The Rationality of Derrida's "Religion without Religion": A Phenomenological
Gift for John D. Caputo
he theme of doubleness stretches throughout the body of Jacques Derrida's written
works. Most beginning students of Derrida read the rather lucid critique of structuralism
in the chapter of Writing and Difference entitled "Structure, Sign, and Play
in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." This 1966 essay is usually used to teach the
undecidability between "two interpretations of interpretation." One seeks to
uncover truth in a fairly simple propositional and foundational sense; the other, in
apparent conflict with the former, seeks to go beyond these modern hermeneutical notions
of truth via a concept of metaphoric and antifoundationalist freeplay which Derrida
associates with Nietzschean writings such as "On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral
Sense." Derrida claims that there can be no "question of choosing" between
the two interpretations; rather, there is an irreducible and ineluctable relationship of différance
between them which would render such a choice pheno-menologically ignorant. Whatever turn
there may or may not be in Derrida's writings—especially on the issue of
religion—this rhetoric of undecidability between the doublet remains focussed. For
example, on the opening page of the 1990 Mémoires d'aveugle (translated in 1993 as
Memoirs of the Blind), Derrida once again writes in the rhetoric of doubleness.
"Let me summarize: there would be two hypotheses." Although the immediate
context of these two hypotheses is the question of the origin of drawing, it quickly
becomes clear that drawing is a phenomenological limit-experience (structurally similar to
mourning, the sentence "I am dead," autobiography, etc.) which illuminates
interpretation in general. The two interpretations of interpretation are now a) "the
transcendental", which hopelessly seeks after the unpresentable and non-thematizable
origin and resolutely leaves it hidden and invisible, and b) "the sacrificial,"
which represents and thematizes this unrepresentability and thus, in its failure,
successfully conveys it to the understanding, in however slight or guarded a manner. The
relationship between these two is now described as a "fold," yet the formal
structure of this doubleness has not changed since the earlier essay. As the understanding
of metaphor as the basis of truth is itself propositionally true, so does the faulty
representation of the sacrifical interpretation "reflect" the inaccessibility of
the origin. The undecidable fold between the two interpretations thus becomes the
criterion for hermeneutical truth.
- So, any Derridean interpretation of a book—or any interpretation of a book on
Derrida—must begin by searching for its two apparently conflicting hypotheses, and
then must search for the fold between them. In this essay, I claim that John D. Caputo's
recent The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida , a series of excellent readings of
mostly post-1980 Derridean writings, more than adequately displays two apparently
conflicting hypotheses, yet fails to represent the fold between them. In so doing, the
importance of rationality (and the self) for Derridean phenomenology is downplayed, and
the consequences of this shift for theological thinking are dramatic.
- So, let us summarize. There are two hypotheses in Prayers and Tears . The first
hypothesis is that Derrida is at heart a religious thinker; he has a religion of his own
which is inseparable from his philosophy. I think this hypothesis has three parts (others'
mileage may vary). One: "deconstruction is itself faith" (57), and moreover a
"faith without faith" that is always questioning its own boundaries that risk
congealing it into a staid essence with its own propriety. Two: in this questioning, there
is a move toward the impossible, i.e. toward that upon which I do not project my
possibilities in a move of ownership, as some interpretations of Heidegger would have it.
This move is toward the surprise of the tout autre, the wholly other, toward a
Kierkegaardian singular. Three: in this rigorous thinking of alterity, the wholly other is
always secret, never present, always uncognizable as such. For we know from Aristotle (and
Maimonides) that in actual intellectual cognition there is union between the knower and
the known object. Knowing-as-such is therefore heterophagy (from the Greek heteros
"other," and phagein "to eat"). Cognition-as-such devours the
alterity of the other, and is thereby ethically and phenomenologically suspect. This
hypothesis sees the matter perfectly, transcendentally, and I would even say eidetically.
