As I continue to reflect on Subverting the Norm, several things keep coming to mind. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy meeting so many people that I’m friends with on Twitter and Facebook, but I also loved making new friends altogether (including new friends from four continents!). And the conversations and presentations were absolutely fantastic. But for all of the things that I loved about the event, one thing in particular kept bugging me, hence the reason I’m taking to my blog to try to make what I think is an important clarification.
Those of you who’ve read my books (both of you, that is) know that I’ve been significantly influenced by what is popularly referred to as radical theology (although, from a technical perspective, it’s more accurate to say that I’ve been significantly influenced by continental philosophy of religion), and the basic point of the conference was to ask whether or not radical theologies, including ideas like deconstruction and the death of God, should have a place in the churches. Obviously I think they should, which represents much of the reason I was excited about organizing Subverting the Norm. Time and again, however, participants seemed to understand perspectives related to “deconstruction” and “the death of God” quite negatively, going away with the impression that the purpose of deconstruction is to destroy all that we hold dear, and that the “death of God” leads to nothing but a sense of meaningless nihilism in which the future is closed and all that is left for Pete Rollins or any of us to do is beat our breast in lament and despair.
So I’d like to go nerdy for a minute to provide some clarification: For those who read Derrida carefully, deconstruction actually has more to do with affirmation than destruction, which of course flies in the face of the church’s most popular assumptions. To make this point I often borrow from an obituary that John Caputo wrote in memory of his friend, Jacques Derrida:
What everyone has more or less picked up about deconstruction, even if they have never read a word of it, is its destabilizing effect on our favorite texts and institutions. Derrida exposes a certain coefficient of uncertainty in all of them, which causes all of us, right and left, religious and non-religious, male and female, considerable discomfort. That was the side of deconstruction that grabbed all the headlines and made it in the 1970s a kind of academic succès de scandale. Without reading very closely, it all looked like a joyous nihilism. But what his critics missed (and here not reading him makes a difference!), and what never made it into the headlines, is that the destabilizing agency in his work is not a reckless relativism or an acidic scepticism but rather an affirmation, a love of what in later years he would call the “undeconstructible.” The undeconstructible is the subject matter of pure and unconditional affirmation—“viens, oui, oui” (come, yes, yes)—something unimaginable and inconceivable by the current standards of imagining and conceiving. The undeconstructible is the stuff of a desire beyond desire, of a desire to affirm that goes beyond a desire to possess… His critics had never heard of this because it was not reported in Time Magazine, but they did not hesitate to denounce what they had not read…
His critics failed to see that deconstructing this, that and everything in the name of the undeconstructible is a lot like what religious people, especially Jews, would call the “critique of idols.” Deconstruction, it turns out, is not nihilism; it just has high standards! Deconstruction is satisfied with nothing because it is waiting for the Messiah, which Derrida translated into the philosophical figure of the “to come” (à venir), the very figure of the future (l’avenir), of hope and expectation. Deconstruction’s meditation on the contingency of our beliefs and practices—on democracy, for example—is made in the name of a promise that is astir in them, for example, of a democracy “to come” for which every existing democracy is but a faint predecessor state.
But if this religious turn made his secularizing admirers nervous, it made religious people still more nervous. For after all, by the standards of the local rabbi or pastor, Derrida “rightly passes for an atheist,” which gives secular deconstructors much comfort (but giving comfort is not what deconstruction was sent into the world to do). When asked why he does not say “I am” an atheist (je suis, c’est moi), he said it was because he did not know if he were, that there are many voices within him that give one another no rest, and he lacks the absolute authority of an authorial “I” to still this inner conflict. So the best he can do is to rightly pass for this or that, and he is very sorry that he cannot do better. That, it seems to me, is an exquisite formula not only for what might be called Derrida’s atheism, but also for faith. Rightly passing for this or that, a Christian, say, really is the best we can do. It reminds me of the formula put forward by Kierkegaard’s “Johannes Climacus” (more Socratic figures!) who deferred saying that he “is” a Christian but is doing the best he can to “become” one.
