Religion without Religion

by Clayton Crockett

[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 ultimate aim was to present a persuasive demonstration of the value of intellectual thinking.

In the Tractatus, Spinoza declares that religion “consists in honesty and sincerity of heart rather than in outward actions, [therefore] it does not pertain to the sphere of public law and authority.”6 Spinoza contrasts this essential understanding of religion as human feeling with the improper “efforts. . .made to invest religion. . .with such pomp and ceremony that it can sustain any shock and constantly evoke the deepest reverence in all its worshippers.”7 Despots make deceptive use of religion to cloak their ignoble interests and keep humans in bondage. Spinoza advocates a free commonwealth over against “the supreme mystery of despotism,” which aims to “keep men in a state of deception” using “the specious title of religion to cloak the fear by which they must be held in check.”8 The true function of religion serves to support an open and honest endeavor of the intellect in its quest for knowledge and freedom. Secrecy must be opposed in religion, because it testifies to the corrupt and tyrannical misuse of religion to promote fear and superstition for political ends.

In Ethics, Spinoza presents a deductive geometrical model that famously equates God with Nature, and elaborates two parallel modes of expression of this one substance (God, or Nature), thought and extension.9 Spinoza is here critiquing Descartes’s dualism, and in fact makes Descartes’s thought more consistent when he concludes that mental entities and physical entities are two parallel articulations of one fundamental substance. Although later German philosophers were convulsed with the implications of whether Spinoza’s system was pantheistic or atheistic, his major contribution, according to Gilles Deleuze, was “the laying out of a common plane of immanence on which all bodies, all minds and all individuals are situated.”10 That is, Spinoza’s insistence on one substance undermined medieval and Cartesian notions of transcendence, with their insistence on a split-level universe. Instead, Spinoza incorporates the duality of thought and matter onto one consistent level by collapsing the distinction between God and Nature. Spinoza’s rationalism provides clear insight and understanding into the nature of the world and God at the dawn of Enlightenment modernity, with important implications for religious belief— although religious readers usually reacted negatively to these implications.

In his book, Spinoza and Other Heretics, Yirmiyahu Yovel supplies historical context for Spinoza’s life and thought. In 1492, the same year that Columbus “discovered” America, Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand finally captured Granada and expelled the Muslims from a united Spain. At the same time, they ordered all Jews to be converted or exiled. The Spanish Inquisition was then established primarily in order to “purge the land of the heresies and religious contamination of the Judaizing Marranos.”11 Marranos were Jews who converted to Christianity (conversos) in order to avoid exile, but secretly practiced their former religion. Many Jews who did leave Spain then fled to Portugal, which allowed freedom for Jewish religious practice until later in the 1500s, when for dynastic reasons of alliance with Spain, Portugal in turn adopted a policy of conversion or exile and set up its own Inquisition. Many Spanish Marranos then residing in Portugal fled, joining in a “Marrano diaspora” across parts of Europe.12

Spinoza’s family emigrated from Portugal to Amsterdam in the sixteenth century. Although “Spinoza himself was born a Jew, most of the community around him consisted of former Marranos, who brought with them from Iberia the weight and richness of the Marrano tradition, including their Catholic education and symbolism.”13 Yovel points out that the mixture of open Catholic Christianity and secret Judaism created a strange hybrid: “The mixture of religions is apparent in the secret customs and rites of the Judaizers, which have a Jewish framework but are saturated with Catholic elements and interpretations.”14 So, beyond the debates in Holland about the identification of Spinoza’s thought as essentially Christian or Jewish, his family background and historical context evidences a crossing of religious boundaries, where one faith is practiced openly and another in secret. However, when Spinoza’s parents help to establish and participate in an openly Jewish community in Amsterdam, they then become reconversos, which was technically illegal but overlooked for a time by the Dutch. In this context, the formerly secret religion is practiced openly, although not in a completely un-hostile environment; but the former practice of Christianity leaves its mark, not only culturally, but also in terms of Jewish practice and theology. One example Yovel mentions is an explicitly metaphysical concern with salvation that simply replaced Jesus Christ with the Law of Moses as the necessary intermediary.15