- The other hypothesis is more interesting to me, it makes me more impassioned, and the
context of this passion perhaps marks in advance the death knell for all my resistance to
what it claims to see, expressed in the following arguments. This hypothesis is that
deconstructive faith, or deconstructive faith- without-faith has nothing whatsoever to do
with knowledge, or reason. Thus, for Caputo the proposition "deconstruction is itself
faith" is synonymous with the proposition "deconstruction is itself not
knowledge." As Caputo writes in the preface to Prayers and Tears (xxvi),
"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." Let us break this up into two subsidiary parts. Part A: there is an argument
that "the passion for God renounces cognitivism" (334), which parallels Caputo's
mantra-like citation of the closing line of Memoirs of the Blind, "I don't
know. One has to believe. [Je ne sais pas. Il faut croire.]" Part B:
there is no secret. The secret of deconstruction is so rigorously self-negating, so
opposed to the metaphysics of presence, that we cannot make any identity-statements about
it or predications of it. These two parts of this other hypothesis are bound together. If
there were to be a secret, announced as such, it would no longer be a secret and would
fall prey to cognition. If there were to be cognition in deconstruction, it would know
what the secret was. The paradox of the matter eludes cognitive grasp, even though the
first hypothesis grasped this very elusiveness.
- Nevertheless, the way in which Caputo describes the secret and faith is so pure that
the second hypothesis risks escaping its required sacrificial imbrication into the first
hypothesis. And after all, it is the first hypothesis that guarantees the persuasiveness
of the second, and prohibits the reader from dismissing it as the gobbledygook that is
usually (and falsely) associated with Derrida. Caputo correctly warns us of the dangers of
purity early on in Prayers and Tears (40), "a purely pure prayer is not prayer
but union ... pure life is pure death." As a result, the implied rhetoric of purity,
of immunity from the messiness of rationality or the order of the same in Caputo's
description of faith and its secret should raise our eyebrows.
- So what I'd like to do is express this suspicion by focussing on why I think Derridean
God-talk has to involve cognition and rationality to some extent. First, this will be a
focus on Husserl, both on the place of Husserl in Prayers and Tears, and the place
of Husserlian theology in Derrida. Second, I want to take this out of the realm of merely
arguing over the history of ideas, and show how the move to the Derrida-Husserl
relationship affects how we think about the messianic in the "later" Derrida.
Here, we will to linger over a sentence in Prayers and Tears about the Messiah and
savor its truth before Caputo moves away from it.
- Caputo's arguments for the non-cognitive "essence" of deconstruction is often
bound up in his text with a denigration of Husserl. Husserl is Greek through and through,
not jewgreek like Derrida. Husserl's philosophy is bathed in the light of the Anschauung
of phenomenological intuition (310) which sees essences in the light of the presence of
the given (xxi), and in the light of the temporal present off of which past and future are
constructed as present-departed and present-to-come (77-78). If Husserl is a code in
Caputo's book for phenomenology understood as metaphysics of presence, then Derrida is as
far removed from Husserl as possible. For Caputo, Derrida does a
"counter-phenomenology" (317) which revolves around blindness and not seeing,
darkness and not light, faith and not rationality as rigorous science, etc.
- Yet there is no historical or philosophical reason why one cannot appropriate Husserl
for the project of elucidating Derrida's "religion without religion," to cite
Derrida's The Gift of Death. Indeed, Husserl sees himself as engaged in a similar
project. The distance between Husserl and the Eckhartian and Kierkegaardian depiction of
Derrida that Caputo gives in Prayers and Tears is not infinite, but infinitesimal.
