POSTMODERNISM AND THE DESIRE FOR GOD:
AN E-MAIL EXCHANGE
by Edith Wyschogrod and John D. Caputo

Augustine's question returns, unanswered:
"What then do I love when I love my God?"

    EDITH WYSCHOGROD, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, is the author of Saints and Postmodernism, Spirit in Ashes, and, most recently, An Ethics of Remembering (all published by the University of Chicago Press). Her essay "Works That 'Faith': The Grammar of Ethics in Judaism" appeared in Cross Currents, Summer 1990.

    JOHN D. CAPUTO, Cook Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University, is the author of Against Ethics (Indiana, 1993), Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (Fordham, 1997), and The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Indiana, 1997).

    At the invitation of the editors, philosophers John D. Caputo and Edith Wyschogrod engaged in a lengthy e-mail correspondence that produced the following dialog, itself a phenomenon of the postmodern.

John D. Caputo. In just the past year we have seen two books edited by English theologians -- one entitled The Postmodern God, the other Post-Secular Philosophy -- that have pressed the claim that "postmodern" must be understood to mean or at least to include "postsecular," that the delimitation of the claims of Enlightenment rationalism must also involve the delimitation of Enlightenment secularism. A critical stance toward modernism goes hand in hand with a critical stance toward secularism. In France, Jacques Derrida's most recent work has taken a turn toward what he calls "religion without religion," that is, to a thinking that involves a certain repetition of basic religious structures, most notably the "messianic." Derrida now analyzes in detail notions like the gift, hospitality, testimony -- and most recently, forgiveness -- that have always belonged to classical religious discourse. As you well know, on the continent this renewal is very much the effect of the impact Levinas's work has had.(1) This is especially true of Derrida himself and also of Jean-Luc Marion, who speaks of a God "without being," without the "idols" of what Heidegger calls "onto-theo-logic." As these thinkers have been arguing, it seems that God is making a comeback.

This is a fascinating development, and one that sends shock waves through certain American "postmodernist" writers who, however avant-garde they might be in their own work on the question of God and religion remain deeply and intractably modernist in protecting the rear guard of modernist critiques of religion. Religion is one "other" that these thinkers, who are otherwise deeply persuaded about the power of the "other," do not want to hear about. I have many friends who love to talk about exposing philosophy to the "other," still better to the "unconditionally" or "wholly" other, but when I mention religion, they turn pale. It turns out that by "other" they mean literature. So their unconditional, wholly other is constrained by several conditions, and religion is just too, too other for them, too "tout autre," if I may say so.

This development raises many questions. What does "God" mean if one speaks of a "postmodern God"? What does reason and philosophy mean? What can we say today of the most ancient religious motif of all, the desire for God?

What do you make of these developments?

Edith Wyschogrod. Much of the process of rediscovery hangs, I think, on the way in which immanence and transcendence are now being construed in the postsecular conversation. The problem in the present context has been at least in part framed by the way in which Levinas has been drawn into the God-question. For Levinas, the Other is the other person whose very existence places a demand of noninjury upon me, an ethical demand that I read in the face-to-face relation with the Other. But it has not gone unnoticed that the Other is in the track or trace of transcendence which, for Levinas, is construed in terms of a God who has always already passed by, who cannot be made present. This allows for a transcendence that for him is seen in conformity with rabbinic tradition. Ethics is first philosophy and the Old One, the Ancient of Days is, as it were, cordoned off. But the imago dei (to be construed an-iconically, in conformity with Jewish tradition) is not a representation of God but an invisible writing that more than hints at an immanentist theology. Our postsecular friends, like Philip Blond, maintain that Levinas's thought is deeply dualistic in that the otherness of the Other and the otherness of God -- or to use Levinas's term, of illeity (the He) -- cannot be maintained. Levinas's Otherness, it is argued, has sustained an interest in ethics as a means to eradicate a world that is debased.(2) Now Blond (and John Milbank) want to save the appearances by an appeal to God, not by rereading the appearances as redeemed, but as a therapeutic gesture in the direction of philosophy, making the world safe for philosophy by showing that God's infinite distance does not destroy but proves to be the ground for the realization of human possibility. It is I think a misreading of Levinas to see him as world-denying or at least world-castigating in almost Buddhist fashion. But what has been correctly perceived is that Levinas has opened the need for thinking through the paradox of the Other as being in the track of transcendence, but of transcendence also being (somehow) in the track or trace of the Other.

