Shakespeare, Steven. Derrida and Theology. New York: T&T Clark, 2009.
A book review is a repetition of sorts, an attempt to re-view instead of simply view a text as a finished work or totalizing whole. The reviewer attempts a trace of textual moves, hopefully breaking open their logics for new modes of engagement, lifting up the ghosts that hover in the book’s backgrounds, taking joy in the promise of newness the scholarly work brings. Such engagement is a challenge because the re-viewing changes textual perception and reality, perhaps like that change wrought with Derrida’s différance. Yet, such challenge is one of the joys and im/possibilities of scholarly conversation.
There is much promise in Steven Shakespeare’s new, insightful introduction to the Derrida/theology conversation. Shakespeare, Lecturer in Philosophy at Liverpool Hope University, UK, adds his voice to T&T Clark’s “Philosophy and Theology” series, a collection introducing “key thinkers” in contemporary philosophical discourse and the potential engagement (often unexpected) of those thinkers with theology. And, though they have yet to do so, one can only hope T&T Clark will eventually turn its publishing eye to some postcolonial theorists for this series as well.
Shakespeare’s contribution, “Derrida and Theology,” is a quick, lucid introduction to the work of the early Derrida, actively setting out to debunk popular misconceptions of the dangers or potentials Derrida might hold for the theological imagination. Derrida lived and wrote his process of deconstruction well—so well, it seems, that comprehension of his work is notoriously difficult, often producing knee-jerk reactions. Some, unfortunately, accuse Derrida of nihilism and quickly reject his work to look towards more idealized theological projects; others uncritically appropriate Derridean exegesis.
The book itself attempts to navigate the Scylla of one and the Charybdis of the other to critically engage Derrida’s work with theology, even while respecting Derrida’s own ambivalence towards God. Shakespeare writes that, “This book invites the reader to spend time and attention on Derrida’s early works, when the key parameters of notions such as deconstruction and différance emerged. It will also attempt to keep in view, not just what Derrida wrote but how he wrote” (5-6). And the book does manage to keep both Derrida’s elusive content and form in vision. Interesting to note here as well, however, is that Shakespeare does not completely resist (to his benefit, I think) the pull of Derrida’s later more ethical thinking. Shakespeare meditates on vital works such as The Gift of Death and Sauf le nom. Even The Animal That Therefore I Am makes an appearance, rounding out the conclusion.
Shakespeare sets his sights beyond simply outlining Derrida’s thought. Indeed, the book makes a subtle argument. He writes, “The guiding thread for this essay will be the way in which Derrida challenges the idea of the simplicity of God” (19). Shakespeare examines the wide variety of ways Derrida complicates simple origins and the slippage of language. He continues, “That God is simple implies that God cannot be divided or subject to change and suffering, that there is no unrealized potential in God, for God is the sum of fully actualized perfection” (19). Throughout the book, Shakespeare subtly engages these ideas of the simplicity of God with Derrida to see what kind of new spaces might open up. To do so does not jettison simplicity completely, but rather brings significant challenges to common perceptions of the simplicity of God.
Shakespeare makes some fascinating choices in outlining his discussion of Derrida’s work. Most interesting in terms of form is the (self-conscious) scriptural or systematic theological conceit that structures the book. He tells his reader that, “We will explore his engagements with genesis, the nature and name of God, the word, mysticism and messianism, the gift and incarnation” (20). Notably, these themes correlate to each of the chapters. Yet, while this structure helpfully guides the inquiry, it does raise a few questions. One has to wonder whether engagement with Derrida might actually remap the form of “systematic” theology all the way down, where a reorganization of the conceit itself may be called for. Secondly, helpfully, the conceit raises the question of how we write theology to begin with and what new ways we might imagine writing in postmodernity.
For this forum’s review, I want to lift up the postcolonialism that arises at the fringes of this book and, indeed, in Derrida himself. Engagement with postcoloniality or decolonial thought haunted Shakespeare’s text, though never entering into a sustained explicit engagement, per se, for example, of Derrida’s work in relation to Gayatri Spivak, who achieved a certain notoriety with the brilliant self-reflexivity in her introduction of “Of Grammatology”, or of Homi Bhabha, also influenced by Derrida. Derrida holds interesting influence in the sway of postcolonial theory, an influence that should continually be called to mind. Additionally, I wonder if in focusing his intensity on the early Derrida, Shakespeare loses some of the interesting theo-political potential of the late Derrida.
Yet, Shakespeare’s task of looking at Derrida in ways that challenge traditions of the simplicity of God does helpfully point in a postcolonial direction. Shakespeare notes that, “In contemporary thinking, Derrida notices with the critique of the metaphysical tradition goes hand in hand with a rejection of ethnocentrism, the assumption that European ways of thinking have a kind of universal cultural validity” (51-2). Even more, Shakespeare helpfully raises the ambivalences of the positionality of Christian thought in academic discourses of poststructuralism. He observes that the reception and engagement with Derrida in theological discourse has been primarily of a Christian sort. Shakespeare writes, “In the main, however, the academic setting of theology in which Derrida’s work has been received has been dominated by Christian voices. Perhaps this reflects the ‘globalatinization’ of which Derrida himself writes in ‘Faith and Knowledge’, the strained universalism of a highly Eurocentric and specifically Christian discourse (176). Raising the question of Christian Eurocentrism while engaging Derrida’s work is a helpful way of framing our inquiry.
Shakespeare tentatively gives a trajectory to answer these questions with his movement of challenging the simplicity of God. Indeed, “we need to underline the fact that the God who smothers difference is the God of classical rationalism, of totalization and dominance. Could it be that another God is possible, one who opens us to the encounter with the other and undercuts facile humanism as much as theological dogmatism?” (64). Surely, opening up simple conceptions of the divine holds the great potential for a new appreciation of diversity and difference. For that move, I am grateful for this book.
All in all, Shakespeare produces a fine volume to recommend to undergraduates and those embarking into Derrida’s thought for the first time. Two particularly worthwhile moments of the book to point to, finally, include a discussion of the ambiguous relation of Derrida to negative theology in chapter four; and chapter seven: “Gift or Poison? Theological Responses to Derrida,” which serves as a helpful brief survey of contemporary theological reception of Derrida’s thought.
Theological & Philosophical Studies