New Frontiers in Public Theology

Below is the text of my recent talk as part of a panel on the future of public theology at the New Frontiers in Theology conference.  The conference was hosted by the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology, and I was thrilled to be a part of it!


I’m always frustrated by academics who only want to quarrel with the topic as presented or with the questions prompting them…and here I am about to do that very thing.  I wonder if one of the things to which we need to say goodbye is the post-Enlightenment, modernist assumption that there exists a neat separation between public and private spheres (or that any such spheres exist at all).  In recent years a number of thinkers have challenged this public/private binary, including Jeffrey Robbins and Clayton Crockett, as well as process-influenced thinkers like Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler.  In not so recent years, I’d argue that Alfred North Whitehead and Theodor Adorno had already demonstrated the distinction between public and private to be a product of Enlightenment thinking that favored the world of public fact and objectivity over the messy subjectivity of private life.  Religion, of course, was relegated to the private sphere with the assumption that one’s inner religious convictions either wouldn’t or needn’t play out in the “rationally ordered” public sphere.  However, as many of us have learned from process metaphysics, and as other postmodern counterparts have affirmed, such a neatly cordoned off inner subjectivity is a farce.  Indeed, the separation between subjects and objects is much more fluid than our Enlightened predecessors once thought.  In a Whiteheadian world, in a postmodern world, even in the world of quantum physics, this separation of subjects from each other or of subjects from objects just doesn’t make sense.  Rather, entities and occasions are inextricably linked, bound together, in more ways than we can fathom—and our theology ought to reflect this interconnection.

So after the death of this binary distinction, how are we to describe “public theologies” and what are the new frontiers of public theologies?

Oddly enough, I want to begin talking about the future by first retreating to the past, to the older origin of this term ‘public,’ which is the Latin root ‘poplicus,’ meaning ‘of the people.’  If we imagine trajectories of public theology as stemming from this root, then I’d suggest that public theology is theology of the people—theology that both addresses people and in which people find their needs addressed.  We certainly can (and probably should) discuss who we mean by ‘people’ or who we see as our ‘public/s’, but I’ll just say that, unlike the current US government, I’m in favor of erring on the side of inclusivity.

I want to give three possibilities for how theology of the people might look.  None of these are stand-alone proposals for a public theology, but rather are overlapping aspects that correspond in various ways to produce theologies of the people, theologies that are tied to occasions and events as they constitute our becoming.

First, doing or constructing public theologies means getting messy.  Theology has to encounter, confront, and respond to increasingly messy realities. The present moments in which we do our theologizing find us mired in crises whose past, present, and future intersect and collide in multiple ways.  Climate change, economics, racism, nationalism, and classism coincide to compound their effects and cannot be disentangled from each other.  As a result, people (including our publics) are suffering.

To return briefly to the collapse of the public/private distinction I mentioned at the beginning, though Theodor Adorno lived and wrote in a time prior to the postsecular turn, he had already argued for the erasure of the imaginary line between the two, suggesting that religion needs to re-engage with the world by “secularizing” itself, rather than remaining “isolated and inflated.”  He wrote that “Nothing of theological content will persist without being transformed; every content will have to put itself to the test of migrating into the realm of the secular, the profane,” by which he meant not a process of securalization, but rather a movement of religion back into the public realm—the erasure of the line between public and private.  If theological content is to survive, then it must address the concerns and the suffering present in the world instead of merely maintaining an interior orientation and focusing solely on transcendence.

To follow Adorno’s lead, today we might talk about the migration of theological content into the messiness of our intertwined 21st century crises.  This content must address the crises not from above or as something that is itself removed or outside of the crises, but as equally intertwined and implicated within the crises.  Public theologians recognize the degree to which they too are effected by the compound complications of the 21st century and they write/theologize from within this web and to this complicated entanglement.  The public theologian’s voice must truly be “of the people” and not above or beyond the people.

This probably means that public theologies spend less time on doctrinal disputes, unless those disputes have a bearing on how a person interacts with the world and with those around her or him on a daily basis. Additionally, while public theologies name the truth of an event and call for responses to events, they are uninterested in zero-sum truth games or exclusivist claims.  The goal is not to proclaim that one has found the Truth, but to focus on the real needs of the publics this theology serves.

