Religion Snapshots: Deconstructing Caputo, Part One

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Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in this series, see herehereherehere and here.

Editor’s Note: The following is a conversation that developed in response to a recent New York Times interview with scholar of religion John D. Caputo, entitled “Deconstructing God,” which focuses on his approach to religion via Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction.

Question: Is John D. Caputo’s use of “faith” in this article problematic, or is this language required by deconstruction (i.e. is it possible to use deconstruction without invoking this terminology)? Moreover, can Caputo’s position be reconciled with the more Foucauldian approach to the study of Religion found in the work of J.Z Smith?

Tenzen Eaghll: For starters, let’s be clear about what Caputo is drawing from in Derrida’s work: In “Faith and Knowledge,” Derrida plays with the two etymological derivations of the Latin term religio (relegere and religare) in order to expose the self-deconstruction (autoimmunity) of religion. 

The first derivation of religion (relegere) Derrida connects to the idea of the sacred, or the “unscathed,” which he associates with the philosophical and theological rhetoric of the transcendent. The second derivation of religion (religare) Derrida connects to faith, or an originary turn towards the other, and associates it with the linguistic and technical transmission of the idea of the sacred. 

Importantly, Derrida does not draw upon this etymology to cement the meaning of the category religion, or even to “see it through the cross marks,” as Caputo phrases it, but to show how the second derivation of religion deconstructs the first. That is, Derrida shows how the faith in the mediation of the sacred implicates the “unscathed” in writing, technics, and the trace of history. This is why so much of “Faith and Knowledge,” is consumed with a discussion on technology, telecommunications, and globalization, because Derrida is suggesting that the sacred, if it refers to anything, refers to that which is deconstructed in communication, address, and writing.

Now, as Caputo suggests, this does not mean that deconstruction crosses out theism for atheism, as Richard Dawkins would like, but it also doesn’t mean we can speak of “the memory of Jesus,” as Caputo does here, without situating this phrase politically, artistically, linguistically, etc. Hence, what I am suggesting here is that, at least in this article, Caputo jumps from the first derivation of religion to the second derivation of religion too quickly, without stressing how the latter deconstructs the former. In other words, he doesn’t stress the autoimmunity of religion. All this is not to suggest that Caputo’s broader reading of Derrida is incorrect, but just that, at least in this article, he liberally plays with Derridean terms to make sense of religion, and that his statements need to be compared against Derrida’s writing and the wider body of Derridean scholarship.

When the Derridean idea of “deconstructing God” is placed in this broader context, and we take the time to draw out the technical aspects of Derrida’s work, then I think there are many interesting links between Derrida’s work and the more Foucauldian approach to religion espoused by J.Z. Smith, but it requires extreme care. As Derrida once stated, there is always the risk that the deconstruction of religion can be reduced to mere Christian hyperbole.

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Matt Sheedy: What initially struck me about this interview is that it seems to over-estimate the audience’s familiarity with Derrida and with the kind of philosophical themes that surround deconstruction. This is not a moot point as I think dumbing it down would have helped readers to better understand some of the main ways that scholars have taken up Derrida’s work. The Western feminist, Muslim theologian or atheist scholar of comparative literature may ask different questions than Caputo since their objects and interests vary. Within scholarship on religion, if I can generalize here, I’d say that there are two broad camps that engage Derrida’s work: 1) those like Caputo who want to take-up a line of critical ontology (often in the wheelhouse of the philosophy of religion), where concepts like “faith” are investigated in terms of both their genealogical inheritance (the subversive angle) as well as for their current possibilities of iteration in our (more) self-consciously de-centred world (the ethics/ontology angle), and; 2) those who take-up the method of “deconstruction” as a tool to highlight the social construction of such concepts. (See McCutcheon 1997: 73; Tim Murphy 2007) There are, of course, many shades in between.

This problem of not revealing one’s precise position in this matrix is instructive, however, as it may help to explain one glaring contradiction that I detect in Caputo’s argument. To quote him in response to the question – is a deconstructive theology an attempt to find a “common core” of faith? – whilst using his rather fitting initials, J.C.:

J.C.: No! I am not resurrecting the old comparative-religion thesis that there is an underlying transcendental form or essence or universal that we can cull from differing empirical religious beliefs, that can be approached only asymptotically by empirical cases. I am saying that the inherited religious traditions contain something deeper, which is why they are important. I don’t marginalize religious traditions; they are our indispensable inheritance. Without them, human experience would be impoverished, its horizon narrowed. We would be deprived of their resources, not know the name of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the startling notion of the “kingdom of God,” the idea of the messianic and so on.

While Caputo is quick to object to the use of the word atheist to describe Derrida, noting, “This kind of normalizing category has only a preliminary value — it finds a place to put him in a taxonomy of ‘positions,’” he seems to have little problem normalizing the word religion.

