Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology

By Graham Ward

Cambridge University Press, 258 pages, $54.95

The Gift of Death

By Jacques Derrida, Translated by David Willis

University of Chicago Press, 115 pages, $18.95

Though Jacques Derrida is perhaps France’s best-known living philosopher, his presence has always been disturbing”even to French philosophers. He not only blurs the boundaries between literature and philosophy and unveils the ambiguous metaphors that thinkers from Plato to Heidegger had assumed to lay down as basic concepts, but his reading of these metaphors claims to find in Western philosophy a crypto-theology. His analyses regularly uncover presuppositions about foundations and primacies, points of origin and authoritative presences that correspond to nothing other than a Supreme Being, however veiled or unapproachable.

Nietzsche may have been the first to point down this road when he exclaimed, “Alas, I fear we still believe in God because we still believe in grammar””where grammar stands for the belief in a simple correspondence between language and the world it represents. When Derrida says in Of Grammatology that “the age of the sign is theological,” he means us to understand that all philosophical reflection on language strives to stabilize meaning and anchor it in principles that are immune to critique: nature , ideas , and history are simply passwords for an effort”called “logocentrism” by postmodernists”that Derrida claims is as relentless as it is futile. Graham Ward observes in his intriguing study of the philosopher Derrida and perhaps the twentieth century’s most important Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, “In drawing our attention to the onto-theological nature of all discourse”however secular its intention, it appeals continually to a metaphysic of presence”Derrida increasingly makes it difficult for himself to locate the possibility for a purely nontheological discourse.” Ward probably has in mind Barth’s observation in Church Dogmatics : “Not all man’s language is language about God. Perhaps it really might and ought to be. In principle we can give no reason for it being otherwise.”

Because some appeal to transcendence is both a condition and an effect of language for Derrida, theologians have taken considerable interest in his work”and he has begun to take considerable interest in theology, with his lengthy meditations on the Apocalypse, his extended debates with the religious philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the theologian Jean-Luc Marion, and his reflections on secrecy and sacrifice in his recently translated work, The Gift of Death .

Derrida has never had much quarrel with theology, whose recourse to divine authority is explicit, irreducible, and not capable of being deconstructed. His chief concern has been instead with philosophy’s internal quarrel with its own rational, nontheological vocation. Internal difference”the way in which an entity, an institution, or a text, is at odds with itself”Derrida labels differance . Ward rightly dwells on the term (though perhaps taking insufficient trouble to help his readers understand it), for it is the philosopher’s most notorious neologism, his little joke on the philosophical tradition that awards primacy to ideas over symbols, speech over writing, presences over representations, and originals over copies. Derrida endeavors to make us see things just the other way around, to force us to be counterintuitive.

Structuralist language theory may give the clearest example of what he is after. The modern linguist Ferdinand de Saussure has argued that a linguistic sign is a “form and not a substance,” its meaning only “relative, oppositive, negative.” The idea of direct reference is suspect, for any linguistic sign such as a word means nothing in itself, but only what all the other words do not. In the dynamic interplay of differences, meaning emerges as something vestigial, rather than substantial. Because words signify only in terms of the way they differ from each other (cat/hat or cat/dog), the alphabetic letter becomes an ironically apt metaphor of the sign”for no one imagines that a letter means anything apart from its difference and combination with other letters. Derrida called his critique of philosophy a “grammatology,” not in reference to grammar, but as a play on gramme , which refers to an arbitrary mark, an insignificant letter, the trace of a sign. Meaning is a network of traces, like a text; there is no arch-trace, no place in which language finds its own ground.

To pursue his analysis of Derrida and Barth, Ward focuses on this instability of meaning. It is, he acknowledges, a complex and (for the reader) onerous “negotiation.” There is differance as well difference between Derrida and Barth, but Barth offers opportunities for a Derridean reading because of the paradoxes that propel his thought: the Word of God is the absolute Truth, but as a consequence, human words are irremediably inadequate to the task of representing it. Revelation, he states typically, is the “Truth unveiling itself in its veiledness.” For Barth, “God is known by God and by God alone,” but this unalterable fact is not a warrant for silence or complacency: “The veracity of God in His revelation and the veracity of His revelation establishes the veracity of the claim laid upon us to think of Him and speak of Him.”

