Homeward-bound in the ark of tradition (6): Wake of Deconstruction
How the last two instructions of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) create genuine feelings of unease @PaterElias #FilioQueInEnglish
In ‘FilioQue in English, the catholic trademark’ Father Elias Leyds c.s.j. tries to distinguish in both written and spoken word the truth from the false, the Word that has become flesh, always in search for Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life. “As a priest, a foot soldier in the Lord’s trenches, I should not comment but explain, because Clarity is the only munition of the gospel of life”.
January 4th 2023, Oisterwijk
In the vitality of mankind, which is shared by animals and thus reflected in their world, the survival instinct occupies a central place. Even though ageing, suffering and eventually dying are part of our perspective of the inevitable future, it is perfectly natural to avoid undergoing them passively. Instead of allowing these realities to be tragically triumphant over our hope and joy of living, we yearn to include them into the meaning we give to our lives. This actually is what religion  is all about. An innate sparkle of his immortal soul incites man to reconnect with the unknown origin of his existence, and to be initiated into a wisdom that is real and purposeful, but beyond his immediate understanding. By reuniting with the Origin of all things, man wants to participate in an ultimate universal purpose or ‘End’ that in some way or other can consume the experience of evil and darkness. In other words, the survival instinct is appeased only by a religious perspective of eternal life. Self-preservation can only be accomplished by a redemption that is not assured by ourselves.
Whether we like it or not, for as long as we are in this world, we’ll also have to identify deadly enemies and make sure we are not overwhelmed by them. Even when religious perspectives help us to find consolation beyond death, we’ll have to deal with contemporary deadly enemies, especially enemies of our loved ones. That’s why the survival instinct has related the vertical sense of religion with the rather horizontal earthly experience of war throughout the ages. When reading the Old Testament, it is obvious that the God of the chosen people of Israel has understood this better than modern man living under the deceptively safe umbrella of atomic weapons. Due to atheist propaganda gullible modern man has come to believe that religion causes wars, whereas actually wars cause religion. It should be noted that various forms of atheist redemption have since the French revolution broken all records of savagery and devastation in time of war – and also in time of officially declared peace. Terrestrial utopias have been more like an infernal abyss than like a celestial bliss.
We simply have to discern danger and identify our enemies. For life making any sense at all, despite our mortality, survival is a condition. It’s a duty we owe to life itself, and even to the Creator, whether we like it or not. Next, we have to overcome our enemies by force or by reconciling with them. In both cases the use of reason imposes itself, albeit in different ways. Life itself being a cause needing no further justification, the option of making peace is preferable to waging war, though unfortunately not all cultures are marked by this existential truth.
With reason and religion come judgments about purpose and immortality, that are satisfying the deepest aspirations of the soul and are celebrated by it. In the context of religion not just peace, but also war, can offer occasions for joy. In times of peace natural needs and creativity are given breathing space. But in times of war the will is forced to move beyond pacifism and passivism, anchoring its resolve in a transcendent cause. A good exercise of the free will in both times of peace and times of war cannot be taken for granted. Man does not have from birth all qualities needed to live in peace or risk his life in war. He needs to be educated and to learn a great variety of virtues in order to survive and live well. That’s why peaceful antagonism belongs to our school of life; it teaches both respect and resolve, both for oneself and for the other. It comes as no surprise that tournaments originate in religious festivals. And even if ultimately Christian faith identifies Satan as the initiator of all animosity and as the irreconcilable chief enemy of mankind, sportive competition should remain on the educational agenda. Serious competition simulates and thus stimulates any struggle for purpose leading to joy, in particular the religious one. A lasting and dignifying peace is attained only by spiritual warfare, as lasting fruits are born in risky acts of self-giving charity. And joy ultimately is such a lasting fruit, to be shared with all who generously have sacrificed and given. One commentator characterized G. K. Chesterton’s testimony to Catholicism as ‘war and laughter’.
