Subverting the Norm – A few takeaways, and one important clarification (Or, an apologia for deconstruction and Peter Rollins)

bookshelf2As I continue to reflect on Subverting the Norm, several things keep coming to mind. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy meeting so many people that I’m friends with on Twitter and Facebook, but I also loved making new friends altogether (including new friends from four continents!). And the conversations and presentations were absolutely fantastic. But for all of the things that I loved about the event, one thing in particular kept bugging me, hence the reason I’m taking to my blog to try to make what I think is an important clarification.

Those of you who’ve read my books (both of you, that is) know that I’ve been significantly influenced by what is popularly referred to as radical theology (although, from a technical perspective, it’s more accurate to say that I’ve been significantly influenced by continental philosophy of religion), and the basic point of the conference was to ask whether or not radical theologies, including ideas like deconstruction and the death of God, should have a place in the churches. Obviously I think they should, which represents much of the reason I was excited about organizing Subverting the Norm. Time and again, however, participants seemed to understand perspectives related to “deconstruction” and “the death of God” quite negatively, going away with the impression that the purpose of deconstruction is to destroy all that we hold dear, and that the “death of God” leads to nothing but a sense of meaningless nihilism in which the future is closed and all that is left for Pete Rollins or any of us to do is beat our breast in lament and despair.

So I’d like to go nerdy for a minute to provide some clarification: For those who read Derrida carefully, deconstruction actually has more to do with affirmation than destruction, which of course flies in the face of the church’s most popular assumptions. To make this point I often borrow from an obituary that John Caputo wrote in memory of his friend, Jacques Derrida:

What everyone has more or less picked up about deconstruction, even if they have never read a word of it, is its destabilizing effect on our favorite texts and institutions. Derrida exposes a certain coefficient of uncertainty in all of them, which causes all of us, right and left, religious and non-religious, male and female, considerable discomfort. That was the side of deconstruction that grabbed all the headlines and made it in the 1970s a kind of academic succès de scandale. Without reading very closely, it all looked like a joyous nihilism. But what his critics missed (and here not reading him makes a difference!), and what never made it into the headlines, is that the destabilizing agency in his work is not a reckless relativism or an acidic scepticism but rather an affirmation, a love of what in later years he would call the “undeconstructible.” The undeconstructible is the subject matter of pure and unconditional affirmation—“viens, oui, oui” (come, yes, yes)—something unimaginable and inconceivable by the current standards of imagining and conceiving. The undeconstructible is the stuff of a desire beyond desire, of a desire to affirm that goes beyond a desire to possess… His critics had never heard of this because it was not reported in Time Magazine, but they did not hesitate to denounce what they had not read…

His critics failed to see that deconstructing this, that and everything in the name of the undeconstructible is a lot like what religious people, especially Jews, would call the “critique of idols.” Deconstruction, it turns out, is not nihilism; it just has high standards! Deconstruction is satisfied with nothing because it is waiting for the Messiah, which Derrida translated into the philosophical figure of the “to come” (à venir), the very figure of the future (l’avenir), of hope and expectation. Deconstruction’s meditation on the contingency of our beliefs and practices—on democracy, for example—is made in the name of a promise that is astir in them, for example, of a democracy “to come” for which every existing democracy is but a faint predecessor state.

But if this religious turn made his secularizing admirers nervous, it made religious people still more nervous. For after all, by the standards of the local rabbi or pastor, Derrida “rightly passes for an atheist,” which gives secular deconstructors much comfort (but giving comfort is not what deconstruction was sent into the world to do). When asked why he does not say “I am” an atheist (je suis, c’est moi), he said it was because he did not know if he were, that there are many voices within him that give one another no rest, and he lacks the absolute authority of an authorial “I” to still this inner conflict. So the best he can do is to rightly pass for this or that, and he is very sorry that he cannot do better. That, it seems to me, is an exquisite formula not only for what might be called Derrida’s atheism, but also for faith. Rightly passing for this or that, a Christian, say, really is the best we can do. It reminds me of the formula put forward by Kierkegaard’s “Johannes Climacus” (more Socratic figures!) who deferred saying that he “is” a Christian but is doing the best he can to “become” one.

