What do Christians believe? Lesson III: The Problem of Evil

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At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The third lesson is titled “The Problem of Evil.” In it, I address one of the most commonly raised questions about the existence of God, namely: If God exists, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

Here is the video of the lecture:

The audio is also available on the Christ is for everyone! podcast.

Did Christ establish an infallible magisterium in the Church?

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I recently participated in an online discussion on the Pints with Aquinas YouTube show with my friend, Suan Sonna. We addressed the question: Did Christ establish an infallible magisterium in the Church?

Although I am sympathetic to and appreciative of Roman Catholicism in various ways, in my studies I have come to conclusions that lead me away from the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, there are very many people (at least in the online circles I frequent) who feel the pull in the direction of the Church of Rome. There are a few different reasons for that. One of the most prominent is certainly the attraction of the idea or prospect of an infallible teaching office in the Church, which can declare irreformable statements about what is and is not to be believed or done.

I think that there is no such infallible teaching office in the Church. In my recent discussion with Suan, I offered three reasons for thinking so. Because I think people may be interested in reading it, I have decided to post my opening statement for all to read.


My conviction is that Christ did not establish an infallible magisterium in the Church. I will present three arguments in favor of this opinion.

First, I will argue that our knowledge of theological things is only ever fallible and in principle revisable. This is because it is obtained by means of a fallible process of interpretation. Therefore, nothing in our experience justifies us in claiming to possess infallible knowledge of some theological subject matter.

Second, I will show there is no compelling biblical case in support of an infallible magisterium in the Church. The Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore fallibility of human beings. Because they are free and fallible, even the loftiest promises God makes about them may nevertheless not come true or at least not stay true for long. For the same reason, also, every social and ecclesial arrangement is in principle contingent and tentative.

Third, I will clarify how there is no theological necessity in the notion of an infallible magisterium of the Church. Some Roman Catholic apologists, theologians, and churchmen argue that if God were to make a saving revelation in history, He would need to establish a reliable and even infallible organ of transmission to preserve it in purity for all generations. But this argument is not only logically invalid; it also presupposes two quintessentially Catholic ideas about salvation and Christian faith that can be rejected.

Let’s go over these arguments in order.

The fallibility of theological knowledge

My first point is that our knowledge of theological subject matters is only ever fallible and revisable in principle. This is all that our experience allows us to say. Careful attention to the hermeneutic nature of the process of reasoning will help us to see how this is true.

Whenever we reason or discourse, we are reasoning or discoursing about something or other. But it is possible to take ourselves to be reasoning about one thing, when in fact all we’ve done is to follow a trail of ideas in a certain direction. This is because, in order for us to engage in reasoning, we first have to target some object available to our consciousness and to endow it with some kind of meaning or content. We pick something and interpret it as being an X. On the basis of that foundational hermeneutical decision, we then begin to reason as our concepts and understanding allow us. But however compelling or persuasive our reasoning may seem to us, it does not prove anything at all about the thing we had in mind unless it really is an X, such as we supposed. If it is not in fact an X, then we have not gained any knowledge about it.

Thus, suppose Suan reasons like this: The cat has just eaten, so it must not be hungry. In order for him to do this, he first had to target some object in the world of his experience and interpret it as a cat. Furthermore, he had to interpret what this thing has done as eating. These interpretive decisions are then paired with his prior understanding of what eating is and how it relates to hunger, which understanding he takes for granted. Thus, on the basis of a number of implicit decisions about how to interpret things, Suan is able to engage in a simple form of reasoning: This thing here, which I take to be a cat, has just done something I take to be eating, so that, in light of how I understand the relation between eating and hunger, it must not be hungry anymore.