Caputo. I quite agree with you about the line Blond takes on Levinas. Blond says in effect that for Levinas the Good is otherwise than being because being is evil. It is a shocking misrepresentation, almost a denunciation of a thinker who is no doubt the single most important figure in putting the question of God back on the table for philosophical discussion, who has opened the eyes of a highly secular philosophical world to the question of God. It is furthermore an ironic denunciation, inasmuch as for Levinas the whole force of the name of God, of the Ancient of Days, of the past which was never present, is spent in the name of earthly peace and social justice -- spent, I am tempted to say, "without remainder." That is why I would like to hear more about what you mean when you say, as I understand it, that today we experience the need to think not only the Other person as a trace of God but also to think God as the trace of the Other. Is that what you mean by an "immanentist theology"? Is that the direction a "postmodern" theology or religion would take for you? Or even a "religion without religion," to use Derrida's expression.

Wyschogrod. To answer your question about my position with regard to immanence, if it is answerable, let me rehearse some commonplaces attributable to the Enlightenment: the historical myth of progress, the myth of theological projection, and the myth of psychological maturity. The first has been demolished by our genocidal century, the second by recent criticisms of how projection was thought to be anchored -- whose projection, what standard of rationality? -- and the third by the claim that psychological maturity is a social construction, a cultural artifact. God was seen as an obstruction in many versions of these myths, but the demythologization of all three left a space, as it were, for God.

Meanwhile a non-Freudian account of desire was developed by some recent French thinkers, a desire that carried with it all the intensity of Freud's description of sexuality. But some who assimilated accounts of desire as overwhelming intensity lacking an object sought to find this intensity in an inner-worldly source transcending the individual. The death-of-God theologians, Thomas Altizer et al., saw God as emptying himself into the world. Let us rejoice, they proclaimed, in our Nietzschean legacy. Levinas, on the other hand, proclaimed a radical transcendence that, as I hinted earlier, could not be sustained. A historical precedent for the death of God is the old Patripassian heresy, the idea that the Father emptied himself into the Son. Today the problem is to avoid the immanentism characteristic of extreme radical and national ideologies, the violence of immanentism run amok. Here Levinas helps. The Other in her or his singularity precludes such sacralization. It is here -- in the area of social justice -- that the Other restrains the claims of transcendence.

What do you think? How does this fit in with your view in Against Ethics?

Caputo. I would certainly defend an idea of transcendence, but I would begin with a more fragile and undecidable sense of transcendence. The world is filled with the divine, but the markings of the divine are undecidable. The Other lays claim to us irresistibly, by which, of course, I do not mean that we are coerced, for we are always free to walk away from the Other. But even when we do walk away, which we do with great regularity, the claim remains standing, testified to by our negligence, testified to privately, so that it rises up in glory vis-à-vis the misery of our own self-love. That of course is what we learn from Levinas, and how can we thank him enough for that lesson? But for me, this claim is clouded by a certain indeterminacy. It is real, it is irresistible, but still for me the claim that the neighbor lays upon me flickers in a twilight, so that in the end I do not know what lays claims to me. I know that I am laid claim to by the neighbor or the stranger, and I know that I am debased in not responding. But I also lack the wherewithal to answer the "genealogical" critic who says that I am historically constituted to respond and even to feel debased in not responding, and that I could be constituted otherwise. True enough, I think, that may be so, but I am not excused and the claim is irresistible. That is why the claim is "desert-ified," as Derrida would say, comes to me like a voice in the desert, with a certain desert-like dryness or indeterminacy. Levinas, I think, will not settle for this undecidability. He wants to back it up, as it were, by rooting it in a desire for the Good, a desire for God, Who deflects this desire from itself -- Himself, Herself? -- and orders us to the neighbor, almost as if this were a certain divine command theory. That is a more robust sense of transcendence than phenomenology allows. (I would not be as quick to leave phenomenology as Levinas. I seek protection from phenomenology.) That is perhaps what you mean when you refer to a sense of transcendence in Levinas that cannot be sustained.

I think we must be content to say that this claim arises from the fragility of the face of the neighbor, which is a phenomenological matter, an ethical phenomenology, not in the sense of the intuition of pure ethical values or essences, but in the sense of the concrete experience of the approach of the neighbor. I would describe this experience as a faith, to be sure, since I do not know what is going on here. I am overtaken by a claim which I do not comprehend in advance, but it is what Kant might call a practical faith, a pragmatics. That is how and where transcendence first presents itself, first shows its face, if I may say so. But in a properly religious faith, for which the name of God is indispensable, this indeterminacy is specified by being lodged in a concrete historical religious tradition, Christian, or Jewish, or other. That tradition gives us texts to read, stories to savor and remember, communities to support us, prophets to chasten us, and generally puts a fine point on this more opaque and dark phenomenology of the approach of the neighbor. A concrete faith tradition fills in the lines, determines what is otherwise a more "desert"-like experience, as it is for Derrida and his "religion without religion."

