Deconstruction: Derrida, Theology, and John of the Cross

[Yahweh Elohim] brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.
Genesis 2:191

"But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."
Exodus 33:20

The structuralism for which Jacques Derrida has written an epitaph is a movement in linguistics that insists on the division of sign into signifier and signified. The signifier is "the set of sounds, or written marks, that is taken to designate an idea or concept" (Jacobs 1991: 173), and the signified the idea of the concept itself; "shoe," for example. The connection between the signifier "shoe" (in English) and the signified (the thing itself) is wholly relative to culture. That is, "shoe" could instead be:

"Plox" if we so desired, as long as we kept two things in mind: (1) there would need to be general agreement within the linguistic community that "plox" indicated this concept, and (2) the signifier "plox" must be distinguishable from all other signifiers, for the meaning of any given signifiers lies only in its difference from others. (Ibid. 173-174).

It is from this point that Derrida has criticized Western philosophy. This criticism is an attempt to show the violation of its own rules that Western thinking commits, and thus to dismantle, or deconstruct, it.

It must first be acknowledged that "deconstruction as an intellectual movement in the American academy has not remained within Derrida's control or subject to his direction" (Ibid. 173). Likewise, there are, or have been, other leading proponents of deconstruction in Europe itself; for example, Lyotard and even Foucault. And certainly Derrida's own thought has developed to a degree since the publication of his first major work, Of Grammatology. Nonetheless, it is necessary to encounter Of Grammatology to begin an understanding of Derrida. From Derrida, then, will come an understanding of deconstruction. And in the midst of it all, American writers, and the Derrida of a 1984 interview, will aid our understanding and discussion.

Still, it must be stated that such a focus on one man and one of his earliest works will bring an awareness that is quite provisional, an outline, temporary. That granted, then, some basic analysis will be offered, followed by a mitigated integration.

* * *

. . . there the LORD confused the language of the whole world.
Genesis 11:9

Words are trivial
Pleasures remain
So does the pain
Words are meaningless
And forgettable
--Depeche Mode, "Enjoy the Silence"

In discussing Derrida, it is necessary to understand his terms. This endeavor can become like grasping water, for the deconstructionist uses language in the sparkling dance of play. The deconstructionist uses language to show its contradictions, to erode the confidence that words do indeed reveal the wor(l)d behind them. Understanding, then, comes by keeping one foot in the logic system being deconstructed and one foot in the maze. But since there is that connection with the system, there is the possibility of understanding.

The key terms to explore are: differance, sous rature, trace, and logocentrism. Though these each carry varying importance, and though other terms provide helpful insight into Derridean deconstruction, under our present limitations, we can only approach the most significant terms in the most basic way.

Differance is the key Derridean term. It is a play on the French, "an economic concept designating the production of differing/deferring" (Derrida 1976:23). In fact, it is "the source of linguistic value" (Ibid. 52). That is, a word means because it is different from other words, and that meaning only arises out of the difference. As a result the presence of meaning is pushed further along beyond the edges of definition.

The foundation for this is based in the contradictions in Western metaphysics. In spoken discourse, the speaker and the hearer are immediately present to one another. Meaning and understanding are facilitated by means of presence. When discourse becomes written, however, the speaker/author is no longer present, and meaning is then hindered by absence.

It would seem, therefore, that as long as speaker and listener could always be present to one another, meaningful discourse could occur. But Derrida will not even allow this. He wrote Of Grammatology to show that writing's entire theory and form (including its technical aspects) infects and found human speech from its very origins.2

There is, then, even in speech, a presence and an absence in a sign's meaning. "[M]eaning is not immediately present in a sign. Since the meaning of a sign is a matter of what the sign is not, its meaning is always in some sense absent from it too" (Eagleton 1983:128). That is "shoe" means shoe both because it has some culturally fixed reference to the thing itself, and because it does not mean, for instance, cat.

