There is an interesting discussion posted on the website of the New York Times between John D. Caputo and Gary Gutting titled “Deconstructing God.” Longtime readers of DatingGod.org will know of my appreciation for and interest in the work of Caputo in the field of continental philosophy of religion. Whether you are a fan of Deconstruction or not, whether you’re a fan of Caputo or not, these interviews with him are always interesting and worth considering. Here’s an excerpt from the discussion, you can visit the NYT website to read it in its entirety.
Gary Gutting: You approach religion through Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, which involves questioning and undermining the sorts of sharp distinctions traditionally so important for philosophy. What, then, do you think of the distinction between theism, atheism and agnosticism?
John Caputo: I would begin with a plea not to force deconstruction into one of these boxes. I consider these competing views as beliefs, creedal positions, that are inside our head by virtue of an accident of birth. There are the people who “believe” things from the religious traditions they’ve inherited; there are the people who deny them (the atheism you get is pegged to the god under denial); and there are the people who say, “Who could possibly know anything about all of that?” To that I oppose an underlying form of life, not the beliefs inside our head but the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain.
If you cease to “believe” in a particular religious creed, like Calvinism or Catholicism, you have changed your mind and adopted a new position, for which you will require new propositions. Imagine a debate in which a theist and an atheist actually convince each other. Then they trade positions and their lives go on. But if you lose “faith,” in the sense this word is used in deconstruction, everything is lost. You have lost your faith in life, lost hope in the future, lost heart, and you cannot go on.
G.G.: I’m having some trouble with your use of “deconstruction.” On the one hand, it seems to be a matter of undermining sharp distinctions, like that between atheism and theism. On the other hand, your own analysis seems to introduce a sharp distinction between beliefs and ways of life — even though beliefs are surely part of religious ways of life.
J.C.: After making a distinction in deconstruction, the first thing to do is to deconstruct it, to show that it leaks, that its terms are porous and intersecting, one side bleeding into the other, these leaks being the most interesting thing of all about the distinction. I am distinguishing particular beliefs from an underlying faith and hope in life itself, which takes different forms in different places and traditions, by which the particular traditions are both inhabited and disturbed.
I agree they are both forms of life, but on different levels or strata. The particular beliefs are more local, more stabilized, more codified, while this underlying faith and hope in life is more restless, open-ended, disturbing, inchoate, unpredictable, destabilizing, less confinable.
G.G.: O.K., I guess you might say that all thinking involves making distinctions, but deconstructive thinking always turns on itself, using further distinctions to show how any given distinction is misleading. But using this sort of language leads to paradoxical claims as, for example, when you say, as you just did, that beliefs contain a faith that they can’t contain. Paradox is fine as long as we have some way of understanding that it’s not an outright contradiction. So why isn’t it a contradiction to say that there’s a faith that beliefs both contain and can’t contain?
J.C.: The traditions contain (in the sense of “possess”) these events, but they cannot contain (in the sense of “confine” or “limit”) them, hold them captive by building a wall of doctrine, administrative rule, orthodoxy, propositional rectitude around them.
G.G.: So the distinction that saves you from contradiction is this: Beliefs contain faith in the sense that, in the world, beliefs are where we find faith concretely expressed; but any given faith can be expressed by quite different beliefs in quite different historical contexts. In this sense, the faith is not contained by the beliefs. That makes sense.
Presumably, then, deconstructive theology is the effort to isolate this “common core” of faith that’s found in different historical periods — or maybe even the differing beliefs of different contemporary churches.
J.C.: No! I am not resurrecting the old comparative-religion thesis that there is an underlying transcendental form or essence or universal that we can cull from differing empirical religious beliefs, that can be approached only asymptotically by empirical cases. I am saying that the inherited religious traditions contain something deeper, which is why they are important. I don’t marginalize religious traditions; they are our indispensable inheritance. Without them, human experience would be impoverished, its horizon narrowed. We would be deprived of their resources, not know the name of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the startling notion of the “kingdom of God,” the idea of the messianic and so on.
As a philosopher I am, of course, interested in what happens, but always in terms of what is going on in what happens. The particular religious traditions are what happen, and they are precious, but my interest lies in what is going on in these traditions, in the memory of Jesus, say. But different traditions contain different desires, promises, memories, dreams, futures, a different sense of time and space. Nothing says that underneath they are all the same.
G.G.: That doesn’t seem to me what typically goes on in deconstructive theology. The deconstructive analysis of any religious concept — the Christian Trinity, the Muslim oneness of God, Buddhist nirvana — always turns out to be the same: an endless play of mutually undermining differences.
J.C.: There is no such thing as deconstructive theology, in the singular, or “religion,” in the singular. There are only deconstructive versions of concrete religious traditions, inflections, repetitions, rereadings, reinventions, which open them up to a future for which they are not prepared, to dangerous memories of a past they try not to recall, since their tendency is to consolidate and to stabilize. Accordingly, you would always be able to detect the genealogy, reconstruct the line of descent, figure out the pedigree of a deconstructive theology. It would always bear the mark of the tradition it inflects.
A lot of the “Derrida and theology” work, for example, has been following the wrong scent, looking for links between Derrida’s ideas and Christian negative theology, while missing his irregular and heretical messianic Judaism. I like to joke that Derrida is a slightly atheistic quasi-Jewish Augustinian, but I am also serious…
Read the rest of the interview here: “Deconstructing God.”