Thursday, October 14, 2004

Sticking up For a Friend

Given their hatchet job of an obituary over the weekend, to which I'm not even going to bother linking, I was a bit surprised to find a pretty nice eulogy to J. Derrida by Mark C. Taylor in today's New York Times Op/Ed page. I've long been a fan, if sometimes critical (natch!) of Taylor's work, ever since the day I first picked up Erring in 1997, and haven't really gotten it out of my head since; and still regard him as the most important, if also the most difficult to pin down, theologian of his generation. Taylor brought deconstruction to the halls of religious studies, for better or worse, and has since moved on to bigger and brighter things ... but I've always thought that to be kind of the point of deconstruction itself: moving on. I.e., your loyal to it only inasmuch as you leave it far behind, as you betray it. Taylor, and indeed even Derrida, embodies this in their work and in their philosophy, and, so it seems, their friendship over the years. It's nice to see Taylor sticking up for his mate, in frighteningly lucid, simple prose.

During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became preoccupied with religion and it is in this area that his contribution might well be most significant for our time. He understood that religion is impossible without uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father of Jesus Christ, or as Allah, God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect human beings.

And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.

As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism - in this country and around the world. True believers of every stripe - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart our world.

Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.