The second point I want to make about how public theologies might look is that addressing the multiple and interrelated crises facing our world inevitably means also sticking one’s theological toe into the pool of politics.  Since this is the case, we might question to what degree public theology also includes political theology.  Does a theology of the people at least mean having a theologically informed sense for why and how we should structure and lead our societies?  I think yes, in part.  Public theology, as I’m describing it, is more than political theology, but political theology is certainly a component, and an increasingly important one, of public theologies.  After the death of the binary, when we realize how intertwined and inseparable our supposed public and private lives really are, it seems as though our private convictions can’t but assert themselves in public matters.  In other words, our theological views certainly ought to inform our political choices and the way in which we fashion our lives together.  The difficult part is figuring out exactly how to do so with integrity, inclusivity, and conviviality in a pluralistic world.

Political theology has, perhaps rightfully, gotten a bad wrap after Carl Schmitt’s authoritarian structures and state of exception became the only memory associated with the term.  However, I suggest that there are ways of describing and enacting public political theologies that move us away from fascist authoritarianism and nationalism rather than toward it.  Instead of formulating a political theology out of conceptions of the divine as authoritative, perhaps we can re-conceive political theology as based upon a conception of God as lovingly persuasive.  As so frequently happens when I read Catherine Keller’s books, I discovered that these thoughts in my head where not in fact original, but had already been thought by others—several others.  Ochoa Espejo, taking her cue from John Cobb’s Process Theology as Political Theology, describes precisely this move as a correction to Schmitt’s secularization of omnipotent and omniscient sovereignty.  And Keller adds that building a theological political theology using Whiteheadian panentheism in fact leads us away from the sovereign as exception and toward the idea of political leaders as chief exemplifications of the societies they help to oversee.

At present it’s safe to say that this new way of conceiving political theology based on an understanding of God as lovingly persuasive will likely only serve a critical function.  The current political machine and presidential administration still operate in terms of powerful sovereigns and states of emergency, and turning this tide is unlikely to happen quickly.  Yet this critical function of public political theologies is still vital, particularly today.  In the name of national security, our political leaders place us in seemingly permanent states of emergency in order to wield wild abuses of power.  We absolutely need public political theologies that are critical of this ideology and able to offer a viable alternative.

The final thought I want to offer is that public theologies are interdisciplinary and multivalent—they make use of art, poetry, film, music, and pop culture to both criticize and construct.  Public theologies employ these media and cultural components in a reflective manner by considering how our publics synthesize experience into art and then allow that art in turn to form new experiences.  Public theologians can work alongside artists, filmmakers, and musicians to call attention to their expressions, to form criticisms of social oppressions, and to reflect on the public’s engagement with their work.

By working across disciplines, and especially with the arts, public theologies can conjure up events that somehow dislodge us from our ingrained patterns, from stasis, toward something novel.  When we’re brought out of what Whitehead calls outworn perfection, then concrete action tends to follow.  I think that public theologies ought to take seriously how this interdisciplinary approach might look among various publics and what sort of ideas or patterns need to be dislodged and critiqued through engagement with the arts.

I see these three trajectories as marking interesting and fruitful modes of public theology as we move into the future.  An ability to engage the multifaceted and complex crises of the 21st century, a willingness to confront the political in a critical mode, and the capability of cross-disciplinary collaboration will enable public theologies to dislodge outworn perfection and produce the novel becomings for a better future together.

Empty time and Now time

The second week of Advent brought us prophetic passages from Isaiah (11:1-10) that look forward to an idealistic time that seems entirely incompatible with the present.  “On that day,” wolves and lambs will live together, leopards will lie down with young goats, and a little child will lead the whole operation.  Such an occurrence would be something out of the ordinary indeed–wholly other from what we know as our current reality.

