Postmodern Apologetics?—3: Jacques Derrida and “Religion Without Religion”

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This is the third post in a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. The reading schedule is here as are the first and second posts.

I am incredibly grateful to this essay by Gschwandtner for clarifying for me a number of points in Derrida’s philosophy that I had not hereto genuinely understood. I must confess that in the little contact that I’ve had with his work, I have always disliked the way that Derrida “beats around the bush”, never really saying anything, never really affirming anything. I’ve always thought him somewhat of an intellectual coward, too scared to ever take a genuine stance or have any strong convictions. As such, I’ve always thought of him as a mere “player”, throwing fancy and unintelligible words around just to confuse us into thinking he is smarter than the rest of us. In fact, I’ve been waiting for a while now for the emperor to be unmasked as having no clothes by the children among us. That is, until I read this essay! And so, I would like to share here what I have understood of Derrida and what I think his contribution might be to religious life and practice.

The main impulse of Derridean philosophy comes, I believe, from his Judeo-Arabic background. An Algerian Jew, Derrida was born and raised in the North African melting pot of Jewish, Moslem, and Christian worldviews. As many Algerian Jews, Derrida found himself at the crossroads between the Occident and the Orient, between the North and the South, and as such, without having ever traveled, already a citizen of the world. One must bear this in mind when reading Derrida for it is this background that accounts, I believe, for the often uncanny back-and-forth movement of his thought, one that is never able to settle on one point as if in eternal exile. On my read, his reflection on “Differance” also stems from his own exilic stance as the eternal other, not only as a Jew in the face of an increasingly nationalistic Algeria, but later in France as a North African immigrant, or “pied noir”. It is this experience as the perennial other which must have influenced Derrida’s overwhelming focus on the other, and on the preservation of that otherness at all costs as is manifest in his philosophy of “Differance”, an approach to philosophy always attuned to that which it cannot encompass or assimilate, to that which always differs or defers itself, to that which is ever to come.

And it is this obsession with the other which will inform his philosophy and has implications for religion. As Gschwandtner observes, Derrida’s view that God is the ultimate other who cannot be thematized or spoken about has a lot in common with Jewish and Arabic negative theology, or the notion that God can only be spoken of in negative terms. Derrida himself compares his general philosophy to negative theology in one of his essays entitled “Differance”: “thus the detours, phrases, and syntax that I shall often have to resort to will resemble—will sometimes be practically indiscernible from –those of negative theology” (134). As in negative theology, Derrida believes that any attempt to encapsulate God in a definition or description does violence to God as the ultimate Other. Gschwandtner puts it as follows: “The ‘unnaming’ of the discourse ultimately does ‘name’ the divine by marking distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate speech” (62). Thus, it is sometimes necessary to unname the divine, to deconstruct certain definitions and descriptions made of God by traditional religions in order to recover God’s true essence as transcendent and absolute. Hence the title, “religion without religion”. It is sometimes even necessary to go against institutionalized religion in order to recover the ideals and aspirations of true religion. In this way, Derrida is profoundly Kierkegaardian as he himself admitted in person to a close friend of mine.

It is often necessary to deconstruct religion in order to recover its original impulsion. There is a redemptive horizon to Derrida’s deconstructive endeavor. He is not just playing or destroying for the fun of it. It is to do justice to the true God that deconstruction is sometimes necessary. As such, one must understand Derrida’s endeavor of deconstruction as “justice”. I am reminded of a quote from his political essays “Rogues”: “Deconstruction is Justice and Justice is Deconstruction”. It is in the name of justice that call for deconstruction. It is in the name of the preservation and respect of the other that a critical stance must be adopted vis-à-vis the crystallizations of meanings and institutions. Thus, in any healthy community, including religious ones, it is sometimes necessary to deconstruct certain dogmas and traditions in order to recover the essence of the divine intention. In this sense, Jesus might represent one of the main deconstructive figures within the monotheistic traditions in his attempt to deconstruct the law in order to recover its spirit. This does not mean that Jesus came to destroy the law. To deconstruct is not to destroy, but rather to expose, to critique, and as such, to revitalize and to refresh.

Finally, it is only by adopting such a deconstructive stance that a genuine eschatology is possible. Indeed, eschatology implies the awareness of a God that is to come, of a God that is not yet here and that is awaited ardently by his followers. But the concept of a God to come also implies that he is not yet here, that is ways are not our ways and that he exceeds our present, and by extension, our present assumptions and categorizations of him. The God to come, or in Derridean terms, “a-venir”, is an unknown God because he is beyond our present knowledge of things, he is an unexpected and untamed God. Only such a God is truly a-venir, is truly to come. Any other God remains entrenched in our present and in our present conceptualizations and categorizations. This view of eschatology is of particular interest, I believe for the Seventh-day Adventist movement inasmuch as we also offer a testimony of the God to come, a-venir. Let us beware, however, of giving too precise of a definition of when, how, and for whom these things will take place for to do so would occult rather than illuminate the utterly unexpected and surprising character of his coming and of his reign. Jesus himself pointed this out in the parable of the thief (Matthew 24:42-44).

In conclusion (and in Derrida’s words), “we share with Abraham what cannot be shared, a secret we know nothing about, neither him nor us” (Gift of Death, 80). It is this secret that believers have been entrusted with, according to Derrida, the secret of the God to come, of an untold and extraordinary future that defies human perception and descriptions, that holds infinite promise for the human race, and that as such, is much better shared in a passionate whisper than trumpeted in triumphant certainty.

—Abi Doukhan, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY), and holds the Pearl and Nathan Halegua Family Initiative in Ethics and Tolerance. Her book Emmanuel Levinas: A Philosophy of Exile was recently published by Bloomsbury Academic.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at