The disciples say, "Lord when did we see you hungry and give you to eat?" That is the great story of transcendence for me. The important thing is that it is a question, which is a sign of undecidability here, for at the time of giving the gift the disciples did not know that this was the Lord. I am laid claim to by the Other who is hungry, and that is all. It is just a gift. Now, the story comes along and shapes this phenomenological approach by adding later on, whenever you did this to the least of mine, you did this to me. Now the name of God is introduced. That also is faith. These two senses of transcendence are both matters of faith, two senses of faith. They do not differ as "reason" and "faith," but the second faith is more determinate, more specified, the faith of what Derrida would call a "concrete messianism," rather than his more desertified "messianic." Both are faith, and both are a risk, but the more determinate the faith, the bigger the risk. And for Kierkegaard, the greater the risk, the greater the passion and subjective intensity that is required.

Is this at all like thinking God as the trace of the Other or an "immanentist theology" for you?

Wyschogrod. From the opening question of our conversation, "Why God, Why now?" we have shifted, and rightly so, to: "What can be said about a God that lays claim upon us by way of Spuren, the track or trace of transcendence inscribed in the face of the Other?" And, with you, I acknowledge that we confide ourselves to narratives in the twilight -- perhaps in the twilight of what Nietzsche called idols -- in which the demand of the neighbor is always already clouded by the suspicion of religion as socio-cultural construct or, more ominously, a conspiracy against our corporeal and aesthetic sensibilities. I agree, we must attribute undecidability to transcendence while assenting to Levinas's claim that transcendence cannot be separated from ethical responsibility. We are indeed indebted to Levinas for refiguring the traditional aspects of God, divine mercy, and justice, as an ethic of alterity.

Yet I cannot wholeheartedly endorse an immanentism of traces, for that is a theology of fear. By detaching God from the ethical claim of the Other, Levinas acknowledges that one can have religious experience but points out, rightly, that the mystic disengaged from the epiphany of the face lives in isolation. Religious wars, he asserts, may result in the absence of the constraints of alterity. I share these worries, but I shall argue for a theology of both risk and intensity. In the case of Levinas, his fear stems in part from his being steeped in a tradition that is an outgrowth of a nineteenth-century quarrel between Lithuanian Hasidic Judaism and Mithnagdic Judaism, which is geared to the study of texts rather than to prayer. The primary representative of Mithnagdic Judaism was the extraordinary figure, the Gaon of Vilna, whose follower, Haim of Volozhin, played an important role in Levinas's spiritual formation. What drove the Mithnagdic practitioners of Judaism wild was precisely the Hasidic stress upon prayer rather than upon the immersion in rabbinic learning. They were deeply suspicious of Hasidism's emphasis upon religious fervor, the white heat of religious emotion.

I share Levinas's suspicion of frenzy, religious and secular, that has fired the cataclysms of the twentieth century, but I cannot identify entirely either with an immanentism of the trace or with Buber's Romantic version of Hasidism. I would appeal to an ineradicable desire, that is indeed a desire for the Other, but also a desire of desire, a desire that intensifies as it falls back into itself. Described by Diotima in Plato's Symposium and reinscribed in recent French thought, this desire is an ineluctable yearning that knows nevertheless that it yearns for that which may burn and destroy, a risk caught in the story of Moses that remains determinative for the rabbis and so captivated Augustine who yearned to speak with God face to face. I call what is lacking in Levinas the erotics of transcendence. Both adopting and distancing myself from Levinas, I suggest that the desire for transcendence reflects the hubris of asking and the humility of knowing that what is asked for cannot be granted.

Caputo. Levinas calls the desire for God, for the Good, "nonerotic par excellence." But you want this desire to be somehow touched with erotic desire, and to include a desire for desire. Now, if I understand you correctly, Levinas would object that this would lead the desire back to the self. When Augustine said he was in love with love, he meant that he was not only in love with the beloved, but also in love with the joy of love, with the jouissance that love brings. Levinas does not condemn that, by any means, but he says that the ethical relation to the neighbor and the stranger does not involve this jouissance, is nonerotic, since we do not always like the neighbor or the stranger. But you want to invoke a non-Freudian eros, after Freud -- or even before Freud, in Plato -- whom you cite, where eros, taken in a wider sense, incites a desire for the Forms, first of all for the Beautiful, but eventually for the Good. In that sense, the desire for God has an erotic component.

