Monthly Archives: January 2010

democracies Christian and otherwise

More than any other form of democracy, more than social democracy or popular democracy, a Christian democracy should be welcoming to the enemies of democracy; it should turn them the other cheek, offer hospitality, grant freedom of expression and the right to vote to antidemocrats, something in conformity with a certain hyperbolic essence, an essence more autoimmune than ever, of democracy itself, if “itself” there ever is, if ever there is a democracy and thus a Christian democracy worthy of this name.

This passage closes section three of the first part of Derrida’s Rogues, the section titled “The Other of Democracy.” That Derrida bring up the idea of a “Christian democracy” at this point is, if not a little bit puzzling, at least unexpected. It comes simply as a counterpoint to a previous mention of Nietzsche, who of course opposed the democratic heritage of Europe together with the Pauline-Christian heritage as being two facets of the clever triumph of weakness over strength.

The main theme of the section, though, is an exploration of opposition to democracy (largely in its modern, “globalatinizing” form) from without and from within. Considerations of religion in relation to democracy are never absent from here, but it isn’t Christian religions with which Derrida is mostly concerned. His focus is instead on Islam. He wagers toward the beginning of the section that Islam (but of course only “a certain Islam”) today provides “the only religious or theocratic culture that can still, in fact or in principle, inspire and declare any resistance to democracy.” Whether or not this is strictly true, it seems at least plausible, at least within the bounds of the questions Derrida is addressing. What Derrida doesn’t make explicit (even though I think it would be easily argued that he recognizes this implicitly) is that if Islam stands as the only culture capable of standing against democracy, it certainly doesn’t follow that it necessarily does so. This much should be practically obvious, and this asymmetry vis-à-vis the Western political heritage is perhaps more than anything else what enables Derrida to name “a certain Islam”: that community or tradition or interpretation which does resist democracy, as opposed to that other Islam which is not so much “other” insofar as it does not resist. One problem with such a bifurcation of Islam, though, is that it remains constituted by the language of resistance, and thus of force – of democracy as a force moving outward from a proper center (i.e., Europe… or Christendom). It undermines from the start the possibility of something like “democracy” that isn’t governed by the Western heritage of this word, and such an option might very well be a live one for Islam (see for example Abdulaziz Sachedina’s The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism).

The question, then, of whether there is or ever could be a “Christian democracy” goes farther than the question of whether there is or could be a “democracy itself.” Insofar as the movement of secularization that has been connected inextricably to the movement of democratization in the modern world has, in fact, been a result or outgrowth of Europe’s Christian heritage (whether as a direct result of it, a reaction to it, or as Jean-Luc Nancy analyzes it, its own self-deconstruction), it would both be impossible anymore to think democracy without it being Christian democracy in some sense and impossible to imagine democracy being actually Christian in the sense that Derrida describes. The aporia of the idea of Christian democracy today is that there can be no such thing because all that which we call democracy is already Christian. It is sometimes too easy to oppose theocracy to democracy (as Derrida does when he speaks of the “theocratic culture” of “a certain Islam”), but in this opposition we ought to be able to detect the opening of a conceptual gap the slippage across (or into) which is perhaps difficult but inevitable. Even the most secular democracy always borders (temporally, spatially, conceptually) on theocracy. Instead of retaining this opposition, the more radical way to think democracy (and this to be what Derrida intends when he invokes the “democracy-to-come”) is a democracy without an “other” – that is, a democracy that is other to itself, endlessly, in its own production of multiple democratic forms.

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naïve belief

There’s a certain pet peeve I have that covers many different, but equally troubling, statements and attitudes: basically, any facile characterization of religions that would make of them something like (1) lists of rules and propositions compiled for their adherents to which they would then submit and give assent (or not), and/or (2) social structures designed primarily to organize, control, distract, oppress or delude their adherents. These characterizations or something like them seem to lie behind most criticisms, attacks, or quick dismissals of religion, usually without much concern for the historical backgrounds or arguments that built them. It’s irksome on one level to see both the subjects and objects of religions caricatured and misunderstood in public discourse (by people such as Dennett and Dawkins); it’s irksome on an entirely different level to see religion treated in philosophical literature as something on which a verdict has been rendered, one about which “we” all agree – i.e., it’s obvious that (whether on the merits of Feuerbach’s or Marx’s or Nietzsche’s or Darwin’s or Freud’s or whomever’s argument) religion is simply irrational superstition that no intelligent, educated person can take seriously (at least not without ulterior motives).

The unenviable situation in which religions today find themselves vis-à-vis much philosophical treatment of “religion” seems to me to echo what Bruno Latour describes as the modernist settlement regarding science and politics in Pandora’s Hope. (I’m not sure whether it would be more appropriate to describe another settlement having to do specifically with religion and science, for instance, or to say that we are in the poor state we are in regarding our “understanding” of religions as a result of the same settlement Latour describes.) This becomes especially clear in the last chapter, where he takes aim squarely against the modern critics who want to rid the world of “naïve beliefs” in order to promote freedom, but are only able to expose their own naïvety and inhumanity.

Above, I consciously used the active verbs “compiled” and “designed” when describing the characterizations of religions that I think are misguided. This is because one of the most fundamental errors in these ways of understanding religions seems to rest on one of the distinctions that Latour sees as characteristic of the modernist settlement: that between the real and the fabricated. Religion (that is, the objects and/or tenets of religious belief – as if practices and attitudes counted for nothing) cannot be “real”; therefore, they must be fabricated. If they are fabricated, then they must have been consciously put into operation at some point, whether by proposition and assent, agreement, force, etc. But the serious mistake so often made here is the evaluation of these “fabrications” and their operation by hypothesizing a tabula rasa as the context of their acceptance or rejection. No religion would withstand this test, but that is not due to any special failure of religion. As Latour argues, the real is real because it is fabricated, and this fabrication (if it is done well) articulates reality precisely through the connections it makes use of. Thus, to evaluate anything independently of its practical contexts is to rob it of its reality from the outset. As I see it, the modernists enemies of religion and religions (I try to refer to what there is that actual people engage in as “religions” and only to the caricatures as “religion”, because there’s very little that the actual religions have in common with the various theoretical concepts of religion) do more harm than simply constructing straw men to tear down, because they’re consistently relying on and therefore keeping alive the naïve belief in naïve beliefs that Latour, for one, works to dismantle.