Há muitas pessoas no mundo empenhadas em demonstrar a inexistencia de Deus. Tive oportunidade de conviver com ateus de todos os tipos e mentalidades, de todas as formações acadêmico-científicas e até ateus analfabetos. Mas, foi em Nietzsche, um filósofo alemão que encontrei a mais profunda sabedoria. Na sua mais famosa obra, também a mais magnífica do ponto de vista estilístico, o seu ASSIM FALAVA ZARATUSTRA, já nos primeiros capítulos Nietzsche/Zaratustra anunciava A MORTE DE DEUS. Não fora o primeiro, Dostoievski já o havia pressagiado. Mas, fora Nietzsche quem primeiro anunciou a morte e ensinou em seus evangelhos a afirmar a Terra! Abaixo você confere uma bela entrevista a respeito da DESCONSTRUÇÃO DE DEUS.
This is the third in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment isJohn D. Caputo, a professor of religion and humanities at Syracuse University and the author of “The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion.”
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.
G.G.: I can see that there are influences of Judaism, Augustinian Christianity and enlightenment atheism in Derrida. But isn’t this just a matter of his detaching certain religious ideas from their theistic core? He talks of a messiah — but one that never comes; he’s interested in the idea of confessing your sins — but there’s no one to forgive them. After all the deconstructive talk, the law of noncontradiction still holds: Derrida is either an atheist or he isn’t. It seems that the only reasonable answer is that he’s an atheist.
J.C.: In the middle of his book on Augustine, Derrida said he “rightly passes for an atheist,” shying away from a more definitive “I am an atheist.” By the standards of the local rabbi, that’s correct, that’s the position to attribute to him, that’s a correct proposition. But if we stop there we miss everything interesting and important about what he is saying for religion and for understanding deconstruction.
G.G.: So if I insist on expressing religious faith in propositions (assertions that are either true or false), then, yes, Derrida’s an atheist. But according to you, the propositions that express faith aren’t what’s interesting or important about religion.
I agree that there’s much more to religion than what’s stated in creeds. There are rituals, ascetic practices, moral codes, poetry and symbols. But for most people, believing that God exists entails believing such propositions as that there’s someone who guarantees that justice will eventually prevail, that no suffering is without meaning, that there is a life after death where we can find eternal happiness.
J.C.: We have to appreciate the deep distrust that Derrida has for this word “atheism.” This kind of normalizing category has only a preliminary value — it finds a place to put him in a taxonomy of “positions” — but it obscures everything that is valuable here. This word is too powerful for him, too violent. That is why in another place he said calling him an atheist is “absolutely ridiculous.” His “atheism” is not unlike that of Paul Tillich, when Tillich said that to the assertion that God is a Supreme Being the proper theologicalresponse is atheism, but that is the beginning of theology for Tillich, not the end.
Derrida is not launching a secularist attack on religion. Deconstruction has nothing to do with the violence of the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Derrida approaches the mystics, the Scriptures, Augustine with respect — they are always ahead of him, he says — and he always has something to learn from them. He is not trying to knock down one position (“theism”) with the opposing position (“atheism”). He does not participate in these wars.
G.G.: You keep saying what Derrida doesn’t do. Is there any positive content to his view of religion or is it all just “negative theology”? Is he in any sense “making a case” for religion? Can reading Derrida lead to religious belief?
J.C.: In its most condensed formulation, deconstruction is affirmation, a “yes, yes, come” to the future and also to the past, since the authentic past is also ahead of us. It leads to, it is led by, a “yes” to the transforming surprise, to the promise of what is to come in whatever we have inherited — in politics, art, science, law, reason and so on. The bottom line is “yes, come.”
Derrida is reading, rereading, reinventing inherited texts and traditions, releasing the future they “harbor,” which means both to keep safe but also conceal, all in the name of what Augustine calls “doing the truth.” He is interested in all the things found in the Scriptures and revelation, the narratives, the images, the angels — not in order to mine them for their “rational content,” to distill them into proofs and propositions, but to allow them to be heard and reopened by philosophy. Deconstruction is a way to read something meticulously, feeling about for its tensions, releasing what it itself may not want to disclose, remembering something it may not want to recall — it is not a drive-by shooting.
G.G.: But why call this “religion”?
J.C.: Derrida calls this a “religionwithout religion.” Other people speak of the “post-secular,” or of a theology “after the death of God,” which requires first passing through this death. In Derrida’s delicate logic of “without,” a trope also found in the mystics, a thing is crossed out without becoming illegible; we can still see it through the cross marks. So this religion comes without the religion you just described — it is not nearly as safe, reassuring, heartwarming, triumphant over death, sure about justice, so absolutely fabulous at soothing hearts, as Jacques Lacan says, with an explanation for everything. His religion is risky business, no guarantees.
G.G.: If Derrida doubts or denies that there’s someone who guarantees such things, isn’t it only honest to say that he is an agnostic or an atheist? For most people, God is precisely the one who guarantees that the things we most fear won’t happen. You’ve mentioned Derrida’s interest in Augustine. Wouldn’t Augustine — and virtually all the Christian tradition — denounce any suggestion that God’s promises might not be utterly reliable?
J.C.: Maybe it disturbs what “most people” think religion is — assuming they are thinking about it — but maybe a lot of these people wake up in the middle of the night feeling the same disturbance, disturbed by a more religionless religion going on in the religion meant to give them comfort. Even for people who are content with the contents of the traditions they inherit, deconstruction is a life-giving force, forcing them to reinvent what has been inherited and to give it a future. But religion for Derrida is not a way to link up with saving supernatural powers; it is a mode of being-in-the-world, of being faithful to the promise of the world.
The comparison with Augustine is telling. Unlike Augustine, he does not think a thing has to last forever to be worthy of our unconditional love. Still, he says he has been asking himself all his life Augustine’s question, “What do I love when I love my God?” But where Augustine thinks that there is a supernaturally revealed answer to this question, Derrida does not. He describes himself as a man of prayer, but where Augustine thinks he knows to whom he is praying, Derrida does not. When I asked him this question once he responded, “If I knew that, I would know everything” — he would be omniscient, God!
This not-knowing does not defeat his religion or his prayer. It is constitutive of them, constituting a faith that cannot be kept safe from doubt, a hope that cannot be kept safe from despair. We live in the distance between these pairs.
G.G.: But if deconstruction leads us to give up Augustine’s way of thinking about God and even his belief in revealed truth, shouldn’t we admit that it has seriously watered down the content of Christianity, reduced the distance between it and agnosticism or atheism? Faith that is not confident and hope that is not sure are not what the martyrs died for.
J.C.: In this view, what martyrs die for is an underlying faith, which is why, by an accident of birth or a conversion, they could have been martyrs for the other side. Mother Teresa expressed some doubts about her beliefs, but not about an underlying faith in her work. Deconstruction is a plea to rethink what we mean by religion and to locate a more unnerving religion going on in our more comforting religion.
Deconstruction is faith and hope. In what? In the promises that are harbored in inherited names like “justice” and “democracy” — or “God.” Human history is full of such names and they all have their martyrs. That is why the difference between Derrida and Augustine cannot be squashed into the distinction between “theism” and “atheism” or — deciding to call it a draw — “agnosticism.” It operates on a fundamentally different level. Deconstruction dares to think “religion” in a new way, in what Derrida calls a “new Enlightenment,” daring to rethink what the Enlightenment boxed off as “faith” and “reason.”
But deconstruction is not destruction. After all, the bottom line of deconstruction, “yes, come,” is pretty much the last line of the New Testament: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series were with Alvin Plantinga and Louise Antony.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960″ and writes regularly for The Stone.