Archive | Negative Theology RSS for this section

Derrida’s passion for the impossible

Derrida was an atheist with Jewish roots who spoke about God in his own way. In Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida John Caputo makes a controversial encounter with Derrida’s relationship to religion, arguing that deconstruction is a passion for the transcendent. Moreover, Caputo claims that we have not understood deconstruction properly, that is, we have read it less and less well, if we fail to see it as an aspiration for the religious or prophetic. More specifically, deconstruction is interested in making room for the tout autre, the “wholly other”. In other words, it is a “passion for the impossible”, the excess or plenitude of existence, an act that surely sets in motion a transgressive vector: it is “a passion for trespassing the horizons of possibility”.

Deconstruction is primarily a strategy of calling forth, provoking or uncovering the unrepresentable. As such, it is impregnated with the impossible or the transcendent. It is prompted or haunted by the “spirit/specter of something unimaginable and unforeseeable” (p. xix). Caputo notes that religion is precisely a covenant with the impossible, unrepresentable or unforeseeable. It is a pack or promise made between the wholly other and its people. But for Derrida, deconstruction is religiousness without concrete, historical religion. That is, Derrida is beholden by the dogmatics of no particular faith. For him, it is more a certain experience of or tormented relationship with the impossible as such. Stated otherwise, Derrida prays and weeps to God but does not know to whom he is praying and weeping.

Although this all may seem rather uninteresting, it is significant that Caputo applies this profound specter of religion to all states of affairs; for instance, anthropology, justice and politics. The bent of deconstruction, its posture of expectancy, runs deep. It can never be satisfied because the impossible can never be present, it is always that which is coming. As such, we must open ourselves and our present to something new, that which is uncommon, strange, impossible. Or, as Caputo puts it, “Were the horizon of possibility to close over, it would erase the trace of justice, for justice is the trace of what is to come beyond the possible” (p. xxiv). In this case, Derrida’s religion or notion of transcendence is not otherworldly, even if it is “spiritual” or “out-of-this-world” in some respects. Moreover, rather than a list of dogmatic propositions or historical/narrative accounts of God’s dealings with humankind, what we are usually familiar with in religions, Derrida’s religion is prophetic, messianic and eschatological, an opening towards the future of what is to come.

The scandal that Caputo is proposing is to say that deconstruction is circumcision: a cutting into the Same to open up the possibility or the event of the Other, the tout autre. Anticipating the discussion to follow, Caputo is worth quoting at length here:

The circumcision of deconstruction cuts it off from the absolute, cuts off its word form the final word, from the totalizing truth or logos that engulfs the other. Deconstruction proceeds not by knowledge but by faith and by passion, by the passion of faith, impassioned by the unbelievable, by the secret that there is no secret. It is called forth by a promise, by an aboriginal being-promised over to language and the future, to wander destiner-rant, like Abraham, underway to who knows where. Deconstruction proceeds in the dark, like a blind man feeling his way with a stick, devoid of sight and savvy, of vision and verity,…where it is necessary to believe, where the passion of faith,…is all you have to go on (p. xxvi)

The messianic logic of Derrida can and has been applied to all aspects of existence. For instance, democracy is a democracy to come, a democracy otherwise than its current state, a democracy beyond its current limitations and deadlocks. This is not a democracy that can be totalized, classified or closed any more than we can define God. More profoundly still, as Bernauer acknowledges in Foucault’s Force of Flight, “Foucault says of human begins what Eckhart says of the divine being: whatever you say God is, that is what God is not; you cannot say what human begins are but only what they are not” (p. 56). The point is as follows: we cannot say a thing concerning humanity or the God or politics to come. We are blind to the future and no positive ideal holds. Indeed, the remark Bernauer makes of Foucault is the same one made by posthumanist studies: once we have defined humanity within strict boundaries of demarcation and mastery, we have already failed to grasp the human as such.

Xenophanes: ancient negative theologian?

As a general overview, Xenophanes of Colophon contributed predominately to the areas of theology and epistemology. Most significant of all, he observed that the depictions of gods varied from culture to culture. However, given this descriptive performance of comparative cultures, Xenophanes is in no way a relativist. Although he agrees that gods are a product or projection of culture he is in no way skeptical about the existence of gods. Or, what amounts to the same, he assumes that they exist and proceeds to consider what they are like. The disagreement is simply in the details, not in the existence. Rejecting a potential relativist move, Xenophanes offers a solution to what god or the gods are like. In this sense, he is looking for the most accurate depiction of god; and only one can and must be true.

