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					Responding to Theodore Jennings‟ Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul Bradley A. Johnson

A confession: though I have undoubtedly read as much Paul and Pauline scholarship as I have Derrida and Derridean scholarship, I feel as though I know the latter much better. And yet, though long a confessional prodigal son, I feel as though I have a fidelity to Paul that I do not necessarily have for Derrida; or, I might add, for most of the philosophers currently engaging themselves with the texts and practices of religion, those whose aims have been to articulate secular renditions of religion—aims captured most concisely by John Caputo‟s subtitular phrase “religion without religion,” whose surface-level proximity to evangelical Christianity‟s self-perception as being “a relationship without religion” is a little unsettling to at least one ex-evangelical. It is in light of this confession that I find myself deeply ambivalent about Theodore Jennings‟ nimble capacity for fidelity to both in his Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul. On one hand, Jennings is faithful to the creatively expansive, critical spirit of deconstruction. He realizes, and realized before many of his peers, that deconstruction does far more than free individual texts from their interpretive moorings, and is not merely the theoretical justification for an individual critic to be as clever and playful as possible. This liberation of/from the canon and the canonized work, of course, was not without merit, no matter what the reactionaries said then and still claim now; but, importantly, neither could we fully claim that this was the end or the purpose of deconstruction. Deconstruction, the reversal and inherent structural loosening of hierarchical/interpretative rigidity, Jennings maintains, has always been ethical in its scope. For indeed the implications of deconstruction are always already much broader than any individual text, if for no other reason that, in terms of deconstruction, strict individuality is structurally impossible—it is always already opened from within to untold layers of contextuality. In short, deconstruction and dissemination are not, and never were, confined to a particular literary-theoretical discipline, but are “indispensable

allies for an emancipatory theological project concerned with questions of justice” (179 n.13). On the other hand, and this is the hard part, fidelity to two-at-once, Jennings is also faithful to the Apostle Paul—to the confession, discipline and discourse built around, and that constructs the contours of, the Pauline corpus. This is not to say that Jennings‟ interpretation of Paul is normative. Indeed, he admits his interpretive violence, a violence felt not by the text of Romans itself, if there is such a thing, but by the assumptions that have traditionally and confessionally framed the discourse about Paul, especially the weighted centrality of „righteousness‟ at the expense of „justice‟ in Paul‟s presentation of the gospel. According to Jennings, to privilege righteousness and justification is to fall too completely under the sway of a modern conception of subjectivity that Paul‟s gospel in fact calls into question. As such, while he admits his interpretive assault against this assumption, he does not concede that such violence is capricious (nor, we might add, is it necessarily redemptive). It is, rather, borne out of his attention and attunement to the tapestry of decisions that have led, he feels, to a dangerous interpretive (not to mention political/ethical) impasse: namely, the codification of norms and acceptability, and thus the ghettoization of Christian truth in the guise of personal righteousness, at the expense of a truth and justice that unfolds toward and affirms the other. At first, this would seem to contradict the claim that Jennings is being faithful to Paul and Pauline discourse. But, importantly, such is the underlying assertion of Jennings‟ thesis, that fidelity to deconstruction is inalienable from fidelity to Paul. The interpretive decision to privilege justice, then, is not a simple or outright rejection of righteousness. As a matter of fact, Jennings argues, it is impossible simply to reject righteousness out of hand and still maintain fidelity to Paul. True fidelity is manifest, rather, by tracing the logic of righteousness to its inevitable end and breaking point, which Jennings argues is its inherent inability to maintain dogmatically its distinctions of true and false, saved and damned. All this is to say, Jennings‟ aim is not simply to churn out yet another Pauline interpretation, one amongst many more, although he does repeatedly call his “a thought experiment”. True to his intended fidelity to Paul, rather, his interpretive privileging of justice is exemplified (perhaps even in spite of itself) by the very object of his critique;

