Academic journal article Philosophy Today

At the Limits of Religion without Religion: A Problem That Cannot Be Resolved

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

At the Limits of Religion without Religion: A Problem That Cannot Be Resolved

Article excerpt

The central question of Jacques Derrida's "Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of Religion at the Limits of Reason Alone" is phrased halfway through the essay:

In its most abstract form, then, the aporia within which we are struggling would perhaps be the following: is revealability (Offenbarkeit) more originary than revelation (Offenbarung), and hence independent of all religion? Independent in the structures of its experience and in the analytics relating to them? Is this not the place in which "reflecting faith" at least originates, if not this faith itself? Or rather, inversely, would the event of revelation have consisted in revealing revealability itself, and the origin of light, the originary light, the very invisibility of visibility? This is perhaps what the believer or the theologian might say here, in particular the Christian of originary Christendom, of that Urchristenum in the Lutheran tradition to which Heidegger acknowledges owing so much.1

This is also arguably the central question of Derrida's entire engagement with the question of religion. The claim of this essay is that this question has been unresolved for years and now remains forever unresolved by Derrida himself. In what follows I argue that this lack of resolution is not a structural necessity, not part of Derrida's customary aporetic strategy, but the result of the formulation itself, a bivalence that cannot on Derrida's own terms be resolved in either direction nor be allowed to remain indeterminate.

There are a few occasions on which Derrida seems to have answered this question with somewhat more certainty than he lets on in the long passage above, and when he did, he did so in favor of the conditions for the possibility of revelation itself. The first such occasion of which I take note is in the context of Derrida's discussion of the Promised Land, the geographical figure that is diametrically opposed to the desert. Derrida argues that the Abrahamic revelations, the "positive" religions, "are not solely events. Such events only happen by taking on the meaning of engaging the historicity of history - and the eventfulness of the event as such" (FK 48). This is a fairly uncontroversial claim, but Derrida follows it with a much more disputable claim: "the Testamentary and Koranic revelations are inseparable from a historicity of revelation itself. The messianic or eschatological horizon delimits this historicity, to be sure, but only by virtue of having previously inaugurated it" (FK 48). It is one thing to say that the specific claims to revelation that constitute the positive religions are bound to the historicity of revelation itself and even that the positive religions are delimited by this historicity. It is quite another thing to say that the messianic or eschatological horizon has inaugurated this history. The question of which comes first, the chicken of Offenbarkeit (revealability, conditions for the possibility of revelation) or the egg of Offenbarung (revelation) is quite decided at this point in Derrida's mind. His preference for this solution, however, is one that cannot be sustained, for reasons developed in this essay.

The resolution that Derrida puts forward at this point in "Faith and Knowledge" rests on his exploration of "a third place that could well have been more than archi-originary, the most anarchic and anarchivable place possible, not the island nor the Promised Land, but a certain desert, that which makes possible, opens, hollows or infinitizes the other" (FK 55). In this desert, this extreme non-place, there "would still be the possibility of a religio and of a relegere, to be sure, but before the 'link' of religare ... it would also be like the condition of the 'link' reduced to its minimal semantic determination" (FK 55). In the site or non-site of undetermined responsibility before its connection to any specific faith, "this fiduciary 'link' would precede all determinate community, all positive religion, every onto-anthropotheological horizon. …

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