The Judaizing Marranos (whether or not they remained in or emigrated from Iberia) were also under pressure from more conventional and orthodox Jewish communities and rabbis who criticized their errors and refused to recognize them as Jews. Spinoza could not conform his theoretical pursuits and ideas within the allowable limits of the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community and he was eventually excommunicated in 1656. Yovel notes that these Marranos shared the common exile and alienation of the Jewish people, but furthermore, they were also alienated from themselves in their inner beings: “They were exiles within an exile—exiled, as Jews, among the nations, and exiled also from the Jews themselves.”16 This hybrid phenomenon of Marrano Judaizers is contrasted with the sometimes fervent Christian zeal among the conversos, who embraced their new faith passionately but were unable to completely expunge all of the weight of their old one. Yovel points out that many Spanish mystics, including Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint John of the Cross, were conversos. In Spinoza’s case, although he befriended many Christians, and was profoundly influenced by his Catholic tutor, van der Ende, he dismissed efforts to convert him to Christianity. In each case, the combination or hybrid mixture creates a loss of comfort and an insecurity that opens up an inner space of alienation which provides the space that eventually becomes secularity.

Religious duality penetrated the consciousness (and even the subconsciousness) of the most ardent Judaizers. Even the Marrano martyrs and heroes were rarely Jews in the conventional sense. The clandestine character of worship, the Catholic education, the lack of Jewish instruction, the mental mixture of faiths, and the isolation from Jewish communities outside Iberia created a special phenomenon in the history and sociology of religion: a form of faith that is neither Christian nor Jewish.17

While the persecution and forced conversions initially led to an intensification of religious faith and practice, however unorthodox, Yovel claims that eventually “the confusion of Judaism and Christianity led in many cases to a loss of both.”18 Of course, orthodox Christians and Jews may view this development, along with secular modernity in general, in negative terms, but it is important to note that this space of secularity born of exile and alienation is not a-religious, but rather profoundly religious in itself. This secular faith is a religion without religion, based on a secret faith that eventually or ultimately, by fulfilling itself, fails to operate in and as a secret.

Furthermore, by analyzing the social and historical context surrounding the genesis of Spinoza’s thought, Yovel connects this development with Spinoza’s profound theoretical expression, without reducing Spinoza’s thought merely to his biographical circumstances. Spinoza’s philosophy is the first modern, secular philosophy (despite most people’s identification of Descartes with that claim), precisely because it issues from a complex religious background of conversos, Marranos and reconversos, with its hybrid crossing of Judaism and Christianity.19 Spinoza’s insistence on the clarity and publicity of reason and geometrical deduction in opposition to the secrecy and deception of institutional religions and ecclesiastical hierarchy is partly a response to the secret at the heart of his own religious identity.

The Secrets of Modernity II: Kant

Kant represents the pinnacle of European Enlightenment thought, as well as a rigorous separation of religion as human conscience or moral duty based on reason, from religion focused on external objects, empirical practices and beliefs, or superstitious dogmatism. Kant argues for a religion “within the limits of reason alone,” which is in certain respects similar to a religion without religion. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant analyzes the transcendental conditions for the possibility of knowledge of an object, and these conditions are formal rather than empirical. Thinking concerns human subjectivity in its orientation to reality rather than God as an object of thought or belief. Kant follows Spinoza in making the essence of religion formal and internal rather than associated with external content. His entire thought grapples with the question of religion, even though religion itself cannot be the object of a critique. In his Opus Postumum, Kant defines the essence of religion as conscience, in a way that echoes the conclusions of Kantian morality:

Religion is conscientiousness. The holiness of the acceptance and the truthfulness of what man must confess to himself. Confess to yourself. To have religion, the concept of God is not required (still less the postulate: “There is a God”).20 

The obligation to confess truthfully and openly characterizes both religion and morality, and it precludes keeping secrets.

In his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” Kant claims that Enlightenment depends upon the free exercise of one’s public reason. He argues that “the public use of man’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men; the private use of reason may quite often be narrowly restricted, however, without undue hindrance to the progress of enlightenment.”21 The public exercise of reason prohibits secrecy; it must be open and accessible to all rational beings, despite Kant’s exclusive masculine language. Any secret practice or secret society possesses only a limited freedom from the state. In The Metaphysics of Morals Kant claims “an association of political or religious illuminati, may be kept secret;” but only provisionally, because “at the request of the police, it must not refuse to disclose its constitution.”22 This is the Kant whom Caputo dubs the Chief of Police, “a policeman who patrols the borders of the possible.”23