that is, the Apostle‟s development of the relationship between law and grace in Romans, whereby “justice is not and cannot be established through the law; but rather is in some way the consequence of grace or gift” (7). Thus forms the basis of the linkage Jennings finds between Paul and Derrida. In his “faithful” reading of both thinkers, we find penetrating critiques of law, and yet critiques of law that do not nullify the claim of justice. On the contrary, for both thinkers, law is only itself insofar as it necessarily assumes that which exceeds its temporal-historical instantiations in/as law(s)—that is, that to which law calls, the spirit of which it invokes, justice. In short, justice and law are, in Jennings‟ words, “embedded in one another” (30), each requiring the other to be itself. Law calls on/invokes justice in order to be law, and justice is but an empty idea without its being called/invoked by law. Inasmuch as justice exceeds law, though, as that which must be invoked if law is to be legitimized, it is not (and cannot be) circumscribed by law. Indeed, as such an excess or exception, it calls into question and destabilizes the expansive and circumscribing aspirations and assumptions of law, rendering its instantiations and legitimation provisional. For Paul and Derrida, then, justice cannot be identified and established as such (if we can even speak of justice as such) by that law which it instantiates and (provisionally) legitimizes. It is, rather, only rendered as a gift For Derrida, this justice that is rendered as a gift is „impossible‟. He writes: For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt. If the other gives me back or owes me or has to give me back what I give him or her, there will not have been a gift, whether this restitution is immediate or whether it is programmed by a complex calculation of a long-term deferral or différance (Given Time, 12). Why, though? What is it about exchange that makes the gift so problematic? He continues: From the moment the gift would appear as gift, as such, as what it is, in its phenomenon, it sense and essence, it would be engaged in a symbolic, sacrificial, or economic structure that would annul the gift in the ritual circle of the debt (ibid. 23).

The problem, then, is that the very intention of gift-giving renders a payment to oneself that nullifies the gift as gift—i.e., “the gratifying image of goodness or generosity, of the giving-being, who knowing itself to be such, recognizes itself in a circular, specular fashion in a sort of auto-recognition, self-approval, and narcissistic gratitude” (ibid.). Just as justice cannot be realized as justice in law, for it must always be that to which law calls forth, and is thus necessarily related to law as an inevitable excess or exception to its present, provisional instantiations, the gift, too, remains necessarily elusive to the act of giving. (“If the gift appears or signifies itself, if it exists or if it is presently as gift, as what it is, then it is not, it annuls itself. Let us go to the limit: The Truth of the gift suffices to annul the gift” [ibid. 13-14].) Such is the quasi-phenomenological necessity of Derrida‟s conception of the gift, a necessity that has become all but axiomatic to most of his commentators, Jennings included. But, if I might be indulged my relative infidelity to, which is not to say rejection of, Derrida, is his bracketing of counter-gift and obligation as necessary as he claims? What if it is, in fact, possible to be faithful to the gift, and thus to justice, in the midst of the social exchange characterized by counter-gift and obligation? This is the position taken by Philip Goodchild in his book Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety, where he claims in his discussion of economy and gift that wherever there is inequality in exchange, there has been a gift. Now, to be sure, this is no simple return to the economic logic Derrida and Paul are understood by Jennings to critique. Goodchild illustrates this with what he terms the “limit case”: when, in a gift-exchange, the same gift given is immediately returned to the giver. Here, nothing is distributed, but something is refused—that is, the gift—and in the process a giver is potentially dishonored. Moreover, Goodchild continues, consider the ambiguities that emerge in a gift-exchange when no comparable gift is returned. On the one hand, via patronage, a giver may show and/or assert superiority by giving, for the one who accepts the gift of patronage accepts his or her subordination and dependence. On the other hand, the one who receives the gift may wish to conceal superiority by graciously receiving without feeling the need to give back in return; in this, the gift is allowed to appear as a gift and not as an exchange, and the giver in is honored. Of course, if the latent superiority in

