Friday, March 26, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: The ‘Construct’ Argument

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: Tom, a week ago we did a post called “Virginity as Social Construct”. But I’m wondering if there aren’t perhaps a lot of Christians who have heard somebody in school or in the media say that this or that thing is “a construct”, and maybe wondered what that actually means. Does everybody know?

Tom: Good question.

IC: It’s become a very important word lately, so maybe we should talk a bit about where it comes from, what it means, and perhaps why Christians should be especially alert when somebody claims that something is “a construct”. Should we spend some time on that?

Do Something Constructive!

Tom: Well, sure. When we were growing up, being “constructive” was generally taken as a good thing. Your English teacher would tell you to “Do something constructive” with your summer months and assign you a whole bunch of horrible Canadian novels to read. But the implication of “constructive” was that you would learn something useful to you in later life. You were building something for the future, as opposed to being destructive and wasteful.

But today, when the Left calls something “a construct”, and especially a “social construct”, their language does not carry any positive connotation, does it?

IC: Well, it’s deceptive. Sometimes, to say something is a construct is a helpful, eye-opening comment. But at other times, to call something a construct is to say “It’s just a construct”, meaning it’s something somebody in our society made up, but which has no solidity or truth value of its own.

Tom: Basically telling us that thing is unnecessary and even counterproductive, and usually that it serves the interests of the power brokers in society.

IC: To illustrate, if I tell you that platform preaching is a mere “construct”, I’m speaking the truth. The idea of having a pulpit, a lone speaker, and a half-hour-to-45 minute lecture, once a week, as the basis of Christian learning, is a mere invention of society. Early Christians did not learn that way, and the Bible does not tell us to do that. What’s good to know, then, is that we could do otherwise, and it would still be legitimate: we’re not morally enslaved to keep up that construct. But if I tell you that gender is a social construct, I’m doing something quite different. I’m taking something that certainly is an objective reality, and denying that it has an objective, God-given reality and solid moral legitimacy established by nothing less that the word of God itself, and trying to reduce it to be just a thing we could change at will or whim. And it’s in that last sense that the earlier article called virginity a “construct”: the author was saying, “It’s just an artificial invention of society; we can throw it away without concern.”

A Product of Shared Assumptions

Tom: Right. To say something is a social construct is to say that the thing in question is not inherent to our species or obligatory to the essential operations of a society, but is only a product of a bunch of shared assumptions that we can question and reject as we see fit. So social constructivism seeks to examine things like roles, norms, language and strip them of any power to bind us. And that’s fine so long as what we are examining are genuinely the products of society. It’s even true to the extent that some societies have developed differently from others, and we can legitimately say that to some extent they are constructs, artifacts of human engineering and assumption-making.

IC: Right. But what we have to realize is that for secular persons who believe in the idea that human beings all come from impersonal, natural materials and forces anyway, almost everything is a “construct” automatically.

Why do we have societies, nations and governments? Because at some distant point in the past, human beings decided to construct things that way. Why do we have clocks, schedules and work routines? Because in the nineteenth century, the owners of industry decided to construct these things that way. Why do children have to go to school? It was just something parents constructed to deal with them. But it goes on: why are there two genders? Because human beings have constructed things that way. What is morality? Nothing but the yesses and nos human beings have happened to construct. What is truth? It’s whatever human being have arranged, preferred, constructed, to tell themselves … for now. And what is God? Nothing but a construct made by ancient man, one we no longer need for anything. That’s what secular man now believes; and he thinks it’s all quite obvious, now that philosophers have pointed it out to him.

Essence and Encrustation

Tom: The problem comes, as you say, when the word is used to dispute the fixed-ness of fixed realities. And here we should probably distinguish between essence and what has developed over time around that essence. If we talk about gender, for example, there is both a fixed reality and a bunch of expectations, habits and cultural detritus that have been built up over millennia around that reality. The latter may differ from culture to culture; the former never change. Your maleness or femaleness are fixed realities. They are part of your genetic code. You did not choose them and you cannot change them no matter how much you may want to. At the same time, it may be true that your society has constructed expectations of femaleness or maleness that you think are not reasonable or fair, and it is certainly possible for an individual to change his or her behavior. Whether that will work out well is another question ...

IC: A little history here. If we go back and try to find out when the idea of calling something a “construct” began, we can’t find it spelled out anywhere very clearly. That’s because it’s actually a very old idea, but one that has only recently been made into a formal philosophy. For example, when Nietzsche said, “God is dead”, what he meant was actually that the concept “God” is a construct — a mental invention of human beings, for their convenience or purposes, and one to which we owe no duty to continue to serve. He didn’t use the word “construct”, but that’s what he clearly meant. So the idea precedes the term “constructivism” by a long time.

Opting Out of Reality

One thing everybody can agree on, though, is that a key document in the history of this idea is Berger and Luckmann’s book The Social Construction of Reality (1966). That’s where one goes for a starting point. I have done academic work on it; but it’s a somewhat challenging read for most people, so most — even in the university — will never have read it. Instead, almost everybody who uses the term today is borrowing it in a vague, semi-conscious way. And they use it for anything and everything that they don’t like, as a way of saying, “I don’t have to be bound by that arrangement.”

So when, for example, somebody calls gender a “construct”, what they are trying to say is, “God and biology did not make me a man or woman, society did. They constructed the label and the roles I was going to have to live with. My gender was not a gift: it was an arbitrary arrangement made before my birth by people who did not ask me what I would have wanted, and who have oppressed me by inflicting it on me. I am not grateful for it, and I have no real obligation to keep it at all, since it is nothing but a construct.”

