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Bruce Ellis Benson

Traces of God

The faith of Jacques Derrida.

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 ...

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