Revisiting Deconstruction: On Definitions and Doubt

This piece, a companion/response to the recent article “Closer Than You Think (The Trouble with […]

This piece, a companion/response to the recent article “Closer Than You Think (The Trouble with Deconstruction),” was written by Edward Watson.

I recently read Connor Gwin’s post on the necessity of constructing faith before attempting to deconstruct it. The pedant in me was ruffled, simply because ‘deconstruction’ doesn’t mean what it is taken to mean in that post. I was later informed, however, that Gwin is responding to a movement in post-Evangelical thought of which I’d been completely ignorant, and that this use of the term is taken from there. On this basis, it seems worth writing a short post on how this common misapplication of the term ‘deconstruction’ points to the deeper problem traced by Gwin—the fact that it is so easy to try and doubt before one knows what it is one is doubting. In the process, I also hope to clarify what deconstruction is, formally, lest it be tarnished with another broad brush (and it has been tarnished with plenty of those over the years!).

Gwin’s use of ‘deconstruction’ is operative predominantly in post-Evangelical and some post-Roman Catholic circles. In Relevant Magazine, Tyler Hucakbee recently defined it as “an academic term for the systematic pulling apart of the belief system you were raised in.” In this, it seems to connote the critical practices used to escape effects of Christian teachings that have proved destructive—specifically by analyzing, separating, and discarding its most harmful elements.

Clearly, this is an important thing to be able to do. One needn’t be held captive by the belief systems one is raised in, whether they are destructive or not, and it is as such essential to develop tools for critically analyzing those beliefs. This is not, however, ‘deconstruction.’ And this fact points to a danger inherent in any attempt to move beyond what one is taught, no matter how important such movement is.

Deconstruction is indeed an academic term. It was coined as a portmanteau by the Marmite-like philosopher Jacques Derrida to describe a critical method employed in his early works, including Voice and Phenomenon, The Origin of Geometry, and Of Grammatology. First, one locates a binary opposition assumed by a cluster of statements, with one pole of the opposition held to be parasitic upon and inferior to the other. Think, for example, of the dyads ‘pure and impure,’ ‘sanity and madness,’ or—to make the political implications of this clear—‘white races and non-white races.’ In each case, the binary is set up on the presupposition that the first term must be preserved by the exclusion and eventual elimination of the second term (Derrida’s own examples are so esoteric as to be unhelpfully opaque for a post like this).

Second, one inverts the value system of this binary by showing that the prior term in fact depends upon the second term for its existence, such that the ideal is actually parasitic upon the excluded. Since the binary has been set up on the premise of its implicit evaluation, this inversion therefore has the effect of dissolving the binary itself and thereby shifting the accepted significance of its terms (it’s worth emphasizing that this is more than simply changing one’s evaluation within the binary—the inversion is geared towards dissolution of the terms as they have been structured). Finally, one can do the constructive work of making claims which no longer rely upon such underlying value judgements.

There are, of course, ways this method can be used to pull apart belief systems one is raised in (Derrida tried to use it to reconfigure the entire tradition of Western metaphysics, after all). But I hope this description makes clear how distorting Huckabee’s account is. To call deconstruction an ‘academic term for the systematic pulling apart of a belief system’ is to mistake a tool for one of the processes it can be used for—it’s a category error akin to saying ‘a hammer’ means building houses.

How, then, does this error point to a danger inherent in any attempt to pull apart a belief system? Well, as Gwin notes, ‘deconstruction’ is apparently having a moment. Its goal is to ‘eliminate things that are false or inauthentic—to drill down to the true.’ Its myth is ‘that life is static and that once you find the truth everything is settled.’ Now, as the above (I hope) suggests, none of these things are true of deconstruction as originally conceived, but they appear to be true of how the word is being used currently. Though harmless on one level—words change, after all—it is deeply troubling on another: for in this case the meaning of a term is being abstracted from its story, from its development, in such a way that this story and this development will eventually come to be read through the abstraction. In other words, an error may be coming to define a tradition.

This is precisely the sin of American (capital-E) Evangelicalism—to define the Christian tradition through a series of errors which have been abstracted from a distorted appropriation of certain aspects of that tradition. As a result, it uses words falsely. It teaches ‘sin’ and ‘atonement’ and ‘grace’ falsely–or at least, incompletely. And these falsities are read back through time into Scripture, into tradition, into teaching.

When one is raised to believe in false teaching, it is essential to doubt. But what must be doubted first is the teaching, not its object. That is to say, we must doubt that we know what we’re talking about before we doubt anything else. We must doubt we know what the words ‘God,’ ‘Church,’ ‘sin,’ and ‘grace’ mean—after all, all we know is what we have been taught, one way or another. These are words which have meanings; but crucially, these meanings are not definitions. They are living stories—stories of interpretation, negotiation, practice, and communal reflection within specific places, all of which imbue words with awesome depth. And if we try to doubt everything before we learn the story of the words, then we compound the error. The meanings we doubt become the meanings that determine us, and they are false meanings.

Even when one must leave whole systems of teaching behind, then, it seems to me that (re)learning must come before fundamental doubt. Doubt is, of course, necessary to motivate this relearning—but it must be doubt of our teachers, rather than absolute doubt regarding the subjects they have taught.

There is a way of doubting which presumes to know more than it does about what is doubted. As such, before something can be doubted, asserted, denied, or deconstructed, its history and its life must be learnt beyond what has been taught. We have to know what ‘deconstruction’ means, for example, before we doubt or assert its usefulness for the Church—just as we have to know what ‘sin’ has meant beyond Fundamentalism if we are to thoroughly denounce false teachings. If we don’t, we’ll entrench the idea that the falsity we were taught has always been the norm, when it has only ever been a distortion of the norm by poor or misguided teachers. There are few more dangerous things than false accounts taken as normative for truth—for whether we are trying to affirm or deny them, as long as they are normative, they will have power over who we try to be.

This is a tricky subject. A great many people have been deeply wounded, and are beginning to affirm their agency against those wounds. Yet overly focusing on words may confuse the issue as well. After all, when all is said and done, it is what God does that matters, over and above the words we use to talk about God. We can rest assured that no matter how we use the term ‘deconstruction,’ God will be able to weave us into love. Perhaps it matters to have clarity on these matters—if only so that we might catch a clearer glimpse of that weaving.

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3 responses to “Revisiting Deconstruction: On Definitions and Doubt”

  1. Ricky Gossett says:

    Thanks for following up on Connor’s post. I did enjoy his article and I think this is really helpful accessory in clarifying some of the aformentioned themes of “deconstruction”. Great post!

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