Deconstructing the Mass
by Robert Phillips - Winter
Of all contemporary intellectual
movements, deconstruction is at once the most far-reaching and the
most corrosive. Although its demise is frequently proclaimed, it
persists in its dominance of our ruling institutions. The sociologist
Peter Berger has noted that by all sociological indices, the most
religious country in the world is India, while the least religious
is Sweden. These facts led Berger to conclude that America is a country
of Indians ruled by Swedes. Our rulers occupy key positions in Hollywood,
TV, newspapers, academia and the higher reaches of certain chanceries
and seminaries. The common thread is a deconstructionist outlook.
What is deconstruction? As a philosophical movement, its locus
is France and its key figure is the philosopher Jacques Derrida.
Deconstruction began as a critique of the Enlightenment project.
The French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century rejected the
existence of God while seeking to retain philosophical and scientific
truth, as well as the moral law. In a famous episode of the French
Revolution, the crucifix was removed from the high altar of Notre
Dame and replaced by a statue of a beautiful young woman, the goddess
of Reason. This perfectly symbolized the Enlightenment project:
Reason alone is sufficient to establish truth.
Historically, this absolute reliance on human reason, which
makes man the center of the universe, degenerated into the Reign
of Terror from which emerged the autocrat Bonaparte. But even before
this, the Enlightenment bore the seeds of its own destruction.
The idea was to preserve all the positive (albeit secondary) consequences
of Christianity while getting rid of the "superstitious" parts.
Because the God of the Jews and Christians is a benevolent and
purposive spirit who created ex nihilo, it made sense to know and
use the creation. Thus, science and technology (and the modern
university) first emerged in the Christian West.
These developments could never have happened under the tutelage
of Greek philosophy, which regarded matter as irrational, much
less in the Asian tradition, which viewed the cosmos as an illusion.
Additionally, because in Christianity God is the Father of all,
His children are one family. Hence, the ideas of equality and human
rights emerged in the West and nowhere else. These were the by-products
of Christianity which the Enlightenment wished to retain while
it rejected belief in the supernatural doctrines of the Church
to which, it was alleged, "modern man" could no longer subscribe.
As some form of religion was deemed necessary, the Enlightenment
opted for a civic religion-worship of the reason-based state.
While the restoration of the ancien régime in 1815 slowed this
movement, certain dimensions of it quickly appeared in Germany.
G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), the German idealist philosopher, is pivotal
in understanding the modern world. Beginning as an orthodox Christian,
but following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment, Hegel taught
that religion is only philosophy (reason) in symbolic or mythological
clothing, thus spawning in Protestant Germany the movement called "de-mythologization." This
applied Hegel's philosophical premises to Scripture, with devastating
effects. No longer was the Bible seen as the revealed word of God,
but as a collection of fantastic stories imposed by early Christian
writers upon a shadowy figure called the "historical Jesus." Under
the guise of Modernism, this interpretative schema was to enter
Catholic Scripture studies and flourish to this day.
Although Hegel speaks in perfectly orthodox language, his God
is not the transcendent Creator of Heaven and Earth, but only the
gradual emergence of self-consciousness or self-reflecting thought.
Hegel's God is totally immanent in history, and specifically in
historical communities. Here we have the genesis of those contemporary
theologies which locate God exclusively in the "faith community," theologies
made explicit in much current liturgical theory and practice.
Of even greater significance is Hegel's famous concept of the
dialectic of spirit, which entails that God's nature is not fixed
and eternal, but is continually emerging over time. Hence, God
is not only fully immanent, but also necessarily limited by the
parameters of time. Hegel made valiant efforts to conceal these
theological outcomes by speaking of different levels of discourse,
but clearly his God is completely incompatible with the God revealed
It was left to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) to declare that
the emperor had no clothes. Nietzsche affirmed that God was dead
and that we had killed Him. This was not unalloyed good news for
Nietzsche, since it made man completely autonomous. However, he
took the obvious step in positing the Ubermensch, who is beyond
good and evil. The outcome of this new conception of the human
being in the blood-stained century that followed is well known.
