Derrida’s ‘Coming of the Impossible’
Post-Modernism as described by one of its exponents=
“[Its] labyrinthine prose tempts some to read it only as an academic parlour game used for inconsequential power struggles in high-brow university religion and philosophy departments” [‘The Cambridge Companion To Post-Modern Theology’, 2003, D. Long, p 133].
Post-Modernism is as far from William Blake’s ‘clear mystery’ as it is possible to get. A sludge of words, not just abstract words but words ‘mentalized’ to the point of absurdity, typifies too much Post-Modernist writing.. This betrays a mind, despite all the insistence on honouring the ‘other’, which has become adrift from any anchoring in reality, and so this mind becomes like a car whose engine is being revved frantically but the gears are not engaged. The engine huffs and puffs but the car goes nowhere..
When words are mentalised to this extreme degree their communication is lost, and they become virtually unintelligible. The bombast and posturing accepted, even required, in French intellectual ‘discourse’ has done people like Jacques Derrida no favours.
Post-Modernism is the collapse of Western secularism, rationalism, scientism, into full scale relativism. It ceases to be possible to believe in anything, for it is all an arbitrary ‘construction’ of a certain time and a certain place, a particular and finite human response to ongoing historical exigencies. There is no such animal as truth, only points of view.. The claim that human knowing is concretely ‘situated’, and therefore cannot claim to be absolute, doesn’t have to end in relativism, however. The embodied quality of human knowing, a knowing from within existence with no spurious rationalistic god’s eye view from outside it, can point in a very different direction.
Yet Post-Modernism takes delight in ‘deconstruction’ of all the unwarranted and unsubstantiated assumptions of modernism. It is the gadfly on the bloated arse of Modernism, stinging it with potent venom. This need to deconstruct the confident ‘mastery’ of everything in Modernism means that, in correcting one false extreme, Post-Modernism has to go to the other false extreme. Thus, Modernism’s ‘certainty’ that it has explained and therefore conquered everything, its [tyrannical] absolutism, its over ambition in developing grand theories of the ‘big picture’, has to be blown to bits by Post-Modernism showing that uncertainty is more firmly based, that nothing is explained and nothing is conquered, and that the big picture is not ever within any human grasp. But this brings in a fatal relativism. Whether such relativity is seen as playful and open-ended, or rather, as the final collapse of all value and all meaning, the impossibility of the commitment and risk of passion, is a matter of debate..
Each extreme, Modernism and Post-Modernism, is misleading. In Modernism, the earlier absolutism of God, itself false, is assumed by humanity; especially in regard to humanity’s capacity to unlock all the conundrums of itself and nature.. But all that means is the falsity of absolutism passes from God to humanity. Not surprisingly, with all due deference to Freud, Darwin, Marx, et al, the human perspective has made no better a success of explaining everything than when God was deployed as [deus ex machina] explanation for everything. But God is not absolutism, and humanity only becomes a false ‘god’ by assuming the mantle of absolutism.
If we have no business with absolutism, then neither do we need to get caught up in relativism..
Never the less, a more interesting way to look at what Post-Modernism is seeking to do is possible. Kevin Vanhoozer regards Post-Modernism as a kind of apophaticism, a way of negation, necessary to get rid of all the ‘idols’ that we create with our positive, and groundless, confident assertions. In short, Post-Modernism smashes the West’s most treasured idols, especially the idols of secular-humanism, and positivist-scientific materialism.
He speaks of Post-Modernism as preparing the way for ‘Messianic’ religion=
“One candidate for ‘most repressed other’ in modernity is religion. [The grand schemes of modernism, says post-modernism, eliminated a host of ‘others’ that it could not force into their totalizing structures.] ..a strident secularism has kept religion out of the public square. ..Postmoderns have played Hamlet to modernity’s Horatio, insisting: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth.. than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ [Hamlet, Act 1, v]. Postmoderns [point] not only in the direction of the other, but also toward the ‘beyond.’ ..In particular, the postmodern condition has enabled the recovery of two neglected forms of religious discourse – the prophetic and the mystical – that seek, in different ways, to invoke the beyond: justice, the gift” [ibid, pp 16-17].
The Prophetic call for Justice is the Daemonic, whilst the Mystical fountainhead of the Gift is Eros. Somehow, Derrida stumbled on the Left and Right Arms of God!
