Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Deconstructing Jacques

Deconstructing Jacques You may or may not be aware that Jacques Derrida died recently. Many Christians may not have even heard of him! But he is an important 20th century philosopher who developed the philosophy of deconstructionism. If you're not sure what deconstructionism is, then you are not alone. Check out the link above to read one various thinkers have to say about Derrida. As you will note, he's obviously a controversial figure and one whom even professional philosophers admit to not really understanding. Are the ideas of 'deconstructionism' important for Christians to understand? Deconstructionism, according to the American Heritage Dictionary is:
A philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth; asserts that words can only refer to other words; and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings: “In deconstruction, the critic claims there is no meaning to be found in the actual text, but only in the various, often mutually irreconcilable, ‘virtual texts’ constructed by readers in their search for meaning” (Rebecca Goldstein).
Of course, issues of certainty, identity, and truth are important considerations for any thinking Christian. We have struggled with these ideas for centuries. The really controversial assertion, of course, is that 'there is no meaning to be found in the actual text, but only in the various, often mutually irreconcilable, ‘virtual texts’ constructed by readers in their search for meaning.' Christians claim to interpret the Bible and derive from that interpretation truth claims about what God has said to humanity. If it is true that the only meaning of a text is whatever the reader(s) construct and that there is no objective meaning in the text itself, it would appear to suddenly sweep away the whole basis for finding truth in Scripture. The problem, of course, with the deconstructionist claim is that, applied to itself, the deconstructionist claim has no objective truth value -- the only 'truth' the claim holds is that which is constructed in the reader(s). I have never read Derrida (I tried once and found it too hard!). But if the Heritage Dictionary quote accurately represents the essential claim of deconstructionism, then what is the point of a Christian trying to understand the 'truth' of Scripture? A better way of proceeding, in my view, is to recognise the valuable 'truth' in deconstructionism that all our interpretations of a text occur from a particular point of view and are naturally biased toward our own subjective, egocentric, ethnocentric presuppositions and assumptions. Recognising that truth is an essential beginning for correctly interpreting a text. If this inherent bias is honestly acknowledged then we can take steps to counteract that tendency. This is why, over the years, important principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) have been developed for studying the Bible. A thinking Christian who wants to be responsible in reading Scripture should make a study of hermeneutics. If you want to do this, you might like to start here.

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