Since "the original absence of the subject of writing is also the absence of the thing or referrent" (Derrida 1976:69), words must be written sous rature, or "under erasure." For what meaning is present in them is present by its very absence. "There is no sign as such. Either the sign is considered a thing, and it is not a sign. Or it is a reference, and thus not itself" (Ibid. 204). "Differance produces what it forbids, makes possible the very thing it makes impossible" (Ibid. 143). This putting a word under erasure is designated thus: sign. It allows the presence of the sign at the same time that it forbids that presence. The meaning/being of the sign is not present, but that very absence calls to mind the presence we are assuming.

So there is left in the sign something called trace. Contained in our words is something other than what they "mean." Differance "makes the opposition of presence and absence possible" (Ibid. 84). Thus we have contained in a sign/word as much its absence of meaning as the presence of the other from which it differs/defers: the trace. But the "trace itself does not exist" (Ibid. 167), and is "the unity of a double movement of protention and retention" (Ibid. 84). For Derrida, Western metaphysics, as expressed in philosophy, has forgotten this. It has assumed that absence excludes presence: A is not non-A. Calling this overpowering assumption "logocentrism," he observes, "The logocentric longing par excellence is to distinguish one from the other" (Ibid. 167). What this distinguishing attempts is the location of meaning in the sign. This, then, subsumes/subverts all language under/by that exclusion. And Derrida questions that subversion.

* * *
I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of the devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone
--U2, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"

* * *

Since Derrida himself admits, "the enterprise of deconstruction always in a certain way falls prey to its own work" (1976:24), it would not seem amiss to expose its own problems. Given that Derrida denies that Western metaphysics has satisfied the yearning for the "Sign which will give meaning to all others--the 'transcendental signifier'--and for the anchoring, unquestionable meaning to which all our signs can be seen to point (the 'transcendental signified')" (Eagleton 1983:131)--nonetheless, Derrida does not attempt to destroy meaning per se. Rather, he asserts that meaning has not been found in Western thinking. Another locus, different from exclusionary presence, must be found, no matter how provisional. "Deconstruction is not an enclosure in nothingness, but an openness to the other" (Derrida 1984:124), and an attempt "to discover the non-place or non-lieu which would be [that] 'other' of philosophy" (Ibid. 112).

Meaning is "out there," it is simply that it is impossible for Western metaphysics to get around/behind textuality. "There is nothing outside of the text" (Derrida 1976:158). The sign does not allow the experience of the being/thing. "The play of the supplement is indefinite. References refer to references" (Ibid. 298). Transcendence has been put under erasure by immanence. A new center must be found if meaning and presence/absence are to be woven together.

In Derrida's forcing apart of immanence and transcendence, deconstruction paves the way for a(n) a/theology which takes deconstructionism to its final end. "A/theology is, in large measure, a critique of the notion of the transcendent God . . ." (Taylor 1984:104). "The disappearance of the transcendental signified closes the theological age of the sign and makes possible the free play of a/theological writing" (Ibid. 106). That free play imprisons the incarnate word, and incarnation, then, "is not a once-and-for-all event, restricted to a specific time and space and limited to a specific individual" (Ibid. 104). Rather, Taylor goes on to draw this conclusion: "Radical christology is thoroughly incarnational. . . . The body of the incarnate word marks the negation of the transcendence that is characteristic of God, self, and history" (Ibid. 168).3

Clearly, then, Christianity stands to lose much if it, too, is bound to the Western metaphysics under deconstruction. If logic is, indeed, only metaphor after all; if everything in language is only arbitrary substitute (as per Derrida 1976:235); if, as Derrida asserts, the subject is imprisoned in language (see 1984:125), then truth is impossible of signification (see 1976:10). In fact, the search for a new center becomes the arena for the exercise of a fascist will to power as each provisional non-lieu makes way for its more powerful successor.

Also, Derrida's argument notwithstanding, an important distinction must be kept in mind: "For deconstruction to work, one must presume a uniform ignorance that blindly embraces the signifier as the signified, and vice versa. In short, the indissolubility of the signifier and signified must be presumed in order to separate them" (Zornado 1992:123). Likewise, Osborne acknowledges the gap between signifier and signified. Nonetheless, he questions "whether it is as insurmountable a gap as Derrida argues" (1991:385).4 He goes on to assert that given time, meaning can be reached in/by context (Ibid.).

