Who’s Afraid of Orthodoxy? The Incarnation as a More Radical Catholic Postmodernism

Two Cheers for Postmodernism

Postmodernism, for me, is a shorthand reference to a constellation of philosophical sources and sensibilities emanating largely from France that, in the light of earlier German critiques (particularly in the work of Martin Heidegger), articulate various criticisms of “modern” frameworks that first emerged in the late Middle Ages and gained steam in the early modern period, up through the various Enlightenments (German, French, English, and Scottish). In other words, I take the “post” to be quite humble and responsible: this is not the announcement of a new era or of any radical rupture with the past, not the inbreaking of an unprecedented epoch nor the overturning of the entire philosophical tradition, and certainly not any kind of a messianic arrival of a god who will finally save us. But it does name a sense that “something’s going on,” both within philosophical discussions and on the ground in lived practice.

With respect to the latter, I think it is helpful to make a further heuristic distinction between postmodernism as a constellation of philosophical and theoretical discourses and postmodernity as another loose heuristic label for a plethora of cultural phenomena that are associated with late modernity: the globalization of markets and the homogenization of commercial cultures, the exponential development of technology (particularly communications technology), the ubiquity of new media, etc. I take these phenomena to be the fruit and culmination of shifts effected in modernity. In the same way, while postmodernism represents a critique of modernity, the philosophical voices of postmodernism certainly didn’t accomplish any acrobatic rupture with respect to modernity; both Foucault and Derrida, for instance, would later identify their own work as extensions of modernity, situated within the Enlightenment project. But one has to take such claims with a grain of salt since these “new” Enlightenments are also trenchant critiques of much of the founding animus of modernity. All this is just to say that things are messy: there is no neat-and-tidy school of “postmodernist” philosophers; there is no creed or manifesto of postmodernism and there are no party members required to heed a defined party line; postmodernism is not a radical, clean break from modernism, though it is a radical critique of modernity; and much that goes under the banner of “postmodern” is, in fact, the manifestation of the flowering of modernity (or its going to seed, depending on how you want to look at it).

My work has been concerned with discerning just what postmodernism means for theology, Christian philosophy, and the lived practice of the church’s worship and discipleship. Undertaken in the spirit of “understanding the times” (1 Chr 12:32), I hope I have articulated a somewhat nuanced stance that boils down to something like this:

Insofar as the church (and mutatis mutandis, Christian theology and philosophy) has bought into key assumptions of modernity;

And insofar as these assumptions (for instance, regarding the nature of freedom, the model of the human person, the requirements for what counts as “rational” or “true,” or what can be admitted to the “public” sphere of political or academic discourse) represent a rejection of biblical wisdom and the Christian theological heritage;

And insofar as postmodernism articulates a critique of just these assumptions;

Then the postmodern critique of modernity is something to be affirmed by Christians, not because it is postmodern, but because the postmodern critique of modernity can be a wakeup call for Christians to see their complicity with modernity, the inconsistency of this with a more integral understanding of discipleship, and thus actually be an occasion to creatively retrieve ancient and premodern theological sources and liturgical practices with new eyes, as it were.

This is a kind of “two cheers” approach to postmodernism, sometimes mistaken as a “three cheers” stance by critics, as if I enthusiastically and wholeheartedly embrace all that is “postmodern,” without critique and without reservation. But the key term in this formulation is insofar as: there are no blank checks in my approach, though I grant that it would require some reading across my corpus (meager as it is) to get this picture. In particular, in books like Jacques Derrida: Live Theory and Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? I sought to provide a charitable exposition of Derrida and deconstruction as a corrective to reactionary misrepresentations of his work by both friends and critics, particularly in the fields of literature and theology/religious studies. In addition, I believe that Derrida presents significant constructive resources for thinking through a variety of issues and problems from a distinctly Christian perspective. As a result, both of these works have a positive, even somewhat apologetic, flavor that tends to let criticism of Derrida recede into the background—to the point that some have suggested that my reading of Derrida represents a certain domestication of his thought, reducing the monstrous threat of deconstruction into the sort of thing that you can comfortably take home to your parents. But within WAP, one will also find a fairly strident critique of the “Derridean” strain of “deconstructive” theology that has dominated continental philosophy of religion. One will also already find a critique of Derrida in The Fall of Interpretation (2000), extended and re-articulated in Speech and Theology (2002), and then focused on the issue of how to read and receive Augustine in Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (2004). The critique is even more incisive in scholarly articles directed to more specialist audiences, though even here I continue to affirm much in Derrida’s work as an important catalyst for Christian thought. So my “two cheers” approach is meant to be a critical appropriation of postmodernism and deconstruction that walks a long way with Derrida, but parts ways at a critical juncture—not out of a timidity or an unwillingness to “go all the way,” but because of a principled critique of what I think are problems internal to Derrida’s thought.