Kant opposes the keeping of secrets in philosophy, public reason, and in the application of the universal moral law. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, any secret would constitute an exception that invalidates the categorical imperative, to act such that one’s action could become the maxim for a universal moral law. A universal requirement to keep (a) secret(s) would result in a contradiction, because this situation would preclude the possibility of any public disclosure.24 In his book The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant articulates a space for the lower faculty of philosophy in relation to the higher faculties of law, medicine, and theology, but he claims that the subservience of the faculty of philosophy allows it a freedom and an openness which the higher faculties cannot afford because they are concerned with political and practical interests. “The philosophy faculty,” he writes, “because it must answer for the truth of the teachings it is to adopt or even allow, must be conceived as free and subject only to laws given by reason, not by the government.”25

Of course, many people are skeptical as to whether reason can function without any practical or political interests, and one could charge Kant with deception and duplicity for seeming to suggest that the higher faculties of law, medicine and theology possess a primacy of place while actually undermining them in favor of the lower faculty of philosophy, with its free, open and disinterested reason. Does Kant cloak his ideas within a garb of political and religious acceptability in order to retain the freedom to philosophize? Is this religious stance, a humanistic philosophy masquerading as religion, specific to the Enlightenment and the construction of secular modernity more generally? Or are the philosophies of Spinoza and Kant “sincere” religious philosophies, religions without religion, as Derrida has suggested? For modernity, the secret (reason, philosophy, Enlightenment) is that there is no Secret (revelation, God as dogmatically or intuitively understood). Here the secret of public or non-secret, universal knowledge must be deployed against those who claim to possess the Secret, including mystagogues and theologians.26 Just as Enlightenment itself is a germ in a hard shell, religious faith must avoid the encrustrations of ecclesiastical dogma. “But since ecclesiastical faith,” Kant declares, “as the mere vehicle of religious faith, is mutable and must remain open to gradual purification until it coincides with religious faith, it cannot be made an article of faith itself.”27

Caputo’s claim that religion is a basic structure of all human experience and his advocacy of “a religiousness without the confessional religions” in a “faith without faith” strikes a very Kantian structural chord, even if Caputo is more risky and radical in his rhetoric.28 Caputo follows Derrida in calling for a “new Enlightenment,” one that is post-critical or “enlightened about the (old) Enlightenment.”29 In a nutshell, however, does a religion without religion merely repeat the same old Enlightenment?30 Is postmodernism dependent on this modern gesture, or is there a significant difference between Derrida and Caputo on the one hand, and Kant and Spinoza on the other?

The Gift of Religion

In many ways, Derrida sounds extremely Kantian as he unfolds his thinking on The Gift of Death, even though he also complicates a universal Kantian morality using Kierkegaard’s thought. As we have seen, Kant opposes secrecy with his demand for publicity—Enlightenment is predicated on the public use of philosophical reason. On the other hand, deconstruction and postmodernism appear fascinated with secrets and secrecy, and in particular sometimes its theoretical language seems extremely private, obscure and self-indulgent. Derrida attends to what is necessarily hidden and aporetic within a discourse, and emphasizes the secrets irreducible to public disclosure. At the same time, and this is what The Gift of Death makes clear, the irreducible secrecy at the heart of language and thought is a formal and transcendental structure of reason, rather than a celebration of irrationality and esoteric mysticisms. This mystery which is the core of reason inheres in the very structure of reason, and makes rationality and public discourse possible. This mystery is inherently religious, as Derrida suggests in The Gift of Death, and Caputo explicates this secret as the secret of faith.

Derrida and Caputo, despite the fact that they critique Kantian demands for publicity and disclosure of secrets, nevertheless follow Kant in the sense that they attempt to expose the necessary secrecy, the secret that there is no Secret. This critical, Enlightenment element is critical for both Derrida and Caputo, who do not celebrate or perpetuate specific, determinate mysteries or secrets, but attend to the irreducible secrecy of language and reason. In A Taste for the Secret, Derrida claims, against Kant, that a political or public space that “makes no room for the secret,” an internal forum that resists belonging, “is a glaring sign of the totalitarianization of democracy.”31 At the same time, the secret that public space must acknowledge and make room for is not a determinate Secret, although it allows for the possibility of particular secrets to be kept. Derrida explains this situation in a formal way:

