Edging Toward Enchantment: From Deconstruction to Reconstruction

When you first start struggling with doubts and disenchantment you enter into a phase of deconstruction. You start sifting through and analyzing everything you believe with the goal of stripping faith down to the stuff you really, truly believe.

Trouble is, you can go so far down this path that by the time you're done there's nothing left. You keep whittling faith down until, eventually, all that is left is scraps on the floor.

But deconstruction is important. Faith must and will go through the fires. In the words of Paul, when our faith was a child it talked like a child, thought like a child and reasoned like a child. Faith has to grow up and put childish things behind it. But that can be painful. There are attractive things about a childish faith. It's simpler. It's consoling. It's certain. To grow up in faith is to step into complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and anxiety. And there are times when we wish we could turn back the clock of faith, to go back to simpler times.

But you can't go back. I often tell my students that there is a threshold of doubt, that once you start asking certain sorts of questions there is no going back. When it comes to faith there is a class of questions that, once you get to them, just don't have any answers. When you reach these questions you'll live with them for the rest of your life.

During a season of deconstruction it makes sense to read a lot of stuff that tests and pushes your faith. Stuff that lightens the load of faith but keeps you hanging on in the face of your doubts and disenchantment. For example, there was a season of deconstruction in my life when I was attracted to death of god theology and its spin on religionless Christianity. Hey, I thought, maybe I can be a Christian without believing God!

Now, if you don't struggle with doubts you likely don't understand the attraction of that idea. A Christianity without faith in God seems ludicrous to Christians who are devout, certain and orthodox. But if you're struggling with faith the notion of a religionless Christianity seems like a gift, a way to lighten the burden of faith while keeping connected to the faith. Often the tether is behavioral, a focus on orthopraxy (the right practice of the faith) than on orthodoxy. Doing things rather than believing in things.

The thing I'm trying to point out here is that people are attracted to these strange notions because they are a form of coping with doubt and disenchantment. For the most part, Christians aren't attracted to things like death of god theology, religionless Christianity or Christian atheism because they are trying to be radical, progressive, cool, relevant or avant-garde. No, they reach these ideas because they are the final stages in the journey of deconstruction, lightening the load of faith to make it easier to carry in the face of doubts and disenchantment. This constellation of ideas--a faith without faith, a religion without God--is just about as light as faith can get before it completely evaporates.

And when you get to this point something has to happen.

In my experience, a radically deconstructed faith just isn't sustainable. It can be for a season, even a long season. This is a place where you end up after you have journeyed through the fires. Faith here is in its lightest, most insubstantial state. But over time the unbearable lightness of faith starts taking a toll.

The first place you'll start noticing the unbearable lightness of faith is in your attitude about going to church. What's the point of rolling out of bed on Sunday morning? You hardly believe in any of this stuff, so the entire experience of church is just one, massive doubt trigger. Church is too faithful--all the songs and sermons so full of conviction--to be tolerable. Our faith has become so wispy and insubstantial that we experience full-bodied expressions of faith jarring and uncomfortable. Even unseemly. A lyric of a song makes us wince. A sermon illustration slaps us in the face.

It's hard to go to church when your faith has become so light. So you stop going. Now you have a faith without God and without a church. It's just you, alone, with all the doubts in your head.

Many of us have been in or are currently in this exact spot. It's a fine, perfectly predictable spot to reach. Having been there myself hear no judgment on my part. I get it. My point is simply that I don't think you can stay in this spot forever. Perhaps some can. I do think a lot of people can be there for a very long time. I was in this spot for many years. But eventually, the unbearable lightness of faith becomes intolerable. This being betwixt and between belief an unbelief is just not sustainable.

Something has to give. If you want to maintain a hold on faith the season of deconstruction has to be followed by a season of reconstruction. But a lot of doubting and disenchanted Christians never make the decision--and it is a decision--to commence with the work of reconstruction.

In the lament psalms the season of deconstruction is followed by a season of reconstruction. A turn is made. A jarring turn, but a turn nonetheless. Lament, doubt and disillusionment is followed by doxology, praise and thanksgiving. Faith has a rhythm. At some point, doubting Christians must force themselves to read the psalms all the way to the end. We need to practice making the turn.

Same goes for the prophets. The prophets rage and despair. But a steady diet of rage and despair is not sustainable. So the prophets are also poets of grace and hope. Like the psalms, the prophets make the turn. Deconstruction is followed by reconstruction. Faith must find this biblical rhythm if it is to be vibrant and sustainable.

Edging back toward enchantment is a part of this journey toward reconstruction. Edging back toward enchantment is the intentional practice of reading the lament psalms and the prophets all the way to the end. It is the intentional commitment to let mystery, and even faith, season our diet of questions. The intentional commitment to not let our doubts and objections be the primary intellectual and emotional filter of Christian community and worship. The intentional commitment to check our doubts and cynicism at the door.

Edging back toward enchantment is practicing faith. Not practicing as faith. But just what I said: practicing faith.

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