Religion, by Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo

Religion (Cultural Memory in the Present)

Derrida was responsible for the topic of discussion in this book, which is part of a series called Cultural Memory in the Present. The book is made up of essays, by various different thinkers, on the title subject.

In the opening essay, Derrida gives us a series of aphorisms relating to the title subject that then interweave until they seemingly bunch up in knots, at which point Derrida tries to find his way back out again. Leaving no stone unturned, Derrida’s long essay is just as careful to include everything as some less dangerous, more PC intellectual would be careful not to include certain elements. Here we have him weighing, considering and dissecting everything from televangelism to Islamic fundamentalism to the papacy, scripture and beyond.

Derrida seems to think that it is inevitable that we return to the subject of Christianity when talking about the west’s relationship with religion, rather than making a generalization that dialectically neutralizes the three big monotheistic faiths. As he notes the word ‘religion’ itself is Latin, which means little outside of the historical context of Christianity, and it is through this context that the west, whether it be through the eyes of secularism within religion or religion within the secularism, that we must look (the west having already found itself thrown into this contingency, to express it in Heideggerian terms).

Whether or not it is certain that we ‘must’ look at religion in this specific Latin context, one of ‘globalatinization’ as he puts it, it provides Derrida a point of focus to discuss the matter in such a way that he always has a point of departure and return with the subject, in order to provide structure to what is, really, a series of loose (if lucid) connections and approximations. This is hardly a crime (though his detractors have criminalized Derrida for this very method of thinking), nor is it an incredibly insightful thing for me to say about the text. Even ideas that started as a ‘deconstruction’ end up having some kind of architecture.

Though rigorous in thought, Derrida’s essay provides a pretty large context and maze-like way of wading through the subject. Or, perhaps, due to its aphoristic nature, it is like a big house in which each thought is a different room. By the time one has finished browsing, admiring this and that room, one steps out of the house and looks back on it as a whole.

Derrida’s varied way of tackling the subject is an interesting pair with the next essay by Gianni Vattimo, entitled ‘The Trace of the Trace.’ Vattimo is unapologetically hard to pin down (not that Derrida isn’t—he’s pretty much made a career out of it). To pair them in strictly binary terms, one could say that Derrida represents the ‘secular view’ while Vattimo represents (interprets) the ‘religious view.’ As a Catholic (of some sort), Vattimo centers his essay on the return of religion in the modern world.

Vattimo's  career, over the past decade or so, has taken a strong thematic turn. In the works of his early career, he offered both a means of interpreting and a series of interpretations, often coinciding with the explanation of his interpretation imbedded within the interpretation itself. It seemed that the ‘results’ (we’ll call them for now) of this incredibly nuanced way of doing philosophy upset people more than the actual method. Perhaps this is why the latter half of Vattimo’s career seems to be an apologetic for his own brand of hermeneutic philosophy that has been referred to for a while now as ‘Pensiero Debole’—‘Weak Thought.’

On the outset, one would probably be tempted to say that Weak Thought (which ironically relies on a series of strong postulations in order to arrive at its ‘weak’-ness) is Vattimo taking Heidegger far too seriously as it concerns his preoccupation with retrieving Being and ‘leaving metaphysics to itself,’ while likewise takingNietzsche far too seriously as it concerns his preoccupation with destructive nihilism verses constructive nihilism. By the way that Vattimo has routinely interpreted both thinkers, one would be tempted to think that Vattimo sees his ‘Weak Thought’ as a way of surpassing metaphysics while at once ‘retrieving Being’ and also superseding destructive nihilism with constructive nihilism.

If one were to read only the writings of the later stages of his career, one would probably ask, ‘Why this method? Why this conclusion?’ which brings us back to the initial interpretation. Like I said before, Vattimo’s method and resulting interpretations often have such a relationship that one doesn’t quite know where one ends and the other begins. One always gets the sense that Vattimo is being playful, but he’s sure not going to tell us which aspect of his thought is play, just as one would gather that some of the qualifying interpretations of certain ideas were developed after he found the result he wanted, as is the case with some of the ways he talks about religion.

However, this essay suggests differently. As Vattimo tries to map out a few possible thoughts on the return of religion in the modern world, he stays close to a serious investment of Heideggerian views on Being, which means that the ‘event-like-nature’ of Being, if we play fair, would have to pan out along one line of events, since to suggest that two separate lines of event—one in which religion reveals the nature of Being through itself and the other in which reflection on the phenomena surrounding religion as a historical mistake using the faculties of ‘Reason’ (unavailable through the previous epic of Being) gives us an ‘accurate’ picture of ‘how the world really is’—becomes contradictory and untenable.

Thus, according to Vattimo  we are no longer in a place where we can rightly dismiss or explain the ‘return’ of religion through convenient essentialist trappings—i.e.: psychology cannot ‘explain away’ the religious sentiment by saying that it is ‘merely’ a manifestation of people’s need to cope with fear, despair and impending cultural violence, but rather, that this means of coping is precisely one of many features of religion expressing itself through the nature of Being, thus legitimizing it on an existential level while giving room for the truth of its claims to enter dialogue with the world.

This is where Vattimo’s ‘Weak Thought’ as a form of constructive nihilism comes in. Though they arrive at it in different ways, Richard Rorty's brand of ‘Neo-pragmatism’ and Vattimo’s ‘Weak Thought’ are similar in nature, and both thinkers have in the past subscribed to one another’s title. A vulgar reduction of both methods of thinking could be summed up in a statement that Rorty said of his own attitude, which was, ‘The only truth is the truth that’s best for you and me.’ In other words, the weakness of ‘Weak thought’ and the pragmatism of ‘Neo-pragmatism’ amounts to a dialogue, an attitude of friendliness in some achievable end.

Vattimo takes it a lot farther by saying that this attitude of ‘friendliness’ is precisely the attitude and center of Christianity. While much of the discourse in his philosophy returns to ‘the end of metaphysics,’ Vattimo suggests that Christianity, as a tradition, offers a form of transcendent dialogue that has a definite role in that end. The ‘strong’ systems of thought responsible for archaic religions, and even of modern ideologies, resemble the very strong system which collapsed in light of the doctrine of the incarnation. Vattimo could be seen as critical of post-Enlightenment thought by suggesting that the nature of religion digs itself into the marrow of the culture and always informs it, even if it appears to ‘go away’ for a while, its reemergence and dissipation both being aspects of the history of Being, and therefore, inseparable from any other knowledge of Being.

Rene Girard accused Vattimo’s treatment of philosophy as a kind of ‘game,’ which is not entirely groundless. Vattimo’s ‘weak thought’ is, among other things, a means of entertaining a possibility, an imaginative way of conversing. The next half dozen or so essays in the book could all be said to follow this same style of thinking though taking a different route and arriving at different results. In the same way that Vattimo adds some perspective to Heidegger, others bring us back to Kant, to Hegel, to Aristotle, to the original Judaic texts, all to entertain a series of possibilities and new ways of thinking about traditional ideas.

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The book is concluded with an endearing essay by George-Hans Gadamer, who has been famously open to healthy dialogue with religion, probably as a means of maintaining ethical solidarity between radically different groups in a world in crisis. Gadamer’s speculative ‘solutions’ coupled with Derrida’s more ominous predictions open and close a much bigger conversation that ends up being as friendly as it is rewarding to discover. 

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Read about Gianni Vattimo and Rene Girard's debate here