This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Deconstruction.

Deconstruction has never bothered me because I always understood it to be an extension of what the Book of Order calls “the recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (G-2.0500a.(4)), which is a central element of the Reformed tradition and of the Judeo-Christian tradition generally.  Iconoclasm has been a feature of Protestantism from the beginning, rooted in even earlier movements, like the Cistercians, and extending all the way back to the second of the Ten Commandments.  Indeed, it could be said that deconstruction is what we get when we take the first three commandments with utmost seriousness.      
Contrary to popular belief, deconstruction does not deny that there is any absolute Truth.  (Sometimes it may talk about Truth “not existing,” but this is based on a technical use of “exist” as referring to an entity with extension into space/time.  It is not an ontological category.  In this sense, something can “be,” but not “exist.”)  Indeed, some frame deconstruction as a spiritual path which enables us to draw closer to absolute Truth.  
Deconstruction simply holds that if there is absolute Truth it is not accessible very easily if at all.  What people usually think of as absolute Truths are really a propositions based on the limited and biased perspectives of their own subjectivity.  Deconstruction is the business of identifying, breaking down, and setting aside these biases and prejudices.  It can even be viewed as a spiritual process by which we strive to be free of our prejudices and temporal conditioning, and thereby draw closer to the Truth.  In other words, in order to get to the Truth that is out there, we have to deconstruct the false or partial “truths” that are in here and which distract us and obstruct our path forward.
Any truth that we, in our historically contingent and sensorily limited mortal condition, can know and grasp, is not the Truth but at best a mangled and partial copy.  The Buddhist saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” means, to me, that anyone we are likely to meet on the road is not the real, true Buddha.  Only by “killing” the counterfeit Buddhas we meet along the way do we open ourselves to experience the True Buddha who is above, beyond, and beneath all these shadowy projections which might call themselves the Buddha or which we might mistake for the Buddha.  
The reason why many are so terrified of deconstruction and post-modernism is that they have so much invested in the various theologies, philosophies, ideologies, and practices which characterize conventional ecclesial existence.  This investment is really a not-so-subtle form of idolatry, because it props up doctrines and propositions, which are invariably products of limited and biased human minds, as absolute.  See Exodus 32 for how this works.  
The point of deconstruction is to wipe away the false gods that constantly interfere with, obstruct, distract, and divert our attention from the true God.  And just about everything in our experience is, or easily becomes, one of these false gods.  It reminds me of apophatic theology. Apophatic theology grows out of the same spirit as deconstruction.  In apophatic theology we can only know God by negation, that is, by saying what God is not.  Among the things that God is not are our projected and proposed images, words, and ideas, which are all invariably based on our limited, temporally contingent perspectives.  
Walter Brueggemann’s dialogical approach to Bible study has much the same effect.  Instead of lifting up one theology as the only interpretive lens through which the whole Bible is viewed, and due to which contrary voices are marginalized or silenced, Brueggemann would hold these passages in tension and contradiction, almost like Zen koans, waiting for an unknowable Truth to break in.  The interpretation becomes contextual: something the community grapples with and determines based on its own situation.
From a Christian perspective, this unavoidable compulsion to invent and project false gods is sin.  The discipline of critiquing and abandoning these false gods is a spiritual necessity. 
The end of Christendom presents us with a unique and perhaps unprecedented opportunity.  No longer does the church have to feel bound to generate and defend the idols deemed necessary by the Empire.  No longer does the Empire’s requirement hold that we have but one acceptable systematic theology.  No longer need we pour resources into defending, rationalizing, justifying, and blessing the Empire’s policies.     
I wonder if Jesus Christ doesn’t come into the world as the ultimate deconstructor.  His initial announcement of his ministry in Mark 1:15 challenges our own temporality (“the time is fulfilled”), undermines the present social order (“the Kingdom of God has come near”), and demands a different way of thinking and praxis (“repent, and believe the good news”).  Thus he deconstructs the most significant categories of our idolatry.
This deconstructive approach defines and describes his whole ministry.  John D. Caputo has described “deconstruction as the hermeneutics of the Kingdom of God” (What Would Jesus Deconstruct, p. 84).  He goes on: “The deconstruction of Christianity is not an attack on the church but a critique of the idols to which it is vulnerable — the literalism and authoritarianism, the sexism and racism, the militarism and imperialism, and the love of unrestrained capitalism which the church in its various forms has today and for too long been entangled, any one of which is toxic to the kingdom of God” (p. 137).      
In his death on the cross Jesus performs the ultimate act of deconstruction.  He deconstructs his own deconstruction and thus transcends and transfigures it.  To focus on the image of Jesus on the cross is to miss the point that the cross points beyond itself to the resurrection which is the ultimate Truth.  Fittingly, the Bible is frustratingly ambiguous and contradictory concerning the details of resurrection; it is not something that can be known and written about coherently.  The gospel writers are much clearer in indicating what the resurrected Jesus is not — a resuscitated body, a ghost — than what he is.  In the end, resurrection life can only be experienced, and that in different ways, in different contexts. 
The book of Revelation is about deconstruction if we see that it has to do with wiping out our imperially conditioned perceptions of things, and not the destruction of creation.  It is not about destroying creation but “destroying those who destroy the earth” (11:18).  This is in fact the whole point of apocalyptic literature: the liberation of God’s creation from the bondage to imperial power.
When we are able to deconstruct deconstruction, that is, see that deconstruction is itself one of the ideologies/methodologies/philosophies that is itself conditioned and biased by our mortal, temporal existence, I suspect we will begin to see way the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Truth actually and dynamically fills all things.

1 comment:

John Edward Harris said...

Paul,

Sitting on my bookshelf next to Caputo's What Would Jesus Deconstruct is Derrida's Bible: (Reading a Page of Scripture with a Little Help from Derrida). Unfortunatley I have yet to read it.