Derrida visits upon all of us, Christian and Jew, religious and secular, left and right, the unsettling news of the radical instability of the categories to which we have such ready recourse, and he raises the idea of a still deeper idea of ourselves which (religiously?) confesses its lack of categories. He exposes us to the “secret” that there is no “Secret,” no Big Capitalized Secret to which we have been wired up—by scientific reason, by poetic or religious revelation, or by political persuasion. We make use of such materials as have been available to us, forged in the fires of time and circumstance. We do not in some deep way know who we are or what the world is. That is not nihilism but a quasi-religious confession, the beginning of wisdom, the onset of faith and compassion. Derrida exposes the doubt that does not merely insinuate itself into faith but that in fact constitutes faith, for faith is faith precisely in the face of doubt and uncertainty, the passion of non-knowing. Violence on the other hand arises from having a low tolerance for uncertainty so that Derrida shows us why religious violence is bad faith. On Derrida’s terms, we do not know the name of what we desire with a desire beyond desire. That means that leading a just life comes down to coping with such non-knowing, negotiating among the several competing names that fluctuate undecidably before us, each pretending to name what we are praying for. For we pray and weep for something that is coming, something I know not what, something nameless that in always slipping away also draws us in its train…

This is what I pick up in Preaching After God, where I draw on Jeff Robbins’ work quite a lot:

[B]eyond the “death of God” there remains the desire for God, which is the subject matter of the unconditional affirmation and call at the heart of deconstruction, for which we daily—believer and atheist alike—hope and sigh and dream and weep. This desire transcends categories of atheist/theist, secular/sacred, and so on. In the words of Jeffrey Robbins, “The love of God is a love without category or, better, a love that exceeds all categorizations—whether religious or secular, whether theist or atheist, and whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, etc.” The death of God, as pronounced by the Enlightenment, “is not the final word, and religion is more fundamentally about desire—even, or especially, when our old beliefs have been worn away or stripped apart, whether it is by the brutalities of modern life to which we have all become spectators, or more complexly still, the pretense of self-sufficiency. God is the (or, at least, one) name that we give to this desire, and religion is the (or, at least, one) means by which it takes its institutional form. But even when the name rings hollow and the form grows stale, it is the event of desire that stirs beneath that we still strive to articulate, that we still mean to affirm.”

Elsewhere, Caputo has addressed questions related to “the death of God”:

It makes little sense to describe Derrida’s Circumfession in terms of the death of God. When Derrida filled that ballroom in Toronto at the 2002 A.A.R. with some fifteen hundred to two thousand people, these were not people who came to hear about the death of God. The “desire for God” would be much better… The name of God is not dead but the language of God is very haunting, and Derrida in particular has responded to it. I don’t think that we’re done with it yet. I don’t think that the name of God will leave us alone–not for a while…

When philosophers try to name the so-called matter of ultimate concern, or the thing that is the most deeply resonant for them, they have recourse to an invented vocabulary. They’ll speak of being or substance or monad or employ some such construct. They erect a technical vocabulary. They produce a term of art. But theologians draw upon a word that is deeply embedded in our conscious and unconscious life, in our everyday life and in our most sublime moments, at birth and death and everything in between. The philosophers have nothing to compete with this. The name of God is a name that we learn at our mothers’ breast, a word that’s deeply embedded in our language… It’s a word that saturates our experience and, for me, for deconstruction, I think it is endlessly, open-endedly analyzable. This is the event within it that invites us, waits for us. We seem never to get to the end of this word, never to finish probing this word and its work on us, what it’s done to us. In that sense, this word contains a deeper provocation than anything else, and what it means always lies before us…

I speak of the death of God in a restricted sense, in the sense of a critique of ontotheology, of the God of metaphysics, and, in particular, the God of sovereignty and power and omnipotence. But then I move on because for me to speak of the death of God in any final sense would be to speak of “the death of desire” or “the death of love” or “the death of affirmation.” Now, of course, we must always and endlessly criticize the idols of ontotheology, endlessly practice a certain death of God, but always as part of a pact with a more open-ended project… But it seems to me more fruitful to think of God as the object of affirmation and desire. Then the question is not whether there is a God–no more than there is a question about whether there is desire–but the question is the one that Derrida picks out of Augustine’s Confessions: “What do I love when I love my God?” God is the name–an endlessly translatable name–of what we love and desire and of affirmation and for me the question is, what is that? What do I desire? So the “death of God” is not a notion for which I have found much use.

