Derrida: Theology

What are we doing this week?

  • In this final week on Derrida we turn our attention to his treatment of explicitly theological themes (though, as I have been arguing in the two previous weeks, all of his thought has theological implications).
  • We will consider why the question "is Derrida an atheist?" is both easy and hard to answer.
  • We will look at the way in which his thought re-works the motif of the messianic coming.
  • We will bring Derrida's theological thought into conversation with biblical notions of predestination and, once more, absolute personality theism.
  • Then we can have a party, because we will have finished the Derrida part of this course!

The videos

There are four videos this week, two on Derrida's theology in its own terms, and two bringing it into conversation with the Bible.

Tip for super-busy people: you can get by with just videos 2 and 4 if you only want to learn what Derrida means by "messianicity without messianism", and how to bring that into conversation with the Bible.

1) Is Derrida an atheist?

In this video you'll learn:

  • Why, for Derrida, atheism and theism have more in common than divides them.
  • What the key term "ontotheology" means, and why Derrida rejects it.
  • Why you should never ask Derrida a question if you are in a hurry and need a quick answer.

2) Messianicity without messianism and the democracy to come

In this video you'll learn:

  • What the "without" means in Derrida's "messianicity without messianism", and how the notion is similar to and different from biblical and Marxian messianisms.
  • One of the signature moves of modern and contemporary European thought when it comes to its understanding of Christianity.
  • Why democracy is always "to come", and why Derrida thinks that's a good thing.

3) Absolute personality theism and ontotheology

In this video you'll learn:

  • In what ways the God that Derrida rejects is different to the God of the Bible.
  • How the biblical God diagonalizes the possibilities that Derrida offers.
  • The importance of Calvin's notion of "accommodation" for establishing a conversation between postmodern philosophy and the Bible.


4) Predestination and messianicity without messianism

In this video you'll learn:

  • How biblical predestination diagonalizes Derrida's own position and the position he rejects.
  • How Derrida's commitment to a non-scripted future can turn against itself and act as a limit or closure in his thought.
  • The (perhaps surprising) way in which, far from invalidating free will, predestination is the only context in which free will can be meaningful.


Supplied readings

1) Derrida on “I rightly pass for an atheist”. 

This brief extract Derrida’s reply to a question put to him by theologian John Caputo, asking him to enlarge upon his previous comment that “I rightly pass for an atheist”. 

John D. Caputo: Why do you say that you “rightly pass” (je passe à juste titre) for an atheist (“Circonfession,” 146, 155) instead of simply stating that “I am” (je suis) an atheist? Is this because you have some doubts about whether you really are an atheist? Or because you have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God? One might be tempted to construe this expression as follows: “I am to all appearances an atheist, but appearances can be deceiving, so don’t be too sure; perhaps I am not.”

Jacques Derrida: I am not simply the one who says “I.” Also, I think we may have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God. If belief in God is not also a culture of atheism, if it does not go through a number of atheistic steps, one does not believe in God. There must be a critique of idolatry, of all sorts of images in prayer, especially prayer, there must be a critique of onto-theology—the reappropriation of God in metaphysics—which, as Heidegger says, doesn’t know any­thing about prayer or sacrifice. True believers know they run the risk of being radical atheists. Even Lévinas says that in certain ways he is an atheist, because he doesn’t understand God. He doesn’t interpret God as an existing being. God is not an absolute being. Negative theology, prophetic philosophical criticism, deconstruction: if you don’t go through these in the direction of atheism, the belief in God is naïve, totally inauthentic. In order to be authentic—this is a word I almost never use—the belief in God must be exposed to absolute doubt. I know that the great mystics experience this. They experience the death of God, the disappearance of God, the nonexistence of God, or God as being that is called NonExistence: “I pray to someone who doesn’t exist in the strict, metaphysical meaning of existence, that is, to the present as an essence or a substance.”

Think of the epekeina tes ousias of Plato, or of Heidegger’s being beyond beings. If I believe in what is beyond being, then I believe as an atheist, in a certain way. However paradoxical it may sound, believing implies some atheism; and I am sure that true believers know this better than others, that they experience atheism all the time. It is a part of their belief. It is in the epoché, in the suspension of belief, the suspension of the position of God as a thesis that faith appears. The only possibility of faith is in the epoché. When I say je passe à juste titre, I rightly pass for an atheist; [ know that I’ve given a number of signs of my being a nonbeliever in God in a certain way, of being an atheist. Nevertheless, although I confirm that it is right to say that I am an atheist, I can’t say, myself, “I am an atheist.” It’s not a position. I cannot say, “I know what I am: I am this and nothing else.” I wouldn’t say, “I am an atheist” and I wouldn’t say, “I am a believer” either. 1 find the statement absolutely ridiculous. Who can say, “[ am a believer?” Who knows that? Who can affirm and confirm that he or she is a believer? And who can say, “I am an atheist?”

Kevin Hart: In some of your first writings you argued that the notion of God has been leagued with presence, whether understood epistemologi­cally, ontically, or ontologically. You also pointed out that this metaphysics of presence is not in itself theological and thereby hinted that one could think God outside the metaphysics of presence. Over the years it has struck me that, even though you indicate that the Christian God has been co­opted by the metaphysics of presence, you have always responded to more or less overt philosophical framings of the Christian God. Whether for lack of expertise, religious commitment, time, or interest, you have not attended to theological understandings of the Christian God. And yet it is here that one could perhaps find the most interesting resources for think­ing of God both deconstructively and in a Christian manner. Now thinking God in a Christian manner is my concern, not yours; all the same, I would be interested in your response to the following question: Is difference not at work in the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Christ? To be sure, the unity of God is upheld in all orthodox theologies, but at the same time the triune nature of that unity is also affirmed. Theologies of the Trinity will figure the threefold nature of the deity in their own ways, but there will always be a difference to be examined: a perichoresis of the three personae. Similarly, the central christological claim that Jesus is fully human and fully divine does not erase difference. The two natures are neither fused nor dialectically related. Are there coercive reasons for regarding these differences as metaphysical, in your sense of the word? Or would it be possible for a Christian theologian to work out those doctrines both theologically and deconstructively?

