Deconstructing the Deconstructors

A concept that has become an important part of critical race theory, third-wave feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-modernism and probably a host of other “-isms” (that I’m not sophisticated enough to know of) is the notion that we must “deconstruct” “binary” oppositions that have been used to perpetuate and legitimize societal power structures that favor a specific group over another.  Unequal binaries commonly subjected to this “deconstruction” are male / female; men / women; white people / people of color; reason / emotion; and heterosexual / homosexual.

The problem, it is claimed, is that the first member of the binary is considered the “good” one, the “strong” one, the “superior” one, while the second one is the “bad” or “weak” or “inferior” one.  So what we need to do, it is said, is to break up that binary opposition so the second group is no longer demeaned or oppressed by this particular linguistic “game.”

Now, to be honest, I am not entirely sure that all the binary oppositions mentioned above are really as nefarious as claimed. Personally, I’ve always thought of the male / female binary as complementary, not as “better” and “worse.” And as we have seen more recently, deconstructing that particular binary has not always benefitted females, especially females who participate in sports.

Be that as it may, in this same deconstructive spirit, I would like to propose another series of binary oppositions commonly used in contemporary society, often used to demean and oppress a class of people.  Consider the following commonly-used binaries:

Science / Theology
Reason / Faith
Progress / Tradition
Progressive / Conservative
Modernity / Antiquity
Spiritual / Doctrinal
Modern / Traditional

In each case, the binary opposition is often used to demean and oppress.  People say “Follow the science.”  No one says “Follow the theology.”  Why not?  Because the broad, undefined category “science” is assumed to be factual and certain, even though it repudiates some of its most widely-held theories every few years, and is thought to be an unqualified good thing.  “Science” is associated with reason, progress, and the blessings of modernity, while “theology” of whatever sort, done by whatever person, is assumed to be more than a little dubious, associated with ancient superstitions and outmoded dogmas of the sort that kept our forebears unenlightened in the “Dark Ages,” that horrible time before the light of pure reason emerged in the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

You hear people say, “We have reason on our side.”  Whether they do or don’t isn’t always clear.  Plenty of people talk about “reason” or “pure reason” but have no idea what reason, with all its complex, manifold ways of grasping reality, really is.

Thus what such people usually mean is no more than, “I’m right, and you’re wrong because you don’t think like me.”


The question these people are avoiding thinking about is the most fundamental one:  “What is thinking?  How do we think clearly about various issues?  Would it make sense – would it really be reasonable – to think about whom I should marry in the same way I think about why copper conducts electricity or whether to invest in one stock rather than another?

Or might there be different ways of thinking appropriate to different areas of life and different kinds of questions?  If a coach or a teacher says to a skeptical colleague, “Hey, I believe in this kid,” would the proper response be:  “You have faith, but I’m using reason.  Kick him out.”

Who wants to be “conservative” when it is opposed to being “progressive”?  Who doesn’t want “progress”?  But what is true progress rather than mere change?  What if we altered the binary to “conservative vs. radical” or “conservative vs. anarchist”?  Now how many people choose “conservative”?

Catholics know how this game is played in the Church when people oppose “doctrinal” with “spiritual,” as though one could be “spiritual” apart from a solid grounding in doctrine.  The Catholic Church’s spiritual traditions and its teachings on social justice are based on very distinctive doctrines about the nature and flourishing of the human person.  Read the works of great “spiritual” writers like Sts. Bonaventure or Hildegard of Bingen, and you will find very sophisticated accounts of Christian doctrine.

I am not saying that there is no distinction to be made between faith and reason, or between natural science and theology, or quite frankly between State and Church. The Church’s greatest theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, used these terms with a proper appreciation of both.  The issue is whether we should start challenging people on their use of these binaries when they use them to maintain their own cultural dominance over Catholics and other people of faith. You know, the rubes who haven’t had the benefit of a secular education in prestigious, sophisticated metropolitan universities and who are stuck in the past, with their traditional superstitions that get in their way of real progress.

Given this sort of unthinking prejudice, perhaps it is time for some serious “deconstruction” of modernity’s own oppressive binaries.

When someone ignorantly utters the phrase:  “You’ve got faith, I’ve got reason,” perhaps Catholics should take up the language of the deconstructionist:  “That is merely an oppressive binary, and I reject it.”

When someone says, “I follow the science, not some superstitious theology,” we should say: “First, you have no idea what you’re talking about because you have no idea what ‘science’ (in Latin scientia or ‘knowledge’) is; second, you don’t seem to have any conception of the classical discussions about the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘wisdom’ (sophia) going back to antiquity.  So you have just said something that is the linguistic equivalent of saying ‘Your emotions are womanish.’  Thus, you have not only offended me, you have shown yourself to be an ignorant bigot.”

If it works for the deconstructionists, it should work for Catholics.  Some people from a “traditionally marginalized group,” namely Catholics, need to wake up, speak up for themselves, and stop allowing themselves to be demeaned in language or society.


*Image: Faith and Reason United by Ludwig Seitz, c. 1887 [Galleria dei Candelabri, Vatican Museum]. The Latin quotation (“the splendor of divine truths, received into the mind, helps understanding”) comes from Aeterni Patris (1879), the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII that promoted the revival of Scholastic philosophy, especially the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.

You may also enjoy:

Michael Pakaluk’s The Pursuit of Happiness

Robert Royal’s A Deeper Vision of Faith and Reason

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.