Tag Archive: Derrida


I’m occasionally asked to give a chapel message at my new post here at Concordia University. Here’s one from last week. The given text comes from John 13:34-35.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Something calls to us in this text today. It’s haunting. It’s utterly haunting. We cannot do what it asks of us and we know it. But we want what it calls for and we want it desperately. These two lines are perfectly maddening.

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

There is no shortage in our world of criticism for the church and especially for Christians. The accusation of hypocrisy is leveled at them perhaps more than anyone else. The power of such accusations works in part because the world is knowledgeable of the church’s calling. It knows that Christ has called the church to love one another, and not just each other, but elsewhere Christ’s calling upon the church appears to be even more maddening—he calls us to love our enemies, those who by default we consider unlovable. This is pure madness. Not only can I not do it, but it simply does not make sense.

It was the atheist philosopher Jacques Derrida who saw something special in the church. He understood the church to be THE paradigmatic institution on earth where unconditional love, acceptance, hospitality and forgiveness should be experienced. The church is that place.

But is that what we experience? Are you perfectly accepted in the church? Can you REALLY be who you are, I mean, who you REALLY are, in the church? Are you sure you’ll still be loved? What if I tell you my deepest darkest secrets? How will I know when I have not crossed that invisible line on the one side of which I’m welcomed and on the other side of which I suddenly become unacceptable, unlovable, deplorable, despicable, a sinner beyond the pale of love and redemption?

Let me give you a practical example of how this plays out. I’m borrowing this from John Caputo, who, in his excellent book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, spoofs on the phrase that was popular in the last decade, “What Would Jesus Do?” Caputo focuses on the practical act of forgiveness as a concrete expression of Christian love, for what else can we think of that might be the best exhibit of unconditional love in the Christian life—a love that loves in the same way that Jesus loves? To set this up, Caputo presents what might be considered our normal practice of forgiveness, even in the church—that very paradigmatic places that proclaims unconditional forgiveness and acceptance, but just so happens to practice otherwise. That is, Caputo points out surprisingly (or perhaps not at all!) the church actually practices forgiveness not without conditions but with them: In our everyday interaction with others forgiveness from one to another is generally understood to operate via a certain set of steps. The one in need of or seeking forgiveness must do certain things to earn forgiveness. Jacques Derrida, in his characterization of how forgiveness is actually practiced, frames it in this way: “forgiveness can only be considered on the condition that it be asked, in the course of a scene of repentance attesting at once to the consciousness of the fault, the transformation of the guilty, and the at least implicit obligation to do everything to avoid the return of evil” (Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness). Caputo, riffing on Derrida, captures this process more succinctly, saying, “Forgiveness requires an expression of sorrow, the intention to make amends, a promise not to repeat the offense, and a willingness to do penance. If someone meets all four conditions, they have earned forgiveness. We owe it to them the way the bank owes us the deed once the mortgage is paid off.”

Here we run in the quandary presented by our text. We treat forgiveness in very economic terms. It is a matter of exchange for us. And so our love for one another is all out of order. And deep in our soul we know this. And that is why I say that this passage in maddening. Because we desperately want the kind of unconditional love Jesus calls for, the kind that would be experienced in unconditional, uneconomic forgiveness, but we find that we cannot do it. We inevitably slip into these economic ways of operating.

Yet there is a further madness. This calling to love one another inevitably still haunts us. Jesus’s words won’t go away. And right now, we are journeying through Lent, the season of the church’s life where reflection and repentance take center stage in a way that they do not during other parts of the church year. One of the things I am well aware of in my life, and this just came up for me yesterday, is that many people in our world are hurting, and much of that hurt has been caused by the church itself. Derrida is right you know. Even as an atheist, he recognizes something true about the church. It IS the paradigmatic institution of unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and hospitality. But so many have been hurt by the church’s inability to believe God’s unconditional love for them, and thus they have not been so transformed as to be able to embody it toward others. Or they have faltered in their love for others in ways that have unwittingly caused the worst kinds of damage in other’s lives. For this, we must repent. And so we pray…

Prayer of repentance:(here I offered an extemporaneous prayer in the spirit of Lent, reflecting on how we as the church have no loved, but also on how we as the church have not trusted God and so have been unable to love. Then I moved into the following petition.)