If I am to share something, to communicate, objectify, thematize, the condition is that there be something non-thematizable, non-objectifiable, non-sharable. And this “something” is an absolute secret.32

The absolute secret is not a Secret because it resides “in a space where either there is no secret, or secrets are negotiable.”33 Furthermore, the general structure of the secret both implicates and is implicated in the contemporary world— “something singular is happening today,” and in order to understand “what is original in our ‘historical’ situation, religion is not the worst guiding thread.”34 Derrida remains a little more suspicious and ambivalent about the implications of this ineluctable religiosity within theoretical discourse, and in his essay on “Faith and Knowledge” he explores some of the interconnections among contemporary technologies and religious fundamentalisms.35 Caputo is less hesitant about affirming this faith and its intrinsic relationship to hope and justice. By tracing how Caputo elaborates upon Derrida’s thought and its religious implications, we can see that the Kantian situation recurs, but differently, because the inner turn towards secrecy, which also follows Levinas’s ethical writings, becomes the foundation for a public engagement. The secret (necessary but formal) is that there is no Secret (determinate content, Mystery), but this secrecy which is a kind of faith at the heart of reason, opens up to public and political concerns of justice and relationships with concrete and ethical others in the world.

Turning to The Gift of Death text, Derrida begins his engagement with the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka by distinguishing between two kinds of secrecy, the orgiastic and the ethical. According to Patocka, Derrida writes, “In the proper sense of the word, religion exists once the secret of the sacred, orgiastic or demonic mystery has been, if not destroyed, at least integrated, and finally subjected to the sphere of responsibility.”36 So religion is associated with the elimination of determinate secrecy, for Patocka, but Derrida stresses that the move to an association of religion with responsibility is also a version of secrecy. Furthermore, this secrecy is historical, and “the history of responsibility is tied to a history of religion.”37 History (or histories) are in some sense secret histories, or at least histories of alternative variations of secrecy. Patocka distinguishes Platonism and Christianity by tying the former to a determinate, orgiastic history of secrecy, while Christianity marks the break with this type of mystery by internalizing the secret as ethical sacrifice. In philosophical terms, at the rise of Christianity,

this becoming—historical of humankind, seems to be intimately tied to the properly Christian even of another secret, or more precisely of a mystery, the mysterium tremendum: the terrifying mystery, the dread, fear and trembling of the Christian in the experience of the sacrificial gift.38

As Derrida explains, overcoming the Secret, “waking from the demonic mystery, . . .involves attaining the possibility of the secretum, of the keeping of a secret.”39 At the same time, the mystery is not so much destroyed as interiorized. The brutal sacrifice of another (animal or human) during the secret ritual of a mystery cult become the moral self-sacrifice of a person’s own desires, but even more than that, the responsibility of sacrificing oneself for another, the ultimate gift of death. This is a new, uncanny sort of mystery or secret, which instantiates a certain version of moral responsibility by continuing to harbor the demonic secret within itself in a much more subtle manner.

Derrida is both explicating Patocka and complicating his thought at the same time, and I am trying to suggest that there is a certain sense in which the history of religion becomes a secret in European thought during the period of modernity, because for both Kant and Spinoza religion becomes essentialized as ethical responsibility, and ultimately the limits of ethical reason are legislated to cover over and contain the religious secret that troubles its interior existence. In situating the historical development of an ethical responsibility which is religious without being religious within European modernity, I am also both qualifying and remaining skeptical about Patocka’s claim, which is not explicitly addressed or challenged by Derrida, that the dawn of Christianity marks a radically new history of secrecy, especially in relation to Judaism. Of course, Patocka is contrasting Christian and Greek secrecy, and he does not relate the history of Israelite-Jewish secrecy to that of Christianity. However, by understanding how Spinoza, descended from Jewish Marranos, lays the groundwork for a non-religious society (in which one can still be religious), one can see how unacknowledged, indeterminate crossings of religions can blur the boundaries between Christianity and Judaism, and how both could be responsible for the history of European Enlightenment rationality.

