"Why is the Emerging Church drawn to deconstructive theology?" Take Two.
By Carl Raschke, Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department, University of Denver.
ETs and DT (“Deconstructive Theology”, If You Can’t Speak in Acronyms)
Why are “emergent types” drawn to deconstructive theology? The question is a more than modestly daunting, if only because what seems like a straightforward question is overdetermined with contexts and subtexts that require some sifting. The question also seems to presume that the phrases “emergent type” and “deconstructive theology” are intuitively evident in some garden variety manner of speaking. But they are not. A little history might be instructive.
The so-called “emergent” movement emerged in the mid-to-late 1990s amid the cultural hyperchange that followed the collapse of Communism – what Fukayama hyperbolically dubbed the “end of history” – and was propelled largely by a new global economic prosperity and the explosion of digital communications. It started, of all places, in Texas and was a strategic effort of a major Christian philanthropic foundation to mobilize Gen-X leaders within the evangelical churches under the somewhat tendentious name of Terra Nova. As its mission statement to this day emphasizes, it aimed to seed and support the efforts of “pioneer churches who are testing and implementing the new ideas that will drive the Church in the future.”
Despite its Bible Belt beginnings, the emergent movement quickly took on the colorations of its main motivators and supporters. After its initial and relatively modest conference in Houston in January 2002, the movement for the most part abandoned the South and became by and large a Blue State phenomenon with a bi-coastal demographic base. By the middle of the present decade it had forged serious alliances with old-guard Northern Protestantism and the “social progressive” wings of the mainline institutional churches. Its theology was no longer in any clear sense “evangelical”; it was now quite “eclectic,” almost amorphous.
I once had a conversation with a former youth pastor in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who claimed he was the one who had come up with the word “emergent” at a vision casting session for the Terra Nova group. He didn’t stake any claim to intellectual property rights, but the thought processes he described among the founders were interesting to say the.least. The word “emergent” derives from the language of the so-called “new physics”, which in turn was built upon cybernetics and “systems theory” that was popular among New Age thinkers in the early 1980s. It was first introduced by the Russian-born Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine in his theory of “dissipative” or “self-organizing” systems. Leonard Sweet, Brian McClaren, and Jerry Haselmayer in their book from 2003 entitled The Language of the Emerging Church define “emergence” as “an approach to science that is sensitive to ways a whole can become more than the sum of its parts.” They observe that “this can only happen when the sharing of information within the system is maximized.”
The emergent movement indeed has been an effort – at least in concept - to envision the church as something much bigger than its “parts”, including its doctrinal disparities or sectarian divisions. Furthermore, it has certainly been a system that has focused on the “sharing of information,” expanding from its aboriginal status as a kind of 1990s-style, neo-hippie Jesus movement redux to an all-but-the-kitchen sink method of omnivorous theological inclusivity as laid out in McClaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. A crisper metaphor might be that of a postmodern high-country religious avalanche, set off by the accumulation of an unstable mass of loose and flaky powder that after surging downhill gains unbreakable momentum and sweeps everything in its path.
“Deconstructive” theology, on the other hand, has a divergent “genealogy” (as Nietzsche would say), pursuing an alternative “rhizomatic” trajectory (as Deleuze would say). As is well-known, Derrida coined the word “deconstruction” early in his career, then eventually stopped using it entirely. He employed it to make a subtle point about how texts are intended to be read. We need to read them as complex and to a certain extent “chaotic” events of flickering meaning, not as monolithic architectures of clarified Cartesian certainty. Derrida’s notoriously difficult style of writing exemplifies his own intention. You’re not supposed instantly to “understand it” or “even get it.” Just like you don’t wolf down a fine filet, you don’t swallow in one gulp a great piece of literature or philosophy. Anyone who whines that a philosopher should “just say straightforwardly” what he or she means is sort of like the guy who douses ketchup on his beef Wellington. You’ve got to learn to appreciate what you’re eating – or reading. Cliff Notes don’t work for Hegel any more than McDonald’s Value Meal menu works for black truffle foie gras.
That’s why philosophers for a long time utterly despised Derrida, and why many even to this day will sniff that he is not a “real philosopher,” only a “literary entertainer” (that came from one of my actual academic colleagues). Real philosophers don’t read texts; they reason about things, whatever that might imply.
Deconstruction’s Sordid Past
Now if the foregoing seems to have little or nothing to do with emergent church theology, you’re absolutely correct. But words often embark on an odyssey of their own which takes them a long way from sight of their homeland. Consider the word “postmodern” itself, which when first employed in the 1970s referred to a funky new style of urban architecture that had nothing to do with anything it now connotes. Ironically, it was the religious right and the neo-cons of the Reagan era (such as Bill Bennett) that made deconstruction a household word outside of academia. Yep, them guys.
It was a case of what one obscure literary critic years ago termed “the productive progeny of the malapropism” Webster by the way defines a malapropism as “the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context “ Such words sometimes also take on a life of their own. The cultural conservatives of the early Eighties, when they heard all those “tenured radicals” in universities talking about “deconstruction” thought it was a fancy word for “destruction,” remembering the cries of “burn baby burn” during the street riots of the 1960s. So “deconstruction” became a bit of pop cultural argot for post-Sixties anti-authoritarianism and has evolved into a sort of façon de parler for any sort of probing, critical, analytical, or overly nuanced way of calling into question a conventional habit of mind, or desecrating a sacred cow.
