Gender and God


     The pronouns with which we refer to God actually reveal much about how we conceive of God. And though this might not seem to be the case at first, consider some of the most common metaphors we use to understand God. Father, Shepherd, Lord, King—all of these are identified with male individuals and referred to with masculine pronouns. As a result, to think of God in male or masculine terms becomes almost inevitable.

     Now the reason this is important is because this practice of conceiving of God in male terms and of referring to God with masculine pronouns has recently proven quite controversial. In fact in our last post, Dan wrote about our gendered-language of God on Reconstruct and about how many of you listeners and readers were frustrated with the pronouns we employed. I want to help clarify this problem and explain how I navigate through this issue.

     So here’s our question: why is it a problem if we refer to God with masculine pronouns? For some of you I’m sure this seems hardly to be an issue in the first place, but trust me—it’s actually quite critical. I want to start with the theological problem this presents then move to the sociological problem it presents.


     The first aspect of the theological problem concerns the gender of God (whether or not such a concept applies to God at all), while the second aspect concerns theological method (the manner in which our ideas of God and humanity ought to be formed).

     First of all, God has no gender properly conceived. Gender and the sexed-body is something humans share with creation, not with the Creator. Thus, our gendered language of theological reference is symbolic and metaphorical, and this is a key theological insight to remember. If anyone uses gendered pronouns to imbue God with human maleness or human femaleness, then they are simply being theologically sloppy. God is not literally male nor female, neither is God literally father nor mother. God is instead metaphorically male, female, father, mother, and so on—just as God is metaphorically a shepherd and not literally a shepherd. But we also must remember that God has decided to reveal Godself to us as Father, and as King, of course in addition to other metaphors, and thus we are entirely permitted to use the language God has given us to speak of God accurately and appropriately. To be clear then, when referencing biblical passages one can retain the original gendered metaphors and accompanying pronouns without any problem (same with Jesus, who can be appropriately referred to with masculine pronouns). Instead, my main concern in this essay is about the way in which we speak of God in general theological reflection. 

     Furthermore, this is an English problem not a universal problem. In English, neuter pronouns are only used of impersonal, inanimate objects. Therefore using a neuter pronoun to refer to God seems totally wrong or disrespectful—as wrong as it would be to call a baby an “it.” We must use gendered pronouns to communicate personhood, and we only have two to choose from. However, in Greek and Hebrew for instance this is completely different. In Ancient Greek, several inanimate, impersonal objects, such as the sky, assume the masculine form (οὐρανός), while several actual persons, like a child, assume the neuter form (τέκνον). What makes this so interesting is that it presented no problem for the Greeks at all—they simply did not conceptually connect personhood with gendered language in the same way as modern English speakers. The Greeks had no artificial, philosophical barrier between the personal and the impersonal demarcated with gendered and neuter pronouns. Thus, God as the Holy Spirit is actually neuter in the original Greek New Testament (πνεῦμα ἁγία). In the same way, the ancient Hebrews also didn’t connect personhood to gendered language like modern English speakers. For them an impersonal, genderless word such as the earth took the feminine form (אָ֫רֶץ), while a clearly gendered word like breasts hilariously took the masculine form (שַׁד). Even the Spirit in the Old Testament took the feminine form (ר֫וּחַ)—and no one seemed to care. Again, this is not a universal problem but an English problem, and therefore this is an issue situated temporally and ideologically within a particular culture (an insight which will prove important for the sociological problem).  

     Secondly, giving conceptual priority to any gendered language of God results in a faulty theological method. Why must this be the case? Because if God has no gender, then to understand God through the lens of gender is simply to understand God on human terms instead of on divine terms. But this is the classic theological problem, formulated brilliantly nearly two centuries ago by philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. He insisted that humanity would never understand God unless God revealed Godself to them. This is because if humans attempt to understand God “from below to above” using their experience and intuitions as guides to grasp the divine, then the only God they’ll grasp will be an image fashioned out of their own ideals. Instead, God through God’s revelation ought to be that original source in light of which we understand our own humanity, rather than humanity being that in light of which we understand God. Thus to begin with gendered ideas and metaphors of God as the foundation upon which to conceive of God is to proceed in entirely the wrong direction. God is not literally male nor female, nor literally father nor mother, and to assume otherwise is to risk fabricating a human-originated image of the real God.   


     The sociological problem of gendered pronouns and God talk emerges in the risk of participating in the oppression of women through implicit patriarchal constructs. This might seem outlandish, but it’s very important. 

     First, consider the potential inequality that can ensue as a result of our gendered language about God. If thinking of God as male becomes pregnant within our theological assumptions and conceptions, then we will be susceptible to omitting half of the human race from equally participating in the image of God. As feminist theologian Mary Daly powerfully insists, “if God is male then male is God.” And as philosopher Miroslav Volf has argued, if God as the highest reality can only appropriately be spoken of by means of masculine metaphor and reference, then we risk thinking that men alone are like God and thus superior to women. And conversely, if feminine metaphor and reference is similarly inappropriate for proper speech about God, then we risk thinking of women as unlike God and thus inferior to men. 

     Second, consider how our gendered language of God might participate in patriarchal conceptions of women. As Volf argues (following countless brilliant feminist philosophers), it is an unfortunate fact that “what we mean by ‘woman’ is not simply a natural given, but a cultural construct whose primary agents are men.” The problem of constructing an idea of woman from male expectations is that is submits women ideologically and socially to the requirements and superiority of men. This is obviously not to say that all men consciously participate in such activity nor that every use of a male pronoun marks out such participation, but rather that patriarchy’s violent effects have ideological, social, and even linguistic aspects that cannot be ignored. As I said before, modern English pronouns and their accompanying philosophy of personhood are situated temporally and ideologically within a particular culture. But this culture is sadly responsible for creating dynamics of legitimation and delegitimation, of humanization and dehumanization that all too often place women in a state of inferiority. And though it might seem innocuous at first, identifying God with man through the use of masculine pronouns could potentially perpetuate these dynamics against women.


