Derrida-Claiborne-Jesus redux

I want to talk a little bit about my Derrida-Claiborne-Jesus essay. Over the last week I’ve kept thinking about a quote from Jean-Luc Marion that says “Theology renders its author hypocritical… One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology.” I take that seriously, and so it’s with fear and trembling that I’ve submitted it to Cedars for the February 14th issue. The final version — shorter, tighter, improved — can be found here if you’re interested. If Cedars hasn’t tired of my liberalism, my next piece for them will probably also concern war & peace.

I would encourage those of you intrigued by the Derrida discussion to consider reading Live Theory: Jacques Derrida by James K.A. Smith. Even the brief bits I referenced may provide food for further thought. E.g. is it possible to deconstruct all binaries? (Or more accurately, find within the binaries how they auto-deconstruct themselves) I’ve hinted before at how we might deconstruct natural/supernatural, but what about other tricky ones… like being/non-being? Saved/unsaved? Furthermore, does an unconditional openness to the Other mean rejecting determinate religions altogether — ie, the “religion without religion” of Mark C Taylor, John Caputo, etc?

My article also owes a small debt to, of all people, David Foster Wallace for his brief essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled Just Asking. DFW considers the safety vs. freedom trade-off and sides with freedom, just as I (coming from a different angle) have sided with unconditional hospitality in its dispute with safety. This idea is more profound the deeper into it you dig… and since it is not an idea original with me, I also am continuing to dig and uncover its radical implications.

P.S. — bonus war coverage: Where’s the Iraqi Voice? by Noam Chomsky

Derrida via Claiborne

Like many students, I was saddened to learn on January 30th that Shane Claiborne’s expected campus event had been canceled. In one sense it was simply disappointing that we missed an opportunity to listen and dialogue with Claiborne in person. More importantly, the incident was disappointing in what it revealed about the “forces for status quo” (to use John Edwards’ phrase), or the length to which the foot soldiers of legalistic fundamentalism will go in order to silence an “ordinary radical” whose message of love, peace, and justice are simply too extreme for this campus. Personally, I’m particularly drawn to Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution because it seems to me an important picture of “The Great Law of Hospitality”; that is, the ethics of Jacques Derrida.

The juxtaposition of Shane Claiborne and Jacques Derrida is, at first blush, more than a little odd: one a young American hippie, the other a deceased French theorist. However, Derrida’s connection to Claiborne and Derrida’s immense relevance to this campus is perhaps best encapsulated in his claim that “ethics is hospitality.” For Derrida, unconditionally welcoming the foreigner — the Other — is the very meaning of justice.

As he tells the story, the history of philosophy or Western ideas is the history of exclusion. All the way back to the Ancient Greeks, it is a history that is hell-bent on erecting binaries: male/female, rational/irrational, objective/subjective, inside/outside, presence/absence, fact/opinion, and so forth. The former is always privileged and the latter always sidelined, dominated, oppressed. To be male, rational & factual, was supposedly clearly superior to being female, irrational & opinionated. Derrida’s goal, among and with many others, is to subvert — he says “deconstruct” — this traditional arrangement to demonstrate the inter-dependence of both concepts. For example, it does not make sense to speak of being inside unless there is an outside with whom it is contrasted; there are also spaces which destabilize the binary even more by being both/neither inside and outside. Derrida does not want to invert the binary, so that being outside is better/greater than being inside, but rather make the two live in tension between the forces of violence that would pull them apart or have one subjugate the Other.

Most relevantly to us today, we need to see that the marginalized Other in our society is undoubtedly the sick, the poor, the downtrodden, the impoverished, the “least of these.” In the face of these, Derrida calls us to an impossible task: unconditional hospitality. The impossibility of such a demand is the very condition of the call itself, the very reason it ought to nag us by day and haunt us at night. Furthermore, this call contains in itself immense risk: there is no guarantee that an unqualified openness to the Other won’t bring personal danger, harm, tragedy. This is justice, Derrida says, for it invites the foreigner inside (our home, our space, our koinos, our heart) without question and without demand.

Enter Shane Claiborne. For I am convinced that Irresistible Revolution, a humble book that is certainly otherwise than philosophy, sketches a brilliant picture of what a life of unconditional hospitality might look like. Claiborne’s simple call is to love; love deeply, generously, excessively. Most importantly, do this to the unlovable.