But this process of reasoning does not confer knowledge of the object in the world unless the hermeneutical or interpretive decisions on which it is founded are actually adequate to their object. Thus, Suan can only know his reasoning is actually correct if he tries to validate these hermeneutical decisions by turning to the thing itself and confirming them in an experience. But it is also obvious that Suan’s experiences are always going to underdetermine his confidence in his hermeneutical decisions. It may be that the thing is not a cat but only looks like one; or that it only appears to have eaten when in fact it did something else; or that eating and hunger are not in fact always related in the way Suan supposed; or it may be that the thing is no longer available and Suan is stuck with just his memories of how things looked to him to have happened; and so on. Suan’s experiences are never going to provide an infallible confirmation of any of the assumptions of his reasoning. Thus, he will never be certain about the propriety of his reasoning. At best, he will have only a tentative and revisable knowledge, not an infallible one.

The fallibility of Suan’s reasoning is grounded in the fact that his reasoning is based on certain hermeneutical choices about how to interpret things. We have to make choices about how to interpret things because they are not perfectly clear by themselves. But where one choice is possible, so also is another one. Such is the nature of human freedom. And we cannot be sure ahead of time – nor even after the fact – that we have chosen correctly.

The same thing happens in reasoning about theological things. We choose to interpret certain realities in a certain way. For example, we choose to interpret the biblical text as saying X. Our experiences underdetermine those choices, and so it is always possible that we are wrong. Indeed, nothing in our experience guarantees that we have interpreted things the right way, since there are going to be people comparable to us in various ways who nevertheless interpret things differently. For this reason, our experience does not permit us to say anything other than that our theological knowledge, if we have any at all, is fallible and – so far as we can tell – subject to revision.

Now, someone will say: The Roman Catholic Church does not teach that its infallibly taught statements are known with absolute certainty, but only that they are true. That is what Christ promised in the Scriptures. This objection itself admits that the Roman Catholic Church’s idea about the infallibility of the magisterium is not an experientially grounded doctrine. Rather, it is the logical outcome of a certain interpretation of the biblical text. In other words, it is the place the Church has reached as a result of following a certain train of thought. Therefore, it will be necessary to show that this train of thought, this preferred interpretation of the biblical text, is not the only one possible. This brings me to my second argument.

The contingency of divine promises

Many times, Roman Catholic apologists and theologians will argue for the infallibility of the Church’s magisterium on the basis of the promises that God or Christ make in the Scriptures. For example, there is the promise that Christ makes to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will found my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19).

The problem with an argument like this is that the Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore fallibility of human beings relative to God. This means that even the loftiest promises that God makes to a person or group of persons need not come true, or at least not in the way they would have expected, if they do not freely cooperate with Him.

For example, Joshua tells the Hebrews, just as they are preparing to enter into the promised land, that the living God “without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites” (Josh 3:10). But the Gibeonites, who are described variously as Hivites and Amorites, are not driven out because of a deception (Josh 9). Neither did they drive out the Geshurites or the Maacathites (Josh 13:13).

Similarly, God tells the prophet Ezekiel: “Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die” (Ezek 33:13). God can tell you: You shall surely live. And yet if you sin, you will die, despite the unconditional nature of God’s earlier words. Once more, the fulfillment of a divine promise is contingent and not infallible whenever it involves the free cooperation of human beings.

In the same way, God tells the prophet Isaiah that He will take the robe, sash, authority, and key of the house of David from Shebna and give it to Eliakim (Isa 22:15-25). But what Eliakim inherits is what Shebna earlier possessed. It was taken from the one and given to the other because the former had sinned. Thus, its possession is contingent and fallible, not certain. If it could be taken from one of them because of sin, it could also be taken from the other, even though God makes such lofty promises about Eliakim. Eliakim is described as “a peg fastened in a secure place” (v. 23). And yet Shebna also was a “peg fastened in a secure place,” and nevertheless He was about to be cut down and fall (v. 25). Thus, the promises God makes are contingent and tentative, insofar as their fulfillment depends on the free cooperation of the human being.

