Spiritual Deconstruction and Emotional Integration

Judah and the Lion are most well-known within mainstream music for mandolin infused folk-rock anthems like “Take it All Back 2.0” and “Why Did You Run?” On a deeper level, the band’s frontman, Judah Akers, is not afraid to share the importance of his faith or the struggles in his personal life, as he does on songs like “Somewhere In-Between” and “i’m ok.” Judah and the Lion’s most recent single, “Help Me to Feel Again,” is a call to engage honestly with one’s own emotions and to persevere in the face of difficulty. Although the song makes no explicit references to Christianity, it can be understood as speaking to how Christians might walk through the deconstruction of their faith in a healthy way and meaningfully integrate their emotional experiences into their faith.

 

Deconstruction and Its Virtues
“Help Me to Feel Again” begins with what sounds like the thought process of someone who has begun deconstructing their faith. “Spiritual Deconstruction” is when a person “pulls apart” their faith, questioning what they have experienced or have been taught about the core practices and beliefs of Christianity. A person might begin deconstructing their faith for any combination of intellectual, emotional, or moral reasons. Often, beginning the process of deconstruction results in walking away from Christianity.

Because the result of deconstruction is often that people walk away from Christianity, many Christians consider it to be a completely bad thing. But deconstruction does not just happen because someone wants to shed their faith. Deconstruction is often born out of a desire to find answers to questions a person does not feel have been properly addressed by the faith of their youth. It is a longing for their beliefs to actually make sense of the world they are experiencing. Sometimes, deconstruction is an attempt to find peace and truth when a person feels like the faith they grew up with offers neither. “Help Me to Feel Again” opens with these lyrics:

Is this just the start?
All these feelings coming up
And I’m all alone
Have I ran too far?
I didn’t know the road to peace would be this hard
In these lyrics, Akers is describing someone who feels lost and alone. They feel they’ve run “too far” down a road that they hope will lead to peace (deconstruction), yet they don’t know where it is leading. Someone in the process of deconstruction has run away from what they have always believed, searching for the peace and truth they have not found in what they grew up being taught. But running away often ends up being scary, difficult, and uncertain. Akers contemplates the fear of being alone, the possibility of having “ran too far” to ever return, and the uncertainty of ever finding peace at the end of the road of deconstruction.

A person deconstructing their beliefs is, by definition, questioning the core tenets of their faith. In one sense, they might be taking their faith more seriously than they ever have before. Instead of accepting Christianity because they are “supposed to” or because everyone around them believes the same things, a person deconstructing their faith in many cases wants to believe for themselves that the God of the Bible exists and Jesus is Savior and Lord. One theologian puts it this way: “Any truth that does not connect with personal experience is likely to remain opaque to the single individual, no matter how clear it may be to all others.” 1 Sometimes, individuals become unable to profess certain truths if their own experiences cannot make sense of those purported truths. If we have not personally connected with central truths, they are “not likely to bear up through crisis.”2 For example, believing that God is Love is good and simple, until your own life experience screams otherwise—perhaps through the loss of a loved one, a chronic painful illness, or a natural disaster. These are the sorts of crises where truths that do not “connect with personal experience” are not likely “to bear up.” In such cases, deconstruction can be an earnest attempt to seek God. However, deconstruction cannot be the last step or end result. On its own, deconstruction is only destructive. However, if deconstruction is used as a way to tear down inadequate or inaccurate views of God in order to then reconstruct a stronger and more accurate knowing of God, then the process of deconstruction can be helpful and even necessary.

Akers hits a hopeful strain by suggesting that deconstruction can be a road back to something better rather than an end in itself. He sings,

This is not the end
Maybe with our feelings
Let’s not play pretend
This is not the end. A person’s faith does not have to end with deconstruction; instead, it can be renewed thereafter through reconstruction. Rather than going through a difficult journey of deconstruction and reconstruction, many people choose to “play pretend” with their feelings, acting as if their feelings are not in any way relevant to their faith. Playing pretend with our feelings does not solve any problems, it only tries to hide them. Rather, engaging our emotions and understanding how they relate to faith will help to cultivate faith that bears up through crisis.