If there is a unique contribution to contemporary philosophy of religion and theology in this project, it could be organized under what I’m calling “the logic of incarnation.” My goal here is to provide a summary account of what I mean by the logic of incarnation, and why it is perhaps a unique position vis-à-vis postmodernism, and more specifically, in contrast to “deconstructive” theology. I will do so by trying to show how it contrasts with a more dominant paradigm, what I’ll call a “logic of determination” that characterizes the work of Jacques Derrida and John D. Caputo—two figures whose work looms over my own, and who cast very long shadows over discussions in continental philosophy of religion as well as more on-the-ground discussions of faith and postmodernism. My goal is to crystallize what I have elsewhere described as the logic of incarnation, contrast it with the logic of determination, and then suggest why the former represents a Catholic, and more persistent, postmodernism.

Competing Logics: Determination and Incarnation

“Haunted” and Unapologetic Postmodernisms

One of the central features of the postmodern critique of modernity is an appreciation of our finitude—our situatedness in time and space, in bodies, in histories, in communities, and in traditions. We can never get (and never really had) a “God’s-eye-view” of the world; rather, our perception and engagement with the world—how we “constitute” the world, phenomenologists would say—is shaped, informed, and conditioned by our situatedness: we come to our experience with particular expectations and habits of perception, particular ways of intending the world that have been handed down to us, constituting a sort of “tradition.” Thus one might say that postmodernism, owning up to our finitude, entails an appreciation of particularity and the difficulty of achieving the sort of universality that was craved by Enlightenment dreams of a universal polis, a rational cosmopolis, populated by rational citizens who all shared the same vision of the Good dictated by “pure” Reason.

Now, I want to suggest that while any postmodern critique worth its salt will be significantly committed to this emphasis on finitude and particularity, just how one evaluates and responds to this situation of finitude will be a point of demarcation between two different kinds of postmodernism. One strain—and it is a strain I find in Derrida and Caputo—rightly recognizes the inescapability of our finitude and particularity, but nonetheless seems to remain haunted by the Enlightenment dream of universality and purity. This strain, I have suggested, is a less persistent postmodernism (a “timid” postmodernism?), because though it appreciates the ineluctable nature of our finitude and particularity, it still seems to evaluate this situation as if it is regrettable, lamentable, and problematic—variously associating the conditions of finitude with violence and injustice. For instance, with respect to knowledge, such haunted (or timid) postmodernism reasons as follows: given that universal, God’s-eye-view knowledge is impossible for finite beings; given that the Cartesian and Kantian dreams of pure, rational, universal knowledge are impossible, we must conclude that we cannot know. “We can only believe,” they’ll add, in pious tones, with hand on their breast, looking up to heaven like Botticelli’s St. Augustine. But wait a second: just because God’s-eye-view knowledge is impossible, why should we conclude that knowledge per se is impossible? Doesn’t such a concession actually leave the modern construal of knowledge in place, albeit it as an impossible ideal? Can you see why one might suggest that this strain of timid postmodernism seems to be persistently haunted by (modern) ghosts? Thus this strain of postmodernism might just amount to modernism in despair—and even reflect a kind of hyper-modernism, with a pedigree that is both Humean and Kantian.

Another strain of postmodernism that I have tried to sketch evaluates this situation very differently: it also recognizes the ubiquity and inescapability of our finitude and particularity. But rather than lamenting this situation, and refusing to be haunted by the ghosts of such dreams, this more “persistent” postmodernism relinquishes the very requirements of universality and purity as constitutive of knowledge, justice, etc. In other words, the more persistent critique of modernity will not only point out that modernity cannot have what it wants; it will also point out that we should refuse to want what it wants. It is a critique not just of modernity’s failures, but of modernity’s desires.