With this in mind, we can wonder why today there is ever less laughter in man’s struggles, if there is any struggle at all. Maybe the lack of relevant causes to fight for is itself the cause of generalised depression, necessitating widespread medication of both men and women. In the light of survival and religion an honest observer cannot fail to see that in western or westernising cultures societal experience is dominated by a sense of disintegration and loss of meaning. This creates an eerie gut feeling of a threat that is omnipresent and unstoppable, yet unidentifiable. No enemy in sight, no communion for the sake of a transcendent cause and no rejoicing through shared testimonies to courage. Where wealth allows it, the void must be filled with celebrations for the sake only of celebrating. The reason to feast is feasting itself. The shallowness may incite a vaguely rebellious search for fake near death experiences, like drug abuse or bungee jumping. But these can only briefly make up for the absence of religion and not atone for the soul’s pusillanimity.
A few irreducible individuals still continue to practice religion in the Catholic Church. For them the situation is particularly poignant, because over the last few decades the religious foundations of their Christian faith have mysteriously weakened. Lately answers have been given by the teaching authority, the Magisterium, to questions that were not specified or remained unclear. Vague permissions were sometimes explicitly given, or rather insinuated, where requests of permission were hardly motivated and intentions equivocal or emotional. In other words, teachings of revealed truths were no longer presented as the divine answers to the deepest religious aspirations of the human soul. On the contrary, clear questions, for example as formulated in the dubia of some cardinals, did not receive any answer. On top of that, liturgical rites were reduced and disparaged to such extent that they are no longer recognizable as acts of religious reverence or attestations of faith and thanksgiving. In many places in the western world, from which Christianity has spread over the world, Catholic spaces, originally built and set aside for adoration and prayer, now offer the same ambience as liberal protestant ‘fideistic’ denominations. One is welcomed into a collective christian-ish conviction deprived of natural religion and therefore left unchecked by common sense.
Sharing in the unprecedented security and safety of the western world, practicing Catholics have seen the religious framework of their faith disintegrating more conspicuously than their fellow citizens have seen the societal framework progressively falling apart. Catholics are experiencing in a particularly intense way what other people around them are feeling in a more superficial way. Robotics and digitalisation can for some time compensate a lack of societal fellowship, while at the same time causing it, but nothing can substitute natural religion, seeking to render God due justice. Horizontal human relationships can be instrumentalised and falsified, but vertical religious relationships can only be obliterated. Divine purposefulness can be destroyed by a welcome not offering a human free choice to cross the threshold and enter. Nature can be perverted by an immanence that excludes anything outside or above, thus turning nature into an imprisonment. John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ in fact sings of the same reality as Johnny Cash’s ‘San Quentin’ or The Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’. But grace is divine and cannot be falsified. Only its fruits can rot, inasmuch as they grow in the earth of human nature. In this way charity can be separated from its divine source and purpose intended by God, be reduced to some dreary moral law, according with Kantian ethics, which provokes a Hegelian dialectic reaction, where charity degenerates into revolution. This revolution, in turn, will require another but equally dreary law, causing a chain reaction. This can coexist with a contrast-free gnostic mindset in the background, comprehending mercy into a paradigm that is unconditioned by conversion or repentance – in other words, mercy will have neither meaning nor purpose.
In other words, practicing and alerted Catholics may experience more acutely what all people of other religious traditions go through in a less manifest way, while many others have a gut feeling that the world around them is disintegrating, but don’t have the guts or the mental means to figure out what is going on. But all share the confrontation with the same depressingly anonymous enemy, who attacks with an indistinct strategy. In absence of a gaugeable danger of destruction, the term ‘deconstruction’ has been used. It suggests an irreversible effect of an unaccountable agent, rather than a foe who looms as an imminent threat. Deconstruction hides behind a moroseness where smiles are fake and laughter is non-existent. Yet the mere term deconstruction itself, even when used in an intuitive manner, is devastatingly accurate and therefore clarifying it is a first step in the recovery of hope. It may not identify an enemy, but it does define a strategy.
