Derrida and the Bible: Reading Scripture with Humility

There was a time when many believed they could know truth without any partiality. That is, our modern mind believed that all essential truths were attainable in a purely objective manner. Whether it was in the field of science, religion, or else, there was a sense of infallible certainty in our knowledge.

Now those days are gone! And thankfully so, I might add!

French philosopher Jacques Derrida, writing as a postmodern deconstructionist, injected some needed humility to our modern mind. [Side Bar #1: I have only begun learning about the thought of Derrida, so I may be way off in my understanding of his point discussed here.] Derrida rejects the idea that we can know truth in a purely objective sense. Hence his famous line, “There is nothing outside the text” (Of Grammatology, p. 158).

Derrida’s point isn’t to say that we are only left a vague relativism, as though we can know nothing and that every claim of knowledge we make is just as true as all other claims. Rather, the point is that “interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world” (Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, p. 38). In other words, we are always interpreting within the life we seek to know and understand.

Now if we can remember this as we read the Bible!

We live nearly two-thousand years and many cultures apart from the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Yet we believe the story of Jesus and believe he is the Son of God, who reigns as Lord. We believe because of the testimony of those first disciples who learned from Jesus, followed him to Jerusalem (even though they eventually denied knowing him), and saw him appear with their own eyes in his resurrected body. [Side Bar #2: N.T. Wright observes that in a span of one-hundred years, from AD 25 to AD 125, history emerged from absolutely no hint of a Christian movement to a movement large enough and significant enough that a pagan philosopher named Aristides regarded Christians as a fourth human race among the Barbarians, Greeks, and Jews (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 359). This is one reason why I believe that faith in Jesus Christ is a reasonable belief.] We also believe those disciples went around telling others their testimony, teaching what it meant for the way people should now live, writing about it to communities of people who became part of this Jesus movement, and that eventually some of their testimony, teachings, and writings were collected into a canon of scripture called the New Testament. Add to that the Old Testament and we have what we call the Bible, as a written testimony of how God is at work redeeming people in Jesus Christ and restoring his creation to be new creation.

Now almost two-milleniums and many cultures removed, we read the Bible but not as pure objective readers. We read with lenses, as people standing within a text. For some reading this blog, we share the same text. We belong to a Church of Christ and we’ve grown up in America, neither of which are bad but they both do provide particular lenses that shade how we read and understand (= interpret) the Bible.

Now how about a little humility!

This is one reason why we need to engage with other Christians outside of our own church tribe and national heritage. [Side Bar #3: I don’t like denominationalism, as I do not believe it is what Jesus intended for his church but it is the reality we live and it will never change so long as every denomination isolates itself as a sect believing they are the only true Christians.]  Not a one of us nor the church tradition we are part of has a perfect understanding of the Bible and the Christian history (= tradition) it belongs too. Consequently, our practice of the Christian faith is never perfect which also means there isn’t any such thing as a perfectly restored church or group of churches.

We are right on some things and we are wrong on some things. Anyone who thinks they understand and abide perfectly by the teaching of scripture has forgotten the admonition of Paul to have “sober judgment” (cf. Rom 12:3). So we only stand to gain, to receive many rich blessings from God, by engaging with our fellow Christians of other church tribes. We can pray for them just as they can pray for us and we can teach them something just as they can teach us something. For we all must come to the table as seekers, who share a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, learning together that we may participate as the one body of Christ on mission with God.

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11 responses to “Derrida and the Bible: Reading Scripture with Humility

  1. The different approaches to scripture that one does not hear discussed very much in evangelical churches is the approach of right brain as opposed to left brain. I think the reason being is the fear that many have of those who are of the right brain, who are not as literal in their interpretations, who are much more poetic in their reading and understanding; whereas the left brain tend to be very literal and detailed and do not present a threat to the “fundamentals”.

    As one who is of the right brain, I do have to be careful not to be too critical of those who read the scriptures in a literal way. I try to keep in mind that what is important is a person’s growth in love and the mind of Christ. However, at the same time, I appreciate an individual, though he or she may not totally understand my approach the Bible, who recognizes my own embrace of God and God’s children.

    The Psalmist said that God’s precepts were like a song. I think many Christians who unfairly judge Jewish people as being totally law minded would be surprised to find out how poetically and musically those of Israel have always read the scriptures. And I truly believe that when more Christians, in soul, begin “singing” the scriptures, whether from pulpit or in their recliner, the churches will experience a new birth in creativity and a gentleness that truly resembles the Jesus of the Gospels.