In the hundred years from 1860 to 1960, the Catholic Church
waged a powerfully reasoned campaign against the ideas of such
philosophers as Hegel and Nietzsche. Unfortunately, it did not
much deflect their influence on modern culture. The key figure
in the twentieth century march to deconstruction is J.P. Sartre
(1905-1980), the creator of existentialism. Writing during the
post-WWII malaise, Sartre (an atheist) argued that there could
be no eternal truths or essences because there was no eternal mind
to think them. It follows that if God does not exist, there can
be no such thing as human nature capable of knowing eternal truths.
Man is literally identical with his freedom. We create ourselves
through purely spontaneous acts of the will. So no system of morality
or theology can provide any guidance or exercise any prior constraint
on human choices.
Now, as radical as this is, Sartre, Nietzsche and Hegel remain
in the tradition of Western philosophy; viz., they believe that
the purpose of philosophy is to seek truth by means of reason.
But it should be clear that the history of European philosophy
had, by the 1960s, made the continuation of this program problematic.
To complete the historical picture, we need to look at the philosophical
situation in the United States. There, under the aegis of John
Dewey (1859-1952), the new philosophical school of pragmatism emerged.
For pragmatists, truth is simply what works or what is successful
in bringing about what we want ("If it works for you, then it's
true"). This concept of truth is obviously congenial to many aspects
of American (and British) culture. Americans value a kind of practical,
activist, results orientation and are not drawn to foundational
or theoretical disputes. An easy-going pluralistic approach which
papers over truth questions (such as "Don't we all worship the
same God?") underlies modern pragmatism. The most prominent American
deconstructionist today is Richard Rorty, who acknowledges Dewey
as his philosophical mentor.
To repeat, the historical progenitors of modern deconstructionism
remain very much in the tradition of Western philosophy insofar
as they all understand philosophy to be an autonomous discipline
ordained to truth. The radical step taken by deconstructionists
is to deny that there is any such thing as truth. For them, philosophical
theories are only isolated moments or contexts within which limited
meanings are created. When we lose interest in these contexts and
move on to a different set of wants or interests, they (along with
their "truths") disappear. Philosophy, according to these philosophers,
should disappear. In pursuit of this goal, they write large, dense
tomes, avidly read by philosophy students, demonstrating that philosophy
is a dead end.
For deconstructionists, not only is there no truth to know,
there is no self to know it and so there is no soul to save or
lose. Personal identity through time consists of no more than mere
accidental episodes which generate their momentary "truths" and
then are gone. Recalling the historical sketch of the roots of
deconstruction, we can see that there is indeed a logic to their
position. To the Enlightenment claim that philosophical and scientific
truth is possible without God, the deconstructionists are replying, "No." Without
an eternal, supernatural order to support them, there can be no
absolute truths. There can be no more than temporary or ephemeral "truths."
In following the Enlightenment to its logical end, deconstruction
reaches nihilism. The meaning of human life is reduced to whatever
happens to interest us at the moment, but from the truth values
inherent in one event, nothing can be inferred about any other.
It is this position which has attained intellectual dominance in
the most prestigious academies and whose spillover effect has penetrated
the entire culture. Thus, history is simply stories we tell each
other about the past; literature is just our own interpretation
of the texts; theology and religion are stories we tell each other
about the gods; and philosophers should go off somewhere and quietly
expire. Even science does not escape; it is merely stories we tell
each other about nature.
There is one important exception in science: Darwinism. Darwinism
is left alone because it abets the deconstructionist project. A
deconstructionist take on evolution could lead, in the words of
Conway Morris, to an "assessment of man as an evolutionary accident
[which] is to lead us into a libertarian attitude whereby, by virtue
of a cosmic accident, we, and we alone, have no choice but to take
responsibility for our own destiny and mold it to our desire" (New
York Times, May 10, 1998).
