Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann

Part of my title is ambiguous: “The deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann.” Do I mean that I am going to deconstruct Brueggemann or that I am going to examine Brueggemann’s deconstruction of hermeneutics? I leave the reader to decide on the (re-)interpretation. After all, it’s Brueggemann’s thesis that every text must be continually reinterpreted. Besides, I think I’m (relatively) better at talking about deconstruction than deconstructing.

 I offer a few thoughts on Walter Brueggemann, the biblical theologian, for whom theology and Bible interpretation is not a matter of certainty but of fidelity; fidelity to the divine office of creative imagination. One of his books is entitled, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination

 Here is a transcript of part of the Q&A session of the 2004 Emergent Theological Conversation with Walter Brueggemann. (The audio and the Brueggemann’s theses can be found here). There are four Q&A sessions. In this discussion, I deal with Session 1.

QandA Session 1 (Parts in brackets have been added)

Question:

 How do you live with the ambivalence of biblical narrative.

Brueggemann

 “We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity. So, what we all want to do, if we can, is immediately transpose fidelity into certitude, because fidelity is a relational category, and certitude is a flat mechanical category (such as systematic theology, says Brueggemann in his theses ). So, we have to acknowledge our thirst for certitude, and then to recognise that if you had all the certitudes in the world, it would not make the quality if your life any better because what we must have is fidelity. …It all went haywire in the 17th century with Lutheranism and Calvinism when we tried to outscience science and switch into categories of certitude …Fidelity is like having a teenager in the house and you never get it settled for more than three minutes, and you’ve got to keep doing it again or you don’t have a relationship.

Questioner 

“Part of the job of the pastor is help people see the difference between the two (certitude and fidelity), or to deconstruct their certitude.”

Brueggemann 

“Yes, that’s right; to realise that the promise for certitude that is given by any voice is a phoney promise that cannot be kept. There’s not enough certitude to make us happy and make us safe.”

If Brueggemann believes that the Bible has no certitude, then, deconstruction is definitely up his street. We need to know, though, that “deconstruct” is not at all the same concept as “take apart,” or any of the many other wrong understandings of it. It’s far more complicated (and confusing) than man could ever dream. It’s a specialist term invented by the Jew, Jacob (Jacques) Derrida.

In Derrida’s deconstruction (there is no other kind of deconstruction), language – the sediment of the desire to mean, to communicate – has no locatable centre nor retrievable origin; its existence is a network of differences between signifiers (sounds or written symbols signifying meaning), each tracing and tracking the other. In deconstruction there is no necessary connection between the desire to signify (to mean) and the signifiers that evoke that desire. Desire for such a connection results in nostalgia; the return (nostos) of suffering (algos):

[I]f language is not inherently determined by a set of univocal meanings, then language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for ‘origins’” (J. Derrida 1981, Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. London: Athlone, 278-93).

Now, if signifiers, namely, what words appear to mean, are continuously jumping, bumping toppling over one another, this does not mean, according to deconstruction, that they are doing so in order to arrive at some specific meaning, or essence. Indeed, deconstruction attempts to reverse the Platonic (no, nothing to do with no-sex, this time) notion that “essence is more valuable than appearance. In deconstruction however, we reverse this, making appearance more valuable than essence,” where “essence” connotes a specific meaning, which deconstruction eschews.

Neuralgia, nostalgia. Non-deconstructionists are painfully aware that the dictionary meaning of “nostalgia” has nothing to do with its etymological meaning of a “return (nostos) of suffering (algos)” (Derrida above). So, we must be careful of getting bogged down in the historical sedimentations of language, as is the wont of deconstruction. And where did – I suspect – Derrida find his deconstructive inspiration? Surely, from the letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning and the different levels of meaning PaRDes:

Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain” (“simple”) or the direct meaning.

Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints” or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.

Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”) — the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.

Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in ‘bone’) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.

I elaborate on Brueggemann’s distinction between “certitude” and “fidelity.”

For Brueggemann, any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be frowned upon. We should, therefore, be open, as Derrida says (above), to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus unrestricted interaction – if I understand Brueggemann – between suffering persons desiring to tell their personal stories. For Brueggemann and Derrida, and all poststructuralists (who believe there is no metaphysical centre, no fixed structures), there exists no such entity as Being, no such entity as essence, no such thing as a True story, but only (human) beings telling their true-ish stories, which are the only stories that ultimately matter. And if the Bible stories are able to buck – and back – them up, thank you Holy Spirit.

Jesus: The Truth will make you certain and free.

Brueggemann: The Truth will make you uncertain and flee.

The Truth necessarily brings suffering and makes you feel very unsafe. Unsafe in the world, yes; for the supernatural reason that the biblical story clashes with the world’s story/stories (the world system). 

En passant, much of rabbinical Judaism, but certainly not all, resonates with the idea that life is mainly about what makes us happy and safe. We still, though, don’t know what Brueggemann means by “fidelity.” He explains: “The symbol of that (fidelity) is the way of the cross. The way of the cross is always to be departing certitudes so that we may be in the company of Jesus.”

According to Brueggemann, therefore, fidelity means being in the company of the crucified Jesus, but this can only become a reality if we “depart” from our “certitudes;” If language has consensual meanings, I presume Brueggemann means by “certitudes,” all certitudes. Surely, though, if we are to be faithful (fidel) to the way of the cross, as Brueggemann suggests, we need to be certain that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

What Brueggemann is advocating, in different words, is that we shouldn’t be cocksure about anything, even about, “Verily (surely, certainly, truly) I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice” (Matthew 26:34).

Derrida, Jean Paul Sartre, Andre Gide, Albert Camus, as well as every postmodernist, poststructuralist, deconstructionist, in fact, anyone who doesn’t believe in Certitude, would ask the question: “What fun’s left once you find the Messiah, once you’ve found the “Cross?” After all, the ideal, says Renan, is fundamentally a utopia. What is more ideal than Truth? 

Brueggemann is on a journey; never arriving, always departing; a sitting on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge. That, as I said elsewhere, is deconstruction. But doesn’t Jesus himself make his disciples uncertain? Here is Brueggemann:

And Jesus doesn’t make any of his disciples certain. I think that’s why essentially teaches in figures and parables and enigmatic statements that always have to be reinterpreted… When you’ve emptied everything out to make it plain and clear and unambiguous, you’ve emptied it out of what’s happening in the transaction.”

Jesus did, in contrast to Brueggemann’s assertion, make his disciples certain (much of the time). The Bible certainly states:

And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. 34 But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples” (Mark 4:33-34).

I’m emptied out. And it’s also time to pack my suitcase for the next departure lounge.

(To be continued – at the next departure lounge).

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One thought on “Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction and the Inworming of Postmodern theology « OneDaringJew

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