Been listening to the latest Mars Hill audio, which you ought to do from time to time yourself. Anyway, on this latest one, Ken Myers interviews James K.A. Smith, whose book on postmodernism I reviewed in detail in my postmodernism thread.
Their discussion on Derrida’s infamous “there is nothing outside the text” made me think of a point I really need to make, or really need to make again. I don’t remember if I said this before. Smith does a good job pointing out that in this phrase Derrida is not making the radical relativistic point that is often attributed to him — by friend and foe alike. But Smith’s way of doing this is by pointing out the places where Derrida himself denies this inference. This, in my view, is beside the central point. The issue is whether this kind of relativism follows necessarily and immediately from Derrida’s premises, and not whether Derrida thinks it does.
Fundamentalism (all kinds) has many weaknesses, but it is not weak across the board. There are some strengths there, and this situation reveals one of them. Fundamentalism is great for identifying the implications of some positions, and then running those implications out to the dead end in about fifteen minutes. This is done with one’s own premises, and with the premises of others. Okay, someone says x. The fundamentalist approaches and says, “Let’s cash this out. What does it mean right this minute?” When Elijah said if Baal is God, follow him, and if YHWH is God, follow him, he was reasoning at this point like a fundamentalist. When Sartre said that without an infinite reference point, every finite point is absurd, he was reasoning like a fundamentalist. And since Derrida has no infinite reference point, then Bob’s yer uncle.
People who want to nuance the heck out of any given position are not dispositional fundamentalists. They want to spend their lives, and would be pleased if their intellectual grandchildren spent their lives, trying on different “readings” of Swift, or Milton, or Austen, or Aquinas, or Poe. Nothing better for a little bedtime reading than a post-structuralist feminist reading of Swift.
But I confess, without shame, that most days I have a fundamentalist turn of mind. I am not a fundamentalist in the traditional sense (e.g. I am not opposed to mixed-sex roller skating or drinking God’s brown gift of dark beer). But this fundamentalist turn is still there, and it is why I would say something like, “Of course Derrida is a relativist. He’s an atheist.” He can deny it all he wants, and he can suggest alternative readings, or he can try to hide it by pole vaulting into a vat of Heideggerian goo, but my fundamentalist turn of mind keeps right on thinking [atheism > relativism]. I also keep wondering, sometimes out loud, why this is so hard to understand.
Now I say this acknowledging that the fundamentalist turn of mind admits of abuses. Some things need to be nuanced. Fine. I have been on the receiving end of [sacraments > popery]. Failure to read some things carefully will land certain defenders of the Westminster Confession in the unenviable position that a certain military spokesman was in during the Vietnam War. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” The WSC says that the sacraments are effectual means of salvation in order to settle forever the importance of denying that they are any such thing.
So take this a plea for body life. Some things need to be nuanced, and some things need desperately not to be. Those with a sophisticated turn of mind need to talk to an intractable fundamentalist once a week or so — to keep them honest. “So how is this not fatal compromise?” And fundamentalists need to talk regularly with someone who read a book once — to keep them honest too. “So how is this not a complete misrepresentation of Calvin’s view?”
That’s it. A plea for body life.