Para/theology: The Study of Religion and the Science of the Negative

Carl Raschke
University of Denver

"It’s a matter of God."
--Jacques Derrida

Can there be a "science of religion," as the nineteenth century yearned for?

Is there indeed a bona fide Religionswissenschaft that compasses and comprehends the whole of what Roman civilization identified as the religiones?

What would such a "science" of religion involve?

Can there ever be a "religiology" in the same sense there has been for some time a sociology, or an anthropology, or a psychology?

Does the subject matter that goes by the name of religio offer itself to the same sort of discursive expansion and methodological execution as the bios of biology?

If a "religiology" were discernible, how would it actually push forward?

    Contrary to positivist trends in the so-called "social sciences" over the last quarter century, an integral science of religion would require that any theoretical assessment of the religiones be anchored in a formal structure of inquiry, experimentation, and demonstration. Such a formalism has always seemed alien to the study of religion. Ever since Roman classical authors profiled the religiones as "cultic responsibilities," as dark and termagant mysteries impenetrable to the gaze of reason, the idea of a "scientific" resolution of the issue has remain essentially problematic.[1]

  1. Yet such "scientific" considerations are becoming almost inescapable. In recent years "religious studies" as a field has slowly and unremittingly imploded, largely because ethnographical and taxonomical concerns have replaced any gesture toward general theory. A mounting, pathological suspicion of theory itself has made the development of religious studies as a "discipline" well-nigh impossible. Because theory must of itself be comprehensive, it is routinely disparaged as monolithic and "hegemonic" at a political level. A science of religion would of course demand some kind of ontological commitment. But such a commitment not only shatters against today’s all-pervasive interpretative strategy of difference, it also confronts the postmodern deontology that has come to be known as "deconstructionism" or "radical hermeneutics," as John Caputo has named it.

  2. Is it possible to undertake a "scientific" study of religion that presupposes at the same the "deontological"[2] method of the postmodern without succumbing to the rage for the anti-theoretical and the vogue of cultural relativism? The task appears formidable, if not futile. Yet there is a "way" open before us that has seemed barred in the past. For the sake of rigor we may describe this way as the via paralogica.

  3. Any "religiology", as we shall see, turns out to be a strange and interesting sort of "paralogy." What do we mean by the "para/logical," so far as it touches on a theory of religion? A paralogism is defined in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language as "an argument violating principles of valid reasoning" or "a conclusion reached through such argument." But this standard definition misses the "deconstructive" role of all paralogies within language itself. The concept of the paralogical pertains to whatever disinhabits the logical. The paralogical is a kind of discursive "catachresis," inasmuch as it bends and disfigures the syntactical relationships within a textual formation until a whole new semiotic moment arises. More precisely, the paralogical eludes the ratio of all syntactical elements, teasing them beyond their boundaries into the hazy region of "paratheory." Paratheory, or what Victor Taylor has called "para/inquiry," ensues from the "disinheritance" of theory. "Linguistic disinheritance is an event in which philosophical and literary meaning are cut off from absolute presence, absolute center."[3]

  4. Disinheritance is suggested by the Greek prefix para– itself. The prefix means "beyond," "aside," "amiss," as well as anything connoting "alteration" or "change." Taylor observes: "‘Para’ is the dangerous prefix which defies the rule of identity, the rule of linkage. ‘Para’ suspends the condensation of the syllogistic rule by first instigating the erring thought and second linking the error to the word or action. The prefix ‘para’ draws attention to the repressed excessiveness of the word — its negative instantiation. The paralogical is a logical necessity, just as the paramedic is a medical necessity."[4]

  5. In what way does the study of religion constitute a form of paralogy? What do we really have in mind when we refer to inquiry into the "religious" as a paralogical venture? From a linguistic standpoint the paralogical emerges out of a vacuation of the metaphysical content of rationality itself. It is the kenosis of the sign. The kenotic sign function is the key to the method of deconstruction. In the deconstructive process the moment of signification is simultaneously a deconstitution of the act of reference. In standard reference theory the dyadic relationship between subject and other, between intention and object, is the architecture for signification.