The term ‘deconstruction’ has been coined by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. He does not aim at developing a strategy, political view or party program. He has business with linguistics and the meaning of human discourse. In video recordings of his interviews and lectures, he makes a rather disturbed impression, and is difficult to follow. Also, people trying to explain him are visibly struggling. But ultimately one can manage to figure out what he wants to demonstrate and most importantly, his premises become clear. The mindset he formulates is similar to Georg Hegel’s. For the latter, the vitality of the spirit is defined by the dialectic movement of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The intellect – and eventually God – creates its own content, which is a synthesis emerging from the contradiction or antithesis of a proposal or a thesis. This inner life is limitless, inexhaustible and dispenses with exterior purpose. Conceiving something new is done by contradicting what has been conceived previously, and this can be done perpetually. The mind becomes like a womb full of life, where life’s meaning is conceiving for the sake of killing before birth. It is a mother of boys that mature to procreate in the very act murdering their own fathers, without ever seeing daylight.
Apparently being less romantic and more rational than the German Hegel, the Frenchman Derrida cannot content himself with vitality alone, and demands cold formal precision. At the same time, he rejects formality not by contradicting it, but by denying its mere existence. There is no need of a thesis that could allow an antithesis, because everything understood is antithesis. Nothing in human understanding has essential meaning or is of essential importance, therefore no human action can have purpose. Derrida teaches a metaphysics of consummated absurdity. Our understanding of reality is a hopeless voyage in a darkness of sterile oppositions. As soon as anything formal, objective, irrefutable or purposeful is presupposed, it can be demonstrated to contradict itself.
This is what deconstruction means: demonstrating that a discourse of objective truths is self-contradictory. Instead of a murder in a dark dungeon, in Derrida’s vision human understanding is rather a public suicide. And of course, suicide compared with murder is aseptic, for its perpetrator is beyond accountability and not obliged to clean up and cover up. For once, the French revolution is more hygienic than the German solution. We can be scandalized by this emasculation of the intellect, or be amused at the thought of Derrida deconstructing his own discourse on deconstruction. But most of all, we must be grateful to him, because in fact he demonstrates for the human discourse the same property that Kurt Gödel demonstrated for numeric systems and Bernhard Riemann for geometry. This property Gödel has denominated as ‘incompleteness’. It shows that as soon as any sphere of human knowledge considers itself to be complete, i.e. in no need of any input from outside, it will destroy itself from within. Thus, Gödel shows any numeric system of calculus will have to assume primordial truths, premises that cannot be proven within its own borders. Riemann demonstrates that no geometrical quantification of space and time makes sense without forces presumed to be at work within it. And Derrida laboured to prove that a discourse, based on definitions, will blow itself up and become meaningless. And he seemed to have done so successfully.
However, it seems Derrida has overlooked an important aspect of formalisation. He saw very well that definitions cannot be total and perfect, and that human conceptualisation cannot be complete. This represents the delusion of the Enlightenment and of its political implementation, the French revolution. But this is not due to the fact that definining consists in opposing, but that specification is founded in something material, which is by itself undetermined, potential of determination. In every definition, a specifying precision emerges from something general, which it cannot leave behind: a terrier is a dog, a dog is an animal, an animal is a living creature. Thus, within the realm of reason and language, nothing can ever be completely and ultimately defined. It is only beyond reason, in the understanding of principles, that the intellect touches or ‘induces’ the ‘essence’ of a reality – the cause of its existence as the material individal of a certain species.