In the reading from Isaiah and among the critical theories and postmodern philosophies that shape my worldview, there is a structural or fundamental difference between time as we experience it and the time of the event that ruptures our current reality.  For Isaiah, the time in which such wildly pastoral events might happen is the time of the “to come,” an as-yet-unknown future, but one toward which we should look with active anticipation.  For Walter Benjamin, the difference stood between what he called a homogenous, empty time and the time of the now (Jetztzeit).  The former would be our ordinary conception of time as a series of moments, each more or less the same in terms of measurement and content.  The later, however, is the time of the now (but not necessarily the time of the present) that fills up the present moment.  This now time is pregnant or full of something new, something different, something other than the homogeneity or sameness of empty time.  In fact, it’s so full that when it gets itself inserted into homogenous, empty time Benjamin says that it blasts open the historical continuum.  The content of the time of the now is so potent that the present cannot fully contain it, at least not in the way that the present currently appears.  This now time, this event that gets itself realized, occurs in such a way as to alter the historical continuum, altering the homogenous present by inserting something new, something wholly other, such that the present can’t not respond.

Benjamin’s time of the now alludes to an eternal time in which the ordinary progression of time comes to a halt.  Time is at a standstill.  In Derrida’s (and Jack Caputo’s) terms, the arrival of the event interrupts the present in such a way that we are arrested, brought to a standstill, in the face of the event.  Isaiah too seems to long for this sort of arrival of the future, as he describes it in such a way that humans would be confronted with occurences that they couldn’t understand, couldn’t possibly fathom under present conditions.

Yet this shock of the time of the now, the standstill of time, allows us a moment to pause and arrange our thoughts.  For Benjamin, at least, the now time allows thinking to be arrested and to crystalize or become a constellation:  “Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystalizes into a monad.”  When we’re able to examine this monad, this crystallization of thought, we see the world not as it is, but rather as it might be.  And in this moment the messianic, the “to come,” flashes up, providing us a glimpse of what is always on the horizon.

It is only in the time of the now that, in Benjamin’s terms, something different might cross our horizon and enter our reality.  For Derrida, the wholly other does not come when or how we might expect, but rather it appears as the impossibility that surprises us by becoming possible.  For both, the goal is to blast open the homogenous time or the economy of the same that permeates our present reality.  Our call then is to grab ahold of the time of the now, to make the best of the standstill to arrange our thoughts such that the “to come” might show itself and alter our reality in profound ways.

Something different is coming and must come.  “On that day” things will not be as they are, but right relations will prevail–relations of equality, relations of justice, relations of peace.

That Which is To Come – Thoughts on Advent

For Christians, Advent is a time of expectation and anticipation, a time that we look toward a coming event.  The traditional scripture readings used in most churches for these four weeks leading up to Christmas point toward this expectation as hopeful anticipation of an event in which the structures of our world will be radically changed, turned upside down.  This hopeful anticipation involves waiting and desiring that which is to come.

But there’s a problem here.

In this particular Advent season many of us don’t feel all that hopeful; nor do we much feel like waiting.  Our political, social, and economic situations leave us desiring that which is to come–the promise of an event that might overturn our present conditions.  Hate crimes are on the rise; the divide between a wealthy elite and the low and middle class is growing; and young persons of color are killed in the name of “law and order.”  We don’t feel like waiting with hopeful anticipation.  In fact, for many the future may seem more hopeless than hopeful, and waiting seems like a panacea meant to lull us into complacency.  Our Advent reflections then lead us to question whether any hope in the face of seeming hopelessness is possible.  And what right do we have to ask people to wait when they’re already hungry for peace, justice, and equality?

John Caputo’s radical theology puts a different spin on the Christian season of Advent by focusing on the “to come.”  As a singular event (an occurrence like no other), the “to come” is that which will alter our reality in profound ways.  The coming lies in the future at some unknown but expected point.  For Caputo, as for Derrida and others, the coming should be anticipated, though it is deferred.  It is always not yet, always on its way.  Its arrival lies ever on the horizon, giving us a glimpse of that which is to come, but without a complete image of the event itself.  The “to come” brings with it the peace, justice, and equality that we desire…but not yet.  It turns around our present circumstances into more life-giving and life-sustaining ways of being…but not yet.

However, while this “to come” is oriented toward the future and always not quite present, that which is to come does not turn a blind eye to the here-and-now; it does not leave us high and dry in our current conditions.  Rather, that which is coming calls us and impinges upon us in significant ways, urging us to respond in the present to the call of a future coming.  “It calls us, it solicits us, it urges us, it lures us toward the future,” says Caputo.

