Religious “Deconstruction”: A “Terminal”logical Plea

Religious “Deconstruction”: A “Terminal”logical Plea

1. Deconstruction in the Evangelical Church

The term “deconstruction” has taken on a life of its own in Evangelical Christian circles. I can remember being both surprised and annoyed when sitting in these churches and hearing pastors rail against postmodern philosophers as if they were prophets of the antichrist. Their animosity surprised me, because I saw significant parallels between Christianity and Derridean deconstruction. For example, when Derrida claims that “to deconstruct…is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment”[1] and that we must “mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new ‘concept,’ a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime”[2], he sounds like Mary when she rejoices at conceiving Christ:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55 ESV [emphasis mine]).

Both anticipate the irruption of an event that will invert a hierarchy of values, exalting what was once low, and debasing what was once high. Likewise, Evangelicals and Derrida both share a messianic orientation,[3] and Evangelicals, following St. Paul, also endorse Derrida’s opposition to logocentrism, the idea that reason is a central value in human life:

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:18-31 ESV).

Given their similarity in outlook, I was thus surprised by the Evangelical community’s hatred for postmodernism and deconstruction. And now, years later, looking at the Ex-Evangelical movement, I am similarly puzzled, though now not at their rejection of deconstruction, but by their valorization of it. If deconstruction has much in common with Evangelical Christianity, why would people leaving that faith tradition rally around it as if it were a banner for their movement?

2. A Fundamental Misunderstanding

My best guess at the moment is that Ex-Evangelicals, like Evangelicals, fundamentally misunderstand the term.[4]  For example, here are some definitions of deconstruction being used online.

“What happens when everything you once believed about God begins to crumble? Perhaps you lose a loved one, get ill or are made redundant and start to question whether God really is good. Or maybe you stumble across skeptical material online, or have your beliefs challenged at university. In a moment, those doubts you’ve had about judgement or biblical infallibility come to the fore and you’re left feeling overwhelmed. What do you do?…. Academics have dubbed it ‘theological deconstruction’, but in simple terms, they’re referring to what happens when a person asks questions that lead to the careful dismantling of their previous beliefs.”[5]

“[Deconstruction is] examining your faith from the inside looking for potential weaknesses. The analogy I like to use is, before you set sail on a cruise ship, you’ll see it in harbor and people applying a fresh coat of paint, sealing up any gaps and dealing with the rust. This is done so it doesn’t sink once you get out to sea. And that’s essentially the same thing that we’re saying about faith. It’s about taking ownership over what you believe and potentially letting go of some of the things that no longer work.””[6]

“We’re talking about a process called deconstruction—an academic term for the systematic pulling apart of the belief system you were raised in. It’s what happens when the questions you’ve pushed down your whole life finally bubble over the surface, and you’re forced to stare honestly at your doubts.”[7]

So, according to the definitions proposed above “deconstruction” is the critical rational examination of assumptions previously accepted on faith alone. Note how such an account is similar to the following:

“Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last. But the task looked an enormous one, and I began to wait until I should reach a mature enough age to ensure that no subsequent time of life would be more suitable for tackling such inquiries. This led me to put the project off for so long that I would now be to blame if by pondering over it any further I wasted the time still left for carrying it out. So today I have expressly rid my mind of all worries and arranged for myself a clear stretch of free time. I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions.”[8]

This process described above seems like a perfect example of what Ex-evangelicals have labeled “deconstruction”. However, this proves to be a problem, since the passage in question comes from the opening of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, a paradigmatic Enlightenment text against which postmodern “deconstruction” was designed to stand as an alternative. In short, Ex-evangelicals have not only fundamentally misunderstood deconstruction, but have projected a meaning on it that contradicts its ordinary usage.[9] Deconstruction, in the academic sense of the term, is precisely NOT the critical rational evaluation of one’s beliefs. In fact, it was introduced in order to oppose such a process, since it understood this process to constitute a violent hierarchy which privileged the rational over the irrational. Derrida asserts:

“To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment. To overlook this phase of overturning is to forget the conflictual and subordinating structure of opposition.” (Positions, 41).

