need to understand that the West is slowly moving from a philosophical orientation orbiting modernism to one orbiting postmodernism. Each of these is a framework of understanding truth and reality that are worth some brief exploration:
Modernism is a group of philosophical and cultural values that developed out of the Enlightenment and the developments of the scientific revolution. As the scientific method was applied to discipline after discipline, its success and the subsequent technological progress that flowed out of physics, chemistry, engineering, and more created self-reinforcing worldview: the truth about the world can be studied, discovered, and harnessed for progress. As these ideas migrated into the industrial revolution and redefined manufacturing and business, this was further confirmed, eventually resulting in who may be the ultimate symbol of modernism: Thomas Edison and his vision of electrically lit homes. Man had mastered nature and created his own environment: inventing the future and controlling the power of day and night for himself. Anything was possible.
Modernism has no singular concrete definition, but it orbits around this story. It includes features like:
- Objective truth that can be discovered through experimentation – Reality can be seen and known objectively, and the way to find it is through deductive processes.
- Human progress – As we learn objective truth and we learn to use that knowledge, we can create a better world. Utopia is possible through man’s learning.
- Naturalistic – As objective truth is discovered scientifically, anything that isn’t directly measurable is viewed as not real. The result is that any spiritual or supernatural aspect of the world we live in is set aside.
The modern era has proven remarkably fruitful. It was an age of discovery and progress unlike anything up until that point in the world. It quite literally gave us “planes, trains, and automobiles”, changing forever the way our world works. Modernism reinvented the world a few times over – the world before modernism would look so foreign to us that we could hardly identify with it.
The modern era probably concludes conclusively with the end of World War 2 – the explosive finale to a journey that had bought whole-heartedly into the lie that technological progress would give us utopia. What humanity learned through two global wars in less than forty years is that modernism doesn’t eliminate evil, it just magnifies the effect of both good and evil. The same progress that gave us democracy, personal rights, the middle class, automobiles, and more also gave us concentration camps, mustard gas, and atomic bombs. Technology doesn’t trade evil for good, it magnifies the effects of both evil and good – and the stakes in the early 20th century became global-sized.
(For more characteristics of the modern era, I’d suggest this article.)
As faith in modernism began to decline, a different paradigm began to become prevalent: one that we call postmodernism. Postmodernism was formed as a reaction to the shortcomings of modernism and was informed by the science of the 20th century where the modernism assumptions of objective truth began to break down in the sciences themselves. Quantum mechanics and Einstein’s relativity told us that “objective truth” was far less objective than we realized, and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem punctured a major hole in the idea that logic was an inevitable road to truth. This was a strange, foreign world, very different to the modernism that had been saturating Western society for the centuries prior. The resultant understanding of the world is called postmodernism, and postmodernism’s major attributes are:
- Denial of objective truth – What is “true” is subjective, not objective. Truth, reality, values, are all human constructs and have no inherent meaning. What you understand to be true depends on where you’re standing when you say it.
- Anti authoritarianism – Postmodernism is often highly sensitive to the dynamics of power (another human construct) and is weary of power being wielded against other human beings.
- Mystical – Because all points of view are equally valid, spiritual practices have as much validity as scientific ones and are viewed as roads to the truth as well.
Paradigm shifts like the one from modernism to postmodernism happen over extended timeframes. For the last century, these ideas have been moving from scientists and philosophers into the realm of mainstream culture layer by layer. It is only in the past few decades in the United States that the majority of the country has had to begin to seriously wrestle with this cultural context and what it means for people on the journey of faith. (The coasts tend to be a decade or so ahead of the rest of the US shifts like this, and Europe tends to be further ahead still). Add all those time frames together and what that means is that the environmental backdrop that we are living on is settling more and more into one that is based on the ideology of postmodernism.
(Here is a helpful article exploring the clash of modernism and postmodernism if you’re interested in more reading on this subject.)
When Postmodernism Becomes Normal
The ever-present “deconstruction” is a signal to us that postmodern values are becoming increasingly normative for the culture around us. If postmodernism is the language that people are speaking as they interact at their workplace, when they talk with their neighbors, or as they stream their favorite show on Netflix, it is only natural for these ideas to begin to intersect their faith as well. In fact, this kind of faith-culture fit is imperative that believers work out, otherwise, our witness to the world around us isn’t very useful. Christianity has always had the assignment of learning to speak into a cultural context; what is happening here is only that the prevalent cultural context is changing.
The modernist cultural backdrop is one we’ve had for a few centuries. We’re used to it; it’s comfortable, but the fact is, modernism is a worldly paradigm just as much as postmodernism is. Both of them have elements of truth and elements of error in them, as every paradigm of the world does. What is not happening here is we’re leaving the truth of modernism for the lies of postmodernism; what is happening is that we are trading one worldly system of understanding for another one. They both have error, and they both are empty because they don’t spring from Jesus:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8
Philosophies and human traditions don’t spring from Jesus, they spring from other (not good) spiritual powers. Yes, postmodernism is a design of the “elemental spirits of the world” as Paul calls them, but so is modernism too. Yes, postmodernism looms, threatening to eradicate any sense of truth or morality in the church reducing us to a group filled with carnality, but let us not forget that modernism has already created a church full of Pharisees that fixate on the truth and know little of the power of God. And Jesus is the Lord of both. He dined with prostitutes and sinners, and also met Nicodemus for conversation at night. Paul penned letters to the Corinthians, a church that had deep-seated problems with their sexual ethics and if anything too much fascination with spiritual power – sounds like the types of problems that exist in a postmodern environment to me! Yet he also wrote to the Galatians, who were so fixated on truth that they began to take matters into their own hands and embrace legalism instead of grace (which sounds much more like a modern set of issues to me).
The point is this: we don’t need to fear postmodernism. Is there confusion and deception there? Absolutely, but there already was confusion and deception in the culture before. We need not panic just because postmodernism has arrived. Remember, the church panicked when modernism arrived too – beheading scientists and banishing them as heretics. I’m not sure that helped us a lot in the grand scheme of things.
So, with the cultural and historical backdrop in place, how do we address our friends who are walking the journey of deconstruction? To dive into that, we need to think carefully about the nature of truth and the postmodern understanding of it. But that’s for the next article.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman