The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion

The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion

by John D. Caputo

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"Caputo’s book is riveting.... A singular achievement of stylistic brio and impeccable scholarship, it breaks new ground in making a powerful case for treating Derrida as homo religiosis.... There can be no mistaking the importance of Caputo's work." —Edith Wyschogrod

"No one interested in Derrida, in Caputo, or in the larger question of postmodernism


"Caputo’s book is riveting.... A singular achievement of stylistic brio and impeccable scholarship, it breaks new ground in making a powerful case for treating Derrida as homo religiosis.... There can be no mistaking the importance of Caputo's work." —Edith Wyschogrod

"No one interested in Derrida, in Caputo, or in the larger question of postmodernism and religion can afford to ignore this pathbreaking study. Taking full advantage of the most recent and least discussed writings of Derrida, it offers a careful and comprehensive account of the religious dimension of Derrida’s thought." —Merold Westphal

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The Prayers and Tears Jacques Derrida

Religion without Religion

By John D. Caputo

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1997 John D. Caputo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-33268-4


The Apophatic

§1. God Is Not différance

An Impossible Situation

The messianic tone of deconstruction was not at all evident at the start. Instead, in the midst of what looked more like a certain Nietzschean tone recently adopted in French philosophy in the 1960s, Derrida was visited with a suggestive "objection" that occasioned his first encounter with theology. "[V]ery early on," he says, "I was accused of — rather than being congratulated for — resifting the procedures of negative theology" (Psy., 537/DNT, 74), of putting these procedures to work, it would seem, in the service of some magnum mysterium called différance.

As usual, his accusers/congratulators were only half right. For impossible things have on the whole always exercised a greater fascination over Derrida than the garden variety possibilities whose conditions philosophy is traditionally content to supply. So it makes perfect sense that Derrida would "have always been fascinated" (Psy., 545/DNT, 82) by the impossible situation in which negative or apophatic theology finds itself, of denying that it is possible to speak of God even while, as theology, it keeps on speaking. As a good friend of mine once said, "Of God I do not believe we can say a thing, but, on the other hand, as a theologian, I have to make a buck." That is "the impossible."

Derrida was understandably fascinated with the syntactical strategies and discursive resources of negative theology, with a deployment of signs intent on the "rarefaction of signs," with a play of traces aimed at effacing the trace, with a language that is "more or less than a language," that "casts suspicion on the very essence or possibility of language" (Sauf 41 /ON, 48), with a "wounded" language, where the "scar" of the "impossible" has left its mark (Sauf, 63/ON, 59-60), with "the most economical and most powerful formalization, the greatest reserve of language possible in so few words" (Sauf 113/DNT, 321). He has long been fascinated by the "experience of the impossible," the possibility of this impossibility, by the absolute heterogeneity that the hyper introduces into the order of the same, interrupting the complacent regime of the possible. Derrida has always been interested in hyperbolic movements, in the whole family of hyper, über, epekeina, au-delà, and in movements of denegation, like pas and sans, which try to speak of not speaking.

Nonetheless, negative theology is worlds removed from deconstruction; the mise en abîme of deconstruction is separated by an abyss from the abyss of the Godhead beyond God. The paradox of negative theology — how to speak of the unspeakable transcendence of God — is at best provocatively analogous to the difficulty in which deconstruction finds itself — how to name différance, that word or concept that is neither word nor concept. So it is for substantively different albeit strategically analogous reasons that deconstruction, like negative theology, finds itself constantly writing under erasure, saying something without saying it, even deforming and misspelling it (différance being the most famous misspelling in contemporary philosophy).

That is why when, one day "early on," in the discussion following the original 1968 presentation of the famous paper "Différance" (which, for the most loyal deconstructionists, has a status something like the Sermon on the Mount), an interlocutor who had heard enough exclaimed with some exasperation, "it [différance] is the source of everything and one cannot know it: it is the God of negative theology," Derrida responded with the most exquisite precision and deconstructionist decisiveness, "It is and it is not." Yes and no.

As we will see, Derrida easily made the "no" stick. He dispatched this accusation, or deferred this congratulation, effectively and efficiently, persuasively arguing that whatever their "syntactical" similarities there is a deep "semantic" divide between God and différance, that "it," différance, is not the God of negative theology. (We cannot fail to notice that "God" here is not exactly Yahweh, not the God of prophets like Amos or Isaiah, a God who wants justice, but the God of Christian Neoplatonism.) However highly it is esteemed, différance is not God. Negative theology is always on the track of a "hyperessentiality," of something hyper-present, hyper-real or sur-real, so really real that we are never satisfied simply to say that it is merely real. Différance, on the other hand, is less than real, not quite real, never gets as far as being or entity or presence, which is why it is emblematized by insubstantial quasi-beings like ashes and ghosts which flutter between existence and nonexistence, or with humble khôra, say, rather than with the prestigious Platonic sun. Differance is but a quasi-transcendental anteriority, not a supereminent, transcendent ulteriority.

I will insist throughout that establishing that negation, getting that denial on the table, is only the beginning and not the end of the story of Derrida's encounter with theology. What Derrida has done is thoroughly misunderstood, I submit, if it is thought that deconstruction has somehow or other "dispatched" negative theology, simply sent it packing, or shown it to be a transcendental illusion that has been done in by the metaphysics of (hyper)presence, so that our time would now be better passed reading Nietzsche on the death of God. Deconstruction is never merely negative; its desire is never satisfied with "no, no." Deconstruction is thoroughly mistrustful of discourses that prohibit this and prohibit that, that weigh us down with debts and "don'ts." Deconstruction is so deeply and abidingly affirmative — of something new, of something coming — that it finally breaks out in a vast and sweeping amen, a great ouif oui — à Vimpossible, in a great burst of passion for the impossible. So over and beyond, this first, preparatory and merely negative point, deconstruction says yes, affirming what negative theology affirms whenever it says no. Deconstruction desires what negative theology desires and it shares the passion of negative theology — for the impossible.

Oui, oui. Sic et non.

What has become increasingly clear about deconstruction over the years is that, like negative theology, deconstruction has been taken by surprise, overtaken by the tout autre, the wholly other, about which it does not know how not to speak. Like negative theology, deconstruction turns on its desire for the tout autre. Derrida analyzes that desire, not like Doctor Derrida, his patient spread out on the couch before his clinical gaze, but with fascination and respect, with a little dose of docta ignorantia. For we do not know what we desire. Derrida has not been sent — who would have sent him? — to police negative theology and to tell it what it may desire. For he recognizes this desire for the tout autre as his own — yes, yes — indeed as a desire by which — if he is right — we are all inhabited. We are all dreaming of an absolute surprise, pondering an absolute secret, all waiting for the tout autre to arrive. So Derrida finds in negative theology a unique and irreducible idiom for answering the call by which we are all addressed, whether our discursive inclinations are theological, antitheological, or a/theological (or something else). For we are all — this is Derrida's wager — dreaming of the wholly other that will come knocking on our door (like Elijah), and, taking language by surprise, will tie our tongue and strike us dumb (almost), filling us with passion. That is why, with the passage of the years, Derrida's relationship with negative theology became more and more affirmative, more and more linked by the impossible. The difference is that in negative theology the tout autre always goes under the name of God, and that which calls forth speech is called "God," whereas for Derrida every other is wholly other (tout autre est tout autre). But the name of God is not a bad name and we can love (and save) this name (DLG, 62 /OG, 42).

It is a serious misunderstanding, a little perverse, I would say, to think that there is something inherently atheistic about deconstruction, as if, lodged deep down inside différance or "the trace" there were, à la Jean-Paul Sartre, some sort of negative ontological argument against God, against God's good name, as if what Derrida calls "the trace" knocks out the name of God. On the contrary, Derrida, who "rightly passes for an atheist," is an atheist who has his own God, and who loves the name of God, loves that "event" and what "takes place" or eventuates in that good name. He has no desire, it goes against everything that deconstruction is and desires, to prevent the event of that "invention." Indeed, getting ready for the "invention" of the other, covenanting (con-venire) with its in-coming (in-venire), initialing a pact with the impossible, sticking to the promise of inalterable alterity, tout autre — that, says Derrida, "is what I call deconstruction" (Psy., 53/RDR, 56). That is his passion.

So Derrida follows with fascination the movements of what theology calls God, observing how theology speaks, and how it finds it necessary not to speak under the solicitation of the wholly other. When Meister Eckhart says, "I pray God to rid me of God," he formulates with the most astonishing economy a double bind by which we are all bound: how to speak and not speak, how to pray and not pray, to and for the tout autre. But in theology the tout autre goes (and comes) under the name of God.

Derrida is all along formulating a way to read negative theology, a way to hear it, be addressed by it, to be claimed and taken by surprise by it, which involves all along a way to "translate" it. His reading makes negative theology of the utmost importance even to those who thank God daily in their temples that they do not believe in God, to those who have closed themselves off to the name of God (and this, often enough, in the name of resisting closure). But in "translating" negative theology deconstruction has no part in the familiar, nineteenth-century ruse in which a clearheaded master hermeneut, striding to the podium, explains to misty-eyed theologians, their eyes cocked heavenward like that painting of Monica and Augustine in Circumfession (Circon., 21/Circum., 17), what they are talking about. Deconstruction is no Dupin deciphering theological self-mystification and showing theology plainly, scientifically, that if theologians could somehow, per impossible, clear their heads ever so briefly they would realize that what they really meant all along by God was Man (Feuerbach), that what they really desired all along was their mommy (Freud), or even, mirabile dictu, différance itself, sainte écriture (the remarkable Mark Taylor, whose work I deeply admire, but who errantly missed the mark, "early on," in his first major brush with Derrida in Erring).

"Translating" in deconstruction is nothing reductionistic, and that is because différance opens things up rather than barring the door closed. Of itself, if it had an itself, differance does not tell for or against, does not say or gainsay, monotheism or atheism, even as it loves the name of God. It is no part of the business, or the competency, or the responsibility of deconstruction to decide what or who is calling in what theology calls God, in what calls theology to order. Theology and faith, all the theologies and their determinable faiths (Sauf, 86/ON, 71) — Christian, Jewish, Islamic, whatever — are the responsibility of whoever decides to venture out upon those stormy seas, a responsibility with laws and motivations of its own. The business of deconstruction is not to police theologians or anybody else, to maintain an unbroken Neokantian surveillance over the business of science or everyday life, but to keep things open. Its business is a certain quasi-analysis and affirmation of the trace, of the claims and exclamations that take shape in that place, there (là), where things are happening, language and everything else, il y a du langue (UG, 124/AL, 296). Its business is the trace, what the trace demands of us, what it inscribes upon us, and what we inscribe within it, whether that is theological or atheological — or perhaps something else, something we can only dream of, something of an absolute surprise.

Deconstruction is not out to undo God or deny faith, or to mock science or make nonsense out of literature, or to break the law or, generally, to ruin any of those hoary things at whose very mention all your muscles constrict. Deconstruction is not in the business of defaming good names but of saving them. Sauf le nom. Where would it get the authority? Who would have given it the power to wipe away the horizon, to dry up the sea, or to fill up the abyss with such a decisive, definitive result, such an unbelievable, unbelieving, atheistic closure? Would it mount a public campaign? Where would it get the funds? Would it expect support from the National Endowment for the Humanities? (Dream on!) Why would deconstruction want to associate itself with the prevention of the wholly other? What kind of madness would that be for something that arises from a pact with the tout autre?

Deconstruction is rather the thought, if it is a thought, of an absolute heterogeneity that unsettles all the assurances of the same within which we comfortably ensconce ourselves. That is the desire by which it is moved, which moves and impassions it, which sets it into motion, toward which it extends itself.

But let there be no mistake: "early on" deconstruction does delimit the metaphysical side of theology. Still, is that not an honorable and hoary religious project? Does it not have an honorable name, the name of "dehellenizing Christianity," more generally of "dehellenizing biblical faith"? Is it not an idea as old as Luther, and older still, tracing its origins back to the first chapter of First Corinthians, and older than that, given that the prophets never heard of the science that investigates to on he on? Is it not in step with Abraham Heschel's remarkable extrication of the prophets from the grips of metaphysical theology? By inscribing theology within the trace, by describing faith as always and already marked by the trace, by différance and undecidability, deconstruction demonstrates that faith is always faith, and this in virtue of one of the best descriptions of faith we possess, which is that faith is always through a glas darkly.

Even early on, the effect of deconstruction on theology — by which I mean the attempt to bring faith to discursive form — and in particular on negative theology, is not to defame theology but to reinscribe it within the trace and, by putting "hyperessentialism" in its place, to resituate negative theology within faith. For the "hyperessentialism" of negative theology, which Derrida delimits, would shatter faith and turn it into union, into oneness with the One, "but then face to face," which is to get impatient with glas and jump the gun. That hyperousiological high for Derrida has always been so much hype. But on the view that I take, a deconstructive theology would find it necessary to deny hyperessentialism in order to make room for faith. Il faut croire (MdA, 130/MB, 129).

Deconstruction saves apophatic theology from telling a bad story about itself, about how it speaks from the Heart of Truth, and how the rest of us had better get in line with it. Or else! That kind of Truth always implies a threat, a dangerous triumphalism. Deconstruction saves the name of negative theology by subjecting it to the same necessity that besets us all, the same il faut (Psy., 561/DNT, 99), which is to pull on our textual pants one leg at a time, to forge slowly and from below certain unities of meaning in which we put our trust, understanding all along the mistrust that co-constitutes that trust, the undecidability that inhabits and makes possible that decision. Deconstruction saves negative theology from closure. Closure spells trouble, which is why différance cloaks itself in a misspelling. Closure spells exclusion, exclusiveness; closure spills blood, doctrinal, confessional, theological, political, institutional blood, and eventually, it never fails, real blood. Salus in sanguine. Pro deo et patria spells big trouble, with big words, master words, that need deconstructing.


Excerpted from The Prayers and Tears Jacques Derrida by John D. Caputo. Copyright © 1997 John D. Caputo. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author

John D. Caputo is David R. Cook Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. He is author of Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project; Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction; and Demythologizing Heidegger.

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