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Derrida is not a theologian

January 31, 2010 1 comment

Jacques Derrida is not a theologian, at least not a Christian one.  Or if he is a Christian theologian, he is so only to the extent that virtually any thinker in the Western world embraces this vocation simply by speaking the residual languages of Latin Christendom.  But the point is this: if one wants to know what it means to be Christian, look to Christ, not Derrida.  Read the gospels, not Acts of Religion.

And yet, Derrida is a thinker.  There ought to be real theological respect for his perceptive and critical mind.  However, this does not mean unquestioning obedience to his every word, as though he were a definitive source (I’m thinking, here, of Caputo).  Granted, one could look to Derrida as a figure of the prophetic, messianic, and apophatic dimensions of Judeo-Christian tradition.  Like Kierkegaard, he is attentive to the singular obligations which emanate from the other; like Kant, his reflections take place within the horizon of a promise; like Pseudo-Dionysius, he pursues thought to places or non-places beyond being.  But tracking Derrida along these lines is interesting theologically only to the extent that one recognizes the idiosyncratic and atheological ways in which he reconfigures them for use in secular culture.

But what seems more fruitful than Derrida’s positive, secular doublets (which would have to be retheologized anyway, in any finally theological analysis), is the critical light which Derrida shines on a globalizing Christian culture, which, from my perspective, could stand to be a little more self-critical.  For example, Derrida’s contention against Jean-Luc Marion that the Areopagite has not altogether left metaphysics (and the political structures which it supports) behind is something to consider.

Thus, although he is not a theologian, I like Derrida, and I like reading him, and this is why: because, as he himself suggests, the other can teach us important things about ourselves.

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