If we are to be ruthlessly critical as scholars we must always interrogate the politics of “religion.” By this I mean that we cannot assume that there is a stable object called “religious traditions” with corresponding resources of meaning and motivation that can be drawn from some purportedly hallowed well. We must instead look at what is behind the strategies and taxonomies of calling something religion in the first place and only then, if we’re theoretically inclined, provide a provisional working definition, along with the corresponding theories and methods that we will use (e.g., affect theory, anthropology, etc.).

I would have little problem with Caputo’s claims if they were described in more precise terms—that is, as appropriations (or inheritances as he and Derrida might have it) of particular concepts and narratives commonly found in certain theological traditions that are aligned with persistent (and perhaps even anthropological?) understandings of the self-other-whole by means of “deconstruction.”

In the absence of such theoretical distinctions and a corresponding disclosure of interests, we end up reifying things like “experience,” “messianism,” “salvation,” etc., as somehow “religious” in and of themselves rather than point to their common-yet-contested usage by many (though not all) insiders’ and their selective appropriation by philosophers looking to renew ontology by means of progressive theology. I have no problem with this strategy, by the way, so long as it is clear in its methods and aims and does not grant “religion” and its multiple cognates a first-order status that is removed from its various sites of production and re-presentation.

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9 Responses to Religion Snapshots: Deconstructing Caputo, Part One

  1. Dear Matt

    Would the same strictures not then also apply universally to ALL our categories, such as ‘power’ , ‘history’ or ‘politics’? The logic of you argument would seem to indicate it would.

    • Matt Sheedy says:

      Hi Ivan,

      Thanks for your comment. I would be inclined to say yes/but, in a playful Derridain fashion.

      Of course all of our concepts and language are socially constructed and variable, which is precisely why the kind of genealogical work that is often done around them is so important–to become more aware of just what it is that we’re dealing with when we talk about X. Thinking about this in terms of clumps that have developed around certain consistent patterns and practices, I’d say that ‘power’ and ‘history’ are qualitatively distinct clumps as compared with ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ inasmuch as they are more diffuse concepts that are easier to classify.

      History, for example, is that which comes before us; power is a mode of domination. While these concepts are no doubt more layered than this, I think that they’re easier to define than religion, especially when we’re thinking cross-culturally. Power and history may look and be understood differently across cultures, but their main coordinates, it would seem to me, are fairly easy to define.

      As I suggest in my reply, I do not have any problem with attempts to define/redefine religion, I just think that it needs to be made clear what variables are being listed in a given taxonomy and why (e.g., is it for a political purpose? theological? subversive critique? etc.). If a Christian theologian wants to use Derrida to reinvigorate Christian theology, that’s fine with me so long as she is clear with what her methods and aims are. Too many try to use ‘religion’ uncritically and then draw all sorts of conclusions that are tied to the reification of the concepts in question and a de-historicized account of what it is that we’re talking about.

      I’m particularly interested in pursuing this line of thought inasmuch as it may help to clarify on-going tensions in the field, which, I think, is a useful and important mode of inquiry.

  2. karen zoppa says:

    There are no arrivals in a deconstructive view, only points of departure. The instance of what Derrida calls restance allows for the kind of discussion Matt wants to affirm but only in the understanding that the iteration of the subject at hand therein – “religion,” “power,” “history,” exceeds the moment, the space. That is the first acknowledgement, the persistent acknowledgement that must be made in a space of deconstruction. So it is probably inappropriate to speak of “a Christian theologian [who]wants to use Derrida to reinvigorate Christian theology” when such a teleological purpose is always/already acknowledged as undone in a space of deconstruction. That said, deconstruction is an inescapable critical theoretical undertaking that Matt is endorsing here.

  3. Matt Sheedy says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Karen.

    My point on the hypothetical Christian theologian was more simple than that, if I’m reading you correctly.

    Whoever takes up the category ‘religion’ should do so self-reflexively and in such a way that they are aware of their own aims and how they might butt-up against more radical forms of criticism. And because some Christian theologians do take up Derrida’s model as a sort of negative theology, whether or not they are following Derrida “to the end” is, I think, somewhat beside the point. Their appropriation may very well function within a certain economy of signifiers and a certain community of meaning, but not likely in more critical debates over theory and method.

    In order to take this leap, they would have to step outside the boundaries of a discipline (theology) committed to affirming certain ethical/ontological orientations as the primary goal of theory.

    • karen zoppa says:

      Agreed. Just wanted to amplify the “Derridean,” vis your comment on Caputo’s assumption of familiarity with Derrida and deconstruction. Thanks for bringing this discussion to us, Matt!