Barth held no love for philosophy. “In practice,” he wrote, “ philosophia christiana has never yet taken shape: if it was philosophia , it was not christiana ; if it was christiana it was not philosophia .” Indeed, he is unimpressed with any profane knowledge; alienated from the Word of God, all history and science are ashes and dust, as he repeatedly states. He certainly differs from Derrida in asserting the divine origin of language”but then, everything except our sinful disobedience to the Truth has a divine origin. His thought, we might say, is exultantly “logocentric”: “The fact of the Word of God in no respect nor yet in the very slightest degree receives its worth and validity from a presupposition which we apply to it; its truth for us, like its truth in itself, is based purely upon itself . . . . Men can know the Word of God because and so far as God wills that they should know it.” We only accede to such Truth by the faith”which “is a miracle or it is not faith””that God’s grace bestows on us. Knowledge is a function of acknowledgment”of obedience and sacrifice. Even theology, if it attempts to be systematically coherent, becomes mere “prattle.”

Barth is as convinced of God’s Truth as he is of our inability to comprehend it. “God’s hiddenness tells us that God does not belong to the object which we can always subjugate to the process of our viewing, conceiving, and expressing and therefore our spiritual oversight and control . . . . God is inapprehensible.” It is Barth’s prolonged and thematic reservations about theological language that make him a confederate to Derrida’s critique of linguistic representation. For Barth there is an incommensurability with divine transcendence; for Derrida, the deficiency is immanent to language. But for both thinkers, representation is always indirect and circuitous”“parabolic,” as Barth called it. As Ward writes, “Barth’s theological discourse is understood as a rhetorical strategy presenting both the need to do and the impossibility of doing theology. This is exactly the form, method, and content of Derrida’s philosophical discourse, which presents the inability and the inescapable burden of doing philosophy.” It is in light of this that Ward can argue that, though they form no postmodern synthesis, nonetheless, “Derrida has provided Karl Barth’s theory of language with a philosophical supplement [and] Barth provides Derrida’s economy of differance with a theological supplement.”

Derrida’s new The Gift of Death is not examined by Ward, but it does not betray anything that would challenge further correlation with Barth. Derrida’s point of departure (and fleeting point of return) is Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History by Jan Patocka, a Czech spokesman for human rights who died after hours of Communist police interrogation in 1977. In the thematic meandering that seems to have become a trait of recent work by Derrida, he elaborates the paradox of secrecy as it concerns Abraham’s absolute submission to God’s apparently sacrificial will. The result is a “paradoxology,” as he calls it, that might serve to reinforce Ward’s argument. Derrida is led to define “the history of God and of the name of God as the history of secrecy,” in a way that recalls the Barthean reflection on the unveiling of God’s veiledness. Derrida wants to get us to “think of God and of the name of God without . . . idolatrous stereotyping and representation,” an aim that informs his provocative dialogue with Jean-Luc Marion as well. In his iconoclastic attention to “this internal critique of Christianity that is at the same time evangelical and heretical,” he can remind us of Barth’s very Kierkegaardian ambivalence towards all that we name church and religion.

Derrida’s meditation on Abraham includes a reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling that meshes well with Barth’s ideas on faith, which is not surprising when we recall that Barth himself derived his ideas as much from Kierkegaard as from Luther and Calvin. Derrida’s statement”“Our faith is not assured, because faith can never be, it must never be a certainty. We share with Abraham what cannot be shared, a secret we know nothing about, neither him nor us””is one that might well have come from Barth, notwithstanding the fact that Barth eloquently claims a faith that for Derrida remains a topic of the speculation that Barth customarily derided. On this topic of faith, however, Derrida remains less nuanced than Barth. He speaks of “the irreducible experience of belief,” where Barth argues that we need faith in our faith”suggesting, as Ward might put it, the requirement of a kind of Derridean supplement for our faith to take hold of itself.

If anything like that is the case, we are led to ask whether theology”like Derrida’s reading of metaphysics”is only a vast tautology, as it seems to many a profane intelligence, and as Barth himself anxiously apprehends in the second volume of Church Dogmatics . “God is God,” he insists at the beginning of his commentary on Paul, which he later glosses by saying that “the theme of the Epistle to the Romans”Theology, the Word of God”can be uttered by human lips only when it is apprehended that the predicate, God Revealed , has as its subject God Hidden .”