So also in the case of the promise in Matthew 16. Suppose we grant – though we don’t have to – that Peter was given a position of headship over the college of the apostles. It does not follow that he or one of his successors could not have erred in such a way as to disqualify himself or the very position he occupies. Neither does it follow that such an arrangement is permanent. Human beings are free, possessing a measure of independence from God. This means that things can go wrong, and the promises that God makes to them can go unfulfilled.

And yet God is flexible. He does not let the mistakes of some people ruin His providential purposes. To the contrary, He is free to make use of whatever means He has available at any point in time. Thus, He leads Israel first by Moses, but Moses does not make it into the promised land. Then He leads by Joshua, then by the judges, then by the kings, and then, when the kings become corrupt, by the prophets, and so on. The fact that God establishes an arrangement does not entail that it will remain forever. And God is free to make use of whatever means are available to Him at any point in time in order to accomplish His purposes.

The perspicuity of the Gospel

This leads me to my third and final argument. I’ve suggested that our very experience teaches us that our knowledge of theological subject matters is only ever fallible and subject to revision. Moreover, the biblical case in support of an infallible magisterium is fatally undermined by the fact that the Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore essential fallibility of human beings and their arrangements. But sometimes Roman Catholic apologists and theologians give something like an a priori argument for an infallible magisterium. They say that if God were to reveal some saving truth, then He would make provisions for its reliable transmission over time. And in order to prevent its corruption as history marches on, it’s to be expected that He would establish an infallible teacher or body of teachers who can interpret it in such a way that the truth is not lost.

The first point to make about this argument is that it is logically invalid. God certainly would make provisions to ensure the reliable transmission of the saving truth from generation to generation. But it doesn’t follow that He needs to make use of any one particular means for doing so. His own infallibility as the preserver of the truth over time need not translate into the permanent infallibility of any particular medium He works through. He led the people of Israel at times through Moses, at times through the judges, at times through the kings, at times through the prophets. No one office is infallible. God alone is infallible, and He makes use of whomever He wills. So also, in the history of the Church, God can make use of whatever means are available to Him at any point in time in order to preserve the saving truth for His people.

There is something else to note about the a priori argument for the magisterium. First, it would appear to assume that the saving truth that God reveals must necessarily be something obscure and easy to lose track of. That must be why the risk of error is apparently so great. Second, it assumes that salvation is fundamentally or at least in part a matter of assenting to certain well-defined doctrinal statements and dogmatic formulas. But both of these assumptions must be called into question and can even be rejected.

In the first place, God can have made provision for the reliable transmission of the saving truth throughout the generations precisely by making this saving truth something clear enough for the average person to understand and appreciate. In other words, God can have made provisions for the reliable transmission of salvation by revealing something perspicuous and easily accessible.

Consider the example of water. Everyone knows that water is good, that it hydrates, that it is healthful, that it benefits human life in various ways. There is no need for there to be an infallible water-master in order for the human tradition of appreciating water to be reliably transmitted throughout the generations. Indeed, it would be ridiculous for anyone to claim that he is an infallible guide on water. Our knowledge of water is the same as our knowledge of anything else outside ourselves: fallible and revisable. But it is still true that the most important things about water – for example, that it is necessary for us and that it improves our lives in various ways – are so clear and obvious that we have no need of an infallible teacher in the matter.

In the same way, the saving truth that God has revealed is perspicuous like this. What is this truth? It is the truth that fellowship with the one true creator God in the Holy Spirit has been made possible for all people through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, on the basis of His mediatorial work. This is the truth that saves us, and it is easy enough for anyone to appreciate it. This is the message that Irenaeus says can be “clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all” in the Scriptures, prophets, and gospels (Against Heresies II, 27, 2). This is the message that Origen says was delivered by the apostles “with utmost clarity to all believers” (On First Principles Preface, 3). This is the message that all the Christian churches everywhere plainly and obviously teach, according to both Church Fathers. Thus, it is not only possible but also traditional to say that God has made provision for the reliable transmission of salvation by revealing something that is clear enough on its own. This undermines the necessity of an infallible magisterium.