Without using the language of eros, either in Freud or in Plato, I would say that the "desire for God" is indeed a passion. If it is not a passion then it does not interest us, does not carry us off and hold us captive, and it has no subjective intensity. Then we would not care. This desire transfixes us, concerns us "all the way down," so to speak; otherwise we would be lukewarm or indifferent. That is as it should be for beings made of "flesh." Kant's "pure practical reason," which masters its "pathological impulses," is a philosopher's creation, a fiction of a dualist philosophical anthropology. It lacks not only biblical but also phenomenological credentials. Desire arises from beings made of flesh, and it is directed toward flesh, toward the fate of the flesh of the other. This may take the form of joy, jouissance, the rejoicing of flesh and flesh, love and eros. But sometimes this passion is compassion, suffering with the flesh of the other, with flesh laid low.

Who would say that we can do without overarching desire, a deep desire, desire beyond desire? That for me is in no small part a desire for the future, a passion for the future. We are made up of such desire, and we are at bottom very affirmative, affirming this future, desiring it, hoping and having faith. The name of God is tied up with this desire for the future. The passion for God is a passion for this future. Although his critics do not recognize it, what I am saying here is what Derrida says, what he calls a passion for the impossible, which he also calls a desire for God. But then, at this point, Derrida inserts Augustine's question: quid ergo amo cum deum meum amo? "What then do I love when I love my God?" I love this question because it assumes that, of course, one loves God. Who could deny that? Who would be so hard of heart as not to love God? That would contradict our very make-up, which is to be a passion, a desire, a love of God, of the future. But this love has that indeterminacy that I spoke of and the problem is to determine it, if we can, to ask, what or who are we loving when we love God? Our Maker or our Mommy? Justice and the Trace of God in the Other -- or an illusion? I do not know. That is why I am asking the question. But this nonknowing does not stop me, does not stop the passion, or the love, or the desire; the nonknowing even intensifies the desire. So I keep on the move, by a certain faith.

Wyschogrod. Perhaps one way to approach the erotics of transcendence is to entertain as a hypothesis the idea that the desire for pleasure is natural. Indeed Levinas does not deny the claims of pleasure such as those of eating or living in a house, pleasures that are both licit and necessary. Unlike Kant, who conceded that the wish for happiness is natural but that the entitlement to it must be earned and that we require the afterlife in order to gain enough time to do so, Levinas does not think we must deserve these simple joys. At a more complex level, Levinas speaks movingly of the eros of flesh, the pleasures of the caress which involves one with the other, the near one, but not as the Other of ethics (as you observed). The proximity of eros is not the proximity of ethics. What Levinas fears is the transfer of the intensities of eros to transcendence because the braking power of another's flesh is absent and sheer intensity is unleashed. No matter how close bodies may be, one is distinguishable from the other but, with the transcendent, boundaries disappear. As Levinas avers in an essay on Buber, the mystic speaks to himself in the second person as if he entered into God, "as if the moth that was circled by the fire were burned by it."

The desire I want to talk about is one that is inherently unfulfillable (akin to but not identical with Derrida's passion for the impossible). It is a desire that is always already (messianically) ahead of itself but also remains a desire for the archaic (Augustine's yearning to speak with God as Moses did). It is a desire for the eternal return of the same (the past by way of the future, the future always already in the past) but is not a desire for a static eternity. The messianic is in the trace of a past that cannot be made present. This time-scheme avoids what has come to be called by continental philosophers "the logic of presence," which, as Levinas and Derrida have shown, belies times passing and the otherness of what can never be made present. The yearning for originary presence turns time as presence into static being. It is just this difficulty that besets Buber's admirable effort to encounter the other. Buber's philosophy of dialogue is halfway there but the yearning for originary presence sets the encounter in a between that is a kind of freeze-frame, white-hot to be sure, but in which time stops.

Perhaps Teresa of Avila's account of the interior castle in which she wanders freely -- that most nomadic of women -- seeking but not finding, moving from despair to jouissance and back, describes what I am getting at. To be sure, she speaks in the language of interiority yet God is an inside that is forever outside, the proximate One. The desire for God ignites a jouissance that does not impede responsibility for others. Yes, desire is excess and, as Levinas fears, can be expressed in fanaticism.