accepting gifts without returning them becomes public knowledge, this honor is potentially reversed, for the gifts then become tribute to the one in the position to receive without returning. But, to complicate matters still further, if the receiver‟s superiority is not public knowledge, the refusal to return the gift is itself still potentially an affront to the giver and dishonor to the receiver (Capitalism and Religion, 115). Significantly, Goodchild‟s anthropological inquiry into the gift and gift-exchange does not reject that notion most privileged by Derrida, the economical obligation or good conscience produced by the gift. Contra Derrida, though, this need not problematize the possibility of the gift so much as it does beckon our attention to the unavoidable and uncertain interpretation of the social situation always already at work in and as giftexchange. Goodchild writes: The social categories of obligation, respect, honour and shame cannot be appropriated or possessed; they are always given. Even in exchange, they do not cancel each other out: honour is cumulative, and may lead to more honours. The social conditions of gift-exchange are incommensurable with the material flow of gifts, and the symbolic flow of obligations. It is thus an error to reduce the social bond to a sphere of debts and obligations, for this is to construct the social order in the image of the market (ibid.). Or, as he writes later in a more overtly Deleuzian register: gift-exchange is “always immersed in [immanent] fields of subjectivity . . . in fields of organization, where segments of bodies and materials are distributed through machinic interactions with segments of discourse” (ibid. 159) It is in this sense that the economic logic of the gift can be seen as exemplary of western reason after the death or murder of God. This reason is a progression beyond, or at least a seeing through, seemingly archaic and suspicious notions like codes and statuses of honor. Again to quote Goodchild, “Instead of paying one‟s dues, one is obliged to give reasons: to be rational and responsible is to explain oneself” (ibid. 119). In the economical eyes of reason, faith—which for Paul as well as for Derrida, is the trusting in things unseen and uncertain, trust that the uncertain and unseen is both transcendent and trustworthy, and thus true in its transcendence, this being the transcendence of transcendence—is fundamentally an irrational obligation or infinite debt. Derrida‟s

concern throughout every phase of his philosophical development has been to draw attention to this irrational faith that conditions and problematizes the self-assumption of reason as stable and progressive. For indeed, as he has argued, even reason has a cause, a starting point; in the absence of the absolute starting point, the Mover that Moves or Platonic One, God, one is obliged to suspicion. When no first or final explanation is available, this suspicion of reason is as though an infinite debt, even to the inevitable point that one must be suspicious of suspicion itself. Hence Derrida‟s “alternative”: thinking the gift (and thus, too, justice) as “the impossible,” the absolute affirmation or excess that cannot be known as such, but can and must be thought (or, as we have seen, called). Inasmuch as the gift/justice are never known as such, only thought as the impossible (that is, as the impossible thought), for Derrida and Paul alike they are experienced only as a debt. This debt is that of finitude, and thus of time: Derrida: “There where there is gift, there is time. What it gives, the gift, is time, but this gift of time is also a demand of time. The thing must not be restituted immediately and right away” (Given Time, 41). Paul: Romans 6-7, where the Apostle elaborates on the death-dealing (and thus time-consumed) capacity of the law (e.g., “the wages of sin is death”), as opposed to the affirmation of life that exceeds death and temporality, that is eternal life, through grace. In short, for both Derrida and Paul, life is most naturally itself only insofar as it is held captive by the debt of being and time. Which brings us back to our suggestion inherited from Goodchild earlier: the temporal, economic order of being and time—i.e., of law, debt and death—acquires its symbolic meaning and value only when considered in terms of the social order in which exchange occurs. Which is to say, the immanence of the social order, in all its subjective interrelativity, is inescapably constitutive of all exchange and economy, and thus of law and death. If this is so, though, justice is neither circumscribed nor compromised by the exchange/economy of law and death.