Derrida hints at a hidden affiliation with Spinoza, without mentioning his name, when he uses the term Marrano at the end of his book Aporias, which was written and published in French just after The Gift of Death, although it preceded the English translation by a couple years. Aporias is a reflection on death and originary mourning, where a relation to death constitutes or is constituted by “an absolute awaiting each other,” but death itself is not an absolute or pure cutting off of life itself, but is at least partially integrated into the relation.40 Death is an aporia, the ultimate aporia, but Derrida concludes that “the ultimate aporia is the impossibility of the aporia as such,” that is, as a pure or absolute cutting-off.41 We are both “contaminated” by our relation to death and made inauthentic (a critique of Heidegger’s thesis on the authenticity of the resolute individual in his being-towards-death in Being and Time) by our relations with others.

On the final page, after a reference to Being and Time and the history and memory of death in Christian Europe, Derrida elliptically refers to the anachronistic “age of a Marrano.” He declares:

Let us figuratively call Marrano anyone who remains faithful to a secret that he has not chosen, in the very place where he live, in the home of the inhabitant or of the occupant, in the home of the first or of the second arrivant, in the very place where he stays without saying no but without identifying himself as belonging to. In the unchallenged night where the radical absence of any historical witness keeps him or her, in the dominant culture that by definition has calendars, this secret keeps the Marrano even before the Marrano keeps it. Is it not possible to think that such a secret eludes even history, age and aging?42

A secret at the heart of time and history, Derrida generalizes conceptually in order to claim that we are all Marranos, “Marranos in any case, whether we want to be or not, whether we know it or not.”43 By drawing attention to Spinoza and the specific historical context of Marranos, I am working back against Derrida’s generalization of the term here, but I am doing so in order to generalize Spinoza’s context concerning the generation of the thought of a religion without religion outward towards modernity and postmodernity.

So the history of Enlightenment reason is tied to the history of ethical responsibility, which is also related to the legacies of (at least) Platonism, Christianity, and Judaism. Ethical responsibility contains an intrinsically religious core, which can be acted out or externally expressed in orgiastic rites in a return of demonic secrecy, a return that may also be connected with Freud’s notion of the return of the repressed. If the religiosity at the heart of reason is denied, it can easily break out in brutal and violent ways. Patocka, according to Derrida, argues that “technological civilization is in decline” and answers that the reason is “a return of the orgiastic or demonic.”44 Derrida follows Patocka in tracing this return to boredom, and suggests that autonomic technology and boredom are somehow connected. By reading Caputo’s exposition of The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, and attending to Derrida’s description of the tremendum in The Gift of Death, one can suggest that ethical responsibility depends on acknowledging passion and trembling, whereas the repression of passion by an over-assertive rationality or the denial of passion by a technological, automated system threatens to allow or enable the return of the demonic secret, returning to Patocka’s terms.

The essence of the Christian secret is the mysterium tremendum. Derrida focuses on the tremendum, and reads Patocka under the pressure of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Trembling lies at the heart of ethical responsibility and moral reason, and we tremble in the face of a dreaded (even if desired) secret. “As different as dread, fear, anxiety, terror, panic or anguish remain from one another,” Derrida explains, “they have already begun in trembling, and what has provoked them continues, or threatens to continue, to make us tremble. Most often we neither know what is coming nor see its origin; it therefore remains a secret.”45 Trembling is a physical affect that seizes the body and the soul, but “(o)ne does- n’t know why one trembles.”46 Derrida compares the symptom of trembling with that of tears, which becomes part of the title and an important theme of Caputo’s work. Trembling, like weeping, concerns a response whose cause is deeply mysterious yet exceedingly intimate, “the cause closest to our body.”47 From the body, Derrida shifts registers to God, and remarks that the cause of the trembling in the mysterium tremendum is “the gift of infinite love. . . .We fear and tremble before the inaccessible secret of a God who decides for us although we remain responsible, that is, free to decide, to work, to assume our life and our death.”48

Of course, many readers of Kierkegaard have been impressed by his reading of the binding story where Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac as a testimony to Abraham’s exceptional faith. Derrida argues that the Abraham story also represents the culmination and ruin of ethical responsibility, where at the limit of responsibility, the edge of the religious secret is exposed in all its horror and awe; Derrida generalizes the Abraham story’s sacrifice and gift of death to everyone.