Or again,

“We will try to determine the law which compels us (by way of example and taking into account a general remodeling of theoretical discourse which has recently been rearticulating the fields of philosophy, science, literature, etc.) to apply the name ‘writing’ to that which critiques, deconstructs, wrenches apart the traditional, hierarchical opposition between writing and speech, between writing and the (idealist, spiritualist, phonocentrist: first and foremost logocentric) system of all what is customarily opposed to writing; to apply the name ‘work’ and ‘practice’ to that which disorganizes the philosophical opposition praxis/ theoria and can no longer be sublated according to the process of Hegelian negativity; to apply the name ‘unconscious’ to that which can never have been symmetrical been the symmetrical negative or potential reservoir of ‘consciousness’; to apply the name ‘matter’ to that which lies outside all classical oppositions and which, provided one takes into account certain theoretical achievements and a certain philosophical deconstruction belonging to a not so distant time, should no longer be able to assume any reassuring form: neither that of a referent (at least if conceived as a real thing or cause, anterior and exterior of the system of general textuality), nor that of presence in any of its modes (meaning, essence, existence–whether objective or subjective; form, i.e. appearance, content, substance, etc.; sensible presence or intelligible presence), nor that of a fundamental or totalizing principle, nor even of a last instance: in short, the classical system’s ‘outside’ can no longer take the form of the sort of extra-text which would arrest the concatenation of writing (i.e. that movement which situates every signified as a differential trace) and for which I had proposed the concept of ‘transcendental signified’” (Dissemination, trans. Johnson, 4-5).

So, if the process of questioning your faith involves the unironic use of the concepts of theory or practice, conscious or unconscious, matter or form, referent, real thing, cause, anteriority, exteriority, presence, meaning, essence, existence, objective, subjective, appearance, content, substance, sensible presence, intelligible presence, totalizing principle, or anything outside of the text, you are not doing deconstruction, but engaging in the very kind of hierarchical logocentric project to which deconstruction is meant stand as an alternative.

Note what an extreme position deconstruction actually is. If you, for example, were to begin to question some of the dogmas of Evangelicalism by asking whether Jesus was the second person of the trinity, whether  women were really supposed to be subordinate to men, whether gay people were really innately sinful, or whether one’s pastor was really interpreting a bible passage correctly, you would be engaged in an activity proscribed by deconstruction, since you would be allegedly engaging in perpetuating a violent hierarchy. For, you would be asking about particular referents beyond the text, e.g. Jesus, women, gay people, the meaning of a particular bible passage, and thus subordinating one thing to another (e.g. the words one uses to an external reality), and assuming that the truth of various assertions is grounded in facts about reality (e.g. that women and gay people are human beings with equal rational and moral standing to other kinds of humans). This is why Derrida takes great pains to articulate his position through cute uses of quotation marks, plays on words, attention to margins, etc. If he were to straightforwardly articulate his position and argue against his rivals, rather than making ironic observations  and cracking jokes, he would fall back into logocentrism. Thus, the kind of questioning at play in so called “religious deconstruction” is more aptly described by traditional or enlightenment philosophy than by the term “deconstruction”. (And yes, I realize I’m making an argument, and, thus, from the Derridean perspective, engaging in an act of violence. I don’t care. I not only do I not believe that reason is violent, but I also believe that reason is one of our greatest bulwarks against violence. Rather, I think that the irrational upending of values advocated by deconstruction is itself a form of violence. If one of us is right and the other is wrong, I win.)

3. Why the Misunderstanding is Problematic

Some advocates of religious deconstruction recognize this problem but continue to use the term anyway, claiming that it is a helpful label for people even if its meaning is antithetical to the academic use of the term. I think this response is inadequate for several reasons. First, as many Ex-Evangelicals note, the Evangelical community has a bad habit of living in a world of alternative facts, using the same terms as the secular world, but imbuing them with their own idiosyncratic meaning so that “persecution” becomes <other people having equal rights> and “love” becomes <torturing to death>.[10] So, if we are looking to free ourselves from these kinds of bad habits and want to engage with the broader world on its own terms, it is important for to begin to understand and to apply technical terms correctly, rather than simply appropriating them and twisting them for our own use because they sound cool and might make us look smart. We’ve done this enough as Evangelicals. It is time to break the habit.

