Spiritual Deconstruction and the Sacraments: A Radical Reorientation

A friend texted me this question yesterday:

What does Baptism “look like” (“mean” or “represent”) in a context of Deconstruction?

I find this to be a fascinating question for a couple of reasons.

First off, my own anecdotal observation from hundreds of conversations with people experiencing Deconstruction is that, despite all of the questions, doubts, and distrust of institutional practices that come with it, many still revere the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.

Secondly (and related to the first), there seems to be something deeply meaningful about the mystery associated with the sacraments.

In other words, when we allow those acts to stand on their own rather than to contrive them around some sort of “altar call,” people appear genuinely to encounter in them something of the Divine Presence.

Outward and visible, inward and spiritual, intimate and public

My immediate response to my friend was to say that, even in the context of Deconstruction, Baptism (and, by extension, Communion/Eucharist), still represents an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, to borrow language from my own denominational lexicon.

It’s simply a way of saying to oneself and the community that one has experienced the divine in such a way that an intimate, public act seems an appropriate way to express it.

And the more I thought about it, it seemed really important that we hold both the “intimate” and “public” aspects of that statement in creative tension.

One of the ways in which institutional religion has, in my opinion, lost the mystery of sacramental experience has been to make it either too much about the individual on the one hand or the public display on the other.

When baptism and communion are “just about me and God,” it might create a special spiritual moment, but it misses the unitive nature the rituals more deeply represent.

Similarly, when it becomes all about a public exhibition of one’s supposed faith, the intimacy of the experience can be easily disregarded.

A radical reorientation

So as our conversation continued, my friend noted a specific part of the United Methodist baptismal liturgy that resonates with him particularly strongly:

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?

“I’m all in with that,” he said.

Which triggered a bit of an epiphany:

In a sense baptism (and again, by extension, communion) is a public symbolic act of repentance (Gr. metanoia: to turn around or change direction) as a declaration of a radical reorientation brought on by an experience of the divine that awakens one to complicity in evil, injustice, and oppression and leaves one unable to continue to live in said complicity.

In other words, when we experience divine love in its fullness—by whatever means that happens—our participation in systems and structures that devalue, oppress, and marginalize others in any way is laid bare.

And once that truth is exposed, we realize we have two choices: continue in our ignorance and complicity, or change our lives to do something about it.

The sacred as counterintuitive

Maybe that’s why the sacraments of baptism and communion continue to resonate so deeply with people experiencing spiritual deconstruction.

One element of deconstruction that seems consistent in my own anecdotal observation is that it almost always carries with it an element of recognizing the injustices either explicitly carried out by or at least implicitly supported by the institutional church.

But when we see the sacraments as elements not just of repentance from injustice and oppression, but as active agents of justice and reconciliation, we begin to grasp the true counter intuitiveness of those sacred rituals.

And if the goal of deconstruction is ultimately some kind of reconstruction, of moving from an assumed/inherited faith system to an informed/embodied experience, it makes all the sense in the world that the sacraments would be part of that reoriented paradigm.

Nihilism is exhausting

Granted, even the practices of baptism and communion probably have to be thoroughly re-examined themselves in order to make sense of them in the context of deconstruction.

But my (again unscientific) experience has been that most folks experiencing deconstruction don’t desire to jettison their faith and all its trappings altogether…only the toxic elements of it that make continuing in it untenable.

A healthy and rich sacramental theology can be one of the few things that keep deconstructing people from spiraling into nihilism.

So these outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace that are both intimate and public can become key building blocks in the painful process of reconstruction.

Of building a radically reoriented life based not in doctrines and dogmas, but in an authentic experience of Divine Love.

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