This post is part of a multi-part series, Redeeming the Philosophical Blacklist.
If given the choice, would you prefer to read God’s word or to hear him speak? Which would make you feel closer to God? Which would give you greater sense of certainty?
My guess is that we would prefer the latter. Even those of us who are wholeheartedly committed to the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture would intuitively say that hearing God’s voice would make us feel we are truly in His presence and have perfect clarity of what He is saying. I often wonder if we subconsciously consider the scriptures sufficient for the time being until the day when we will have true, unmediated access to God by physically seeing his face and hearing his words.
Why is it we intuitively think that hearing God’s voice would somehow be superior to reading his word? I believe the best person to help us answer this question is a contemporary, post-structuralist philosopher named Jacques Derrida.
In fact, if Derrida were consulted on this issue, he would argue that our natural preference for speech over writing when it comes to God’s word is a symptom of a greater philosophical disposition that he calls “logocentrism.” Logocentrism is the idea that all forms of thought or meaning are based in an external, transcendental, point of reference.
Many Christians have placed Derrida on the philosophical blacklist. They assume that his critique of logocentrism is an attack on the existence of the divine logos, or Christ, as the center of all things. Some see it as a means of unhinging us from any kind of divine authority in favor of absolute relativism.
In reality, Derrida is speaking more in terms of human knowledge (epistemology) than ultimate reality (ontology). Logocentrism is a word Derrida uses to describe western civilization’s quest to root our knowledge in something that is wholly external and thus uncontaminated by the physicality of the world. In other words, listening to Derrida’s critiques of logocentrism from a Christian perspective does not require us to reject our belief in Christ as the one who upholds all things. But it does require us to rethink certain philosophical categories that we have inherited more from culture than the Bible.
Let’s try to redeem Derrida to discover what we can learn from his criticism of logocentrism.
Logocentrism on Knowledge
Logocentrism says pure knowledge is transcendent or incorporeal. Therefore, our quest for knowledge requires us to shed the material in order to ascend to the transcendent. Derrida says logocentrism believes in “binaries” such as:
Within these opposing concepts, logocentrism considers the first term to be superior and pure. The second term is part of the inferior, material world that marks a fall, distance, or disruption. The two terms relate to each other like two rails on a track: they never intersect and the former term is generally valued above the latter. According to Derrida, this basic structure of dualism is built into the way our minds are trained to think and interpret the world whether we realize it or not.
Secondly, logocentrism claims knowledge is immediate, which means that it does not have to go through a medium in order for us to “grasp” or “understand” it. For example, the idea of telepathic knowledge or extrasensory perception is so appealing precisely because it is so immediate. There is no room for miscommunication or physical malfunctioning in the transmission of meaning from one person to another. It bypasses, or successfully sheds, the physical and remains in the realm of the transcendent.
Derrida says that our preference for speech over writing is a prime example of the desire for immediacy. We tend to think that hearing someone speak rather than reading what they wrote will allow us less chance for misunderstanding of what they wish to communicate. The oral nature of speech seems to be closer to the full presence of the speaker. Symbols written on a paper indicate that the speaker is not present. Writing, therefore, indicates a kind of absence, we assume.
The Problems with Logocentrism
But logocentrism is fraught with problems. Derrida’s goal is to expose this dualistic interpretive grid and to deconstruct it in order to free us from presuppositions that are ultimately unhelpful and, as I will argue, unbiblical.
When we consider Derrida’s thought and assess it in light of the scriptures, we can conclude that our preference for speech over writing is unnecessary — and perhaps even unbiblical.
First, speech is just as material as the written word.
We naturally assume speech is immaterial because it is oral, but it’s really not. In order to communicate through speech you need air, lungs, mouths and ears. Though we associate what we hear audibly as immaterial, it is actually just as material as what we see written down.
Therefore, speech cannot be superior to writing because it is essentially the same thing. This is what Derrida actually means when he makes provocative statements such as, “there is nothing outside of the text.” Speech and writing are equally material.
Second, logocentrism denies the goodness of creation.
The quest for transcendence and immediacy are both rooted in the idea that the immaterial is superior to the material. Christians should utterly reject this notion. When God created mankind, he created him as a material, “earthy” being. We did not take on bodies as a consequence of the fall, nor will we be disembodied in the New Creation. The scriptures indicate that there is an inherent goodness in embodied existence.
Any view that values the immaterial more than the material denies the goodness of creation and the nature of God’s redemptive work. Our quest to extract ourselves from the world or from material things pays allegiance to cultural thought rather than biblical teaching.
Third, the material is not an obstacle to be overcome.
If God created us as embodied beings, then material cannot be an obstacle to our knowledge but must be a facilitator of it. In other words, language (both speech and writing) allows us to know rather than preventing us from knowing. As finite creatures, our reliance on the text doesn’t confine our knowledge; it enables our knowledge.
As finite creatures, our reliance on the text doesn’t confine our knowledge; it enables our knowledge.
If we simply resign Derrida to the philosophical blacklist, we rob ourselves of a voice pointing out problematic views that have long gone undetected even among Christians. Derrida calls out our preference for speech over writing as unfounded, and he questions our tendency to privilege the immaterial over the material in general. In so doing, he deconstructs an unnecessary hierarchy that even Christians have been carrying that has kept us from understanding the gift of the written word. Derrida’s claim that there is nothing outside of the text helps us affirm there is nothing more sure than the text.
Derrida’s claim that there’s nothing outside of the text affirms there’s nothing more sure than the text.
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 Jacques Derrida, On Gramatology trans Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1976), 158.