Caputo. Then, by the "erotics of transcendence," we are to understand the desire for God, amor dei, le désir de Dieu. Is that a fair translation for you? I am prepared to say that this desire is a fundamental feature of our make up. Inquietum est cor nostrum: that is the law of our heart. Our hearts are structurally restless, with the restlessness of this desire, which is as you say "inherently unfulfillable" and not a desire for "static eternity," which is part of its so-called "postmodernity," and does not expect rest. That is what interests me, the way this most classical, most biblical, desire, this most Augustinian aspiration, has been rediscovered, refashioned -- "repeated," as Derrida says -- in what is popularly called "postmodernism," or at least a certain version or voice of postmodernism. You, in Saints and Postmodernism, and I, in Against Ethics, both sought to identify a voice in postmodernism that is inspired by this aspiration, that draws its breath from this desire, because until recently, that voice is almost lost in most of what is popularly consumed under the name postmodernism.

Clearly, in its postmodern articulation, this desire has been repeated with a difference. For one thing, it does not enjoy a metaphysical status; it does not describe an essence. We would have to concede that such desire has been historically constituted, that it is an effect of texts and traditions, biblical but also nonbiblical, belonging to the historical legacy not only of Jerusalem but also of Athens. We have lost our innocence that this desire is something ahistorical, that we could not be constituted otherwise. For another, this desire is beset by undecidability, on which I have been insisting. We today cannot avoid Augustine's question, what do I love and desire when I love and desire God? But the structure of this desire, the repetition of this structure, is found today among thinkers who are, by conventional standards, "atheists" -- like Derrida, the late Jean-François Lyotard, and others. I would also insist, as you do, that this postmodern desire is deeply ethical and political, associating itself with the most disadvantaged and the outcast. So I would agree with you that this desire for God must never be dissociated from the neighbor, lest it become a mystical or religious narcissism.

In a certain way, the most important feature of this postmodern desire for God is, for me, that it throws the very distinction between theism and atheism into undecidability. Take Derrida's work on "hospitality," that most ancient virtue of nomadic peoples. Derrida says that this must be translated into a politics of hospitality for the nomads of our own times, the immigrants and displaced peoples who search for a home today. Now, by the standards of religious orthodoxy -- and this is what Derrida says about himself -- he "rightly passes as an atheist."(3) But given what he says about hospitality and the passion for justice, which is for him the passion for God, the desire for God, I understand less and less each day what such atheism would mean. And given what you say about Teresa of Avila and her nomadism, about her God Who is not only inside but also outside, I can even see a point of contact between her mystical castle and a deconstructive desire, the passion for the impossible. Does that go too far?

Wyschogrod. Perhaps the French "le désir de Dieu" approaches what I mean by the eros of transcendence. The expression entails a strange ambiguity: desire belonging to God, God's own desire, and our desire for God. We desire that God's desire be directed toward us, what the tradition called seeking God's love. We are entangled in a legacy of multiple religious narratives but this should not mean that, having criticized Enlightenment rationality, postmoderns are free to return to a premodern religiosity. I am in accord with your description of the "restless heart," a condition I would describe as the nerve ends of desire that desire God. I worry, however, about a certain essentialism that this account implies.

Undecidability is indeed a key issue not only with regard to the indistinguishability of atheism from belief but in connection with related matters, especially that of semblance. It is a truism to note that Western philosophy has focused on the issue of the difference between appearance and reality. Whether the real was thought to be an idea or an object reached by the senses, the real was after all ascertainable. Thus, however much the word had varied, the melody remained the same: philosophers claimed to know the real.

In the postmodern culture of images so-called virtual reality raises the problem to a new level. Consider for example, the violence of virtuality and conversely the virtualization of violence. Nothing is more common in the postmodern world than the replication of the violence of interactive video games and internet images. In a world of semblances, people die by violence but their deaths are and are not understood as real. Violence is envisaged as simultaneously actualizing and derealizing death. If all is semblance, a game, death's finality is fictive, undecidable. The question of atheism's undecidability can be construed as though the ethics of the atheist were a thinned out version of theological ethics, a position to which Nietzsche alerted us. Both belief and atheism have become, to use our language, virtualized, thus less and less distinguishable from one another. What is more, if transcendence and immanence are inextricable, the atheist could not see "le désir de Dieu" only as our desire for God but also as God's desire. The atheist can acknowledge that the one who places herself at the disposal of the other bears witness to more than the sheer fact that the self must subject itself to another. The other's vulnerable flesh breaks into semblances not to attest cognitive certainty, but to make an ethical claim that transcends the presentation of face and body as phenomena.

