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 here, here, here, here 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.
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.