Thomas Aquinas was a theologian’s theologian. His writings comprise more than ten million words, which he wrote at a feverish pace, standing at a desk. He synthesized not only Christian teaching on doctrine but also the broader questions regarding how Christians ought to think about God. Aquinas was also the first theologian I studied.
Until I started graduate school in theology, my faith was simply part of the furniture of my world. It was familiar and somewhat ordinary, its ability to hold me when I put my weight upon it largely unquestioned. It wasn’t that I was afraid to ask difficult questions. God had been the one I went to with my concerns, my loneliness, my existential need. To treat God as the object of study, entirely separate from this kind of piety, did not come naturally to me.
So I found myself quite unprepared to actually study theology once I embarked upon it formally. Truth be told, systematic theology felt too abstract and unemotional when I first encountered it. The earnest love that motivated my study needed to be bracketed for a time—but that earnest love was nearly all I had!
Systematic theology is a world of precision and definitions. But it can feel at first that the discourse betrays much of what motivates the practice of faith.
My desire to study was led by a kind of earnest commitment that, in my experience, was rare in graduate schools, which often seemed given to rancorous turf wars. Of course I believed in God, and in Jesus Christ his only Son. It was not the articles of the faith that I needed to question at the time; it was what it meant to say, “I believe.”
I had a conversion of sorts, both to theology and to its method, when I read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. I had never had to read anything so slowly.
The Summa Theologica employs dialectical reasoning, which uses the rules of logic to compare competing positions and clarify which position is true. This form of scholastic theology can read like a game. The structure of each argument offers an assertion that seems at first glance credible. Aquinas then reverses course and offers an “on the contrary.”
I would often swallow Aquinas’s initial statement, assuming he’d told me the truth since he tended to give a Bible verse alongside, and his reversals would humble me. I used to wish for easier answers.
Truth about God isn’t always easy, however. Faith that begins in earnest commitment sometimes must advance through a period of slow questioning, of confusion, of switchbacks and labored ascent.
For Aquinas, the claim that God, unlike us, exists without any contingencies, has massive ramifications, especially for how we learn about God. Because God is infinite, what could be known about God also is infinite. But there is also much that we can never learn. Finite creatures cannot have infinite knowledge—this is a logical claim. This is not to say our knowledge of God is deficient; it is simply incomplete.
Take the example of a lizard. A scientist could, given enough time and resources, study this lizard so that she learns all about its biology, systems, history, and habitat. Eventually, this scientist could reasonably say that she knows all there is to know about lizards.
Now some things she may never know. It is difficult, for instance, to judge lizard cognition. But we can know a lizard, or any other creature, as far as it can be known. God cannot be known nearly as well as a lizard can. This is because of what kind of being God is.
Jesus was clear that “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). So I wasn’t thrilled when I first learned that my knowledge of God would always be incomplete.
I felt, for a time, unmoored. Like many seminary students, I had been praying for years to a God who I had pictured as being just like me, only larger, through difficult days of uncertainty and loneliness. I loved that God and know that he loves me.
Rather than only feeling closer to the God I loved, I learned that there was a clear limit to what I could know. I would need to learn to love God in the dark.
What happened during those early years of my academic study of theology was a kind of deconstruction. More properly, it was a correction. To be disabused of my sense of having comprehended God, initially a worry, has over time become a kind of balm.
That’s because I now better understand what it is to understand. There is a difference between what we do not know, due to our earthly limitations or lack of intellect or experience, and what we cannot know, due to the constraints of human knowledge. Many of our theological problems arise from our inability to tell the difference.
Of course, there is much that grants us certainty while remaining beyond our understanding. (It is precisely because God is “beyond” the natural world and its limitations that makes God able to achieve supernatural ends!). Hebrews 11:1 lays this out when it defines faith as being “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
A certain faith does not allow us to hold the incommensurable in the palm of our hand. It is the space between who God is and what we can know of God where faith resides.
I’ve often wished I could communicate this distinction to the unruly apologists who seek first of all to “prove” the Christian faith in order to move others to belief. Such enterprises often speak of God as if God were a lizard, as if we could trace the outlines of God’s existence and predict his behavior.
But to treat God as only an object of study is to make a fatal error. We have to temper our expectations about what it is we can know about God.