  6. According to the Scholastic dictum, aliquid stat pro aliquid, "something stands for something (else)." But in the movement of deconstruction this bipolar configuration is annulled in one sweep. The aliquid at both ends of the continuum "de-substantializes." The evanescence of both the referent and the referendum is intimated in both Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology and Derrida’s "marginalization" of predicative discourse. To signify is to dis-seminate, to "sow the seeds" of further signification along the furrow of syntax. The plenitude of signifying presence — the Hegelian Begriff — is exposed as lack, as lesion.

  7. Making this point lyrically, we can say that being is everywhere cracked and fissured. The whole is full of holes. This insight, driven home through Derrida’s post-structuralist revisionism, has become our new postmodernist "Archimedian point," a point that is actually a promontory jutting out into the stormy ocean.

  8. The religiones are this ocean. They are a vast and untenanted sign-space. The sign-space of religion crops up on our "scientific" map as an abyssmal, watery sector. It is where the "topics" — or topoi in the cartographic sense — of religious theory can be seen as oppositional to the space of inferential discourse, much in the same way that the study of Japanese gardens is attentive not to discrete artifacts and objects, but to the emptiness that suffuses the landscape.

  9. Religious theory examines this negative territory of signification. It generates its own narrative by charting this space as a pattern of discursive relations that do not necessarily satisfy the predicative calculus of "natural science," yet somehow disclose the fractal geometry of the shoreline.

  10. Like any fractal configuration, the language of religious theory is deformed, that is, paralogical. But such a paralogy can become meaningful or "significant," only if it somehow says what has hitherto remained unsayable. How is this saying accomplished? In a misplaced endeavor to become "empirical" the study of religion over the last three decades has preoccupied itself with the positivity of linguistic and cultural data, tallying up a massive geography of symbolic artifacts and practices distinguished only by their anthropological peculiarities and ethnomethodlogical idiosyncrasies. But this triumph has come at the expense of understanding the "deep grammar," as Wittgenstein put it, of religious discourse in toto.

  11. The deep grammar of religion is a darkness. It is a darkness that envelops the very concept of "grammar" itself. It is a darkness that can only be construed topologically, as a kind of countersubstantiality, an alterity that urgently intrudes into signifying relations that make up all denominations of "descriptive" science. This alterity is part of the process of semiosis itself. Like the "dark matter" of astrophysics that cannot be seen with a telescope, yet serves as a necessary construct in the apportionment of visible stellar phenomena, the notion of the religiones underwrites the theory of representation and signification that has dominated Western philosophy since Plato.

  12. Remarkably, the discovery that the religiones may be the key to resolving the philosophical dilemma of presence and representation can be found in the musings of Jacques Derrida himself. The great conceptual failure to reconcile a rupture between the two, the "erasure" arising out of the linearity of logos, which Derrida has referred to as the "catastrophe" of Western philosophy and Husserl once named the "crisis," is, of course, what the methodology of deconstruction involves. Deconstruction addresses the dilemma by acknowledging the default.

  13. Deconstruction becomes a kind of exegesis of the asymmetry of the architecture of reference. Derrida’s notion of "dissemination" conveys the entropic movement of signifying praxis, which is never reversible. The postmodern view of signification, according to Derrida, can never truly be assimilated to Heidegger’s understanding of logos as "gathering" and "recollecting", for what has been distributed can never be put back together. The catastrophe, therefore, says Derrida, is more than a contretemps. It is "apocalyptic."

  14. In his essay "Of an Apocalyptic Tone Newly Adopted in Philosophy" (1992), Derrida characterizes the apocalypse of Western philosophy as a "change in tone." Derrida understands this philosophic tonality as a kind of hyperrationality, an excess of systematization that concurrently claims some privileged truth or "secret" (Geheimnis). It is not clear in the essay whom precisely Derrida is (his ippissima verba) "lampooning" here. But the context of the article suggests it could be the culmination of both the Continental and the analytical traditions at once. He also seems to have in mind the present day American university.

