Deconstruction (sometimes seen and heard erroneously as deconstructionism) seems to be a-buzz on Fuller’s campus lately both in the positive and the negative. I’ve heard professors and students alike refer to it as nonsense, as an absolutely relativistic way of viewing the world (though it isn’t a worldview), as something that is dangerous, an ideology that can damage the authority of Scripture (though it isn’t an ideology), and conversely as a really great thing that does something postmodern (though it’s hard to pin down what that something is.)
Deconstruction, by its very nature, is elusive. Or perhaps illusive. It is, to put it in the simplest terms possible, a method of reading. That’s it. A professor at Northern Colorado said to me once that she thought Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, was quite possibly the most skilled reader in history. Deconstruction is not something someone “does”—the text has already done the work. In other words, the reader who utilizes deconstruction as a method is seeing in the text what is already there—metaphysical assumptions and priorities that tend to be subverted by their “opposites” and other things already found within the text itself. As such, it can easily be “equipped” to particular worldviews and utilized in a way that will serve that worldview. But that utilization is not itself deconstruction. This is why Derrida always accused his detractors of misreading him (ironic), claiming that the way they thought they saw deconstruction being used was actually dangerous. Even Derrida saw deconstruction as a keg of TNT waiting to be ignited.
But this is why it’s so important to us in biblical and theological studies. Something that explosive can be used to tear down mountains, dig tunnels, connect two locations previously unknown to each other. Jesus actually does quite well at deconstruction. John Caputo, in a wonderful little book called What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, talks about the notion of hospitality—something Derrida lectured on toward the end of his life. He asks a very pointed question: When we are being hospitable, aren’t we actually doing the exact opposite of what the word means? Think about it. When you throw a party, what do you do? You sit down and you make a Facebook invitation and by a process of selection invite those friends whom you want to be there. You might be careful to caution them not to talk about it too much, lest someone uninvited show up and ruin the party. Being a host is about posture in our culture. It’s about status—who is invited and who isn’t. But isn’t this the very opposite of what we want to mean by hospitality?
Caputo and Derrida both point out that there is a certain undecidability found within the word itself. The word is a combination of hostis and posse. The latter denotes power. Hospitality implies a certain power over the place one lives in that when I invite you over, you are coming to my home, not your own. The first part, hostis, is the stranger who is a guest (think of the word hotel), but it can also be used to mean the stranger who is hostile. When Jesus speaks of hospitality in Luke 14, he demonstrates this very undecidability. The master of the house, having been abandoned by those he invited originally, his friends all pre-screened and approved, fills his house with the hostis regardless of which they are—the stranger who is guest or the stranger who is hostile. There is no way to eliminate risk in hospitality, beacuse the second we do, the very moment that we screen, select, and invite, is the moment we are no longer practicing hospitality as such. Hospitality slips away from us.
That’s what deconstruction shows us. It takes what we’ve always held to be [T]rue and turns it upside down. This is why Derrida says boldly that deconstruction never proceeds without love. This statement is at the core of Caputo’s book.
Deconstruction never proceeds without love.
What this means is that deconstruction keeps us humble. It’s true that since Derrida introduced deconstruction to the American academy in the 1960s, it has been used without humility—as an arrogant ideology without ideology. But when it is used responsibly, it can do more than help us see our presuppositions in a new light; it traces the possibility of the impossible. When we proceed in biblical or theological studies with the intention of attempting to know Truth, to uncover it through particular, measured methods, historical, scientific, we destroy the possibility of the impossible. We are saying we can know it all. That’s not to say that those methods are not useful. They definitely are. However, when we believe that what we’re doing is uncovering absolute Truth, we tend to forget that as soon as we think we have it all figured out, it is gone, slips away, disappears. Hasn’t history proven that to us? And we have a serious problem, when we continue to hold on to what we think is Truth and refuse to see how it deconstructs itself. A posture toward deconstruction, toward the possibility of the impossible is what will keep us humble.
Besides, how can we really claim to serve an infinite God, but at the same time think it’s possible to understand more than just the most insignificant fraction of who He is, let alone all of Him? Augustine writes that if we understand something, then what we understand is not God—not that it isn’t from God, but that the understanding itself cannot be God, cannot encompass Him. Most students and professors I’ve encountered who are against the use of literary theory, especially deconstruction, to understand Scripture would not argue with that point at all, yet paradoxically, they want to hold on to the idea that we can know certain things absolutely.
And I understand. I was there once. There is a fearful question lurking: if we can’t know, then how can we know that what we believe is Truth? There is a deep history that lies behind this fear, wrapped up in Modernism and a reaction against science, but I think it is okay to let go.
A friend of mine gave me some great insight on this fear last week. The fact that we cannot even begin to comprehend God should not bother us because God gives us enough knowledge, enough to “go on,” to sustain us. That infinitesimally small drop that we get is enough to last us a lifetime. Do we stop searching, stop questioning simply because we know we can’t ever know God absolutely? Just the opposite. We continue to search because God wants us to seek Him and to encounter how incomprehensible and infinite He is.
by Joel Harrison