04 September 2008

Engaging Deconstructive Theology: a review

A review of Ronald Michener’s Engaging Deconstructive Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007) for ESSSAT News:

‘If Christians are to continue to communicate and incarnate the gospel in a world with postmodern assumptions, then they must seek to understand their culture and seek relevancy’ (p. 7). This is Ronald Michener’s starting point for an exploration of what he calls deconstructive theology with a view to developing insights that might make Christian apologetics more relevant to postmodern culture.

In his introduction Michener acknowledges the intellectual and cultural diversity of the postmodern phenomenon. Clearly it would be impossible to treat the entire spectrum of postmodernism adequately in a single volume. Michener opts instead to focus on what he sees as the most radical intellectual strand of postmodernism: deconstructionism. Having set the boundaries of his study, he proceeds in Chapter 2 to offer a very sketchy outline of the historical context of deconstructionism, focusing on its intellectual forebears from Francis Bacon to Claude Lévi-Strauss, before offering a brief introduction to the deconstructionist programme.

Part II of the book offers an account of the ‘holy trinity’ of deconstructionism: Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault. The three chapters in this part provide useful but inevitably brief introductions to their thought. Michener’s main aim here is to identify themes in their work that are relevant to the task he has set himself. Among the themes he highlights are Lyotard’s scepticism with respect to metanarratives and Foucault’s rejection of the Enlightenment self. Most of the space in this part is devoted to Derrida. Picking up on hints in Derrida’s work, Michener suggests that deconstruction does not amount to the destruction of theology. Rather Derrida’s goal is destabilize or subvert the traditional metaphysics that is so closely wedded to Western theology. Thus deconstruction can be seen as a new via negativa. Michener is even prepared to recontextualize Derrida’s notion of the ‘messianic’.

Parts III and IV turn to the effect of this on two American academics (Mark Taylor and Richard Rorty) and one British theologian (Don Cupitt) whose writings have had an impact on recent theology in the English-speaking world. These chapters follow the same pattern as those in Part II: a brief introduction to their thought followed by a teasing out of various themes that are relevant to the challenge of developing a Christian apologetic for a postmodern context. Again he finds concepts that can be appropriated by a postmodern Christian theology, for example, Taylor’s notion of ‘mazing grace’ and Cupitt’s ‘solar living’ and ‘poetical theology’.

With Part V we arrive at the real heart of the book: the development of an apologetic methodology in view of the deconstructionist concerns highlighted in Parts II to IV. Chapter 9 deals with some methodological preliminaries, highlighting the inadequacy of some current apologetic methodologies and indicating what those deconstructionist concerns require of a postmodern apologetic. Specifically, such an apologetic must be post-individualistic, post-rationalistic, post-dualistic and post-noeticentric (by which he means shifting away from knowledge to wisdom). In the next chapter he turns to Scripture, with an examination of the beginnings of Christianity in the book of Acts in the light of deconstructionist concerns. Michener is concerned to present the gospel as a non-totalizing metanarrative (i.e. one that does not fall foul of postmodern scepticism). The early Christian community as it appears in Acts is heterogeneous: open, multicultural and pluralistic. And St Paul provides us with an apologetic model that majors on listening and dialogue.

That last point is developed further in Chapter 11, ‘Apologetic Engagement and Dialogue’. Michener stresses the importance of being a good listener. He is even prepared to speak of atheism as being ‘prophetic’ for those prepared to listen well. This leads him in to a discussion of what is involved in a critical reappropriation of deconstructionist concerns, providing the theoretical underpinning for the examples of reappropriation earlier in the book.

If Michener were to stop at this point, his contribution would be just one more rationalistic approach to apologetics. However, he is not content to leave it here and moves on in Chapter 12 to explore the ‘Apologetic Imagination’. It is his contention that imagination, myth and story have a powerful role to play in apologetic dialogue. His role model for this change in apologetic strategy is the literary scholar and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, perhaps a surprising choice given his intention to engage with deconstructionism/postmodernity. In this chapter, Michener also explores the place of hope in Christian apologetics.

Finally Michener takes up the question of foundationalism. Postmodernism is notoriously resistant to any suggestion that our beliefs can have any indubitable grounding. By contrast, much Christian apologetics (at least since the Enlightenment) has taken such foundations for granted. Is it possible to develop a Christian apologetic that can engage constructively with the anti-foundationalism of the deconstructionists? Michener proposes what he describes as a soft foundationalism: he accepts the postmodern critique of classical foundationalism but does not want to give in to complete scepticism. Certainty about religious beliefs is not possible, but neither is it necessary. He wants to speak instead of provisional beliefs, which cohere together into a ‘belief mosaic’ that is open to continual testing, reinterpretation and recontextualization. Furthermore, this gathering of truth is eschatologically based, rather than foundationally based.

I must admit that, as I read through the book, I could not shake off the nagging question of whether the French deconstructionists were the most appropriate dialogue partners for a Christian apologist seeking to engage with postmodern culture. Nevertheless, there is a lot of interesting and thought-provoking material here, and, for the most part, it is presented in a clear and approachable manner.

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