What is this future that it urges us and lures us toward?  It is the expected and anticipated future in which the structures of the world will be radically altered in the name of peace, justice, and equality.  Caputo says “The to come shines a white light of urgency on the present, and it exposes all the faults of the present.” The urging does not mean that these structures will change overnight or that when we wake up on Christmas day all will be well in the world.  But it insists that we should not simply be waiting.  We should be working, in whatever small way that we can to kindle a glimpse of the “to come” in the present, among the brokenness of the world.

If we are waiting this Advent season, let our waiting be active rather than passive.  Let us respond to the call of the “to come,” and let our expectation and anticipation motivate us to work toward that which we are awaiting.

Damaged Life and Opportunities for Redemption

Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.  That claim cannot be settled cheaply.

We live in interesting times, divisive times, critical times.  This week we are coming to terms with a political reality ripe with irony–in the name of change we have chosen that which most resembles the past.  While the Trump campaign couched itself in rhetoric of change–political reform, shoving out corruption and greed, making America great…again–our country has in fact reinstalled a political regime reliant on fear, complicit with corporate greed, and largely supportive of racist and xenophobic policies.  The fact that so many are either oblivious to the irony or implicitly supportive of reanimating some of the most harmful and unjust attitudes to have found popularity in our nation makes us question to what degree we’ve made true progress on issues of racism, sexism, and classism.  In fact the very idea that we can “make America great again” harkens back to a modern notion of progress that needs critical attention.

Birthed out of the Enlightenment, the idea of progress was heralded as the notion that we were making ever greater strides as human beings.  History had developed and continued to unfold in such a way that brought us ever-closer to greatness, perfection.  Or at least this was the belief.  Such unabashed faith in progress continued through the beginning of the 20th century, in what we call modernity.  Cultural, scientific, industrial, economic, and political progress brought wide-spread change across the globe (though particularly in the northern hemisphere) with the growth of cities, improvements in medicine, and scientific advance.  However, the uncritical acceptance of the myth of progress turned a blind eye to other things that grew and worsened during and after the Enlightenment–things such as the slave trade, the beginnings of colonialism, exploitation of workers around the globe, and the growth of systems that squashed anything that tried to step outside the apparatus.

After two horrific world wars and a Holocaust, the unflinching notion of progress came crashing down.  Philosophers associated with the Frankfurt School–a group of leftwing Hegelians committed to critiques of the social, political, economic, and artistic structures and standards of the mid-20th century–wrote extensively against romanticizing progress and glossing over what Theodor Adorno calls “damaged life.”  Adorno’s friend and colleague Walter Benjamin critiqued the notion of progress in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” a collection of fragments or short paragraphs on our understanding of history penned just before his untimely death while attempting to escape the Nazis in 1940.  The eighteen fragments that make up his theses discuss the past and our own relationship to the past, particularly the harmful or horrific past.

As a good critical theorist, Benjamin reminds us that we have to keep our focus on the suffering of damaged life.  We cannot simply turn away from the world and toward the transcendent or “great beyond” because doing so would mean ignoring the pain of the past, refusing to deal with the deleterious aspects of the past in the present. Nowhere is angelus-novusthis more poignantly clear than in Thesis IX where Benjamin refers to Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, writing, “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”[1] The angel, whose back is turned to the future, has lingered with its gaze upon the ever-increasing pile of wreckage in the past and is now caught in a storm, being pushed backward into the future, so to speak.  “This storm is what we call progress,” writes Benjamin.  The angel of history appears powerless against the onslaught of suffering that damaged life unfolds.  There’s no chance of stopping and binding the wounds of the victims of progress, since progress keeps pushing the angel further.

Benjamin gives us a bleak picture of progress as a catastrophe that keeps piling up the wreckage of whatever gets caught in its wake.  But the point is not simply to instill a pessimistic outlook or to claim that nothing positive has happened in the last hundred and fifty years.  Rather, his image of the angel of history reminds us that we can never forget about or gloss over damaged life.  The angel demonstrates how the reality of damaged life alters the way that we approach both the past and the future–it changes how we remember and how we work toward a better future.