Last fall, after reading Claiborne’s book, I attempted to commit myself to giving and welcoming unconditionally. One night I went to Dayton to spend on a 2-hour movie what one billion humans earn as a week’s wage. As I left The Neon I was approached by Jesus, disguised as a beleaguered white woman and her boyfriend. I don’t remember whether it was to see a long-lost brother or just escape the impending winter, but she wanted bus tickets and so I gave her money and wished them well. Not 20 feet onward I came across Jesus again, this time in the form of a scraggly black man who wanted to eat at Arby’s. There’s no doubt that the beggar and I should’ve shared a meal together, but opening my arms to a dirty Jesus seemed more difficult and so I just gave him some bills. The third time I saw Jesus was just minutes later, when a beggar began heading towards me from a ways down the sidewalk. I immediately began to think of excuses: that the price of my evening had already doubled, that I was “poor” too, that I “needed” to get home, that giving unconditionally was just getting to be too hard. And so I turned a blind eye and crossed to the other side of the street. Was there ever a more disgusting, obviously Pharisaical act? That my Savior passed His three tests, that He died on the cross, that He rose again on the third day, that is only what saves a wretch like me.

You see what Derrida and Claiborne were driving at is an ethical demand that’s too radical for us to handle, almost even comprehend. It was just as radical 2000 years ago when a Nazarene carpenter first proclaimed these truths. The Sermon on the Mount is so outrageous that it’s still unwelcome today, banned even from our Christian university. For if we truly unconditionally welcomed the Other — the unwanted, the marginalized, the destitute, even our enemies — our lives would require such radical re-constitution that we’d be shaken to the core. Wouldn’t we as individuals, as communities, as towns, and as a nation ultimately conduct ourselves very, very differently? Would we any longer bless the pre-emptive war-mongers, so that they might inherit the earth? Would we any longer tolerate cowboy imperialism, pretending that it represents the kingdom of heaven? Does unconditional hospitality erect a 2000-mile fence to keep out Unwanteds and Outsiders? Does unconditional giving mean HMO bureaucracy just to treat a sick child? To turn the other cheek and to give (not invest) our last dollar: these are the demands of that wandering Christ we claim to follow. Welcoming — not bombing — the poor, tired, and huddled masses is undoubtedly a risky proposition. Our Jesus, however, does not call us to safety or economic efficiency; He calls us to love. It’s so simple. To love extravagantly beyond all measure, because that is how our Father in Heaven loves us. This is a love that can transform my life, and yours, and all of us here at this Christ-ian university, so that next time Jesus wants to visit us in the disguise of a long-haired hippie from Philadelphia we unequivocally say Yes, please. Welcome.

Against Appropriation

Almost done with Crystal Downing’s book. I’ve slowed down because I’m not entirely satisfied with some of her scholarship in this last half. She seems strong on Derrida and deconstruction; weak on Rorty and irony. She also seems to believe (mistakenly, imo) that C.S. Lewis would support a lot of postmodern epistemology. James K.A. Smith tried something similiar in the beginning of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? in a discussion of Francis Schaeffer. I think technically Smith’s point stands (re: appropriating non-Christian thinkers) but I don’t think you can use Schaeffer without heavily qualifying that Schaeffer would probably disagree very strongly with most of Smith’s project. He alludes to this early on but it’s a little mis-leading to the uninformed…

Which brings me to another great Percesepe article. In Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought (1999) he has an essay entitled “Against Appropriation: Postmodern Programs, Claimants, Contests, Conversations.” It’s a challenging piece to be sure, especially appearing as it does in a book essentially devoted to appropriating atheists and agnostics. Percesepe argues that all appropriation is violence by definition; yet avoiding appropriation is impossible (it’s essentially the history of philosophy after all). What to take away then? For one, it’s the idea of trace, the hidden voice of the author still lingering in the appropriated. More on the taking and being taken:

There is the matter of the apparition appearing at the inheritance, and one never inhabits, one never appropriates, one never recontextualizes, without coming to terms with some specter, and therefore with more than on spector. “Whose grave’s this, sir?” Nothing could be worse, for the work of mourning, than confusion or doubt: One has to know who is buried where.

We take from the dead, and even from the living, whatever we determine we need; but can we take without being taken? …Claimants who are not laid claim to, takers who are not taken, are claimants and takers to be feared, resisted, and ultimately, haunted.

No appropriation in the singular is possible; no appropriation is simple; no appropriation escapes the burden of the debt or gets out of committee without one; no appropriation ultimately evades the work of mourning, the specters of the future.

Philosophy haunts its own places as well as inhabits them. And philosophy is always more than philosophy if it is truly philosophy.