     Now it’s paramount that we take these issues seriously, since the marginalization and mistreatment of half the human race throughout all hitherto known history is a perennial problem to say the least. But in considering our use of gendered pronouns for God, I believe we need a nuanced approach. My conviction is that we can’t settle either for only changing our pronouns without explaining our theology nor for only explaining our theology without changing our pronouns. The difficulty with thinking that changing our pronouns alone (in this case, departing from he/himself to God/Godself) will solve our problems is that the potential misunderstanding of God through gendered concepts will remain. We must help others understand the gendered metaphorical conceptualization of our ultimately genderless God, for only then will the use of non-gendered divine pronouns be in alignment with a proper theological vision. But conversely, the difficulty with thinking that an explanation of a proper theology of metaphor alone will solve our problems is that our gendered divine pronouns will still potentially operate in ways that fortify inequalities between men and women. 

     The following seems to be the best way forward:

Depart from the gendered pronoun (he/she/him/her) in exchange for God
Depart from the gendered possessive pronoun (his/hers) in exchange for God’s
Depart from the gendered reflexive pronoun (himself/herself) in exchange for Godself

     At root, the problem of gendered pronouns and God talk is theological, philosophical, and sociological rather than merely linguistic. Our problems will not disappear merely by adopting a different approach to English pronouns—we must focus on understanding God rightly. But at the same time, if the risk of perpetuating theological misunderstanding and of participating in social oppression can be reduced by adjusting pronoun-use, then we should all pursue such change. 

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington. 

     If you’d like to explore the sources from which I’ve written this essay, check out the following works:

· Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf

· Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly

· She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson



Is God a "He"? Gendered language on Reconstruct.

For me, the most surprising reaction to our new podcast has been multiple listeners, both male and female, reacting to our use of gendered language for God, using words like “He” and “His.”  It has come up in personal conversation with friends, as well as over social media.  And those commenters are right; I just really hadn’t thought of it.
I have increasingly noticed theologians using terms like “Godself” over the past few years, which I recognized as accurate, but I honestly hadn’t “put two and two together” in terms of gendered language.  I have never been to seminary, where I imagine this kind of topic is often broached; I guess this is an instance where that lack of education becomes apparent.
Of course, I have to ask myself the question, “Is God a He?”  In other words, do we lose something by saying “Godself” instead of “Himself”?  My co-host John has some concerns about this, which I think are worth considering.  I won’t pretend to make an argument for him, and I’m not even sure that he feels very strongly about it, but one consideration regards the Trinity.  In the Trinity, God the Father represents an essential aspect of God’s nature.  Is there something about fatherhood specifically--as opposed to motherhood--that reflects something of God’s nature?  This is an excellent and difficult question.  My own take is: probably not.  I think that God is a loving parent, and whatever aspects of fatherhood and motherhood that may be inherently separate from each other (I think there almost definitely are such differences, if even only biological and/or statistical), all such aspects of a loving parent apply to God.  Whatever the perfect father might be, plus whatever the perfect mother might be, those two things combined accurately describe God’s perfect love for God’s children.
Even if this is granted, there is still another difficulty, which is more aesthetic.  In English, it is simply difficult to write clear, non-confusing sentences without pronouns.  Consider the two following sentences:
God loves His children so much, that He became human, so that He could reveal Himself to His children in a way that His children could understand Him and relate to Him.
God loves God’s children so much, that God became human, so that God could reveal Godself to God’s children in a way that God’s children could understand God and relate to God.
Obviously, I wrote this sentence in a way as to exaggerate the problem.  But as any seminarian or theologian who attempts to avoid gendered language for God has surely learned, it requires creativity in writing.  In this case, were I to want to avoid gendered language, I might re-write the sentence as such:
God loves human brings so much, that God became a human, so that we could understand and relate to our God.
If I’m honest, I’m not as happy with this last sentence.  I could probably spend some more time and effort and come up with something better.  My point is not to complain about the rigors of theological writing, or the extra work required of writing and speaking this way.  My point is only this: non-gendered language, for a native English speaker, requires an extra mental step before writing or speaking.  This is simply because we have learned, as English speakers, to use pronouns freely, as second nature.
I am committed to taking this extra step.  I think the term “Godself” is just as helpful, and more accurate, than “Himself.”  In all my prepared notes for Reconstruct episodes, I am going through and editing, double checking that I am fulfilling this goal.  However, in my extemporaneous speech, “off the cuff” so to speak, I recognize that it will likely take me some time to change these habits, perhaps years.  I ask for patience from our listeners.
I am grateful for this gentle and loving correction from our listeners and many of my friends.  Please bear with me!  And also, please keep in mind that many of these episodes, especially the interviews, were recorded months ago, before this was brought to our attention.  But moving forward, it is something I am committed to.

Interpreting the Bible with N.T. Wright’s Method

     In our most recent episode, I answer a listener question about hermeneutics—about how we interpret the Bible. During the course of my response I outline a hermeneutical methodology from N.T. Wright which I want to explain here. And as I explain in the episode, hermeneutics is the theory of interpreting texts in order to understand and discern the discourse contained within them. And as a branch of philosophy, hermeneutics can move beyond a consideration of only texts, and develop ways of interpreting practically any part of life and experience. In this case, hermeneutics is the pursuit of seeking to understand any intentional human action that conveys meaning and invites interpretation. This is critical to understanding Wright’s method, since his hermeneutical method starts at the level of interpreting worldview and then moves to the level of interpreting texts


     Only a title as ridiculous as The Hermeneutic of Philosophico-Historiographical Worldview Analysis could do justice to the enduring genius that is N.T. Wright. This is the title I’ve given to his interpretive method since he hasn’t attached a title to it himself, and though it sounds crazy it’s actually really easy to understand. 

