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Deconstructionism, the end of theology and the death of God

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To announce the end of theology. This was the aim of a group of American theologians “schooled in philosophy of religion (particularly the death-of-God thinking from Hegel and Nietzsche and the linguistic turn taken by Wittgenstein and Heidegger)” who in 1982 encountered the works of Jacques Derrida. As Graham Ward recounts, these theologians saw in Derrida’s deconstructionism the potential for advancing this project.

Ward further notes that a series of books written and/or edited by Thomas J. J. Altizer, Mark C. Taylor, Robert Scharlemann, Charles Winquist, Max Meyer and Carl Raschke were then disseminated to the reading public. These American theologians of the Nietzschean death-of-God gospel, however, were actually latecomers to the Derridian discussion table as Derrida’s works had already been taking the American soil by storm since the mid-1970s.

In fact, Derrida’s career in the United States began as early as the mid-1960s. His first discourse to be heard by an American audience was delivered in 1966 at a conference organized by Johns Hopkins University. This, as Ronald Micherer notes, marked the beginning of the literary deconstruction movement in the United States.

Derrida's "language as transcendence"

What most particularly attracted this group of American death-of-God theologians (especially Raschke) to Derrida were “his critiques of logocentrism and presence, his account of differance,” which, according to Ward “provide the apparatus criticus ‘for making the appropriate gestures toward conceiving language as transcendence, which is at once an epochal break with the metaphysics of certainty.’”

It was in Derrida’s “language as transcendence” that these theologians found a strong support system for their anti-metaphysical sensibilities. This “language as transcendence,” so they thought, may be defined simply by the Derridian slogan “there is nothing outside the text,” which, incidentally, at least one in their own ranks appeared to have misinterpreted, as Derrida himself pointed out later. Regardless, what was clear at this point, and more important to them, was the latest “linguistic turn” that Derrida’s deconstructionism had to offer.

The death-of-God project

Riding through the currents created by liberal theologians’ preoccupation with metaphor, myth and symbol, the death-of-God proponents (who, by the way, were also liberals; indeed, of the highest order) “developed this linguistic and narratological concern into an emphasis upon the inability of theological discourse to speak constatively about dogmatic, transcendental certainties.” As Ward continues,

Rejecting transcendentalism, accepting the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, affirming a certain reading of Hegel that, in Jesus Christ, God as transcendent Being poured himself into the immanent created orders without remainder, and insisting then that Wittgenstein was right that one could only speak of things in this world, they emphasized the need to expunge theological discourse of metaphysical claims.

This death-of-God project was, of course, geared towards not only that of expunging the metaphysical from theology but also that of ultimately eliminating theology itself (God Himself included, as should be expected) from academia. For what would it make of theology devoid of metaphysics except that of a self-contradiction, an oxymoron? Should they succeed, it would strip theology of its intellectual integrity and of its right to sit at the discussion table of academia.

A quiet revolution

Back in the mid-1960s, Princeton Theological Seminary president James McCord boldly announced the sudden “death of God” (a la Friedrich Nietzsche at the close of the 19th century) that would signal a “whole new era in theology” (cf. “Toward a Hidden God: Is God Dead?” Time, April 8, 1966, pp. 82ff), a major victory indeed for the death-of-God movement. As noted above, Derrida was just then starting his career in North America while also probably working with the critics of positivism in literary studies in France.

Five years later, while the death-of-God theologians were still enjoying their victory, Time magazine published an article titled “Rebel Cry: Jesus Is Coming” (July 21, 1971, pp. 56ff). The said article was an account of the then emerging Jesus Revolution, which appeared to be changing the horizon of the existentialist-infested culture of the day. To many of them, however, this phenomenon didn’t have the nerve to pose as a threat to their death-of-God project. So they readily dismissed it as just a fad, only a pop culture thing.

But they were caught by surprise 9 years thereafter, this time, with another Time magazine article announcing that “God is making a comeback” ("Modernizing the Case for God," Time, April 7, 1980, pp. 65ff). More surprising to them was the fact, that this was happening “not among theologians or ordinary believers … but in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse.”

Indeed, it was a “quiet revolution in thought and arguments that hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago [i.e., referring the 1960s].” Worth mentioning at this point are the names of Christian philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff who, among others, were the ones mainly responsible for this “quiet revolution” to take its course in the context of an emerging postmodern era.

Deconstructionism and the death-of-God theologians

The death-of-God theologians took this as a challenge, so that since the 1980s they have combined their forces together to pursue their project to announce the end of theology. It was a time for reinforcement, and Derrida was on their side. His deconstructionism was so promising, destructive enough to tear theology apart and send God to His grave forever, never to resurrect again.

But deconstructionism itself posed a major problem to these theologians. For as Michener clarifies, “Deconstruction is not simply a matter of providing a negative critique of any philosopher’s or theologian’s statements and denying their objective truth content.” Though it attempts to unsettle traditional metaphysics, “deconstructionism should not be construed as a negative theology as such.”

What deconstructionism actually seeks to dismantle is the entire Western philosophical and scientific system that claims to provide unbiased and purely foundational universal methods of intellectual inquiry. If this is true, it can be argued that deconstructionism, at least in this sense, actually supports theology of the classical evangelical persuasion in its fight against philosophical naturalism and higher biblical criticism.

Moreover, applied to a serious study of Holy Scripture with extra care and an unyielding commitment to its supreme authority, deconstructionism has the capacity to uncover foreign philosophical ideas and methodologies imposed by exegetes, theologians and ecclesiastical authorities to the reading of the biblical text.

“From the perspective of faith,” Derrida himself maintains, “deconstruction can at least be a very useful technique when Aristotelianism or Thomism are to be criticized or, even from an institutional perspective, when what needs to be criticized is a whole theological institution which supposedly has covered over, dissimulated an authentic Christian message.”

Progressive, post-foundationalist, post-conservative evangelicals

Whatever it is that Derrida (himself an atheist) has in mind in saying this, not a few voices in contemporary Christianity suggest that deconstructionism may therefore be employed to provide a valuable support to biblical hermeneutics and to help refine (some of them would even go further to use the term “redefine”) Christian theology. For if God can make use of evil for good (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28), they are convinced that Christians can also make use of deconstructionism to serve His end, notwithstanding the high probability that it may not be philosophically, morally and spiritually neutral in the first place.

It must be noted that this line of argument was applied by not a few evangelicals to liberalism’s higher critical method of biblical scholarship not too long ago at the risk of their faith’s integrity. Some, if not all, of them have actually opted to call themselves progressive (this label, mind you, is synonymous to the term liberal), post-foundationalist, post-conservative evangelicals, a vast majority of whom are now bearing the marks, one way or the other, of the liberals of yesteryears who sold their faith to the Enlightenment project in modernity at so cheap a price.

References:

  • Baker, Deane-Peter. Alvin Plantinga. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Michener, Ronald T. Engaging Deconstructive Theology. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007.
  • Ward, Graham. “Deconstructive Theology” in Kevin Vanhoozer, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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