Winquist, along similar lines, helps preserve meaning by pointing out: "It is always difficult to determine when we espouse a crisis of meaning whether we are referring to a relational deficiency or to our own inability to discern relationships in the linguistic transformation of the complex of events that are the original objects of thinking" (1986:4). That is, all our talking, even thinking, about an event, person, truth, etc., is derivative: therefore, "presence" will never be complete in human discourse. Or as he says (emphasis his): "Our problem is not the absence of God but the presence and reality of the concept of God" (Ibid. 7). The question then becomes, given a fallen language, given that meaning is "out there," is it possible for humans to enjoy the presence of the other, of meaning, no matter how imperfectly?

Even by deconstruction's own terms, by excluding transcendence, they open the door for it. Immanence cannot be thought without the trace of transcendence. Really, what deconstruction hath wrought, is a realization of language's fallenness, and thus an announcement of the provisionality of all our God-talk.

But if God-talk is provisional, are we not back where deconstruction left us, without any guides? Surprisingly, the answer is no. We do have guides, ancient though they may be.

* * *
Take the space between us
And fill it up some way
--The Police, "O My God"

* * *

Our help here will come from writing and thought which predates Derrida by centuries. It is often called apophatic or negative theology.

Apophatic theology, like poststructural notions of text, demonstrates a radical skepticism regarding metaphor, and it holds that nay truth claims relying on metaphor as a vehicle are, at best, provisional. The reader looking for truth . . . Should not confuse metaphor, iconography, symbolism, liturgy, and the like with the ineffable mystery they attempt to signify. (Zornado 1992:118)5

Winquist echoes:

The work of theology has usually been a web of meaningful connections and saying what can be said about the relationship of common events and foundational principles. What could not be said, the surplus of meaning in even the most rationalistic theologies, fell into spaces of silence within and between systems and thereby constituted a presence that is an absence, a mystery and shadow for theological understanding.

If we are to initiate a new excavation, it must choose as its terrain the silences of experience, those suspicious areas of unintelligibility that have haunted the theological achievements of past enlightenments. (1986:32).

Zornado adds: "Apophatic thought provides a kind of key to those moments of silence, not that we might fill them in but rather that we might more fully experience the gaps between vehicle and tenor, between signifier and signified, as a silence related to that which contemplative monks desire" (1992:119).

In light of that, it appears that there is one author in particular who can help us in this pursuit: St John of the Cross. His work Ascent of Mt Carmel deals specifically with approaching God in the suspension of the bodily senses.6

Book 2 of the Ascent is the formative section on St John's position relating human knowledge through experience and talk of God, with God's real essence. And chapter 8 of book 2 is the succinct summary of that position. Take, for example, these words: "Nothing in this life that could be imagined or received and understood by the intellect can be a proximate means of union with God. In our natural way of knowing, the intellect can grasp an object only through the forms and phantasms of things perceived by the bodily senses" (1991:175). In fact, he says it this bluntly: "[I]ntellectual comprehension of God through heavenly or earthly creatures is impossible; there is no proportion of likeness" (Ibid. 174). Therefore, if humans are to understand God and his ways, however imperfectly, he "must speak doctrine to them from his own mouth, and not theirs, and in a tongue other than theirs" (Ibid. 216).

This is not to say that St John of the Cross7 was a proto-deconstructionist. Zornado points out important differences between apophatic theology and deconstruction: apophatic theology is not an escape from orthodoxy (and thus from truth and meaning expressed in sign), and it is firmly grounded in Christ crucified (a recognition deconstruction does/can not share) (see Zornado 1991:122).