Petition of Transformation:

God, teach us to know you as a God who gives gifts. In Jesus you gave the gift of love in human form. Make us a people who can truly receive them, who can be radically transformed by them, who can be vessels through whom your gifts of love are given. God, make us a people who give gifts uneconomically, unconditionally, unaccountably. Make us a people who operate unreasonably, who do not make sense. Make us not a people of principle, not a people who love only those who are lovable—who love only those who love us (for even the mafia does that)—but make us a people who do something offensive and crazy and difficult and impossible. Make us a people who love not just ourselves and each other, but who love our enemies as well. Make us a people who love without worldly reasons, but with kingdom reasons. Make us a people who have experienced the madness of your love in the kingdom, a love from you for us—who have been and very often are still your enemies—so that we can be the very vessels through which the madness of the kingdom is revealed to the world.

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I’ve had papers accepted at two more conferences this year. The first, the Truth Matters conference hosted by the Institute  for Christian Studies in Toronto, will be held at Victoria University at the University of Toronto in August. Below you can read the abstract I sent. The paper is entitled “Truth as Far as the Story Goes.”

Narratives provide the supporting rationality for all of life. They make life intelligible at every level, even accounting for what might be considered unintelligible, by making room for mystery or anomaly. Narratives, or what are sometimes referred to as traditions (e.g., in MacIntyre) constitute what has been called the “cultural imaginary” (see Ward, but also Taylor, Ricoeur, and others)—the very fabric of life in society in which actions and interactions are both driven and understood through a “magma” of images, metaphors, myths, and signs.

This paper will explore the phenomenon that truth is carried and constructed, in and by stories. Through a conversation with some of the figures noted above, as well as others, the paper will highlight the situational nature of truth as intimately connected to the narratives and traditions of local contexts. From within these local contexts, particular practices of treating the truth and reflecting on it emerge. Every context has a particular hermeneutical tradition, one which both conceives of truth and provides a normative guide for judging truthfulness and pursuing truth through, for example research and learning. In other words, every context or community has a sense that it knows what it is looking for when it speaks of truth, and it also has some way of judging whether or not it has found the truth.

Yet the above construal raises a serious question. If truth is bound by the limits of narrative or cultural imaginary, and if additionally, each society, community, or tradition has a unique way of construing the truth as well as a means of getting at the truth, then how might we deal with the general assumption that there is an underlying, singular truth definitive of all reality? Certainly, modernistic rationalism and empiricism, which rely so heavily on certain procedures or methods of argumentation, have failed in the endeavor to arrive at a universal conception of truth or any sort of universal method for arriving at definitively truthful conclusions—various sorts of postmodernism make this critique, both Anglo-American and Continental. Some have feared, then, that on this basis we must conclude relativism. But we need not conclude such an “anything goes” perspective.

That truth is carried in narrative is the assumption of this paper. But we are not left to concede that every narrative has an equal corner of the market on truth. As Charles Taylor and others have noted, there are good reasons for accounting for reality in some ways rather than others. Or to speak more in line with the present argument, there are good reasons to believe that certain narratives carry the truth account for reality better than others. This is not to say that these reasons are not up for debate—in fact, Taylor’s argument assumes they are debatable. It is only to say that in the pursuit of truth narratives, traditions, and cultural imaginaries are all semper reformanda. Through debate, conversation, epistemic gain, and persuasion, narratives are both formed and reformed. The paper will pursue this reasoning regarding the plurality of both narratives and truth, as well as how narratives might change.

