Bruce Ellis Benson
Traces of God
Can this really be Derrida? You can almost see that question forming in audiences' minds while listening to him speak passionately about morality and faith. Even having followed Derrida's turn during the last decade to themes like negative theology, justice, gift-giving, hospitality, faith, and forgiveness, I admit it seems a bit odd to read him explicating Matthew 6 in The Gift of Death and saying that justice and love are not deconstructable.
But John Caputo thinks we should have seen this development coming. On his read, Derrida's recent thought is more a shift in emphasis than a reversal. True, even back in the sixties, Derrida's thinking had an underlying "Levinasian tone" (as Caputo puts it). Yet now that influence from Emmanuel Levinas has become so prominent that Derrida often sounds like Levinas. Of course, Caputo admits that Derrida's notion of differance previously had a more Nietzschean than Levinasian ring. And I'd add that not only was Derrida interpreted in a more Nietzschean (i.e., playful and skeptical) fashion but that his thinking actually was more Nietzschean.
Still, I think Caputo is largely right in claiming that Derrida's early texts can be read as compatible with his current thinking (a view that Derrida shares). Some may disagree on this point, but Caputo cannot simply be dismissed, since there are few interpreters of Derrida as knowledgeable. I can't think of a better introduction to Derrida in terms of accuracy and accessibility than Deconstruction in a Nutshell (which also prepares one for the much more challenging Prayers and Tears). Caputo's style may be too "playful" for some tastes; but his writing is certainly never boring and has a clarity which many commentators on Derrida sadly lack.
In any case, whereas many have either embraced or denounced deconstruction as a tool of wanton destruction, Derrida has recently come to insist that it is (and always has been) all about promoting justice. But how can that claim be reconciled with the early Derrida and the writings of the so-called deconstructionists? To answer that question, we need to re turn to Derrida's beginnings.
Pointing Toward Faith
Few recent notions have caused such a storm and been open to such widely varying definitions as "deconstruction." Probably the typical view is summed up by a recent chapel speaker at my institution who claimed that "deconstruction is the theory that says you can make texts mean anything you want." But perhaps that chapel speaker himself was guilty of a sort of deconstruction: that of making deconstruction itself mean anything you want it to mean.
As a method of reading and interpreting, deconstruction seems simple enough. Its roots are in Edmund Husserl's notion of Abbau—the "unbuilding" of a complex structure into its component parts. Such unbuilding is not unlike what philosophers call "analysis." Where the two differ is most clear in their focus. While both focus on what a text (or idea or statement or theory) says, deconstruction puts particular emphasis on what is not said (i.e., what is assumed but not explicitly stated).
It's not hard to see that such a method has at least the potential for generating interpretations that are peripheral or even completely contrary to what the text or theory says. Understandably, critics like John Searle and Amy Gutmann view deconstruction as providing license for irresponsible scholarship. Obviously, it's too much to blame deconstruction for the ruination of academe and culture in general, but deconstruction's critics are clearly right that its effect has been negative in many ways. More difficult to assess, though, is how much Derrida and the method of deconstruction itself are to blame.
Once made public, methods have a way of taking on a life of their own and, besides, Derrida has repeatedly attempted to distance himself from his more radical disciples. Yet Derrida probably can't be let off the hook altogether. Is deconstruction itself inherently evil or atheistic? Caputo is right that such a conclusion is "a serious misunderstanding" (Prayers and Tears, p. 4). Rather than necessarily harming religion, Caputo insists that deconstruction "helps religion examine its conscience, counseling and chastening religion about its tendency to confuse its faith with knowledge" (Deconstruction in a Nutshell, p. 159). All of that, however, needs to be prefaced with the word can; whether deconstruction actually helps depends on who is doing the deconstructing and what motives lie behind it. In other words, deconstruction probably needs to be kept in check—by deconstruction.
