The problem of “Religion without Religion”
The contemporary “return to religion” has resulted in some seriously fecund food for thought, particularly among the philosophically-inclined theologians (of which I would count myself). Of central importance to this turn, at least in the deconstruction camp, has been the work of Jacques Derrida (on one side of the aisle) and John Caputo (on the other). Yet, I nonetheless hold considerable reservations regarding some of their postmodern variation of the themes of religion, most notably their “religion without religion.”
This structure–of the “X without X”– is a particularly common Derridean formulation . We find (in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism), for instance, a reinterpretation of Marion’s “Dieu sans l’etre” as “being God without being God.” Elsewhere, Derrida proposes a designation of Justice as a “messianicity without messianism.” This latter formulation is particularly helpful in unraveling the intention underlying Derrida’s playful disruption of the law of identity. There, Derrida wishes to maintain the forward-facing posture of messianism–understood in the modalities of hope, openness, and responsibility for the incoming other. Yet, at the same time, Derrida wishes to distance himself from the concrete messianisms of the various world religions. As Gschwandtner writes, “he refers to the messianic as a ‘general structure of experience’ concerned with the coming of the other and justice, which does not refer to any particular religion or ‘determinate revelation’.”
What we find, therefore, is a return to the pseudo-transcendentals of Heidegger. Just as the essence of truth is found in a-lethia, the uncovering or manifestation of Being, and the essence of modern technology in technicity, the reduction of all beings to “standing reserve,” Derrida here reduces the essence of messianism to the incoming of “the other and justice.” But (and I have chosen the language of “reduces” intentionally), it must be asked, what is reduced in this reduction, what is lost in the transition from the concrete messianism to the transcendental messianism? Or, returning to my initial concern, what is lost in the reduction of concrete religion to the transcendental “religion without religion.”
The answer, I might suggest, is concrete historicity. The reduction of religion to “religion without religion” seems to be an underhanded attempt to exempt oneself from the historical contingency of one’s religious traditions. For Derrida, the problem with such a move is attenuated by his own pseudo-atheism, as he writes, “I rightly pass for an atheist.” But the same can certainly not be said for Caputo, whose works are unambiguously situated in the Christian tradition. It is true that this move is situated within the context of “radical theology” and its abandonment of ontotheology, and it should certainly be applauded for that. But, by publicly distancing himself from the concrete historicity of the tradition, by advocating a “religion without religion,” Caputo is not merely abandoning a literalist or ontotheological interpretation of that tradition, but rather, seeking to whitewash his own theology, to extract his own thought from the turbulent and violent history of the tradition, while also seeking to maintain access to its riches and insights. Can we really have it both ways? Can we get the good without the bad (have our cake and eat it too)? Is it even possible to extract the good from the bad, the transcendental from the concrete, or is Caputo merely falling into the old Husserlian trap of the pure eidos?
In the end, I wonder if the deconstructed “religion without religion” might merely be the academic version of “I am spiritual, but not religious.” An academic incarnation of a Neoliberal cafeteria-style religiosity, with all of its faux-decontextualized and colonialist baggage.
Posted on July 20, 2013, in Thoughts and tagged Continental Philosophy, Deconstruction, Edmund Husserl, Jacques Derrida, John D. Caputo, Martin Heidegger, Phenomenology, Philosophy, Religion, Theology. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.