What Does ‘Deconstruction’ Even Mean?

“Deconstruction” is a term that has increasingly been used in evangelical circles, especially over the past decade. But it is a confusing term, because there’s no single or simple definition for “deconstruction.” It has different meanings in different contexts. It has technical meanings in certain academic contexts and various informal meanings when current and former evangelicals use it to describe their (or others’) faith experiences.

It’s not surprising that many are asking some form of, “What does ‘deconstruction’ even mean?” It’s an important question and needs clarifying answers — certainly more answers than I can adequately cover here. But I hope to provide something of an introductory overview.

First, we’ll examine briefly where the term, “deconstruction,” came from, so we can, second, understand the primary ways evangelicals are using the term today.

Where Did ‘Deconstruction’ Come From?

In the 1960s, a French philosopher named Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) began to advocate for a postmodern philosophy of language and its relationship to our conceptions of meaning that he called “deconstruction.” It is an abstruse philosophy and notoriously difficult (some say impossible) to summarize. In fact, Derrida himself refused to summarize deconstruction, claiming that his whole life’s work was a summary of his philosophy.

Nevertheless, I’ll take a shot at summarizing it as I currently understand it — and stick with me, because knowing something of where “deconstruction” comes from will hopefully give us insight into why some Christians have adopted and adapted it to describe their experiences — and why many find it confusing.

  1. A fundamental assumption undergirding Derrida’s philosophy is that humans, through biological evolution, developed the capacity to impose psychological constructs of meaning upon their world as a survival mechanism. In other words, meaning — as in the ultimate meaning of things — is a human psychological creation, not a discovery or divine revelation of absolute truth.

  2. Therefore, deconstruction asserts that human language at best communicates, not absolute truth, but how a certain individual conceives of truth at a certain moment in time, in the contexts of his cultural, political, religious, environmental, and experiential influences.

  3. Therefore, deconstruction asserts that philosophers (or theologians) consult written works of the past in vain to discover absolute truth or meaning, since all they’re encountering are other authors’ constructs of truth or meaning. And not only that, but the more distant a reader is culturally, linguistically, and historically from an author, the less the reader will understand what the author actually had in mind when he used terms like truth, justice, good, evil, etc.

  4. And therefore, the philosophy of deconstruction asserts that in an effort to understand as much as possible what an author actually meant by the language he used, sophisticated methods of textual criticism must be employed to deconstruct the author’s words in order to decipher the conceptual constructs that shaped that author’s understanding of truth and meaning.

Let me try to simplify it even more. If I understand Derrida correctly, deconstruction is

  1. A literary philosophy arguing that we’re wrong to assume that by merely reading an author’s words we can understand something about absolute truth, since our conception of truth — our constructs of what everything means — will be significantly different from the author’s; and

  2. Deconstruction is a method of literary criticism that takes apart and analyzes an author’s use of language in effort to discern his construct of meaning.

For Derrida, there is no meaning outside the text of a philosopher’s written work — no absolute truth that the writer is shedding light on for the reader. There’s only the writer’s construct of meaning, of truth, represented in the text he wrote.

Which means that there is no absolute truth inside the philosopher’s text either. Just a reflection of how the author interpreted what the world means. Which, according to Derrida, is what meaning is for all of us: a human psychological construct shaped by multiple influences.

Why Have Christians Adopted ‘Deconstruction’?

So, why have Christians adopted the term “deconstruction” from a philosophy based on principles of philosophical naturalism? I think we can make a connection from something theologian Kevin Vanhoozer has written about Derrida:

The motive behind Derrida’s strategy of undoing [deconstruction] stems from his alarm over illegitimate appeals to authority and exercises of power. The belief that one has reached the single correct Meaning (or God, or “Truth”) provides a wonderful excuse for damning those with whom one disagrees as either “fools” or “heretics.” . . . Neither Priests, who supposedly speak for God, nor Philosophers, who supposedly speak for Reason, should be trusted; this “logocentric” claim to speak from a privileged perspective (e.g., Reason, the Word of God) is a bluff that must be called, or better, “deconstructed.” (Is There a Meaning in this Text?, 21–22)

Over the decades since Derrida introduced his philosophy of deconstruction, the term has worked its way into the common vernacular where it now has come to generally mean “a critical dismantling of tradition and traditional modes of thought.”

In other words, “deconstruction” has become a kind of shorthand term that, in addition to critically questioning traditional ways of thinking, also implies a refusal to recognize as authorities those who see themselves (or are perceived to see themselves) as ones who “claim to speak from a privileged perspective” about what truth is.

In the Christian world, this translates to critically questioning traditional modes of Christian belief, and often refusing to recognize as authorities those perceived as occupying privileged Christian institutional positions who “supposedly speak for God.”

Now, because this is only a brief overview, that explanation is unavoidably reductionistic. Christian experiences of deconstruction are complex and often very painful. But viewed from 30,000 feet, these characteristics — of questioning traditional Christian beliefs and rejecting supposed Christian authorities — are, I believe, why some have adopted the term.

What Evangelicals Mean by ‘Deconstruction’

And, I believe, it’s why some evangelicals (and former evangelicals) have also adopted Derrida’s term. Perhaps we might say it like this:

Deconstruction is a critical dismantling of a person’s understanding of what it means to be an evangelical Christian, and in some cases a refusal to recognize as authorities those perceived as occupying privileged evangelical institutional positions who “supposedly speak for God.”

But this definition still leaves plenty of room for confusion because the “dismantling” can look quite different for different people. For instance, here are four primary ways I hear evangelicals applying the term deconstruction.