More important, though, can Derrida himself be considered irresponsible in his thinking and reading of texts? Such a question cannot be answered simply by assessing the "accuracy" of Derrida's explications, since competent specialists in Husserl, Plato, and Joyce (just a few of the figures Derrida has explicated) disagree as to the accuracy of his interpretations. We might make more headway, then, by considering some of the extreme statements Derrida has made. One could, of course, simply write these off by the politically incorrect observation that hyperbole is the stock-in-trade of French philosophers. Yet a careful reading of Derrida reveals that he himself often qualifies his more startling claims.
Let's examine three of Derrida's more radical claims: (1) "there has never been any 'perception'" (Speech and Phenomena, p. 97), (2) "there is nothing outside of the text" (Of Grammatology, p. 158), and (3) there is no "center which arrests and grounds the play" ("Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" in Writing and Difference, p. 289).
First, Derrida's surprising pronouncement about perception only comes at the end of an extended analysis of Husserl's notion of perception as "intuitive givenness" (which, to grossly simplify a detailed and nuanced concept, means that when I perceive something that thing itself is present to my mind). Derrida's claim is that, if we take Husserl's conception of perception as the standard of what counts as perception, then human perception doesn't quite live up to that standard. Even if Derrida misreads Husserl here, his point about the limits of human perception may still be valid.
What about the phrase "there is nothing outside of the text"? Some have read this as a statement of "creative anti-realism" (a term used to describe a view in which what we call "the world" is merely a construct of our minds). If that is what Derrida actually means, then I for one must part company with him. But I am more inclined to think that such an interpretation has gained hegemony in this country largely because it is heavily promoted by Richard Rorty, who wants to make Derrida an ally for his own agenda.
Derrida's own read (in the "Afterword" to Limited Inc, p. 136) is: "'there is nothing outside the text' means nothing else but: there is nothing outside context." Or, as Caputo aptly puts it, there is "no naked contact with being which somehow shakes loose of the coded system" (Prayers and Tears, p. 17). But note how Derrida further qualifies this statement. Right before the phrase "there is nothing outside of the text," Derrida emphasizes the need for a careful "doubling commentary" of a text "with all the instruments of traditional criticism" to serve as an "indispensable guardrail" (i.e., to protect the meaning of the text). Otherwise, "critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything." I take it that Derrida wants to insist both that understanding is contextual and that texts (or the world) have a meaning which cannot be simply construed however we like. Whatever we might label this view, it doesn't sound like "creative anti-realism."
Finally, rather than suggest that indeterminate "free play" simply re place the traditional metaphysical and epistemological goal of grounding and structuring thought and values, Derrida points out that "there is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics" ("Structure, Sign, Play," p. 280). Indeed for him there is no such possibility as "abandoning" metaphysics or even philosophy as it has been traditionally conceived (interestingly enough, Derrida has sometimes been criticized by his French colleagues for being "too conservative" on such points!); instead, the task as Derrida conceives it is to hold onto philosophy's vision and yet be open to ways of rethinking and reformulating that vision.
Derrida himself responds to the characterization of the deconstructionist as "skeptic-relativist-nihilist" as "false (that's right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposes a bad (that's right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine" ("Afterword," p. 146). Derrida strongly insists that we are not left with the indeterminacy of "freeplay" in which no meaningful distinctions can be made. In the interview in Deconstruction in a Nutshell (p. 19), he goes so far as to say: "We have to calculate as rigorously as possible," even though "there is a point or limit beyond which calculation must fail, and we must recognize that."
That "limit" is explained by Derrida in terms of "undecidability," which has moral and epistemological implications. In making moral decisions, while I can always give reasons for my actions, I cannot provide a justification in the sense of a mathematical calculation. Moreover, my choices are always undecidable in the sense that there are competing goods, meaning that I can always justify choosing more than one possible good. Precisely because my decisions can only be calculated in a limited sense, they are truly decisions of a rational agent, as opposed to a calculation made by a machine programmed by logic or rules. Further, my knowledge of the situation at hand or the person to whom I am in relation is always inadequate. I never fully know what "the" appropriate thing to do is (even though I may have a great deal of knowledge about which possibilities would be clearly inappropriate or less appropriate).