Second, as noted previously, the definition of deconstruction proposed by Ex-Evangelicals proves to be equivalent to Cartesian foundationalism. In general, there is nothing wrong with foundationalism, but I suspect it might not be the best framework for those evaluating the claims of Christianity, since Descartes’ metaphor was itself shaped by the words of Jesus:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matt 7:24-27 ESV).

Here again we are working with the idea of building our life upon a foundation. Only now we are given only two options, either building upon the rock (by obeying the commands of Jesus as one’s Lord and master) or building on sand (by performing any other action)  which inevitably leads to catastrophe. For those who are seeking freedom from the Galilean’s heavy yoke, I don’t believe that it is helpful to employ this subconscious framework, a framework often etched in people’s minds from earliest childhood.[11]

This brings us to our third and final point, the language of “deconstruction” conceals other possible frameworks for understanding crises of faith that might be more beneficial. When questioning their beliefs, people need to know that multiple frameworks and approaches are available, and that they are free to choose among them. I’ll spell out a few of these options in the next section.

4. Additional Models of Theological Crisis

Here are a few alternative approaches to “religious deconstruction”.

Flexibility

It is possible to view theological crisis as an opportunity to gain cognitive flexibility. For one’s whole life, one has been told that certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are off limits and extremely dangerous. As a result, one comes to have a very rigid approach to the world. By questioning this kind of all or nothing approach to life, one can think of oneself as stretching oneself to become more limber, so as to act with more agility in the world. We can see this kind of approach in Taoism. Here, for example, are some passages from the Tao Te Ching:

“Trying to govern the world with force/ I see this not succeeding/ the world is a spiritual thing/ it can’t be forced/ to force it is to harm it/ to control it is to lose it/ sometimes things lead/ sometimes they follow/ sometimes they blow hot/ sometimes they blow cold/ sometimes they expand/ sometimes they collapse/ sages therefore avoid extremes/ avoid extravagance/ avoid excess.” (29 trans. Red Pine).

“He who possesses virtue in abundance/ resembles a newborn child/ wasps don’t sting him/ beasts don’t claw him/ birds of prey don’t carry him off/ his bones are weak and his tendons soft/ yet his grip is firm/ he hasn’t known the union of sexes/ yet his penis is stiff/ so full of essence is he/ he cries all day/ yet never gets hoarse/ his breath is so perfectly balanced/ knowing how to be balanced we endure/ knowing how to endure we become wise/ while those who lengthen their life tempt luck/ and those who force their breath become strong/ but once things mature they become old/ this isn’t the Way/ what isn’t the Way ends early.” (55).

“When people are born/ they are soft and weak/ when they perish/ they are hard and stiff/ when plants shoot forth/ they are supple and tender/ when they die/ they are withered and dry/ thus is it said/ the hard and stiff are followers of death/ the soft and weak are followers of life/ when an army becomes stiff it suffers defeat/ when a plant becomes stiff it snaps/ the hard and stiff dwell below/ the soft and weak dwell above.” (76).

Coming Out of the Cave

Plato’s allegory of the cave asks us to imagine a community raised in a cave and chained to a wall. They never interact with the outside world, but see only shadows projected on the cave walls. Taking the shadows for reality, they develop an entire worldview and culture upon them. But, imagine that one day, one of the cave dwellers is unchained and guided outside to behold the world above ground. He would be overwhelmed and the process would be disorienting. “He’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before” (Rep. VI trans. Cooper). But, after acclimating himself to the outside world, he would come to see it truly, and even be able to turn his gaze to the heavens to contemplate the sun and other stars. Though the process is painful and may entail the loss of one’s previous community who now think one crazy, it is nonetheless rewarding because one can come to see the true nature of reality and look upon the beauty of the outside world.