For Benjamin our relation to the past and the future is marked by Messianism, particularly the weak Messianism of humanity, which he introduces in Thesis II.  He writes that the past “carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption,” and Benjamin sees this redemption as taking place through the weak Messianic power with which humans are endowed.  His weak Messianism means remembering the past–redeeming the past by refusing to forget or gloss over the tragedies and harmful events that keep piling up.  Only humanity’s own weak Messianic power proves to be a match for the oppressive and destructive conditions of reality, and it’s only through this critical perspective that we can hope to change our reality from a history of suffering and oppression to a less oppressive future.

All of this matters because in the race toward ever-greater things we must remain critically aware of what “progress” leaves behind or tosses aside.  When progress begins to look like economic growth for a select group of people, or when progress begins to entail a homogenized society, then we’d better be aware that in the wake of such progress lies exploitation, imprisonment, and expulsion for whole groups of people who get left behind and tossed aside.

Our weak Messianic power to remember and redeem, to keep our gaze focused on damaged life is only the beginning.  Benjamin does not show us the goal, but only marks this starting point, offering us critical reminders about the way we recall the past and approach the future.  Nevertheless, his words are a significant and timely call to arouse this weak power within each of us, to which the past has a claim and out of which a better future might be built.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 257.

Theopoiesis and a process

The temporal movement of theopoetics has been long and rhythmic, pulsing along at some points faster than at others.  And just as its historical lineage is vast, so too are its present-day branches.  From the Biblical hermeneutics of Amos Wilder and Stanley Hopper, to its deconstructive instantiations in John Caputo’s The Insistence of God, to Roland Faber and Catherine Kellers’ theopoetics as a branch of process thought, to Anne Michelle Carpenter’s work on Balthasar’s aesthetics as a theology of poetry, the varieties of theopoetics are great in number and ever-increasing.  Like David Russell Moseley, I am grateful for this plurality of theo-poets and for such diverse conversation partners along this endeavor.

Moseley’s recent post, responding to Callid Keefe-Perry’s interview with Wipf & Stock and to Anne Michelle Carpenter’s book Theo-Poeticsdifferentiates between theopoetics as against theology and theopoetics as an inherent part of theology, siding with the later and taking issue with the former.  Process theopoetics, the form of theopoetics out of which I (mostly) work, is often characterized as anti-theological because it does indeed take issue with the logos portion of theo-logy.  Just as Raimon Panikkar reminds us, theological language cannot be made clear and precise, because such language always misses part of that which it attempts to disclose.  For this reason, process theopoetics seeks to supplement the logos of theology with the poiesis of theopoiesis to denote a continual “making” or creating of the world and the divine-world relation, instead of claiming clear and distinct statements about God as final and complete.  To be sure, the goal is not to get rid of the logos as the ordering function of theology, but to call attention to the fact that something always escapes our theological and philosophical statements about the divine.

In her chapter “Theopoiesis and the Pluriverse” in Theopoetic FoldsCatherine Keller writes at length on the etemylogical origin of the word theopoiesis and the early church fathers who first used this term.  Clement, Iranaeus, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea all understood the term as invoking a sort of deification–literally making divine.  The goal, whether aimed at via mysticism or simply by the work of Christ through the church, was for us to be made divine.  Keller notes here that Whitehead doesn’t disaffirm such a view, but rather takes it and radicalizes it.  In very metaphysical ways, Whitehead understands the world as becoming like God and perhaps even as becoming God.  Through his panentheism (all within God), he envisions a side to God that continually receives the entire content of the world into God’s self as it unfolds.  Moreover, by way of God being the highest exemplification of metaphysical principles rather than an exception, entities in the world become what they are in just the same way that God becomes what God is.  And entities in the world become what they are in response to God’s insistent calling, thereby taking God’s urges and actualizing them in the world.  In process terms, theopoiesis is radicalized because such deification doesn’t stop with humans, but expands to all entities within the world.  Every little “thing” that constitutes the world comes into existence in this way.

