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Deconstruction: Party Like It’s 1799

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Photo by Jørgen Larsen on Unsplash

As a senior minister for a congregation, I attempt to keep up with what’s happening in the world of religion, more or less. The amount of information is daunting, but keeping up with major shifts and movements in US religious practice is part of my job. I realized recently that I had been missing a major phenomenon happening in plain sight, “Christian deconstruction.”

Wait. What? Yes, that “deconstruction.”

Well, OK. Not exactly that deconstruction, but an effort at seeing and (at the least) untangling the constructed meaning of Evangelical Christianity as constructed. That, and also a critical look at Evangelical theology as a conveyor of meaning.

For a quick look at Evangelical deconstruction and overt attacks on it, see The Most Dangerous Form of Deconstruction: What if some evangelicals are so burned out on church that they don’t even know it?” by Russell Moore in Christianity Today.

I was a graduate student in literature in the 1980s. What does that have to do with deconstruction? Everything. Because in those days in literature grad seminars, deconstruction was it. I knew Derrida’s call to action by heart: il n’y a pas de hors-texte,”there is no out-of-context.”

I also knew the simplified and slightly misleading American simplification of Derrida’s call: Everything is text.

Yes, your Twinkie and the wrapper it is in are signs to be read. Social constructions to be critiqued.

Deconstruction “problematized” both the production and tradition of a text and also the relationship of text and meaning. In this context, we could argue that Christianity has been on the deconstruction dissecting table since the rise of German higher criticism in the nineteenth century.

In the event, the questions produced by higher criticism and scientific developments led to the liberal Christianity that Evangelical Christianity rose up to vanquish.

Under the category of what was old is new again, the very questions that created religious “modernism” in the late nineteenth century are resurfacing in altered form, but with a clear genealogy right back to the liberal German theology that produced Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), a name known to every graduate of a liberal seminary nowadays.

In 1799 Schleiermacher published his book On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern). There he wrote, “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.” The essence of religion is a feeling. This concept became the dominate discourse of liberal theology and freed future liberal Christians from the impossible task of proving a fact-based foundation for Christianity. It also freed them from presenting religion (specifically Christianity) as “proving” anything beyond itself.

Evangelical Christianity is one of the results of resisting Schleiermacher’s turn to subjectivity.

And, yes, here we are again, Evangelicals becoming “#Evangelicals” apparently en masse, with podcasts, and, yes, even their own hashtag.

 cover of book by Friedrich Schleiermacher "OnReligion"

The Evangelical Christian narrative makes concrete claims of facts. The Schleiermacher of 1799 had already discerned that concrete, objectively verifiable fact-claims were not the way to a sustainable future for Christianity. Hence the subtitle of his book: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.

Claims that Evangelical Christian theology are based in objective facts can only be sustained in a bubble. In the United States, that bubble is well established in Christian schools, churches, books, radio stations, and right-wing politicians dictating a counterfactual narrative.

The old question remains: How are you going to keep them on the farm after they’ve seen gay Paree? As would-be dictators of all stripes are discovering these days, protecting your narrative from inconvenient facts is tough.

As those who have taken the time to study deconstruction have discovered, no narrative stands up to the line of logic and questioning that deconstruction unleashes. The foundational claim of deconstruction — that language is not an adequate conveyor of meaning — is clear after one realizes that “there is no out-of-context.” Schleiermacher intuited it. Religious liberals have known it for a long time. Now, Evangelicals are discovering it.

As Schleiermacher knew, there is no reason to “despise” Christianity, but there is ample reason to distrust those who would set themselves up as Christianity’s thought police.

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