Jacques Derrida: Obviously, if there is an answer to this question, it must be yours! [Laughter] As you say, “thinking God in a Christian manner is my concern, not yours.” If you are sure of that, then you can tell me how to do it.

Source: Yvonne Sherwood, Kevin Hart (eds.), Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), 46–7.

2) Van Til, Ethics and the Christian Philosophy of Reality

As mentioned in the video " Predestination and messianicity without messianism ", here is the passage in which Cornelius Van Til argues for an account of God’s sovereignty as the precondition for human responsibility.

As God is absolute rationality so God is also absolute will. By this we mean primarily that God did not have to become good, but has from everlasting to everlasting been good. In God there is no problem of activ­ity and passivity. In God there is eternal accomplishment. God is finally and ultimately self-determinative. God is finally and absolutely necessary and therefore absolutely free.

It should be especially noted that Christians put forth this concept of God, not as something that may possibly be true and may also possibly be untrue. From the nontheistic point of view our God will have to appear as the dumping ground of all difficulties. For the moment we waive this objection in order to call attention to the fact that all the differences between the Christian and the non-Christian point of view, in the field of ethics, must be ultimately traced to their different God-concepts. Chris­tians hold that the conception of God is the necessary presupposition of all human activity. Non-Christian thought holds that the Christian conception of God is the death of all ethical activity. All non-Christian ethics takes for granted that such a God as Christians believe in does not exist. Non-Christian thought takes for granted that the will of God, as well as the will of man, has an environment. Non-Christian ethics assumes an ultimate activism. For it God has to become good. Character is an achievement through a process for God as well as for man. God is thought of as determined as well as determinated and determinative.

Nontheism starts with the assumption of an ultimately indeterminate Reality. For it all determinate existence, all personality, is therefore derivative.

Idealists may object that in the eternally good of Plato, and in the modem idealist idea of the absolute, there is no mention made of achievement. In those concepts, it will be said, you have absolutely self-determinative experience. In answer to this we only point out that the God of Plato was not really ultimate. The good rather than God was Plato’s most ultimate concept. His god, to the extent that he was personal, was metaphorical and, in any case, dependent upon an environment more ultimate than himself. The element of chance is absolutely ultimate in the philosophy of Plato. And it is this ultimacy of chance that either makes the determinate good an achievement or sets the good out of relation to its environment, and therewith destroys its value. Then as to the modern idealist conception of the absolute, it is to be noted that it is the result of a definite and prolonged effort to find the conception of an absolutely self-determinative experience. The idealists have been basically convinced, it seems, that unless an absolutely self­ determinative experience can be presupposed, all human experience in general, and ethical experience in particular, would be meaningless. Modern idealism has definitely attempted to set the good of Plato into a fruitful relation to its environment. Yet it has not overcome the difficul­ties inherent in Plato’s ethics. It has ended with a determined instead of with a self-determinative God. It has taken for granted that the space-time universe is a part or aspect of ultimate existence. With this assumption it made time as ultimate as eternity and made God dependent upon whatever might come out of the space-time matrix.

The basic difference then that distinguishes Christian from non­-Christian ethics is the acceptance, or denial, of the ultimately self determinative will of God. As Christians we hold that determinate human experience could work to no end, could work in accordance with no plan, and could not even get under way, if it were not for the existence of the absolute will of God.

It is on this ground then that we hold to the absolute will of God as the presupposition of the will of man. Looked at in this way that which to many seems at first glance to be the greatest hindrance to human responsibility, namely the conception of an absolutely sovereign God, becomes the very foundation of its possibility.

In order to avoid misunderstanding, however, we should distinguish the concept of an absolutely personalist environment from philosophical determinism. It is all too common for men hastily to identify consistent Christianity with philosophical necessitarianism. Yet they are as the poles apart. Philosophical necessitarianism stands for an ultimate imperson­alism; consistent Christianity stands for an ultimate personalism. What this implies for the activity of the will of man itself we may now briefly examine.

Source: Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (P&R: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2008), 83–5.

Further reading and listening

For more detail on the topics raised in the videos above, you might want to listen to the episode on Derrida's theology that I recorded with the Reformed Forum "Philosophy for Theologians" podcast. Here is the episode URL, and a direct link to the Mp3.

Bruce Ellis Benson, Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion on Modern Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002).

  • A good example of an evangelical use of Derrida’s thought to illuminate the subtleties of contemporary ideology. Broadly sympathetic to deconstruction but raises reservations.

John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997).

  • One of the best examples of a theological reading of Derrida’s work from a point of view very sympathetic to his thought.

Steven Shakespeare, Derrida and Theology (London: Continuum, 2009).

  • To my mind the best general or “impartial” introduction to Derrida’s engagement with theological motifs. Includes a helpful chapter summarizing readers of Derrida’s theology both positive and negative, including their critiques of his thought.

Bible passages

For your further study and meditation, Bible passages particularly relevant to the concerns of this week's material are:

  • Ephesians 1:1-14 and 2:1-10 (for the harmony of divine sovereignty and human responsibility)
  • Acts 17:16-34 (on the involvement of God with his creation, as a contrast to the God of ontotheology).