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.” 


11 thoughts on “Deconstruction and the Inworming of Postmodern theology

    • As much as I admire Derrida’s vast knowledge and magical way with words, l’l ole me will have to say, Nay.
      What parts did you find difficult to follow? I’d like to make it clearer. Keep in mind though – this thought has just struck me – that in postmodernism, clarity is not highly prized (but don’t believe them)- for the reason that there is no reason why reason should be reasonable. So we’re stuck with fidelity; fidelity to the Other. Deconstruction/postmodernism is cosmic castration.

  1. Why cosmic castration? And the main thing I was confused about was whether you approved or disapproved of Derrida/deconstruction.

    I am inclined to disagree with your assessment of Derrida. I think that Derrida is as clear as he can be with the complexities that he is dealing with. In addition, I also don’t think I’d place Derrida with post-modernism. Post-modernism isn’t really clear — I agree, for the same reasons that you’ve just described — but Derrida’s position seems rather clear and reasonable to me. Deconstruction is not about subverting the text, but about producing readings that allow the text to engage present day circumstances. This is why Derrida views deconstruction as an affirmative, rather than negative, act.

    In this case, deconstruction is not about subverting the Bible or the Torah or theology in general. It’s about producing a reading of theology that allows us to better understand the situations or contexts we encounter and engage in on a daily basis. So I’m not completely sure why it would amount to a cosmic castration.

    Thank you for your reply, and I hope to discuss this more with you.

    Mark Blasini

    • Deconstruction and Postmodernism share the notion that there is no “centre,” that is, no Truth; only pluralities of possibilities residing within linguistic signs (words).

      In both Deconstruction and Postmodernism, “meaning” is less philosophy (logocentrism) and more literature (the play of language)

      With regard to “subverts.” In his “Writing and Difference,” Derrida uses the term a few times in his discussion of Descartes’ subversion of reason to madness.

      Now “cosmic castration.”

      Derrida’s concept of “DifferAnce” has to do with the ways words spill over one another. Words consist of the written or sound symbol (signifier) and meaning (signified). There’s also, as you know the thing that the word refers to (referent, for example, the apple on the tree outside your head), but in both Deconstruction and Postmodernism, the main interest is the linguistic happenings in your noggin. In Deconstruction, signifieds and signifiers bump and topple against one another. Etymology is very important here, which Derrida calls the “historical sedimentations” of language.

      If, however, words spill over one another, this spillage I suggest, upsets the order (Greek “cosmos”) of knowledge, where what we know gets swallowed up by how we know. In such a scenario, meaning gets lost (I’m talking like a good old structuralist). The result: an illegal spillage of meaning (semantics, Greek SEMA, “seed, “semen”).

      Not only a spillage of semen, of order, but a castration of meaning, of order – a cosmic castration.

      I elaborate on these thoughts in my article on Derrida’s “Tour de Babel.”

      • This is a difficult topic. I think that Derrida’s assertions all rest on one point: all discourses are kinds of games, allowing for and limiting play.

        Following this, I would like to say that there is no pure center for Derrida, no completely coherent base out of which everything is given meaning. This doesn’t mean that there is no center per se, but that the center is perhaps a construct that both allows for and limits the play of interpretation.

        Think, for example, of a game — chess. The center in chess, what all the maneuvers and strategies move towards, is the checkmate. This center opens up the game towards play — without the possibility of checkmate, there is no game. On the other hand, the center also limits play: what stops you from throwing your piece across the room and calling that a chess move is the fact that there is only a certain way in which one can play (and win) the game.

        It would be foolish to think, though, that checkmate precedes chess. Checkmate doesn’t make any sense without the game, the moves and strategies possible within chess. Indeed, checkmate is simply a construct that makes the playing enjoyable and identifiable.

        Now, for Derrida, saying there is no center is like saying there is no checkmate. That’s ridiculous and is proven to be false every time someone plays chess. However, saying that a certain center is the Center, a pure center, preceding that to which it gives meaning, is equally foolish, for reasons that I stated above. That’s like saying a certain checkmate is the pure checkmate, the checkmate from which all chess moves and strategies derive.

        I would agree that in some respects, with deconstruction, order CAN become upset, but the point of deconstruction is not to upset the order, but simply to find and highlight the places where play within an order is possible. Derrida’s point is that logocentric philosophers take certain discourses too seriously, trying very hard to eliminate play in other discourses by promoting a pure, transcendental truth or center.

        But for Derrida, that’s like a chess player trying really hard to eliminate play in other games by promoting a pure, transcendental checkmate. It doesn’t make sense.

        Mark Blasini

        • A canny analysis.

          I agree that Derrida does believe in “some kind” of centre, otherwise we wouldn’t understand what he’s talking about (hmmm, I wonder whether anyone does understand). I only wish he would say so.

