Friday, 26 September 2008

Derrida, religion, the slippage

Derrida speaks of 'my religion about which nobody understands anything' 'any more than does my mother,' 'but she must have known that the constancy of God in my life is called by other names.' Caputo comments: God, the name of God, is not dismissed by Derrida, who would not have the authority to dimiss a word that belongs to such a deeply inscribed vocabulary that goes back to time out of mind... (Caputo, Philosophy and Theology 62.)

When we say God is love, does that mean that God is one of the best names we have for love, or that love is one of the best names we have for God? Augustine might have opted for the latter. As for Derrida, "there is an irresoluble slipping back and forth between these names and no place to stand that would give us the leverage to arrest this play." (Ibid. 62-63.)

Here is where the atheist thing comes in. 'So that I quite rightly pass for an atheist.' Why not say outright, I am an atheist? Because that would be to arrest the play, and would amount to what Derrida called 'atheistic theology,' meaning dogmatic atheism. (Ibid. 63.)

And Caputo: there is always an atheist within me contesting belief, and there is always a believer within me contesting my professions of unbelief. That is why Derrida says that the name of God is the name of a secret that is withheld from him. Still, he 'rightly passes' for an atheist - by the standards of the local priest or rabbi. Rightly enough. But Derrida does not want that to harden into a dogma. Echoes of Kierkegaard: I do not pretend to be a Christian; I am only trying to become one. (Ibid. 63.) - Yes, true: our authenticity is bound to be ever a withdrawal from unauthenticity.

Derrida even lets slip that he prays, that his life has been a long history of prayers, that he has lived constantly in prayer, in tears. 'Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.' (Ibid. 63-64.)

He shares Augustine's restless heart, but, unlike Augustine, he cannot bring it to rest upon a singular object of love, like Augustine's God. (Ibid. 64.)

He would speak of a 'pure messianic,' the pure form of hope and expectation, in contrast to the concrete messianisms, both religious and secular. (Ibid. 65.)

So what is the difference between Augustine and Derrida? Not in their faith, nor in their prayer, says Caputo. But Augustine is able to say You, meaning the historically identifiable God in a concrete tradition of faith; and further, he is able to pray within a community of faith, with the words and prayers and stories of that community. Derrida does not have this, does not want to have this; it would be determining the undeterminable, naming the unnameable, arresting the play. (Ibid. 65-66.)

Caputo dares to say: if prayer is a kind of 'wounded word,' then Derrida's Circumfession is even more prayerful than Augustine's Confessions, because he lacks the community and the assurances of Augustine. (Ibid. 66-67.) In another key, Sartre had said: we atheists are the real heroes, for we do good with no assurance whatsoever and without hope of any reward... In fact, it is a poor faith that will act solely for the reward. The parable of the workers of the eleventh hour and the indignation that it provoked and still provokes... Or Tony De Mello's story of the indignant Lay Brother...

So Derrida would have a religion without religion, more heroic, mpre precarious, more pure... (Ibid. 67.) My question is: so is that ultimately a choice? Or is there not the unprogrammable initiative of an Other, the irruption of the Other?

True, as Caputo says: the difference between Augustine and Derrida is not the difference between faith and faithlessness, but between two kinds of faith. But I would add: a world of difference, anyway. True, maybe, as Augustine said, you would not be seeking me if I were not already drawing you to myself... But it is a difference between grace and human effort, human choice. One cannot make it into a theory that the play cannot, should not, be arrested. That cannot be an option.

At any rate, Caputo says that what the author of the letter to the Hebrews called 'the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen' (11:1) is not only the principle of our lives but also a principle of a postmodern faith, of a philosophical theology or of a theological philosophy, that is as old as the Scriptures. (Ibid. 67.)

No comments:

Post a Comment