What distinguishes “timid” and “persistent” postmodernisms, I suggest, are two very different “logics.” By a “logic,” here, I mean an implicit working assumption about how things relate to one another, what follows from what, how things hang together, and the rules that govern such relationships. And very importantly, the sorts of “logics” I am referring to here actually operate at the pre­theoretical level; they are akin to what Pierre Bourdieu describes as “pre­logical logic” or what Thomas Kuhn describes as “paradigms.” These “logics” are not so much conclusions to rational deduction, but the assumptions and presuppositions that precede, inform, and govern rational analysis. As such, they are contingent and contestable, and pretty much amount to something like “faith commitments”—even if they sometimes parade themselves as simply recognizing this is supposedly “the way things are.” They amount to a take on the world. Or, to adopt the terminology employed by John Milbank, each constitutes a mythos. In particular, I have suggested that “haunted” postmodernism amounts to a modernism in despair because it assumes a logic inherited from modernity, what I have called a “logic of determination.” In contrast, what I’m calling “persistent” postmodernism works with a different logic, a logic of incarnation which represents a kind of “genius” given to thought by the Incarnation. The genius of this logic is that it makes it possible to conceive difference differently, and thereby to understand finitude and particularity differently as well. Let me unpack each of these in a bit more detail.

The Logic of Determination: The Violence of Finitude

Like the religious wars that spawned Kant’s vision of a peaceable kingdom, the resurgence of religious fundamentalisms—Christian, Islamic, Zionist—has given birth to a new critique of “religious violence.” The contemporary critique, however, signals a new intensification of Enlightenment criticisms: whereas early modern philosophers tended to criticize violence as inconsistent with authentic religious faith, the contemporary (or “postmodern”) critique suggests that determinate religious faith necessarily entails violence. In other words, earlier critics of religious violence tended to view religious wars as an aberration and indication of the inauthenticity of a particular form of faith; but contemporary critics contend that the very particularity of religious confession is intrinsically violent and thus, not surprisingly, produces “real,” political violence. However, the seeds for the postmodern critique were already planted by Kant during the Enlightenment. Kant seeks to denude determinate religion of its historical particularity and thus disclose a “pure” religion of reason. In the contemporary context, such a project is taken up and intensified in the work of Jacques Derrida, whose account of “religious violence” has been influential for scholars in both philosophy and religious studies (for instance, in the work of Caputo and Hent de Vries). For Derrida, religious violence stems from the determination or specification of religious belief by a particular content, linked to a particular historical tradition which appeals to a determinate revelation. According to this account, the particularity of religious confession will lead only to tribalism, and ultimately violence.

But what is the link between religion and violence? What is it about the nature of religion that would suggest this link to violence? For Derrida, unlike some “new atheist” screeds, it is not that religion is a unique poison; rather, religion’s violence stems from its commitment to instantiating a particular vision of justice, the good life, etc. Thus Derrida’s analysis would equally criticize “secular” visions like Marxism for exhibiting the same particularism. So what is it about particularity and determination, then, that is said to entail violence? In both his early and later work, Derrida persistently links the “determinate”—that is, particular or specified—nature of institutions to an inherent and inevitable violence. In his specific considerations of religion, Derrida argues that any and every particular, determinate, historical religion—i.e., any “institutional” religion—must be de facto violent and thus produce violence. The same is true, he argues, of any particular determinate hope for political liberation or justice, criticizing Christian, Marxist, and even liberal “hopes” as the basis for undertaking political violence. Because of their determination or specification of a particular vision of justice, Derrida argues that these social hopes would be (and have been) the basis for legitimating the worst injustices against those who would not submit to the vision. Because these social hopes are determinate, they must be exclusionary, and are thus necessarily implicated in violence. This necessitates Derrida’s attempted disclosure of an indeterminate, unspecified “messianic” religion (as opposed to concrete, determinate messianisms) which is the basis for hope for a justice which is always “to come.”