And even though Pete Rollins tends to take his cue more from Zizek than from Derrida, I often wonder if he tires of having to explain (over and over!) that his project of helping people accept their fragility and humanity — rather than running from it by clinging to the drugs/idols of certainty and satisfaction — leads not to the sickness unto death, but instead to a deeper and more meaningful engagement with life. Contrary to the popular distortion, Pete’s is a fundamentally transformative move that, from a theological and philosophical perspective, is the very *opposite* of nihilism. And I don’t think this is very difficult to understand, especially when we consider the way drugs function in our lives and culture. When we are conditioned to believe that God is the thing that helps us escape our humanity (via certainty and satisfaction, a la the hit we can take for our next high), God becomes an idol (hence the reason it’s important for this idea of God to undergo a certain death). From my vantage point this doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with whether or not there is some sort of being we call God operating behind the scenes (who are we to say?) — but it has everything to do with the way Christianity functions in our lives. When Christianity is only about going to heaven when we die, or escaping our humanity by taking another religious hit (dialing one up from the big Other), it becomes a form of nihilism — it functions as an escape from reality (“Platonism for the masses,” as Nietzsche memorably put it). Yet by following in the footsteps of Tillich, Pete’s project encourages us to view God not as an idolic escape from life (another thing), but rather as that which leads us into a deeper engagement with life. In my view this is the point of Christianity, for it is about nothing less than being born again, here and now.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this.

14 thoughts on “Subverting the Norm – A few takeaways, and one important clarification (Or, an apologia for deconstruction and Peter Rollins)

  • I think that (and I was commenting on this from a slightly different bent on Timothy Snediker’s blog earlier) it’s an access point issue.

    The church (???) can never really be what we want it to be…the most that we can ask, often, is that we would be able to pursue what we want to pursue in the church conversation, while serving others.

    I was listening to a homebrewed episode on the way home where Tripp was talking to Shane Hipps, and they had a lengthy discussion about Spiral Dynamics, and the idea of being an unreliable ally to our congregations… we will affirm and comfort them, but at length, we are trying to help them to journey away from certainty, so that God can truly use them in this world.

    I was likely making unfair conclusions about the conference based on age, but my general supposition was that a lot of the people at the conference were really there to see what the fire was like behind the smoke… not because they necessarily understood why the fire was there, or why they shouldn’t put it out. I do know that when Rollins came to UCA a year ago, the majority of the people in the audience were either from Clayton’s Philosophy class, or were from surrounding churches, trying to discern whether Rollins was an atheist and should be shunned. Which seemed, quite rightly, to exhaust him enormously. I should hate to dedicate my life to mostly talking past people.

    Though Jesus did a lot of that too, one will note.

    I think that it has to be okay, from a practical standpoint, that the majority of our congregations simply have no context for radical theology at this point. At some level, our jobs as teachers and pastors is to be a filter, and to know our congregations well enough that we can begin to pick out the folks who are, at various points, maybe far enough along that we can give them a boost.

    Though as you and I both know, God uses people where they are in all manners of ways that simply boggle the mind and defy all planning or organization.

    Sometimes, all that we can do is roll with the punches, be thankful that God has, indeed, blessed us with so many people in our lives who do understand (though scattered across the planet) and move on…

  • Hear, hear! My only comment is that even focusing on “desire” leads to a disconnect with life. At least in excess. Artistic expressions all seem to point towards a non-real reality of desire, but in my humble opinion, staying there in that unquenchable desire can lead to another escapism. And yet, a life focused solely on the material can become quite dry. I think it’s healthy to have a tension between the two. Let the ineffable, the desire, the artistic bliss (or despair!) animate the material, but never be an escape from it. If that makes any sense…
    -one who desires

    • That’s a great question. Not exactly sure why, but my guess is related to the idea that Derrida’s approach to deconstruction turns on the futural or eschatological “to come,” in which all of the actually existing instantiations of justice or the kingdom of God (or democracy or whatever) fall short of the promise they harbor, of what is stirring in their name. Language such as re-construction implies that there is a lost ideal that once existed and we need to return to it, where in deconstruction the truth is always futural, up ahead if you will.

  • Thanks for this Phil.

