Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

The Self-Deconstructed Religion

The Deconstructed Church, by Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel (Oxford University Press, 2014), reflects many of the observations and ideas that I have written about in this blog, as part of my own experience as a Buddhist. I have often said (and I’m sure I’m not the only one), that Buddhism has survived through 2600 years because of its explicit process of self-deconstruction. Its self-deconstruction has allowed it to adapt to numerous cultures in different historical epochs, most recently in the West during the post-industrial period. This self-deconstruction is, to use a computer metaphor, programmed, that is, coded into the very doctrinal fabric of the dharma itself.


The following excerpts are taken from the Introduction to the book, The Deconstructed Church, published in 2014. Though this examination of religious phenomena is focused on “emergent Christianity”, the authors suggest that this form of religion is the emergent form “of all modern religiosity well into the future.”


The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. Oxford University Press. 2014. (WINNER 2015 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion), Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel,

“Christianity is the only mad religion; which is perhaps, the explanation for its survival—it deconstructs itself and survives by deconstructing itself.” — Marti and Ganiel.


Believers of every conceivable background open up new religious freedoms for themselves. They recast pre-existing religious world-views and develop composite religious identities in the various stages of their personal spiritual journey.
These subjective searchings and the composing of individual religious narratives represent conscious breaks with the ideal of purity to  be found among the clerical guardians of the truths of institutionalized national churches. What is astounding is that people who feel free to take these liberties continue to call themselves “Christians.” —Ulrich Beck, A God of One’s Own (2010)


The Deconstructed Church
 We title this book The Deconstructed Church and define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization…


Among Emerging Christians, the term “deconstruction” is not consistently used and therefore not a term actively discussed except occasionally and among self-consciously philosophical members. But in examining the  ways in which Emerging Christians renegotiate religious beliefs and practices,  we note with sociologists Stephan Fuchs and Steven Ward that the practice of “deconstruction” is a form of micropolitics in which actors establish competitive arenas in response to pressures for conformity


The focus of such work is on the personal religiosity of members. Emerging Christians create ongoing opportunities to push off religious pressures to comply with standard narratives. Labanow writes that Emerging Christians are “aware of the extreme complexities of their world and their faith” and “will never be satisfied with final interpretations.” Moreover, “Since deconstruction and reconstruction are such fundamental characteristics of the emerging church, its practitioners are encouraged to give ample attention to these challenges…


Deconstruction, then, represents an opportunity for actors to “irritate, if not overthrow” an overarching regime “by pointing to its contingent and arbitrary status.” In this way, we understand that members of the ECM actively de-construct congregational life by placing into question the beliefs and practices that have held sway among conventional Christians…


First, Emerging Christians consistently characterize themselves as anti- institutional. A bold spokesperson for the ECM, Tickle simply states, “Emergence Christianity is, first and foremost, deinstitutionalized.”Using empirical data, both Bielo and Packard have argued that the ECM’s anti-institutional stance is central to its identity and to its appeal…


For Bielo, Emerging Christians’ anti-institutional sentiment is consistent across ECM groups and persistent across time. For Packard, the ECM continues to thrive, albeit on what he characterizes as the “margins” of American Christianity, because it employs strategies to resist what is often considered the sociologically inevitable process of institutionalization. Such strategies include deliberately limiting the power and influence of professional clergy; expecting laypeople to take initiative within congregations; limiting flows of information between professional clergy and laypeople to a need-to-know basis (since laypeople are not expected to “report back” on all their activities); allowing congregational activities to end before they  become institutionalized; deliberately disrupting normally taken-for-granted religious ideas, routines, and rituals; emphasizing inclusivity rather than religious boundaries; and stressing the independence of local religious communities…


The importance of network alliances is highlighted while desperately avoiding overly close connections to larger, more established structures of religious training and dialogue…


Using a term employed by Emerging Christians, Packard and George Sanders em-phasize the “messiness” of the ECM. For them, “Messiness can be understood as the opposite of over-coded and striated spaces and interactions that delimit and divide experiences and people.” Packard claims and we agree that the ECM would not be able to maintain its emphasis on deconstruction if it  became more “institutionalized,” because the very process of institutionaliza-tion would by definition mean that more rigid boundaries must be drawn…


Second, Emerging Christians’ approach to issues ranging from salvation, sanctification, and eschatology, especially alongside a great concern for social  justice encourages a form of ecumenism that transcends many theological and ecclesial boundaries


Fourth, experimentation and creativity are core dispositions among Emerg-ing Christians…


So when approaching the ECM, rather than noting its “anti-institutional” orientation and succumbing to a hopeless lack of de󿬁finition, we view it as a form of institutional innovation, that is, an institutionalizing structure that relies less on formal organizations than informal networks. We argue that the ECM is driven by religious institutional entrepreneurs who share a particular religious orientation based on deconstruction. We conceive of the ECM as a relatively stable package of beliefs, practices, and identities that exist via a series of relationships, aliations, and anities, which is sustained both formally through partnerships and collaborative eorts and informally through friendships and shared ideals. The ECM is therefore relatively coherent yet haphazardly organized. It is deliberately messy. This somewhat amorphous quality makes it at once easy to pinpoint figureheads of the movement while dismissing the more substantive social structures and everyday participants that perpetuate it…


While labels may change, we argue that the ECM developed and continues to persist because the ECM is a striking manifestation of increasingly ubiquitous elements characteristic not only of the wider Christian landscape but, more significantly, of all modern religiosity well into the future…

2 comments on “The Self-Deconstructed Religion

  1. prajnacenter

    Shaun, that’s it! If the “capitalist” system has the same structure, and functions in exactly the same way, which it does, as “ego”–they are always already “not-two,” but two sides of the same coin (how could it be otherwise?)–then positing alternatives to it, or adopting an “anti”- capitalist stance, are both plain stupid! The “capitalist” system needs to be undone, deconstructed along precisely the same lines as “ego.” So, in terms of the traditional Buddhist View, Meditation, Action, we need a new, more comprehensive, and insightful  View, first and foremost, one that takes the above deconstructive approach into consideration. All this Action Jackson stuff, a sort of threadbare retro 60’s approach, will ultimately lead us nowhere. We’ve got the cart in front of the horse, and so-called “time” is “running out.” (Not to mention those disgusting Green Capitalist “Windhorse Jockeys,” more irksome than good old fashion Robber Barons.)  Otherwise, as the heterodox Italian Marxist, Sebastiano Timpanaro, put it, rather than the Victory of man over History, we’re more likely to see the Victory of Nature over Man. Jim Hartz

  2. Shaun Bartone

    Jim: I can definitely agree that one must ‘deconstruct’ capitalism. How does one fight “Capitalism” anyway? it’s just a big amorphous idea. We have to break it down into its constituent systemic parts, working material parts such as food production, re-design of work spaces into cooperative production sites, waste and recycling, provision of care for all, but especially the young and vulnerable; break down it’s “power structure” into it’s functioning components, to devise new forms of governance from the ground up. In Buddhist terms its a kind of economic ‘abbhidharma’. Cooperatives are a first step, but the further goal is is the Commons, which is a complete restructuring of two major components: power and property. The Commons transforms privatized property back into a shared ecological resource that no one individual or corporation owns or controls; it is the end of private property, which is the foundational structure of capitalism. Second. the Commons is a transformation of governance or power, placing decision-making in the hands of those who need the Commons to remain a Commons so that it can be sustained far into the future.

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