“Even Derrida, in his later work, has begun to speak of something that is ‘beyond’ deconstruction. Better: deconstructive analysis ‘is undertaken in the name of something, something affirmatively un-deconstructable’ [p 128, ‘Deconstruction in a Nutshell’, JD Caputo, 1997]. This something, it turns out, is ‘justice.’ Everything depends, however, on his distinction between justice and law. ‘Law’ refers to the formulas and structures that make up some judicial system. The law is deconstructable because it is constructed in the first place, historically instituted and constituted. In short, law is always ‘situated’ and hence prone to partiality. One deconstructs the law in the name of a justice to come, a justice beyond present [merely] ‘human’ formulations. ..This is not to say that Derrida knows exactly what justice looks like. Indeed, justice.. is the impossible, in the sense that it is incalculable on the basis of factors that are already present. Nevertheless, deconstruction is the desire that justice is ‘to come.’
Another religious theme ..is that of the gift. For Derrida, the gift is as ‘impossible’ as justice. As soon as we give something to someone, we put that person in our debt, thus taking, not giving. The gift disappears in a web of calculation, interest, and measure. Such is the [problem] of the gift, according to Derrida. It cannot be given without creating an economy – a system of calculation and exchange – of debt and gratitude. ‘It is reintroduced into the circle of an exchange and destroyed as a gift.’ Can a gift be given in modern societies ruled by various forms of exchange? ..social convention work[s] with a logic of equivalence; however, the true gift is always extravagant, exceeding what is strictly required. ..Only an ‘expenditure without reserve’, a giving that expects no reciprocity, a reciprocity that forgets a gift has been given, would.. measure up to Derrida’s requirements for a true gift” [ibid, p 17].
Vanhoozer concludes= “Neither justice nor the gift is, strictly speaking, of this world; yet both are that for which postmoderns hope” [ibid, p 18].
Not ‘of’ the world, but ‘in’ the world.. Coming from beyond but entering into, and radically changing, this world.
Vanhoozer [ibid, p 18] argues for a parallel between the gift and sacrifice=
“Abraham had to sacrifice his son, to give Isaac to God, without expecting anything back. Derrida writes that ‘God decides to give back, to give back life, to give back the beloved son, once he is assured that a gift outside of any economy, the gift of death.. has been accomplished without any hope of exchange, reward, circulation, or communication’ [p 96, Derrida, ‘The Gift of Death’, 1995]. Being responsible to the other involves a kind of death to self. Again, there are no rules for calculating responsibility, because I, and the other, and the situation are not anonymous variables in a moral equation but particular persons in singular situations. There are no logarithms for determining one’s obligations. ‘Every other is wholly other.’ This Derridean maxim.. closes the gap between the ethical and the religious.”
Now it gets even more interesting. For Derrida resuscitates the Messianic as where Justice and the Gift, and the Sacrifice, are leading. The Messianic, far from being an outdated reject from a blind and moribund religious past, is what comes after both Modernism and Post-Modernism have had their day..
Vanhoozer [ibid, p 18] concludes=
“Derrida’s affirmation of the ‘impossibility’ of Justice, and the Gift, is a gesture not of nihilistic despair but rather of faith: the desire for something other than what obtains in the present world order. Some such expectation of ‘the other to come’ is inscribed in the very structure of deconstruction and that gives it its ‘messianic turn’ [p 159, Caputo, ibid]. Postmodernity abolishes conceptual idolatry.. in order to make room for faith.”
This is quite extraordinary coming from Derrida, but then ‘the Holy Spirit blows where he wills’.. As Christ said to Peter, only the Spirit reveals to people what the Messianic is, and who the Messiah is.
Derrida is an unlikely candidate for Spirit-visitation, but that is the whole point about the Messianic Age to Come which he foresees in his deconstructive hammering of the idols of Western culture, in effect, of every culture influenced by the bourgeois ‘god’ of the West. There is no justice, there is no gift, now, but these once were in the old religion – especially in Shamanism but also in early Christianity — and these will be in the religion to come. The coming Messianic religion felt and intuited prophetically by Derrida will be, according to all the major Jewish prophets who describe it, ‘religionless.’ Derrida is in a peculiar way the exact kind of prophecy we can look forward to in the future. No trappings of religion, no religious organization, little religious creedal belief, but something more dynamic, and real, replacing all these= the ’spirit’ and ‘truth’ of things such as Justice and Gift. In effect, what Derrida calls the coming messianic religion, or ‘the turn to the messianic’, is in spirit and in truth another statement of how Ezekiel describes the Second Covenant when there will be no more churches, no more bibles, no more formalized beliefs, because the spirit and truth of the divine revelation will dwell in the human heart. In the coming Messianic Age, every human heart will know God directly.
This is what Derrida is anticipating. Deconstruction clears the way for this.
