Jaques Derrida’s Religon & Thomas Merton’s Atheism: Love is a Constant Spinning
Jaques Derrida and Thomas Merton have much in common, which is interesting because, on the face of it, they shouldn’t. One was a destabilizing atheist philosopher, while the other was an activist and Benedictine monk. The only way prevailing habits of mind are able to relate two men bearing labels such as these tends to be by imagining them behind their respective podiums, ready for another sensational debate (much like the “creation debate” I recently wrote about). “Prevailing habits of mind,” however, have much to learn from these two figures, but it’s not going to happen from a podium.
Derrida and Merton through the Eyes of a Young Evangelical
I was among the evangelicals when I awoke to explicitly religious thought, and, like every community, there was a certain set of other groups that we were led to view as enemies. Among them were “postmodern philosophers,” the chief of whom was Jaques Derrida. The reason we worried about him was simple: Derrida’s deconstruction took away everything we possessed by faith via an endlessly destabilizing approach to truth. Rather than engage him, we just shook our heads. Whatever he was up to didn’t make any sense. He struck us as more pathetic and confused than dangerous. Normal atheists made sense. We lined up behind the mic to debate them. Derrida was a different kind of enemy, one we didn’t understand. Looking back, I think he would enjoy that he impressed upon us a feeling of “not understanding.”
I also remember hearing the name Thomas Merton during those years. Merton was not someone that we personally read; rather, he was someone read by some of the spiritual writers we read. We learned of him as a name reverently dropped from their lips. Something to do with “seven stories” and a mountain. In any case, it would have never occurred to me then that he and Derrida would have anything at all in common, especially something so deep as the heart of their religiosity.
The “Faith” of Deconstruction
and the “Atheism” of Faith
The other morning a friend of mine, Sara Lynn Wilhelm Garbers, drew my attention to a wonderful interview with John D. Caputo in the New York Times by Gary Gutting. Caputo is a “postmodern philosopher” and Derrida scholar. The interview was very engaging, as Gutting continually pressed Caputo with the sort of questions that an informed evangelical might ask.
In turn, Caputo did his best to show that the truth deconstruction is after is deeper than anything our settled concepts can grasp. For deconstruction, truth is always a moving target. As such, what Caputo calls Derrida’s “religion without religion” is likewise intended to be a dynamic idea rather than a settled label. The paradoxical form of this phrase immediately deconstructs itself. Whatever “yes” is stated is immediately followed by a “no.” If you try to resolve “religion without religion” into religion—“ah! So Derrida really is religious!”—then the “without religion” rushes in with its “not so fast!” The same operation occurs from the other direction if the phrase is resolved into “atheism.” Its paradoxical form is always drawing us in, but forcing open our conceptions. The goal of this operation is to foster an endless attention that is at all times actively disrupting our complacency or pretension.
A Tillichian Aside
As an aside, I can’t help but mention that this paradoxical operation is exactly that which lies at the heart of Paul Tillich’s theological rationality (something Caputo also rightly notes in the interview). Robert Sharlemann put the point well when he argued that, in Tillich’s thought, “the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.“
Back to Derrida and Merton
But we have a hard time with this notion since we can’t “do anything with it.” One wants to stop attending, grab a hold of something, and get to work. But this endless spinning doesn’t seem to give us anything but negativity. To this point Gutting asked,
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?
The phrase “just ‘negative theology’” is telling, but the concern behind the phrase is understandable. In response Caputo does his best to describe the elusive positivity that necessitates the negativity.
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.”
Here we have the positivity that deconstruction presupposes. Deconstruction seeks the yes by way of the no. “The authentic,” the “really real” emerges, though is never grasped as a possession, by way of a constant “spinning,” a dismantling of the adequacy of our settled approach to it.
With that in mind, let us now turn to the words of Thomas Merton. Again we will see the negativity and underlying positivity in his words.
The true solutions are not those which we force upon life in accordance with our theories, but those which life itself provides for those who dispose themselves to receive the truth. Consequently our task is to disassociate ourselves from all who have theories which promise clear-cut and infallible solutions, and to mistrust all such theories, not in a spirit of negativism and defeat, but rather trusting life itself, and nature, and if you will permit me, God above all. “Letter to an Innocent Bystander”, in Raids on the Unspeakable, 61.
Merton calls this underlying positivity “God,” but it cannot be stressed strongly enough, that, for Merton, “God” is not the settled answer to the question. Merton is rightfully called an atheist to the extent that theism is construed as a settling of the question of existence with the answer “God.” God is just as much the positing of the question as the answer (a point I have tried to make clear in a previous post). This is integral to his reasons for arguing that “our task” is standing against any who presume to have settled answers. Like Caputo’s stress on the “yes” behind deconstruction, Merton also urges that the critical posture of the activist is not birthed from mere “negativity,” but from trust in the ongoing rationality that constitutes our very being. A rationality that, viewed from one angle, can never be spoken, and yet, viewed from another, underlies all speech. The “spinning” never ends, but it can be entered into faithfully, in hope, and in love.
Love Is a Constant Spinning
A few years ago in a PhD seminar, Dr. Walter Sundberg remarked to me that Paul Tillich’s book “Dynamics of Faith” is a master work of endless spinning. He keeps talking about faith, and you want to just grab him, give him a good shake and ask him, “Faith in what?” But the spinning never ends. Tillich never “lands.” I think that’s about right. (I take up this point in more detail in a later post.)
For both Derrida and Merton the situation is similar. A distrust of human pretension and complacency is the proper response to the encounter with a truth that emerges as gift rather than possession (a place we might “land”). God’s “yes” implies a “no” to any and all complacent or pretentious human attempts to claim truth solely for its own deployment. To be among “those disposed to receive it” we must live in attention, ever awaiting truth as gift. For my part, it has indeed been a gift to see at least one way that that these two ostensibly “ancient enemies” have a bit more in common than I’d once been led to believe.