We are, of course, at this point being unfaithful to Derrida, in whose quasitranscendentalism justice is as much deferred as it is the aim, ambition, and assumption of our thinking and decisions. In focusing, rather, on the immanent intensity or potential of the temporal and social conditions of thought, justice is found to be an impossibility that in fact happens. Now, if justice is to be “found,” it is certainly not in the economy of law and reason, and thus not in the neo-Platonic possibility and aspiration of speaking the truth as such; it is, rather, evident only in the freedom and intensity of a thinking that gives attention and honor to that which is not circumscribed by thought. This is, we might suggest, the beginning of an ethics of thinking that is truly attentive, and in being truly attentive, truly just. It is in this sense, I submit, in the immanence of our (individual and collective) attention that we may say that the impossible, justice, happens. Might we find an example of this attention that effects justice in Jacques Rancière‟s conception of politics, as discussed especially in his Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (1998) and The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2006)? Here, Rancière speaks of a people who have no proper place in the political community, and who thus lack (that is to say, are denied) the capacity freely and coherently to synthesize and articulate their perspective of the sensual world. Theirs is, in short, the forced evacuation of the Kantian imagination. As such, they play no role or part in giving or taking from the shared world of experience [the sensus communis]. In a move analogous to the conception of justice above, for Rancière, politics is the rare event that occurs when these people nonetheless forcibly partake in that experience, and thus in that community. Politics, or justice, occurs, that is, when they create that voice they had been denied all along. In terms of Aristotle‟s political community, Rancière notes that the slave is necessarily different in kind from his master. The soul of the master is one of deliberation and discernment, which gives him the natural right of sovereignty, rule and law. The slave, however, has no such capacity, and indeed has no soul or essence at all; as such, while the slave can understand the reason and law of the master (thus allowing the slave to obey the master‟s orders), he lacks the capacity or essence to participate in reason and law. They are, rather, effected upon the slave. Indeed, the slave only has a proper place in the

political community insofar as he obeys his master—his is a place of (natural/essential) subservience, “doomed to the anonymity of work and reproduction” (Disagreement, 7). For Rancière, the proletariat are slaves who have rejected their essential place in the political community, that of the no-place. In other words, they are the slaves who have ceased to be subservient; they have, as such, denounced subservience and have made a claim of freedom. A highly significant dynamic is at work in this claim. On one hand, they effectively position themselves outside of the existing political community‟s partitioning of the sensible; on the other hand, however, they lay claim to a freedom that belongs only to those with a part in this political community. Such is, Rancière contends, the quintessential political event. Notice, though, that the slave‟s claim to freedom is fundamentally different than that of a claim to wealth or nobility. These claims assert particular qualities as proper and/or essential to those who lay the claim: in terms of Aristotelean justice, such claims are just inasmuch as the wealthy and noble fulfill the roles they are naturally and essentially capable of fulfilling in the community. A slave‟s claim to freedom, however, is an immediate claim, devoid of any justification by way of their proportional, contributing quality. In such a claim, the slave insists that the correlation between social position/role and natural capacity is purely theatrical, and thus artificial to the core. At this point Rancière‟s notion of politics seems inseparable from the non-transcendental conception of justice described thus far. In both, there is a sense that at the very foundation of common sense or law is a part played by that which cannot be counted or sensed; that justice/politics occurs when this part that is no part asserts itself in such a way as finally to be counted and sensed; and that in doing so forces a revaluation of societal roles and norms and judgments. Might we, then, relate this to giving attention and the immanent ethics of thinking introduced above, as that field which opens out into the occurrence of politics/justice? If so, does this not open a way of thinking a just legal reform, a notion rejected by Jennings—that is, a legal reform not circumscribed by law, for it emerges not as “the true” but through an active ethics of thinking, a fully embodied, non-transcendental attention to that which is (constitutively) silenced?

