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Volume 14, Issue 6: Tohu

Derrida amd Trinity?

Jared Miller

Jacques Derrida continued the lines of modern thought founded by Nietzsche, particularly in his invigorating critique of the very foundations of western thought, and he has left not a few ruffled feathers (and quills) in his wake. He has attempted to show that whether through Forms, the Prime Mover, Descartes' cogito, or Rousseau's uncorrupted state of Nature, philosophy in Europe has constantly sought for the arche that needs no representations, the knowledge of which is unmediated. Always present is the assumption that the mind is in touch with something transcendental and true before being corrupted by the vagaries of language and image: Thus Wittgenstein's quest for the pure language that would provide unmediated and unrepresented knowledge of the world, and the possibility of a word whose referent is grounded outside of language. Derrida characterizes the western view of language in this way: "All signifiers . . . are derivative with regard to what would wed the voice indissolubly to the mind or to the thought of the signified sense, indeed to the thing itself (whether it is done in the Aristotelian manner . . . or in the manner of medieval theology, determining the res as a thing created from its eidos, from its sense thought in the logos or in the infinite understanding of God)" (Of Grammatology, chap. 1).

Derrida argues that any arche is a myth which is unknowable. He attempts to expose the vanity of the "logocentrism" that maintains there is a positive reality or Reason or Word (the logos) in which phenomena (including language) may cohere and be given meaning. Instead, components of language do not have grounding in reality, but are given meaning by their mutual differences; Derrida's famous dictum is "there is nothing outside the text." The meaning, then, is constantly being defined by difference and is constantly being deferred, since each part of language is representative and none ties in directly with an arche. He encapsulated this double concept of deferral and difference in the French pun and neologism différance. "For what is put into question is precisely the quest for a rightful beginning, an absolute point of departure, a principal responsibility. The problem of writing is opened by putting into question the value arkhe. What I will propose here will not be elaborated simply as a philosophical discourse operating according to principles, postulates, axioms, or definitions and proceeding along the discursive lines of a linear order of reasons. In the delineation of différance everything is strategic and adventurous" (Margins of Philosophy).
Derrida (somewhat to his surprise) thus founded the literary movement of "deconstruction." Any text that purports to connect with an arche or logos cannot live up to this claim but can be shown to "deconstruct" itself—that is, the language it uses does not allow it to arrive at a fixed meaning and, specifically, does not allow it to tap into any sort of logos. Meaning arises within the bounded "play" of language; there is no fixed meaning, although this does not simplistically imply that interpretation is completely open-ended (as some critics of Derrida have tried to say). Meaning arises not from words (which in turn are somehow in direct connection with reality) but from differences, from the level of syntax all the way up to entire arguments and movements. "It is therefore only a discourse or rather a writing that can make up for the incapacity of the word to be equal to a `thought'" ("Letter to a Japanese Friend").
The reactive movement against modernism (dare I call it "postmodernism"?) is one of the most valuable subjects a Christian can study; in order to eventually establish a definitively Trinitarian mode of thought, we must first learn all of the blind spots we have inherited from positivism. Only with this in mind can the creativity of philosophers like Nietzsche and Derrida be appreciated. Perhaps they could even become a means by which we finally purge the last remaining Hellenism from our theology.
Derrida's argument is justified against a Christian system enervated by the subtle Unitarianism of Greek principles. The Greek quest for the motionless, unitary, transcendental ground is futile and distorts one's whole approach to the world. John's naming of Christ as Logos must not be understood as a simple substitution by which Jerusalem takes up the banner of Athens. Trinitarian theology does not trace all things back to a monistic arche, but rather to a covenantal relation in which meaning itself is relational and mediated (not axiomatic) and it resides within an eternal discourse, a bounded play of mutual deferral and submission, which is only made possible by real difference. There is no thing-in-itself, because there is no hypostasis-within-itself, no independently existing oneness, of personality or of anything else that is not interpenetrated by something outside of itself. A person is not more original than a relation.
I do not wish to introduce a Derridean Christianity (in the same sense that Bultmann introduced an existential Christianity), but I do think that perspectives like his give us valuable insight on the pervasiveness of our own analytical assumptions. In his critique of the unitary arche and his emphasis on difference, deferral, and the playfulness of language, he is more of a practical Trinitarian than most orthodox Christians and, thus, should spur us on to be jealous for the beauty and truth of our own distinctive faith.

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