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Dangerous Teaching: Deconstruction

Some of you might remember the children’s song from Christian churches in the 1980’s about the wise and foolish man – it was a great song with great actions and I used to love singing it but also watching all the enthusiastic leaders jump about when the ‘floods came up’. This gist of the song being if you’re wise your house is built on a rock and stands firm and if you’re foolish you build your house on sand and when the rain comes down it falls flat. It’s based on the Christian scriptures, a story that Jesus told. Here’s a lego parable for those of you who enjoy them:

It’s a fantastic parable, and provides a timeless challenge to anyone who is brave enough to ask the question what am I and the people around me built upon and around?  How does my house or my life stand? or even more broadly and provocatively what is my community and society built upon?  I would like to suggest that this parable has journeyed interpretively throughout our human history, via the evolutions of theology, of science, knowledge and truth. The allegory within the story has come to represent a principle and a battle for many communities and people of faith about certainty, safety and survival.   The phrases in the song mentioned above have been echoing in the back of my mind in some many diverse and complex conversations recently about change, difference, perspective, conflict and hope.

We are currently living in and engaged culturally, philosophically and theologically in one of the most dynamic periods in our history.  We have more knowledge and experiences at our fingertips than ever before. Our lived reality is that we are not isolated, that we share power and this planet with billions of others and their respective cultures. The perspective of history in terms of both events and culture highlights the definition and nature of change as a constantly evolving process and experience.

There is both a theoretical principle and process as well as pervading attitude to describe and relate to this dynamism that we can call deconstruction.  The theory is that we cannot assume that anything has an intrinsic meaning – that meanings are constructed – and therefore can be deconstructed. The attitude that is influencing us, in layman’s terms is about peeling back the layers, the constructions, the meanings and truths that have been given to us without question and starting to ask questions about them.

Deconstruction has been happening throughout our history in this sense, as key revelations about how things work and what consequences affect and change mean that our knowledge, relationships and response to ourselves, each other and the world is subtley altered.  Scientists will argue that this is what hypothesis is.  The earth moving round the sun, not being flat, developing a hole in the ozone layer, climate change are all new knowledge and experiences that have changed the principles that have operated via truth to adjust our sense of entitlement, invincibility, power and privilege as a planet and civilization.

Doubts and questions have always been raised and expressed, but not always with such freedom or as consciously now.  The labels given to people who asked questions ranged from lunatic, to heretic, to blasphemer, to witch or sorcerer, to traitor, to liberal or false prophet.  We don’t have to look too far in these contemporary climes to discover how ugly or crude criticism can be when we disagree or are afraid of what a certain voice or persective might symbolise or represent.

These days with the influence of diversity and pluralism you tend to be praised for your ability to defend your ideas or argument whilst being willing to engage with perspectives and possibly have your view changed in the process.  Knowledge and truth that are defined as evolving and influenced create a principles of openenss, teachability and vulnerability – but for many this can all start to feel a bit like sand.

The imagery of rocks in Christian scripture tends to have associations with unmoveability, strength, safety and power.  To propose deconstruction in relation to any number of truths and meaning that has been taught as unchangeable is incredibly scary and sometimes worrying to people and we’ll explore some more of the reasons why tomorrow.

Conservative views can see or portray deconstruction as  unhelpful, too liberal and fluid, a version of pluralism that goes too far and is too unstable.  ‘If you start questioning that…? or if you start interpreting this differently then where do you stop?  Suddenly everything is up for discussion!’

There’s no getting away from the fact that deconstruction is a form of destruction and destructive.  This means it can be fuelled by anger, pain, frustration and keep opening wounds for people and communities.  It can be taken to such unstable extremes that it becomes an exercise in subjective attack.  This doesn’t necessarily mean its  an unhelpful or unhealthy experience – a friend of mine describes it as deeply radical – disturbingly so – it can’t be dumbed down or softened, to do so would take away from its radicality.    But I think ultimately it isn’t something to be scared of, the process might be terrifying but in principle – let’s be brave.

A healthy deconstruction experience and premise faces all the risks; between challenge and change, instability and uncertainty.

After all we now know that rocks move, if only slightly and that sand is a key ingredient to cement that builds our foundations.

This piece is part of a series exploring ideas that could be deemed as ‘dangerous teaching‘.

(A shoulder injury, a cold, half term and a cough I’ve had twice are all my excuses for these pieces publishing a little late!)

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Filed under Culture, Talk About God: Theology