At work in and behind this conflation of finitude with violence is a “logic of determination.” According to this logic, determination itself is violent and leads to violence; therefore, in order to avoid violence we must have, for instance, a social hope which is indeterminate and hopes for a justice which is unspecified. Derrida’s premise, which equates determination with violence, can and must be called into question. However, a critique of the logic of determination cannot simply appeal to some sort of neutral, universal criteria in order to demonstrate the problems with the logic of determination. Such “logics” are part of our most fundamental ways of seeing and understanding the world—they are just the sorts of assumptions that are prerational. As such, they constitute fundamental, albeit implicit, narrations of the world. In short, they have the same epistemic status as faith claims. One does not adopt the logic of determination because it is “rational,” or because it is demonstrated by a syllogism; rather, such a logic is assumed as the very condition for our reasonings. At the level of such logics, we are beyond the ken of proofs—of tidy syllogisms that could point out the fallacious failures of such a logic. However, that does not mean that we are beyond critique, resigned to some sort of sophomoric relativism that resigns itself to “anything goes.” The way to contest this logic is twofold: first, it needs to be unveiled as a contingent construal of the world; and as contingent, it could be otherwise. Second, it needs to be out-narrated; that is, one must offer an alternative description which can be “tried on” as an account of the world that pushes back on us through experience.

What, then, drives the logic of determination? What would make that logic plausible as a fundamental assumption? As I already suggested in The Fall of Interpretation, it seems to me that the determinate and finite would be construed as violent and exclusionary only if one assumes that finitude is somehow a “failure”—implying that we are somehow called to be Infinite. This is clearly seen in Derrida’s work on ethics, where he argues that we are always already guilty because we—as finite creatures—cannot attend to the obligations of all. As he quaintly puts it, when I feed my own cat, I am guilty for not feeding every other cat. But of course, as finite, it is simply impossible for me to feed every cat; therefore, I am guilty simply for being finite.

I would argue that not all finite decisions produce injustice. More specifically, it seems to me that one would conclude that finitude or particularity is inherently violent only if one operates with a notion of “infinite” responsibility which faults humanity for being finite. In short, I think in order to accept Derrida’s premise that all determination or finitude constitutes violence, one would have to adopt some version of a gnostic ontology which construes finitude as a kind of “fall,” an original violation. Across his corpus, Derrida links this critique of determinacy or particularity to a valorization of “purity” in the sense of a pure “regulative ideal”; that is, the erection of an ideal standard which is at the same time impossible to attain. Though he protests the label, it seems to me that Derrida constantly appeals to “regulative ideals” of purity in his later discussions of ethics, politics, and religion, such as a “pure hospitality” as the ideal for immigration, a “pure democracy” which is always future, a “pure gift” as an impossible but necessary structure of experience, or a “religion without religion” which is pure insofar as it has been purged of any determinant, historical content.

Indeed, it is interesting to track the logic of determination as a logic of contamination. In almost every case this is indicated by a thematics of “purity”—the “pure gift,” “pure hospitality,” or the other as “purely other”—which is both the criterion by which existing structures are judged unjust, but also a purity which can never be achieved. As such, we are always already unjust and implicated in an “essential violence.” The result is that Derrida is, if we follow Moltmann’s categories, a “utopian” thinker. Let me try to unpack this claim a bit.

In matters of justice and emancipation, formulated in terms of a Levinasian ethic of “alterity,” Derrida points to a number of quasi-­absolutes which function as the criterion for justice. These are structures which point to a “pure” ideal—an ideal of which we always fall short (hence the inescapability of injustice). We can see this in several sites (I follow a regressive procedure and expand upon only a couple of examples here):

(1) “Pure forgiveness”: In a context which includes discussions of South Africa and Bosnia, Derrida argues that “forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable.” If forgiveness is undertaken for the achievement of some end or telos (redemption, reconciliation, reestablishment of a normality), “then the ‘forgiveness’ is not pure” (32, cp. 42, 44–45). Forgiveness, in order to be “pure,” must be “unconditional, gracious, infinite, aneconomic, forgiveness granted to the guilty as guilty, without counterpart, even to those who do not repent or ask for forgiveness” (34, cp. 32, 36, 40, 45). And only this ideal of “absolute forgiveness” could be the “ground” for any ethics (35–­36). We should keep in mind, however, that “pure forgiveness” is impossible, and so even our best shots at forgiveness remain unjust.