The paper will also offer suggestions for further reflection: What might these conclusions offer to a new conceptualization of truth? One possibility is the encouragement of a much deeper analysis of our how cultural practices both communicate truth as well as how they form persons of a particular kind to the extent that they are truthful reflections of the narrative which underlies their identity as members of a particular society or people.

Another possibility is a deeper exploration of how individuals come to take certain narratives to be their narrative. Is it a process of indoctrination? What are they deep mechanisms of production which are at work in forming individuals to be particular people? It seems there is also another very important question here: to be aware of these processes, mechanisms, or systems of indoctrination is of value on the epistemic level of understanding, but how does such awareness do further work in forming and informing practices? In others words, what is the point of simply knowing about the phenomena at work in cultural production, as opposed to putting that knowledge to work?

The second paper is entitled “Narrating the City from a Sacred Refuge.” I’ll be delivering that at the Religion and Modernity in a Secular City conference, hosted by the Katholische Academie (Catholic Academy) in Berlin, Germany in September. The abstract is below.

Jaques Derrida has advocated for cities of refuge for writers who were persecuted and silenced in their local contexts of authorship. Might this concept of cities of refuge and the focus on writing and writers be of great importance for a consideration of religion in the secular city? As a refuge from the city but still within the city, the church can bring the marginalized and persecuted voices of private citizens into the public sphere, effectively blurring the line between the realms. These voices write the story of the city as its citizens—not just with words, but with ways of being. Without such voices—voices which have been silenced publicly—the city does not exist, for as Graham Ward has noted, writing and the city are so inextricably linked. The church is the very place which can best write the narrative of the city, from the very beginnings of the city and cities to the narrative of the city as it should be—an image of the eternal city. The church can best narrate the story of the present and local city for, as a place of refuge it is a place which houses the stories of the city in the voices of its people. In so narrating, might not the church offer a transformative politics through the story it tells? This is the story which represents the city as it is and the vision that calls to it, that haunts and has haunted its being since the first city—the story of the eternal city. This paper will argue for such a view of the church in the secular city. The church is a community of refuge which can narrate the city’s present and its future through practicing the citizenship of the eternal city in modern times.

I’m hoping to meet Graham Ward at this conference. I have been particularly influenced by his work. He’ll be the keynote speaker.

Okay, so as I wrote this paper (which is pretty much done, but still requires some edits, footnotes, and maybe some other adjustments cuz I’m at the edge of the word count limit), things changed a bit. One reason is, I have a word count limit, so I can’t just say everything I want to–that doesn’t mean an expansion isn’t possible after the conference in prep for publishing. Another reason is, I just couldn’t do much with one of the ideas as I had it–I didn’t like how it was going; I wrote the beginning of the paper 3 times. So below, I put strike-throughs in the old stuff, and wrote some new stuff to make the abstract more reflective of what actually happened.

Title: The Politics and Poetics of Forgiveness

New Title: Transforming the Politics of Forgiveness

The very idea of forgiveness needs to be reframed from a sense of an “economy of exchange,” one in which forgiveness is merely owed upon the payment of some sort of debt. Recent conversations in continental philosophy and Christian theology have offered helpful new understandings of the nature of forgiveness. The discussion of the “gift” in Derrida’s work and those influenced by him reveals a certain calling into possibility something which seems impossible—true forgiveness. Coupled with insights from the Christian theological tradition, the “gift” of forgiveness through grace becomes powerfully transformative for both personal and communal identity. In giving the gift of forgiveness, a space is opened in one’s identity for real and lasting transformation to occur, such that the resultant relations in a given community will be directly influenced in large part, by the expression of further forgiveness, further giving of the gift. The transformation of the one becomes a flow of transformation of others.

