Well I have looked into my accounts. I find this wrong and this wrong. But, with God’s grace, I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts –“Grace,” James Joyce
This is the final line from “Grace,” a story in Joyce’s Dubliners. I begin here not to embark on a long interpretation of the story, but to enter into the strange role economy plays in both Kierkegaard and Derrida.
The quotation from Grace comes from the priest, Father Purdon, who has mis-interpreted a bible verse in order to appease the wordly minds of the businessmen he is preaching addresses. The priest argues that our relationship with God can be settled and set right with God’s grace rather than our own agency. There is no sense here of Levinas and Derrida’s notion of infinite responsibility or Heidegger’s original being-guilty.
The idea that we could ever settle our account with God remains in a circular economy and an economy of the universal—an economy based on money. Money is the universal equivalent—it is that by which everything can be measured and calculated. As Kierkeggard writes, in a money economy, everything can be “had at a bargain price” such that we are no longer sure if anyone “will make a bid” (5). In this society, everything is leveled to the universal.
What Kierkegaard calls the “religious” escapes the logic of the universal and the logic of exchange (which money makes possible). This is what happens when we pretend to “understand” and “account” for Abraham’s act with a moral that can be universally understood. Rather, Kierkeggard argues we need to keep the “anxiety” that comes with Abraham’s actions. If we do not keep this passion and anxiety, then we have tried to “mediate” Abraham’s actions through the universal. Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham’s “ordeal” (rather than ‘spiritual trial’) with a New Testament story: “What is omitted from Abraham’s story is the anxiety, because to money I have no ethical obligation [. . .] So we talk and in the process of talking interchange the two terms, Issac and the best, and everything goes fine” (28).
If for Kierkegaard, the religious is different from the ethical, Derrida will deconstruct this distinction. How does one distinguish between the ethical and the religious if we agree with Derrida that “we no longer know who is called Abraham” (Derrida 79) (also see pgs 83-84 for this in relation to Levinas)? Rather, the situation of Abraham is everyone’s situation at every moment: “As soon as I enter into a relation with the other [. . .] I know I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others” (Derrida 69). At all times, we have given every other (who is wholly other) the kiss of death. We let many others die (we sacrifice them) so that we may live. Thus, even when I take responsibility for one other, I am irresponsible with respect to every other. In this way, Derrida de-mystifies Kierkegaard’s reading so that the absolute other we respond to (by not responding) does not necessarily have to be God as the one, true, transcendent being, but rather to everyone. This understanding shakes the distinction between the religious and the ethical.
In a similar way, Derrida uses Kierkegaard’s reading of the Abraham story to deconstruct the notion that Christian faith somehow escapes all economy. It may be a different economy, but it is still an economy. Derrida argues that Kierkegaard ‘christianizes’ the Abraham story through his subtle biblical reference to Matthew. Derrida quotes the infamous passage in Matthew about turning the other cheek to show that this Christian acting is still with an economy, but one deferred: “for instead of paying back the slap on the cheek [. . .] one is to offer the other cheek. It is a matter of suspending the strict economy of exchange, of payback, of giving and getting back” (102). Thus, the Christian hopes for a reward, but a reward in heaven.
My question is whether this Christian attitude is different from Abraham’s. Derrida writes that, “Abraham had consented to suffer death or worse, and that without calculation, without investing, beyond any perspective of reappropriation, beyond economy, without any hope of remuneration” (95). But in a way, did he not hope somehow that God may “pay him back” somehow either in heaven or even on earth? Does not Derrida talk about how God could have perhaps provided him a new Isaac to replace this one (as if he were substitutable?) To put it another way, is Abraham’s action still within the Christian economy of hoping for infinite reward, but an infinite reward suspended? If so, what does that say about the possibility of faith, belief, credit, and the gift?
Another way to ask this question might be to explore whether Derrida thinks this Christianity to come, this “proto-Christian” ethics is something desirable—the idea that we should give without calculation. But is this even possible? Furthermore, his ending on Nietzsche, who seems to argue that Christianity participates in a kind of Hegelian sublimation where “Christian justice denies itself and so conserves itself in what seems to exceed it; it remains what it cases to be, a cruel economy, a commerce, a contract involving debt and credit, sacrifice and vengeance” (115). Is the Christianity Nietzsche critiques different than this other Christianity of the gift?
Perhaps Derrida’s attention to Christ’s teachings rather than the Pauline interpretation of Christ’s sacrifice for man is significant. The Christianity that would acknowledge that God is not a transcendent being would be an ethics without one particular messiah. We would not owe infinitely to God or to Christ. There would be no ‘salvation,’ no coming to terms with our debt to the other who is every other.
This ethics of the other then would be haunted by Judeo-Christian thought, but it would be without salvation. This ethics would be an ethics not based on calculation, where that be an earthly calculation of goods or ‘treasures’ stored in the heart or heaven. What is the use of referring to this ethics in the name of Christianity with all of its metaphysical connotations? It does seem that God is not only the other in the sense of the other person, but that we are also other to ourself and I think Derrida is close to Levinas and even Heidegger in this passage: “As soon as such a structure of conscience exists, of being-with-onself, of speaking [. . .] as soon as there is secrecy and secret witnessing within me, and for me, then there is what I call God [. . .] God is in me, he is the absolute ‘me’ or ‘self’, he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard’s sense, subjectivity” (108). Would this be Christianity? Does it matter if we argue for it in its name? And should we?