The Problem with Words: Deconstruction
Today we talk about the move from modernism to postmodernism as a paradigm shift. The move entails fundamental changes in our core assumptions about existence.
Thomas Kuhn introduced this language decades ago when he explained how radical changes occur in the sciences. Kuhn said that new information here or there doesn’t initiate a paradigm shift. Rather, a shift occurs when people question and then change core assumptions about reality.
The old belief systems can’t explain new data. Change is required.
One postmodern tradition powerfully questions modern assumptions. This tradition goes by the name “deconstructionism.” Philosopher Jacques Derrida’s ideas provide the pulse for deconstructive postmodernism.
Deconstructive postmodernism identifies inherent inconsistencies in the language we use to describe reality. Modernists base their knowledge about the world upon a linguistic foundation they believe is certain, secure, and unambiguous. They assume that words, propositions, and sentences capture the truth about reality.Deconstructive postmodernism identifies inherent inconsistencies in the language we use to describe reality. Click To Tweet
In opposition to modernity, deconstructionists point out that language cannot be nailed down. Words inevitably contain unintended meanings. Communication is never crystal-clear. Just when we think a word corresponds fully to reality, we find it inadequate.
Consider the word “cool.” We all know the word’s meaning depends on its context. “Cool” can mean a lack of friendliness, unemotional, aplomb, loss of intensity, lack of heat, popular, or fashionable.
The meaning of words depends on their context. Yet we never understand contexts fully. Consequently, ambiguity reigns. Even our most cherished words – God, love, world, Jesus, hope – are ambiguous.The meaning of words depends on their context. Yet we never understand contexts fully. Click To Tweet
As we interpret and reinterpret words, we realize no foundational, final, or fixed interpretation is available. Words refer to other words, those refer to other words, and those words refer to still others.
Meaning seems to exist only in relations of matrices. Language is a web without any fixed cables. If we think we have a solid foundation, “things fall apart,” as the poet William Butler Yeats put it, and “the center cannot hold.”
Deconstructionists pull the rug out from much modern theology. Some modernists appeal to objective and universal reason. Some rely upon what they think is unbiased and unambiguous theological language.
This postmodern tradition provides important insights for contemporary Christian theologians. Deconstructive postmodernism….
— affirms difference and diversity, rather than trying to make genuine differences appear the same. Christian theologies have often been preoccupied with uniformity.
— helps contemporary theologians remain suspicious of traditional hierarchies that keep many people and ideas at the bottom or margins of society.
— joins other postmodern traditions by calling attention to the overlooked “other.” Contemporary Christians called to minister to the least of these would be wise to explore how best to think about and respond to otherness.
— promotes humility in theology, because it reminds us we cannot corner the market on truth. Dogmatism and epistemic pride have no place.
— reminds contemporary Christian theologians that we cannot capture fully with words who God is and what God wants. God is bigger than our language.
— invites contemporary theologians to reaffirm the prophetic, messianic, apocalyptic, and limits of theological language.Deconstructive theology invites us to reaffirm the prophetic, apocalyptic, and limits of language. Click To Tweet
Deconstructive postmodernism has its share of opponents, of course. I share some criticisms that opponents level against it. Despite its important resources for Christianity, in fact, I don’t think deconstructive postmodernism is the best overall resource from which Christian theologians should draw in a postmodern age.
On the question of truth and knowledge, for instance, deconstructive postmodernism implies that each individual determines truth entirely for him or herself. Radical relativism prevails. I believe Christian theology should reject radical epistemic and moral relativism.
Deconstructive postmodernism is also vulnerable to the charge of being self-refuting. If language cannot be trusted and always undermines authorial intent, we should also not trust the language used by deconstructive postmodernists to tout their view. For instance, how can it be true that there is no truth?
Deconstructive postmodernism is inherently negative. Deconstruction is not interested in replacing an old system with a better one. Deconstructionists are not interested in constructing a more adequate worldview. I think deconstruction of poor worldviews need to be followed by reconstructive efforts that draw from Scripture, Christian tradition, reason, sciences, and a variety of experiences.
I want to talk coherently about God, love, and host of other important topics. To do so, I believe we must say something constructive about God and the nature of reality. We need positive postmodern theologies.
In sum, deconstructive postmodernism offers insights. These insights can prove helpful as postmodern Christians “give an account for the hope within them” (1 Pt. 3:15).
Among the four dominant postmodern traditions, however, I don’t think deconstruction serves well as the primary framework for contemporary Christian theologians.
Contemporary Christians should take a “yes, but” approach to this postmodern tradition. Yes, deconstructive postmodern can teach us something. But it doesn’t provide a framework for addressing well the call that Christians hear from their Creator.Contemporary Christians should take a “yes, but” approach to deconstructive postmodernism. Click To Tweet