          This is what he says in one on his works. In his chapter on “Structure, sign and play in the human sciences” in his “Writing and difference,” Derrida prefaces the chapter with a saying by Montaigne:

          “Il y a plus affaire à interpréter les interprétations qu’à interpréter les choses.”

          (It has more to do with interpreting interpretations than interpreting things).

          “Things,” of course, refers to the stuff that we interpret such as verbal language, body language, a painting, and so forth. In Derrida, words, though, is the name of his “game.”

          In this chapter, he says (I’m paraphrasing/translating from the original):

          “…the centre is not a fixed locality but rather a function, a kind of non-place in which an infinity of signs play themselves out. It is at that moment that language invades the problematic domain of the universal. It’s at that moment when, in the absence of a centre or of an origin, everything becomes discourse where the central elements of that discourse can only exist in a system of differences (between words). This discourse plays out in an infinity of meanings. Therefore the central meaning can never be present (presented) to us.

          (Original French – “… le centre n’avait pas de lieu naturel, qu’il n’était pas un lieu fixe mais une fonction, une sorte de non-lieu dans lequel se jouaient à l’infini des substitutions de signes. C’est alors le moment où le langage envahit le champ problématique universel; c’est alors le moment où, en l’absence de centre ou d’origine, tout devient discours — à condition de s’entendre sur ce mot — c’est-à-dire système dans lequel le signifié central, originaire ou transcendantal, n’est jamais absolument présent hors d’un système de différences. L’absence de signifié transcendantal étend à l’infini le champ et le jeu de la signification).

          Derrida, it seems, believes, with Montaigne, that one cannot interpret anything (that is, get to its centre – central meaning) because the very process of interpretation is so “problématique.”

          It may be useful to explain to readers what is meant by “the system of differences.”

          (I’m simplifying a lot): a sentence consists of different parts of speech such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions. All these different linguistic elements make discourse possible.

          • It’s interesting because in the Alan Bass translation, the last line reads: “The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.” Let us go back to the chess example. The absence of a “pure” checkmate would mean that there could be an infinite possibility of not only playing games different ways, but of creating new games. Producing new play.

            I don’t think this means that you can interpret anything any way that you see fit. Again, all forms of play need rules; they need boundaries that make them identifiable (i.e. iterable). All play needs a center, even if a true, pure center is always absent (the pure checkmate can never be present, but rather haunts the play of chess like a ghost). All Derrida is saying is that the absence of this pure center allows for play in the first place. Look at it this way: if a pure checkmate was present, then that would mean there is only one true way of playing chess. But if there is only one true way of playing chess, then that would obliterate the playing altogether, because playing rests on the notion of possibility. There is no play without possibility, without possible different ways of doing things. In order for chess to be effectively a game, then this pure checkmate needs to be absent.

            In theology, the case is the same. If there were really only one true path to heaven or salvation or happiness, then would that really be worth it? Wouldn’t that be too easy? And in that case — what is the point of living? Of going through the experience — if there is nothing to be learned? Learning requires possibility. It requires being open to certain experiences. If you knew all there really was to know about what really mattered, then there is no possibility of learning, no openness. And if that’s the case, why even the need to go through it? If you already knew beforehand what there really was to know about what really mattered, then following the true path would be worthless, since it couldn’t do anything for you. But that would mean that by not following the true path, you wouldn’t reach salvation/heaven/happiness. Therefore, this one true path must be absent in order for theology really to mean something.

            That, I believe, is Derrida’s simple point. There must be multiple ways, multiple paths, and each path must bring along its own set of experiences. Some of these paths cross and work together, others are paths we have to walk on our own (Derrida quotes Paul in The Gift of Death: “You must work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”). But nothing is decided.

            Mark Blasini

            • Darklion here is the French with my paraphrase and Bass’s translation:

              L’absence de signifié transcendental étend à l’infini le champ et le jeu de la signification.

              My paraphrase: This discourse plays out in an infinity of meanings. Therefore the central meaning can never be present (presented) to us. (meanings = signifieds).

              Alan Bass’s spot-on translation: The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.

              How does my paraphrase differ – in any SIGNIFICANT (tee hee) way – from Alan Bass? I could easily have missed one of Derrida’s “moves.”

              There is much more interesting things you said. If you don’t mind, I’d like to use them for another post, as I have much to think and say about them.

              • Thank you very much! Of course, I don’t mind: I’m just glad I can contribute to this wonderful blog. As for the translation issue, I wonder if there is meaning beyond signification for Derrida. Derrida (through Kierkegaard) talks about infinite duty as a secret, something that can’t be transmitted through language. It’s an infinitely private relationship between you and God, and defines who you are. And it’s not something that can be signified, communicated, or even understood. And yet — it’s intensely meaningful.

                Mark Blasini

  2. Pingback: Christian: “Jesus is the truth!”; Postmodernist: “…whatever” « factorysense

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