A responsible decision is an aporia, because it must be based on knowledge as a necessary condition, but at the same time it must not be solely based on rational knowledge, otherwise it is not a true moral decision but the employment of a logical procedure.49 Abraham keeps the command of God to sacrifice Isaac a secret, which violates Kantian universal morality: “By keeping the secret, Abraham betrays ethics.”50 Abraham’s absolute duty to God requires the sacrifice of his familial and social duties, which would require him to level with Sarah and Isaac about what he is about to do. Derrida follows Kierkegaard up to the point of the scandalous and seemingly immoral nature of the divine command. He writes, “The story is no doubt monstrous, outrageous, barely conceivable: a father is ready to put to death his beloved son, his irreplaceable loved one, and that because the Other, the great Other asks him and orders him without the slightest explanation.”51

At this point, however, Derrida departs from Kierkegaard in order to generalize Abraham’s situation as opposed to Kierkegaard’s desire to emphasize the singularity of Abraham’s situation and the nature of his faith. “But isn’t this the most common thing?” Derrida writes:

Duty or responsibility binds me to the other, to the other as other, and ties me in my absolute singularity to the other as other and as unique (the God of Abraham defined as the one and unique). As soon as I enter into relation with the absolute other, my absolute singularity enters into relation with his on the level of obligation and duty. . . .But of  course, what binds me thus in my singularity to the absolute singularity of the other, immediately propels me into the risk of absolute sacrifice.52

The risk of absolute sacrifice is the sacrifice of every other singular and absolute other in favor of the other to which my responsibility binds me. This is the case because Derrida calls into question the distinction between other (person) and Other (God). His claim, “every other (one) is every (bit) other,” or “tout autre est tout autre,” means that “I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others.”53 Later Derrida explicitly confirms the substitutabilty of other and God: “‘Every other (one) is God,’ or ‘God is every (bit) other.’”54

The gift of death is a general gift of sacrifice that enables responsible decision, a decision for an other, but that very gift is ambivalent because it necessarily entails a sacrifice of others for the other I am responsible for. This sacrifice is formal and is intrinsic to the very structure and working of responsibility, but it is enacted in every decision I make. Sacrifice is a religious sacrifice, a self-sacrifice of myself to or for another, but also at the same time a sacrifice of every other who is not this immediate, singular other in the present moment of decision. This religious component of ethical decision testifies to ruin of a universal, rationalistic ethics, and also to the breakdown of the modern distinction between ethics and religion. Derrida claims that in the case of Levinas, we find a similar situation to Kierkegaard, in that “Levinas is no longer able to distinguish between the infinite alterity of God and that of every human. His ethics is already a religious one.”55 If responsibility to the other is the basis of ethics, then the breakdown of the separation of Other and other, God and neighbor, brings about the mutual entanglement of ethics and religion.

An ethical discourse that cannot dissociate itself from religious concepts and affects can also be turned inside out: a religion that concerns itself primarily with the other and with responsible decision is a religion without religion, a secret without a Secret. According to Derrida, “We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more. . . capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of the most interior of places.”56 On the other hand, “we might say: God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior. Once such a structure of conscience exists, . . .I call myself God—a phrase that is difficult to distinguish from ‘God calls me,’ for it is on that condition that I can call myself or that I am called in secret.”57

Here is a return of Kant, but Kantian ethics recurs differently in Derrida (and Caputo), because Derrida affirms the necessity of both the irreducible secret and the public engagement with ethical and political questions of justice and morality, precisely out of an intensive engagement with this internal secrecy. As Caputo puts it, somewhat less ambiguously, “religious people, who are lovers of the impossible, are down in bad neighborhoods trying to change things, doing the truth.”58 Caputo deconstructs the ultimate distinction between a passion for God and a passion for justice in the same way that Derrida undermines the distinction between other and Other.59 If we cannot rigorously separate God from an other, we cannot separate love of God from love of others, so any commitment to God is a commitment to justice, and vice versa.

The meaning of God, which is not completely separate or separable from the meaning of the other, or the meaning of the self, is undecidable, which means that it is ultimately a secret. “The meaning of God is enacted in these multiple movements of love, but these movements are simply too multiple, too polyva- lent, too irreducible, too uncontainable to identify, define or determine,” Caputo writes.60 Analogously, I am suggesting that the borders of the modern and the postmodern are also “too multiple, too polyvalent, too irreducible, too uncontainable to identify, define or determine,” and thus the boundary remains a secret (but not a Secret). The legacy of modernity overemphasizes the“without religion” while at times our postmodern revivalism, religious or otherwise, tempts us to make much of the “religion” and lose sight of the without, which is of course both with and without.