To begin with, Xenophanes posits that it would be ridiculous to assert that one single culture’s conception of the divine is correct and that all other gods are in toto inferior. This, after all, was the position of most Greek contemporaries of Xenophanes. Rather, the reasonable path, according to Xenophanes, is one in which we recognize that no prior view is absolutely correct. Moreover, we should enquire “into the nature of gods, this time trying to avoid letting [our] view be colored by the peculiarities of [our] own particular cultural circumstances” (James Warren, Presocratics, p. 45). We can, in short, curtain our anthropomorphic tendencies.

Doubtless, this paves the way for skepticism and indeed skeptics begin much as Xenophanes did by pointing out disagreements and contradictions inherent to beliefs, ultimately concluding that there is no more reason to prefer one side of a conflict to another. In other words, according to skepticism, we should suspend judgment and keep the matter unresolved. Xenophanes, on the other hand, proposes that we continue to search rather than merely lead a life of inner tranquility in response to unsettled opinions. As will be shown, he utilizes a positive and rational theology, even if that means we must accept conclusions that are inconclusive and provisional.

The poets Homer and Hesiod were “generally considered to be authorities” on religious matters in ancient Greek society (p. 46). According to them, the gods act in egregious ways much as humans do and, incidentally, to even greater extents (e.g., quarreling, jealousy, murder, incest, lust, ambitions, etc.). Xenophanes observes this and turns this into an argument concerning what gods should be like. As Xenophanes reasons, the gods should not resemble us in appearance or thought but are superior to human beings. Surely the gods do not think or behave in the same way mortals do. On the other hand, they are not wholly unlike mortals either because the gods still think in some fashion.

In other places Xenophanes seems to suggest that there is one god superior to other gods. However, he stands in contradistinction to Western theology because he never considers god to be omniscient, omnipresent, or benevolent. “The overall picture of Xenophanes’ god reveals what Xenophanes takes to be the essential attributes of any divinity: effortless power and superior cognitive and causal abilities” (p. 49). What is worth mentioning is that Xenophanes is chiefly interested in highlighting the differences between gods and humans. In extension, he shows the limit of humanity’s understanding and knowledge (epistemology). Likewise, we are always embedded in a particular cultural context and individual circumstances that distort our perspective of the divine.

There exists, most of all, a vast gulf between human and divine understanding. Although we must settle with faith given our mortal limitations, Xenophanes argues we can approximate towards clear and true knowledge. As anticipated above, we can therefore have better and worse beliefs. But, then again, how are we to classify “better or worse likeness to truth”? (p. 52). While Xenophanes carries with him a notion that progress is possible, he does not “specify how we go about this enquiry” (p. 53). As he seems to suggest in particular fragments, we will never know if we hit on the right answer. What we might ask of Xenopahnes is: is internal consistency or correspondence with data considered steps in the right direction? We know that Xenophanes attempted to explain natural phenomena by meterological and cosmological reasoning elsewhere without recourse to divine agency, which might suggest an affinity with our aforementioned question. But in all things, “our beliefs are affected by surrounding circumstances” (p. 56).

Graven Ideologies

In Bruce Benson’s book Graven Ideologies the topic of idols, all that takes the place of God and separates us from true faith, is extended beyond material objects to include images and concepts. We create idols. We project our aspirations and ideas onto a divine plane believing we have represented God but in fact have only represented ourselves. The outcome is we create a god we can possess and master.  Benson’s point here is that theologies can become idols just as much, if not more so, than their material counterparts. On this path theology and philosophy alike are vain attempts of gaining a God’s eye perspective of the world. But since idols reflect us, we end up worshiping ourselves. The obvious alternative sought after by Christianity is to worship the God who breaks into our world and disturbs our ideologies. This is precisely the observation made by apophatic theology: we cannot speak about God adequately. But such caution perhaps is too cautious.

There is a strange logic at work in both positive and negative theology. One affirms something but denies it, because to affirm it too strongly would be heretical and to deny it completely would also be heretical (153)

Hence at the very least there is, or should be, proper tension between dogma and interrogation. And this properly belongs to everyone, recognized or not, because we all stand in a multitude of traditions. In other words, everyone has a dogma. Perhaps the most helpful Benson gives us is the distinction between the icon and the idol. With the icon we look through the image or concept to something beyond but with the idol we look directly at it and mistake it for the object of intention.

The problem with all icons is that they have a tendency to morph into idols. Properly speaking, of course, it is not their tendency so much as our tendency to take icons and turn them into idols (193)

The danger is that icons can easily turn into idols, but the reverse holds true as well. The point of clarity for avoiding this transgression lies in our letting go of a ‘masterable’ God. In other words, receiving the overwhelming experience of God in praise and knowing that his disclosure is always partial; never a full presence.