Not surprisingly, Derrida distinguishes the ‘Messianic’ from the belief that a particular Messiah has already come. The latter has not happened for Derrida, as it has not for many Jews. But even here there is more hidden, latent, commonality between Derrida and people for whom the Mashiach has come in Yeshua than might seem to be the case.
For, the dynamism of the Second Covenant brought by the Messiah has not really got going yet. This could mean Yeshua was not the Mashiach. It could mean those calling themselves ‘Christians’ – followers of the Messiah – have not risen to the call of the Messianic Spirit. Or, there is a third possibility. Laying the foundations among Christians for the Second Covenant has taken ‘longer than expected’, but is still on schedule. It is still coming, as a ‘non religious’ person like Derrida smells on the wind.
Thus, Derrida’s hope in, and faith toward, the Messianic is perfectly compatible with either the Jewish stance that we still await the Messiah, or the Christian stance that the Messiah has indeed already come. For the simple fact is, we still await the Messianic Age. We await the prophetic and justice, we await the mystical and the gift. We await the end of what the lack of justice, and the lack of the gift, engender in human history.
Either way, Jewish or Christian, Vanhoozer’s commentary on the ‘Messianic’ still holds=
“The messianic is a structure of experience, apparently universal, that opens us to an unknown future. The faith in deconstruction is ‘through and through a messianic affirmation of the coming of the impossible’ [p 197, Caputo, ibid]. The messianic is the unforeseeable, the beyond that is always desired but never [yet] attained. ..the post-modern condition is essentially, that is, structurally, messianic: constitutionally open to the coming of the other and the different. Faith, not reason – faith in a religionless, viz messianic, religion – is thus endemic to the postmodern condition” [ibid, p 18].
The Messiah foretold by the Jews ushers in the Mystical Gift of Eros in a new way, brings the Prophetic Fire of Justice in a final way, and ends religion.
Religionless religion, and the odd pot pouri of religionless religious people, is on the rise, and quite widespread in the wake of post-modernist undermining. We do not want to go back to either the tyranny of God or the tyranny of secularism and science when they are set up as a tin-pot ‘god’ of the same ilk, and bringing the same error of non humility, non risk taking, and non passion= no leap of faith. A plague on both houses..
What most people do not realize is that the dynamic movement, the radical change, towards religionless religion, the religion Yeshua described as ‘in spirit and in truth’, is being ‘pushed’ by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Movement, the Spirit of Change, the Spirit of Mystery and Paradox that works out in our living of it, not in what we think.
What Derrida and many others do not realize is that this shift going on, this awaiting of Messianic Realities, is a shift from Logos to Spirit.
The West, in particular, has always been too much Logos, too little Spirit. But the clash between Eastern and Western Christians is really a clash between two levels of the Logos. The East is rooted in the mystical and cosmic Logos; the West is oriented toward a degeneration of Logos into mere ‘logic’ [thus puritanism, rationalism, emotionalism]. But neither East nor West has really yet embraced the Spirit of God, the Ruach. Both East and West have struggled with the sacred pattern of the Logos, in different ways at different levels, and neither has really tasted, much less drunk deep from, the cup of the Spirit handed to Yeshua in his dramatic last days. The Holy Spirit who is patternless in changing history, communities, persons, is yet to come to Christians in anything approaching the Messianic fullness of the Second Covenant.
None the less, the future anticipated — after the hammer of deconstruction is finished smashing all the idols – by people like Derrida is the future brought by the Spirit.
We have overcooked Logos, and undercooked the Spirit.
Maybe it had to happen like that, to protect us from ‘spiritual’ errors all too easy to be fooled into when there are no handrails, no foundations, no discernments.. But the Bible tells us, ‘do not quench the Spirit.’
Only in the coming of the Messianic, only in the Messianic future, will we really experience, taste, be indwelt by, the Spirit of God, and this will be so different, all we can do now is have poetic hints, poetic intimations, inarticulate inner groanings.
It is Impossible. But that is what makes it possible. For only God can do it, through the Spirit, and with our participation.
You see the first signs of this even now. No, not among liberals, not among conservative fundamentalist-evangelicals; but in people ostensibly in religion yet religionless in it, and in people ostensibly not in religion but very religious in their religionless stance. These are all Third Way people, people of a character not revealed yet, because they remain ‘hid with Christ’ until the Messianic Spirit comes universally with real power. These people will be looser in form, but stricter in essence= they will exemplify Bob Dylan’s ‘to live outside the law, you must be honest.’
It is not guaranteed, it could fail. Yet faith is the leap of passion into the unknown, and that is trusting in the Spirit.
We all cry, in the heart, Spirit come!
And something nascent in the heart senses a change. The Spirit is coming.