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Deconstructionism and the progressive, post-conservative Evangelical Left

International Evangelical Church, Jerusalem
International Evangelical Church, Jerusalem
DMY (Wikimedia Commons)

Given its high level of sophistication, deconstructionism must have been a product of an extraordinary genius. Here is a literary critical apparatus that has proved itself to be indefinable. And unlike all the other systems of thought available in the marketplace of ideas, it also appears to have been carefully crafted by such an exemplary mind so as to make it indeconstructible.

Lest it be judged as arrogant, stubborn and rebellious, consider deconstructionism’s mission statement: to liberate the “oppressed” from the despotic monsters of classical and modern logocentric (word-centered) belief systems. It has its own rule of engagement, too: a communal language game that gives way to a superfluity of meanings in human discourses where the “oppressed” is, at long last, free to participate and air his opinion.

Of course, this so-called indefinability is not peculiar to deconstructionism but is characteristic of the entire postmodern milieu (though it has been reported that the late Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, did not wish to be identified with it). It is its own built-in defense mechanism contra traditional and modern critical devices. As Kevin Vanhoozer puts it,

Those who attempt to define or to analyze the concept of postmodernity do so at their own peril. In the first place, postmoderns reject the notion that any description or definition is 'neutral.' Definitions may appear to bask in the glow of impartiality, but they invariably exclude something and hence are complicit, wittingly or not, in politics. A definition of postmodernity is as likely to say more about the person offering the definition than it is of 'the postmodern.'Second, postmoderns resist closed, tightly bounded 'totalizing' accounts of such things as the 'essence'of the postmodern. And third, according to David Tracy 'there is no such phenomenon as postmodernity.' There are only postmodernities. Given these three points, the task of writing an introduction may seem to be well nigh impossible: 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here!'

Deconstructionism and the great evangelical divide

Now that makes the game really difficult to play. But not a few evangelical Christian philosophers and theologians decided to go with it anyway. Since then they have divided themselves, interestingly, into two major camps: the so-called progressive, anti-foundationalist, post-conservative evangelicals (known otherwise as the emergent, evangelical left), and the conservative, confessing evangelicals (oftentimes caricatured as the already antiquated, obsolete traditionalist and obscurantist evangelicals).

The evangelical left, on the one hand, welcomes deconstructionism with open arms, as if uncritically, to help them better articulate their faith or, at the very least, refine (by which term they almost always mean “redefine”) their articulation of it. On the other hand, most, if not all, conservative evangelicals look at deconstructionism as devilish, an archenemy of the faith, though not necessarily taking a wholesale rejection of it.

Located somewhere in the middle of this great evangelical divide are the undecided moderates. Some of them are willing to sell their faith at so cheap a price of academic respectability, provided they find deconstructionism to be at the winning side. The others are simply there to investigate what this is all about and, if possible, learn from it, so they can better discern the current operations of the spirit of the age and address them accordingly on theological and ministerial grounds.

Deconstructionism and the evangelical left

Not unlike the death-of-God theologians who look at deconstructionism as providing a valuable resource to further advance their project to announce the end of theology, those who identify themselves with the evangelical left believe that they can exploit it to serve their ends. These ends, however, don’t square with the major tenets of the Christian faith, which, conservative evangelicals proclaim, were recovered by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century through their Christocentric reading of Holy Scripture, the supreme authority of matters pertaining to faith and life.

Therein lie the evangelical left’s ends. For such a reading of Scripture that results into a formulation of theological statements in propositional form, they complain, is misleading. Not only so, it actually amounts to a misreading of the biblical text. For their deconstructionist mentors have made them believe that such a reading is helplessly logocentric and for that matter misses a lot of the not-so-obvious stuffs hidden beneath the text – some of which are unknown to the author himself while some are colored by the author’s dark intentions.

Besides, the author’s intended meaning of a given text, according to the deconstructionists, does not really arrive at the reader’s mind. Indeed, it cannot, considering the temporal-ontological-epistemological gap that exists between the author and the reader. In the words of Graham Ward,

Fundamentally, this was the analysis of meaning that ‘deconstruction’ furnished: that a communicated message, like a letter, never simply arrived at the address to which it was posted. The world was a fable spun by words with an endless potential for being misread, misunderstood, and misinterpreted …

But why is this? Because according to the late Wittgensteinian perspective, to which both the deconstructionists and most, if not all, post-conservative evangelicals subscribe, a certain individual’s word could be easily mistaken to refer to something other than what he actually has in mind. This, post-conservative evangelicals would like us to believe, applies to Scripture. Some of them have therefore suggested that one’s reading of Scripture should go beyond syntax and semantics and must proceed all the way through semiotics, if one is to do justice to a certain biblical author’s words (though the deconstructionists really don’t pay due regard in the first place to authorial intent).

Nancey Murphy also points out that a propositionalist reading of Scripture, either by the Protestant reformers of the late Medieval world or their conservative evangelical and Reformed forebears of the modern age, are actually at loss for failing to recognize that words are not necessarily referential. Not only so, such a kind of reading also fails to preserve meaning through the process of translating a propositional statement from one language to another. Meanings, Murphy and many of her fellows in the evangelical left camp believe, are locked into a certain socio-cultural linguistic “situatedness.”

This seems to be not far from what Thomas J. J. Altizer (a death-of-God theologian) said sometime in the mid-1960s:

the collapse of any meaning or reality lying beyond the newly discovered radical immanence of modern man, an immanence dissolving even the memory of the shadow of transcendence.

Such an approach by the evangelical left to the reading of the biblical text confirms what the former-atheist-turned-Christian-theologian Thomas Oden sees in deconstructionism:

… the dogged application of a hermeneutic of suspicion to any given text, where one finds oneself always over against the text, always asking the skeptical question about the text, asking what self-deception or bad faith might be unconsciously motivating a particular conceptuality.

Though pure deconstructionism is no longer the height of fashion, David Lehman warns that its “impulse continues in alloyed form, and it is as ubiquitous as ever. The language, the categories and the war is peace logic of deconstruction keeps cropping up.”

Evangelicals who wish to remain faithful to the major tenets of the Christian faith must find it their duty to make themselves constantly on guard, not to be unmindful at any moment of its schemes and bottomest convictions.

References:

  • Lehman, David. Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. New York: Poseidon, 1991.
  • Murphy, Nancey. Anglo-American Postmodernity. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997.
  • Oden, Thomas. Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity and Russia. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
  • Smith, R. Scott. “Language, Theological Knowledge and the Postmodern Paradigm” in Millard Erickson, et. al. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004, 109-133.
  • Ward, Graham. “Deconstructive Theology” in Kevin Vanhoozer, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 76-91.

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