Enlightenment (Aufklarung)

Kant defines enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” He claims that a person is immature to the extent that he cannot use his own understanding without the guidance of another, and that the immaturity in question is self-incurred, because the person possesses the faculty of understanding, but is simply too cowardly to use it. He thus articulates the rallying cry of the enlightenment as “sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding.” On this model, a crisis of faith could be understood as the wrestling with and eventual overcoming of the fear to think for oneself. Kant’s analysis of the situation continues as follows, and can easily be applied to the Evangelical world.

“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me. The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous. Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided. Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls. But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.” (Kant, What is Enlightenment, trans. Reiss, 54.)

Sublation (Aufheben)

According Hegel, thinking progresses in a series of movements. It begins with the understanding (Verstand) which grasps its objects through abstractions. (EL ❡ 79). According to Hegel, “thinking as understanding stops short at the fixed determinacy and its distinctness vis-a-vis other determinacies; such a restricted abstraction counts for the understanding as one that subsists on its own account, and [simply] is.” (EL ❡ 80, trans. Geraets, Suchting, and Harris). One here takes the concepts one has been given as simple facts about reality. The Bible is inerrant, Jesus is God, God is good, those who refuse to submit to God are bad, etc. In the second movement, one ascends to reason (Vernunft) and begins to systematically connect the various “facts” one has been given, but in a negative way. Hegel calls this the dialectical phase. Here we start to see the contradictions that emerge from the simple determinacies of the understanding. One might begin to ask, is it coherent to believe that a man is God? Or, more problematically, are the actions of the God of the Bible good according to any reasonable sense of goodness? If we were to give up the assumption that anything Jesus does is by definition good, in what ways does his conduct, as presented in the Bible, differ from any other abusive cult leader? Why is it that those who do not submit to Jesus’ rule don’t seem bad, and, in fact, seem to live nobler lives than those who do submit to him as their Lord? In this dialectical phase, each of the original determinacies becomes their opposite. “The dialectical moment is the self-sublation of these finite determinations on their own part” (EL ❡ 81). The inerrant Bible becomes a book of lies designed to fool the credulous, the divine Jesus becomes a crude charlatan, God becomes an evil tyrant, and all who reject him become paragons of virtue. Many stop here, falling back into a new set of determinacies. But others progress to the third and final moment, what Hegel calls the positively rational moment. “The speculative or positively rational apprehends the unity of the determinations in their opposition, the affirmative that is contained in their dissolution and in their transition.” (EL ❡ 81). At this stage one ascends to a higher system that is capable of unifying both sets of determinacies.[12] For example, one can view the Bible neither as an inerrant text nor as a mere tool of exploitation, but as a set of myths that have been used to ignoble ends at certain times, but nonetheless, constituted an attempt to grasp the Absolute in their own limited way.

Phenomenology and ἐποχή

Another approach one might take to a faith crisis is to embrace  epoché. Epoché was a virtue embraced by ancient skeptics which consisted in a suspension of judgment and later used by Husserl to describe what he called the phenomenological reduction. In Phenomenology, one begins in the same perplexed position as Descaretes, but instead of positively doubting everything that can be doubted, one simply brackets the question of their existence,  putting them out of play, and instead examines how things appear to one. By focusing on experience, one is allowed to go “to the things themselves”, and this can ground a critical evaluation of tradition, a  process that Heidegger calls Destruktion. Heidegger, in Being and Time, sought to analyze Dasein, that being for whom its Being is an issue, and he noted that  one way in which Dasein was prevented from seeing its own nature was through tradition  (H 21). According to Heidegger:

“When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something which we need not ever understand. Dasein has had its historicality so thoroughly uprooted by tradition that it confines its interest to the multiformity of possible types, directions, and standpoints of philosophical activity in the most exotic and alien of cultures; and by this very interest it seeks to veil the fact that it has no ground of its own to stand on. Consequently, despite all its historical interests and all its zeal for an Interpretation which is philologically ‘objective’ [ “sachliche” ], Dasein no longer understands the most elementary conditions which would alone enable it to go back to the past in a positive manner and make it productively its own” (Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie, H 21).