Caputo. I think it is important to remember that the idea behind undecidability has never been to leave us adrift in indecision but to raise the intensity of the decision, the "responsibility" for the decision. The more decidable things are, the more rule-governed they are and the more easily we can excuse ourselves for what we have done by saying, "this is really not my doing, it's the rule." The idea is that, at a certain point, one needs to act, so the resolution of the undecidability is carried out in the pragmatic order. As a "cognitive" matter the debate goes on and can last forever. The quest for what you call "cognitive certainty" always fails. That is what happens, in my view, with respect to God, a word which, I believe, has primarily a pragmatic rather than a semantic force. God, as Kierkegaard -- or "Johannes Climacus" -- said, is primarily a deed not a thought. As a thought, "God" is the thought of what we cannot think, of what is too much, or too high, for thought, and if we wait for clarification we will wait forever. But God, without the scare quotes, means something to do -- hospitality, for example. That is why I do not know what it means to say that one who affirms unconditional hospitality, if there is such a thing, can rightly pass for an atheist, not if God is the God of hospitality. The name of God is very powerful, full of force, of pragmatic effect, ordering us to the neighbor, directing our desire, le désir de Dieu, to the neighbor, as Levinas says. So the name of God is not to be used lightly, not to be used in vain, because it is a proclamation of peace and commits the one who uses it to peace.

Now, as you say, there is anything but peace in the world of virtual reality, which is a world of violence, of violence compounded with violence, filled with virtual death. When school children kill their teachers and classmates we are convinced that they have been overcome by the images in which they are immersed, that they reenact the virtual murders they witness hour after hour on video and TV monitors. How real for them is the difference between pulling a trigger on a gun and clicking a mouse? They learn afterward -- in the flesh, so to speak, and always too late -- that these dead and wounded bodies are not only images, that the images are surfaces of vulnerable flesh. But I would say that the Godlessness of the virtual world is not to be found in the image, but in the violence, and if in the image, then in the extent to which it facilitates violence. The first question many people have about Mark Taylor's recent work(4) on Las Vegas as the emblem of the postmodern world has to do with violence. How does such an image establish critical leverage on murder, on racial injustice, on poverty, or at least provide the possibility for a critique?

But I do not think that it is simply a question of establishing an adequate theory of the difference between image and reality, as if we had to mount a defense of a new realism. That is the reaction, a reactionary reaction of certain "religious realists" who are frightened by contemporary theories of interpretation, textuality, and imagology, who "resist theory." I think it is rather a question of a critical appreciation of the pragmatic difference between images that spill blood and images that spell peace. I would agree that we have no access to an image-free reality, that there is no flesh that is not clothed in images. We always have to do with a world that is constantly being imaged, today more than ever, when the power of representation has been multiplied to infinity. The "real" will always be saturated with image or it will not appear at all. It is a question of pragmatics, of the deed. The Godlessness is not the image, or the undecidability between image and reality, and it is not a question of breaking up images with a new realism. After all, what is older, more biblical, and more beautiful than to be an image? Is not the whole biblical form of life organized around the idea of becoming, of making ourselves the image of God, which means the image of peace and hospitality? Where have there been greater expenditures of imaging and imagination than in religious discourse? The issue is to meet image with image, to interrupt the "virtualization of violence and the violence of virtualization," as you so strikingly put it, with God's image and God's power, with the power of a divine imagination and a divine imagology.

So the amor dei, le désir de Dieu, in this culture of images, is to be the imago dei, to let the images of God fly up like sparks, and to affirm a certain holy undecidability between the "image" and "God."

Wyschogrod. We must indeed act in the absence of a cognitive certainty that is in any case unattainable. Still, I want to hold that ethical responsibility cannot be cordoned off from cognitive undecidability. The field in which decisions are enacted, the everyday world and, if I may be forgiven a cumbersome expression, the discursive space of authorization, the space of Ethics, are intertwined. By the latter I mean the space in my world that is seized by the Other who "burglarizes" the comfortable house, which constitutes for many of us our ordinary existence, with the force of her or his claims. Yet I want to say with Levinas that I remain an empiricist: the need of the other is my opportunity for action in a world I cannot but must know if only in the sense of anticipating the consequences of my actions. My being for the other is contingent upon the way in which the world engages me. Thus the problem of virtuality, or as the French prefer, of simulacra, is intrinsic to the way in which we encounter the Other in the culture of images.

Are we not the beings whose encounter with the world remains governed by the limits of our particular perspectives? Perhaps nowhere has cognitive uncertainty been paired more intimately with radical nonviolence than in the tradition of the Jains of the Gujarit province of India. In a highly complex orchestration of this uncertainty, Jain logicians argue that every possible assertion -- e.g., that a thing is, that it is not -- must be prefaced by the term perhaps or maybe. We can never be sure about what we assert but what stands fast for us is the proscription against violence, against doing harm to living beings. I cite this non-Western tradition to suggest that metaphysical uncertainty can be acknowledged at the same time that the wrongness of violence is attested.