On his chosen topics, Derrida as usual takes his reflections further than many will be willing to follow. For all his nimble analyses, the man is often strangely apocalyptic”which is doubtless what constitutes the appeal of his work to some, its offense to others. He thinks, as it were, absolutely, with a liability for disclosing a crisis of difference that his adversaries label nihilism. But his apparent recklessness may also be the consequence of a semantic and contextual vigilance that is akin to Barth’s fideistic intensity. “According to its reckoning,” Barth writes of Paul’s epistle, “the impossible possibility of God appears as the position which cannot be a position. By this position all other reckonings are threatened with destruction at every moment.”

In the title Positions given to a series of interviews with Derrida, the plural of the title expresses his resistance to naively concrete assertions and dogmatically confident utterances. Granted, this resistance arises from his canny work on language rather than from anything like Barth’s transcendental viewpoint. But Barth’s work has nihilating proclivities of its own: “The more successfully the good and the right assume concrete form, the more they become evil and wrong” summum jus , summa injuria .”

In his ongoing dialogue with Levinas, Derrida ponders the implications of responsibility. If we are responsible for others at all, it turns out that we are responsible for all and for everything. Our responsibility towards others, all others and any particular other, is so total as to be utterly impracticable and psychically unbearable. In Derrida’s absolute conception, every sacrifice we make for anyone amounts to a sacrifice that we make of all others, for whose welfare we are nonetheless responsible as well: “I can only respond to the one (or to the One), that is, to the other, by sacrificing that one to the other. I am responsible to any one (that is to say to any other) only by failing in my responsibilities to all the others, to the ethical or political generality. And I can never justify this sacrifice.” Here we stand not with Luther but with Kafka”in whose story “Before the Law” a lifelong and now dying aspirant is told by the gatekeeper, “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Barth once quoted Dostoevsky as a commentary on Paul: “Each one of us is utterly guilty in the presence of all; and, more than all the others, I am guilty.” It is a statement that fairly summarizes Derrida’s titanic though nonetheless profane sense of obligation. But perhaps “profane” is not the apposite term, for its difference from the sacred collapses at the extremes to which Derrida takes his thinking: “The concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia. Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, at its death and finitude.” As Ward remarks, “The possibility for a theology haunts the margins of every text.” In The Gift of Death , Derrida defines a responsibility so comprehensive and so drastic that only divine assurances could underwrite it. A Barthean might argue that it virtually requires some notion of grace for us to bear it. In the postmodern Christology Ward seeks with his work on Derrida and Barth, grace is necessary just to reduce the cruelty of logic.

For Derrida, we’re no better off morally than Abraham at Mount Moriah with his knife poised over his son, in a posture that “ethics would call hatred and murder,” “an abomination in the eyes of all, . . . atrocious, criminal, unforgivable,” as Kierkegaard insists. And yet it is “the most common thing,” “the truth,” “the very structure of what occurs every day.” Every act for one is a betrayal embracing all others, “each of whom is the only son I sacrifice to the other, every one being sacrificed to every one else in this land of Moriah that is our habitat every second of every day.” For Derrida this ubiquity of Mount Moriah is not only a structural necessity, or a “formal economy,” but an empirical fact that ensures social order. This “monstrosity of prodigious proportions” that we conceive as Abraham’s sacrifice is our daily fare. “We can hardly imagine a father taking his son to be sacrificed on the top of the hill at Montmartre,” he says, but that is what he drives us to imagine about ourselves when we go out for the morning newspaper. For Derrida as for Rene Girard, the road to order is paved with victims.

Derrida here seems to be writing a brief for original sin that, without being named as such, is more dynamic than the concept in Barth, for whom it is far more elemental, rudimentary, “the characteristic mark of human nature as such.” It is the idea of a general economy of sacrifice that leads him to reflect on portions of the Sermon on the Mount that suspend “the strict economy of exchange,” including “that hateful form of circulation that involves reprisal, vengeance, returning blow for blow, settling scores.”