     It all begins with an analysis of worldview and how this provides for us as readers a glimpse into the world and mind of an author and the meaning of their works. This is important because one’s worldview affects their every action and word, and their every action and word makes sense in relation to their worldview. Wright describes worldviews as being like the foundations of a house: they’re vital but invisible. They’re that through which, not at which, a society or an individual normally looks; they form the grid according to which humans organize reality, but they aren’t bits of reality that offer themselves up for organization. 

     Now Wright argues that worldviews primarily consist of praxis, stories, symbols, and questions. 

Praxis: practices, habits, a way-of-being-in-the-world. 
Stories: narratives, histories, values, ways of forming identity.
Symbols: artifacts and events: monuments, festivals, holidays, etc.
Questions: Who are we? Where are we? When are we? What’s wrong? What’s the solution? 

     So praxis, stories, symbols, and questions; those are the ingredients of a worldview. Next, from these four fundamental components an individual develops basic beliefs which are oriented by aims, which further lead to consequent beliefs which are oriented by intentions

Basic Beliefs: deepest convictions about reality, oneself, and the world
Consequent Beliefs: contextual, day-to-day convictions about life and the world framed by basic beliefs 
Aims: central hopes and goals of worldview, embedded in deep-seated trajectories of thinking and living informed by Basic beliefs
Intentions: mannerS of going about one’s aims, expressed in daily activities oriented by one’s beliefs.

     Let me give you an example of how basic beliefs and aims along with consequent beliefs and intentions all work together. Say I want to take my wife out to dinner this evening. My intention to take my wife out to dinner this evening is an expression of my aim to love her anew each day. My aim to love her anew each day flows from my basic belief that I should love her with all my heart having promised to do so, which itself leads to the consequent belief that loving her well should give rise to concrete acts of love, which is then materialized in my intentions, like taking her out to dinner. This cycle of interrelated beliefs, aims, and intentions help us make sense of how one’s worldview works and how they give expression to it.

     In applying this as a hermeneutical methodology, we begin with the actions and words of an author or of the individuals about whom they’re writing, and work through the whole structure. So actions and words are an instance of praxis, which function as symbols, which tell a story, which answer questions—and this is how you study the formulation of worldviews. Wright has applied this methodology for hundreds upon hundreds of pages at a time, analyzing the worldviews of Jesus or of Paul so as to more richly understand their every word and action. But let’s just take a small example.


     In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a fresh praxis for the people of God which told a story about Israel and their God, answering basic questions in an unexpected way. The problem was that Israel had forsaken their vocation and forgotten their purpose, and the reigning praxis of the leaders of the time was insular, separatist, and vengeful. Though Israel was supposed to share God with the rest of the world, they were inclined to hoard this to themselves and separate from others. So the solution Jesus presented was to reclaim the vocation of Israel as the salt of the earth and the light of the world—to become the true Israel by materializing the glory of God to the ends of the earth. Jesus’s aim, to faithfully carry out his role as the One in whom the promises of God would find their fulfillment, coincided with his basic belief in Yahweh, in his ways, and in his purposes, which led to certain consequent beliefs such as that Israel needed to turn away from their insular proclivities and follow his example, which further gave rise to specific intentions, such as publicly challenging them in the Sermon on the Mount. So, having gone through the whole structure, we end up right where we began: with the original words and actions, the actual content of the Sermon on the Mount, but now more richly illuminated. Here’s how the method looks when we take the whole cycle into consideration.

     The more thoroughly we go through this cycle the more thoroughly we understand what’s going on, and the more we understand Jesus’s worldview, how it challenged the assumptions of his time, and what his statements and actions mean in light of this. So diving into this cycle each time we study a passage of Scripture begins to open us up to the worldview, context, intention, and meaning of the actions and words of an author or figure, so we can simply understand them more deeply. To discover more about how I use this method and how it fits into my overall basic interpretive approach, listen to our episode on how to interpret the Bible

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

     If you’d like to explore the sources from which I’ve written this essay, check out the following works:

· The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright, especially 122-131

· Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright, especially 137-144 

Profitable Discourse—Theological Reflections from John Raines

     The foundations have crumbled, the supports have collapsed and given way. The philosophical and theological landscape within which Christians are situated is marked by profound complexity, and many thus find themselves overwhelmed by a myriad of intellectual and social questions. 

     We need a way forward. Not a way forward that demonizes doubt nor one that piles on platitudes until we just forget about our doubts. But a way forward that acknowledges the depths of this profound complexity and yet still strives for clarity.  

     It’s in this spirit that I’ve created Profitable Discourse, a space devoted to clear and serious theological and philosophical thought. So in addition to co-hosting Reconstruct, I’ll be writing essays and blog posts there. I hope that through it I might do my small part in helping some of us move from confusion to collectedness, from anxiety to tranquility. Head on over and take a look—I’ll do my best to share my thoughts and reflections regularly.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

What Must One Believe To Be Saved?

     On our latest podcast episode, we explore a listener’s question: “How much and what exactly must one believe to be saved?” This is one of the best questions we’ve been asked to investigate thus far, and it brings many issues into immediate consideration. First of all, we need to understand nature of the question and how to formulate an initial answer to it. 

     Of course, it’s reasonable to think that believing something is part of salvation, and that’s why this question is stated understandably. But I don’t actually think there’s anything anyone believes to be saved, but only something they believe as a result of being saved or in concurrence with being saved. We aren’t saved by believing the right thing, nor are we saved by virtue of our efforts; we’re saved by the grace of God exhibited in the love of Christ. Beliefs emerge as the proper response and effect of this grace.

