“While many people’s faith was shipwrecked during this time (at Tubingen), my father’s faith actually grew deeper” – David Schaff, The Biography of Philip Schaff, in part Autobiographical.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
As the world around us continues to debate what Deconstruction is, I want to dig down on something Father Tyler and I discussed on the most recent episode of The God’s Heart Podcast. For the purpose of this article I will not attempt to define Deconstruction again, and from now on I will use Tyler and I’s definition which you can find on the Podcast. I think it’s the closest we’ve come to an actual, honest definition and I’ve been told the conversation was extremely helpful so, go check it out.
What I want to dig down on is the historical part of the conversation. On the Podcast we discussed Childers assertion that Martin Luther was not, in her words, a: “Deconstructionists.” We said that there are a lot of similarities between reforming and deconstruction, including the way the process can begin but that there are also differences. Deconstruction usually is done on the individual level, while Reformation effects the entire church. I believe we said that reformation is often what happens when a whole bunch of people deconstruct at the same time for different reasons. Deconstruction is a phenomenon that happens in history, whenever you disassemble a foundational model of thought, you are deconstructing, the question we have been asking, is what do you reconstruct, what do you build back? Do you build back into a deeper, more ancient faith or do you reconstruct into another worldview.
I have written before about the rise of the German higher critical method and its effect on Christianity at Tubingen, all of Europe and even in America. It was the higher critical method that prompted Archibald Alexander’s letter to Charles Hodge warning him of the dangers of: “The German Theology.” It was not just to be weary of German idealism, but of the text critical method as proposed by David Strauss in his “On the Life of Jesus” which is the basis for the modern: “Search for the historical Jesus” movements. Hodge was studying in Berlin in 1827 when the book came out. It is likely he saw first-hand initial reactions to the book and perhaps this was the reason for his later suspicion of Philip Schaff when he came to the states in 1944.
Schaff was still in primary school in 1827, preparing to head to Kornthall and then on to Tubingen. His arrival there, according to his son David, was marked by the fallout over German Liberal Scholarship initiated by Strauss. While he never took classes from Strauss, he did take classes from one of Strauss’s allies, Johannes Baur. Baur was one of Schaff’s principle instructors, Schaff’s own journal reflects a great deal of respect, in disagreement, for the professor. One imagines lively debates between student and instructor over the nature of history or the truth found in orthodox Christian doctrines concerning the trinity.
It was, as David Schaff would later reflect concerning his father, a time of great cementing of faith. While many of his peers were leaving the faith altogether, Schaff’s faith was deepening as he read the Church Father’s and Martin Luther, John Calvin and Crammer, John Huss and Fredrick Hegel. He found that Christ was the ultimate synthesis and therefore all that was written about him had to be true. This was an idea he would carry to Halle and then Berlin where he finished his Proficent (German version of a Ph.D in the 19th century) in 1842. It was there he came into contact with August Neander and the High Church Lutheran movement that would finally cement many of his ideas of catholicity and Church History.
I tell you this story from Church History because I want to address the idea that “Deconstruction” = “Deconversion.” Alongside the idea that liberalism (which we define differently today than those at Tubingen in the 19th century) automatically leads to deconversion. What I am not doing here is addressing Alisa Childers claim that she was “Discipled by a Progressive Liberal Church and almost lost my faith.” Mostly because I think “Progressive, Liberal Church” is not the great enemy we think it is. There are concerning doctrines and additions in both Liberal and Conservative Christianity and both are distortions of the truth. I believe if we separated out the poor and heretical doctrines and centered our beliefs and actions around Jesus and the Historic Church guided by the Holy Spirit we would be better off.
Because here is the thing, after 10 years of deconstruction and reconstruction, I still believe in the basic doctrines of the faith as confessed in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. But I also believe that Christians have a call to justice in the social sphere, that doing justice, acting justly, is actually essential to Christian formation and practice. That the bible teaches us as Christians that we are to think as well as act in a certain way and that way is the Jesus Way, though the Jesus means. Deconstruction did not = deconversion for me, it led to a much deeper, more sacramental faith. Just like Schaff, and his colleague John Williamson Nevin, or countless others I have met on Weird Christian Twitter. There is actually a cool nickname for the phenomenon, the Baptist to Anglican pipeline.
It is also disingenuous to call out all the high profile deconversions without taking a look at all the high profile people who have reconstructed into the same deeper faith of many others. People like Andrew Peterson, Russ Moore and others. I suppose if you think that the American brand of evangelicalism is the only ‘true faith’ and Protestantism as ‘the only true church’ than people leaving for the Anglican, Catholic or Orthodox (The Great Tradition) churches would seem like ‘deconversion’ since your camp has invested heavily in and used language designed to question the faith of the people in these traditions. Like the Missionaries who celebrated the election of an “evangelical” Prime Minister in Ethiopia because: “The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia teaches salvation by works.” (hint: it doesn’t).
People are, because of much trauma and much disingenuousness on behalf of its leaders, deconverting from a brand that is so watered down and bogged down with baggage and politics that it is no longer useful to those who use it. Like if Tide stopped putting baking soda and bleach in its products and sold you scented water. Some are leaving the name “Christian” behind altogether, others are throwing off marketed faith in favor of a quieter more ancient faith steeped in the beauty of the dance between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Interestingly enough by creating fear that “deconstruction means deconversion” Childers and others may actually do more harm, by “declaring war on Deconstruction” they may only make it harder on those who are asking questions, not may, will. Sadly, many more may leave the faith altogether because of this foolishness. By making it: “Evangelicalism” or “Bust” you may keep people from find true rest in Christ.
This saddens me and I recognize that I was fortunate to get “caught” by leaders and mentors who recognized what was happening and steered to towards the Church Father’s and people like Henri Nouwen, Josh Reibok, Shane Claiborne, Mother Teresa and others. I was discipled back into a deeper faith than what I deconstructed from in the first place. But I also sat with the homeless man, sat across the table from a refugee, heard the story of an immigrant and took seriously Jesus words about loving your neighbor as yourself. I say the Nicene Creed every Sunday and the Apostles Creed as part of morning prayers and I can’t help but think that if all that is true, it requires a response, the response Jesus gave; giving up my life for another.
So let’s not say that “Deconstruction=Deconversion” because both Church History and Modern History both show that not to be true. Let’s also stop demonizing others and fighting culture wars and thinking that our “brand” is the only true faith. May we all grow into a deeper faith, full of holy mystery and love for Christ that spills over into love for one another.