Dismantling Harmful Cultural Influences

A smaller group of evangelicals use deconstruction to describe ways to protect historical evangelical doctrine and healthy practices. For example, in the final episode of the podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Paul Tripp says,

We should all be deconstructing our faith — we better do it. Because our faith becomes a culture, a culture so webbed into the purity of truth that it’s hard to separate the two. And we better do some deconstructing or we’re going to find ourselves again and again in these sad places. (Aftermath, 36:57)

“Deconstruction is a critical dismantling of a person’s understanding of what it means to be an evangelical Christian.”

If you listen to Tripp’s full quote, it’s clear that what he means by “deconstruction” is a critical dismantling not of historical orthodox Christian beliefs, or rejecting the oversight of New Testament-endorsed faithful, godly, spiritual leaders (Hebrews 13:7), but of cultural influences that distort and redefine the faith in unbiblical, harmful ways.

Dismantling Doctrines

A larger group use deconstruction to describe ways they have arrived at the conviction that certain historic evangelical doctrines must be adapted or altered. For example, in his book, Deconstructing Evangelicalism, Jamin Hübner writes,

Deconstruction simply refers to the process of questioning one’s own beliefs (that were once considered unquestionable) due to new experiences, reading widely, engaging in conversations with “the other,” and interacting in a world that is now more connected and exposed to religious diversity than ever before. (Deconstructing Evangelicalism, 20)

In the full context of his book, it’s clear that what Hübner means by deconstruction is “a critical dismantling” of evangelical beliefs that experience, education, and scientific discoveries have rendered obsolete or harmful. Hübner, like many, does not reject the Christian faith altogether, but claims that evangelicals in general distort the faith. And he refuses to recognize as authorities those he considers spokesmen of the “American-evangelical-industrial-complex” (18). I believe it’s fair to say that this generally is the position of numerous former evangelicals who now identify as “progressive” Christians.

Dismantling Christianity

A significant number of those who formerly professed an evangelical faith use deconstruction to describe their departure from Christianity altogether. This is probably the most frequent way I see the term used on social media. And it’s the use I prefer the least because it tends to conflate deconstruction with deconversion.

Now, likely most people who refer to their “deconversion” from Christianity (evangelical or otherwise) as their “deconstruction” went through a process of critically dismantling their understanding of what it means to be a Christian that resulted in their abandoning the Christian faith, and that’s what why they label it as deconstruction.

“Deconstruction is a process; deconversion is a result.”

But because they use deconstruction and deconversion synonymously, when some evangelicals now hear “deconstruction,” they immediately assume “deconversion.” But deconstruction is a process; deconversion is a result. And it’s only one possible result. Others go through a deconstruction process that results in a strengthened, invigorated faith.

Constructive Dismantling

In 1951, Francis Schaeffer, having recently moved his family to Switzerland to launch a new mission, suddenly found himself plunged into a spiritual crisis.

As Schaeffer contrasted the New Testament’s description of Christian love with the suspicious, angry, separatistic culture of American Protestantism he had been a part of for the previous two decades, he was “torn to pieces by the lack of reality.” He questioned whether Christianity itself was real. For agonizing months, he dismantled his beliefs and reassembled them piece by piece. As a result, Schaeffer emerged with a greater confidence in the core truth claims of Christianity and a deep, life-changing, ministry-shaping conviction that Christian truth and love are inseparable.

Schaeffer’s experience is not uncommon and so serves as a good illustration of the sort of “deconstruction” that represents the experience of many who still call themselves evangelical. However, the term most people recognize for such an experience is a faith crisis.

Responding to Deconstructing Christians

So, what does deconstruction even mean? It means different things in different contexts. It is a postmodern philosophical label that has been adopted by current and former evangelicals to sometimes mean navigating a faith crisis, to sometimes mean identifying harmful cultural influences that distort the true gospel, to sometimes mean questioning and rejecting traditional evangelical doctrines and authority figures, or to sometimes mean departing the Christian faith altogether.

How should we respond to deconstructing Christians? I hope to return in a future article to delve into this question in more detail, but the short answer is, we should respond as faithful Christians have long responded. In the typical ways evangelicals use the term, deconstruction isn’t new. Since the church’s earliest days, some have endured faith crises, some have been harmed by sinful cultural influences, some have questioned traditional doctrines and church authorities, and some have departed the faith. And to each person, whatever their struggle, we are called to extend the grace of Christ.

What does that mean? Well, the grace of Christ will have various manifestations and measures in various contexts. For as we see in the New Testament, grace comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s tender; sometimes it’s tough. We are to “give grace” in whatever way “fits the occasion” (Ephesians 4:29). Which means, what form of grace a particular struggler needs is an issue of prayerful discernment.

But it’s helpful to keep in mind that a deconstructing Christian is often someone in significant pain. Anyone, like me, who has gone through a faith crisis (or multiple ones) knows that it’s not some abstract academic exercise. Questioning our foundational beliefs and wrestling with doubts about them often feels like we’re being, in Francis Schaeffer’s words, “torn to pieces.” If you read more in-depth about Schaeffer’s faith crisis and reconstruction process, you will see how disturbing, disorienting, and frightening it can be to experience (or to watch a loved one experience).

So, as we seek to extend the grace of Christ to someone experiencing deconstruction — however passively or actively, however privately or publicly — it will be important to press in carefully, ask clarifying questions, and listen well, to inform how we do or do not respond, so that our love may “abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9).