In Jesus’ words, all symmetry between debtor and lender, offender and offended, is broken, for the Sermon on the Mount performs a critique of difference to which any deconstructor can subscribe. Subject to serious misuses, deconstruction is nonetheless, in its right use, not a simple trashing of culture and tradition, but a critique of differences”of the arbitrary semantic and institutional constructs that impose rather than reflect order. Accordingly, it naturally provides a critique of the symbolic violence that orders cultural representation. But, unlike the Sermon on the Mount, deconstructive philosophy provides no antidote. If sacrifice and scandal name the violence of conceptual thought at its extreme, it is fair to ask whether this is just the moment to give up on philosophy altogether, and, with the likes of Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Simone Weil, look elsewhere for the solutions to our problems. Philosophy’s self-deconstruction is conceivably Derrida’s principle contribution to theology.

Derrida does not pursue, however, the theme of forgiveness that runs throughout Scripture. Forgiveness is not a concept, and in all fairness there is nothing that Derrida says of it that suggests it is. But this is just the problem with Derrida: there is nothing, or almost nothing, in his discussion of the Sermon on the Mount to suggest that forgiveness is the key. The Sermon on the Mount is not about secrecy, but about human conduct, wherein forgiveness is a concrete form of behavior, a practical model entirely immanent to human interaction. Its effect is to break utterly the ties that bind us to the other’s violence, to our neighbor’s hostility, imperiousness, or envy. The injunction to love our neighbor, even our persecutor, is not ignored by Derrida, who links it to the thematics of God’s infinite love, but the philosopher’s spirit is inevitably more exercised by infinity than by love.

Derrida can take us to the limits of conceptual thinking, but not beyond. He makes his home at those limits, writing”as he entitles one of his books” On the Margins of Philosophy , which leaves him bound to touch theology. But what he does when he touches theology is disorienting and finally disappointing. He veers off from his discussion of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, to an early essay by Baudelaire on giving counterfeit money as an abuse of charity”in which Derrida claims to find something like a parody of Christian sacrifice. “In the salary promised in heaven by the Father who sees in secret and will pay it back, [Baudelaire’s] ‘The Pagan School’ can always unmask a sort of sublime and secret calculation, that of him who seeks to ‘win paradise economically’ as the narrator of [Baudelaire’s] ‘Counterfeit Money’ puts it.”

“This knowledge,” Derrida continues, “at the same time founds and destroys the Christian concepts of responsibility and justice and their ‘object.’“ We might hear intimations of Barthean paradox here, but Barth would be the first to insist that the gift (whose notional suppression so intrigues Derrida) needs to be one of the things we give with no exchange, with no expectation of return because they proceed from love. These are the building blocks of the Kingdom, its unshakable foundation, that Scripture talks about with unalloyed clarity. If there is a secret here, it is God’s love, which stands in the world as something other than a concept-except perhaps for philosophers, which is perhaps why Derrida is drawn to Nietzsche in his terminal remarks: “The stroke of genius called Christianity,” he quotes from Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy of Morals , claims to “deliver man from what for man had become unacquittable”the creditor playing scapegoat for his debtor from love (can you believe it?) from love of his debtor!”

Nietzsche may have had philosophical reasons for rejecting belief in God, but the relentless shrillness of his references to Christianity and Judaism does not derive from philosophical reason. By the time Nietzsche wrote at the end of the nineteenth century, it was no big deal to sneer at God and his churches (though Baudelaire had regarded it as a churlish audacity only a generation earlier). But those who celebrate God’s death are left with a purely worldly transcendence. And this worldly transcendence”expressed in the unforgiving competition for public recognition and celebrity”has no antidote to rivalry, precisely because rivalry is its operating principle. Signing himself “the crucified” in his final correspondence, Nietzsche was at last drawn into an insane attempt at rivalry with Jesus and the Gospels.

For deciding what to make of Derrida, perhaps we need to take seriously this late madness of Nietzsche. Like Derrida, Nietzsche exhausted conceptual thinking and gave up on philosophy. If he succumbed at the end to delusions of divinity while Derrida has not, it may simply be that Derrida has not yet found where Nietzsche’s road inevitably leads. Barth liked to associate Nietzsche’s madness with his own cherished conviction that “the truth is unbearable””which may reflect certain romantic problems with Barth’s theology. But Barth’s work nonetheless suggests that the only way past the limits Derrida explores is through the grace and gospel of Jesus.


Andrew J. McKenna is Professor of French at Loyola University Chicago and author of Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction.

Articles by Andrew J. McKenna

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