Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Spirituality of Deconstruction

The questions raised in the comments of my last post are worth another post. I have used the word deconstruction. What is that? You could look it up in the dictionary or read books about it (which I recommend). I will give you my understanding. In a simple sentence, deconstruction is the task of exposing the subjectivity of narratives previously considered objective.

Deconstruction demonstrates that what has been presented as absolute truth is a human construct. An example in politics was the movement from the Divine Right of Kings toward democracy. This is beautifully illustrated in Monty Python's In Search of the Holy Grail. Check out this scene. My favorite line is from the snarky peasant to King Arthur: "You cannot claim absolute power because some watery tart throws a sword at you!"

In literature, particularly sacred literature, deconstruction shows how the narratives reveal the author's subjectivity, context, and prejudices. Think of the critiques of the Qur'an. The Qur'an is viewed by most Muslims as the revealed word of God through Muhammed. Deconstruction demonstrates that these narratives are re-tellings of other narratives or they reflect the political or philosophical situation of Muhammed or his time period.

We use deconstruction in evaluating another person's assertions. My father often says, "consider the source." Rather than take something that someone says as objective truth at face value, we deconstruct what they have said based on their background, prejudices, and so forth. Even as we deconstruct or evaluate others, we, too, have a background and prejudices that we often do not see.

Deconstruction is a continual process. We cannot live without deconstruction. We do it all of the time. It is the foundation of learning. Of course, we are often more skilled at deconstructing the truths of others rather than our own truths. Because others see things about us or our truths that we do not, we have blind spots. No one is immune from this. No one has an all-seeing eye. The best we can do is to put ourselves in conversation.

It is disconcerting to be deconstructed! We resist having our own prejudices exposed. We resist having our beliefs relativized. When this happens, usually, after a period of denial, we come to accept that what we once thought was Truth is not as absolute as we once thought it was. It is difficult to live without truths, so we construct another truth (or think that we have discovered another truth).

Because deconstruction is painful, there is a temptation to construct something quickly just to calm this anxiety. I think of college students or seminary students (including myself, of course) who go through the painful process of learning that what they thought was absolute is relative. Some despair and quit altogether. Some try to shore up the old constructs. Some let go, experience the anxiety, and see what happens.

Pain is not the final word for deconstruction. Liberation is the last word. I titled this post the spirituality of deconstruction because deconstruction is a spiritual path. It is also called the via negativa or the way of letting go. It is the letting go of our constructs. Another way of putting it is that we let go of God in order to find God. Once we name God, that name becomes a construct subject to deconstruction.

One image of spirituality is a ladder that we climb or a building we ascend. The spiritual image for deconstruction might be a free-fall. The constructs on which we stand crumble and we fall only to land on another construct. We stay there for a while, experiencing this truth and then free-fall again. As the climb up the ladder leads ultimately to God, so the free-fall ultimately leads to God. Rather than climb to God, we fall to God.

One of the constructs of Christianity that has been crumbling is the claim that its sacred texts and creeds are objectively real or true. They were considered true because they could be verified historically or objectively. The texts or the creeds described how the world is or so we thought. Copernicus (cosmology), Darwin (origin of species), and D. F. Strauss (biblical criticism) are some of the pioneers in deconstructing the Christian narrative, even though they didn't necessarily set out to do that.

The stories of the birth of Jesus, for instance, were considered to be true because they happened. They were thought to be historical or real in the objective sense of the word. This is the construct that is crumbling. Of course many are in denial and attempt to shore up this construct. Ultimately, we are in free fall. The reason we know this is that we are debating it. Not only is the debate in the circles of higher learning, it is on the lips and in the ears of the populace. The days of the historical objectivity of the Christian narrative are numbered.

Once the historicity or the objectivity of the narratives (say the infancy narratives) crumbles with what are we left? Where do we land? Some feel it is the duty of the scholar or the clergyperson to build a construct for us. I have often heard my colleagues say something to this effect: "Don't take something away without giving them something." Don't, in other words, deconstruct the text (or a belief) without providing a construct for the text (or another belief).

I think that is too tall an order. No clergyperson or scholar can build a construct for us. We are on our own. That is the liberation of deconstruction. I, as a clergyperson, cannot tell you what a text means, what belief you should have, or how to construct your faith. I can only tell you where I have been and what I see. I can also point to others who have gone through a similar process. I can say that wherever I land, this landing will also eventually crumble. And that is a good thing. We are continually in the process of deconstructing our idols.

Landing on a construct is not in itself a bad thing any more than climbing to a higher rung on the ladder is a bad thing. Both are true for the moment. The key is that our experience of the new construct feels like discovery not invention. It is invention, but we think it is discovery. The new construct upon which we have landed is experienced as something that is true and not a construct. It is only after we have been there for a while, that we recognize that it is a construct. Then we are ready to deconstruct it and free-fall toward God again.

If you are finding yourself in a free-fall, you don't have to despair. If the foundations upon which your beliefs have been built are crumbling and you are falling, consider that spiritual awareness. You will land on something that will be even better and more liberating. Others on the path of spiritual deconstruction can be your guides. They may provide temporary places to land. Enjoy the landings too.

Specifics. Given what I have already said that everything I will say is a construct even though I do not yet recognize it, where am I at this point with the infancy stories?

1) Because they draw from other myths, legends, and archetypes, that is their strength. They touch on larger themes of what it means to be human. The child, the virgin, the son of god, the angel heralds, the magi, following the star, are deep symbols for journey towards authentic humanity.

2) I think at this time for Americans in our flirtation with Empire, they speak powerfully and prophetically to that temptation for absolute power and control (ie. Herod and Caesar). God rescues and guides the hero in the nick of time. The poor, the despised, and the powerless are the anointed in God's kingdom.

3) The incarnation is that the Divine is born within us. God dwells with us, or in that wonderful phrase, "pitches a tent" with us. In the song by Joan Osborne, the Sacred becomes "...just a slob like one of us, a stranger on the bus." That which we have considered to be the slob, the stranger, the filthy is Divine. The filthy manger is God's throne. When we think we are too filthy for God, God becomes that filth so we can see that we are in God's image. As it says in another sacred text: Christ is not ashamed to be our brother.

These narratives are filled with powerful images and prophetic messages. Take your pick. Plunge into them. Allow their life to embrace you.

That is where I am at this point, until I become deconstructed once again and fall further into the depths of God.