This making-divine of the world becomes intensely active and convivial (to use Keller’s word) in process theopoetics because of the relation between God and the world in this panentheistic sense.  God becomes as the world becomes, and the world becomes as God becomes.  God calls and the world responds.  The world responds and God reformulates the call.  If such a process continues indefinitely (barring any cataclysmic end to the world), then one is better to talk of a theo-poetics than a theo-logy, as every attempt to classify, order, or pin down is always just short of the mark, a little too late, or not quite on the spot.

Radical Theology and Faith vs Belief

In honor of Paul Tillich’s birthday (20 August) what follows combines Tillich’s helpful reminder of what faith is not with John Caputo’s musings on what faith in a radical theology (a la Derrida) might become.

Tillich3I happened to flip through Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith today and was struck by his insistence upon the difference between faith and belief. Well, that isn’t quite true. I had actually gone in search of this chapter on What Faith Is Not. I am frequently in search of one thing or another these days, and this time I actually found what I was searching for. What I am really in search of is a weak theology, a radical theology that takes my restless searching seriously. This theology must be one that does not offer cheap answers to difficult questions, or it could be one that doesn’t offer answers at all. I am less interested in answers and more interested in questions. My purusal of Dynamics of Faith today reminded me that Tillich also was less interested in certainty (belief) and more interested in the state of being ultimately concerned (faith), or in pursuing something, searching after something with one’s whole being. According to Tillich, “The most ordinary misconception of faith is to consider it an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence” (Dynamics of Faith, 36). Accepting theoretical knowledge as fact is a matter of belief, not faith. Faith, on the other hand, is unconcerned with fact and is something much more radical. Tillich understands faith as the state of being ultimately concerned. He makes very clear that one’s ultimate concern must be a concern for the ultimate, which sounds like circular reasoning but really means that one can’t be ultimately concerned about something mundane, ordinary, or non-ultimate. For him this ultimate would be something metaphysically distinct from our reality. While I don’t want to go in the metaphysical direction with Tillich just yet, I appreciate the radicality of his understanding of faith. The matter of ultimate concern reorients one’s life and actions toward that concern. This is not a simple affirmation of a set of beliefs or doctrines, but a call to a different way of operating in the world. Hence, while belief may seem cheap and easy as a matter of assent, faith requires responsibility.

This piece of responsibility and human action as a result of faith resonates with Caputo’s statements on faith in The Insistence of God. Unlike Tillich, Caputo is not interested in metaphysics or even in claiming God’s ultimacy. Yet he is interested in a radical understanding of faith that again reorients one’s entire self toward a different and risky way of life. “I measure theology by the extent to which it avoids the pitfalls of a too-comforting piety…” writes Caputo (Insistence, 24). While belief and approximations to fact or theoretical knowledge may provide some comfort, this is quite possibly entirely antithetical to the Christian message. Faith for Caputo is faith in the event, the means by which we are called upon in the name of God. (for more on the event and radical theology, see this post) The very nature of the structure of events is such that they surprise us and impinge upon us in unsuspected ways, meaning that the comforting piety of belief simply won’t do. “If the name of God is not causing us a great deal of difficulty, it is not God we are talking about” (Insistence, 28). What gets itself called in the name of God, what arrives via the event is, like Tillich’s state of being ultimately concerned, a bit risky and shaky. There is no guarantee that all will be well, at least not in any immediate sense, but nevertheless our responsibility lies in responding to the call, to the event.

Life is messy and raises messy questions; therefore, easy answers just don’t work. Moreover, easy living misses the point. “God’s problem is that God insists, is an insistent problem that won’t go away…” (Insistence, 29). Such insistence requires something of us. If God insists and we exist, then our existence becomes the means by which God acts in the world. This radical theology is not a sit on your laurels, cling to your favorite worship song sort of theology, but is one that calls us out. Thus faithfulness to the event or faith as the state of being ultimately concerned does not rest in easy answers; it finds no solace in piety and prostration, but calls us out of church buildings and into the fray to deal with the messines of the world.

Derrida on metaphor

This post is the second in Alex and I’s series on Jesus and Derrida–an odd combination, I know. Before we dive into Alex’s sermon on John 3 (Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus), I want to give some background info on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida for those of you who might not be familiar with him.