  15. The apocalyptic "tension" in Derrida’s perspective results from a latter day obsession with what philosophy, or theology for that matter, must "speak about." It is the about that comes into question. The "about" connotes the aliquid, what is "stood for." In its fury to settle the issue of the "about," philosophy turns oracular. Vernunft and Gefühl become a singular, mixed modality. The outcome is what Derrida dubs a "mystagogy" that succeeds in "perverting the voice of reason, by mixing the two voices of the other in us, the voice of reason and the voice of the oracle"[5]

  16. Such a perversion, however, is inevitable insofar as Western thought remains hypnotized by the cult of representation, the presumption of the apodictic co-ordination of sign and signified. The spell is broken by an "apocalypse." "Whoever takes on the apocalyptic tone comes to signify to, if not tell, you something. What? The truth, of course, and to signify to you that it reveals the truth to you: tone is revelatory of some unveiling in process. Unveiling or truth, apophantics of the imminence of the end, of whatever comes down, finally, to the end of the world. Not only truth as the revealed truth of a secret on the end or of the secret of the end. Truth itself is the end, the destination, and that truth unveils itself in the advent of the end. Truth is the end and the instance of the last judgement. The structure of truth here would be apocalyptic. And that is why there would not be any truth of the apocalypse that is not the truth of truth."[6]

  17. The desire to achieve truth in the paramount sense, the "truth of truth", the inseparability of presence and re-presenting, the originary realm of signification that somehow is tacit in the structure of the discourse, produces a philosophical "aristocracy," or "priesthood," that is privileged to preserve and to vouchsafe the secret truth of philosophy. But the secrecy of "rational" truth necessitates its obfuscation. Aufklärung, which strives toward public disclosure of all that has heretofore remained "religious" — that is, "secretive" — must maintain its preferential argot, and hence circumscribes the "voice of reason" with the mutterings of the mystagogue, the eerie, woodland chants of the custodians of the religiones. The myth of "Enlightenment" as the expository disclosure of pure presence genereates the canard of the strictly esoteric, the conspiratorial magician, the dark lord of the forest, the illuminatus. It is out of this paradox that the apocalypse of Western thinking, for which deconstruction amounts to nothing more than "wars and rumors of war," grows and looms large on the horizon.

  18. In a related essay, simply titled "Post-Scriptum" and issued in the same volume, Derrida contends, as before, that the "apocalyptic tone" of representationalist philosophy masks a refusal of difference. But the difference refused is something more all at once than the "spacing" of signifying disjunctions that hermeneutically defines Derrida’s "grammatology." Differance is a negative topology within "logical space" (Wittgenstein) that cannot be distinguished from the surface features of the grammatology.

  19. Yet in "Post-Scriptum" Derrida unexpectedly calls into question, in a manner that had seemed inconceivable in his earlier writing, the unsurpassability of the scriptum. The "post-scriptum" is Derrida’s rendering of "negative theology," which is not theology at all in the conventional manner of speaking. Derrida’s postmodernist via negativa does not flip over into any kind of strange via affirmativa. The "post-scriptum" is "beyond interpretation." Derrida has hit upon the peculiar "grammatical" function of "apophasis," the moment when the negative becomes an act of unconcealment. This revelatory instance, or "apophase" of formal inference, corresponding to the joining of land and sea, raises in itself "the possibility of the impossible." Derrida quotes Angelus Silesius, one of the most famous of "negative theologians." Nichts werden ist GOTT werden. "To become Nothing is to become God."[7]

  20. How does something become "nothing." How does the aliquid pass over into the nihil? That is the "secret" of apophasis, which Derrida describes as "the most thinking, the most exacting, the most intractable experience of the ‘essence’ of language."[8] Is the "essence of language" this Nichts werden? Perhaps we can say that the theory of language itself is "in essence" a negative "theology." But what would that mean exactly? It is to say that logos itself is striated. Such a striation is not only the logic of the apocalypse of language, but the apocalypse of "logic."

