Jacques Derrida On ‘Atheism’ and ‘Belief’


John Caputo: In Circumfession, you say that you “rightly pass for an atheist” (“je passé à just titre pour une athée”) Instead of just saying that you are an atheist, you know. Why don’t you just say, “I am an atheist” instead of “I rightly pass…” Is it because you have some doubts between the distinction between atheism and belief in God? Or some doubts about whether you are an atheist? I mean, suppose someone said, interpreted that to mean, “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, I’m not, simply the one who says “I.” On the other hand, I think that we may have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God. If the belief in God is not a cultural adaptation, if it doesn’t go through a number of atheistic steps –- that is, not only the critique of idolatry, of all sorts of images in prayers (especially in prayers) but also in the critique of onto-theology, the re-appropriation of God in metaphysics, which as Heidegger says, doesn’t know anything like prayer or sacrifice, the ontotheology –- so if one doesn’t go as far as atheism one doesn’t believe in God. So the true believers know that they run the risk, have to the run the risk, of being radical atheists – even [Emmanuel] Levinas says somewhere that in a certain way he’s an atheist because he doesn’t understand God as an existing Being. God is not an absolute Being – so if you go through what we know as negative theology, apophatic theological criticism, and so on, and deconstruction – if we don’t go as far as possible in this direction of atheism, then this belief in God is naïve and totally inauthentic.

Now, in order to be authentic – this is a word I almost never use – but in order to be authentic, belief in God must be exposed to the absolute doubt. And I know that the great mystics are experiencing this. They are experiencing the death of God, or the disappearance of God, or the non-existence of God, or God as being called as non-existent: “I pray to Someone who does not exist in the strict metaphysical meaning of ‘existence’ that is ‘to be present as an essence or substance’ or ousia.” When we think of epekeina tes ousia [Good beyond Being] according to Plato’s, even Heidegger’s, terms, “being beyond Being” the Good, in Plato’s terms being beyond Being, epekeina tes ousia. If I believe in what is beyond Being, then I believe as an atheist, in a certain way. Believing implies some atheism, however paradoxical it may say. I’m sure that the true believers know this better than others, that they experience atheism all the time – and this is part of their belief. In this epoche, this suspension of belief – suspension of the position, the existence of God – it is in this epoche that faith appears. The only possibility is faith in this epoche.

So when I say “I rightly pass as an atheist” I know that because of everything that I’ve done so far, say in terms of deconstruction and so on and so forth, I’ve given a number of signs of my being a non-believer in God in a certain way, an atheist. And nevertheless, although I confirm that it is right to say “I’m an atheist”, I can’t say myself “I am an atheist” as a position, see “I am” or “I know what I am”: “I am this, and nothing else and I’m identifying myself as an atheist.” I would never say… this would sound obscene: “I am.” I wouldn’t say “I am an atheist” or I wouldn’t say “I am a believer” either. These statements, I find them absolutely ridiculous: “I am a believer, I know that I am a believer.” Who knows that? Who can affirm and confirm, “I am a believer.” And who can say “I am an atheist?” I just write such sentences, that is the only thing I can say…

Talking Caputo and Vattimo

This weekend I’ve been reading a lot about/by Gianni Vattimo and Mark Driscoll. I mostly just wanted to mention those two names in the same sentence. One a homosexual Italian Catholic, the other a homophobic American Protestant.

The Vattimo books are Weakening Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo and After the Death of God (conversations with John Caputo & Vattimo). Caputo is challenging for me; I’ve pre-ordered his What Would Jesus Deconstruct? and so will probably comment more after reading that.

Here’s my problem with Vattimo: I can’t figure out why he’s a Christian. Think about Heidegger, in which we’re unsure on what philosophical basis he can reject Nazism — and he doesn’t. Vattimo is clearly indebted to Heidegger, though philosophically not politically. But as easily as Heidegger slipped into Nazism, so too has Vattimo easily slipped into Christianity. I get the distinct impression that were Vattimo born in India he’d be a Hindu or a Buddhist if born in China. His choice of Christianity seems completely arbitrary — if asked “Should, or why should, I be a Christian?” I think Vattimo would be dumbfounded.

I’ve changed my mind, I’m going to comment on Caputo just briefly. I’ll give a longer quote just for kicks:

“The [I think he means ‘a’] meaning of postmodernism is to weaken the classical difference between theology and philosophy. The distinction between faith and reason, for example, does not finally hold up for me. I take reason to be deeply structured by faith and I take any faith that is not simply madness to be obliged to be articulate about itself and, so, rational in that sense. Virtually all of contemporary philosophy is bent on showing the way in which to understand something is to operate within a horizon of understanding that has to remain tentatively in place for you to get anything done. That horizon of understanding is something like a faith. It’s a presuppositional structure that is constantly getting tested, but it has to be in place.By the same token, the natural/supernatural distinction also comes apart. To distinguish a natural order into which is injected some supernatural influx, some supernatural empowerment of our natural faculties, is, I think, to believe in magic. It’s a good thing I retired from Villanova just as I was getting to heretical! To think clearly about religion you have to clear your head of supernaturalism and magic. That is our permanent debt to Tillich. A religious faith is a historically inherited symbolic system, a hermeneutic, a symbolic way of looking at things that has been handed down to you by a cultural and literary tradition with which you have a built-in resonance.

So, there aren’t any clean distinctions that you could make between philosophy and theology that I could not deconstruct, if you give me a computer and an hour and a half. The dispute between them is a lover’s quarrel. Mostly it comes down to what extent you’re willing to talk about God. When your discourse keeps returning again and again to God, and you cannot be cured of this, then you think, this must be theology. And that may be permitted so long as it [is] a confession, not a self-congratulation.”

The first and third paragraphs are very good; the second not so much. Caputo has failed to sufficiently deconstruct: he has not subverted the binary, but merely inverted it. Now he’s distinctly modern and the natural takes precendence over the supernatural — indeed, we’re to clear our heads of any notion of the supernatural. It’s that sentence that betrays Caputo, for I’m with him on the first two sentences. What he ought to have said is that the natural/supernatural dichotomy truly falls apart when we realize that the supernatural is natural in a world created by God, and that the natural is supernatural in a world sustained by God.

FWIW, Tony Jones has called Caputo a “sheep in wolf’s clothing,” though I’ve not decided if that’s a phrase suited to Caputo… recognizing, of course, that this deciding – this naming – is itself an injustice to the man & his thought. However, perhaps this was just all an awkward segue to a Tony Jones article that’s really worth reading; it’s a blog post in response to the question “Why is the Emerging Church drawn to deconstructive theology?” Part of his answer makes me think he would agree with this quip: Deconstruction is what Scripture does to us, not what we do to Scripture. The Church and Postmodern Culture: Conversation blog is generally good and recommended by me. They have a good PDF collection of their best posts from the 1st half of this year.