     So maybe moving forward with this question we could ask “what sort of beliefs accompany salvation?” If salvation belongs finally to God, then what sort of beliefs emerge as a result of this salvation? Well I argue that, far before either right beliefs or right actions for that matter, a salvific relationship with God is marked by a genuine trust, commitment, and faithfulness to God. This necessarily comes along with particular beliefs, but relational trust is always the primary aspect—it is the primary response effected by God’s grace.


     Now this is the interesting part, because though of course we must affirm that, for example, a belief in Jesus as Lord accompanies salvation, there is this deeper commitment beneath that belief, of which that belief is an expression. And we have to be nuanced in this way because certain individuals have maintained a salvific relationship with God without a specific belief in Jesus as Lord as we currently understand it. Abraham, Moses, David—all the other children of God in the Old Testament—none of them had the specific knowledge of Christ and his death and resurrection that we do, and none of them believed this. However, they trusted God, and the mark of their trust was an admission of their faults and an appeal to God for help—and through this they entered a salvific relationship with God of the same quality we have with him through Jesus. The point is that while the specific content of their beliefs was different than ours, the object of their belief and trust was the same—it was God.

      Of course this doesn’t mean one can believe anything so long as they have a trust in God; the beliefs that come along with this trust are never arbitrary, they’re never separated from the trust. Instead, in cases from the Old Testament until today, individuals trusted God because they responded appropriately to the way in which God revealed himself to them. They didn’t accidentally trust God nor did they trust him while considering him to be someone he wasn’t—God revealed himself to them, and they trusted him by believing that he was who he revealed himself to be. And the medium of revelation previously employed is like the medium of revelation currently employed—just as God revealed himself as Creator, as Yahweh, speaking through the prophets and covenanting with his people, so he has now revealed himself in Jesus, and in his life and work. So now, in the present age, God has pointed to Jesus and said “this is who I am, this is what I’m like.” That’s what people need to believe to have access to the proper object of salvific trust—Jesus is now the way to God.

     I’m not saying there’s no chance that God reveals himself otherwise to certain individuals (and of course he can reveal himself to non-Christians), it’s just that we just have no reason whatsoever to think that he does. God has revealed himself decisively in Jesus, so, given what we know, a salvific relationship with God is marked by the specific beliefs of who Christ is and what he is like—such that one trusts in him over themselves. This really isn’t that much to believe at all, and we certainly shouldn’t expect salvation to be accompanied by a fully developed theology. Our concern is simply the formation of right beliefs generated as the result of a right response to God’s gracious revelation that establishes a trust in God over oneself. 


     Now if we want to come to a more sophisticated understanding this issue, we should entertain some rejoinders to my argument—let’s explore a few of them. Some argue that mere right belief as I’ve enumerated it doesn’t amount to salvation because of hypocrisy; namely that there are some individuals who claim to be Christian, and assumedly maintain right belief, and yet they’re the furthest thing away from a Christian we can imagine. So maybe right belief is unnecessary to the salvific equation. 

     I don’t find this convincing at all, not least because though right belief seems unnecessary for salvation in some ways, it is entirely necessary in other ways. Think of where we end up if belief was really unnecessary. Could wrong belief amount to salvation? Of course it couldn’t, inasmuch as you couldn’t have much of a relationship with God if you thought he was Satan or your wife. You could have some wrong beliefs, as we all do, but they wouldn’t amount to salvation. We have to remember that the deep trust with which one enters a salvific relationship with God is established through the formation of right beliefs generated as the result of a right response to his gracious revelation. However, it does still seem that one can have these right beliefs without the deeper trust from which they’re supposed to emerge.

     Now others argue that it really isn’t right beliefs that amount to salvation but right love. Yet again, right love is necessary in some ways and unnecessary in others. A virtuous atheist with the right love certainly doesn’t have the right faith—they don’t have a relationship with God, they’ve rejected a relationship with God. But on the other hand, an abused victim or a former oppressor who comes to love Jesus can certainly enter into a salvific relationship with God though they struggle to love anyone in the right way. So then we end up back with Jesus, asking at last, is it right relationship that amounts to salvation? Exactly, but this is impossible without some degree of both right beliefs and right love, among other things. We have to understand who God has revealed himself to be, we have to respond appropriately to him, and we have to trust in him over ourselves. So we can’t dispose of right beliefs, but we also can’t delude ourselves into supposing that right beliefs will get us all the way.


     I have two ways by which we can more clearly understand how right belief and right love play particular roles in salvation while ultimately emerging out a deeper trust in God.

     First, Jesus parabolically speaks of branches and of fruit, and of himself as the vine. The branches represent believers in Jesus, and so for the sake of our discussion they represent right beliefs, and the fruit represents their actions, and so right love. Fruitful branches apart from the vine are good with regard to fruit yet transient and unsupported; they’ll dry up and be burned. Fruitless branches on the vine are good with regard to a union with the vine yet will be broken off and taken away. So Christ is suggesting that right love without a union with him through right belief is great but ultimately bankrupt; and union with him through right belief without right love is great but ultimately inauthentic. So on one hand, this is like the virtuous atheist who is to be commended for their right love, but who also doesn’t have a salvific relationship with Christ because of their rejection of right beliefs. On the other hand, this is like the hypocrite who, though they have the right beliefs, seems like they’re the last person in the world that has a salvific relationship with God. Jesus is showing us how salvation doesn’t reduce either to love or to belief but rather is founded upon a unique union of these two as they emerge from a deeper trust in him.