  21. This striation denotes the "paralogical," Similarly, it drives to the heart of the matter when we talk of any sort of "ontology." In the final synopsis all ontology is paralogy. This paralogy is "religious" in the sense that it projects itself into the shadows surrounding the sign, the mysticism about which it is impossible not to think when we think, as Heidegger would say, the "essence" of the linguistic. To speak of the religious is henceforth to speak in an extended manner of what is "unveiled" in the negative of enlightenment discourse. It is to speak of theos, of "God." It is impossible to examine the "religious" from a scientific — that is, a genuinely linguistic or logical standpoint — without engaging in a kind of "theological" reflection.

  22. Mark Taylor argues that something of this order happens in what he has termed "a/theology." A/theology, he writes, "is not the opposite of theology and must not be identified with atheism. Neither exactly positive nor negative, a/theology draws on the resources of deconstruction to develop a nonnegative negative theology that seeks to think what Western ontotheology leaves unthought."[9] A/theology, however, cannot be differentiated from the formative grammar of the "sacred." The sacred usually is regarded as the topos first and foremost in the study of religion, and has generally been segregated from theos, the proper "subject area" of theology. However, Taylor characterizes the sacred as "the nothing that appears." And this appearance of the nihil — the "phenomenon" that is at once a "show" and a "no-show" — is what is implied in the "construct" of theos.

  23. In addition, Taylor pursues the theme of the sacred with respect to the technical, Derridean idea of dénégation ("denegation"). Derrida himself adapts the phrase from the French translation of the word Verneinung that is used by Freud. According to Taylor, "denegation" serves to capture "the irresolvable duplicity of Verneinung in which affirmation and negation are conjoined without being united or synthesized. Verneinung is an affirmation that is a negation and a negation that is an affirmation. To de-negate is to un-negate. Un-negation is, of course, a form of negation. More precisely, denegation is an un-negation that affirms rather than negates negation."[10]

  24. This moment of "negative affirmation" — a liminal sort of logical space which Taylor posits as the "deconstructive" correlate to the rule of "negative theology" that omnia negatio determinatio est ("all negation is determination") — signifies the connection between "God" and the "sacred." The sacred is "the denegation of God, and God is the denegation of the sacred. As negation without negation, denegation creates the possibility of nonnegative negative theology that nevertheless is not positive. Inscribed along the irrepressible margin of difference, the sacred neither exists nor does it not exist; it is neither being nor nonbeing. Moreover, the sacred is not a ‘God beyond God’, for it is neither a God nor the other of God but is an other that is precisely not of God."[11]

  25. Taylor regards dénégation as a kind of suspension of the Hegelian dialectic. It is intimately related to Blanchot’s concept of the entretien ("talk" or "conversation") which opens up the space of the "between" (l’entre-deux) "which is neither positive nor negative, neither is nor is not, is a difference or an other that cannot be dialectically sublated through the duplicitous positivity of double negation."[12] He names this non-dialectical "negativity" inserted into the (logical) space in which the negative negates itself as the "paralogic of the neuter" which constitutes what Taylor calls "paralectics." "A paralectic parodies a dialectic by miming the communication of that which is incommunicable."[13]

  26. Taylor’s paralectics, however, amounts to a curious type of reading, as in Derrida’s reading as well, of the entretien. For the entretien is not circumscribed within a logical, or even a rhetorical, space. It is not located, as Taylor assumes, within the linear terrain of the text, but is defined by the orthogonal co-ordinates of language and what surpasses it. The "in-between" of the entretien fosters a puzzlement not about "logic," but about the relationship between the speaker and the one to whom speech is addressed. This intervening space is not "neutral." It is charged with an indescribable presence, the presence of the other that draws and withdraws as one addresses it.

