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Derrida on the madness of our time

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By Simon Glendinning


In 1994 Jacques Derrida participated in a seminar in Capri under the title “Religion”. Derrida himself thought “religion” might be a good word, perhaps the best word for thinking about our time, our “today”. It belongs, Derrida suggested, to the “absolute anachrony” of our time. Religion? Isn’t it that old thing that we moderns had thought had gone away, the thing that really does not belong in our time? And yet, so it seems, it is still alive and well.

Alive and well in a modern world increasingly marked by the death of God. How could this be?

A revival of religion is particularly surprising, perhaps even shocking, for those who thought it was all over for religion, for those who “believed naively that an alternative opposed religion”. This alternative would be the very heart of Europe’s modernity: “reason, Enlightenment, science, criticism (Marxist criticisms, Nietzschean genealogy, Freudian psychoanalysis)”. What is modernity if it is not an alternative opposed to religion, a movement in history destined to put an end to religion?

Derrida’s contribution to the seminar attempted to re-think this old “secularisation thesis”. He attempted to outline “an entirely different schema”, one which would be up to thinking the meaning and significance of a return of religion in our time, and capable of making sense of the new “fundamentalisms” that are, he suggested, “at work in all religions” today. And here, in 1994, Derrida drew special attention to what he called “Islamism”, carefully disassociating it from Islam: Islamism is not to be confused with Islam – but is always liable to be confused with it since it “operates in [its] name”.

Before making further steps Derrida noted that the group of philosophers he was in discussion with at the Capri seminar might themselves share a commitment thought to be opposed to religion: “an unreserved taste, if not an unconditional preference, for what in politics, is called republican democracy as a universalizable model.”

This taste or preference in politics is itself inseparable from “a commitment…to the enlightened virtue of public space. [A uniquely European achievement which consists in] emancipating [public space] from all external power (non-lay, non-secular), for example from religious dogmatism, orthodoxy or authority.” And hence, this commitment – the commitment to making decisions without recourse to religious revelation or religious authority – might itself seem to be part of the “modernity” that the revival of religion would seem to challenge.

But Derrida refused to present this commitment as one belonging to “an enemy of religion”. It does not have to be understood as a commitment opposed to religion. In fact, and surely to the surprise of many believers and non-believers alike, he argued for seeing how the preference for republican political secularity is essentially connected to a thesis in Kant on the relation between morality – what it means to make decisions and conduct oneself morally as a human being – and, precisely, religion. A link that will make this European public space both secular and (specifically) Christian.

secular sacred

It is a thesis in Kant that Derrida attempted to use as an astonishing interpretive key to the question of religion and the religious revival today, a key also to the character of radicalised fundamentalisms which, in 1994, he already saw developing in the geo-political relations between this European Christianity and the other great monotheisms, Judaism and Islam.

The Kantian thesis could not be more simple, but Derrida asks us to “measure without flinching” the implications of it. If we follow Kant we will have to accept that Christian revelation teaches us something essential about the very idea of morality: “in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as though God did not exist or no longer concerned himself with our salvation.” The crucial point here is that decisions on right conduct should not be made on the basis of any assumption that, by acting in a certain way, we are doing God’s will. The Christian is thus the one who “no longer turns towards God at the moment of acting in good faith”. In short, the good Christian, the Christian acting in good faith, is precisely the one who must decide in a fundamentally secular way. And so Derrida asked, regarding Kant’s thesis, “is it not also, at the core of its content, Nietzsche’s thesis”: that God is dead?

Derrida does not understate it: this thesis – the thesis that Christians are those who are called to endure the death of God in the world – tells us “something about the history of the world – nothing less.”

“Is this not another way of saying that Christianity can only answer to its moral calling and morality, to its Christian calling, if it endures in this world, in phenomenal history, the death of God, well beyond the figures of the Passion?… Judaism and Islam would thus be perhaps the last two monotheisms to revolt against everything that, in the Christianising of our world, signifies the death of God, two non-pagan monotheisms that do not accept death any more than multiplicity in God (the Passion, the Trinity etc), two monotheisms still alien enough at the heart of Greco-Christian, Pagano-Christian Europe that signifies the death of God, by recalling at all costs that “monotheism” signifies no less faith in the One, and in the living One, than belief in a single God.”

And what is the effect of this conflict among the monothesisms? With the Christianising of our world – globalization as “globalatinization” as Derrida put it – we are beginning to see nothing less than “an infinite spiral of outbidding, a maddening instability” in the dimension of revolt and mutual strangeness between these religions of the book. This scene is, Derrida suggests, the focal point of “the madness of our time”.

Simon Glendinning is a Reader in European Philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the author of Derrida: A Very Short Introduction.

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