Deconstruction and the Inworming of Postmodern theology

Cover of Basic Theology

We all have a story, part of which we’d like to tell (and part we’d like to keep to ourselves). I think theology may be able to help you tell your story. “Theology you say!” But wait; the theology I’m about describe is not the old fundamentalist variety but something that you might indeed find attractive. I’m talking about postmodern theology, which homes in not on what the Bible says about God, not on the written lifeless text, but what it says about you, the living you, the reader, and the stories in you trying to worm their way out.

In old-time theology – let’s take the canon (accepted books) of the Bible as an example – words had specific meanings, where the term “narrative” signified an account of what really happened, what described reality, truth. Michael Kruger explains:

The postmodern objection to the Christian canon (and all religion for that matter) is not what we might think.  We assume that postmodernists object to the canon on the grounds that the canon is false (what we might call a a de facto objection).  But, that is actually more of a modernist objection. In contrast, the postmodernist objects to the belief in canon on the grounds that there is no basis for knowing, regardless of whether it is true or false (what we might call the de jure objection). In other words, when it comes to the Christian belief in the canon, the big complaint of the postmodernist is, ‘How could you ever really know such a thing?  Given all the disagreements and chaos in early Christianity, it would be arrogant to claim your books are the right ones.’  Thus, the postmodern concern has to do with the grounds for our belief in the canon.” 

(Can the New Testament Canon be Defended? Derek Thomas Interviews Michael Kruger)

Book of Genesis, Ningpo Bible.

Book of Genesis, Ningpo Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The postmodernist’s de jure objection, as “de jure” indicates, is that no one has the right to tell someone else what is true or not; except maybe in situations such as “your fly is open” or “your home or your home-made sausages are burning.” As the French symbolist poets loved to say, un poème est un prolongement, “a poem is an extension.” Extension of what? Why, the longings of the reader, naturally. Prolongement means “extension.” I am relating prolongement to “longing” whose only connection are their “historical sedimentations” (etymology) as Jacques Derrida, the father of “Deconstruction” would have said. In postmodern literary theory ( where “deconstruction” is a pivotal concept) there is no difference between critical historical facts and a game of shuttlecock (Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation). Have you ever tried to think critically while playing shuttlecock? Or is “tacticallly,” for you, the same as “critically?”

Theology for the postmodernist – indeed anything that suffixes in “logy” (Greek logos “meaning”) – is not about certitude but about attitude, your attitude to fidelity; the fidelity to human and verbal relationships expressed most poignantly through the stories we tell or would like to tell – about ourselves. Here is Walter Brueggemann, the postmodern biblical theologian in no uncertain manner warning against the desire for certitude:

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.. 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.” (Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann).

In contrast to postmodern “Christianity,” there is “premodern” Christianity that stands on the “biblically based epistemological presupposition that ‘the one living and true God has self-attestingly revealed Himself in the Christian Scriptures’ (Robert L Reymond).” (Larry D. Pettegrew).

(Robert L. Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979) 72).

 Postmodernism presupposes that there is no truth ”out there,” and proposes that a communal, and sociable, attempt be made to make life as enjoyable and humane as possible. “It (postmodernism) does not see religion as a set of beliefs about what is real and what is not. Rather, religion is a choice—something to be incorporated into one’s worldview if he chooses. Thus, postmodernism leads a person to believe in what he likes rather than what the Bible presents as universal truth.” (Larry D. Pettegrew).

To use two popular postmodern terms, everyone should be free, says the postmodernist, to “construct” their own “narrative.” Hence the postmodern term “constructivism.” I propose another post modern neologism: “narrativism” – telling stories about how the world – if not the Bible – fits or should fit into my world. But not in a selfish way; rather in a way that is faithful to the needs of others.

So, the postmodern clarion call is ”fidelity, not clarity.” Clarity, for the postmodernist, is clearly an illusion. And now we arrive at the jump-on point of postmodernism, where premodernists jump off, namely, the reader. Meaning logos, says postmodernism, has its locus in the reader, not in the text. What counts is not the context of the text but the pretext of the reader. The reader has faith in himself and it is credited to him as rightfulness. In postmodernism, the independent text is a tissue of yarns.

Premodernists (Calvins andLuthers) , as well as modernists (Richard Dawkins, for example), however, will insist that authors have something specific they want to say. “Precisely because they have authors, texts don’t mean just anything. The author’s will acts as a control on interpretation. Thanks to an author’s willing this rather than that, we can say that there is a definite meaning in texts prior to reading and interpretation. As God’s will structures the universe, so the author’s will structures the universe of discourse” (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). (In Pettegrew).

Earlier, I spoke about the postmodernist’s pet gripe: the “logy” logos ([objective] meaning) in the old school’s eye. This is where “logocentrism”’ comes into my story. Logocentrism is “a philosophy holding that all forms of thought are based on an external point of reference which is held to exist and given a certain degree of authority” (Merriam Webster dictionary).