  27. Such a spatial reserve can be delineated as "para-logical," not because some kind of deductive rule has been violated, but because it develops both outside and alongside the circuits of logos. The language of the sacred, or "religious language," is discontinuous with the very philosophical paradigm of denotation and instantiation that Derrida has undertaken to deconstruct. That is a fateful "domain of difference" that the metaphysics of difference, whether it be termed "denegation" or "paralectics," has overlooked. The sacred is not simply a form of "paralogy." It is a dis-guise of everything that we term "ontic." It pertains to that order of signification which emulates representational, or "theological," discourse in Heidegger’s sense, but is actually of an entirely different order. It is the Glas, the "mirror side" of Aristotelian predicative logic. It is what we would dub the para-theological.

  28. The para-theological is inseparable from the movement of deconstruction itself. Derrida’s negational "God" is neither a "theological" or an "a/theological" construct. It is not a negative posit, but a syntagmatic de-posit. It is the only one true "God" that can be found in all religions, because it is what religion itself is "about." Implicit in the study of religion is a generalized apophantic monotheism that demands theoretical and philosophical articulation. The para-theological speaks the presencing of the Hebraic "I am that I am" which is at the same time the Vedic neti neti ("not this, not that") and the Graeco-Christian "dark night of the soul." The para-theological does not say what religion is, but neither it does it say what religion is not. The para-theological speaks of what religion is by the manner in which any given religio says "not."

  29. The study of religion, therefore, adopts a "scientific" approach that is at the same time a negative reconnoitering. The science of negative numbers, like the science of negative space-time, is a science nonetheless. Just as the theory of matter can compass the phenomenon of anti-matter, so the "science of language" is concerned with the incalculable otherness that we understand as the religiones.

  30. Prior to the advent of postmodernist "negative theology", no "science" of religion in the sense of a logico-linguistic argument was really possible. A general theory of religion had to rely on what we might term "weak phenomenology," or the employment of what is nothing more than a classificatory system of idealist tokens that could be designated as "sacred" or "holy." We have in mind the work of Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, and Gerhard van der Leeuw. Such tokens by and large amount to "limiting concepts," as Kant would have called them. They serve as representational surrogates for what was almost by definition unrepresentable. Tillich’s doctrine of the symbol also functioned in much the same manner. Classical theories of religion, even those of Durkheim and other "social scientists," had the same defect.

  31. The transition in the philosophy of science during the twentieth century from idealism to linguistic analysis has never been complemented within the philosophy of religion. Increasingly, however, various "social scientists" have begun to attack the idealistic, or what Russ McCutcheon has termed the "sui generis," theory of religion.[14] These sorts of attacks, of course, are motivated by an agenda that would underwrite the hegemony in religious studies of functionalist social science and organizational theory, which turns out to be almost as spurious as the idealistic position itself. But their criticism of the sui generis perspective is basically valid. While a "social scientific" approach to religion is more likely to substitute quasi-Marxist political ideology (e.g., so-called "labeling theory") for genuine, empirical research, a gesture toward a true "scientific study of religion" would require the logico-semiotic framework that a postmodern, or post-structuralist, philosophy of language offers. Despite the evident frustration of Anglo-American thinkers with the late Derridean style of philosophical writing, the conceptual infrastructure for a linguistic science of alterity is present in the deconstructionist version of "negative theology." By the same token, we would be better advised to talk not about "negative theology," which has a definitive historical cachet, but about the "paratheological." If theology is no longer "queen of the sciences," a paratheological venture into the space of dénégation would almost paradoxically fulfill the condition of a "scientific" accounting of the phenomenon that heretofore has never been named except as l’autre. We may call this reading of the "philosophy of religion" as the science of the negative, if we wish. But we must remember that the negative as a "matter" of religious reflection is far more than the reversal of a mathematical sign. It is a plenitude of significance, the significance of the nameless, the forest that shelters the religiones.