     Here’s the second way to think about it: Many would argue that if one simply has the results of this belief and love without explicit knowledge of Christ or God then they’re still genuinely loving the real God and are accepted by him salvifically. So, for example, some might be inclined to say that the virtuous, humble, self-sacrificing Buddhist is actually worshipping God and is saved by him. But the line isn’t drawn both ways, and insisting that the Buddhist is in a proper relationship with the real God because they bear the results of a proper relationship with God ultimately commits the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent

     Imagine that from knowing my father, I learned to play music and now compose songs; it simply doesn’t follow that anyone who then composes songs therefore knows my father—they could have learned music from anyone. Similarly, the same virtuous or seemingly-Christian actions can have totally different sources; some sincere, some manipulative, some from Buddhism, some from secularism, some from Christianity. And this, I argue, is why Jesus cares so much about a personal, intimate relationship with those who follow him. Obviously those who live humble, virtuous lives are tapping into what God sees as good, but to say that they therefore know God salvifically simply strips God of his intimate, dramatic, covenantal personhood by which he enters into relationships—it ends up making him just some general “force” that is somehow unwittingly trickled into people who do certain things. The point isn’t to play music and, thus partaking in the general “force” of sonic harmony, come to unwittingly know my father who is now just some force instead of a real person. Rather, it’s to first know my father, then to go forth, compose music, and fill the world with harmony on his behalf. It’s about having a relationship with God through Christ and living a life founded upon that relationship. 

     To hear the rest of my argument, namely my take on how this topic relates to the question of Christianity among other religions and worldviews, check out our latest podcast episode.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

Our Podcast Has Launched

     That’s right—the wait is over. Head over to our podcast page and listen to our first episode, where we share our stories and explore the nature of deconstruction and reconstruction. 

     Come back tomorrow to listen to our episode with Dr. Peter Enns, where he guides us through the nature of Scripture and its relation to theology and life. And please, if you enjoy our episodes, go leave a review or rating on iTunes. Here is the link, it only takes a minute and means so much! 


The Process of Reconstruction

     Reconstructing one’s worldview is no simple task, but it’s nevertheless a project set before the feet of countless individuals. The problem is that in the wake of deconstruction, the process towards reconstruction is seldom clear or straightforward. One wonders in times of doubt whether they could ever hold on to another set of beliefs again. One wonders whether from the depths of their skepticism another structure of commitment could ever emerge. And while this is an admittedly complex dynamic of the way in which one shapes their view of reality, I'm convinced there is a way forward.


     In order to begin the process of reconstruction, I argue that we need a revelation of sorts—one from which we can obtain a set of attainable aims. The revelation is that deconstruction can exist in service to reconstruction. This becomes clearer as we delineate the two principle tasks of philosophy: the critical task and the constructive task. Essentially, these readily map onto the ideas of deconstruction and reconstruction respectively, and they’re both necessary for developing and amending one’s worldview. 

     The critical task helps us understand how certain ideas are misguided, but if we’re always only critical, then we’ll likely end up doubting everything and accepting nothing. On the other hand, the constructive task helps us arrange our experience and understanding of the world, but if we’re always only constructive, then we’ll likely be too willing to believe anything—too willing to just latch onto something that helps our existing system instead of facing difficult truths. Therefore, both the critical and constructive tasks, or both deconstruction and reconstruction, are needed to create and sustain one’s view of reality. Far from eliminating the possibility for fresh constructive commitment, deconstruction can actually help one begin to reconstruct.


     Consider it like this: worldviews aren’t built merely upon what is denied, but upon what is affirmed. We can’t articulate our view of reality merely by what we don’t believe but rather by what we do believe. And if we attempted to define it by what we don’t believe, we’d soon find our doubts to be resting on a bed of positive assumptions anyway.

     What I mean is that we rarely just cease to believe something, rather we begin to believe something else. This marks practically every journey of deconstruction. One doesn’t doubt a literal reading of the opening of Genesis out of nowhere, but because they believe in the accuracy of scientific research. One doesn’t doubt the existence of hell for no reason at all, but because they believe either that people don’t deserve it or that God is such that his love precludes its existence. Behind nearly every denial of a claim lies the affirmation of another—behind our doubts lie other beliefs. Once we understand this, the set of attainable aims of which I spoke begins to come into view. There are at least two primary ways one can approach reconstruction.


     This is a process of discovering the assumptions that lie behind our doubts, like how an affirmation of God’s love lies behind a denial of hell. This is very significant for worldview development because it reveals how though one might be submerged in deconstruction, one is nevertheless committed to a matrix of assumptions. What follows is an investigation of these implicit assumptions and affirmations, which may themselves need to be deconstructed. This leads to the next aim.


     This is in one aspect a shift of attitude and in another a project of research. It’s a shift in attitude in that one must start to focus on how to begin forming fresh commitments rather than focussing on what one refuses to believe. It’s a project of research in that one begins to develop their worldview through evaluating, and then either rejecting, accepting, or synthesizing, new arguments and perspectives instead of unwittingly relying upon implicit assumptions.


     If one begins a process of reconstruction with these aims in mind, there is something they mustn’t forget: both the critical and constructive tasks are still at work. New ideas have to come under the scope of a critical eye, and yet beliefs that once began the process of deconstruction may themselves need to be deconstructed. For example, one’s belief that people don’t deserve divine justice for their sins might have begun a process of deconstructing the idea of hell, but on his or her theological journey one might discover that the belief that people don’t deserve divine justice is itself a falsity that needs to be deconstructed.

     One also mustn’t forget that through deconstruction, one’s present beliefs can be verified rather than dismissed. Some convictions, when brought under deconstructive questioning, actually withstand—deconstruction can surprisingly become a refining process. And this refining process is simply the result of how deconstruction can exist in service to reconstruction.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

The Nature of Deconstruction

     Usually when we think of deconstruction we’re referring to a period of deep and critical questioning wherein we reconsider everything we believe. Deconstruction is the process of uncovering false ideas to which we’ve clung for years, of figuring out how parts of our worldview just aren’t true or tenable any longer. And while this is correct, deconstruction actually refers to a process of a slightly different sort which has its original roots in literary philosophy.