(2) “Pure hospitality”: In a context which includes discussions of immigration and human rights, Derrida argues that justice demands an “absolute or unconditional hospitality” which is incommensurate with “hospitality in the ordinary sense.” “Just hospitality” breaks with ordinary hospitality because “absolute hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner . . . but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them” (25). Pure hospitality begins from an “unquestioning welcome” (29). However, the impossibility of this unconditional hospitality is tied to finitude: “since there is also no hospitality without finitude, sovereignty can only be exercised by filtering, choosing, and thus by excluding and doing violence. Injustice, a certain injustice . . . begins right away” (55, cp. 65).

One could repeat an exposition of a similar formula as it emerges in Derrida’s consideration of the gift (in Given Time), friendship (in The Politics of Friendship), religion (particularly in GD and Specters of Marx), justice (in “Force of Law”), and the Other (in early work such as Of Grammatology and “Violence and Metaphysics”): a “pure” phenomenon is distilled as an ostensible motivator for undertaking strategies that will never reach it. But this structure of an “impossible” or “pure” justice, I would contend, is the product of a repressed metaphysics rooted in what I have been describing as Derrida’s logic of determination, which, rather than inspiring revolution, provides comfort to the status quo. Derrida’s premise, which equates determination with violence, can and must be called into question. The determinate and finite would only be construed as violent and exclusionary if one assumes that finitude is somehow a “failure”—implying that we are somehow called to be infinite.

The Nature of the Gothic and the Logic of Incarnation

Despite suggestions that Derrida’s account is “realistic,” that it faces up to the “facts” of our finitude, in fact this is a mythos, a take on the world, a faith-informed construal of finitude that represents a prelogical commitment. But its epistemic status as a mythos means one could reject this premise that grounds Derrida’s logic of determination and offer a counternarrative, an alternative mythos that would operate on the basis of a different logic. Thus, instead of adopting a logic of determination which construes finitude or particularity as a violence, I want to explore a logic of incarnation which honors finitude and particularity as a good. If one begins, instead, with an affirmation of embodiment as good, then the fact of finitude—e.g., that I can only feed so many cats—is not construed as injustice or violence, because with the rejection of Derrida’s logic of determination one must also reject infinite responsibility as a regulative ideal. Therefore, it would follow that the particularity of religious confession is not violent per se.

So what would be different according to a logic of incarnation? First, it is informed by a narrative wherein the transcendent, infinite Other condescends to finite immanence without loss and without remainder. The logic of incarnation is not just informed by a proto-Marxist Jesus of the sort one finds in Dominic Crossan or Caputo. In other words, this is not a logic that just draws upon a “prophetic” Jesus; it is a logic that is informed by the richness of Chalcedonian Christology which suggests that in Christ, we have both the fullness of God and humanity; not half-and-half; not one swapped for other; but rather the paradoxical (yea, mad) affirmation that in the gritty, material person of Jesus we are also encountering the fullness of the Creator (“pleased as man with men to dwell,” as the old Christmas hymn puts it).

Second, and crucial to this Chalcedonian logic, is its refusal of binary either/ors—the sort that both liberalism and fundamentalism are prone to fall into—and just the sort that I think the logic of determination replays. Notable here is the moment of evaluation that is implied in this: while the transcendent God condescends to inhabit immanence, this is not thereby a concession, and certainly not a lamentable or regrettable “necessary evil.” It follows from a logic of creation which does not see the specification and particularity of finitude as an evil; rather the conditions of finitude (particularity, specification, this-ness, if you will) are affirmed as a good. Indeed the Incarnation can only be properly understood in the light of the Ascension, which emphasizes that the Son’s humanity is taken up and inhabited for eternity. This is why the logic of incarnation, which flows from and reaffirms the goodness of creation, finds its completion in the doctrine of the resurrection and an eschatology of the new heavens and the new earth—which is not any kind of escape from finitude as if finite particularity were inherently evil; rather, it is the hope of well-ordered particularity.

