I have a question concerning the role of religion in modern thought. I am having trouble
understanding the stance of Jacques Derrida on religion but more importantly, how his stance
compared to the treatment 'religion' got in modern academic thought during and just prior to the
publication of his work.
All the lefty academics of universities in America and Britain right up to the time of Gorbychev and the
Fall of the Berlin Wall, thought of religion as basically a lack of 'consciousness'. With the collapse of
Communism and Socialism as intellectual fashions the brown leather jacketed brigade were left
looking pretty silly. About this time Derrida started getting explicit about religion. Read Gayatri
Spivak's influential and paradigmatic Introduction to her translation of Of Grammatology.There she
claims how, thanks to Derrida and Deconstruction, any thought which in any way may be regarded as
even faintly 'religious' is to be spurned as in need of deconstruction, and once deconstructed is
revealed as meaningless anyway.
Derrida rose to prominence in deeply Catholic France. He was a Jew from underprivileged French
North Africa. His early thought is influenced by Husserl (another philosophical Jew) and Heidegger (a
thinker in the tradition of Hegel who saw philosophy addressing the same Sacheas religion,
specifically, theology). Derrida's voice in those early works, Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference,
The Margins of Philosophyis already distinctively his own; and the whole timbre of his thought is
already marked by his mentor Levinas and another Jew from North Africa, Edmond Jabes. Given his
background and intellectual context it was natural that Derrida would teach and write about ethics,
death and the relation of philosophy to theology sooner or later. Spivak and all that she represents
(secularized 'academic discourse' masquerading as philosophy according to the fashion of the day)
misinterpreted Derrida and misrepresented him. Derrida did not disturb them in their fools paradise.
Wise of him.
But given that Derrida now writes about religious things (death, ethics, theology etc) and has defined
deconstruction as an ethical activity according to old fashioned religious recipes for ethics, what is his
actual stance?Derrideans are split between those who think of him as a religious writer (Handelman,
Caputo) and those who don't (Culler, Bennington). There is a definitive quote from Derrida about his
stance with regard to religion (i.e. as he puts it, being mystical). It is too long to type out so see for
yourself at http://www.hydra.umn.edu/and click Derrida. He says the religious interpreters of him are
'wrong', whether in the US or Germany, and about his spiritual 'Jewishness'. He is a rationalist in the
Cartesian tradition. Bennington is probably the one who knows Derrida's own stance on religion best
and there isn't one as such. As Plato's Eleatic Stranger said, "the Sophist loves to hide".
Matthew Del Nevo