    I’m currently a Divinity student at Duke and in a class on Deleuze and Guattari in the Literature department. I’ve spent most of this semester beginning to wrestle with the problems Radical Theology and Radical Orthodoxy are trying to address. It seems that there are several sides to the church’s wrestling with postmodernism’s necessary deconstruction of so much of what has given birth to (or using Deleuze’s term, produced) fascism, destruction, anti-life, anti-desire, anti-love. Reconstruction seems to be a bad term because it would mean using the same concepts but arranging them in different ways to get a different outcome. What I gather from Deleuze is that what is necessary is something new which may not be better but is a line of flight forward.

    I’m still trying to come to terms with where I am in all of this, but it does seem like an interesting place to begin is not in fact with the death of God, but the resurrection of Jesus. In my estimation, Christology is where the church will find a potential way forward which will of course entail destruction and even death but also the seeds of new creation and resurrection. Perhaps what is coming next is a Radical Christology.

  • This conference came to me as an EVENT straight out of the blue. I have been completely immersed in post modern thinking on my own since the fall of 09. I have started a number of blogs and read media though post modern thinking including radical theology when it makes its appearance for me. I would say that there has been only one person who has truly understood what I have been writing and she lives in Bosnia. In the few years I have been online with her she has gone far far beyond me. Because of this conference she decided to come visit to attend it. Neither of us are what anyone would call religious, yet both of us have this quality of integrity that belongs customarily to religious thinking. So this conference hit both of us like a lightning bolt. You cannot imagine what it felt like to be among people who were reading, immersed in the thinking we have been saturated by with no need to explain anything or debate or whatever. Not everyone was already thinking this way but many were. And to me this is at the base of our structural thinking as we see it as a different way of thinking. The Dominating Discourse is difficult to let go of yet it is inherently imprisoning us. To let go of it is to give up an education that has taught us carefully to think in this Discourse and it has been quite expensive as well. Not even talking about the years devoted to it. I am still trying of course but I do recognize when someone is further along and I am dazzled.

    What I would like to do Phil is to meet with you to discuss certain social programs you are doing with the members of your church. First I am thinking about dyslexia, which early on labels a child and attaches a stigma to him (most are boys) when it is really “directional confusion” functionally related to reading English which is an agglutinative language, left to right being a crucial neural inscription for early success in reading. (I think Leonardo is an interesting persont to think about when meditating on dyslexia.)IF the first grade teacher does not understand this, he will create “dyslexia” in the student. Asians traditionally do not have it as characters go from the top down not left to right. As Wittgenstein might say “it is a language problem” not a sickness nor a clinical diagnosis. So maybe parents in your church would be interested in knowing more about this, how to prevent it, and how to address it if it has already had a head start and resulted in a reading problem. (No pun intended on the Head Start program at least not really.) While this appears not to have any particular connection to God or religion, if you think about it through post modern thought it does have a genealogy which reveals certain things about it and about those who have been taught to suffer from it. If the parent wishes to know more about it then certain aspects of how they have been programmed to think about it do surface. This discussion leads to thinking along more post modern lines of thought. In Deleuze speak it would fall under either/or….or…or…or mode of expressing individual thinking about a child labeled with a diagnosis that has been pasted on him/her. The label is not in terms of right or wrong labeling, but in terms of what are its advantages – and there are many – and what does it make more difficult (reading especially). So while they are thinking about a problem their child has, they are at the same time, learning to think about this problem in a more post modern way. I personally feel that the more I change the way I think – not the content of my thinking – the more I climb out of a boxed in way of thinking. I’ll stop now.

  • good thoughts, Phil. thank you for this. It helped me understand that, despite my initial fears, deconstruction does not have to be a purely *destructive* thing. Thank you, brother, I’m glad I read this.

  • I am profoundly grateful for the experience of the conference, Phil, and for the comments posted here. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that much of this was new to me – just goes to show how parochial this middle judicatory minister can be in his selection of reading material. Count me in as one who will now (and likely for some time) develop a more clear hermenuetic and explore with the willing ways to invite those we serve into this important spiritual exercise. To me, Rollins and Caputo (among others), are doing in this time what Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna and Ignatius of Loyola did in theirs for the Church. Hopeful is how I would describe the unfolding work now underway among us; hopeful, costly, and calling us into deeper integrity with life as it is – in all its robust chaos and tantalizing and infuriating uncertainty. God may yet get to be better appreciated as Yhwh among us as we develop the more radical humility that deconstruction elicits.

    Thank you for all the effort, risk, and gift! Let me know how I can assist in offering the next event.

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