Third, as I tried to emphasize in the final chapter of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? the logic of incarnation also entails an affirmation of the contingency of history. Rather than lamenting and criticizing the Christian community for drawing boundaries, demarcating doctrine (as the “grammar” of the community), and specifying its confession, the logic of incarnation sees such procedures as inherent to what it means to be a finite community. And perhaps most scandalously, it is informed by a fundamental trust that the Spirit is at work in just such contingent, historical formulations (though this does not forestall internal critique). By affirming the contingencies of community development, the logic of incarnation rejects both the primitivism of Protestant fundamentalism (which wants to leap back over what it sees as the contaminating and regrettable influence of the church to the purity of Jesus and “New Testament Christianity”) as well as the more sophisticated primitivism of the deconstructive Jesus (who, if you look closely, pretty much want to do the same thing—­it is just that their Jesus and New Testament look quite different).

All this is just to say that the logic of incarnation is not haunted by “purity,” which always comes off as a bit unworldly, even a bit gnostic. Indeed, if I could be permitted an analogy that stretches the conversation a bit, I would suggest that what John Ruskin describe as “the nature of the Gothic” is a pretty good translation of the logic of incarnation. Ruskin’s widely influential essay of the same title, embedded in the second volume of The Stones of Venice, contrasts the Greek and classical aesthetic ideals of pristine perfection with the Gothic and Christian ideals, which celebrate a certain un-­uniformity, even a kind of valued ugliness. In the Greek temple each column is perfect, symmetrical, and identical to the others—­they look like they’ve been created by machines. In the Gothic cathedral, by contrast, one will find all sorts of differences and peculiarities, even blemishes and strange anomalies (think gargoyles). Behind this, Ruskin argues, is not just an “aesthetic,” but an entire construal of human flourishing, including assumptions about the nature of human persons and the ideal human community. This is why, for Ruskin, the Gothic is not just a style—it is a vision of society, and of work in particular. For why was it that those Greek temples were characterized by machine-like precision, yea, “purity?” Because they were built by slaves. Ruskin emphasized that what distinguished Gothic architecture from earlier classical architecture, as well as later “industrial” building, was the freedom of the craftsman. Greek temples were built by slaves. The laborers were not properly craftsmen but rather human tools and machines. Thus classical architecture has a kind of pristine perfection about it that is artificial and mechanistic; it shows no stamp of individual artists, no mark of their particularity or specificity. And this desire for a pristine perfection and uniformity is, in fact, a suppression of nature and individuality.

For Ruskin, the “modern” laborer was not qualitatively different. While not a “slave” in the traditional sense, he was still reduced to an unthinking machine. He put it this way:

It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the national everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature themselves. Their universal outcry against wealth, against nobility, is not forced from them either by the pressure of famine, or the sting of mortified pride. These do much, and have done much in all ages; but the foundations of society were never yet shaken as they are at this day. It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure. It is not that men are pained by the scorn of the upper classes, but they cannot endure their own; for they feel that the kind of labour to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men. Never had the upper classes so much sympathy with the lower, or charity for them, as they have at this day, and yet never were they so much hated by them: for, of old, the separation between the noble and the poor was merely a wall built by law; now it is a veritable difference in level of standing, a precipice between upper and lower grounds in the field of humanity, and there is pestilential air at the bottom of it.

So the “modern” preoccupation with pristine perfection and exquisite finish is bought with a price: viz., the effective enslavement of the “divided” laborer. But the Gothic—which is a distinctly Christian architectural grammar—rejects such slavery:

But in the mediaeval, or especially Christian, system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; Christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul. But it not only recognizes its value; it confesses its imperfection, in only bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgment of unworthiness. . . . Therefore, to every spirit which Christianity summons to her serve, her exhortation is: Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame. And it is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools or architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.

So to the so-called perfection of classical and modern architecture, Ruskin contrasts the beautiful imperfection of the Gothic:

And on the other hand, go forth again to gaze upon the old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors: examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in the scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure; but which it must be first aim of all Europe at this day to regain for her children.