Nonetheless, given that deconstruction cannot be simply taken at face value, that Derrida indeed has a priori assumptions which he brings to his critique of metaphysics, yet his decentering of Western philosophy provides a helpful corrective to Christendom. Theology is expressed in fallen language. Philosophy can never attain complete knowledge. Therefore when it comes to God-talk, reverence and humility seem the safest attitudes. Theology needs always to be in encounter with the unsaid, even if only to contradict/correct the said. God is necessarily larger than our understanding of him--and certainly of our ability to speak accurately of him.

But in more practical terms, what are the areas affected by an affirmation of mitigated deconstruction? At least these three: the practice of unity, the empowerment of interpretation, and the union of theology and mysticism.

Since language is such an imperfect vehicle for God-talk, clearly only divinely inspired language can hold any power. That human language can carry meaning has not been disproved. But since it is so imperfect, an attitude of humility can be the only right one. Therefore, all divisions in Christianity, while not completely worthless, nonetheless cannot be held with any real passion. Such openness toward other provisional texts can do much to cultivate the unity for which God incarnate prayed.

Also, a mitigated deconstruction can reinstate the power of Christian allegorical interpretation to imprint the mind. A structured, channeled playfulness in the sacred can do much to bring about the desire for the text Derrida (1984) and Taylor (1984) both say deconstruction feeds.

Finally, though the insight is not new, theology, if humble, must necessarily be mystical. The absence of mysticism must always recall the presence of theology and vice versa. Radicalize either and the other can only be indeed lost. But both held in tension can provide renewal, each for each. It seems to me that this was the genius of the medieval Western church.

* * *

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 2:3-4

. . . [W]e were eyewitnesses of his majesty. . . . We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
2 Peter 1:16, 18

1 All Scripture citations are taken from The NIV Classic Reference Bible: New International Version, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.

2 This is especially brought out in Of Grammatology's second part which deals with Rousseau and his understanding of language with its cultural origins. See especially Part II, chapters 2 and 4.

3 Though Taylor follows deconstruction past the point I'm willing to go, yet I found his Erring to be among the most beautifully written postmodern theologies I've encountered. Particularly his chapter 6, "Markings," on the self. Relating the Christian death of self to nihilism: "Nihilism becomes fully actual when death, or more precisely, the death of the self, is no longer passively suffered and reluctantly conceded but is actively affirmed and willingly embraced. . . . At this critical point, nihilism undergoes an unexpected reversal . . ." (1984:140).

4 John M. Ellis, in Against Deconstruction, argues along similar lines, as he tries to reinstate structuralism. I am not familiar enough with his book to intelligently evaluate his thesis. But I have at least two initial hesitancies. I do think Derrida's arguments indicate enough weaknesses in structuralism that it would be less than enticing to return to it. I also think that Derrida's decentering of Western philosophy is a good warning to Christendom not to tie faith with any one system.

5 Deconstruction asserts that even logic and mathematical formulae are indeed metaphor. Thus all language becomes metaphoric.

6 His companion work Dark Night of the Soul deals with the suspension of the spiritual senses. Night must always be held together with Ascent in any understanding of St John of the Cross, but for our purposes Night's similarities are not close enough to warrant reference.

7 I cannot but heartily recommend the little volume of collected works put out by the Institute for Carmelite Studies (see bibliography). The Kavanaugh/Rodriguez translations is incredibly accessible and portable. It should, of course, be weighed against the E. Allison Peers translations.

Bibliography of Sources Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Tr. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

________. "Jacques Derrida." In Dialogues with contemporary Continental thinkers. Tr. and ed. by Richard Kearney. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Jacobs, Alan. "Deconstruction." In Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal. Ed. by Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

John of the Cross. The Collected Works of St John of the Cross. Tr. by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Washington: ICS Publications, 1991.

Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991.

Taylor, Mark C. Erring. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Winquist, Charles E. Epiphanies of Darkness: Deconstruction in Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.

Zornado, Joseph. "Negative Writings: Flannery O'Connor, Apophatic Thought, and Christian Criticism." Christianity and Literature. Vol. 42, No. 1 (Autumn 1992):117-140

© 1994 Clifton D. Healy