A fundamental mental operation is classification (categorisation), which we use to sort out the manifold “external points of reference;” in other words, the way we perceive objective reality. The postmodernist denies the existence of this external reality, except perhaps for the books he writes denying external reality, the food he eats and other life enjoyments and conveniences. One kind of categorisation that the postmodernist rejects is binary oppositions; for example, brainy – stupid, good – bad, intelligent – stupid, homosexual – heterosexual, true – false. There is one binary opposition, though, that the postmodern will – indeed must – accept; namely, premodernism – postmodernism. But I suppose private – public is another binary opposition that postmodernists would find apposite. The postmodernist, be he or she a theologian or a hooligan, arrives only to depart for the next departure lounge.

Derrida writes that there is no centre, no arriving, no presence, no God. A student of postmodernism describes the absence of presence this way:

“…if we were to bring Derrida into the discussion, then it becomes pretty clear that religion is the carrier of a metaphysics of presence par excellence. Religion banks on nothing less than the presence of ‘God,’ or the divine, or whatever. And then when you think about the importance of the ‘Word’ in religion–you know, the whole ‘revelation’ thing—Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism (logos “meaning”) is pretty devastating.”

But what is so postmodern about rejecting the “whole ‘revelation’ thing?” Wasn’t that the “Enlightenment’s” claim to fame two centuries or so ago? Another name for the “Enlightenment” is “Modernism,” which put man at the centre. Whereas theology, previous to the “Enlightenment,” was the handmaiden of science, after the “Enlightenment,” theology was reduced to its “charwoman.” (Frederick Copleston in one of his volumes on the history of philosophy, I read in my student days). Modernism reached its high point (I suggest its low point point) in “Positivism” (Auguste Comte), the acme – and acne – of man-centredness. The Christian view is that the universe has a central focal point, which is God. Brian Walsh says:

The problem, Brian Walsh says: is that ‘the end of religion’ and ‘the death of God’ are modernist, Enlightenment dogmas. They are the ultimate conclusion of the modernist blind faith in human autonomy. In the hubris of a modernist world-view, the voice of God and the experience of spirituality gets drowned out by the self-assured, arrogant voice of ‘rational men.”

Derrida, writes Ronaldo Munck “ questions the accepted notions of truth and believes that no interpretation can be the final one. So, deconstruction… does not set out to unmask ‘error’ because that assumes we know what ‘truth’ ls. Deconstruction directs us to the margins of a text, it bids us look for the excluded, the concealed, the unnamed. Deconstruction, then, followlng Gavatrl Sp|vak’s introduction to Derrida, seeks ‘to locate the promising marginal text, to disclose the undecidable moment, to pry it loose with the posltlve lever of the slgnlfler, to reverse the resident hlerarchy. onlv to dlsplace lt; to dlsmantle ln order to reconstitute what ls always already lnscrlbed.” (Marxism @ 2000: Late Marxist Perspectives by Ronaldo Munck).

(In linguistics, the “signifier” is the word, while the “signified” is is meaning. They both comprise the lingustic “sign” – See Ferdinand de Saussure’s “Course in General Linguistics).

So, indeed, it is true that “deconstruction does not set out to unmask ‘error.’” Well, that is exactly what I set out to do with Jacques Derrida’s “Tower of Babel” error when he said that “Babel” means “Father God,” (which it doesn’t). But then I went and spoiled it (not totally) with my own error about Derrida’s error. But all’s well that begins badly, for what does it matter if you’re wrong or right; as long as you’re relating.

Finally, what does “inworming” in my title mean? It’s the deconstructing of narratives (Wood, D.C. 1979 An Introduction to Derrida. Radical Philosophy, 21) resulting in a “tactical subversion of the text.”

This approach or philosophy – Derrida will not call it a method – advocates an inwormlng or tactical subversion of the text, to reveal its contradictions and assumptions. It does not do so, however, from the perspective of an external validation, nor does it seek to offer a better text. Thought systems are assumed to rest on binary oppositions (good/bad, true-false, nature/culture. man/woman, and so on), with an assumed privilege of one over the other. One side ls primary the other derivative. So, Derrida’s approach, somewhat too briefly is as follows: ‘One of the two terms governs the other…To deconstruct the opposition   is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment’ (Marxism @ 2000: Late Marxist Perspectives by Ronaldo Munck).

Why only explain “inworming” at this late stage of the narrative? Call it a strategic reversal, a tactical subversion. A deconstructive overturning – in the end is my beginning.

In deconstruction and its sister postmodern theology, the inworming never stops – for the worm never dies. Nor does the worm ever die in Christian “old paradigm” theology. There is, though, a difference between the two worms: the postmodern worm is kinder and gentler. The fundamental question, says the “old time” theologian  remains: “What is true?” But then, a (Jewish) postmodern theologian will reply with another question: “Your truth or my truth.”