Bookending this discussion of forgiveness, this paper will also explore the political relations which form the conditions of possibility for forgiveness. Stated simply, humans live in communities in which there are disagreements, transgressions and conflicts. Even further, these communities are themselves in relation with other communities (the boundaries of many of these are fluid; individuals are members of many different communities). The political nature of these communities is characterized by a sense of contestation. Each community embodies a story of its own, inhabits a worldview of its own—all of which are in conflict with each other. characterized by the existence of perpetrators and victims, fights and conflict, the demand for justice and repentance. In light of this reality, my paper will re-imagine how forgiveness—viewed through the concept of “gift” and empowered by a Christian theology of transcendence—challenges and changes the political relations of individuals and communities as well as the poetics of the grammar of forgiveness. and following from the central discussion of transformative forgiveness, I will offer two concrete ways that individuals and communities can practice the hope of forgiveness as they anticipate the eternal peace of the coming Kingdom.

I’m glad the paper is more or less done. I know I’ll at least be able to submit it on Monday. Now to bug one of my friends to read it over for me. I’m glad I’ve got people in my life who can read so well and think critically but generously about my work. It really is a God-given gift.

I left the call for papers and the link to the conference below.

The paper is for a conference on the Politics of Peace by the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology.

Here is their call for papers:

SCPT’s 2010 conference will focus on PEACE. We invite papers that examine the many dimensions of peace from social, political, religious, scientific, theological, and philosophical points of view. We also seek papers dealing with complementary topics such as justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace-making, and that deal with the practical aspects of the above topics. SCPT is an organization that seeks to promote inquiry at the intersection of philosophy and theology, through the study of phenomenology, deconstruction, feminism, Radical Orthodoxy, and other related fields.

I’m currently working on a new paper for a conference in April. Here is the abstract.

Title: The Politics and Poetics of Forgiveness

The very idea of forgiveness needs to be reframed from a sense of an “economy of exchange,” one in which forgiveness is merely owed upon the payment of some sort of debt. Recent conversations in continental philosophy and Christian theology have offered helpful new understandings of the nature of forgiveness. The discussion of the “gift” in Derrida’s work and those influenced by him reveals a certain calling into possibility something which seems impossible—true forgiveness. Coupled with insights from the Christian theological tradition, the “gift” of forgiveness through grace becomes powerfully transformative for both personal and communal identity. In giving the gift of forgiveness, a space is opened in one’s identity for real and lasting transformation to occur, such that the resultant relations in a given community will be directly influenced in large part, by the expression of further forgiveness, further giving of the gift. The transformation of the one becomes a flow of transformation of others.

Bookending this discussion of forgiveness, this paper will also explore the political relations which form the conditions of possibility for forgiveness. Stated simply, humans live in communities in which there are disagreements, transgressions and conflicts. Even further, these communities are themselves in relation with other communities (the boundaries of many of these are fluid; individuals are members of many different communities). The political nature of these communities is characterized by a sense of contestation. Each community embodies a story of its own, inhabits a worldview of its own—all of which are in conflict with each other. In light of this reality, my paper will re-imagine how forgiveness—viewed through the concept of “gift” and empowered by a Christian theology of transcendence—challenges and changes the political relations of individuals and communities as well as the poetics of the grammar of forgiveness.

I actually have to submit the whole paper rather than just the abstract. The deadline is next Monday, Feb 8. I’ve got a good chunk of the paper put together. I’m working out some messy parts currently.

The paper is for a conference on the Politics of Peace by the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology.

Here is their call for papers:

SCPT’s 2010 conference will focus on PEACE. We invite papers that examine the many dimensions of peace from social, political, religious, scientific, theological, and philosophical points of view. We also seek papers dealing with complementary topics such as justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace-making, and that deal with the practical aspects of the above topics. SCPT is an organization that seeks to promote inquiry at the intersection of philosophy and theology, through the study of phenomenology, deconstruction, feminism, Radical Orthodoxy, and other related fields.

Pray for the final process of my writing. This is yet another opportunity for me to interact with a body of scholars whose disciplines (continental thought) are congenial to my own tradition of theology–both of which, I think, have a great deal to offer each other.