The logic of incarnation, I want to suggest, is characterized by this Gothic affirmation of imperfection as nonetheless good, even beautiful, whereas the logic of determination is haunted by notions of (impossible) perfection and (impossible) purity, ends up constructing such gritty particularity as a contamination and a fall. This is just to say that when we begin from a logic of incarnation, we refuse to be haunted by modern ghosts. In this respect, an incarnational philosophy of religion must begin with an exorcism.

Who’s Afraid of Orthodoxy? The Incarnation as a More Radical Hermeneutics

I’ve been spending time unpacking the logic of incarnation by demarcating it from what I take to be one of its most winsome and influential competitors—the logic of determination articulated by John Caputo (and indebted to Jacques Derrida). It is the latter’s “religion without religion” which has most captivated not only academic discussions in continental philosophy of religion but also reflections on the church, particularly in “post­evangelical” circles. These two worlds come together in Caputo’s most recent book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Since I am already clearly on record as a friend and fan of John Caputo’s winsome twenty­-first-century rendition of Sheldon’s In His Steps, in closing I would like to take an opportunity to push the conversation further, taking the spirit of Caputo’s book seriously enough to disagree with it. I will do so by taking a position that is not only unpopular but will seem downright counterintuitive to many. My claim is relatively simple: that despite all the bad press and caricatures from supposedly enlightened liberals, it is in fact orthodoxy that constitutes the most radical appreciation of “deconstructibility.” To put it a little more stridently and provocatively, I would suggest that the Jesus of Pope Benedict XVI represents a more radical hermeneutic than the Jesus we get from Schillebeeckx.

It seems to me that Caputo’s project—which in an important sense stands within a prophetic tradition of critique—operates on the basis of a distinction taken up from Derrida: a careful (though admittedly hard-to­draw) distinction between what is “deconstructible” and what is not, between what can be deconstructed and what is “undeconstructible.” And it is the undeconstructible which calls out for a critique of the deconstructible. This is not simply a demolition project, but a de-con-struction—a dismantling of harmful, oppressive, and unjust structures with a view to building more peaceful, just structures that are more conducive to human flourishing. For instance, for Derrida this distinction between the deconstructible and the undeconstructible maps onto the distinction between “law” and “justice”: as a contingent and historical institution of human making (that is, the fruit of culture), law is by its very (human) nature subject to deconstruction. Its particularity and finitude can’t help but be violent, exclusionary, and unjust. As something that has been constructed, it is also thereby subject to de-con-struction (with a view to rebuilding). Thus law is distinguished from justice, which is undeconstructible precisely because it has not been constructed: it remains to come. It’s what law and legal institutions should be after. So when we deconstruct the law and its institutions, we do so with a view to justice, haunted by justice, called by justice.

In What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Caputo puts this distinction to work on different quarry, drawing an analogous distinction between “the church”—which is very much deconstructible and well deserves deconstruction—and “the kingdom”—which is undeconstructible and which calls us to the deconstruction of the church for the sake of the kingdom. The church’s “man-made” traditions, laws, and rules are so much deconstructible chaff that needs to be winnowed in order to preserve the kernel of Jesus’ undeconstructible kingdom message of faith, hope, love, and peace. With Nietzschean echoes (and very much in the spirit of Nietzsche’s friend, the theologian Franz Overbeck), Caputo proposes that such a deconstruction of the church for the sake of the kingdom comes down to the task of sorting out the “human all too human” from the “divine”: later (Pauline) accretions regarding sexual ethics or the institution of an episcopacy are “human” elements that deserve deconstruction, while Jesus’ calls to nonviolence and to tend to the poor are taken to be “divine” undeconstructibles. Deconstruction is “good news” for the church insofar as it helps us sort out the two.

