Deconstruction and the Nature of God’s Grace

Caroline Suresh — The Dartmouth Apologia

When the late Jacques Derrida penned the now-infamous term “deconstruction” in 1967, he introduced into Western civilization a glaring skepticism of the truths it held to be self-evident: the autonomy of the spoken word (what he calls “logocentrism”), God, and other concepts especially important in Western philosophies. His works mainly focus on revealing the inherent disunity he claims is pre-existent in all purportedly unified structures or systems.1

As a result, the term “deconstruction” has been used to critique all “systems,” such as government (i.e. democracy, monarchy, etc.), education (private vs. public), and religion (Christianity, Buddhism, etc.).

This last critique, the critique of religion, has led to a rather divisive approach in combining postmodernist thought with Christianity. When theorizing about the interpretation of the Bible, some have begun to consider an entirely subjective, individualistic approach, while others believe Biblical interpretation is wholly objective.2 Further, many academics have employed the term “deconstruction” to dismiss Christianity as merely a system of religion established by tradition and hence not actually based on eternal truth. This divisive conclusion, however, wherein “the system of tradition” is pitted against “true religion,” rests on a number of misunderstandings of “deconstruction” and its various aims. The purpose of this article is to reveal some of these misconceptions and, consequently, to show that postmodernist thought and Christianity are not necessarily antithetical to each other. Even further, deconstruction, in the Derridean sense, may actually have much to offer Christianity.

In considering the purported conflict between deconstruction and Christianity, it makes sense to ask the question, “What is deconstruction?” Unfortunately, no simple answer exists because everything about deconstruction shies away from definitions, from statements of fact that establish themselves as undeniable truths. Therefore, first and foremost, deconstruction is not a philosophy but a project, a way of working within a given system in order to find its weaknesses. Essentially, deconstruction calls for close analysis by seeking not only to understand a given system but also to question the system. As Derrida himself says, “Deconstruction is not a method or some tool that you apply to something from the outside. Deconstruction is something which happens and which happens inside.”3 In other words, one cannot simply “deconstruct” a system or mode of thought without first understanding how that system works.

When Derrida first wrote of deconstruction in Of Grammatology, he was working within the context of a system he calls “logocentrism,” a method of thought which elevates the spoken word over the written word.4 In order to make his point, Derrida cites how God, in Genesis 1, spoke the world into existence. He then explains how this action profoundly and unconsciously impacted Western philosophy, tracing a pattern of “logocentrism” in the works of Plato, Heidegger, and especially Levi-Strauss, Saussure, and Rousseau. As Derrida writes, “The system of ‘hearing (understanding) – oneself speak’ through the phonic substance – which presents itself as the nonexterior, nonmundane, therefore nonempirical or noncontingent signifier – has necessarily dominated the history of the world during an entire epoch, and has even produced the idea of the world.”5 Throughout the rest of the text, Derrida seeks to show that speech has enjoyed an unjustified place of power over writing. As he highlights, speech “presents itself” as more closely bridging the gap between intended meaning and interpretation.

Instead of getting bogged down with technicalities about Derrida’s argument, it is more helpful in this instance to see why Derrida feels the need to deconstruct logocentrism. First, he recognizes a pattern within Western philosophy that he considers dubious. In this case, the questionable claim is an almost imperceptible focus on speech over writing, but it could have been any other modus operandi that has entrenched itself as fact: the American government’s faith in the supremacy of democracy, the way one uses common items such as a fork,6 etc. The important point is that there is a common assumption shared by a group of people that the current mode of operating is The Way Things Are, not merely the way things have become due to certain decisions made over time or based on one’s own interpretation.

In other words, Derrida’s critique of the alleged objective, indisputable truth of logocentrism is twofold: he argues firstly that centuries of tradition have given logocentrism an aura of truth and secondly that subjective human interpretation has inappropriately enforced itself as undeniable fact. Yet, even though he focuses specifically on logocentrism, he makes very clear in his introduction that his criticisms extend to all systems popularly regarded as containing objective truth claims, including belief systems such as Christianity. The argument is this:

  1. Christianity makes certain absolute truth claims about the person of Christ as the Son of God.
  2. Derrida’s critique shows that any system claiming objective truth is a sham. All systems of allegedly “objective” truth can be deconstructed.
  3. Therefore, either (a) Derrida’s critique is accurate and Christianity is a sham (or at least in need of significant revision) or (b) Derrida’s critique is erroneous and Christianity can still make legitimate claims to certain absolute truths.

Underlying this argument, however, is the assumption that objectivity and subjectivity cannot coexist within the concept of truth. In Christianity, however, one finds an unexpected marriage between objectivity and subjectivity that defines how man can know God. In order to show this, we must examine the two arguments Derrida gives against objective truth and explore them in further detail.

