Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"We Write with Both Hands"

The benefit of sitting in a doctor's examining room during finals week (a special time of year in the life of a teacher, I assure you!)(and nothing serious; just scheduling an exam I should have at this time in life's journey), the benefit, as I was saying, is that you get to read stuff like this:

For the death of God certainly means the dying off not only of ontotheology and of classical metaphysical theology but also of this notion of a supervening mystical unity conceived as the fulfillment or the crowning of metaphysical theology. The death of God entails the deconstruction not only of the ousia of classical metaphysics but also the hyperousios of Neoplatonic mysticism. The value of the notion of the death of God is that is gives a provocative name to an ancient and venerable tradition, the ongoing work of the critique of idols, one of which is certainly the idol of some naked prelinguistic ineffable given, which is pretty much what the hyperousios comes down to in classical mysticism. Mystics often claim to speak from within the heart of God, with a kind of absolute knowledge or absolute point of view. I value mysticism as an expression of our nonknowing, but my skepticism has to do with reaching this absolute point of view. One important thing we mean by the death of God is the death of the absolute center, of inhabiting an absolute point of view. That's the point of Derrida's critique of negative theology--which he calls hyperousiology--which is also why deconstruction is not negative theology.
That is John Caputo, from an interview titled "The Power of the Powerless," in a book I just found on my shelf, published in 2007, titled After the Death of God (ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins, New York: Columbia University Press 2007). I've read Caputo's book length treatment of Derrida and religion, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, so I must have absorbed the idea of the power of powerlessness from him as well as from Derrida (there is indeed nothing new under the sun! Bah! And here I thought I'd finally been almost original! Back to the drawing board!). This new book is edited, and introduced by, Jeffrey Robbins, who makes more than one interesting point in his introduction about the state of theology today. This, for example, should sound familiar to participants in any discussion of religion on the Internet:

...[T]he most prominent Enlightenment philosopher of them all, Immanuel Kant, defined the very project of Enlightenment by this most fundamental of all modern assumptions when he wrote that Enlightenment is the release from all forms self-incurred tutelage. What he had in mind, in addition to various forms of political authoritarianism, was the religious authoritarianism and dogmatism that for centuries had discouraged critical scientific inquiry. According to Kant, the enlightened subject would be one who could think for himself, and one in whom religion might still play a part, but only in the sphere of private morality.
How many fruitless arguments about religion have I engaged in with people repeating, in watered down form, this fundamentally 18th century idea, all the while imagining they are on the cutting edge of 21st century thought? Of course, that's usually a discussion with people who've never heard of Soren Kierkegaard or Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Bonhoeffer posed [the] possibility of a religionless Christianity while living out the final days of his life in a prison cell, before his martyrdom for his involvement in an assassination plot against Hitler. As such, his words had an added moral credibility, especially by those like the death of God theologians who were troubled by the moral ineptitude, if not outright complicity, of the church. For Bonhoeffer, this effort at purging Christianity of the comforts of religion would be a risky faith without assurances, one that severs the ties between Christ's call to discipleship and Christianity's association with the offices of power and the religious identification with the cultural trappings of civilization...

[Soren] Kierkegaard, like Bonhoeffer and the death of God theologians who followed, gave voice to the new anti-institutional, individualized Christian faith that stood in opposition to the easy alliance between religion and society. It was a radical faith purged of any vestige of authoritarianism and triumphalism that was unafraid to call into question the very meaning and purpose of the church both by being willing to admit the failure of its own tradition and by seeing the great success of the state churches as their great failure. In other words, for Kierkegaard, the apparent Christianization of culture and politics made it virtually impossible to live up to the radical existential demands of a truly biblical faith.
If you listen carefully, you can hear Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard in what Caputo says:

...[O]n the one hand, serious philosophy and theology involve a work of ceaseless critique of our capacity to deceive ourselves. They reminds us that everyone is on the same footing, that no one enjoys privileged access. This has a salutary ethical ethical and political import because it shows us that we're all in this together and nobody is hardwired up to the Secret. That produces a desirable ethical, political, and religious effect--an egalitarian effect.

But I think that philosophical and theological thinking have to be--beyond critique and uncertainty--affirmative. If all there is to thinking is critique and delimitation, skepticism and doubt, then it will not inspire us. It will simply be disruptive and negative. So I think that philosophy is always looking for a way to articulate what we love, what we desire, what drives us. That is the Augustinian side of my work, which is emblematized by what Augustine calls at the beginning of the Confessions the cor inquietum--the restless heart. We write with both hands. Radical critique and delimitation is the left hand, but the right hand is the affirmation of something that we desire with a desire beyond desire, which is the sum and substance of my argument in Prayers and Tears, which conceives of praying and weeping in a deeply affirmative way. Something can be affirmative--we can say yest to it, for that is what we love--without being positive. That is to say, we may lack a positive formula for what we affirm. Whenever someone erects a positive content, making our affirmation into a determinate object, that can always be deconstructed. Whatever is constructed can be deconstructed, otherwise it is a menace or an idol. But the affirmation itself is irreducible. So I would say philosophy--philosophical and theological thinking, really any kind of thinking at all--has to be driven by a radically affirmative energy, by a desire for what is undeconstructable.
Quite a bit to digest; but I detect Kierkegaard's "Concept of Irony" there, too. Socrates, as Kierkegaard showed, was intent on what we would now call deconstruction of whatever is constructed; but, as Kierkegaard also showed, Socrates was content to stop there, and to deny the validity of the undeconstructable. Upon that premise, if you want to boil it down to one thing, rests the entire post-modern enterprise. And yet that premise is not truth, either.

Searching for an earlier post, I inadvertently gathered this collection of posts, all items deserving of further discussion and more careful consideration. I'm leaving them here as a marker, or maybe a springboard. I just know I don't want to lose them soon.


  1. Have run across your blog simply by typing into Google the word 'hyperousiology.' It's fascinating. I'm an M.Div. student at NNU, and am Catholic. We're currently reading Caputo's 'The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida.' I don't understand much about it having read the intro and one chapter. However, you mentioned in this post or elsewhere on your blog that Derrida is critiquing apophatic theology. Am I understanding that correctly?

  2. Here's the quote from above: "That's the point of Derrida's critique of negative theology--which he calls hyperousiology--which is also why deconstruction is not negative theology."

  3. Actually, that line is from Caputo, from an interview in the book referenced in the post above.