Derrida argues that his notion of "undecidability" has always been about avoiding violence (though one must admit that much violence has been done under its guise). Of course, Der rida takes such a goal to be problematic in that human actions and concepts are never fully "adequate": to the situation at hand, to the person whom one is at tempting to respect, to the thing one tries to understand. If we can say that philosophy can be more or less characterized by the ideal, to use the medieval phrase, of adequatio intellectus ad rei (literally, "adequation of intellect to the substance," which could be paraphrased as "a one-to-one correspondence between idea and thing known"), then Derrida's early philosophy can be read as a serious questioning of this ideal of adequation for epistemology and metaphysics. His later philosophy turns to implications of "inadequation" for morality and faith.
In place of the ideal of adequation, Derrida suggests the notion of differance. Playing off the two senses of the French word differer (to differ, in the sense of inadequation or nonidentity, and to defer, in the sense of putting off of this adequation until a later time), Derrida attempts to rethink the ideal of adequation as never fully "adequate" in the sense of adequatio, even if still "adequate" in the sense of being "good enough" for human activity. Whereas in perception I never fully grasp the thing perceived, I can still grasp a "trace" of it (a term which Derrida borrows from Levinas). Note that differance clearly has "messianic" overtones, for it points to a time to come in which true adequation will be realized.
Keeping Faith Honest
I have tried to show so far that it is possible to read the early Derrida in both a less radical way and a way that can connect his early and later thinking. Perhaps my reading here will be characterized by some as unduly charitable. But whether such is the case can only be determined by actually reading Derrida. While some disagree with Derrida as a result of scrupulous and responsible study of his texts, it is much more common to hear his thought derided by those whose acquaintance with it is second- or very-far-removed-hand. Ironically, such irresponsible denunciations of Derrida are often made precisely in the name of responsibility.
So both deconstructionists and their critics are open to the charge of having done violence to each other.
Oddly enough, as we have seen, Derrida himself regards deconstruction as a powerful tool for exposing and avoiding violence, going so far as to claim that "deconstruction is justice" ("Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority," in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, p. 15). It is in the name of justice that laws can and must be deconstructed. But why so? For Derrida, justice is a kind of absolute that is not deconstructable precisely because it is beyond deconstruction and makes deconstruction possible. Derrida's view of justice is that it is something between what he calls "essentialism" (i.e., the idea that justice is a "thing") and what he calls "irrationalism" (i.e., skepticism or relativism). Whereas Rorty's talk of justice is purely ironic, Derrida admits that he's conservative enough to believe that there really is something like justice.
The problem, of course, comes in making justice concrete. Laws are ways of instantiating justice, but they always fail (no matter how close they come) at doing justice to justice because of lack of adequation. Derrida explains this differance between law and justice by way of the dilemma of "translation." On the one hand, translation allows something to be in a place it could not previously be and so one does "justice" to a great text by making it available. On the other hand, the very act of making something available does a kind of violence to it. However careful and well-intended the translation, it never completely or perfectly renders the meaning of what is translated.
Derrida works out this difficulty of "translating" justice in a number of ways. First, doing justice means applying a universal to the particularities of laws and cases. But how can one do right by both the universal of justice and the singular of a particular case? Since each case is unique, no case could ever be "just another instance" of, say, rule #427. Somehow, then, one attempts to mediate between the absolute of justice, the law, and the specific case.
Second, all decisions concerning justice are undecidable, not merely in the sense that there are no moral algorithms but also in the sense that the demands of justice are far more than one can possibly meet. For instance, I have responsibilities to a whole host of people: my wife, my wider family, my students, my neighbors (and Jesus considerably complicates this last category by implying that everyone is my neighbor). But how could I possibly satisfy all of those demands in a perfectly "just" way?