Tom: Fair enough. And, as I say, there is both something horribly wrong and something of substance in that argument. In fact, God and biology did make us male or female. We have the body parts and the capabilities and limitations that come with each to prove it. And he assigned different roles to male and female, as Genesis tells us.

A Tiny Smidgen of Truth

The part which has the tiniest smidgen of truth in it is that each society expects and demands certain things of its men and women which we must concede are actually constructed. Some of those things are accurate reflections of the biological package and the God-given intention, like the appropriate roles in a family. Those things need to be retained. But the constructed aspects of the current concepts of male and female could be jettisoned quite reasonably, even by Christians. I think of Isaiah’s description of the daughters of Zion in chapter 3. The mincing and wanton gazes, the pendants and scarves and perfume and handbags, the rampant obsession with fashion — none of these were legitimate manifestations of Judean femininity, even though femininity itself is not a construct at all. But these expectations and social practices of Judean women were very much constructed, and God condemns them. Still, they were the prevailing mode of behavior for Judean women who could afford to behave that way.

There is some of that in our own secularized, modern concepts of male and female that could use a little biblical re-examination.

IC: Certainly.

I think, though, that the important general point is this: when a Christian today sees the word “constructs” applied to something, the first reaction he ought to have is to ask “Really?” It’s getting applied to a whole lot of things that are clearly not constructs, as a handy tool to justify breaking them. But every time we treat something that is objective, true and solid as if it weren’t, reality will inevitably take revenge; we will pay some price — often quite terrible — for our refusal to see the givens of life as actual givens. So while I think that construct-talk can be useful in pointing out to us things that have been, as they say, “reified” or locked into our consciousness as if they were absolutes when they’re actually not, it is our present refusal to take the givens seriously, as absolutes, as necessaries, that most threatens us now. In our glee over drawing attention to the constructs, we’ve developed a marked tendency to lose our grip on the fixed orientation points of life. Christians especially must know what cannot be dismissed as a mere construct.

Tom: Right.

IC: The first sentence in the Bible denies total constructivism. For whereas our world says, “All of reality is merely constructed,” Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That does not mean that there would be nothing thereafter that would be constructed; in fact, many things are. But it does mean there were some givens that cannot be played around with. One of them is that God created man, and he created woman out of man, both “in his own image”, but distinctly. There were distinctions and roles between them from the start, things written into their very makeup at creation. These things cannot be changed, and cannot be safely dismissed as constructs. They are the rules of the whole game here, not some optional innovation within it. And to win, one has to play by the rules.

Coming Off the Rails

Tom: Can you think of areas in which Christians are at risk of coming off the rails with regard to what is actually a social construct and what is not? The obvious one for me is roles in the family, though these have been under attack since the late sixties, long before we were using terms like “social construct”. But these roles are well defined throughout scripture and were not constructed at all. Both Christ and the apostles take historical precedent and make it universal despite the fact that the culture they lived in had “evolved” considerably from the times of Adam or Abraham.

But I’m sure there are other problem areas for Christians ...

IC: Well, we’ve mentioned gender and virginity as two things that are not constructs but get called constructs. There’s also debate over whether or not race is a construct, both from egalitarians, on the one side, and from things like the Rachel Dolezal fiasco. (Ironically, today it’s the allegedly anti-racist social justice Left that’s arguing it’s not a construct.) And alas, all the aforementioned debates are now actually getting into the church; but I’m guessing you want to point to things more specific to Christians, and which the world in general would not be interested in … is that right?

Tom: Well, the world may or may not be interested, but yes, I’m wondering if there are other construct-based arguments that are having a significant impact on our churches, or that we are likely to encounter in the near future. Like you say, the race-as-construct question is still up in the air in secular circles, and I don’t hear a lot of Christians debating it.

On the virginity-as-construct question, what I would say is this: the Christians I know would not argue that virginity is a social construct. They would concede that the Bible promotes lifelong marriage as the sole legitimate outlet for human sexuality. But if we’re honest about what’s going on around us (and has been going on for decades), an increasing number of young believers behave as if virginity is merely a social construct. That is, they live inconsistently with their professed beliefs. And where practice and doctrine are inconsistent, the resulting cognitive dissonance is bound to encourage some enterprising young seminary intellectual to put forward an “enlightened” theological argument for scrapping virginity as a fixed reality, probably by conveniently redefining a Greek word or two.

IC: Hasn’t it long been the case that in liberal theology, the position has been that practically everything the Bible says is merely a cultural construct?

Tom: True that. They didn’t use the word construct when I was growing up, but that’s certainly what they were doing. And it wouldn’t be the first time liberal theologians used the same arguments to try to dismantle scripture as the secular world is using to try to dismantle Western civilization.

Hermeneutics of Suspicion

IC: J.F. Lyotard, one of the “fathers” of the method of regarding everything as a construct, used the phrase “a hermeneutics of suspicion” to refer to his secular technique of reading everything in such a way as to prove it was only a construct, a fake, a power-grab by some self-interested group or author. Interestingly, he borrowed the word “hermeneutics” from its regular use, especially in biblical studies. It’s good for Christians to practice reading things carefully and critically; but when we read the Word, we’re supposed to employ a “hermeneutics of faith”, not suspicion. We’re supposed to read with the hope of being taught by the Spirit, of believing God’s word, and of disciplining our lives to conform to the image and wishes of Christ. We’re supposed to read to obey, not read to evade.

But when people today use the word “construct”, it’s usually with the motive of debunking, and especially of avoiding obedience to whatever is being said or written. And when it’s applied to Christian things, it’s usually in order to say, as the deceiver said so long ago, “Has God really said …?”

So, whenever anybody pulls out the word “construct”, or even the concept of it, we Christians ought to practice our own “hermeneutic of suspicion” ... and begin to suspect we may be dealing with false teaching.

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