Why deconstruction is necessary to spiritual maturity
During summers of my high school and college years I worked as a lifeguard at the local county swimming pool.
Part of that job included teaching swimming lessons for elementary-aged children.
I learned during that time that I could teach just about any kid how to become a functional swimmer in about two weeks. There are some very basic steps you take with children to teach them how to swim. And so as long as you took the right steps in the right order, their chances of success were pretty high.
First, you have to get them used to the water and to be comfortable in that environment. Depending on their age and how much they’d been around water, this could take anywhere from just a few minutes up to 2 or 3 days.
Then you teach them how to float on their front and back so they can get used to the idea that the water can support their weight. After that you start in with some basic kicking…first, holding onto the side of the pool, and then with some kind of kick board or floatation device.
Next, you add in the basic arm movements. Then you teach them how to breathe with each stroke. And if the kid could master each of those steps, they could at least swim well enough to keep from drowning.
Swimming is more than not drowning
But that’s not really enough, is it? I mean not drowning is good, but most parents want their kids to be able to really enjoy swimming. And some may even want to be competitive at it.
And so some advanced instruction becomes necessary. You start to move beyond the basics and add in different types of strokes. You teach kids how to swim more and more efficiently.
You make the small but necessary adjustments in form to help them swim stronger and faster.
The early preliminary lessons in floating and kicking are necessary. They’re the building blocks for everything else.
But without the intermediate and advanced lessons that come as kids grow in age and skill, you eventually end up with adults who might not be able to swim well enough to save themselves—or even to rescue their own child—in an emergency.
Maintenance vs. maturity
Of course, swimming is just one example of how we learn and grow. You can apply the same principles to anything. Learning to build or fix things. Learning to read or do math or play guitar.
Growth is a fact of life. As the old saying goes, if we’re not growing, we’re dying.
Whatever the topic or skill, we start with the basics and then progress through more advanced and increasingly nuanced steps.
So why is it that when it comes to our spiritual lives so many people are content to learn a few basic Bible stories, go to church on Sunday to sing some songs and visit friends, and never go any deeper?
Why are so many Bible studies designed more to keep people comfortable than to challenge them?
And why are so many of our churches and church leaders satisfied with spiritual maintenance instead of real spiritual maturity?
Haircuts, milk, and swimming pools
Okay, I’m about to mix several metaphors (which goes against all my instincts as a writer!), but I do it to make a point.
Our consumer society has unquestionably spread into our churches. We pay the preacher to deliver religious goods and services just like we pay the barber to cut our hair. Our job is just to sit there and let it happen, and to come back when we need it cut again.
In Paul’s first letter to the fledgling Christian community in cosmopolitan 1st Century Corinth, he scolds them for the fact that he’s figuratively been feeding them spiritual milk when they should be learning to digest more complex fare.
In essence, Paul is saying, “I gave you milk because you needed milk. But you should be eating solid food by now. You’re like a teenager still using a sippy cup. You think you’re sophisticated and spiritual, but you’re really exactly the opposite.”
I think this describes much of Christianity in America in the 21st Century. Many of our churches are content with keeping people at the stage of wading in the kiddie pool when they should be swimming laps.
Dog-paddling the English Channel
Again, I’m convinced that a big part of the problem is the impact of cultural consumerism on our religious institutions, but I suspect there’s also an element of power and control dynamics within the professional clergy class that plays into it as well.
But beyond that, to be honest, a lot of our so-called experts and leaders have never really grown past the milk-drinking phase themselves. They may have progressed from skim to whole, but they have yet to slice into a juicy steak.
They’ve learned enough to keep from drowning, and they think that makes them Olympic swimmers.
Just look at the authors and titles of most of the commercial Bible studies our churches use (speaking of consumerism). Mostly white, mostly wealthy authors offering platitudinous answers to formulaic questions.
There is very little in the way of real depth. It’s splashing around in the shallow end when we should be teaching the butterfly stroke.
We’ve largely substituted quantity for quality when it comes to spiritual formation.
And we’ve hired it out to people who will gladly feed us simplistic prescriptions for what to think and how to act rather than doing the harder work of growing past our small selves into the true selves we were made to become.
But nobody has ever dog-paddled the English Channel.
Diving into mystery
One of the reasons I talk so much about spiritual deconstruction is that I’ve become convinced that some form of it is absolutely necessary to growing into spiritual maturity.
If all we ever do is feed our shallow preconceived notions about who God is and what God expects, we will only ever experience a shallow and needy version of God.
If we rely on disconnected, decontextualized Bible studies rather than authentic experiences of the divine presence, we’re doomed to little more than a superficial brand of spirituality.
Just as part of learning to swim is to un-learn the fear of water and the assurance of dry land, part of growing spiritually is to risk letting go of our certainty and diving into the deep waters of mystery.
Risking life beyond
But nobody can do that for you…any more than Paul could do it for those early Christians in Corinth.
Growth and maturity requires something of you. An investment of your time, your energy, your attention.
It requires taking the risk of stepping out of what you’ve always been taught to believe and seeking to encounter the divine beyond the pages of a book or the routines of a Sunday morning.
Of course, that runs blatantly counter to our 21st Century American consumeristic instincts.
We are either growing, or we are dying. Sucking milk from a bottle or enjoying a sumptuous banquet. Splashing in the kiddie pool or swimming in the great, wide ocean.
Can we risk it?