It is not surprising – indeed, it is truly a no-brainer – that anti-establishment “emergent types” (ETs, as LeRon Shults calls them below) would be drawn to an anti-establishment strand of philosophical nomenclature. Jack Caputo’s work has certainly made Derrida accessible in recent years, even if it is not clear to what degree one is reading Caputo and to what degree one is actually reading Derrida. Caputo’s latest book The Weakness of God in which he says for the first time that he is actually doing “theology” – previously by most accounts he was doing philosophy – has also helped shape a sense in which there is now something that might be called a “deconstructive theology”, even though I myself argued long ago, purist that I am, that the terms “deconstruction” and “theology” cannot be mated without causing genetic defects, namely, giving birth to an oxymoron. The reason I made that argument (and by the way I don’t think Jack is doing “deconstructive” theology,” though he is doing theology and a very interesting one at that) is because, as I argued in The End of Theology in 1979, deconstruction is about showing the infinite open-endedness of all sign assemblages and texts, whereas “theology” is about finding an intelligible “ground”, a sort of “here I stand”, for one’s beliefs and actions.
I wasn’t saying anything original at that point. The observation had been made repeatedly by Heidegger in his later phase, and Derrida glommed on to it. Heidegger and Derrida saw “deconstruction” – or what the former called the “Destruktion of metaphysics”, although the German word doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as its English homonym – as “the end of philosophy.” Without much imagination I inferred that would also imply the “end of theology”. It does. Modern Christians on both the left and right side of the religious spectrum for some dang reason are convinced that you aren’t “saved” unless you have the right theology – not to mention the right politics. That isn’t exactly what Jesus had in mind. Jesus – and of course Paul – never harped on the “T-word”, only the Biblical “F-word”, faith. You have, if I may paraphrase Kant, to “abolish theology to make room for faith.” Deconstruction is about the abolition of theology and demands instead that we walk nakedly in our faith. Call us Christians “naked faith walkers.”
Give Me That Old Time Presbyterianism
I think the problem may be – and I realize I’m not being theologically correct to say this – that many emergent types, if indeed the adjective emergent is drawn from “systems theory”, still hanker for a certain comfort and security that “systematic theology” – or mainline Protestant theology - once provided. Deconstructive theology – or at least the broad conception of it - perhaps is a way of being unsystematically systematic, or systematically unsystematic, in one’s religious reflection. The first thing that one has to establish is what exactly one means by “deconstructive theology.” If emergent types are supposedly drawn to it, that must mean there is some vast body of literature that goes by the name of “deconstructive theology,” which there isn’t.
In the early 1980s I edited a book that included major essays of some leading pioneers in what came to be called (first) “postmodern religious thought” and (later) “postmodern theology.” The volume was entitled Deconstruction and Theology, but it was not proposing any strategy of “deconstructive theology” by any accounting. It was designed to (1) introduce deconstruction to a theological audience (2) attempt to show what deconstruction might do to the various theological disciplines. It was a motley collection of essays. The only author in the group to go on to write a “deconstructive theology” was Mark C. Taylor. He actually used that word at first, but later changed it to “a/theology” to underscore his debt to Thomas J.J. Altizer and the “death of God” movement. Since he knew Derrida well, he joined with him in discussions during the late 1980s about “negative theology”, which could be considered as deconstructive meditations on the Medieval mystics. But that was all fairly rarefied academic discussions and clearly has not had much of an effect on the emergent movement, which has probably only begun to try to read Derrida in the last few years.
I would surmise that Jack Caputo’s influence on the theological world, his successful “branding” of Derrida through his conferences and publications, and the fact that many of those now closely associated with the academic side of the emergent movement – limited though it may be – are his own students has been a critical factor. I’m not convinced that the vast majority of non-philosophical specialists who regard themselves as “deconstructive” nowadays have even the foggiest notion of what the term really implies. But there’s nothing wrong with that. What matters is the longer-range prognosis of the emergent movement.
I conclude with both an observation and a warning that I will develop in my next extensive post to this blog. If one surveys all the events these days that are promoted as part of the emergent “conversation”, it is increasingly looking like good old-fashioned Sixties-style ecumenicism. Ecumenicism was all the rage up until the Carter presidency, when the new evangelicalism in America swept it away. Now a once self-confident evangelical America, particularly in the North as the blue states get even bluer in the face of the Bush presidency, is having serious doubts about itself, largely because it it succumbed to the temptation that made the liberal Protestant denominations moribund a generation earlier – it overly and overtly politicized faith. And the old Protestant establishment seems to be wooing the disaffected young evangelicals back into the fold along with some Catholics. I suppose someone stripped the “e” out of emergent when no one was looking. Just give me that “old time religion” of interfaith dialogues, ecumenical gatherings, and institutionalized (i.e., seriously funded) social activism. It was good enough for my Presbyterian grandmother. It must be good enough for me.
In all honesty I think for some emergent types to be “deconstructive” simply means you refuse in good conscience to listen to James Dobson on the radio. But if one assesses the pedigree of the word “deconstruction,” it was always bound up with “difference” or, in Derrida’s coy misprision, with differance, the tiny difference that is almost imperceptible, yet makes a huge difference. What would be the genuine differance for emergent types?
The genuine differance, as Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous character Johannes de Silentio observes, is the difference of faith. Kierkegaard refers to this self-effacing “difference bearer” as the knight of faith. No one can tell by one’s outward show – the books one reads, the clothes one wears, the politics one espouses – who exactly is the knight of faith. The extrinsic marks are never obvious. For Kierkegaard, whom Derrida admired and who has had a tremendous impact on the development postmodern thought, faith is the ever so subtle difference that makes all the difference.
Faith is the key to any “deconstructive theology.” Of course, that would mean the deconstruction of theology itself, which it may be difficult for any “movement” to bear.