Someone will object: But what about all the heresies that have afflicted the Church throughout the ages? The truth can easily be mixed with damnable error. As I mentioned before, this line of argument presupposes that salvation is at least in part if not fundamentally a matter of assenting to certain well-defined doctrinal statements and dogmatic formulae. Moreover, it clearly is looking at Church history through the lens of contemporary Roman Catholic dogma. This argument for the necessity of an infallible magisterium seems sooner to express a fundamentally Roman Catholic conception of salvation and its conditions. And it is open to us to reject both the one and the other.

Salvation is not first and foremost a matter of believing certain well-defined doctrinal statements. It is friendship with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 John 1:3). In other words, it is about a relation between persons and not necessarily an appreciation of some theoretical truth. It is obviously possible to enjoy friendship without the theoretical aspect. I can enjoy a conversation with my friend JT even if I do not have a well-defined opinion about JT’s ontological constitution from the point of view of philosophical anthropology. I might be a substance dualist, or a physicalist, or a hylemorphist, or have no opinion whatsoever about what he is. That does not stop me from joking or debating with him. In the same way, a person can enjoy fellowship with God and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit even if he is unsure how to understand God from the perspective of the christological and triadological controversies of Church history, indeed even if he has never thought about those problems at all.

This personal friendship or communion between God and the human being is realized by the preaching of the Gospel. It is the preaching of the Gospel that produces faith in people, and faith is what makes it possible to enjoy this friendship or communion. Furthermore, the preaching of the Gospel can accomplish this effect even if it is not theologically sophisticated or even particularly precise. Someone might say: But if heresy is preached, then it does not produce saving faith. But this assumes that saving faith is assent to certain well-defined doctrinal statements rather than an orientation toward God through Jesus Christ. It is enough to be told about Jesus Christ as the way of access to friendship with God on the basis of His life and death. When that happens, people turn toward Christ in faith and hope and love. They cling to Him and praise God through Him in the Holy Spirit, even apart from a very theoretical understanding of the finer details. There is thus no need for an infallible magisterium in any of this.   

These, then, are my arguments. Christ did not establish an infallible magisterium in the Church. Our experience teaches us that our knowledge of theological things is only ever fallible and subject to revision. The Bible itself everywhere recognizes the essential freedom and essential fallibility of human beings. And yet God saves us by revealing something which we do not need to be infallible in order to enjoy. He invites us to friendship with Him and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. And we can enjoy this friendship even if we are mistaken about various things or even if we do not attend to various problems and nuances of speculative theology at all.

What do Christians believe? Lesson II: The Existence of God

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At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The second lesson is titled “The Existence of God.” In it, I provide a reason for affirming the Christian belief in “one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Here is the video of the lecture:

The audio of the lecture is also available on the Christ is for everyone! podcast here and on Spotify.

Where does the journey of “deconstructing your faith” lead in the end?

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These days, there is an ever growing number of celebrity “exvangelicals” who announce that they have “deconstructed” their evangelical faith in Christianity, having moved on to different ways of thinking about things. A recent example would include Kevin Max from the Christian band dc Talk, but one could also mention Joshua Harris of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame, as well as musicians Michael Gungor and Marty Sampson. I admit that I don’t know very much about these individuals, since I never listened to their music or read their books. But they are significant figures nonetheless. These persons and many others besides talk about undergoing a process of “deconstruction” in which they questioned and interrogated the Christian faith commitments they received uncritically from others, a process which eventually led to the collapse of the edifice of their faith.