Two anecdotes demonstrate this. The first is relatively well-known: in the early 1930's,
Husserl describes his thought in two letters (one to Sr. Adelgundis Jaegerschmidt and one
to Edith Stein) as a path to a notion of a "God without God," a theology which
makes no use of theological methods and proofs. In light of the role of the
"without" (sans) in Derrida's thought, evidenced by his repeated use of
the formula "X without X" as a tool for reinscribing and destabilizing the
concepts of God, religion, name, etc., any account of an anti-Husserlian Derrida should
proceed with fear and trembling. Indeed, there is some suspicion that Husserl's thoughts
on theological matters may be grounded in an appreciation of the theologian most beloved
by Caputo, Meister Eckhart. In a journal entry from 1917, Husserl confesses his love for
- The second anecdote is less well-known, and concerns a meeting between Husserl and the
Russian-French quasi-Jewish existentialist Lev Shestov, recounted in Shestov's
reminiscences written upon Husserl's death. Shestov had written some of the first essays
on Husserl in French, in 1926 and 1927. They were trenchant critiques which made an
impression upon Husserl, and the two had several personal conversations throughout the
late 1920's and early 1930's. In the course of one early conversation, as Shestov was
explaining his project of an existentialist theology grounded in Dostoyevsky's rejection
of rational constraints upon faith, Husserl demanded "with enigmatic insistence"
that Shestov read Kierkegaard. Husserl's exclamation, according to Shestov's testimony and
witness, was not the calm recommendation of a man who simply knows something about another
field, but the outburst of a man who had a passionate relationship with Kierkegaard's
work, and who in other conversations spoke of his own thought in terms of Kierkegaard's
"either/or." Shestov was never quite able to reconcile this personal meeting
with Husserl's rationalist writings, but testified that they were indeed unified in the
name "Husserl", and this unity was for Shestov the central enigmatic legacy of
- The enigma of how phenomenology and faith can belong together is thus the enigma of
Husserl. And this is the enigma which Derrida tackles in his first writings on religion.
These are not located in his description of différance as not even negative
theology, as Caputo implies in the opening chapter of Prayers and Tears. They are
located even earlier, in his gloriously frustrating interpretation of the theological
sections of Husserl's posthumous manuscripts, an interpretation located near the close of
the 1962 Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction. In going back
to this text, one should recall Derrida's statement at his 1980 thesis defense that the
problems in the Introduction "have continued to organize the work I have
subsequently attempted ... most notably that of pictorial works," a testimony which
would now include Memoirs of the Blind, the site of Caputo's mantra "Je ne
sais pas. Il faut croire."
- Derrida notes in the 1962 text that Husserl has two different notions of God, and this
is the standard reading of Husserlian theology, as found in the work of such thinkers as
Stephan Strasser, Stephen Laycock, and James Hart. On the one hand, God is an infinite
telos, absolutely exterior. God is the "idea of an absolute pole...absolute logos,
absolute truth, toward which every finite being is oriented." On the other hand, God
is an entelechy, the vitalistic ground of our actions, and absolutely interior. If we are
to speak about God phenomenologically, then the consciousness of God must have the same
structures of general consciousness, and hence we must ascribe intentionality to God. Thus
God is not only the tout autre telos, but also appears in the order of the same
through his intentional relation toward the world. God aims at the world as total
intersubjectivity, and does this through governing the life of the human monad from the
inside. God is imperceptibly incarnate in the human will as the principle of perfect
humanity in accord with absolute reason. The correlation between divine and human
consciousness is for Husserl expressed by a structure in which "the I bears its God
in itself as the teleological idea which animates and directs all its pure actions."
God is for Husserl therefore always dipolar, existing both as a totally other absolute,
and existing in the innermost depths of the same. Phenomenology sees both of these
scenarios as always already folded together.
- Derrida expresses this doubleness as follows. In the case of the I bearing its God in
itself, the notion of the God "who speaks in us" (as Husserl writes in another
fragment), "transcendental phenomenology would be only the most rigorous language
of a speculative metaphysics or an absolute idealism." Language is key because God speaks
in us; but this is an idealist language because phenomenological method involves a
higher-order intellectual intuition of God operating behind the blinds of consciousness.
But in the case of God as infinite telos, Derrida writes that "the concepts borrowed
from metaphysics would have only a metaphorical and indicative sense" because
the Husserlian idea is "still less an existent than the Platonic eidos";
it is not, it is beyond being (epekeina tes ousias).
- How can we reconcile a model of theology which involves both a present infinity in
discursive process and a rigorous notion of transcendental finitude which cannot express
this? It is indeed tempting to dismiss all of this as contradictory. Yet Derrida, as one
would expect, opts for undecidability: "we could be no more unfaithful to Husserl
than by seeing a dilemma here," and that "we must strive toward the necessarily single
root of every dilemma."