Discourse of defined knowledge, like static geometry or paradigms of calculus, is incomplete, and we can agree with Derrida. But his deconstruction only applies to structural linguistics, which ignores any understanding beyond definitions. He may have seen this himself. Unfortunately he did not show how to rise above reason and linguistics and fled from self-referential and ultimately self-contradicting formalization into essential opposition. Whereas for the scientific mind there is understanding outside the universe of definitions. Beyond definition, yes, the human intellect can touch or understand truths that are simple and that cannot be proven by reason or fully communicated to reason, and that can only be demonstrated to an intellect in active search of principles. Reason cannot define, prove or comprehend principles within a defined domain of knowledge. Principles cannot be conclusions; this would represent an absurdity that causes any discourse of reason to implode. Any sphere of knowledge that refuses reference to principles or purposes beyond its scope is self-referential, and ultimately becomes suicidal. This applies for ideological paradigms as well as the political implementations thereof. The suppression of dissent will not save them. They deconstruct themselves before anything exterior gets the time to destroy them.
It should be noted that the Greek philosopher Aristotle, without coining a name for it, demonstrates quite briefly what incompleteness means for science itself. He first states, what is science : the virtue of reason concerning what is necessarily so, and cannot be otherwise. He then mentions how we must reason in order to reach conclusions by the application of certain assumed principles. These principles themselves, being assumed and used to prove, can therefore not be proven themselves. If this incompleteness of science is neglected or not accepted, science becomes self-referential and eventually self-contradictory. Thus, instead of being comprehended by science, principles are beyond science and are understood immediately by the intellect itself.  Here the intellect is shown to have a capacity beyond any acquired virtue, science or reason: the direct understanding of principles. Principles by being understood become intrinsic to the intellect itself, without the mediation of virtues. In fact, by the intellect’s understanding of principles the human person becomes capable of choosing principles of action it wants to be faithful to. Precisely when understanding immutable principles, it can itself become a principle of acts, that becomes immutable by being faithful. Thus, the intellect steers the progressive incarnation of a personal imperishable truth. While reason proves truths that thereby impose themselves, it is by understanding the truth of principles that man really becomes free – free like a white Knight to celebrate and fight with joy while being served by a pageboy called Reason, for purposes that bring him closer to our Origin, which is to be our ultimate Home.
Returning from our classic heritage, we could stop briefly at the decisive years of the Middle Ages, in the 13th century, where, led by saint Thomas Aquinas, scholasticism decisively recognized how theological discernment was empowered by using the timeless mastership of Aristotle. By helping our intellect to touch and respect principles, without comprehending them, he demonstrated the incompleteness of human science before the term was coined by Gödel. At the same time, as a counterpart of realism, the ideology of nominalism appeared, killing objective knowledge and denying the intellect’s understanding of principles and thereby of reality. The human mind, where reason and intellect are no longer distinguished, must content itself with names, the meaning of which must be invented spontaneously or agreed upon with like-minded fellow human beings. Tragically, the nominalist vacancy of the intellect paved the way for delusional paradigms of complete knowledge, unchecked by reality.
Having arrived home in our world today we can extensively examine today’s generalised post-ideological dissatisfaction and epidemic depression, connected to societal and moral deconstruction. Probably Derrida never had the intention to apply deconstruction in such a far-reaching way. We must no longer sing ‘Eve of Destruction’ with Barry McGuire, but compose a more fitting song called ‘Wake of Deconstruction’. Deconstruction is not a future prospect; its development can be seen in retrospect. It belongs to our recent past and explains our current condition. It would be extremely interesting to examine and try to discern what is being deconstructed more: Catholic doctrine and realist philosophy, or all those deceptively complete paradigms, which have risen as a continuation of or as a deficient reaction against nominalism.
There is no place for song writing or elaborate speculation here. It might be sufficient to have a brief look at the mechanism of deconstruction at work in the recent declaration of the Magisterium, ‘Fiducia supplicans’. Its general topic is blessings to couples in irregular situations, while arguably its main purpose is to allow blessings of homosexual couples. Even before reading it, from a certain distance an observer could be surprised by the extremely different and opposite reactions from faithful and clergy, not based on disagreement about certain single statements, but on extremely different interpretations of the document as a whole. In many places local Church authorities have not reacted at all. There must be something uncannily imprecise in the wording of the text. When analysing it, we can see why.