To return to the problem of images, you suggest that the problem is that of violence and not of images as such. But can violence be segregated from the image? Just as motive cannot be segregated from the act, violence and its aim are inseparable. Did not William James argue that act and intent are inseparable, that in fact the body acts before the intention comes to cognitive awareness? Violence becomes what it is by virtue of its object. Unlike desire, which may be objectless, violence is aimed at what is specifiable. Violence inhabits the image that solicits it.

My worry about the culture of images is that, just as alterity steals in as a thief in the night, so too do images. The world's religions are replete with temptation stories, the "evil one" that tempts Hasidic masters, the demons that assault St. Anthony, the armies of Mara that attack Gautama the Buddha. Awareness of this infiltration by the other that is other than ethical otherness, has generated rituals of purification. In a post-Freudian postmodern world, "Forgive them for they know not what they do" has become "Forgive them for although they do not, can not know what they do, they are responsible."

It must be pointed out that the issue of images is a thorny question in Judaic tradition. To be sure, the Hebrew Bible is rich in epiphanies. Yet Aaron's fashioning and Moses' smashing of the golden calf remains paradigmatic. Without rehearsing a complex history, it can be said that the fear of idolatry is central to Jewish belief. As a religion of the text, Judaism is compatible with the intertextuality of hermeneutical and poststructuralist interpretation. Nevertheless, is not the power of the narrative about smashing the images itself contingent upon the extraordinary images it evokes -- the golden figures, the dancing virgins, the ire of Moses? Like Maimonides, Levinas is concerned with the idolatry of the image and turns to the primordial language of saying or command that precedes what is said in actual speech. What are we to think? Does the plethora of images in our culture preclude the sacralization of specific images? Is idolatry a political rather than a theological issue? Can the virtual be marshaled so as to make a joyful noise unto the Lord?

Caputo. I would say that idolatry is both theological and ethico-political, because whatever form it takes it means that I have constructed an image of myself and I have excluded the other. That is a danger for both politics and theology. The idol threatens to subvert the desire for God and turn it into an act of self-love, even as it makes hospitality a way to pursue our own interests. So, as a concluding remark in our conversation about God, let me say something about idolatry.

I begin by expressing my admiration for what you say about the Jains; they sound very "postmodern," as you describe them. I, too, think we must attach a coefficient of uncertainty to our positive claims, our "positions," all the while unflinchingly facing up to our responsibility to the neighbor and the stranger. That responsibility runs on its own, as it were, and does not wait for philosophers or theologians or anyone else to validate it. We are overtaken by it, "burglarized" -- to use the Levinasian expression you cite. It steals past the guard of cognitive scrutiny, whether we like it or not, whether or not it meets certain cognitive standards. That is why Kant thought that if Newtonian physics invalidated ethical responsibility, then so much the worse for Newtonian physics, whose cognitive status must now be redescribed to allow for ethics. Ethics works in the dark, without the light of cognitive validation. The voice of conscience is a voice sounding in the dark.

But it is interesting to me that the voice of conscience has been reinterpreted in postmodernism as the voice of the other, as the other in me, as the call addressed to me by the other, rather than my own inner voice, the inner soliloquy the ego has with itself. I cannot ascertain or determine who calls when the other calls -- is it God, my unconscious, a linguistic or a cultural constellation, or simply the other one, the neighbor or the stranger? That is undecidable, but it is no less urgent or inescapable and I am no less accused. The specifically religious gesture, at least in the case of biblical religion, is to determine this voice as the voice of God, who says that whatever you do to these least ones of mine, these little nobodies, for good or for ill, you do to me. That determines, fixes the call with the name of God, raises the stakes, takes the risk of faith. But it is still a risk we take in the dark, and it does not relieve us of the need to ask: "What do I love when I love my God?"

Now whatever their differences, I am inclined to see a continuity between textualists and imagologists, between the textualist insistence on the undecidability between signifier and signified, which typifies poststructuralism, and the imagological insistence on the undecidability between image and reality, which typifies postmodernism. There is nothing outside the text and there is nothing outside the image, not in the sense that there is nothing real but in the sense that nothing comes naked and unmediated, untouched by text or image. There is no uninterpreted fact of the matter that relieves us of our responsibility to read, sort through, and interpret the texts and images in which we are immersed. As to how things are without text and image, we are utterly in the dark.

But that is not a wail of despair for me. I do not lament these aporias and difficulties and curse the day the text or image was born. I take this undecidability to be the phenomenology of our times, the best description available of the difficulty of our life amidst what David Tracy calls "plurality and ambiguity." Undecidability is, I think, the setting in which a very ancient desire, the amor dei, le désir de Dieu, is enacted, reenacted, repeated -- the site of our religion, even if this be what Derrida calls a religion without religion. That is what interests me today, the desire for God, a postcritical, poststructural, postmodern desire. That is the form this desire takes now, at the end of the Enlightenment's failure to reduce that desire to something less than it is, a fin de siècle desire coming at the end of the millennium and of a century of horrors.

