Deconstructing Derrida

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I just returned from the 2007 Emergent Theological Conversation with John Caputo and Richard Kearney speaking on the deconstructionism of Derrida. The basic idea of deconstructionism, (as Caputo and Kearney have interpreted it in a Christian context), is based on a "theology of the cross" that crucifies the flesh, crucifies pride, deconstructs what we think we know in order to open up the possibility of us getting closer to the absolute beneath all our biases and blinders. This is surely something crucial to do if we want to be faithful to Christ who calls us to die so that we might find life.

In the final session, Kearney was asked whether he thought that all religions lead to the same God. He responded:

"Yes, I think they do. I think that all religions are pointing to the indeconstructable source and end of life which is love... hence the need for constant deconstruction so as to preserve that kernel which remains unknowable and unpossessable by any one religion. That's not relativism, that's a respect for the absolute which no finite human being or institution can claim to possess."

Now I don't have a problem with what Kearney says above. Where I do have a problem is what he leaves out. He rightly says that Christianity is, to quote E Stanley Jones "the human system built up around Jesus, man-made and fallible". But Christianity is not the Gospel, Christ is. Christianity is not the truth, Christ is the truth. Both Caputo and Kearney speak of Christianity as it that was all there was - our fallible human religion, and do not seem to have a working understanding of Christ as beyond and above that, as God's speech to us. The Gospel is not about proclaiming religion. The Gospel is not even about proclaiming Christianity. The Gospel is the proclamation of God's personal self-revealing in Jesus Christ in order that we messed up humans can encounter the living God of the universe, that we can meet Truth with a big "T" relationally and salvicly.

Deconstruction is about us chipping away at the crust to get to the absolute core, but the Gospel is about the Absolute breaking through the crust to us. That is way bigger that any religion. It is in the thundering words of Job "Higher than heaven, what will you do? Deeper than hell, what can you know?" Indeed, what the Hell do we know? I know nothing. But the Gospel is not about what I say or know, it is about what God has said through the Incarnation. The Absolute has entered into our broken and blind world and revealed to us this "treasure in jars of clay". I can't claim to have a hold on truth, but I can let Truth get a hold of me, and I can do that because Truth has broken through the crust to me. That's not about knowing, it is about being known. It is about trust. In trust I proclaim that the one true God above all culture, religion, and thought has been revealed in Christ.

In an earlier session Caputo expressed disdain for the kind of evangelism characterized by a triumphant Christendom. Think we can all agree that we we can do without that "anti-gospel". Again the problem is not in what they say, but in what they leave out. No body wants that. But what I do want is - out of trust, in humility, in compassion, with fear and trembling - to boldly and unapologeticly proclaim that the Absolute Truth beneath the crust we chip away at has come to us in Jesus Christ, and that because of that act of the Absolute towards us, we can know the Truth in a personal intimate relationship and let that Truth set us free. That Gospel is the very deconstructive hammer that shatters every religion (including ours) and every philosophy (including Derrida's). It is, as E Stanley Jones says "an evangelism that evangelizes the evangelist because it sends us to our knees even as we proclaim it". Jesus is the indeconstuctable cornerstone. Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed. (Luke 20:18)

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At 8:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that everything that is valuable in Christianity is valuable only because it is from Christ. What is not from Christ could as well belong to Islam or Buddhism.
Every religion is a path towards God, a conjecture about God, a human approach to God. It is a vector pointing upwards from below. But the coming of Christ is the answer, a vector coming from heaven towards us. On the one hand, an event situated in history, on the other hand, something quite outside history. That's why Christianity is unique, because Christ is unique."
- Father Alexander Men -

At 9:24 PM, Blogger Eric said...

I found your reflection on Kearney's answer to the question about 'all religions pointing to the same God' informative and helpful. It would have been engaging and exciting to join the conference, but since I couldn't, thanks for sharing!


At 12:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Eric :)

Just a heads up for everyone: There are a lot of other links to blogs from other folks that were at the conference over at you can check out too.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Peter Rohloff said...

I don't find 'the Gospel is about Christ, not Christianity' line very convincing, because it just sounds like a reworking of "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship."

All religions or movements can claim some such core which 'began it all.' Of course, Christianity is unique, because it is not, say, Islam. But also Islam is unique because it is not, say, Christianity. I'm sure exactly where that leads.