First, Derrida’s concern that traditions obscure truth by masking themselves as objective reality echoes a common warning present throughout the Bible against the reduction of the Judeo-Christian faith to a mere system of established structures and traditions. For example, in Jeremiah 7, God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah to the country of Judah in order to inform the people that “truth has perished” because their burnt offerings and sacrifices have no credit. Even though the men of Judah are sacrificing to God and exalting with their lips the “temple of the Lord,” their hearts and lives do not align with their religious actions. Jeremiah 7:24 says, “Instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts.”7 Although the men were following and enacting the established traditions and rituals, these lacked substance because the men did not desire to know God. One can see this again in Isaiah: “‘The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals…Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me.’”8 In this instance, the Israelites committed the same mistake as the men of Judah; they believed that their material offerings would be sufficient to please God without remembering the reason why they were making sacrifices – to realize the extent of their sin and receive forgiveness in order that they could know God.

Derrida’s deconstruction warns against this tendency of tradition to entrench itself as fact. Again, although Derrida specifically grapples with logocentrism, he extends his ideas to structures at large. It is important to keep this wider scope in mind when considering his argument about logocentrism, for the same argument underlies his broader critique of all structures. Without completely dismissing traditions as arbitrary, he states that these pre-established ways of thinking or acting do not always have the meanings or effects people intend them to have. For instance, Derrida shows that logocentric assumptions caused Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), commonly known as the father of modern linguistics, to believe that speech allows one to better convey meaning than writing. As he says, people often consider speech as more intimate, more immediate, and, therefore, more real and “true.” Yet, Derrida points out that misconceptions occur in conversations all the time and that writing contains a level of permanence that speech does not. This deconstruction recalls the dissolution of the religious practices of the people of Judah, who also operated under the belief that traditions and rituals would be sufficient in themselves to ensure a close relationship with God. In other words, they fixated on the traditions instead of recognizing that the acts by themselves were conventions, only gaining meaning when substantiated with a desire to know God. The Bible attests to this by showing that their material sacrifices did not have the effect intended (i.e., to bring the men closer to God) but actually separated them even further from Him by kindling God’s wrath.

Second, Derrida believed that both communal and personal interpretations play extraordinarily important roles in determining one’s understanding of the world. His most famous phrase in Of Grammatology, “There is nothing outside the text,”9 seeks to reiterate the important nature of interpretation by claiming that all of experience is subject to interpretation. As James K.A. Smith, the author of a Christian response to postmodernist deconstructionism entitled Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, points out: “[M]any Christians become nervous and assume that the claim that ‘everything is interpretation’ is antithetical to Christian faith. If everything is interpretation, then even the gospel is only an interpretation and not objectively true.”10 Yet, what Derrida and Smith both aim to show is that believing everything is interpretation does not necessarily require one to deny the existence of truth. As Derrida said in an interview at Villanova University, “What is called ‘deconstruction’ […] has never, never opposed institutions as such, philosophy as such, discipline as such.”11 In other words, the aim of deconstruction is not to completely annihilate the structures or systems it calls into question.

Nevertheless, even if deconstruction is not a wholly negative project, Christians still often hesitate to accept the subjectivity advocated by postmodernism, for it seems to undermine the gospel’s claim to be the ultimate truth. More specifically, the postmodernist claim that everything is an interpretation is seen as antagonistic to the universal truths claims of the gospel. However, what Smith elucidates in his book is that the Christian understanding of the life and death of Jesus Christ as the Son of God is an interpretation. He points out the crucifixion account in Matthew 27 and states that, even though many people had come to see Jesus die, only some of these people (this chapter specifically mentions the Roman centurion and those with him) read the events that occurred as illustrating Jesus’s identity as the Son of God.12 The others, despite having witnessed the same sights, saw the events of that day – Jesus’ death upon a cross, the wailing women, the broken curtain, and the earthquake – as isolated events, events not adding up to the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah.13 In other words, it was possible for two different people to stand in front of Christ on the same day, watch the same events unfold, and come to two different conclusions about who Christ is.

Even further, however, this realization that Jesus Christ cannot be understood as the Son of God through mere objective facts is not only reconcilable with Christian doctrine but actually reinforces the Christian belief that one is saved by God’s grace. In Ephesians 2:8, Paul writes in a letter to the Church in Ephesus, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourself, it is the gift of God.” In other words, Paul informs us that Christians are able to know God only through grace that is manifested in faith in Jesus Christ. This becomes even more profound when taken in light of Paul’s own testimony. In Acts 26, Paul is speaking to King Agrippa about his conversion to Christianity. He first mentions his long history and learning of Judaism; indeed, he “lived as a Pharisee.”14 Paul also mentions his own zeal against the Christians and his ceaseless persecution of them, which is exemplified by his witness and approval of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 8:1, the scene of the first Christian martyrdom. However, Paul says that when he heard the voice of Jesus he was “not disobedient to the vision from heaven” but instead “preached that they should repent and turn to God.”15 From this account, one can see that Paul’s conversion from a life of persecuting Christians to Christianity occurred unexpectedly. Later, Paul writes in a letter to the Corinthians: “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am.”16 In Paul’s case, God’s grace is more evident due to his previous lifestyle, but he makes clear in Ephesians 2:8 that every Christian’s testimony exemplifies the same grace of God. In other words, when a person encounters God’s grace, it changes their beliefs, mindset, and lifestyle: Paul changed from a man persecuting Christians to one preaching Christ crucified. To put it simply, grace alters the way one interprets the world.