Finally, justice cannot wait. Aristotle (rightly) thought that the truly moral person would know what to do in a given situation on the basis of experience, and indeed one can move ever closer to such a state. But one will never have enough knowledge about a given situation (context, persons involved, etc.) in order to make a perfectly "adequate" moral choice. One is always forced to decide before one can be sure that one has all relevant information at hand.
Given the logic of differance, then, just actions always "differ" from justice itself, and justice is always deferred. Derrida's response to the situation in which we find ourselves is not that we ought to give up the quest of being moral but that we should maintain a "hyper-vigilance." On that point, I have no trouble agreeing. Yet what Derrida doesn't take seriously enough is the possibility that deconstruction itself can be a tool of injustice. Moreover, it is far too much to say that "deconstruction is justice." At best, I think we can say that deconstruction has the potential to be a powerful tool of justice but has just as great a potential to be used for injustice. Hypervigilance is needed—on both sides.
But, if it is difficult to act as a moral person without doing violence, can one believe as a religious person without doing violence? Derrida doesn't think so. The reason is that the same sorts of potential for violence characterize religious belief. In fact, for Derrida both Jewish and Christian theology face a particularly difficult dilemma (though here I will limit my focus to Christian theology). While Scripture is clear that God can be known to us (and that Jesus Christ is even God with us), Christian orthodoxy has always maintained that God is still Other. He has revealed himself, but he has not revealed himself in his fullness. Thus Christian believers face two equally unpalatable risks. We run the risk of forgetting that our descriptions of God fall short of his glory and thus allowing them to become substitutes for God; but we also run the risk of letting the fear of idolatry silence all talk about God.
So how does one keep from doing violence to God and yet still make statements about him and have content to one's belief? Derrida doesn't really answer this question, but he does provide some help. Given differance, whatever we may say about God, he is always different from that saying—not merely in the trivial sense that God and the saying are ontologically different but in the important sense that the saying is truly inadequate to the thing it represents. We might say that our statements about God bear a trace of him, in the sense that God is made truly present to us but not fully so. Something like this idea of the trace is illustrated by God showing only his back to Moses (with the explanation that Moses cannot see God in his fullness and live, Exodus 33:18-23).
Such differance characterizes the very nature of faith. The point of deconstruction, in Caputo's words, is that it "demonstrates that faith is always faith" (Prayers and Tears, p. 6). Both Caputo and Derrida have a problem with "de terminable" faiths: the fact that they tend to "forget that they are faith and not intuitive knowledge" (Prayers and Tears, p. 47). If one could spell out exactly who God is, then one would in effect be turning faith into reason (here, in the sense of full presence) and thus destroying its character as faith.
The fundamental undecidability of faith is particularly poignant in The Gift of Death, in which Derrida (like Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling) weaves together the account of Abraham's (almost) sacrifice of Isaac and Jesus' comments in Matthew 6 on "praying in secret." The French title of Derrida's text is Donner la mort, which literally means "to give death" but idiomatically means "to commit suicide." Derrida takes this idea of "giving oneself death"—or sacrificing oneself and all that one loves—as the essence of Christian faith and morality. Does not Jesus tell us that "whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26)?
Abraham provides (for Kierkegaard and Derrida) the model of the true follower, for he truly acts in faith. While he had "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" and knew "that God is able even to raise someone from the dead" (Hebrews 11:1,17), he really does not know how all of this will turn out. In fact, what he does know should tell him that his action makes no rational sense: how is God going to raise up a great nation through a dead son? How could Abraham "justify" the killing of his own son by any standard of morality?
Of course, Abraham does what God calls him to do, so Abraham does have a strong reason for acting as he does (while Kierkegaard and Derrida are clearly right in pointing out the "faith" character of Abraham's action, I think both may overemphasize it). Abraham's action can be truly characterized as a gift, for it is done without calculation or expectation of recompense. It is only after Abraham demonstrates his faith—only after his refusal to lean to his own understanding—that Isaac is given back.