     To really understand this term, we have to go back to Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who made it famous. For Derrida, deconstruction was the process by which he found loose threads in the inherent linguistic instability of texts that resulted in their own unraveling. His aim was to unpack the appearance of unity presented by texts to reveal the conflicting messages woven together within them, to show how texts have both unifying and unraveling forces which culminate in their inevitable dismantling. Now the important point here is that Derrida took this process beyond texts to the way humans think about anything, and this is how he did it.


     Derrida was essentially reacting to the whole history of philosophy. It might seem strange that he focused on the philosophy of language, but this is because an analysis of language is ultimately an analysis of truth and meaning. Derrida was questioning one of history’s most basic philosophical assumptions: that words have meaning because words refer to actual things in reality. This, he claims, is an extremely important part of western metaphysics: that in using language to express our thoughts, we are going beyond language to the ideas and realities to which language points. But Derrida argues that this is simply impossible; we never go beyond language to that of which we speak, but only to our understanding and interpretation of that of which we speak, which itself is linguistically mediated. 

     Therefore, language and words refer not to distinct entities outside of language, but only to other words. This gave rise to Derrida’s claim that “there is nothing outside of the text,” by which he meant there is no inside/outside complex; language is self-referential rather than other-referential. For that which one would claim to be referred to by language, is nothing more than more language, and not some “other thing” which can be produced outside the metaphysics of language.


     So what Derrida was trying to say is that the whole world is like a text. When he said “there is nothing outside of the text” he meant there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language. Interpretation is not something one must get through in order to understand what someone has written or spoken—rather it’s the very way in which we understand anything. 

     Take an automobile for example. We might think that in perceiving an automobile there is no interpretation at work; we simply see the car for what it is that’s all there is to it. But what would the automobile look like in the eyes of someone from a few thousand years ago? To them it would only be a random conglomerate of foreign substances, amounting to an object unidentifiable by any stretch of the imagination. There’s nothing “automatic” about an automobile being an automobile; that’s just the way we see it because of the context, history, and social setting that accompanies the experience, and the assumptions and background we bring to our perception of it. We might interpret the object before us to be an automobile so quickly that we don’t even notice we’re engaging in interpretation, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t.


     Now what does this mean for deconstruction? Well for Derrida, these conclusions mean at least two things: 

First, deconstruction is the process of revealing as naive and untenable any way of thinking that still assumes that one can transcend language to a realm of determinate meaning. 
Second, deconstruction is the process of challenging any interpretive framework that presents itself not as an interpretation but as “the way things really are.” 

     So if a text tries to establish meaning or truth by assuming that language can go beyond itself into a non-linguistic realm, which Derrida argues is impossible, then it’s contradicting itself with the very means by which it’s trying to support itself. 

     This is what’s happening with the perception of an automobile: it seems like the simple perception of an automobile is obvious and universal, but it’s actually completely dependent upon assumptions that can’t be taken for granted. These are the loose threads Derrida was always looking for. One thread in the perception says this is “just the way things really are,” but another thread says it’s only this way because of the way we see it and speak of it; revealing that these two threads fight against one another is the heart of deconstruction in practice. This is what Derrida meant by taking ideas apart and unraveling them; deconstruction is like reading an idea against itself, of showing how it holds within itself the key to its own downfall.


     Here, I’ll show you an example of how Derrida explained deconstruction when he was asked to do so in a filmed interview. This is what he said: 

    “Before responding to this question, I want to make a preliminary remark on the completely artificial character of this situation. I don’t know who’s going to be watching this, but I want to underline rather than efface our surrounding technical conditions, and not feign a “naturality” which doesn’t exist. I’ve already in a way started to respond to your question about deconstruction, because one of the gestures of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn’t natural—to not assume that what is conditioned by our history, institutions, or society is natural.”

     Do you see what he is doing? Derrida doesn’t simply define deconstruction, he performs it. Instead of simply answering the question, he locates the ideological framework behind the question, behind the circumstance of his being asked at all, and begins an archeological search for the loose threads. He’s trying to show that although the situation of the interview seems like a perfectly real and free discussion, it’s really just the result of historical and social conditioning. It isn’t natural, it isn’t normal, and any assumption to the contrary is a loose thread by which to take apart the ideology at hand.


     Alright, so how does this relate to the way we ordinarily understand deconstruction in the lives of Christians? Well though we might not ascribe to all of Derrida’s philosophical convictions, the way we deconstruct our faith looks very similar. Deconstruction is always a process of questioning assumptions, of investigating claims that seem self-justified, of challenging accounts of the world that don’t seem to hold up.

     As such, deconstruction falls into the two central tasks of philosophy: the critical task and the constructive task, and both of these are necessary. For if one is always only critical, then they’ll be aware but untrusting, and if one is always only constructive, then they’ll be confident but naive. The critical task helps us show how certain ideological systems are unsound, but if we remain in this task alone, then we’ll end up being willing to doubt everything but to accept nothing. The constructive task helps us mediate and arrange our experience and understanding of the world, but if it’s all we do, then we risk only seeking credulously for validities, blinding ourselves to our own biases and exchanging accuracy for affinity. 

     In this way, deconstruction can be a beneficial aspect of cultivating one’s faith and theology. As part of the critical task, it can help one become more discerning and perceptive, able to evaluate perspectives with greater sophistication. And leading into the constructive task, it can help liberate one from unreasonable ways of thinking. The point is that deconstruction needn’t lead to destruction; instead it can clear the way of uncritical convictions and open the way to the process of reconstruction.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

    A number of general insights in this post are drawn from the following highly recommended sources for further reading:

Vincent B., Leitch, ed, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). 