Derrida visits upon all of us, Christian and Jew, religious and secular, left and right, the unsettling news of the radical instability of the categories to which we have such ready recourse, and he raises the idea of a still deeper idea of ourselves which (religiously?) confesses its lack of categories. He exposes us to the “secret” that there is no “Secret,” no Big Capitalized Secret to which we have been wired up—by scientific reason, by poetic or religious revelation, or by political persuasion. We make use of such materials as have been available to us, forged in the fires of time and circumstance. We do not in some deep way know who we are or what the world is. That is not nihilism but a quasi-religious confession, the beginning of wisdom, the onset of faith and compassion. Derrida exposes the doubt that does not merely insinuate itself into faith but that in fact constitutes faith, for faith is faith precisely in the face of doubt and uncertainty, the passion of non-knowing. Violence on the other hand arises from having a low tolerance for uncertainty so that Derrida shows us why religious violence is bad faith. On Derrida’s terms, we do not know the name of what we desire with a desire beyond desire. That means that leading a just life comes down to coping with such non-knowing, negotiating among the several competing names that fluctuate undecidably before us, each pretending to name what we are praying for. For we pray and weep for something that is coming, something I know not what, something nameless that in always slipping away also draws us in its train…
[B]eyond the “death of God” there remains the desire for God, which is the subject matter of the unconditional affirmation and call at the heart of deconstruction, for which we daily—believer and atheist alike—hope and sigh and dream and weep. This desire transcends categories of atheist/theist, secular/sacred, and so on. In the words of Jeffrey Robbins, “The love of God is a love without category or, better, a love that exceeds all categorizations—whether religious or secular, whether theist or atheist, and whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, etc.” The death of God, as pronounced by the Enlightenment, “is not the final word, and religion is more fundamentally about desire—even, or especially, when our old beliefs have been worn away or stripped apart, whether it is by the brutalities of modern life to which we have all become spectators, or more complexly still, the pretense of self-sufficiency. God is the (or, at least, one) name that we give to this desire, and religion is the (or, at least, one) means by which it takes its institutional form. But even when the name rings hollow and the form grows stale, it is the event of desire that stirs beneath that we still strive to articulate, that we still mean to affirm.”
Elsewhere, Caputo has addressed questions related to “the death of God”:
It makes little sense to describe Derrida’s Circumfession in terms of the death of God. When Derrida filled that ballroom in Toronto at the 2002 A.A.R. with some fifteen hundred to two thousand people, these were not people who came to hear about the death of God. The “desire for God” would be much better… The name of God is not dead but the language of God is very haunting, and Derrida in particular has responded to it. I don’t think that we’re done with it yet. I don’t think that the name of God will leave us alone–not for a while…
When philosophers try to name the so-called matter of ultimate concern, or the thing that is the most deeply resonant for them, they have recourse to an invented vocabulary. They’ll speak of being or substance or monad or employ some such construct. They erect a technical vocabulary. They produce a term of art. But theologians draw upon a word that is deeply embedded in our conscious and unconscious life, in our everyday life and in our most sublime moments, at birth and death and everything in between. The philosophers have nothing to compete with this. The name of God is a name that we learn at our mothers’ breast, a word that’s deeply embedded in our language… It’s a word that saturates our experience and, for me, for deconstruction, I think it is endlessly, open-endedly analyzable. This is the event within it that invites us, waits for us. We seem never to get to the end of this word, never to finish probing this word and its work on us, what it’s done to us. In that sense, this word contains a deeper provocation than anything else, and what it means always lies before us…
I speak of the death of God in a restricted sense, in the sense of a critique of ontotheology, of the God of metaphysics, and, in particular, the God of sovereignty and power and omnipotence. But then I move on because for me to speak of the death of God in any final sense would be to speak of “the death of desire” or “the death of love” or “the death of affirmation.” Now, of course, we must always and endlessly criticize the idols of ontotheology, endlessly practice a certain death of God, but always as part of a pact with a more open-ended project… But it seems to me more fruitful to think of God as the object of affirmation and desire. Then the question is not whether there is a God–no more than there is a question about whether there is desire–but the question is the one that Derrida picks out of Augustine’s Confessions: “What do I love when I love my God?” God is the name–an endlessly translatable name–of what we love and desire and of affirmation and for me the question is, what is that? What do I desire? So the “death of God” is not a notion for which I have found much use.
And even though Pete Rollins tends to take his cue more from Zizek than from Derrida, I often wonder if he tires of having to explain (over and over!) that his project of helping people accept their fragility and humanity — rather than running from it by clinging to the drugs/idols of certainty and satisfaction — leads not to the sickness unto death, but instead to a deeper and more meaningful engagement with life. Contrary to the popular distortion, Pete’s is a fundamentally transformative move that, from a theological and philosophical perspective, is the very *opposite* of nihilism. And I don’t think this is very difficult to understand, especially when we consider the way drugs function in our lives and culture. When we are conditioned to believe that God is the thing that helps us escape our humanity (via certainty and satisfaction, a la the hit we can take for our next high), God becomes an idol (hence the reason it’s important for this idea of God to undergo a certain death). From my vantage point this doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with whether or not there is some sort of being we call God operating behind the scenes (who are we to say?) — but it has everything to do with the way Christianity functions in our lives. When Christianity is only about going to heaven when we die, or escaping our humanity by taking another religious hit (dialing one up from the big Other), it becomes a form of nihilism — it functions as an escape from reality (“Platonism for the masses,” as Nietzsche memorably put it). Yet by following in the footsteps of Tillich, Pete’s project encourages us to view God not as an idolic escape from life (another thing), but rather as that which leads us into a deeper engagement with life. In my view this is the point of Christianity, for it is about nothing less than being born again, here and now.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this.