Bible study, Jaques Derrida, and Postmodernism

Here is a great little explanation about the problem often seen in bible studies, I add it because it has a lot to say about how we read what we read. This is especially important when it comes to God’s word. Todd Friel discusses here the nature of Postmodern Deconstruction as stemming from Jaques Derrida.

In their book From Plato to Derrida, Forrest Baird and Walter Kaufmann explain Derrida’s appeal against modern philosophy:

“Derrida believe that Western philosophy is built upon a “Metaphysics of Presence”: upon, that is to say, the idea that there is an origin of knowledge from which “truth” can be made present. Philosophy has always seen itself as the arbiter of reason, the discipline that adjudicates what is and is not. Forms of writing other than philosophical discourse, such as poetic or literary writing, have been judged as inferior, and removed from the truth. In Of Grammatology, Derrida calls this positing of a center that can situate certainty Logocentrism. Philosophy thinks it can talk about “meaning” through a language unsullied by the imprecision of metaphors. Au Contraire! Philosophical discourse is not privileged in any way, and any attempt to explain what “meaning” means will self-destruct. Put more precisely, the signifiers of language systems cannot refer to a transcendental signified originating in the mind of the speaker because the “signified” is itself created by the conventional, and hence arbitrary, signifiers of language. Signifiers therefore merely refer to other signifiers (e.g., words refer only to other words). The “meaning” is always deferred and Presence is never actually present. Signifiers attain significance only in their differences from each other (the signifier “cat” is neither “cap” nor “car”) or in what they define themselves against (“to be asleep” is understood in contrast to “to be awake”).” (pg. 1176)

By showing that words only have meaning in relation to different words, he is attempting to break down the “Meta-narrative.” Ravi Zacharias, in a European Missions Conference, explains it this way:

“When you or I look at a text, or look at a narrative, we come to it from a Meta-narrative perspective. There are some assumptions that we already bring to the text that helps us make sense out of the text itself. One of the things we would assume is that when the writer uses the word particular, he means exactly that and we are not trying to fuse it with something other than that. Postmodernism came and basically through away the Meta-narrative. There is no superstructure on the basis of which to look at the text itself and there is no way to make absolute statements of a metaphysical nature, particularly. Issue’s of goodness, of virtue, of religion, the existence of God, the nature of self; these are metaphysical matters. And they said that you cannot possibly have a single vision on that theory and say this is the absolute nature on that particular subject.”

Later he explains their epistemology in shorter words:

“It (postmodernism) is based on an epistemology that holds to the limitless instability of words.”

However, it is interesting that through all of this Derrida expects us to find what he is writing to be meaningful, and might even assume we can understand what he is trying to express with his words. This is the somewhat self-contradictory nature of the movement. While Postmodernism is now applied to Ethics and Metaphysics (philosophy of reality), it began as a literary critique. The principle attack is on an epistemological level (philosophy of truth and how we know what we know). Key men in this movement were  Jean-François Lyotard, Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, and Jaques Derrida. It was a critique with our ability to derive meaning from what is written, and gave the reader, rather than the author, sovereignty over the meaning in the text. While it is a philosophical movement, I would agree with Ravi Zacharias (a Christian philosopher and apologist) in saying that it is more of a mood than a philosophy. In the next video Ravi talks about Postmodernism and how it is played out in America.

This mood is now prevalent in America whether people know they believe it or not. This is a serious issue because it is inherently anti-biblical. It also leads to a sort of relativism of meaning. Since meaning cannot be found inherent in the text, and everyone approaches the text differently, how can anyone say their meaning is superior or more true than others? You see this expressed in comments such as, “your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth?” or “there are so many different opinions out there, how can you believe that yours is right?” Those questions are not trying to set up their own standard of truth, they are trying to break down our ability to know the truth. Thus comes the term “deconstructionism”, they are deconstructing our ability to know understand. However, Jesus had a different way of understanding meaning within the text. When condemning the Pharisee’s Jesus says:

“And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” (John 5:37-40)

Jesus has a fundamental assumption here, that the scriptures are clear and the meaning is able to be derived from them. The Pharisee’s are held responsible for reading the scriptures that testified to Jesus and refusing to believe. It shows that the words in the text are clear, and that we are able to understand their meaning. We will all be responsible for how we handle the word of God.

Baird, Forrest E. and Walter Kaufmann. From Plato to Derrida: Third Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 2000. Print

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One thought on “Bible study, Jaques Derrida, and Postmodernism

  1. Pingback: “Derrida” The Movie | Senselogi©

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