Per Caritatem

In recent years a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology and Neoplatonism. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found within negative theology an inexhaustible resource that harmonizes well with his own theological and phenomenological project. Jacques Derrida has also engaged negative theology; however, he seems to have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward it and particularly dislikes what he interprets in Dionysius’ thought as the retention of a “transcendental signified.” As Eric Perl explains,

“Deconstruction is fundamentally a theory of signification, which attacks the (supposedly) traditional notion that a signifier (word, text, or image) refers to a signified, the meaning which itself is prior to and independent of the signifier. Derrida calls this the “transcendental signified”: the meaning underlying the expression, the archetype underlying the image, that which is not sign but “pure signified.” On the traditional assumption, any system of meaning, be it a written text or the cosmos itself, has such a transcendental signified. In the case of a text, it is the author’s intent, what he means to express; in the case of the world, understood as a system of signs, it is God” (“Signifying Nothing,” p. 125).

Derrida takes the description above to be characteristic of Western metaphysics, and thus his own project attempts to show that no such transcendental signified can be found outside, beyond or prior to the text or world. In the end, all we have are signs. “We can never transcend signs to arrive at a pure signified which is not itself a sign” (Ibid., p. 126). Here is where Derrida’s attraction to negative theology and Neoplatonism comes in focus. As we have seen, in Dionysian thought, God is beyond being and thought. That which can be thought exists and that which is is not God but “only an image, sign, or expression.” Hence, for Derrida, the common bond between negative theology and deconstruction is their mutual agreement that everything in the realm of existence and hence thought is sign all the way down. No transcendental signified or ultimate meaning is accessible, but remains forever deferred. “But whereas for Neoplatonism this implies that the world is infinitely meaningful, the manifestation of God, for deconstructionism it implies that the world is meaningless” (Ibid., p. 126).

Though Derrida has no doubt contributed significantly to contemporary thought and his insights have and should continue to be appropriated, one wonders whether he has correctly interpreted Neoplatonism and negative theology particularly as manifest in Dionysius. For Dionysius, as is the case with Plotinus, God is both beyond being (transcendent) and excessively present (immanent). As Dionysius explains,

“God is […] known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything (DN VII.3).

Here Dionysius highlights both creation (i.e., everything that exists) as theophany, where everything that is manifests God, and God’s radical transcendence in light of the fact that He is beyond the order of being, the created realm. Derrida seems to focus only on the “and” side of the Dionysian world, i.e., on God as wholly other—other in the sense of a transcendental signified, a being beyond Being who is still entangled in a signifier/signified dualism. Hence, the Derridean read of Dionysius is that of “a kind of ‘mystical iconoclast,’ who calls us to strip away all created symbols and images and attain a non-symbolic vision of and union with God as ‘pure signified’” (Ibid., p.) Dionysius, however, in no way suggests that we must finally do away with all symbols in order to encounter God. “This divine ray can enlighten us only by being upliftingly concealed in a variety of sacred veils which the Providence of the Father adapts to our nature as human beings” (CH I.2). Hence, we experience God not by peeling away or overcoming signs, but by embracing the signs as icons. In other words, God is present and manifest in the signs and “sacred veils” that both conceal and reveal Him. Derrida has done a superb job of describing the concealing aspects of Dionysius; however, it seems that he has not properly understood the iconic function of signs.


10 Responses so far

Hello. First, I want to say thank you for the great blog.

Second, could you tell me which Jean-Luc Marion book is best to start with? God without Being seems to be the obvious choice, though I’d like to hear what you think.

Thanks!


Hence, for Derrida, the common bond between negative theology and deconstruction is their mutual agreement that everything in the realm of existence and hence thought is sign all the way down. No transcendental signified or ultimate meaning is accessible, but remains forever deferred. “But whereas for Neoplatonism this implies that the world is infinitely meaningful, the manifestation of God, for deconstructionism it implies that the world is meaningless” (Ibid., p. 126).

It seems common to assert that Derrida asserted meaninglessness, but I wonder if this is altogether accurate…

But let’s assume that it is accurate. What does this mean for the Christian faith? I don’t know that it really says anything that is particularly anti-Christian. For example, I note a striking parallel between Derrida and Qohelet on this point. Qohelet undercuts the various ways in which we find meaning “under the sun.” His development of sign/signified is certainly not as complex, but I think it accomplishes the same end: “Everthing is hevel” (translated as “meaningless” in the NIV)

Regardless of whether God is immanent or not the world remains chaotic and meaningless. In Pauline terms the creation is subject to frustration. Hence, this particular aspect of Derridean thought is not really anti-biblical, but perhaps more biblical and “Christian” than we might have given it credit for.