James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic, 2006).

Options in Genesis: How to Read the Creation Account?

   Imagine this: you fell in love with the stars when you went camping as a child.  You studied astronomy in college as an undergraduate, and eventually got your PhD in astrophysics. Now, you work as a researcher in a major university’s Astronomy department, studying starlight that’s only now reaching your telescope after traveling through the universe for many years--sometimes over a billion. You are intimately familiar with the scientifically-sound equations and measurements that determine the distance of any given star.

    Now, imagine you are invited to a Bible study by your next door neighbor.  She is the host as well as the discussion leader.  Tonight’s text is Genesis 1; you grow tense in your chair.  She asks the group, “Should we take the creation story literally?”  Group members toss out their own theories, and a consensus begins to emerge: the Bible is God’s word, so if it says that He created the universe in 6 days, then He did.  Science, after all, has been wrong before.

    You finish your coffee and leave as soon as possible.  You avoid eye contact with your neighbor for a couple weeks, until the scene is mostly forgotten.

And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
        Genesis 1:16-19

    How are we to read the above passage?  What is God saying to us through it?  Is it scientifically accurate?  Is it metaphorical?  If one believes that the Big Bang was a historical event, then in what sense could God “set” the stars in the sky?  Isn’t it more like he “exploded them all throughout the heavens”?

    There are many ways of reading the creation account(s) in the book of Genesis.  Here is a brief overview of most of them:


    On this view, the account of the six “days” of creation in Genesis is to be taken quite literally.  God can perform whatever miracles He wants, so just because any particular human being might not think that this reading makes sense scientifically, it should present no real challenge to the Christian.  If God created the world in the first place out of nothing, surely anything is possible, and it is better to take God at his word than to second guess the Bible’s claims.  When YEC’s are challenged by those with scientific knowledge about what appears to be very strong evidence for the age of the earth and the universe, often they will respond with the “apparent age” argument: God simply made the universe look as if it were 13 billion years old.  Why couldn’t He?  A strong emphasis is placed on reading the Bible literally, using the plain sense of the meaning of its words.


    This is similar to Young Earth Creationism, but with a twist.  Day-Age Creationism posits that we have ample biblical reason to assume that, for God, who is presumably not bound by time and space, “days” need not be 24-hour periods.  In fact, in 2 Peter 2:3 we read that, “A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day.”  Therefore, the age of the universe does not present a problem.  Gap Theory proposes that the six days of creation were in fact literal days, but a long gap must have existed between the first day and the rest of the days, explaining the age of the universe and Earth.  On this view, the doctrine of evolution through natural selection is not affirmed. God still created the Universe in the way it is described in Genesis, only with breaks in the action that account for the age of the Universe and Earth, the speed of light, etc.


    This term actually covers a pretty wide tent of perspectives, but one common premise is something like the following: “Evolution is an accurate depiction of the earth’s history, but evolution could never have happened without the direct interceding of God at certain places and times.”  One of the most interesting ideas is that certain features of the world require more than a step-by-step incremental change in order to be useful to a creature; they could not have simply evolved.  In other words, the mechanism put forward by evolutionists is not sufficient to explain certain organisms or traits; something more (read: supernatural) is required.  Two examples often cited are eyeballs and the flagellum (or “legs”) that propel certain microbial organisms.  

It is common, then, for a proponent of ID to believe that humans need not have developed from apes, despite the evidence for that view: since God periodically intervenes to ensure the viability and survivability of his creatures, He needn’t go through the long, messy process of slowly evolving humans.  This might solve some of the stickier questions regarding human origins and the Bible: was there an Adam? When did humans start to be responsible for their own sin/choices (assuming that animals are not responsible in the same way)?


    Theistic Evolution attempts to find plausible readings of the Genesis account(s) that leave room for science to do what science does best: describe the natural world.  If the data tells us that humans descended from apes, or that the universe is 13 billion years old, or that the fossil record shows organic life evolving in a particular way, then that is probably what happened.  This view contends that, since there are so many possible ways to read the biblical text, we must choose one that accords with the findings of good, careful science.  

Within TE, there are multiple ways of understanding God’s role in creation.  Perhaps evolution is simply the physical mechanism by which he has created every creature precisely as He intended them, down to the smallest biological details.  Or, perhaps, God values the randomness and chance seemingly inherent in the process of evolution and in the biological diversity that results from that process.  Perhaps, the only truly necessary outcome of the evolutionary process was the existence of morally capable intelligent beings, well-suited for a mutually loving relationship with their Creator.


    I was raised, seemingly by default, as a Young Earth Creationist.  At times, I was taught what now appears to me, quite frankly, to be intellectually dishonest apologetics masked as science.  One example: the long-discredited “Canopy Theory,” which posits that the “waters from above” contained enough water for 40 days of global rainfall in the Flood.  Because such a layer of water vapor would cause a greenhouse effect that heated the Earth to unlivable temperatures, most every Christian scholar and scientist had dismissed this notion well before it was printed in my textbook.  This is not to say that there are no scientific arguments for YEC; there are, although I do not find them convincing, especially when held up against the abundance of evidence for an old universe and earth.  

The hypothesis of “Apparent Age” is problematic for two reasons: 1) it seems deceptive on God’s behalf, such that we cannot trust the tools of reason that He has given us, and 2) even if it is true, since all of our own scientific processes/reason give us some particular result, what is the purpose of claiming “Apparent Age”?  Why not just continue to live, do science and theology, and worship as if our rational capacities function correctly, and the universe is, in fact, old?  It seems that the only reason to claim Apparent Age is to rescue a particular reading of Genesis that I find neither necessary nor even particularly compelling.

