Deconstructing vs. Negating Religion

by Tenzan Eaghll

For a long time there was a passage in Derrida’s On Touching regarding Christianity that baffled me. In this particular passage, Derrida states that the “deconstruction of Christianity will be a Christian victory.” Now, what confused me about this statement is that I used to think that deconstruction was a form of negation—a way of destroying or demolishing something—and therefore could not understand how the deconstruction of Christianity was itself a Christian act. What I didn’t comprehend at the time was that deconstruction is not some form of analysis that is applied to a text in order to negate it, but the very difference “within” a text that opens it beyond itself. Here is the passage in full,

“The Deconstruction of Christianity” will no doubt be the test of a dechristianizing of the world—no doubt as necessary as fatal as it is impossible. Almost by definition, one can only acknowledge this. Only Christianity can do this work, that is, undo it while doing it. Heidegger too—Heidegger already—has only succeeded in failing at this. Dechristianization will be a Christian victory. (54)

What is so brilliant about this quote is that it refutes an error often made by Religious Studies and Derridian scholars (I formerly being among them), which assumes that deconstruction is a means for getting beyond the terms and images that inculcate our symbolic world.  What this quote exposes is that the deconstruction of Christianity, or the deconstruction of any theme or text for that matter, is not a nihilistic demolition, but a matter of exposing the fissures, gaps, and fractures that constitute it. As Derrida notes in a Letter to a Japanese Friend, when he searched for a word to translate the Heideggarian word Destruktion into French he decided against the literal translation precisely because it implied a “negative reduction” and “demolition.” Derrida settled on the word “deconstruction” because what he wanted to convey was the importance of considering the structure, architecture, and ontology of the Western tradition. For Derrida, the point of deconstruction is not to annihilate or get beyond the essentialism associated with Christianity, religion, history, theology, or metaphysics, but to expose how “an object, a text, a theme, etc….” deconstructs it-self. What this implies is that the work of deconstruction always occurs “within” the very “thing” under analysis.

This fact is ignored by scholars when it is assumed that deconstruction is a form of analysis or critique (Kritik)—in the Kantian sense—that is applied to a text or an image. This is a false assumption because deconstruction is not a methodology that you or me apply to some particular object. In fact, transcendental critique is one of the “objects” of deconstruction. What must always be remembered is that deconstruction is not a form of analysis for reading a text but the very difference that permits reading in the first place; it is the passivity of the text that opens it beyond any closure (suture). As Derrida writes,

It must also be made clear that deconstruction is not even an act or an operation…. Deconstruction takes place, it is an event that does not await the deliberation, consciousness, or organization of a subject, or even modernity. It deconstructs it-self. It can be deconstructed…. the “it” [ça] is not here an impersonal thing that is opposed to some egological subjectivity…. (586)

What makes deconstruction so difficult to locate or define is the same thing that makes Christianity, religion, history, theology, and metaphysics impossible to close around some Idea. Deconstruction, like all terms and images, is caught up in an endless chain of signification, translation, and relation. As Derrida notes, “The Word ‘deconstruction,’ like all other words, acquires its value only from its inscription in a chain of possible substitution, in what is to blithely called ‘context.’” The reason why this complicated formula is important for scholars of religion is that the same logic applies to religion. That is, there is no way to get completely beyond or outside the terms we analyze, whether they be “saints,” “sacraments,” “scriptures,” “scholars,” or “new age movements.” After all, the only thing that can do the work of deconstruction is the thing that is being deconstructed, and we are inevitably caught up in that context. If our goal is to get completely beyond the terms and images that inculcate our symbolic world than we have already succeeded at failing, for this is an impossibility.

It is precisely for this reason that we must be very careful with our language of “surpassing religion,” or “deconstructing Christianity.” Indeed, to paraphrase Derrida’s comments on Christianity in relation to religion, “the dereligionization of the world will be a religious victory.”

Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.

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4 Responses to Deconstructing vs. Negating Religion

  1. Tenzan says:

    The last line is supposed to be, “the dereligionization of the world will be a religious victory.” (apropos Derrida)
    Also, the page number of the quote from On Touching is 54, not 55.

  2. Eric says:

    I love what Derrida does there, showing how deconstruction should not be mistaken as an approach that puts things in a negative light. It’s really just about seeing how many different aspects something can have, and then playing with all the angles, beginning with the most least likely and assuming that it is the dominant definition.

  3. Karen Zoppa says:

    Thank you for such a clear presentation. The “play” is the thing, after all!

  4. Amod Lele says:

    Thanks for this. I’m not a fan of deconstruction in general, but it’s always good to see the nuances of a complex position clearly and carefully articulated.

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