Taking Christian morality as paradigmatic, Derrida concludes that the motivation of love put forth by Jesus is a motivation that, by its very nature, can have no sense of "reciprocity," or else it ceases to be love and is not truly a gift. But, then, what does one make of Matthew 6 in which Jesus promises to reward those who give alms and pray "in secret"?
Derrida gives us two possible reads. One is that Jesus gives us the ultimate reward strategy: if you avoid doing your good works publicly, you'll get an even greater reward. Such is the Nietzschean account of Christianity—that Christians peddle the sneakiest formula for selfishness precisely because "unselfishness" is used as a cover for "selfishness" of the most insidious sort. Or else Jesus can be read as giving us an (almost) impossible prescription: do your good works in such secret that even you forget about them—and then you will be rewarded. Giving a true gift, one gives up any hope of reward and so is rewarded. Unlike Nietzsche, Derrida doesn't really choose one of these reads. For him, there have been "Christians" of both sorts. The danger of the logic of sacrifice, thinks Derrida, is that it can easily degenerate into a logic of economy—so one must be hypervigilant.
There is no doubt that Derrida's call to vigilance is one which we as Christians can only ignore at our own peril. But it seems to me that there is likewise a danger against which we must be equally vigilant. One can easily become so worried by the prospect of doing violence—to God and to neighbor—that one is left in inaction and unable to bear witness to the hope that lies within us.
To be fair to Derrida, he clearly points out that the demands of morality cannot wait; so I take it that the de mands of belief likewise cannot wait. Yet Derrida seems so reluctant to say much of anything substantive about his "faith" that he even criticizes the at tempts of Roman Catholic phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion to consider ways of thinking and talking about God (in, for instance, God Without Being) which do not do violence to him.
Christians can, I think, heartily agree with Caputo on the need for deconstruction when he says "the idea of deconstruction is to break all such locks, to unlock texts and institutions, beliefs and practices, not in such a way as to say that you cannot have such things, but only to say that you cannot have a lock on them" (Prayers and Tears, p. 53). Indeed, those of us who are Protestants owe our very heritage to the "protesting" of such locks.
But Derrida succumbs to the opposite danger, that of being so afraid of violence that one eschews not only locks but texts and institutions and beliefs and practices themselves. Derrida, for in stance, is so insistent upon making God so tout autre (wholly other) that God ends up being "wholly other than anything that the determinable faiths determine" (Prayers and Tears, p. 48). The result is Derrida's "faith without religion." As Jack Caputo puts it in Prayers and Tears, "deconstruction can have no brief against faith, because deconstruction is itself faith, miming and repeating the structure of faith in a faith without dogma" (Prayers and Tears, p. 57).
Faith without dogma? Isn't dogma what faith is all about—or at least what makes it possible? When I say "I believe," there is something in which I believe. Moreover, as a Christian, there is a someone in whom I believe. True, my belief must always be open to questioning: after all, the image of Jesus Christ which I worship can all too easily begin to look like me or else be merely an extension of my wants and needs (as when Jesus becomes "the grantor of my wishes" rather than "the Lord of my life"). But the danger from which deconstruction would seek to protect us is one from which dogma is also designed to protect us. The insistence of the early church upon careful formulation of creeds and doctrines was precisely about keeping our image of Jesus pure and unstained, rather than being remade in our image.
If such is the case, then we are left with the recognition that the church needs both dogma and deconstruction. It is not a question of choosing but of holding them in tension. Interestingly enough, Derrida continually warns of the danger of false dilemmas, of thinking that one must choose between two simple alternatives. Here, though, Derrida could take his own warning to heart, for there is no need to choose deconstruction to the exclusion of dogma. (Of course, from the viewpoint of historic Christian orthodoxy, if we are going to err on one side or the other, we clearly are advised to do so toward the side of dogma. Woe to anyone who would take up doctrinal deconstruction lightly!)