The threat of the idol, which is the image fashioned by our own narcissism, is countered not by absolute invisibility, which asks too much of beings made of flesh, but by the icon. The icon is the visible image that draws us beyond ourselves because we cannot consume it whole with our vision. The icon gives form and body to our desire, to a self-transcending desire to think what we cannot comprehend, to love what we cannot have, to give without return. The icon incarnates the eros of transcendence, the desire for God, which is made flesh in the neighbor and the stranger, above all in the least of these little ones. Beyond the dispassionate God of classical metaphysical theology, beyond the deiform Ego of modernity, the God takes flesh in what St. Paul calls ta me onta, the nonbeings and nobodies of this world, not as a prima causa but as a command: whatsoever you do unto these little ones you do to Me. This command can only be heard in the dark. One task for thinking now, after metaphysics, would be to describe the various icons of our desire for God.

Wyschogrod. Our path has led from "Why God? Why now?" to the question of how we are to think God. If negation is postmodernity's conceptual legacy, let us invoke it. Consider first the ancient skeptics who claimed that we cannot know the way things are. Postmoderns following Nietzsche contend that our knowledge is perspectival, that our assertions about what is are prefaced by a perhaps, a maybe, and that what we claim to know, whether we realize it or not, is enmeshed in moral claims. Many medieval mystics negated the possibility of making affirmative statements about God and asserted that we can only say what God is not. But as Derrida has pointed out, behind such talk is the assumption that there is a fully present, omniscient, and omnipotent being. Postmoderns whose thinking runs along the lines of recent French thought envisage instead a God of excess, restless -- one who is more than can be encompassed by thought. To be in the image of God in this context means to express this superabundance as hospitality and as gift, a hospitality such as Abraham is described as having extended to the angels -- gift that transcends what Aristotle called magnanimity in that it entails not the disbursal of one's goods but the willingness to suffer in the place of the other. In Hegel's philosophy, it is the negative that moves the historical process along. The slips and glitches, the disasters of history, are seen by Hegel as necessary, as fueling historical progress. The process is seen as rational and is realized at history's end in an immanent and self-reflective Absolute, Hegel's God. That history is not rational has been shown by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, among others. The postmodern thinker recognizes that the progress promised by the Enlightenment and German Idealism has eluded us. Yet, in his account of history, Hegel has also argued that we can look back at the images of history -- wind the film backward, as it were. In the age of virtuality where the plethora of images confuses and startles, this looking backward initiates a responsibility to the dead others. We cannot say for sure, "Thus it was," but we remain responsible for the dead others.

The risks entailed by postmodern ethics are significant Perhaps we have preempted the other's narrative. No longer can we fill in the blanks with assurance that God wants this or that. In the light of this dismantling of conceptual structures, what remains? We are left with a desire that has no specifiable object, a desire that desires the desire of the Other whose desire is infinite. Yet God's desire is also a command. So I would insist on a twofold perspective. There is the desire of God's desire, our yearning for it, our effort to lure God. I have called the exaltation and joy of this desire the erotics of transcendence known to Hasidic masters and Christian saints. Levinas is right to be wary of this enthusiasm whose religious and secular versions have been implicated in the horrors of the twentieth century. We cannot evade the ecstatic, but we can in flesh and bone feel the constraint of alterity. The second perspective is not a vision of alterity but the pressure of the Other who commands us in her or his vulnerability. How can we know we have been commanded? We cannot say for sure. Perhaps, perhaps. . . And yet we are constrained.

1. [Back to text]  Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95), a Lithuanian-born Jewish philosopher who spent his adult life in France, was the author of the two most influential works in ethics in continental philosophy in the latter half of this century: Totality and Infinity (1961), trans. A. Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969) and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974), trans. A. Lingis (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981).

2. [Back to text]  Phillip Blond, Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology (London and New York: Routledge, 1998); Graham Ward, The Postmodern God (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

3. [Back to text]  See Derrida's highly autobiographical essay, modeled after Augustine's Confessions, "Circumfession" in Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Bennington, Jacques Derrida, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 153-55.

4. [Back to text]  Mark C. Taylor (Williams College). His Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) is a landmark statement in the dialogue between religion and postmodernism. His latest works are Hiding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997) and The Real: Las Vegas, Nevada (CD-ROM) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 3.