Phenomenology allows one to get past the rigid concretions of tradition and go back to the primordial source of our experience.[13]

Psychological Growth

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche sketches a picture of personal growth as a series of three metamorphoses of spirit (Verwandlungen des Geistes).  We begin as a camel, a beast of burden. It yearns to bear what is most difficult and begs to be loaded up. “What is most difficult, O heroes, asks the spirit that would bear much, that I may take it upon myself and exult in my strength? Is it not humbling oneself to wound one’s haughtiness? Letting one’s folly shine to mock one’s wisdom?” (trans. Kaufmann).  After being loaded with the most difficult burdens, it races off into the desert. There the next transformation occurs. The camel becomes a lion. “In the loneliest desert, however, the second metamorphosis occurs: here the spirit becomes a lion who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert. Here he seeks out his last master: he wants to fight him and his last god”.  This last god is signified by the “thou shalt” to which the lion revolts with an “I will”, uttering  “a sacred ‘No’.” Finally, the lion transforms into child capable of uttering a sacred yes and creating new values. “What can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation…a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.”

Conclusion

The options sketched above are only a few of the manifold strategies available for understanding theological crisis. For example, whereas the ones I have listed are open to the possibility of leaving one’s faith tradition, there are others that operate on the presupposition that one will remain within it (though in a new way). One might, for instance, think of oneself as undergoing a mystical dark night of the soul or as embarking on a journey of faith seeking understanding as the medieval theologians did. My hope is that, after reading this essay, you will realize that, if you are undergoing a crisis of faith, “religious deconstruction” is not your only (or even a desirable) option, and that you have a great range of choices available to help you understand your experience.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in this post is The Conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio. It is in the public domain and can be found here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo_Merisi_da_Caravaggio_-The_Conversion_of_St._Paul-_WGA04135.jpg]


[1] Positions, trans. Bass, 41.

[2] Positions, 42.

[3] Lawlor, for example, in his entry on Derrida in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that “one can see them better in his 1993 Specters of Marx, where Derrida insisted that a deconstructed (or criticized) Marxist thought is still relevant to today’s world despite globalization and that a deconstructed Marxism consists in a new messianism, a messianism of a ‘democracy to come’.”

[4] Old habits die hard?

[5] https://www.premierchristianity.com/home/deconstructing-faith-meet-the-evangelicals-who-are-questioning-everything/267.article

[6] John Williamson, cited in previous article. It is also worth questioning the fittingness of the analogy to a ship. How can we ever step outside of our mind to examine it before going out on a journey? So long as we are alive, our ships have already set sail.

[7] https://www.relevantmagazine.com/magazine/how-to-deconstruct-your-faith-without-losing-it/

[8] Descartes, Meditations, trans. Cottingham.

[9] Perhaps this is why, although advocates of religious “deconstruction” claim that academics share their definition, they never cite any.

[10] For an amusing example, see https://youtu.be/URr0O9aHW38

[11] https://youtu.be/Eu5bBDRpzPM

[12] It is interesting to observe that Derrida’s concept of deconstruction was designed to block just this step. “If there were a definition of différance, it would be precisely the limit, the interruption, the destruction of the Hegelian relève [Aufhebung/ sublation] wherever it operates. What is at stake here is enormous.” (Positions 40-41). This is why Derrida is so anxious to assert that “deconstruction” is not a concept, for if it were, it would be caught up in the Hegelian ascent to the Absolute. We can thus think of deconstruction as a castrated Hegelianism. It remains forever at the level of the dialectic. The realm in which there “is complete despair about everything that understanding holds to be firm.”(EL ❡ 81 Addition 2).

[13] We can again think of Derrida’s deconstruction as derivative. He appears to have taken the Heideggerian concept of Destruktion and cut off its essential connection to an originary source. We can thus think of deconstruction as a form of aborted Phenomenology.

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