- What this means, I think, is that the key element of any Derridean thinking about
religion has to be its simultaneous existence in two different orders—the order of
metaphor and the order of metaphysics, the order of the heterological other and
the order of the tautological same, the order of apophatics and the order of
cataphatics, the order of ideas and the order of history, the order of faith and
the order of reason. Derrida describes the nature of this "and" as a Wechselspiel,
an "interplay of reciprocal inspiration." As seen above, this oscillating
"and" is visible from one end of the Derridean corpus to the other, including
the concepts of différance , double interpretation, and the fold. Each conceptual
scene that undergoes phenomenological analysis must undergo a partage, a splitting
and a sharing between each of these two orders. Derrida's description in Memoirs of the
Blind of the two eyes of the blind-in-one-eye portraitist is exemplary in this regard.
(Hence, I think that its status as the cover drawing is important, pace Caputo's
claims at Prayers and Tears 309–10.) One eye sees the state of blindness, and
thus figuratively sees nothing; the other eye literally sees nothing, being "plunged
into the night," completely withdrawn from seeing.
- What is seen is the Sachverhalt of trait and retrait, the play of
the appearance of a feature and its withdrawal. In seeing this double movement, the
phenomenologist realizes that he cannot know the state-of-affairs as such, giving it a
list of proper predicates in S-is-p form that would always be true of the object at hand.
But it is not necessarily the case that the inability to know as such is the same thing as
the inability to know anything at all. The inability to know as such simply states that
the list of proper predicates of the object is never stable. We cannot stabilize
the oscillation and fold between two orders (same/other, reason/faith, etc.) that good
phenomenology reveals. The essence of things is dipolar; I may know this, but this
knowledge prohibits me from thinking along "essentialist" lines in the ordinary
sense of the term. As Derrida himself says in Memoirs of the Blind, not being able
to see "comes down to the same thing" as seeing "too far and too
well." Derrida, as a phenomenologist, is a man who knows too much. I use the
Hitchcockian language here purposefully to supplement Caputo's Kierkegaardian Derrida, who
refers to Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in order to show the irreducibility of faith to
knowledge. For it is Hitchcock who teaches us that being a man who knows too much leads to
prayers and tears, especially when a son's life is at stake. Thus, Caputo's
mantra—the "I don't know. One has to believe." which closes Memoirs of
the Blind—should, I think, always be read as "I don't know anything as such,
as anything unified or unitary or single or simplex. In the instability of the dipolar
structure of knowledge, one has to believe." Thus, Derrida's Husserlian heritage is
one of faith determined by the dipolarity of all knowledge, and is thus ineluctably linked
with a certain kind of cognitivism, pace Caputo.
- What does this mean for the Messiah? If this dipolar structure discovered in Husserl is
to apply here as well, then the messianic must appear within the order of metaphysics,
within the order of the self. The Messiah would thus be not merely an unspeakable,
unknowable secret, but rather something that I secrete as a certain kind of
possibility. This opens up the space for a notion of the Messiah that is here, now. Caputo
hints at this possibility briefly in Prayers and Tears, when he writes (81) that
"the Messiah might simply be each one of us just insofar as we wait for the
coming," but leaves this behind a bit too quickly, in my opinion, in order to cast
his lot with a more rigorously shrouded secret (150: "we do not know what is coming,
what is tout autre"). But the belief that the Messiah is each of us is a good
phenomenological notion of the Messiah according to the principles of Derridean
phenomenology, for it institutes a partage of the messianic idea, splitting the
unitary Messiah across multiple ethically responsible individuals. And it solves what is
for me a nagging problem in Caputo's assertion that the Messiah will never come (e.g.
245–46, among other places). If the always-deferred nature of the Messiah manages to
command a model of action that is supererogatory, always going above and beyond the call
of duty, in accordance with the singularity of the tout autre, the question arises:
how I can hasten the arrival of justice if it will never come? Why should I hope? The
delay of messianic arrival on every phenomenological stratum, I would think, would be too
depressing to bear. Personally, it would compel me to act immorally. Can we get a little
more interiority into this scene without violating it completely? Perhaps it is
impossible. But I'd like to struggle forward.
- Here, I think, it is important to turn to Levinas. In a talmudic commentary on B.
Sanhedrin 99a published in Difficult Freedom as "Messianic Texts,"
Levinas argues as follows. The sugya, the section of the Talmud under consideration,
interprets the nature and identity of the Messiah in accordance with Jeremiah
30:21—"His chieftain shall be one of his own, his ruler shall come from his
midst." Levinas argues that this means that the "Messiah is the King who no
longer commands from outside" and is thus radically interior. If the Messiah has no
elements of exteriority to him, then as a result, the Messiah must be a figure for ipseity
itself. "The Messiah is myself; to be Myself [moi] is to be the Messiah."