The apostle Paul tells us this in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (KJV). So complete comprehension must wait. But we must still deal with our inaccurate pictures of God. The way I dealt with mine might be called deconstruction.
There is much concern as of late about those who are “deconstructing” their faith. The language of deconstruction borrows from literary theorists, especially Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, whose insights, though sometimes illuminating, are in rather frequent tension with the Christian faith.
The language of “deconstructing one’s faith” shares the idea that true knowledge delves beneath simple affirmations, asking what social commitments, political assumptions, and gender politics might reinforce what appear to be otherwise straightforward assertions.
It is, judging by my Instagram feed, quite popular to identify as “deconstructing” one’s faith. Individuals note that they are deconstructing as if they were heading out to get a haircut or waiting for a load of laundry to dry.
Some equate deconstruction with a “falling away,” either in search of a faith other than Christianity or simply to try to live as if God weren’t there. In this way, deconstruction can be seen as a very real threat to Christian belief.
It is tempting to treat deconstruction as only an arrogant endeavor, but there are many and varied reasons individuals might want to revisit their Christian practice and belief. Most have to do with doubt about the trustworthiness of former beliefs—and that’s not always bad, nor is it always leaving a good faith for a worse one.
Some might find their trust undermined after they experience abusive leadership or mishandled issues of personal integrity. When an organization fails to wisely shepherd and protect those in its care, doubt about the church’s trustworthiness can bleed over into doubt about the church’s teaching.
Some Christians undergo a period of deconstruction when they hold church teaching up against the lived experience of friends and loved ones and see that it will make them odd. They won’t fit in politically or socially. A form of deconstruction can show whether our peculiarities flow from what God has asked of us or whether they’re an attempt to maintain an image—for example, an old-timey agrarian identity.
In other cases of deconstruction, a person might come to doubt the trustworthiness of the mental picture they once held of God. One might, for instance, reconsider the assumption that God is a grandfatherly Santa Claus type who grants our requests in the form of good outcomes.
Some things about this picture are indeed true: God is a Father who is a giver of good gifts (Matt. 7:11) to whom we should bring our requests (Phil. 4:6). And yet other aspects—the idea that giving things (or refusing to give them) is our chief engagement with God, the assumption that God responds in time in the way a human would—could benefit from reconsideration.
Such reconsideration often does cause pain. I have many times sat with students who needed to process the loss of the picture of God they’ve been praying to for years.
One, for instance, always imagined God looking like her grandfather. Though he was a lovely guy, a rather jolly sort, this student realized that she had projected her grandfather’s weaknesses—his short temper and biting wit—onto God as well. She needed to chip away at her mental picture, to see what was true that remained. A false picture can be replaced with a true picture, but the goal here is to move beyond pictures. A human picture of God can never be more than an idol.
Though language of deconstruction is thrown around somewhat sloppily and encompasses the many experiences above (or just serves as a kind of brand identity), it does have a connection with the work of theology.
The earliest Christian theologians spoke of our knowledge of God as only partial. The early philosopher Pseudo-Dionysius urges those who seek knowledge of God to
leave behind everything perceived and understood, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.
Individuals who do so, Dionysius wrote, possess a modesty that puts them in opposition to “the uninformed,” those “who think that by their own intellectual resources they can have a direct knowledge of him who has made the shadows his hiding place.”
To recognize that our knowledge is only human, and that God dwells beyond it, might be to glimpse God for the very first time.
It is, after all, love of God that is the goal of all Christian study of theology. This might mean that some do not reach certainty but actually leave it behind. In learning about God, we often recognize that God is, as Aquinas also wrote, incomprehensible because he is far, far greater than we could ever know completely. But this recognition leads the mind to a kind of darkness, what Pseudo-Dionysius described as a “darkness of unknowing” that is greater than light.
To move from knowing God with simplistic certainty in the light to knowing God in the darkness beyond my comprehension required a major shift in my faith, even in my prayer life. Instead of resting on knowledge, I had to trust that God is good, even when I could not make much sense of that statement. I had to love God beyond what I could know of him. I was able to move from simple faith to trusting God in the dark to loving God as he dwells in inaccessible light.