“That is the history of God and of the name of God as the history of secrecy, a history that is at the same time secret and without any secrets. Such a history is also an economy.”61 And such a history also demands a theology for its articulation.


1. John D. Caputo, On Religion(London: Routledge, 2001), 19.  
2. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kent Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), 29.  
3. John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 311.  
4. Caputo, On Religion, 58.  
5. Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 159.  
6. Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998), 107.  
7. Ibid., 3.  
8. Ibid., 3.  
9. See Baruch Spinoza, Ethicsin The Collected Works of Spinoza, ed. and trans. by Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.)  
10. Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988), 199. See also Deleuze’s profound engagement with Spinoza’s thought in Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza(New York: Zone Books, 1992).  
11. Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Marrano of Reason(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 17.  
12. Ibid., 19.  
13. Ibid., 19.  
14. Ibid., 20.  
15. Ibid., 21.  
16. Ibid., 23.  
17. Ibid., 22.  
18. Ibid., 26.  
19. In fact, we could generalize Western culture in terms of its religious origins with the help of Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between major and minor languages. Christianity is the major religion, and Judaism is the minor religion, but for Deleuze minor is the more highly valued term, because it subjects the major religion to a multiplicity of hybrid forms and becomings. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 105.  
20. Immanuel Kant, Opus Postumum, trans. Eckart Förster and Michael Rosen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 248.
21. Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” in Kant: Political Writings, ed. by Hans Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 55.  
22. Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, in Kant: Political Writings, 149.  
23. Caputo, On Religion, 49.  
24. See Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 70.  
25. Immanuel Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, trans. Mary J. Gregor (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), 43.
26. See Kant’s essay, “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy,” and Derrida’s similarly titled commentary, in Raising the Tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by Immanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by Jacques Derrida, ed. Peter Fenves (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).  
27. Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, 43. 28. Caputo, On Religion, 33.  
29. Ibid., 37.  
30. On the image of a nutshell, see the title of Caputo’s edited round-table discussion with Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), and compare with Kant’s description of Enlightenment as a germ in a hard shell  
(Kant: Political Writings, 59).  
31. Jacques Derrida, “I Have a Taste for the Secret,” in Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret(Polity Press, 2001), 59.  
32. Ibid., 57.  
33. Ibid., 57–58.  
34. Ibid., 79.  
35. See “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Religion, Ed. by Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1998), 1–78.
36. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. by David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  
1995), 2.
37. Ibid., 5.  
38. Ibid., 6. 39. Ibid., 20. See also Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of how humans became animals who could both make promises and keep secrets in On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Francis Golffing (New York: Doubleday, 1956). Nietzsche locates the transition much earlier, and he traces the morality of ethical responsibility to much more painful and immoral sources. The Gift of Deathcan also be read as an implicit commentary on the Genealogy of Morals.  
40. Jacques Derrida, Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 65.  
41. Ibid., 78.  
42. Ibid., 81.  
43. Ibid., 81.  
44. The Gift of Death, 35.  
45. Ibid., 54.  
46. Ibid., 55. See also Kant’s description of the sublime, which is marked by an internal trembling or tremoring (Erschütterung) of human faculties of reason and imagination in their conflictual discord. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 115. Pluhar uses the word vibration to translate Erschütterung, but trembling or tremoring would be a better translation and make the connection with Derrida and Kierkegaard more obvious.  
47. Derrida, The Gift of Death, 55.  
48. Ibid., 55–56. 49. See Ibid., 24.  
50. Ibid., 59.  
51. Ibid., 67.  
52. Ibid., 68.  
53. Ibid., 68. See also Derrida’s supplementation of Abraham’s response to God’s (or the Other’s) command, “here I am,” which becomes paradigmatic in Levinas’s ethics (me voici) with Bartleby’s response to the demands of the Other, “I would prefer not to,” in Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener” (75). 54. Ibid., 87.  
55. Ibid., 84.  
56. Ibid., 108. 57. Ibid., 108–109.  
58. Caputo, On Religion, 123. 59. See the conclusion of Caputo, Prayers and Tears, 338–39.  
60. Caputo, On Religion, 140.  
61. Derrida, The Gift of Death, 109.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2003, Vol. 52,  No 4.