LITERARY STUDIES: Jacques Derrida – positively deconstructed

Until his death [in November 2004], Jacques Derrida’s name had probably appeared in more lecture notes, articles and academic conversations than that of any other living thinker.  Long regarded as the patron saint of postmodernism, the French theorist made an impact that extended out of the Academe and into wider cultural life.

This applied to those parts of the church that sought to understand the changing world it wanted to reach – an admission itself that he had influenced the way we think.  Not that this was considered beneficial by all – if Christianity was about knowing the truth, then questioning the very idea of truth could be dismissed as the quibbling of a post-modern Pilate, one more attack on the essentials of faith.

Deconstruction, the approach Derrida evolved, insisted that words themselves (and thereby all texts) contain layers of meanings that exist only as the result of cultural and historical processes.

Thus, when a writer constructs a text, a reader may find meanings that were not intended by the author.  All language becomes a giant Freudian slip, and all texts can be deconstructed to reveal insights that were not deliberately placed there.  The end result is that the author no longer has any authority to claim the ‘true’ meaning of the text, nor can there be any one universally applicable meaning.  Truth, like the Kingdom, is a matter of différance – both here and not here.

Critics claim that deconstruction can be used to make texts mean anything the reader wants; more positively, a careful deconstruction of a text can help uncover what (or who) an author is influenced by. As a result, it is also possible to identify which ideas – and which people – were excluded from having influence.

Far from being morally relativistic, such thinking encourages us to give voice to those who have been marginalized.  This ethical challenge extends keenly into a church that has been embarrassingly quick to exclude those who do not immediately succumb to its own certainties.

God has revealed himself, but we cannot claim to have understood the full extent of this revelation.  We run the risk of forgetting that our descriptions of God fall short of his glory and allowing them to become substitutes for God; we run an even bigger risk of judging others according to those uncertain descriptions.

Our humble and non-absolute claim to know the truth in Christ should not lead to a system that he himself would condemn. Justice, said Derrida, cannot be deconstructed – is this not the way of the gospel?