Deconstruction should be the task of articulating this difference between what we can know and where we must simply trust. There is a distinction that must be made between what we do not know due to a lack of study or training and what we cannot know due to the categorical difference between what God is and what we are.
The process should dismantle certainty where it is not proper. But that does not mean faith will be dismantled; Christian belief is not vested in the intellectual ability of the Christian but in the steadfastness of God.
Deconstruction can fail. One reason it fails is because well-trained guides aren’t included in the process. Many assume they are discovering new problems with the Christian faith. (If I had a dollar for every young “deconstructor” who discovered the problem of evil for the first time, I could fill a library on the topic.)
Without a guide who knows something about the terrain of the Christian tradition, about its tensions and perennial questions and the places where good answers are hard to come by, a naive questioner may feel that they have exhausted the Christian faith, that its tradition cannot hold their questions, that they have moved beyond it.
A good guide also knows when to say, “We cannot fully know”—that is, when to remind her students that God is not like a lizard. Doing so avoids another error of deconstruction: demanding certainty at the expense of trust. Even our very best theological lectures will remain human, and therefore finite, incomplete, and prone to error. At the end of one’s learning about God comes a point where trust is required.
The goal of theological training is to trust in the dark what you have learned in the light, to come to know in part the God who will only be fully known in the life to come.
Many Christians have learned to put knowledge before love, along with the idea that we must understand God before we can love him. But putting love before certainty allows us to know that we are loving God and not simply our own intellectual efforts.
If there is a biblical guide for such efforts, I like to think it is Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok. This story is baffling. For one, it is not clear who exactly Jacob was wrestling with. We are told it was “a man” (Gen. 32:24), but before the night was over, Jacob came to understand his opponent was God. We are also not told why they were wrestling.
But Jacob was blessed for his struggle and given a new name as a sign of this blessing. God changed his name to Israel, “because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (v. 28). It is notable, however, that though Jacob’s struggle that night was rewarded, no one must struggle with God and deconstruct their beliefs in order to reach a true relationship with God.
Revelation of the truth about God is not merit-based. It is scattered liberally on those who do not seek it out or even want it particularly much. For example, the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 just happens upon the Christ, the Son of the living God. We are told that God reveals himself to children but not to the learned (Matt. 11:25).
On the other hand, those who were closest to Jesus sometimes did not see his divine identity.
We theologians—perhaps by temperament, perhaps for job security—tend to overvalue our profession. Many Christians have little need of us, able to believe in God and trust his goodness without our assistance.
There are moments, however, where we, like firefighters or rescue divers, have skills that are valuable. During this time, theologians can be especially helpful in disentangling the accretions of culture, history, and personality on our beliefs about God.
Deconstruction, by which I mean the struggle to correct or deepen naive belief, is a significant part of learning theology. Christians should engage in the task to move beyond simplistic conceptions to belief in a God who is vaster than they can comprehend.
Much of the evangelical movement has capitalized on a theological simplicity that has not always served Christians well. Evangelicalism could use the work of theologians to remove some of the obstacles and clear away cultural concepts that mask God’s holiness.
If we saw Elijah, Moses, and Christ as Peter, James, and John saw them during the Transfiguration in Mark 9—as they are now instead of how they’d appeared to people previously—we would travel through sight to that cloud of unknowing. Our pens would still, our questions silenced, our mouths agape. We would see at once what had always been but had only been hidden: God the Word.
Deconstruction can be this stammering, this open-mouthed wonder, when you realize that God is far greater than you’d known. It can be as simple as another scene in Mark 9, where a man cries out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v. 24).
Aquinas said he encountered a vision of this kind near the end of his life. “All my work is like straw,” he responded. He put down his pen. He had reached that place where silence trumps speech, where millions of words are silenced in the presence of the one who is God the Word.
After such an encounter, Aquinas stopped writing. After his encounter, Jacob walked with a limp. In a way, I have walked with my own limp ever since I learned that God differs differently. I have learned to trust where I cannot see, to hope beyond what I can know for sure. I have learned to love God in the dark.
Kirsten Sanders is founder of the Kinisi Theology Collective, a public theology project that seeks to bring trained theologians to people who want to grow in their knowledge and love of God. She has degrees from Duke Divinity School and Emory University.
[ This article is also available in Português and Français. ]
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