  32. The negative plenitude of religious space has been delineated carefully and didactically in the work of Jonathan Z. Smith. Smith insists that the mytho-grammatical method of mapping religious sign-sectors is inadequate because it presumes that the sense of "sacrality" is based on narrative, rather than ritual, formulas. The study of myths, according to Smith, was originally a "rationalizing procedure" of both Christian antiquity and the Enlightenment. It constituted an archaeology of the imaginative substrates of tradition and narrative in a quest for the concealed "signs of truth."[15]

  33. Myth studies, therefore, interpeted the "sacred" as a camouflaged strand of kerygmatic presence, as an embryonic rationality or "eidetic" form of intelligibility, as Husserl might have phrased it. The sacred became the esoteric core, or "occult" secret, locked within the narrative. This quasi-phenomenological take on what came to be called "the essence of religion" was merely one variant of the metaphysics of presence wrongly applied to the theory of the other. But ritual theory shows that this phantom presence we call the "sacred" is most appropriately construed, says Smith, as a locus of differentiation. "Ritual is, above all, an assertion of difference…. [It is] not best understood as congruent with something else — a magical imitation of desired ends, a translation of emotions, a symbolic acting out of ideas, a dramatization of a text, or the like. Ritual gains force where incongruency is perceived or thought about."[16]

  34. Such a "thought of incongruency" is both negative space and what Smith terms "sacred place." Yet sacred places are not delineated by "where" they are, but how they are "marked" by acts of transposition or "displacement." In other words, sacred place is arbitrary, just as the "sacred" per se cannot be ontologized, but only read as a sign of difference. Smith cites Herodotus’ tale of the Egyptian king Amasis. Amasis was a "private person" who became king. On his ascent to the throne Amasis’ golden footpan, in which he and his guests washed feet, was melted down and shaped into an image of a god, which became the center of an important cult. The golden footpan is not an "emblem" of some mysterious or "numinous" entity. In no sense can it even be regarded as "symbolic." The story of Amasis concerns "the arbitrariness of place and of placement and replacement. It comes out of the complex ideology of archaic kingship." For "divine and human, sacred and profane, are transitive categories; they serve as maps and labels, not substances; they are distinctions of office, indices of difference."[17]

  35. Smith points out, as most philologoists have reminded us, that the Latin sacer (Greek=saos) connotes the act of separating out, or "cutting off." The sense of sacrality implies radical differentiation, which generates lesser hierarchies of distinctions. Most ritual systems, not to mention "holy places," Smith notes, are built upon a Saussaurian semiotic prototype. They constitute complex codes of difference – the "holy of holies" that must be always walled off from the outer court or portico, the "clean" animal that serves as the antitype to the polluted one, and so forth. The sacred is registered in, and only within, these codes. The codes themselves have an apophantic character. They "manifest" the sacred through the interplay of negative sign instruments.

  36. Furthermore, these moments of apophasis cannot be divorced from the diachrony of textual studies and analysis. The interstices of the "sacred" always can be discerned as instants — broadly conceived — of "negative theology." In a statement that is probably both surprising and disarming to religious ethnographers, Smith writes: "I have come to believe that a prime object for the historian of religion ought to be the theological tradition, taking the term in the widest sense."[18]

  37. The reason is both obvious and not-so-obvious. The theological stratum of "religiosity" determines the realm in which the signifying praxis of the "tradition" evolves. It makes no sense to talk about different "religions" as coherent systems of meaning without examining and surveying their complex "exegetical" and "interpretative" bodies of literature — in a word, their devices of canonization and anathematization. All religious scholarship, therefore, amounts to a deciphering of these systematic operations. It is what we term a "null point historicism." Every historian of religion is ipso facto an "historical theologian" in this para-theological sense.

  38. A science of religion would be a "science of the negative" that is not only postmodern, but post-dialectical. It was Wittgenstein who opined that the limits of language are the limits of one’s world. Beyond those limits is a terra incognita, the "end" of the world that always appeared far to the west on the maps of Medieval mariners. In this region the old cartographers wrote: "here be monsters."

  39. The study of monsters is the preoccupation of those who divide the "world" between the intelligible and the obscure, the philosophical and the psychological, the rational and the uncanny. Our "science" of para/theology, however, writes in the margins: "here be God."


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