However, this is not a moment of pure egoity. For earlier sugyot have drilled in the
concept of the Messiah as the person who takes on the suffering of others. Hence the self
that is appropriated as Messiah is always and everywhere expropriated outside of
interiority toward the Other. This type of messianism—like Derrida's
"messianic," both bracketed from determinable messianism yet founded in the
Jewish tradition—is a corollary of Levinasian phenomenology. We can express this as a
syllogism. If the phenomenology of the face in Levinas (as performed in Totality and
Infinity and other early texts) argues that the taking-on of the suffering of Others
is the essence of my ethical responsibility, and if the Messiah is the person who takes on
the suffering of Others, then I am the Messiah. We can summarize Levinas' messianism with
a slogan: no one comes to the Father except through moi. In this locution, the moi
does not refer to any historical personage past, present, or future; the moi is not
the upper-case Moi that refers to the totalizing ego, but rather the lower-case moi,
the moi of substitution which is, according to Levinas' essay "God and
Philosophy," "torn from the concept of the Ego," cored out, denucleated in
its giving-itself without reserve.
- Levinas' argumentation here fits the same dipolar structure that we've seen in Derrida.
As soon as the equation between self and Messiah is given, in the wink of an eye, the
Messiah within me has disappeared, withdrawn toward the Other, having lost its bearings.
With one eye, I see myself as the Messiah; with the other eye, I see nothing because I
have sacrificed myself in ethical responsibility. But at least in the double light of this
vision and the interplay between the moments of appropriation and expropriation in this
structure, I get a ground, an impulse, for the hope that propels my acting ethically. I
have faith in myself, in myself being withdrawn, and thus in the future instantiation of
justice. And this faith is grounded in solid phenomenological argumentation, in reason,
and in cognitive claims, as twisted and knotted as they may be. Another slogan to express
this oscillating movement within messianic identity: "The Messiah is here, and I am
she." The identitarian nature of the "am" in this sentence is immediately
taken away by the "she" which refers to something that I, personally, am not.
The formula is simultaneously adequate and hopelessly inadequate. This is, of course, only
one way to phrase it; the last word can be, I think, a placeholder for any other predicate
which is not properly mine—either a class ("Christian") or the singular
name of a friend (or a stranger)—any predicate which will withdraw the gift of
identity that the copula gives.
- A final note—what is at stake in my insistence upon the rationality of Derridean
religion without religion, upon forcing it to adhere to good phenomenological arguments?
For this, we can point to a recent article by James K. A. Smith which appeared in the
spring 1998 Journal of Religion. Smith argues, citing Caputo, that since the Derridean
messianic must have some determinate content, then the determinate religions cannot be
excluded from having a say in the production and determination of justice. Religions for
Smith are pharmacological in the sense of the Platonic pharmakon as both poison and
cure, and thus even fundamentalism can be healing, if it takes the form of an ethical
vigilance which was "modeled by a very determined Galilean who was the prophet of a
very particular justice and religion." To this, I reply: where is the withdrawal, the
retrait, that the dipolar structure of Derridean "knowledge" requires?
Why does the exemplarity of this Galilean even matter—after all, there are always the
prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and there is always phenomenology—unless he is given a
singular messianic position? And if this Galilean is the exemplar above all others, if he
was the one and only Messiah, and if no one comes to the Father except through him, then
does this not automatically reinstate all the violence within determinate structures which
"ethical vigilance" was supposed to eliminate? To be sure, the situation could
be worse. One could take the path of John Milbank
and argue that the Church is the locus
in which all differences are incorporated without sublation. I would imagine this would be
news to non-Christians everywhere, especially as the Church prays for their conversion at
the Easter Vigil. The question here of how to measure the exemplarity of this Galilean is
difficult. Too much exemplarity reinstitutes violence, while too little exemplarity makes
the Galilean irrelevant. Yet it is a question which his followers must answer. Pieties
about the irreducibility of faith are not a valid shelter from it.