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  • Derrida and Freud on the Return of Religion
  • Kevin McShane (bio)

This essay will attempt to show that Derrida, in one of his most important texts on religion, often has Freud and his views on the psychogenetics of religion in mind even when discussing aspects of faith and religion in other thinkers. In the paper “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” which takes off partly from Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone and partly from Bergson’s The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, the influence of Freud and psychoanalysis—not to mention Derrida’s deconstructive analyses of them—is not just an undercurrent but often the main current.

In this paper, originally presented at a seminar in 1994, and published in French in 1996 (English translation 1998), Derrida discusses several concepts that he considers central to the revival of religion, especially in its more fundamentalist forms, that was taking place at the end of the twentieth century. Two of these ideas he names “the messianic” and “the chora.” Both are related to justice. By “the messianic,” Derrida means “messianicity without messianism. This would be the opening to the future or to the coming of the other as the advent of justice, but without the horizon of expectation and without prophetic prefiguration” (1998, 17). In Specters of Marx, Derrida distinguishes the messianic—which he describes as a “structure of experience” rather than a religious belief—from Abrahamic messianism, the hope for an actual messiah who would come in the future (or in the case of [End Page 111] Christianity, already has come and will return) (2006, 210–11). The promise of the messianic is that justice and salvation will come when the Messiah arrives and triumphs. Derrida thinks the messianic arises in human experience whenever injustice happens on a large scale. Marxism and other secular programs that look forward to the arrival of justice or salvation without the help of a messiah are nonetheless messianic. This eschatological idea that justice will come by means of a divine intervention into the ordinary world where injustice and suffering reign is similar to the traditional ideas of Jewish or Christian messianism, but without the hope for a messiah. Derrida thinks messianicity is essential to all human discourse, that it is built into who we are and why we have faith in each other, “an invincible desire for justice” that “inscribes itself in advance in the promise, in the act of faith or in the appeal to faith that inhabits every act of language and every address to the other” (1998, 18). Messianicity is “faith without dogma.” By “faith without dogma,” Derrida seems to mean faith not in God but in “the other,” that is, other people. Since we can never know or experience the other as the other experiences him-or herself, we can only have faith in the other, not direct experience of the other. Faith is essential not only to the hope for justice but to any kind of human discourse, including the most “rational” or scientific. Even when it is buried by rationality, scientificity, progress, or the “technoscientific or tele-technological,” messianic faith in some kind of redemptive justice, for those who feel that justice has not been done, always resurrects itself, often in the form of religion. “Wherever this foundation founds in foundering, wherever it steals away under the ground of what it founds, at the very instant when, losing itself thus in the desert, it loses the very trace of itself and the memory of a secret, ‘religion’ can only begin again: quasi-automatically, mechanically, machine-like, spontaneously” (19). The messianic that goes underground, which is suppressed or repressed, returns in some form or other, just as the Freudian unconscious returns the repressed emotional experiences to the individual who has had them in disguised or transformed symptomatology. Derrida believes [End Page 112] that this messianicity can give rise to the return of religion in supposedly enlightened eras such as ours but also that it is responsible for the overturning of religious belief by, for example, revolutionary movements that promote universal rationality and democracy. Without this repressed messianicity...


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pp. 111-128
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