The tipping point for me was reading Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller, a practicing Catholic professor of microbiology at Brown University.  He lays out a very convincing case for an old universe, old earth, and the descent of humans from apes.  He also argues strongly against the Intelligent Design contingent, debunking the arguments mentioned above regarding the supposed impossibility of the gradual development of eyes and microbial flagellum.  His book, and other reading that I have done since that book, have convinced me that Intelligent Design’s central claims are unlikely to be true.

    But if I’m honest, large questions remain.  If evolution is the mechanism by which all life is derived from common ancestors, and if a certain amount of random genetic mutation is inherent in evolution, then in what way can we say that God has “designed” any particular creature?  How does this relate to being created “in the image of God”?  And now that we know that the entire biological story of our universe rests on constant competition for energy and resources--plants vie with one another for sun and soil nutrients, animals eat and kill those plants or other animals to survive--what does this say about God that He would create such a world?  Are the features that helped humans survive a Darwinist world ones that God “designed” us with, or is that “human nature” precisely what we are to overcome through selfless love?

    What has all of this done to my theology, my sense of security as a Christian?  What fruit is produced by leaving such large questions open, essentially unanswered?  The truth is, it’s not a particularly easy way to live, but it seems to be the only intellectually honest option I have.  Furthermore, it has opened up an entirely new way of living life with God: trading my intellectual certitude for vulnerable day-to-day trust.  In fact, I have felt God explicitly asking me to stop worrying about “getting it all right,” and to focus more on loving Him, loving my neighbor, listening closely to those around me, staying in prayerful communication with Him throughout the day (as much as possible), and training myself through classic Christian spiritual practices to ground myself in the true and deepest reality of every moment of my life.

    The scientific questions remain open, and none are off limits.  In fact, I find myself far more interested in science than I was in younger years.  Sometimes what I read is upsetting, sometimes encouraging.  I think my only option is to keep reading, keep asking questions, and keep trusting God with my day to day life.

P.S. If you want to hear me chat with on this topic with an expert, check out this episode of my other podcast Depolarize! where we discuss these issues, and particularly focus on the question of Common Ancestry (did humans evolve from other creatures?).

P.P.S. A great source for Theistic Evolution (linked to copiously throughout this article) is BioLogos.


     Reconstruct is a resource devoted to helping deconstructing Christians begin reconstructing their faith. This is because while more Christians than ever are deeply questioning everything they once held as true, few have the time or ability to sort through all the confusion and complexity. Even worse, some remain in a constant state of deconstruction, submerged in doubt and skepticism to the point that they find it difficult to reconstruct their faith at all.

     That’s where we want to help. We’ve undergone deconstruction and actually still are deconstructing, but we’ve also reconstructed our faiths in many ways. So at Reconstruct, we explore theological and philosophical topics with an aim to positively building an understanding of Christian thought and life. And whether we do this by interviewing a scholar, sharing someone’s story, or writing a blog post, we always keep our three guiding values in mind. These are meaningful unity, which means embracing the whole family of God, critical charity, which means being both open and discerning about new ideas, and serious theology, which means diving into thoughtful intellectual engagement.


     Part of reconstructing our faith is rediscovering the unity that is inseparable from Christianity, for it isn’t ultimately a philosophy, ideology, or way of life, but a family; and one through which our relationships with one another are founded. So part of reconstructing our faith means doing it in community as part of a community, and holding onto the value of loving others even when you disagree with them, of growing closer to others rather than further apart.


     While reconstructing our faith, we’ll necessarily explore new ideas and perspectives, and we need to approach these in a charitable manner. We need to sincerely seek to understand a foreign outlook on its own terms—to comprehend someone else’s views before we judge them. But we must be at the same time both critical and charitable, both clear in our intellectual evaluation and open in our attitude to new ideas. On our path to reconstruction we should welcome dialogue and discourse, knowing that since all our beliefs have grown into the place at which they presently dwell, we should look forward to their future refinement. It should come as no surprise, then, that someone reconstructing to Calvinism could be encouraged by a progressivist’s perspective, or that someone reconstructing to Catholicism could be encouraged by a Baptist’s perspective. Anyone going through deconstruction and reconstruction realizes their particular faith tradition doesn’t have an exclusive claim to the truth, so there’s always something to learn from other members of the family. And yet we also want this to be a place where responsible convictions are carefully defended and lovingly heard, where perceived falsity is bravely challenged out of a sincere concern.


     We take our discussions seriously, we want to give issues the treatment they deserve, and we want to provide well-researched, well-prepared explorations of our topics. God knows we don’t need anymore pat answers, anymore unconvincing responses that ignore the complexities of our issues and refrain from serious intellectual engagement. Reconstruction should be marked by thorough theological and philosophical reflections, by investigations that seek to gain and impart a comprehensive, detailed knowledge of issues, topics, problems, and realms. We should take joy in researching, discussing, and ruminating upon where we’ve been and where we’re going. Essentially, serious theology is about loving God with all our mind.

     Of course, the goal of these guiding values, and of reconstruction as a whole, is that one might learn to love God and others with a greater capacity and to a greater extent. Therefore, if one’s reconstruction includes separating from others, it’s not going to work, if it includes dismissing others out of hand and just working towards a confirmation bias, it’s not going to work, if it trades responsible thinking for sloppy theology, it’s not going to work. 

     Our hope is that with these values in mind, we’ll be able to produce content that will make meaningful contributions to your faith. So whether you’re deconstructing, reconstructing, or somewhere in-between, welcome to Reconstruct: the collective exploration of our faith.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

     © John Raines, Dan Koch, and Reconstruct, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Raines, Dan Koch, and Reconstruct with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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