The kernel of the argumentation is the deconstruction of the term blessing itself. An attribute is invented, ‘non-ritual’, and attached to it. The problem is, that a blessing is essentially a ritual. Thus, the result is a definition that is self-contradictory and that thereby obliterates any chance of having an objective meaning. The word ‘blessing’ can no longer mean anything at all, because something cannot exist and not exist at the same time. A non-ritual blessing is an existential absurdity, compelling the interpreter to be exclusively self-referential, that is, speaking only on behalf of his own authority.
A blessing is a spoken word and a recognizable gesture. The word refers to the divine fatherly omnipotence, and to the receiver it confers some form of participation in divine fruitfulness. The person giving the blessing cannot refer to himself and act on his own behalf. The person or persons demanding the blessing must recognize the giver of the blessing as mediator, and the latter must be worthy of that trust. This means as mediator he does not have to be morally superior, but by the mere reception of a divine mandate he must be supposed to have a power that others do not have. All involved must agree about what the mediator represents, indicated by words and gestures that do not emerge from the spontaneity of any of the persons involved, but are prescribed. A ritual is defined not by the mediator but by an authoritative tradition, and this is also true for the ritual specified as ‘blessing’. A ‘non-ritual blessing’ by contrast is totally undefined and for ever undefinable. And because the discourse of the one using the term cannot but become perfectly self-referential, inevitably the one delivering it is himself the principle of interpretation. It will give rise to a gleeful and silly dialogue of the mute and deaf. And finally, it will cause a lot of acerbic infighting and a consummated loss of authority.
Having detected deconstruction of the term blessing as the key argument to reach the required conclusion, we could also examine the less than spontaneous invention of a new term, ‘couple’, or question the meaning of the slightly overused term ‘pastoral’, which plays such a preponderant role in contemporary theological discourse. We’ll do this in the following articles. For the moment it’s more urgent to wonder: what can we do? What must we do when confronted with the deconstructed essence of the term blessing, which has such a fundamental place in the sphere of mediation through the spoken word of man for the incarnate Word of God?
Faith is not the same thing as obedience. We know already that our faith in the Church of Christ requires grace. Obedience implies mediation by human beings, and therefore requires common sense, prudence and human wisdom. Faith is a human act, but immediately united to God, therefore also a divine act, having as sole divine mediator the incarnate divine Word; we need to pray for the grace of final perseverance. Obedience on the other hand, in our Roman Catholic tradition, creates the fundamental duty, for both clergy and lay persons, to demand public clarity whenever and wherever it lacks. Without clarity there is no communion and no common life in the light. The eternal Word itself by incarnating has obliged Himself to meet the demands of the human mind, speaking an objective discourse, which does not create confusion but overcomes it. In the case of deconstruction, even without using the term, and even without having the Christian faith, Aristotle would fully agree with this. When dealing with someone who denies objectivity, essence or other principles, he advices us to not try proving or demonstrating anything. Just interrogate until the speaker contradicts himself, rendering useless his discourse, or until clarity is obtained. 
For the Christian, a quiet interrogation for the sake of clarity is an act of charity. It offers a singular escape route from animosity amongst men. In the case of deconstruction, when retracing its origin, we can undoubtedly leave behind the realm of human inspiration causing conflict. In this endeavour no human soul needs to be an irreconcilable enemy. While unmasking together the first and foremost deconstructor, we may peer from a safe distance at the darkness where the author of deconstruction belongs and where incessantly he relapses after trying in vain to rise from it. For as long as we live, our fellow human beings can be rivals in a cheerful public competition for the objective truth. Or, more seriously, they are potential fellow combatants in the war for the survival of truth and for justice having the last Word. Only in that struggle we shall find incorruptible ever-lasting joy, because victory is assured and we are seen already in the light of triumph. That light is the glory of the resurrected incarnated Word, Himself the truth and final actor of justice.
Father Elias Leyds c.s.j.
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