Now while it is easy to refute, or even satirize, deconstruction,
the fact remains that deconstruction is highly congenial to a number
of contemporary constituencies. To reject the very idea of truth
itself may seem unsettling and a flirtation with nihilism; but
that is an outcome that many welcome. Hollywood and the entertainment
industry in general routinely produce works that celebrate nihilism,
for which they are praised by critics and the intelligentsia. The
deconstruction of all philosophy and religion, of truth itself,
means that everything is up for grabs. All forms of life and culture
are temporary and self-enclosed. Such a view is most attractive
to those who wish to practice sexual deviance, for if there is
no human nature (or if human nature is whatever we stipulate),
there can be no unnatural acts. It is hardly an accident that the "gay
nineties" coincide with the era of deconstruction. The attraction
of nihilism is that, while it may have its depressing aspect, it
makes man the arbiter of reality. One is reminded of the words
of Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost: "Better to reign in Hell than
to serve in Heaven." Indeed, when we recall that Satan is the principle
of uncreation, we may begin to see the magnitude of the challenge
that deconstruction poses.
This overview of deconstruction sheds light on what is behind
the modern theological and liturgical revolution. First and foremost,
we have the idea that the Mass is an "ongoing workshop." There
is no essence of the Mass; even the Consecration, apparently, can
be altered. The liturgy must be constantly revalidated within the "contextual
community" in which it is celebrated. As the community evolves
into new meanings, the liturgy must follow. This is symbolized
by the disposable missalettes now in universal use and by the claim
that the Mass will require constant "updating." All this reflects
the deconstructionist thesis that truth is a servant of man because
it can be no more than a reflection of human evolution. Hence,
God can be no more than a symbolic expression of the community.
Theologies of an "emerging" God now abound and are directly expressed
in liturgical theories that see the Mass as the celebration of
the community at its present point of self-awareness. We are confronted
with a radical immanence wherein the autonomous self is a black
hole that swallows up God and his creation. The Mass is the first
casualty because it effects the intersection of eternal truth with
the fleeting temporal order. The Mass is the closest we can get
existentially to eternity and to the essential truths of eternity,
our ultimate goal. Immanentist theologians and liturgists must
deconstruct the Mass as part of their core agenda of elevating
the flux of pure temporality to the status of the absolute. Any
liturgy that points to or reveals a transcendent infinite must
Thus understood, we can see why efforts to preserve the traditional
Latin Mass meet with such massive hostility. There is so much more
at stake here than a mere preference for liturgical forms. To defend
the traditional Mass is to defend the whole of Catholic dogma,
theology and morality, because all of these depend on (1) the idea
of eternal, unchanging truth and (2) a distinction between the
finite and the infinite, the Mass representing the conjunction
of the two.
But let us conclude on a note of hope and courage. As successful
as deconstruction has been in taking over the academy and spreading
its ideas throughout modern culture, it cannot ultimately triumph
because it contradicts the deepest impulse in the human soul. Although
we are fully immersed in the temporal order, the aspiration of
the soul is for eternity. St. Augustine beautifully discusses this
in his Confessions (Bk. 4-15): Let these transient things
be the ground on which my soul praises you, God creator of all.
But let it not become stuck in them and glued to them with love
through the physical senses. For these things pass along the path
which leads to nonexistence. They rend the soul with pestilential
desires; for the soul loves to be in them and to take its repose
among the objects of its love. But in these things there is no
point of rest; they lack permanence. They flee away and cannot
be followed with the bodily senses. No one can fully grasp them
even while they are present.
Our manifold actions to preserve in being the good, the true,
and the beautiful all fail because they are lost in the flux of
time. In question 10 of Part 1 of the Summa, St. Thomas notes that
eternity has no duration, no fleetingness, but that it contains
all time, and he quotes the marvelous definition of eternity found
in Boethius: "The simultaneously whole and perfect possession of
boundless life." No amount of deconstruction can erase this ordination
of the human heart toward its ultimate place of rest.