Others have responded to this issue in some detail, for example Gavin Ortlund and Jordan Steffaniak. They emphasize the importance of exposure to the intellectual tradition of Christianity. And this is a very significant point to make. American “pop” evangelicalism of the sort you might find in the suburban megachurch bears little to no resemblance to what Christianity has looked like for two thousand years, nor to what it looks like in very many parts of the world. Moreover, such “pop” evangelicalism has little to no awareness of the rich and varied history of Christianity, especially its intellectual history as it dialoged with ancient Greek paganism, heresies of various kinds, Judaism, Islam, and atheism throughout the years. Because “pop” evangelicalism has no historical consciousness, the average person in the pews confuses what is presented before them on Sunday with what Christianity is as a whole. And if the “pop” evangelicalism with which they grew up cannot survive their questions and interrogations, then they give up on Christianity altogether. Imagine the following analogous scenario. A person grows up only ever watching the Cleveland Browns football team. Because the Browns are terrible, he gives up on football altogether. The obvious response to make to this person is that the Browns are not representative of all that professional football has to offer! So also in the case of the “exvangelicals.” American “pop” evangelicalism is not all nor even among the very best that Christianity has to offer.

But there is another point to make here, one which cuts to the very heart of the notion of “deconstruction” in general. Many exvangelicals talk about the process of “deconstruction” as a journey. They consider themselves to be on the move toward some place. They know what they are leaving, but they may not exactly know where they are headed. It is true that “deconstruction” is a way of moving from point A to point B. It is also a truth of deconstruction that point B is just as deconstructible a stopping point as point A – even if one does not feel the need or inclination to engage in the “deconstructing” project any more. But from the fact that one feels safe, it doesn’t follow that one is in fact safe, just like the fact that one does not feel sick does not mean that one is in fact healthy.

Why is point B just as deconstructible as point A? Because the conditions which make deconstruction possible in the one case are also present in the other. After all, what is “deconstruction” except a recognition of the inevitably limited and perspectival character of knowledge? One previously believed something, but later came to see things from a different point of view, so that one’s prior beliefs, which seemed so founded and reliable, so accorded to objective reality, slowly come apart. But the new point of view is itself still a point of view. And it is always possible that there is still some third point of view which will reveal the second one to be inadequate. “Deconstruction” is the process by which an idea or a belief is relieved of its pretense to being an objective truth and unmasked as nothing more than a statement of the way things are from a certain point of view, a point of view one does not have to take. But we have not achieved pure objectivity simply because we go from one point of view to another. We are still “stuck” seeing things as they look from a certain point of view.

Any point of view both makes certain things visible but also hides others. From inside a house, one can see what is in the kitchen but not whether there is anyone on the driveway. From outside a house, one can see if the front door is open but not who is in the bedroom. The point of view one takes is at least in part a result of one’s interests and concerns. Depending on what one cares about, one positions oneself here or there in order to see how things are. Now, it is always possible in principle to seek a different perspective on things. Indeed, it is always possible that a new perspective will reveal the inadequacy or short-sightedness of the perspective one currently occupies. But a person might not care to do it, preferring to stay where he or she is. Or it could be that the factors which motivated the deconstruction of the initial faith are no longer there. This seems to have happened with many persons who left evangelicalism and even Christianity in general because of the apparently “blind” evangelical support for Donald Trump both before and during his presidency. Now that he is no longer president, such persons might not feel any pressing need to question their current beliefs. Even so, it does not follow that they are in any “safer” or “stabler” a resting place than they previously were.

The important lesson here is that the journey of deconstruction never ends. Regardless of the point of view one takes, it is nevertheless true that the way things seem to a person are informed by the point of view he or she has taken, and it is always possible that a different point of view can reveal one’s current perception of things as inadequate or incomplete in various ways. It may be that people do not continue down the path of deconstruction their whole lives, but that does not mean that it wouldn’t be possible for them nonetheless.

But this situation can seem troublesome. If all knowledge of things in the world is perspectival, if we can never have infallible confidence that we have reached a “final” resting place, that we have achieved definitive knowledge of some thing … then what? How are we supposed to live? How are our lives supposed to go?

