How Can Deconstruction Save Me?
In the early stages of my academic life, I gave a dinner speech at Campion College Australia on Jacques Derrida and deconstruction. I did everything wrong.
In the first instance, I gave a stupidly long title, so long that I cannot remember what it is (Pro-tip: Short titles save lives). I also made that long title insanely complex, so it relayed nothing to the audience (Another pro-tip: simple titles save lives). Moral of the story: do not be like early-stages-of-academic-life me.
The substance of the speech, however, was one I do remember and still stand by. It concerns two words that seem to act like triggers to the contemporary Christian reader. The first is “Postmodern”, that dirty word with its associations with relativism, individualism and the jettisoning of tradition for the sake of the new or kitsch. Sometimes, the claim is justifiable, having seen the way some people who claim the label “postmodern” for themselves champion relativism, individualism and the jettisoning of tradition for the sake of the new.
However, the “postmodern” I speak of here is not that. It is the postmodern spoken of in James KA Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard & Foucault to Church.
According to Smith, the “postmodern” here refers to the strands of continental philosophy (though I am focussing on Derrida in this post), which he labels “postmodernism” as opposed to the cultural condition, which he labels “postmodernity” (since the cultural condition has less to do with continental philosophy and more to do with the entrenchment of capitalism).
Furthermore, Smith proposes to use the label “postmodern” to refer to “after modern”. Thus, he uses the term as a counterpoint to deeply (and problematically) modern commitments many Christians might have, sometimes without being aware of it.
Ironically, modern commitments can be held even by Christians who think they are maintaining Christian tradition simply by sticking with traditional lines of thought or practice, intending to freeze them in time and policing the borders outside these thoughts and practices against what they might call “modernists”.
By contrast, Smith’s postmodernism can actually aid the recovery of the ancient treasures of the Church in a contemporary setting, in a way that is not assured either by segments in the Church that claim to be either liberals or conservatives.
Anyway, I digress…back to the dinner speech on Derrida.
The speech sought to use Jacques Derrida’s idea of “deconstruction” as an aid in understanding the power of Scripture and the Liturgy.
Now, if all I did was focus on the word “deconstruction”, which people associate with breaking down established norms of reading, they would be right in feeling worried. However, what often gets ignored in Derrida’s project is the notion of treating what we read as a subject that we engage rather than an object that we control. If a text is treated as an object, as something to be controlled, we read by sucking out the meaning of the text for our own purposes.
However, if a text is treated as a subject, the reader treats the text as if it was another person. As a subject, the text resists our attempts to control and indeed “pushes back” against us. In the process of reading, we are less reading the text than being read by the text. There is a decentering of the reader, where we are no longer the aim and purpose of the task of reading.
This decentering of the reader is important to deconstruction, because Derrida hopes to bring into the center of the reader’s attention a series of voices that the reader may have unconsciously marginalised – migrants, the colonised and women to name a few. These minority voices were rendered mute from conventional frameworks of meaning, and their marginalisation would have endured if we read as if the text was an object.
Bringing minority voices into our centre as we wrestle with the text as subject is an important thing for all readers. It is especially important for Christian ones. In the reading of Scripture, what we read is not a series of letters, nor instructions or proofs for our opinions. This is to treat the text as object. Rather, what we behold as we read Scripture is the Word of God, an encounter with Jesus, who is the definitive subject, and in whose image we are made as subjects. After all, Jesus himself, on the road to Emmaus, explained to the disciples in the Scriptures “all things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Thus, when I read scripture, I read the Word of God, and I should also be read by the Word of God. When I read Scripture, I am called by Jesus to co-abide in Him (John 15:7), and this co-abiding in the Divine Word transforms the one abiding. This is why St. John of the Cross indicated in his Dark Night of the Soul that when he faces Jesus the Divine Lover, he is transformed “one into the other”.
This process of being read by the Word changes me, it deconstructs me. In the process of reading the Scriptures, what gets deconstructed is not the text, but the reader of Scripture. Reading scripture is deconstructive because it brings a marginalised voice to the center, the voice of Jesus Christ that daily life has crowded out.
For if we are really honest, who can really say for certain that it is voice of Christ at the centre of one’s life in the world? Can we be certain that it is not the voice industry, commerce and power posing as Christ? After all, Christ did caution us against false Christs who speak in his name, claiming “I am He” (Luke 21:8).
When Christ is brought back to the center, what gets deconstructed is my false sense of self. If we think we are sure of ourselves, suggests Augustine, that is a sure sign of a false self. As Christ is brought from the margins to my center, my false self gradually falls away – be it the self that thinks I am so sure of myself, or the self that thinks that I am better than others, or the self that thinks that I am right before God.
Useful as Derrida’s idea of deconstruction as decentering is, there is one aspect of Christian deconstruction that goes beyond Derrida’s version. As my false self fade, I am not obliterated by Christ. Paradoxically, deconstruction in the light of Christ brings my true self to light, the self that manifests the imago Dei. As the marginalised voice of Jesus becomes louder in the reading of Scripture, we are reminded of not only what we are, but what we are called to be, nothing less than a part of the Body of the Risen Christ.
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