It is here that I find myself deviating from Jennings. In my estimation, the hope of this justice that occurs is closer to that envisioned by Paul, in his relation of justice and grace, than it is to the justice-to-come (that is, deferred) of Derrida. For his part, Jennings is well-aware that Paul testifies to a happening or event of justice that Derrida does not: “Paul‟s perception that the law is incapable of producing justice depends on the recognition that the messiah of God has been legally condemned and executed by the law. [Whereas] Derrida‟s argument does not rest on the claim about the having come of the messiah but on the thinking through of the claim of law and justice” (64). For Paul, argues Jennings, Christ is “the great criminal” who exposes the injustice and violence at the heart of the law, thus exemplifying its inadequacy to effect justice, and rendering the faithful slaves unto grace and justice, not law. For Jennings the quasi-transcendental dynamic of law and justice is expressed “exemplarily” by the execution of the messiah, in a way (Jennings agrees) that Derrida would not readily acquiesce. How? The execution of the messiah was by the book, and thus according to the law. As such, Jennings continues, it is precisely the legality of this execution that problematizes the law‟s capacity to render justice. This is because, for Paul, the messiah‟s defiance of death, that is the “resurrection from the dead,” interrogates (from within law) the authority and sovereignty of the law, because the law founds and maintains itself fundamentally in the dealing of death. As Jennings rightly notes, then, Pauline justice is concerned with the unveiling of the law as historically and socially embedded, and thus not universalizable. In turn, Paul‟s gospel of justice is the unveiling of a truly new creation, the possibility of a life made eternal and eternally new. It is precisely here that the simultaneity of Jennings‟ fidelity to Derrida and Paul becomes most problematic. In its not being circumscribed by the law from which it emerges, I would argue that we are not limited to thinking this emergence of grace as the eschatological possibility of justice — that is, justice as an infinite affirmation made apparent only in its temporal deferral. (Viz., the “(always) already/not yet” dynamic so prevalent in Pauline studies that has all-too-eagerly welcomed the latent similarities with Derrida‟s quasi-transcendental, but, as argued by Yoder, is perhaps too beholden to an unsubstantiated version of an eschatological Paul set at odds with an apocalyptic Jesus). I am, rather, compelled to regard Paul‟s presentation of grace as a

kind of apocalyptic intensity of justice, that is, a justice fully immanent to but radically different from the historical and social order of law. In this sense, the happening of justice (by grace) for Paul is a kind of incarnation. If this is so, we are led to conclude that the difference between Pauline justice and Derridean justice is not as pronounced for Jennings as it should be. For his Paul, the actual existence of justice, as opposed to the hope for justice, remains problematic; in light of temporality and law, Jennings points out, justice remains for now and for us an economic calculation. Is it possible, though, that the Pauline inauguration of grace, which effects a kind of “general amnesty” from the economical limits set around justice by the law, is not merely exemplary of a justice not yet known as such? To use the language of catechetical Christianity, although I use it non-confessionally, what if this inauguration of grace provokes a radically participatory or “eucharistic” embodiment of law by justice? For in the execution of the messiah, is not the event of justice by grace committed fully and essentially to history and law? If so, the incomparability of justice (i.e., justice as such) does not require the continual withdrawal from history or law. Indeed, in terms of Pauline apocalypticism, which is most commonly (if unknowingly) rendered in eucharistic language, the contingency of history and law embodies the infinite incomparability of justice. Such has been the upshot of the long-ignored Catholic philosophers, whose inscrutable prose and logic becomes apprehendable when read alongside (and perhaps, too, inside) the apocalyptic heritage of Joachim of Fiore and Petrus Iohannis Olivi: that justice is now fully and essentially thought in terms of its infinite nearness to the law, that is, in the form of justice embodying law, and thus as that which is absolutely nothing but the immanence of existence and the social order. An apocalyptic rendering of justice frees justice from limitation, for it here has become fully and essentially existence itself. In this way, justice that is called forth/invoked by law is but the immanent intensification of the law itself. What would we be able to make of this incarnational-eucharistic logic of justice, whereby the embodiment of law in justice makes impossible the impossibility of the impossible (one of Leahy‟s felicitous phrasings)? Would this be some kind of new philosophically fashionable fascism? No—for the law whose being is justice cannot simply withstand

absolute unpredictability and chance, such as that of a messiah executed, but is in fact inseparable from it. For indeed where the law is embodied by justice, in the attention given (sacrificed?) to law, justice is always only just beginning, and thus always beginning each time for the first time. In close, I might suggest that such a conception of justice is not so distant from that of Rancière about politics above, which, crucially, I contend is much closer to Paul than it is to Derrida. Here, justice is not so much necessarily deferred by its identification in/as law as it is always and only issued in/as law. Importantly, though, and in line with Paul, the truth of this law embodied by justice would be that of an apocalypsis, or the unveiling of a new creation, whose existence (precisely in the order of law & death) is the attention to its essential and absolute creativity, the infinite finitude of law.


				
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