There are two things to say in response to this question. In the first place, a choice must be made. There is no escaping this fact. One cannot sit in one place with one’s arms crossed, waiting for death. Even though we can only see things as “in a mirror, dimly,” as Paul the Apostle says (1 Cor 13:12), we nevertheless have to choose what kind of life we are going to live and what sort of persons we are going to be. Moreover, these choices cannot be made in a situation of knowledge. We cannot be sure ahead of time that we are doing the right thing. Life is thus a risk. We are put in the situation of making a choice without a prior guarantee that we will choose correctly. That is just how things are!

From this point of view, Christianity invites us also to make the choice in a certain way. It invites us to assume a certain perspective and walk along with it. That is what Christ is getting at when He called people to “repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Christianity offers us the Gospel, which is a way of thinking about ourselves, the world, and God in the light of Jesus Christ. We can reject this Gospel, but we can also accept it and learn to see things from its perspective, to see what light it sheds on things.

The second thing to say is that the deconstructibility of our opinions does not necessarily lead to a rejection of God. Consider how exvangelicals talk about the process of deconstruction as a “journey.” It is true that, for any point along the way of a journey, it is possible to stop but also to continue going, or else to go this way rather than that. But – importantly – one cannot journey at all unless there is a path, a ground on which one can walk. The ground makes the journey possible. And one does not make the ground, but rather the ground is there for us to walk on as we please.

So also, we might follow a journey of thought, going from one point of view to another, thinking about things this way or that. We discover that for any one way of thinking about things, another way is also possible. But what comes before all our thinking, so as to make it possible in the first place? What is the “ground” on which our journey of thought is possible? Life. We can think because we are alive. We can experience the world because we are alive and can experience ourselves seeing this, hearing that, tasting this, thinking about that. But although we are alive, although we feel ourselves to be alive, we are not ourselves responsible for the fact of our living. Neither can we do anything to guarantee that we remain in life for even a second, since we must first be alive in order to act. We live, but this is not our own doing, nor can we preserve our life by our own efforts. Thus, this life which we feel within ourselves, on which we depend, which makes to live without our consent, over which we have no control — that life is God.

This is why the philosopher Michel Henry said, “God is more certain than the world. And we are, too.” For any thing “out there” in the world we might be curious about, we can look at it from that perspective or another, thinking about this way or that. We might have good reasons for thinking about it in a certain way, but nothing rules out the possibility that future considerations will undermine our present convictions. And yet, no matter what we say about the things in the world, at the very least we know that we are alive and presented with this world in our every experience. And if we are alive, it is only because God, who is absolute Life, is continually giving us life and making us to be alive. This thing is sure, if nothing else.

But then what is this world? What are these things about which we can debate and discuss endlessly without coming to a resolution? What are these things in the world whose essence seems to slip away from us, so as to make the process of deconstruction endless? All our knowledge of the world is perspectival and limited. That is why deconstruction is always possible. A new perspective can come along and undo what we take to be certain. But regardless of the perspective we take toward things, whether we look at them from here or from there, they are nevertheless still there for us to consider and to use for our own purposes. Whatever we think about them, whether we think about them or not, the sun still warms us, the shade of the tree and the wind keep us cool, the water refreshes us, and the beauty of the skies please us. And the very Life which makes us live also reveals all these things to us for our good. Or, as the Psalmist says, “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart” (Ps 104:14-15). Thus, we can learn a new way of relating to the world: it is the gift given to us by God, who is our Life and who makes us to live in this world which is at our disposal.

It is true that the journey of deconstruction never ends. Whatever we say about a thing from this point of view, we might contradict if we look at the same thing from another point of view. But the thing is there, whatever the point of view we take toward it, for us to use and to enjoy. And we have no access to the thing at all unless we live. And we do not live unless God, the absolute Life, makes us to be alive by sharing with us His life or “breath” (to use the biblical language). It is thus possible to rise out of the endless cycle of deconstruction by turning our attention to the Life that was always there and which made that journey’s beginning and end alike possible. If we do this, we might come to “re-discover” God for the first time. Rather than thinking of God as an idea which can be endlessly debated and discussed from a hundred points of view, we learn that He was not very far from us at all, but rather “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).