Deconstructing belief

March 9, 2013

in Some Things to Think About

elijah on the mountainWarning. This post may upset your accustomed way of thinking about your beliefs. However, in the spirit of what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, I offer some reflections on the state of belief in the post-postmodern world. In a nutshell, belief is under attack from every direction — but we can also ‘deconstruct’ those attacks as well.

Getting your arms around belief.

I am a voracious and eclectic reader. Not only of what is currently being written but also what was said centuries even thousands of years in the past. I feel sometimes like I’m standing on a small island of belief in a furious ocean of contradictory ideas from reading all these books. But I also sense that it has always been this way, for every thinking person, and there’s some comfort in that. [People who are ‘aggressively non-reflective’ live on a solid but illusory continent of their own making, built out of sensation and experience. In my opinion, they are simply postponing the inevitable question of ‘what does it all mean?’]

We are now at a point where all the conflict about the rationality of having a belief has arrived at an impasse. We are entering what I wouild call the post-postmodern era. Consider several quotes about our current situation:

  • “By the late twentieth century [the Western mind] had largely dissolved the foundations of the modern world view, leaving the contemporary mind increasingly bereft of established certainties, yet also fundamentally open in ways it had never been before.” [1]
  • “A new integration will be based on the rejection of all univocal understandings of reality, of all identifications of one conception of reality with reality itself. It will recognize the multiplicity of the human spirit, and the necessity to translate constantly between different scientific and imaginative vocabularies.” [2]
  • “Deconstruction holds that nothing is ever entirely itself. There is a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity. . . There is something within any structure that is part of it but also escapes its logic.” [3]
  • “There is an enormous difference between the dead letter and the living word.” [4]

What these authors seem to promise about belief is that new beliefs emerge constantly in human history, even now, if we are open to that possibility. My question is, what does this mean for Christians?

Christian and secular belief

Because we are human, we experience the storm of ideas in the era in which we live. Christians would like to believe that our little island of belief is built on rock — the solid foundations of the Old and New Testament as well as the Church’s careful study and insights into these. But even inside these solid beliefs there is, as Derrida pointed out “a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity.” And as Bellah also pointed out, the “living word” can’t be contained within human structures of knowledge. In our belief, Jesus is the eternal living Word — and God is not finished with our understanding of what He is doing with us and the world.

What does all this mean then? For one thing the foundation to Christian belief is very different than the basis for secular belief. Secular belief struggles with questions about what is real and true. Christians struggle with questions of what ultimate reality and truth is saying to us. One makes human knowledge its foundation, and the other uses human knowledge to understand what its foundation (God) is saying. Essentially one foundation is built on ever shifting quicksand and the other is built on eternally reliable rock.

My take away about belief in the post-postmodern era is that Christians must ever seek to understand in the light of the latest human knowledge what the living God is saying in our time. Does this mean giving up our beliefs? No, but it does mean distinguishing between what is of God and what is of man in our beliefs. This requires reflection and prayer, in a time of great conceptual storms that seem to be on the verge of overwhelming our little island of belief. What is God saying? As it happened to Elijah, it is happening to us: “He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ The Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, nor the fire but in a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” [1 Kings 19:11-13, condensed]

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[1] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind

[2] Robert Bellah, Beyond Belief

[3] Terry Eagleton, reviewing a biography of Jacques Derrida in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 2-3, 2013

[4] Robert Bellah. Beyond Belief

 

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