The fear of commitment—the fear of anything which smells like dogma—is at the heart of Derrida's distinction between what he terms "the messianic" and "messianism." For Derrida, all thought, language, morality, religion—everything—has the messianic structure of the "not yet but still to come." Human beings, on Derrida's view, cannot help but think of our lives and actions as pointing to a time to come in which there is true shalom. And I think he is right.
Derrida is far less comfortable, however, with any sort of concrete "messianism." As he points out in The Gift of Death, he is only interested in the logic of morality and the messianic, one which "has no need of the event of a revelation" [Derrida's italics]. In place of any concrete faith, he is interested in exploring the possibility of religion "without reference to religion as institutional dogma" (p. 49). In other words, Derrida thinks that the logic of Christian morality can be appropriated without its commitment to a specific event or particular revelation. In effect, Derrida wants all the benefits of Christianity's morality (of which he seems to approve) without the disadvantages of (as Caputo puts it) "de terminate messianic faiths that divide humanity into warring parties" (Prayers and Tears, p. 195).
But wait. Isn't Derrida the one who keeps telling us that taking responsibility—whether moral or religious—means responding to the call of the other, the singular other? Derrida himself says that God "holding me from within and within his gaze, de fines everything in me, and so rouses me to responsibility" (The Gift of Death, p. 31). But which God—or who—is this? Perhaps Derrida can have a "religion without religion" (after all, conservative Christians have sometimes insisted that their belief in Jesus is not a "religion"); but doesn't there need to be some particular God to whom I respond? True, I do not fully understand and certainly do not master the One who holds me in his gaze, but surely this One cannot be just an abstract universal.
Strangely enough, one might accuse Derrida here of being, in a sense, too Platonistic. For everything of value turns out for Derrida to be a kind of "ideal object" which can never be properly instantiated. Not only is justice so transcendent that all its in stances pale in comparison, but the content of faith is likewise so transcendent that all at tempts to spell it out—and the God in whom one believes—fail miserably.
Like Plato, Derrida seems to be very uneasy with any kind of incarnation. But, whereas this fear keeps Derrida from making any commitment, it is the affirmation of the incarnation which underlies the Christian commitment: not only has God revealed himself through Scripture, Jesus Christ truly incarnates God with us. Of course, the Logos which Christians affirm is not the logos of philosophy, which Derrida sees as the at tempt to "master" the world by way of reason. Indeed, we are warned by Christ the Logos (not to mention the Apostle Paul) that the message of the gospel (in which one believes) and the Logos (in whom one believes) are not fully explicable—i.e., they cannot be comprehended—by way of reason. That God loves us enough to sacrifice his Son is simply not comprehensible. Yet, even though the Logos disrupts our natural way of thinking, that does not mean we are unable to know him through the eyes of faith and to proclaim the gospel message—even with confidence.
Thus Derrida's "faith" very clearly differs from mine, as from that of any orthodox Christian. Moreover, I have doubts whether Derrida really can appropriate the logic of either Christian or Jewish morality without it being grounded in specific events.
On the other hand, it is amazing how far Derrida's recent thinking has come in the direction of "determinable faith," and it is hard to know exactly where it will end up. Derrida gives us a tantalizing hint in Deconstruction in a Nutshell. Regarding the relation of the messianic and messianism, Derrida admits that it remains "a problem for me, an enigma" as to whether "the religions of the Book" are only "specific examples of this general structure, of messianicity." Or whether "the events of revelation, the biblical traditions, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, have been absolute events, irreducible events which have unveiled this messianicity." Derrida says, "I hesitate between these two possibilities" and he goes on to say—speaking of the distinction—"perhaps one day I will give it up." Who knows where that might lead.
Bruce Ellis Benson is associate professor of philosophy at Wheaton College.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine.
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