Derrida-2Derrida was born in Algiers but spent most of his life in France, where he studied and eventually taught. He is famous (or infamous) for coming up with a philosophical method or procedure known as deconstruction, which is the process of turning upside down and examining the underlying structures, causes, and effects of things that we commonly take for granted. For instance, democracy is something we often discuss in the US (since we think, falsely, that we invented it) as an actual “thing,” as something that exists, when in reality, as Derrida would say, democracy does not exist but it calls to us or invites us to live democratically. When we flip democracy over and examine it we realize that it is an ideal, a principle, but that there’s nothing really there until we put it into practice. Furthermore, we also find out there are lots of ways and means of living out democracy, some of which actually end up being terribly anti-democratic. Law is another example Derrida uses to demonstrate that concepts are deconstructible. Laws also originate from some place and some time, and while they aim at inviting justice, laws themselves are not just…they are only what attempts to move us toward justice.

For the purposes of this blog series, there are a couple of things I want to say about Derrida’s philosophy. And in subsequent posts you’ll see why these concepts are important.

1. There is no direct correlation between a word and the thing toward which that word points. Derrida took the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure and deconstructed it to say that the signifier (the word) does not correspond directly and ultimately (as in all the time, forever) to a signified (the object the word denotes). For Saussure, the word tree, for example, always directly points to “the” concept of the tree. Derrida says, on the other hand, that the best we can say is that the signifier (word) points to another signifier, which probably also points to another signifier, and that we can likely never get back to the actual object (the signified). Though what remains is a trace of the signified, a trail that leads to the possibility of recovering the concept of the tree. What this looks like in practical speak is that when each of us hears the word tree we likely have different images of various trees pop into our heads, which leads us to believe that there isn’t any one fixed, settled concept of a tree that we all automatically see when we think of trees. Moreover, the word tree is fairly arbitrary. We could just as well agree to call it a flurb, since the word tree itself (though agreed upon for practical matters) has no relation to the physical objects.

2. Since there’s no direct correlation between words and concepts, but only a lot of words that attempt to articulate a concept as best as possible, then Derrida’s theory of metaphor is altered from what metaphor has traditionally meant. In a philosophical world where signifier points directly to signified (word “tree” points directly to concept “tree”), then we could understand metaphor as Aristotle did: metaphor occurs when a word stands in the place of another word. When this happens the new word, the metaphor, points to the original word, which in turn points to the concept. However, once the relationship between words and concepts has been deconstructed, then this theory of metaphor no longer holds. Derrida, in an essay called “White Mythology” wrote that all language is metaphorical because in every use of a word the word only points to other words and not to an actual concept. This denotes what he refers to as a “semantic loss,” meaning that language can never completely and clearly grasp the concepts that we once held dear as clear and distint. It doesn’t mean that we’re left in a world of confusion (like planet of the apes) in which there is no system of language. Obviously we all get by pretty well on a day to day basis while using words and attempting to get across a particular meaning (though clearly this too sometimes fails us). But what it does mean is that when we’re trying to talk about something difficult, there isn’t any easy way to do it, which brings me to point three.

3. What Derrida was really deconstructing in “White Mythology” has less to do with language per se and much more to do with logic and what the philosopher Heidegger called “onto-theology.” Onto-theology is a combination of theories of being with theories of God such that one’s theology is based off of how one understands what it means to exist. One consequence of onto-theology is that it renders God as a clear and distinct concept within one’s system of being. Onto-theology also ends up becoming what Derrida calls “white mythology,” by which he means that we take our own logical constructions and claim that there’s something eternal about them, that they are the very basis of reason in general. We build up reason out of our own logical myths, or we build up God out of our own logical myths. He thinks, and I agree, that this ends up being a dangerous proposition that can lead to all kinds of bad events. What does all this have to do with metaphor, you ask? Here it is… Derrida goes so far as to say that there are no concepts “behind” metaphor, but that metaphors and concepts are the same. Metaphor can’t properly articulate a clear and distinct concept because there are no clear and distinct concepts. All we have is metaphor. This he calls the death of philosophy, but really it is just the beginning of deconstruction. As John Caputo points out in numerous books, including The Insistence of God, deconstruction can be a helpful tool for theology because it gets us out of the game of taking our own logical constructs and calling them God and into the game of responding to God’s call in the world.