Hi Ben,

If you have a fairly good background in Heidegger and Aquinas, then God Without Being is a good choice. If not, then this might not be the easiest read.

Best,
Cynthia


Jonathan,

Isn’t the point made by the writer of Eccles. that without God “everything is meaningless?”

Also, you write, “[r]egardless of whether God is immanent or not the world remains chaotic and meaningless. In Pauline terms the creation is subject to frustration. Hence, this particular aspect of Derridean thought is not really anti-biblical, but perhaps more biblical and ‘Christian’ than we might have given it credit for.”

First of all, why would you want to assert as a Christian that the “world remains chaotic and meaningless?” I assume that you are trying to emphasize that we live in a post-fall world where things are so to speak dis-integrated. Nonetheless, I do not think that that this makes the world meaning-less. We do after all continue to image God (that is, we are created in his image) and as a result we have dignity and meaning. Likewise, God is at work in this world, gathering a people to himself and revealing himself in and through his creation (even in a postlapsarian world). That one chooses to reject God’s revelation, does not necessarily imply that God’s revelation is without meaning–it could be that the problem is with the “receptor” so to speak, viz., we willingly supress the knowledge of God given to us (within and without).

Cheers,
Cynthia


Cynthia,

If you’re interested in the connection between Derrida’s deconstruction and Christian philosophy, you may be interested in Louis Mackey’s _Peregrinations of the Word: Essays in Medieval Philosophy_(Univ. Michigan Ann Arbor). The issue of sign-signified runs throughout the entire book, in which Mackey, always through a Derrida-shaped lens, treats Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus. It’s quite a fascinating read, not to mention a pleasant one. Mackey has a wonderful gift for writing poetically, most likely something he learned from his years studying Kierkegaard.

All the best,
Anxietas
PS-I logged in as “anonymous” since the computer wouldn’t accept my password.


Dear Anxietas,

Thank you for the book suggestion. I will add it to my Amazon book list today, that is, if I don’t buy it asap.

Cheers,
Cynthia


I think your take is correct. It seems to me, that what Derrida and Co. are proffering, contra Denys is a form of Gnosticism, where nothing in the world has significance which leaves room only for “play.”

So I think you are right to express worry over statements of meaninglessness. The Gnostic method of undercutting traditional stories through a type of deconstruction had the goal of producing despair over finding any meaning in the material world.


Isn’t the point made by the writer of Eccles. that without God “everything is meaningless?”

The way I read it, the author is saying that life, even with God, appears meaningless. But this is a digression.

I agree with Jonathan – I don’t think we can so readily assert that Derrida was taking the line of meaninglessness. I think, rather, that he would assert life as meaning-full, but be very interested in what ways, how meaning functions, what it might be based upon. This is not to say it is still not meaningful.

Do you have a specific text of Derrida’s in mind?


I don’t think I agree with your read of Dionysius. You say that he “in no way suggests that we must finally do away with all symbols in order to encounter God.” But while he does admit the need for symbols as pedagogical tools, I think he sees the via negativa as the higher way and the one at which we all finally arrive. In the Divine Names he writes,

“…we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him and, somehow, in a way we cannot know, we shall be united with him… But as for now, what happens is this. We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one. We leave behind us all our own notions of the divine. We call a halt to the activities of our minds and, to the extent that is proper, we approach the ray which transcends being. Here, in a manner no words can describe, preexisted all the goals of all knowledge and it is of a kind that neither intelligence nor speech can lay hold of it nor can it be contemplated since it surpasses everything and is wholly beyond our capacity to know it.”

Thus in the apophatic, beatific vision to which we are raised, all symbols are left behind as inferior and inadequate.


Perhaps one could make a strong case for what you say (based on the text you cite) with regard to our beatified state, that is, when we are no longer viators; however, my overall point (which could have been stated more clearly, as you comment makes manifest), and its been a while since I’ve read the Divine Names, was simply that God can be experienced by us now in or through the signs or materiality of creation–in an iconic way. As I said in the post: God is present and manifest in the signs and “sacred veils” that both conceal and reveal Him.