Post-Modernism and Its Secrets: Religion without Religion

By Crockett, Clayton | Cross Currents, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Post-Modernism and Its Secrets: Religion without Religion


Crockett, Clayton, Cross Currents


[I]t can be said...that a certain Kant and a certain Hegel, Kierkegaard of course,... Heidegger also, belong to this tradition that consists of proposing a nondogmatic doublet of dogma, a philosophical and metaphysical doublet, in any case a thinking that "repeats" the possibility of religion without religion.

Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

I BEGIN WITH A SUGGESTIVE CLAIM: that from a certain perspective the histories of both modernity and postmodernity are religious histories (not histories of religion), organized around an essentially religious secret--a religion without religion, or a secret without a secret. At present, the major currents of contemporary Continental philosophy have taken up the thinking of religion as an (if not the) essential task for theoretical analysis. At the same time, political events, particularly the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have forced many thinkers to grapple with issues of religion and the world, including violence, politics, and terror. According to John D. Caputo, the foremost American "Continentalist" and interpreter of Derrida, the ultimate truth of deconstructive postmodernism reads: "the secret...is that there is no Secret." (1)

For many readers, this conclusion that there is no Secret implies at best ethical relativism, at worst nihilism. And yet, for Caputo, this conclusion seemingly echoes Kant's famous introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant says he has been forced to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith. (2) In his magisterial interpretation of Derrida's more recent writings, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, Caputo argues that Derrida's philosophy opens the space for an affirmative faith to occur and be professed. The secret is the structure of faith, a "passion of unknowing" whose blindness regarding the fundamental insight into the Secret allows faith to live and grow. (3) A secret without a Secret is at the same time a religion without religion, because one can be religious without necessarily subscribing to the creeds, doctrines and dogmas of a determinate organized religion in order to possess a passion for the impossible. In On Religion, Caputo claims that the deconstruction of modernity' s scientific certainties and rational dogmas leads not to atheism but a situation "in which we see a certain recuperation or repetition of the pre-metaphysical situation of faith." (4) Although Caputo draws partly upon a medieval Christian tradition to make his claim, I want to suggest that important affinities exist between Caputo's postmodern conclusions and classical modernity, which leads me to suggest the repetition or doublet of modern and postmodern, organized around an understanding of the secret. After indicating certain resonances of secrecy in Spinoza and Kant, I will turn to Derrida in order to explicate some aspects of his most sustained reflection on religion, The Gift of Death, before returning to Caputo at the conclusion.

The Secrets of Modernity I: Spinoza

The origins and history of European modernity can be explained in many ways, materially as well as ideologically, but I confine my analysis here to a theoretical orientation to religion. One aspect of what came to be called the modern world involves the elaboration of an autonomous secular political power independent of explicit ecclesiastical interests. A primary spur toward this result was Spinoza's philosophy, despite that fact that he was despised by most Europeans familiar with his thought. As Jonathan Israel explains in his study of the Radical Enlightenment, Spinoza "emerged as the supreme philosophical bogeyman of Early Enlightenment Europe." (5) With his controversial Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, as well as his masterwork, Ethics, Spinoza provided a completely secular groundwork for theoretical thinking that was nonetheless entirely focused on God, understood as object of clear rational thought. With the complexity of his geometrical presentation, Spinoza confused most of his readers, but his ulti mate aim was to present a persuasive demonstration of the value of intellectual thinking. …

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