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The difference is in the Incarnation. If the Incarnation is true, then God has self-revealed to us through Jesus Christ. That is revelation from above which is categorically different from any revelation from below that we humans might have.

I don't think the distinction here is so much between Christianity and other religions as it is, as you say between Christianity being seen as a relationship vs as a religion. Caputo and Kearney were conceiving of Christianity as a religion rather than as a relationship.

Whether a relationship with God is available through other religions is another question.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't at the conference, but I very much agree with Kearney when he says: "I think that all religions are pointing to the indeconstructable source and end of life which is love".

Derek, I feel that you misrepresent the Gospel when you say: "The Gospel is the proclamation of God's personal self-revealing in Jesus Christ..."

I disagree with that very basic statement of the Gospel. That may be what the Gospel was turned into in very conservative churches, but I would argue that the gospel of Jesus can best be summarized as "The Kingdom of God is at hand" and "The Kingdom of God is within us". This is the heart of all(most) religions as they teach a transformation from selfishness to otherness and from the way of Empire to the way of God (born again, die to self, enlightenment, rebirth, etc).

The religion about Jesus which makes Jesus the object of worship is in no way the good news of the historical Jesus. It is good news about Jesus created by the church or more acurately the "character" called Jesus in the new testament narratives.

At 12:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I find it curious that you describe the incarnation as "what the Gospel was turned into in very conservative churches" since this goes back to the earliest 1st century church. It makes me wonder if you are perhaps associating something different with this than I am if you think this reflects a conservative fringe minority...

I see no contradiction with the kingdom of God teaching of Jesus and the incarnation. To me they go hand in hand. So I have to ask: what exactly do you think the "kingdom of God" means?

At 2:14 PM, Blogger Peter Rohloff said...

That is kind of what deconstruction is all about, after all, at least conceived broadly. Honesty about actual reality. Therefore Christianity must be conceived as a religion, because any discussion of what Christianity 'should be' that is separated from what it actually is and is likely to be is not historically honest.

At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter, I agree that this is the point of deconstructionism, and that we do need to look honestly at the reality of Christianity over history. A big part of that honest look it recognizing how Christianity, and I include myself, have been co-opted by pride.

In this sense, deconstructionism takes the roll of John the Baptist, pointing out our sinfulness. But after you preach sin, you need to then preach salvation. Otherwise you are just destroying. So once we agree with Kearney and Caputo that Christiandom is fallen, the next question we have to ask is: in light of this, what will you do with Christ?

Kearney admitted that deconstuction and Derrida do not have the answer. They can only reveal the problem. That's good. But it is only a small part of the full answer. It is easy to identify what is wrong. It is a lot harder to figure out how to fix it, and I am saying that the same message that Jesus preached to the corrupted Judaism of his time is the answer we need for Christianity (i.e. Christiandom) today. It's all right there in the Gospels.

Kearney and Caputo both hinted at this, that there was a way to attach ourselves to Truth, while realizing that we cannot ever possess it. But we can be possessed by it.

At 4:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you "know" that you have been been "known" by the truth. "Knowing" is inescapable.

At 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you "know" that you have been been "known" by the truth. "Knowing" is inescapable.

In English "knowing" is a sloppy word. There is in German two words for knowing: Wissen and Kennen. Wiseen is the kind of "knowing" you are talking about which has to do with certainty. Kennen is the kind that I am talking about which has to do with intimacy and relationship. So in German I would say I "wissen" that Springfield is the capitol of Illinois ("Ich weiss das Springfield der Hauptstadt Illinois ist") because it is a statment of certainty, but I would say I "kennen" my mother ("Ich kenne meine Mutter") because it is a statement about relationship.

I "kennen" God and am "kennen-ed" by God. This is not a connection of certainty that relies on an intellectual proof, it is a statement of relationship that is based on relational experiential trust. I experience being known and loved and transformed by truth, I experience truth transforming my life, pulling the rug out from under me. I cannon say that I wissen truth. That is I cannot prove it nor can I say what truth who is relational and alive would say to you, but I can say as one seeker of truth to another how I have relationally and communicatively connected with Truth and share that encounter with you in the hopes that you may be encountered relationally by that same Truth. The "proof" will not be in a foundational argument of mine, but in a transforming relational encounter that leads to trust. In the end it is experiential trust which is the foundation of Kennen-ing Truth.


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