Wrestling with angels: poststructuralism and Catholicism

April 27, 2014 – 8:09 am

Since I am writing my dissertation proposal (the first in my department from a poststructuralist perspective), advice I am grappling with paradigms today. (Again.) Let me think-out-loud by writing.

As a poststructuralist scholar, website I question the very concept — the very existence, approved  the very truthiness (as Colbert would say) of “truth.” I’ve spent my whole life frustrated at the inadequacy of totalizing metanarratives that sweep history under the rug and try to make the world seem simple enough for everyone to agree upon: “Of course it’s this way; it always has been.” There’s usually an agenda. Far too often, those stories are the tellings that benefit the folks in power; winners write history, but losers are complicit in retelling it. But we fall into this because metanarratives are so… comfortable. Clean.

I’m uncomfortable in the messy, just like everyone else. And yet I also have — and follow — a great thirst for the places where you can’t set “truth” down simply, or at all. In a strange way, I feel more truthful without “truth,” more honest allowing mystery to remain mystery. It’s not a passive “allowing” where I throw up my hands and say “why bother — we won’t understand it anyway!” Rather, it’s a place where I wrestle. And I wrestle fiercely, as anyone who’s ever encountered me as a scholar or a hacker or a friend can attest. My mind — my heart, even my physical body — is restless; I drive and attack, search and prod, double back over even my own perceptions trying to get them to crumble. Because… science. Because to be a scientist means admitting we can never know.

As a poststructuralist scholar, I question truth — am highly skeptical of it, draw upon Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Lyotard, and other thinkers for tools to dislocate and fracture any notion of it — or more accurately, to see and point out places where a supposed “truth” dismantles and deconstructs itself. Derrida said that structuralism — the belief that you can find the underlying structure of all reality — only makes sense if you assume stable external points of reference. Derrida and other poststructural theorists go on to rip facades off many things we usually assume as stable points of reference — power structures, gender and sexuality binaries, all sorts of thoughts about religion and belief, the very notions of what it means to know and be — and I cheer, because — finally! The multiplicities! Bursting out from all these limiting ideas, all these structures that have bound them for so long, bursting out and challenging the ways we see and breathe and walk within the world  — oh, yes. Oh yes, indeed.

And yet.

As a poststructuralist, I sometimes feel as if I’m supposed to say that there’s no stable point of reference, just a self-referential set of signs and symbols navel-gazing messily into itself. I can see a crazy self-entangled, ever-shifting tangle of signs and symbols, absolutely — but I can’t say that that’s all there is. As a Catholic, I do believe in a very particular, yet indescribable, yet stable point of reference, which I use the symbol “God” to refer to. I believe in Truth with a capital T, and I believe in that Truth with a faith I cannot express or comprehend. It’s a young faith, and I am bewildered by it, stumbling with it and within it, praising it with joy and crying out against it with frustration in the same breath (as one is wont to do with love, I suppose). Less than two years ago, I was surprised to find that all my wrestling to shatter “truth” was instead breaking me, time and time again, into the midst of an incredibly uncomfortable mystery that was Truth itself, one that was both whispering wind and consuming fire.

I fought that Truth; I fought the very idea of its existence. I lost. I fight it still, because… that’s part of how I love; I grapple. Except that here, each time I lose, I actually win. I can’t explain it any more coherently than that.

But I don’t want this to be a “hey everybody, come to Jesus, ain’t the world just full of rainbows puppies everybody holding hands hooray!” post.  I started writing because I had reached a point of intellectual grimacing — because I was wading through all of my notes on Derrida and Lyotard and so forth, and said: wait, wait — I don’t know any more, where does this leave me? I was — and am — disoriented. Which, as a poststructuralist, I should be happy about — and I am. But as a human, I’m also just… disoriented. I’m not trying to come to a resolution in my explorations; I am simply trying to explore.

I don’t want to just say that “poststructuralist tools shatter our habitual, inadequate little-t truths so we can explode into the mystery of big-T Truth which is of course God and etc. and now we’re done,” because that’s the sort of oversimplified totalizing modernist metanarrative I rejected in the first place (and still do). I find a lot of things that people say about God to be incredibly frustrating little-t truths — not the God I believe in, not at all. I poke and watch those little-t truth statements twist and crumble. “We believe because we know it’s right.” “We must simply take it as a matter of faith.” I can’t stand leaving things at that, so I wrestle, and the wrestling shatters. Shatters the comfort, shatters the structure, tears down the scaffolding of peace that people — even myself — might try to build.

I realize that, by definition, we cannot express the ineffable. I realize that all we’re doing is trying really hard to say something about it, and that it’s so easy to slip into readerly habits, take the model as the real thing, forget. I realize that by even writing about this, I am doing the exact thing I critique. Words are such a limited medium; they have a quality of solidity and permanence that I do not intend even as I type them here.

I think what I can say is that poststructuralism is a very useful tool for me to think with, because every “truth” I have encountered as an intellectual statement is not the Truth I have encountered in and as relationship, and the toolset of poststructuralism makes me more adept at articulating why. I can say that poststructuralism does not provide rational proof for relativism or atheism — you can use it as a tool to think relativistically and atheistically, but you can also use it as a tool for just the opposite, just like the many different types of logic are used to argue opposing sides of any argument. I also want to say — mostly to Christians, here — that “aiee, relativism!” is no excuse for dismissing anyone’s attempt to wrestle with either little-t or big-T truth. If it’s a little-t truth, it’ll shatter; excellent. If it’s a big-T truth, then — well, I rather think the infinite can handle it.

The only metanarrative I actually believe in — if I can even call it a metanarrative — is love (and boy, does that word feel inadequate as a symbol; it’s a pointer to something that no memory address can hold). But love is about as far from a totalizing, oversimplifying, power-structure reinforcing metanarrative as you can get. It’s a radical discomfort and a peculiar peace that takes your gift and at the same time is the gift you’re flooded with. And I stand in that discomfort. Or I try.

No, actually. I don’t stand; I wrestle. I wrestle as a poststructural scholar, but in this place, I wrestle with angels. The ineffable infinite and the finite concrete, the human and the divine, panting and tangling and sweating and struggling in the very finite, human, concrete dirt… but also pointing somewhere far beyond it that was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

And I don’t know. I still don’t. But I feel as if I can leave this place now and go on with writing.

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  1. One Response to “Wrestling with angels: poststructuralism and Catholicism”

  2. Aren’t the multiplicities glorious? :-)

    Sam Webster (neo-Pagan / Thelemic thinker) has an autobiographical essay with a meta-meta-narrative (seriously) for this process of discarding and reassuming meta-narratives. Remind me if you’re interested and I’ll dig it out.

    By Mark Hoemmen on May 15, 2014

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