Appropriation is like the Eucharist: you take at your own risk, but not apart from self-examination, and mind the holy ghost of the Other… Before you take, consider also that you too are taken, blessed, broken, and ultimately given to the world. The best interpreters are broken, grieving, haunted, humbled, errant… At twilight, before or after a night of bad dreams the specter finds us, and no academic conjuring — by forgetfulness, by foreclosure, or by murder — will release us from the price of our appropriations, which bring into the world new ghosts, untimely ones.

Note too that the editor of this book is Merold Westphal, who even has an introductory essays entitled “Appropriating Postmodernism.” See now how subversive Percesepe’s article is? But nevermind, onto Westphal… for I’ve uploaded another essay:
“Postmodern and religious reflection” (1995) by Merold Westphal. Modern Theology (April 2007) has a Westphal article I haven’t read but looks very good: “The Importance of Overcoming Metaphysics For the Life of Faith.”

I believe that I believe

Research log:
I finished James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? earlier this week and am wrapping up Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernim Serves (My) Faith (“Question Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art”). In the back of the book she has a list of resources that were helpful to her and one of them is “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Postmodern” by one Gary Percesepe. The name jumped out at me because Gary Percesepe taught philosophy at Cedarville for a number of years and, I think, is the founder of CU’s Honors program. I could only find the article on microfiche (Dec ’90 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review) and I’d highly recommend it to you, my enterprising readers. The article is more amazing in light of how controversial postmodernism has been at Cedarville in the last couple years — yet here’s a sympathetic voice from 17 years earlier. I may try to put the whole thing online soon, but here’s an excerpt:

“The postmodern conversation after all is our conversation, and it is we postmoderns who shall have to live amidst the fragments of a world whose unraveling can be traced back to the work of our own hands, doing what we have always done — making and unmaking texts of meaning. This is no mindless, deathlike nihilism; it is merely the realization that it is the discourse of modernity, after all, that has put forward the unpresentable in its own presentation, moving the conversation along until now. The mark of the postmodern is the stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable. Rather than strive for the unattainable in the shadow of the total, the postmodern searches for newer presentations, if for no other reason than to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. The postmodern marshals resistance to the totality, knowing that the price of the illusion that one can have it all is terror. And we have had enough of the terror of the totality, we moderns” (pg 129).

Also particularly good is his discussion at the end of Kundera and the lightness/play of postmodernism vs. the heaviness/gravitas of modernism.

So now I’m reading lots of Dr Percesepe. Intertext published a good (if uneven) short story of his called “Missionary” and I very much enjoyed an Enterzone piece entitled “The Way You Live Now” (and three poems of his at Enterzone). Also recommended is the short essay Reflections on the Integration of Faith, Learning and Life” which features a story from his Cedarville days. Percesepe was editor for a time of Antioch Review but I haven’t yet located any of his work published therein. OTOH, The Mississipi Review has published nine pieces, mostly prose. None of it philosophy per se, so take a look. I’m still wading through the MR stuff myself.

Here’s a schedule of what’s next:

Deconstruction: A Reader, will probably skip most essays except:

  • “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing” – Richard Rorty
  • “Jacques Derrida: Wholly otherwise” – Emmanuel Levinas
  • “God is not differance” – John Caputo
    The whole end of this reader has eulogies by Derrida which I’ll probably get to, plus an “Open Letter to Bill Clinton” from Derrida.Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology looks good through-and-through (features John Searle, William Alston, Roderick Chisolm, Donald Davidson, and Gilbert Harman). The last chapter is Richard Rorty’s critique/response to all five essays so I may skip them and just read him to save time and just because Rorty is my homeboy.

    I will probably read a lot in Postmodernism: A Reader just because of who’s in it (Baudrillard, Rorty, Lyotard, Habermas) and I’m particlarly excited to read Gianni Vattimo’s “The Structure of Artistic Revolutions.” Vattimo has intrigued me since his collaboration with Rorty in The Future of Religion. Vattimo’s Belief also contains a fantastic story of postmodern faith:

    “…One hot afternoon I made a telephone call, from an ice-cream shop near a bus stop in Milan, to Gustavo Bontadini, a distinguished representative of ‘neoclassical’ Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. Although I did not share his theoretical theses, I felt bound to him by deep affection and admiration. The call was about the competitive examination for a university chair. As we were both members of the examining commission, we had some confidential academic business to discuss. But while we were still greeting each other, Bontadini, with whom I had not spoken for a long time, shifted to fundamental matters, asking me suddenly whether at bottom I still believed in God. I don’t know whether my response was conditioned by the paradoxical situation in which the question aros: next to the telephone was a table of women, eating ice cream and drinking orange juice in the heat. So I answered that I believed that I believed” (pg 69-70).