I would like to push back on this thesis a bit. First, very briefly, this is a particularly odd sort of distinction to invoke in the name of deconstruction, which, from its earliest days, campaigned against unstable binaries. To what extent does such a vision of the kingdom function as an “original supplement?” How or why is this kingdom not akin to Rousseau’s dream of an original speech (so roundly criticized by Derrida in Of Grammatology)? What are the prospects for articulating the supposedly impossible and undeconstructible Gospel without immediately falling back into the mire of deconstructibility? And if such a Gospel eludes articulation, then are we not back to a transcendental signified (again, the subject of sustained critique in Of Grammatology)? While I do not have space to do so here, it would be interesting to take Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct? and drop it in as a replacement to Rousseau’s Origin of Language, and then undertake the same sort of deconstructive critique to which Rousseau’s Essay was subject in Of Grammatology. Indeed, it would be interesting to take Derrida’s own “Force of Law” (clearly a key text for Caputo’s project) and subject it to the same kind of careful critique to which Derrida subjected Rousseau in 1967. Reading early Derrida against later Derrida, noting the instabilities and internal dissension within his corpus, is a way of being faithful to Derrida’s deconstruction. Subjecting Caputo’s church/kingdom distinction to the same deconstructive critique might also be more faithful to l’esprit de deconstruction than maintaining it.

Finally, and more importantly, I want to suggest that Catholic orthodoxy actually makes a more radical affirmation of deconstructibility than Caputo’s Derridean Jesus. Let me put it this way: Catholic orthodoxy affirms not only the desconstructibility of the church, it even affirms the deconstructibility of the kingdom! According to orthodox eschatology not only is the church contingent, particular, and constructed, so too is the coming kingdom. “Kingdom come” is characterized by the same contingency, particularity, and finitude. The deconstruction of injustice, including the reform of the church, is not driven by some dream of an impossible, undeconstructible kingdom, but in the light of a particular and still-deconstructible vision of justice.

And here’s the crucial difference: the Trinitarian God of Catholic faith is not scared off by contingency, particularity, or deconstructibility. Unlike the Wholly Other of the Derridean gospel, the Incarnate God exhibits no allergy to the deconstructible. Indeed, this is the very distinctive logic of incarnation: God does not call for the deconstruction and dismantling of the deconstructible on the basis of or with a view to some undeconstructible and impossible kingdom; rather, God condescends to inhabit the deconstructible. If we want to ask ourselves what Jesus would do, we might consider what Jesus did. The Incarnation is the mad story of the undeconstructible God who did not consider undeconstructibility as something to be grasped, nor did he despise deconstructibility, but rather, taking the “human, all too human form” of a servant, he humbled himself to the point of inhabiting the very deconstructible structures of human law and culture—even to the point of suffering death at the hands of these institutions. But he did so not with a view to eviscerating the deconstructible, but rather to rightly ordering it such that the contingent particularity of this deconstructible creation might reach its proper telos (a loose paraphrase of Phil 2:5­–11). It is not “deconstructibility” that’s the problem; it is the particular, wrongly ordered configurations of the deconstructible that are at issue.

The scandal of Catholic ecclesiology is that this logic of incarnation then extends to an institution, the church Catholic, which is now configured as the body of which Christ is the head. The same Spirit that inhabited and empowered the incarnate Jesus (e.g., Luke 4:1, 14, 18) is given to the ecclesial community (Acts 1:8). This continues the logic of incarnation: the undeconstructible God continues to condescend and inhabit the very deconstructible institution that is the church. Far from being infallible or perfect, nonetheless the institution is an extension of this logic and bears within it all the resources it needs to make sense of its own failures. Indeed, two of its most significant seasons (Advent and Lent) are seasons of penitence; it gathers as a community weekly to confess its failures. But in contrast to the logic of purity that seems to motivate the Derridean critique of deconstructibility as itself a problem, the logic of incarnation testifies to a God who inhabits, affirms, and takes up all the messiness of a deconstructible institution. The Catholic affirmation of the institutional church is rooted in this logic of incarnation, which is a continuing testimony of what Jesus did. This logic—that embraces the scandal of particularity and contingency—is, I am suggesting, a more persistent postmodernism, indeed a Catholic postmodernism.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is taken from The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology (by clicking on the link and using the code 17AARSBL22 you can get a 30% discount on the book + FREE US shipping through the end of 2022) by James K. A. Smith. Copyright © Baylor University Press, 2021. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Kölnisch Das Leben Christi Gemäldegalerie Kat.Nr. 1224 anagoria; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


James K. A. Smith

James K. A. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin University and serves as editor-in-chief of Image, a literary quarterly at the intersection of art, faith, and mystery. He is the award-winning author of more than twenty books, including Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

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