The example Caputo has for us will come from him bringing together the “oddest of couplings”- St. Augustine and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Here we have one of the great early Christian “Fathers of the Church” and a modern atheist, although a very peculiar type of atheist. Two very different time periods and two very different persons. However, are they so different? Perhaps not. Putting that aside, Caputo is hoping this interaction will illustrate what forms truth were able to take before modernity and then again in our present time, once modernity had lost some of its allure. The lesson he hopes we draw from this is deceptively simple:
“…let truth be. Why does everyone insist on telling truth what to do and how to behave? Why not let truth be what it will be? Why not concede that it is truth that leads and we who follow? Even (and especially) if that means truth is capable of taking unforeseen twists—to the displeasure of Pure Reason, which, like a severe schoolmaster, feels compelled to put down every show of emotion or sign of disorder. When it comes to truth we must be prepared to be surprised, to let things become ‘curiouser and curiouser’, as Alice said, who seems to know a thing or two about the strange ways of truth.”
Now, of course, Caputo’s idea here is completely unsettling to the fundamentalist. Whether the one who feels the Bible has to be “read” and understood a certain way (his!) or the secular one who feels the natural world has to be “read” and understood a certain way (his!)- this idea that truth could be something outside of our control is no doubt unnerving. Fundamentalism is all about control. They need “truth” to be in a box they control. They need to control the definitions and what truth “must” mean (to see this all one need do is peruse some of the recent comments!). They police the borders always looking for any intrusion or possible escape. Ironically, this is what actually prevents truth from “happening” and from coming. Truth, if it is really truth, cannot be contained in a box or single definition and here is where we see modernity’s obsession with defining, mapping, and “bucket” thinking. It’s all about control. If I get to define it—I get to control it. Borders or boxes mean nothing to truth, or any other feeble attempts to control it. And truth doesn’t belong to any one group, not even scientists (cue stunned gasps and wide eyes). Yes, not even scientists. Get used to it. Nor does truth belong solely to the theologians.
Caputo then goes on to note the “repetition” example he has in mind is Derrida’s repetition of Augustine. He spends some time drawing links between the two, even though on the surface, they would hardly seem to have much in common. He lays out the historical circumstances of each. Both were born in what is known as Algeria today. Both had close relationships with protective mothers. Most importantly, both spoke in terms of truth “happening”, an encounter, rather than it being something abstract, a system to master, and under our control. Augustine noted it as “grace” while Derrida called it an “event”. For Augustine, this came through in his “Confessions” which is still considered one of the “greatest books of religious literature the West has ever known.” Further, his confessions, while autobiographical, are really a prayer to God, a public prayer he allows the reader to listen to and hear. His action of writing is a “doing” of something. He is making a confession—a public confession. What this means as to truth is noted here:
“Augustine is thereby coming to grips with his life and with God, with his life before God (coram deo). For him it is possible to explore his inner life only in prayer, only by standing alone before God and examining his heart in the light of God, from whom nothing is hidden…A confession is an example of what Austin [J.L. Austin (1911-60) British philosopher] called a ‘performative’, meaning, not just talking about something but doing something precisely by talking. For example, when the judge says ‘guilty’, he is not just describing the defendant as guilty, but pronouncing him, making him, guilty. Or when the bride and groom say ‘I do’, they really did; by pronouncing their vows they make the marriage happen. When I say, ‘I confess that…’ I make that truth happen.”
The idea here is the possibility our words, our languages, do not just report an inner psychological/emotional state, which can be further reduced to the chemical/mechanical, but rather they actually create something new because of their being put out there, where they “do” or “perform” something. Caputo continues:
“So here we run into a kind of sublunary truth that tended to be overshadowed in the history of philosophy, the little truth that is to be made or done, as opposed to the truths that I utter in making true statements about things—as when I remark that the tree outside my window is in bloom. Austin calls this latter type of truth a ‘constative’ truth. In the history of Truth from Plato to Hegel, constatives gradually come to hog the stage, a process that reaches its peak in modernity. Philosophers favour truth ‘claims’, true assertions about things, true propositions, sentences that get things right or pick out the objects in the world, as if we pass our days ‘looking at’ the world and reporting the results to one another.”
And here we see the great disconnect that is so clear when one reads the comment sections, of not only the posts in this series, but regarding many of my posts. When people are locked into a view that only constative truth statements are the “real” and “true” statements, then clearly they will have problems with other views. It is like when little Johnny learns for the first time that not everyone is a Christian or believes in God. What? How can that be? Well, it can. There are other ways to view the world. Philosophical naturalists/materialists need to have that same awakening. Continuing:
“But in Austin’s theory—of which there are antecedents and foreshadowings in religious discourse (and which is one of the reasons why the comparison of Augustine and Derrida is interesting)—performatives finally get a few lines on stage. With these ‘happenings’ of truth, we are getting close to the event of truth, to truth as something that happens, that is done, or made, as when Augustine makes his (book of) confessions. It might even be the case that the name of God used in a constative, as when I say, ‘There is a God,’ is not as important as its use in a prayer or in a sentence like ‘God be with you.’ So the question Austin would have us consider is whether the name of God is the name of a being to which the word God refers, like the tree outside my window, or whether it is, as Kierkegaard says, the name of a deed?”
Interestingly enough, God is often spoken of this way in Scripture. We are told that God is love. And love does, it acts, it is a decision. It is a deed. It isn’t an object or “thing” we can pick up on radar, or map, or dissect. The entire Gospel narrative is about a deed, a life, a living and dying. Or a dying and a living.
Caputo goes on at this point and gives the background to Derrida’s life. His was a life of displacement. He was born in French colonial Algeria. Caputo writes:
“He [Derrida] once said he had only one language and it was not his own, meaning that he was Jewish but never learned Hebrew, was born in an Arab country but never spoke Arabic or Berber, making the language he did speak, which he called ‘Christian Latin French’, foreign to him. He came to view his life as a kind of ‘displacement’, a concept central to his philosophy.”
Caputo also notes that few philosophers traveled as much as Derrida. He spent much of his time on planes, in hotels, and on the road. All of this is to note that Derrida was, “…everybody and nobody, pretty much the living embodiment of truth on the go.”
With the next post, we will look at what Derrida means when he speaks of the “event.”