Deconstruction and the Body
Despite the fact that deconstruction can beneficially lead to reconstruction, the circumstances that lead to deconstruction are painful and often confusing. Akers acknowledges this reality by expressing the way in which the dissonance of deconstruction manifests in a person’s emotions and body. In the first verse, he sings:

Cause when my emotions go to war
Maybe I should be listening
Cause if our bodies keep the score
It feels like its winning
In deconstruction, a person’s “emotions go to war” as the person leaves behind some of the things they have believed for their whole lives. The tension of this spiritual reality is felt in a person’s emotions and body. The New York Best Seller The Body Keeps the Score argues that who we are and what we believe goes deeper than just the things we think. Who we are is also something we experience in our bodies: “the core of our self-awareness rests on the physical sensations that convey the inner states of the body.” 3 Theologian James K.A. Smith makes a similar observation: “Emotion and the body are at the irreducible core of experience.”4 Smith goes so far as to suggest that what we experience in our bodies actually has implications for what we believe about God. He writes, “It’s not just trivial or mundane beliefs that are ‘carried’ in the body, as it were, it is also our ultimate beliefs, our defining beliefs, our ‘most precious values.’” 5 What Smith is arguing is that we are created to feel, not just to think. What we feel has implications for what we believe about God as well as implications for how we actually live. Thus, our feelings are important for and to our faith. Our bodies’ emotions can come into conflict with what we think, and in the process of deconstruction this can steal a believer’s joy and peace as they experience deep doubt, often leading to despair or numbness. It may “feel like the body is winning” in the sense that a person’s feelings are overwhelming the beliefs they grew up with.

Akers suggests that one of the ways in which a person can progress through the messy and difficult process of deconstruction is by listening to their body. Integrating your faith and your emotions (and the physical sensations associated with those emotions) may be a way of strengthening faith at a level deeper than mere rational assent. He repeats the refrain “help me to feel again,” not because he can feel nothing at all, but because he desires to be able to experience deep concord between his thoughts and his emotions, to be able to rest peacefully in the truth of Christianity. Throughout the song, “help me to feel again” is a call to engage faith not just rationally but also emotionally. As the song nears its end, Akers suggests that unraveling (deconstruction) is a key to healing.

Emotions and Faith
In the bridge of “Help Me to Feel Again,” Akers repeats,

When you feel it, When you feel it come up
Just let it unravel
An emotional unraveling is scary, overwhelming, and messy. Yet we need to be honest about our own feelings in order to know ourselves and be in an honest relationship with God. Attempting to repress our feelings so that we keep believing what we are “supposed to believe in order to be good Christians” will not work, because our sense of self-identity and our deepest beliefs remain within our bodies. Feelings are not necessarily correct or accurate reflections of reality; they do not necessarily tell us what is true about God or what is true about ourselves. However, instead of rejecting or repressing emotions, we should try to bring them into agreement with what is true about God. For this reason, when we feel emotions come up, rather than pushing them down, we should engage them. Loving God with our emotions does not mean trying our hardest to rid ourselves of any “wrong” emotions. Loving God with our emotions means bringing our emotions into Shalom with the rest of our being.

Engaging our emotions in our faith is not contrary to holding a reasonable, rational faith. Rather, it is imperative. The Body Keeps the Score, written by a neuroscientist with decades of clinical and research experiences, states that “emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to experiences and thus are the foundation of reason” 6. Emotions and rationality work together to form a faith that is both meaningful and reasonable. There is no stronger faith than a faith that is fully emotionally and rationally integrated.

Akers ends “Help Me to Feel Again” by reiterating his encouragement to persevere through deconstruction and the difficulty of dealing with (instead of repressing) emotions:

This is not the end
Maybe with our feelings
Let’s try feelings them
In the final line of the song, he states:

Healing starts when the unraveling unfolds
Healing is something that everyone needs. Counterintuitively, sometimes something has to be unmade before it can be remade correctly. If you get halfway through putting an IKEA desk together and realize you’ve put the pieces together upside down and backwards, you shouldn’t keep going and hope it somehow works out. You must deconstruct the table so that you can reconstruct it. In the same way, the good and true parts of a defective faith may need to be deconstructed in order for a stronger faith that is more true, more good, and more beautiful to be reconstructed. Sometimes unraveling is required for healing. This should be a great comfort to Christians who struggle to fully assent (rationally and emotionally) to the Christian faith. To question, doubt, and deconstruct is not necessarily bad. It may be a section on the road that leads to stronger faith in mind and body.

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