Moreover, the continuous presence of this grace demonstrates how a Christian’s worldview is not objective but subjective. When Paul begins his epistles, he always writes some version of the phrase, ‘Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Yet, the people and churches Paul addresses are already Christians who believe in Jesus. What Paul shows, therefore, is that grace does not end at the point of becoming a Christian but indeed is necessary throughout a Christian’s life. In other words, grace plays an important role in bringing one to salvation, but it does not end there. Instead, grace constantly works within a person to elevate his internal nature. As Thomas Aquinas says, grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.17 This, therefore, suggests that the Christian life is one led by grace, a grace that transforms and elevates human nature to the very nature of God; this process occurs not in a single moment but through the course of one’s lifetime. Thus, the Christian should not conflate his understanding of his beliefs, which is subjective, with the objects of these beliefs, which are absolute truths; otherwise, he would pretend to have perfect knowledge of God and His creation. Instead, the Christian trusts that, as she places faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God whom the Bible claims is the Truth,18 God will mold, through His abundant grace, the way she views the world into His very own, giving her the eyes to see and ears to hear what no merely human eye has ever seen nor merely human ear heard. The objective truth has not changed, but her subjective understanding has.

As a result, when Derrida points out that humans have subjective interpretations of the world and that we tend to objectify these, he speaks wisely and in accordance with Christian doctrine. However, we must not extend his ideas beyond what is warranted so as to think they disprove the existence of objective truth. It appears that objective truth can exist insofar as God exists, but there is room to argue that our fallible human understanding keeps us from knowing these truths, particularly in light of Original Sin. Therefore, once one gets past the doubt that inevitably comes with realizing all human understanding is interpretation, it becomes even clearer that God’s grace stands at the core of Christianity. As Smith says, “Acknowledging the interpreted status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology.”19 It makes one realize that the Christian gospel has nothing to do with a person’s own intelligence or righteousness but rather with the knowledge of God which comes through grace.

Deconstruction, in other words, by recognizing the importance of interpretation, coincides with the Christian understanding of God’s saving and transformative grace. This grace works powerfully within each Christian’s life not only to forgive sins but also to conform one’s mindset to God’s. When it comes to finding or knowing truth, postmodernist thought forces us to realize that we do not have this objective, omniscient worldview. Instead of despairing about this lack of knowledge, Christians can instead hold onto this hope: that God’s grace is working daily to shape his subjective worldview into God’s objectively true vision of the world. Consequently, they can rest assured that, despite not having all the answers, they are growing each day in greater knowledge of truth by growing in greater knowledge of God through grace.

 

References

1. Jacques Derrida and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Of grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) p.161-162. Derrida speaks about logocentrism as an unraveling orb. This passage talks about a certain “historical necessity” for logocentrism, but nonetheless questions whether speech actually has greater importance than other modes of communication. Specifically in Chapter 1, Derrida contests this historical emphasis on speech by describing the recent use of the term “writing” in unexpected domains like biological DNA and computer coding.

2. The Christian Church often either exuberantly embraces postmodernism or rejects it fully. Both of these extremist views show a willingness to put too much hope in human philosophies, a willingness which Saint Paul warns against in Colossians 2:8.

3. Jacques Derrida and John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997) p.9.

4. Christopher Johnson, Derrida (New York: Routledge, 1999) p.4.

5. Of grammatology p.8.

6. In Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), James K.A. Smith recalls the instance in The Little Mermaid when Ariel recognizes a fork as a “dinglehopper” and uses it to comb her hair, much to the confusion of the prince.

7. Jer. 7:24 (NIV)

8. Is. 1:11,13 (NIV)

9. Of grammatology 158.

10. Who’s afraid of postmodernism? 42.

11. Deconstruction in a nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida 5.

12. Who’s afraid of postmodernism? 44-47.

13. Matt. 27 (NIV)

14. Acts 27:5 (NIV)

15. Acts 8:19-20 (NIV)

16. 1 Cor. 15:9-10 (NIV)

17. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q.1, a.8, ad. 2.

18. John 14:6 (NIV)

19. Who’s afraid of postmodernism? 51.

 

Caroline Suresh ‘14 is from Cumberland Center, ME. She is a Biology and English double major.

Image by Ladyheart from morguefile.com.

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