  4. Dear Matt
    Some reactions to your reply,

    The main point? how difficult, perhaps impossible, is to treat all categories equally and not import ones own particular ideological predilections.

    1 it looks like you do ideologically privilege some notions over others. Considered your understanding of power – spelt out in what are recognizable As terms drawn directly out of Michelle Foucault, Viz “domination” Why not simply agency?

    2 I think you mistake using language self-consciously or self reflexively as you put it with understanding how we use words. Certainly Freud has taught us how difficult, and perhaps sometimes impossible, it is to know how & why we use language as we do? When you speak of being “aware of one’s aims” seems that you give far too much credence to introspection.

    The question is how then do we become aware of what is built into our notions a religion? My problem with many of those who espouse being critical of the term religion, is that they really do not do the tough empirical work of establishing how certain conceptions a religion or actually use and deployed. Thus the so-called genealogical method leads us astray, because it is not really committed to doing serious history only in tracing what it imagines to be the root source of particular usage. Either the genealogical approach is doing history or it is not. If it is, it should just call itself history and not use the confusing term genealogy. There are no shortcuts and doing history, as the use of genealogical discourse promises.

    3 Finally, although being critical of one’s terms is important because it is important to take responsibility for one’s concepts, it is also just as important that we are committed to using them. My problem with McCutcheon for example is that while he is eager to talk about religion he really is unprepared to talk with it after having done so. Thus rather than a critic of the term religion, he seeks to eliminate it.

  5. Matt Sheedy says:

    Hi Ivan,

    Thanks again for your thoughts on this. Allow me to further clarify some of my points from above.

    The first thing I would point out is that the medium of blogging, in my opinion, is one of testing, speculation and provocation, without the burden of rigorous justification, which is not possible in such a short space. Here critique can only scratch the surface and the same holds for attempts at clarification. This is why I was careful to offer the caveat that concepts like ‘power’ are more layered than a mere reduction to domination. Agency may also factor into this equation. My point, rather, was to suggest that some concepts are easier to define than others and that ‘power’ likely constitutes an easier and less contested taxonomy than ‘religion.’

    To be clear, I am not trying to make an argument for introspection in terms of language use, but rather, and in some concordance with your point on empirical work, a more rigorous commitment to clarifying a) how one is defining an important concept and why, and b) what interests and disciplinary fields is it being put to use in.

    Regardless of what one may think of the type of critique that McCutcheon and others deploy in relation to the concept ‘religion,’ I think their general point is a sound one; namely, that it is typically used in order to support a particular political, ethical or theological idea and in this way is routinely naturalized along apologetic lines. In this sense, the politics of ‘religion’ is a question that is always worth asking, which is all I was attempting to do here.

    Personally, I am very interested in exploring the category ‘religion’ and how it functions within and between insiders’ discourses, media, as well as in specialist discourses in theology, sociology and political theory, each of which has overlapping yet distinct aims in privileging a particular conception of religion. In doing this work, I do acknowledge the importance of empirical studies and am of the mind that creating better working definitions of religion is a positive scholarly endeavour. I am not convinced that we should abolish the term altogether. Clarifying how one is using the concept and why is therefore an important step in this direction.

    • Dear Matt

      Of course blogs are bit rough and ready but it would take them seriously or we don’t. As I suspected your views about power and politics review very profound prejudices. Note that your only justification for saying that our was easier to define and a much less contested taxonomy only reflects our own western biases. Louis Dumont has written a lot about this as well as I in my book entitled, “why politics can’t be freed from religion.”

      I think it is great that you’re committed to rigorous empirical work about how we actually do use our concepts. That would be a great improvement over a lot of what passes as so-called “genealogical” work. Not to fix on Russell McCutcheon again, but he serves as a very good example of someone who talks endlessly about the importance of historicity and context. But, if you read his work attentively, he actually does nothing one can call history, and any rigorous or complete sense. At least Tim Fitzgerald makes an effort at doing this kind of work and his latest book, For example.

      Best of luck

    • Dear Matt

      Of course blogs are bit rough and ready but it would take them seriously or we don’t. As I suspected your views about power and politics review very profound prejudices. Note that your only justification for saying that our was easier to define and a much less contested taxonomy only reflects our own western biases. Louis Dumont has written a lot about this as well as I in my book entitled, “why politics can’t be freed from religion.”

      I think it is great that you’re committed to rigorous empirical work about how we actually do use our concepts. That would be a great improvement over a lot of what passes as so-called “genealogical” work. Not to fix on Russell McCutcheon again, but he serves as a very good example of someone who talks endlessly about the importance of historicity and context. But, if you read his work attentively, he actually does nothing one can call history, in any rigorous or complete sense. At least Tim Fitzgerald makes an effort at doing this kind of work and his latest book, For example.

      Best of luck

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