Faith and Deconstruction

There is nothing specifically Christian about theological curiosity. Before there was Gospel there were Greek, Jewish, and other more exotic writings about the gods. The first recognizably Christian theology was anti-theology, that of Irenaeus against what he called vain speculation and superstition. The first constructive Christian theology, that of Origen, was greeted with profound distrust, and branded with the same epithet: speculation. To this day, the best Christian theology (Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) is not an attempt to produce positive, orthodox teaching, but a critique of understanding. Its goal is the exposure of false and groundless pretensions. So it has been since Moses’ interview with the Unnamable at the burning bush.

It is ironic then, that certain writers who believe they are defending the Church and Christian values, are squeamish about deconstruction criticism. See for instance the “Houses of Worship” column in the Wall Street Journal. Deconstruction is supposedly iconoclastic, and therefore inimical to Christian belief, which is expected to be apodictic truth, backing constructive moralism. Writers in the more familiar mode apparently think old King Numa had it right at the beginning: the purpose of religion is to make a society cohere, and there is no distinction between religion and faith.

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The Freedom of a Christian

Our God is a free God, all-powerful and able to carry out His will. He is not an idol who obeys human creators. In his freedom he has bound himself into a covenant with all his creatures, and particularly to those he created a people at Sinai. He does not wait on us to discover him; it is for us to wait on him, not because he needs our obeisance, but because he loves us. God comes and gets us, or rather he comes and offers his providence, and ultimately his own self to us, tangibly, in the shape of his son Jesus Christ, the first man and the true type of which all we are the antitypes.

Authentic human being is a life hidden in God with Christ (Colossians 3:3), in glorious freedom from cultural definitions, whether these are imposed upon us by career, gender, social standing, education, or tastes in material things. Our true life will be revealed in God’s good time. Meanwhile, God’s freedom is the guarantor of our freedom from the oppressions and obsessions of this world, which is the theatre for the working-out of God’s covenant with us, but not a permanent home.

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The Owl On Obedience

Now we are ready to take up the fifth of the Owl’s principal terms: Obedience. This is probably the one least likely to find acceptance among our modern brothers and sisters, who seem to have a visceral reaction against anything resembling conventional moral precepts.

But that is not a scold. Fortunately, the meaning of obedience we have in mind comes from a completely different plane, not the one where the frumious bandersnach moralism stretches his jaws and claws. No, the obedience we have in mind flows from the last previous of our terms: freedom.

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The Owl on Freedom

Now we come to the fourth of the Owl’s principal terms: Freedom. The sequence of these terms, Faith then Covenant then Love then Freedom, is intentional: Faith, God’s gift to us; the Covenant under which it is lived in God’s steadfastness; Love, the power that keeps us turning toward God and each other; then Freedom, the sine qua non of Love.

Love is what turns a man’s wheels homeward at the end of the work day, simply because he belongs with the people there rather than wherever else. He is actually free to turn or not, or it is no love that drives him. Love has to be freely given, or it is not love but something else; fear, coercion, deception, but not love.

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What the Owl Is Trying to Say

We are now about five months into writing An Owl Among Ruins. It would be understandable that our few readers don’t find much logical consistency in the thing so far. We may have created more frustration than clarity. That’s not good for one who is still trying, at 73, to get control his mother tongue. He knows all the best advisors on the subject say Keep It Simple; no extravagant turns of phrase, no complex compound sentences—you learned it in grade school. I’m slow. By now it’s fair to ask, What Is the Owl Trying to Say? Put it down in as few words and as plainly as possible.

OK, here goes. It will help to start with the key terms. Luckily they are few, but unluckily, from the first they don’t mean what people think they mean. Here they are: Faith, Covenant, Love, Freedom, Obedience. These are things already alive in human hearts, maybe in all human hearts. Let’s take them one at a time, then see how they fit into a whole.

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Faith, Freedom, and Vocation

Properly understood, faith means freedom. By definition, there can be no prescribed content to freedom. Freedom is the sine qua non of love, and therefore of faith, and therefore of life in the free God. There are two aspects to Christian freedom. The first is a freedom from: freedom from any false god, whether that be the emperor, a statue, a secular cause célèbre raised to the status of a religion, Baal the storm god, or some other out of the mythic past. The second relies not on cultural constructs like those, but on the steadfastness of the God who set his bow in the sky where all could see it; the one who made his everlasting covenant with Israel, then the new Israel.

In his freedom, God might demand anything of us, issue any command or give any vocation to an individual. We may not recognize it as such. In the free God’s hands we therefore become protean beings facing an indeterminate future, free from the obsessions and allegiances of this world, and freedom to carry out our godly vocations courageously, even to the point of laying down life, knowing we have another that cannot be lost.

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