The Impossible Has Already Occurred: Derrida and Negative Theology
Milem, Bruce, Philosophy Today
In 1992, Jacques Derrida published a piece, entitled "Post-Scriptum: Aporias, Ways and Voices," on the subject of apophatic or negative theology, in response to a collection of papers on the relationship between negative theology and Derrida's work.' He expanded this piece and published the new version the next year under a new title, "Sauf le nom."2 Rather than being a formal paper or essay, this piece presents a dialogue of two or more voices circling around the subject of negative theology. The plurality of voices reflects both the multiplicitous discourse of negative theology itself, which continually talks about God while declaring that such talk is impossible, and Derrida's own equivocal relationship to negative theology, which resembles suspicion at some times and deep affection at others. This affection surfaces in "Sauf le nom," in which Derrida confesses that he trusts "no text that is not in some way contaminated by negative theology" (ON 69). One ofthe voices in "Saufle nom" further observes a similarity between negative theology and deconstruction in that both concern themselves with "what appears impossible, more than impossible, the most impossible possible, more impossible than the impossible if the impossible is the simple negative modality of the possible" (ON 43). While Derrida assesses negative theology with sympathy and generosity, I would like to suggest in this paper that negative theology understands this impossibility differently than Derrida does and differently than Derrida believes it does. Derrida depicts the impossible that exercises both deconstruction and negative theology as an impossible event in the future that has yet to arrive. But negative theology, I shall argue, understands this impossibility as having already occurred.
In order to approach the understanding of the impossible to be found in negative theology, it is necessary to consider what negative theology is. In "Sauf le nom," one of Derrida's voices wonders whether there is or could be such a thing as a "classic" negative theology. However, Derrida is also careful to specify that the name of negative theology properly applies only to its Christian form, even though similar practices can be found in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Greek pagan Neoplatonism, and other traditions. The "expression `negative theology,"' he says, "has no strict equivalent outside two traditions, philosophy or ontotheology of Greek provenance, New Testament theology or Christian mysticism. These two trajectories, these two paths thus arrowed would cross each other in the heart of what we call negative theology" (ON 62). A classic negative theology, then, will be most apparent in that version of negative theology where Christianity and Greek Neoplatonism cross each other most conspicuously. That version of negative theology can be found in the four treatises and ten letters written in Greek by a mysterious, and still unidentified Christian who took the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. Scholars now agree that these writings originated in the late fifth- or early sixthcentury C.E. But, for almost a thousand years, Christians believed they came from the pen of that Dionysius whose conversion to Christianity in the first-century thanks to St Paul is described in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. Because of this near apostolic pedigree, Dionysius' writings and their portrait of theological practice exerted considerable influence on later apophatic theologians such as John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, and the anonymous Englishman who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing. To understand the character of negative theology especially as it developed in Latin Christendom, one must return to Dionysius.3
For Dionysius, negative theology is one aspect of theological method as a whole.4 In his treatise The Divine Names, Dionysius first practices positive or kataphatic theology, which explains the meaning of various names and predicates given to God. …