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On Conversations That Never Land: Clarifying a Few Things on Emergent Theology and Deconstruction

Forgive me, but I need to clarify my position on deconstructive theology. My friend and co-laborer at “the Vine”, Dan Brennan said in a post a while ago about me, “One of the weaknesses in the emerging conversations among Christians, according to David Fitch, is that the conversation keeps going and going, and going, and going just like a energizer bunny, never arriving at the truth.”

Let me clarify. First, I never said anything about an “energizer bunny” (I think he was characterizing me from the Uprooted night on the emerging church and evangelicalism). Second, I don’t believe that emerging conversations never arrive at truth. If I said that I need to clarify. For I believe that the weakness in deconstructive theology (and my emergent thinker friends to the extent they use it) is that truth never “lands.” I think there is a difference. Allow me to elaborate.

To say truth never arrives might be construed as asserting that deconstruction does not believe in truth (truth with a little “t” or a big “T”). I don’t think this is accurate. For there is truth, truth “always on the move,” truth that is recognized but not controllable. The deconstructive thinkers (which Tony Jones and Brian McLaren find helpful) DO SAY that the truth never FINALLY arrives. Yet I think there is something constructive in this part of deconstructionist philosophy. There is, in a manner of speaking, a way that truth is always provisional. There is, in a manner of speaking, a way that truth (with a small “t”) is bound by context and language and is always in process of being embodied. There is, in a manner of speaking, a way in which there are always voices excluded which must be heard which change the nature of the way we communicate truth and highlight parts of it we weren’t seeing before. Deconstructionist approaches to truth push for all of this. For deconstructive ways of thinking keep the truth open (in the clearing of Hiedegger’s ontico-ontological difference). And so despite the detractors, there is truth here being “manifested” into and beyond the linguistic cultural structures we have been given.

The weakness here however is that because we are ever looking for what is to come, we are forever in a conversation never willing to risk discerning the truth for the time and place we are in (for fear of turning truth into dogma). This is not my critique. This is for example Slavoj Zizek’s agitation with deconstructive philosophy when he argues that post structuralism produces “… an endless quasi-poetical variation on the same theoretical assumption, a variation which does not produce anything new … a flabby poeticism …which does not affect the place from which we speak.” (Zizek The Sublime Object of Ideology p. 155). In effect we are ever listening to one another, deconstructing, never discerning the truth for this time and place. We never have an impact in real lives, real circumstances, and real society. And so Zizek and Badiou saw little fruit for political revolution in the ongoing never ending variations produced by the Derridians.

We may not worry about this problem when we hold off making discernments regarding the moral status of gay relations in the church (as I think Dan was pointing to in Brian McLaren’s now infamous Out of Ur CT piece). But what if we conducted discernment in this same manner in regards to matters of social justice. Here, the fear is, we would ever be deconstructing voices, hesitant to offer moral discernment for times and places where injustice demands it be addressed, and be addressed immediately. I personally think the gay relations issue of our time is a situation in need of moral discernment and concrete engagement for justice in the same way as are the impoverished of the Third World are in need or the victimized of Darfur genocide are in need. Certainly “the gay relations issue”is not as urgent, but it is still as much an issue of justice, reconciliation as are the other issues. Was Brian McLaren’s call for a five year moratorium on discerning the “gay relations” issue in the church a revealing of the flaw in deconstructive method? Probably not. Nonetheless, my point is that deconstructive conversation has the propensity to forgo making a landing to give moral direction for those afflicted with injustice or moral confusion (although thankfully this is not how it in fact is carried out in real life). So I think a fair and serious question is, are not the justice issues of the gay relations crisis in the church worthy of as much “on the ground” engagement for justice as the global warming crisis? Are we offering any help to those entangled in the gay relations crisis by prolonging the conversation? Whether it be the social solution that needs be addressed (ala liberal democracy) or the moral confusion?

Of course there is another theological direction in all of this. There is a theological avenue to turn onto that inherently keeps the conversation open, which seeks to hear all of the voices, that resists foreclosure on the Truth, that carries within it the thread of “weak theology” in its allegiance to the model of Christ in Phil 2. And I have often pointed in this direction. It is the way of Story, an embodied tradition (McIntyre), open communities of witness (Yoder), Narrative (McIntyre, Hauerwas), the Drama of God’s Mission (Vanhoozer), an ethics of participation (Milbank). All of postmodernity’s learnings from post foundationalism, the linguistic turn, the rejection of metaphysics of presence, onto theology, power is knowledge is here. Yet there is the necessity of concrete discernment through the Spirit, beneath the canons of Scripture, in community, in the historical extension of the Body of Christ.

I am sure there is good deconstructive theology that engages justice. Indeed I know there is. Derrida himself addressed this issue later in his career. Nonetheless, there is an inherent weakness in deconstructive theology when it comes to forming a politics that engages truth and justice “on the ground.” In summary, I want a theology of conversation AND I want a theology “that lands!!!”

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