Deconstruction: An Old and Hopeful Story
Stepping into Holy Ambiguity and reveling in the Mystery of God
Welcome Back! Thanks for sticking around through my summer hiatus. I have lots to share including finishing my studies at the Living School and a life changing week with beautiful people studying the Somatic Enneagram, but I thought I’d start by sharing this post that I wrote for my church as they’re doing a series on the process of deconstruction.
Deconstruction has been a hot button topic in faith communities for the last say ten years, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a new thing. Millennials didn’t invent deconstruction.
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People have continually taken apart their belief systems and put them back together in new and important ways. How do we know that? Because believe it or not, things have progressed. The world and human thought have evolved. In spite of everything, we are a forward moving people. The irony is that in moving forward we have to look to the past.
Think of it this way, we don’t go to the salon or barber shop wanting something new only to shave our heads, we work with what we have. We shape something in the front, cut a little more off the back, maybe dye it a bold neon green. Deconstruction isn’t about destroying, it’s about reimagining.
A Deconstruction Story
When I was 23 years old I had a significant spiritual ah-ha moment. I was reading a book by M. Scott Peck, the Christian psychologist, called The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. In it, he outlines a path of spiritual development. Many authors have outlined similar patterns since including Brian McLaren’s book Naked Spirituality and Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards where he outlines “order, disorder, reorder.”
In 1993 though, almost a full twenty years before these books came out, I stumbled upon Peck’s book in the school library. I remember vividly sitting in the parking lot reading the book and feeling an overwhelming sense that I had just read something that had at once put everything together for me and shattered it. This was the beginning of my deconstruction story.
Now I had been raised in a traditionally conservative family and church, and I knew I wasn’t buying everything they were selling. When I went to college I met people who were more invested in feeding people than converting them. I was drawn to the beauty of church liturgy, something that my tradition had considered archaic. I was invited to ask questions rather than simply accept answers. But when I went home, I couldn’t reconcile the seeming disconnect. It was a painful time trying to figure out who was right and who was wrong. My mindset was attached to black and white thinking, and it was in this context that I’m sure I was led to Peck’s book.
In the book Peck outlines that people first enter religious life (any and all religious life mind you) to “flee the chaos.” In this stage we look for structure, for meaning, for community and above all we look for God. However, because we’re searching in order to find safety and certainty, rules and doctrine are fairly fixed and even the small things, that might seem inconsequential, feel big because they too could be the things that stand between us and existential collapse. People in the Foundational stage might fight over whether to change the organ out for a piano or whether or not to have a contemporary service, or even what color the pews are in the church. People in this stage are less likely to allow for the inspiration of the modern world to impact their reading of sacred text. The foundation of doctrine is necessary for spiritual growth, but sometimes other less important things get conflated along the way. People at the foundational level are good people.
In the next level, people grow and learn that morality, rules, and structure can be internalized and that most of us don’t need an institution to hold us accountable. People deconstructing often find themselves at odds with doctrines of their faith that fall outside modern understandings. These people may leave the church altogether or question their faith in substantial ways for months or maybe even years. In the meantime, they become terrific citizens, parents, and are often avid seekers. They live a secular life that is loving, civilly minded and filled with meaning. These people might still consider themselves Christian or perhaps not. They may claim the moniker, “Spiritual but not religious.” These are also good people.
But here’s where Peck got me. When people keep searching, keep praying, keep living into the questions, they start seeing a picture of life very similar to that first stage that they left so long ago. They find meaning and community; and they find God - again. But this time, they enter religious practice not to flee the chaos but to embrace the Mystery. When it comes to who God is, and if we’re Christian, what Jesus is calling us to do with our lives, the more pieces of the puzzle we find, Peck explains, the bigger we realize the picture is. We realize that faith is not certainty, but a Holy Ambiguity, at home in the Unknowing. These are good people, and no better than any other.
There is no right or best place to be. In fact we probably cycle through these stages multiple times in our life. That’s ok. No matter where you’re at in the cycle, you are good people.
Holy Ambiguity and the Mystery of God
So what does this “unknowing” this Holy Ambiguity look like? It’s being able to hold two seemingly disparate things at once without having to negate one for the other. It’s Both/And. It’s a place where the question is just as, if not more, important than the answer.
And what does experiencing God as Mystery look like? It looks like humility in the presence of awe. It’s our smallness when standing at the foot of a mountain or in desert terrain. It’s the feeling that your chest will burst when listening to that piece of music. It’s the tears that you cry into your mask when swimming with a sea turtle, not knowing how but understanding that you are both part of God’s eternal Oneness.
Some people need the black and white thinking that keeps them safe and allows them to worship God and serve people from a place of confident knowing. Some of us are learning to be more at ease in Holy Ambiguity, in the Mystery of it all, understanding that God is not unknowable but endlessly knowable. This place of gray is not easy; it can be messy and takes discernment. It is a lifetime’s journey.
It is a place where we’re invited to co-create with a loving God to build Her Kingdom here on earth. It is a place where we are radically inclusive: including people still fighting over gay marriage and female leadership, including Atheists and Agnostics; and finally including the Holy Ambiguity and the Mystery where we are finally released from the burden of a strictly binary mindset and invited at times to linger in shades of gray.
I mentioned at the beginning that I read this book when I was 23, but you should know it took another 23 years to move through the first two stages. Part of the Holy Ambiguity, the gray, for me was that I was completely untethered. I was happily free and tragically unmoored. 23 years is a long time to wait to put the pieces back together. And yet when I reflect on that time, I see God holding space for me, protecting me, connecting me with people with whom I could build community and experience Grace. God held me in my deconstruction until I was ready, until I had enough support to dive back in.
The fact that we’re talking about this now means most people won’t have to wait 23 years to move through whatever deconstruction looks like for them.
God honors our journey whether we are fundamentalists, agnostics or mystics; or whether we are loath to claim any name, lest it fall far too short in capturing a simple and humble faith as a follower of Jesus.
What I didn’t say in my blog post was that it was another book that started me on the journey of reconstruction, Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the 12 Steps. This summer I was able to tell Fr. Richard how important that book has been in my spiritual journey and express my gratitude. It tethered me back and moved me forward. Here’s how I know there’s a God: because I was able to say all this without crumbling into a sobbing mess at his feet. 😭
for next time…
The Deconstruction of Mary Magdalene
One of the more exciting moments of my deconstruction/reconstruction this summer was learning about Elizabeth Schrader’s ground breaking research on Mary Magdalene. I think so many of us women have felt an intuitive knowing that there is more to Mary’s story than we have been led to believe. I’m in the midst of putting together a talk on Mary and Schrader’s research along with my own thinking about the hidden feminine narrative in scripture for an event in November. I’ll share more later, but in the meantime, I encourage you to listen to Diana Butler Bass’ inspiring sermon from the Wild Goose Festival entitled “All the Mary’s.”
And my new tattoo inspired by it!
On the Living School experience written by my dearest, oldest friend and Living School classmate, Cathleen Falsani for the Catholic National Reporter: A Woman Without a Church Learns 'Everything Belongs' at Richard Rohr's Living School
How to Read the Bible on Homosexuality by Walter Brueggemann in Outreach, an LGBT Catholic Resource
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong, the esteemed comparative religion scholar’s memoir
“Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says, ‘Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.’ (Quran 2:115). Everybody praises what he believes; his god is his own creature and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently, he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.”
- the great Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240)
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