  2. Derrida is writing in the end-stage of philosophical nominalism. He is denying all interior and direct, noetic, experience of the truth. This denies all the basics of Christian revelation. He is not merely making a point for humility but for agnosticism with respect for everything. And he would not find reading Scripture in context the answer. He is a marked opponent to philosophical realism. Realist believe that one can encounter the truth directly. Plato was a realist- His ideals were something to be encountered directly. To know Truth for a realist is to experience it directly, not merely think about it or write about in text. In the Medieval Era, Catholic and Orthodox Christians rejected nominalism in philosophy as a heresy. Protestant scholastics embraced it. Nominalism atomizes- for it supplies no basis for unity in the midst of diversity; it is iconoclastic, for if there is nothing beyond the text, then there is nothing for an icon to iconize. Nominalism is a direct attack on any notion of Christianity and immanent communion with a transcendent God, for the text iconizes nothing.

    • Have you read James K.A. Smith on Derrida in his book “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” (mentioned and linked to in the post above)? Smith would say otherwise.

    • Postmodernism doesn’t mean you don’t believe in anything. It just means you have to prove the worth of certain truths in order for them to be accepted. For example, just because an atomic bomb can scientifically kill millions, doesn’t mean it is a useful truth. Anyways, that’s what I think. But I lovvve you! 😀

  3. The Christian Church is not known by perfect understanding but by the One Whose Body it Is. If you define the mystery of the faith in terms of ‘understanding’, reason, of course our reason is insufficient. But the fulness of Faith is dependent not upon our understanding but the One Whose Body the Church is. In His Body is the fulness. Further, though our understanding is incomplete, and inadequate, it is never less than Scripture and the things that the Church in Universal Council agreed as being dogma. The Fulness and Balance of the Faith is always more than the Creed, but never less. Cacaphony on this point occurs simply because one is not united to the Incorrupt Body of Christ.

  4. The world thinks we are ‘unhumble’ because we say that Jesus Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Life and no one comes to the Father but by Him. For 1500 years Chrstians everywhere believed that the Body of Jesus Christ who is the Way and the Truth and the Life was Visible and One in doctrine and practice- why, because Jesus rose from the dead and His Church was His incorrupt Body. Is it therefore ‘unhumble’ to confess the Resurrection and its Implications in the Church? Is it ‘unhumble’ to say that those Christian confessions who do not exhibit a 2000 year visible continuity of doctrine in a visible Communion, are not His Body? To Confess the Truth of His Church is not a lack of humility but an affirmation of Who He is. Of course, I know in part, and prophesy in Part, but His Church is maintained in a Visible Unity of Communion in history and geography by virtue of His Resurrection. But to make a virtue out of visible division and doctrinal anarchy and cacaphony, because it produces humility is just another form of end-times apostasy- a falling away from the fullness and balance of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church

    • You surely don’t mean to imply that the Eastern Orthodox Church (EOC) exhibits a continuity to Christ because it maintains a 2,000 continuity of holding to the apostolic teaching because that would be to way overstate the case as much as it would be if the same claim were made by the Roman Catholic Church or any number of Protestant Churches, including the Churches of Christ. Not only would such a claim distort the fact that the EOC has innovated Christianity too but it places the burden of salvific security in the church rather than God where grace is replaced by creed.

  5. I thought Kierkegaard was the one who first brought the idea that all perception was subjective, and that all objective truth also had been filtered through a subjective lens, thus creating existentialism. 😀

    • Kierkegaard was the first existentialist and therefore began with human feeling rather than thinking, thus certainly subjective. But Derrida injected subjectivism into the thinking so to speak by insisting that we cannot objectively know since we are all interpreters making interpretations at every step along the way.

  6. I think that our generation is finally letting that denominational baggage fall. Our people are beginning to understand that following Jesus (of the Bible) is very hard and that the traditions get in the way of following Him. The only thing that is difficult, is that people are really syncretizing a lot of other thoughts and traditions together that may not be a true picture of what God wants. For instance, the youth are being less exclusive in a denominational sense, but also in a broader cultural sense through the acceptance of homosexuality as a valid practice in the church.

  7. But the good of postmodernism is that we examine tradition and put it to doubt. The other good of postmodernism is that we can shift from talking about logical explanations of spiritual things to just.. talking about spiritual things. Modernism is a hindrance in that it systematizes faith until it is a bland… fabricated .. happy meal. Postmodernism allows us to paint with bright color and get into the deeper things of life by generally accepting spiritual talk. Postmodernism rightfully shifts the culture’s main problem from being isolated self-actualization to being a person in need of meaningful community. The church was never meant to be a self-actualization club; it was meant to be a community serving Christ. In that sense, we actually have a greater relevancy to postmoderns than to moderns.

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