God Without Confession and Profession

Department of Political Science; Department of Sociology
Jean-Luc Nancy; University of Strasbourg

ARTEMY MAGUN: Welcome to the European University at Saint-Petersburg. In case you haven’t been here recently, we are very happy to see you again. Today is Jean-Luc Nancy Day, which will consist of two parts: a lecture titled «God Without Confession and Profession»; and a round table discussion concerning “Gods of Material Society”.

Jean-Luc Nancy is one of the most prominent philosophers of our time: he began his work in the 60s-70s in the school formed around Jacques Derrida, but later organized a new school of philosophy in Strasbourg with Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Professor Nancy concerns himself with developments in deconstruction and French Heideggerian philosophy which are connected with the nature of social relations. Today's events have been arranged around Jean-Luc Nancy’s theological reflections, which seemed to fit well within a contemporary sociohistorical context.

JEAN-LUC NANCY: I want to thank the European University of Saint-Petersburg, in particular Rector Oleg Kharkhordin, Artemy Magun, and Denis Viennet, who is here today, and who made this visit possible.

The theme of this lecture originated from a correspondence between myself and Artemy Magun. He listed “confession” as one of the possible topics of discussion, and I didn’t understand him, as the main meaning of this word in French today is much more mundane: “I will tell you of my mistake, my guilt”, and so on. The use of this word to mean “profession” or “creed” has become more esoteric, more academic.

Augustine’s book Confessions is no longer translated into French directly from the Latin confessiones, but instead using the French word les aveux. But it is clear that these two meanings are obviously connected: in order for a confession to arise in this sense, in the sense of a spiritual family of individuals, a spiritual unification of individuals, it is necessary for someone or everyone to perform a confession, that is, to confess their sins, mistakes, and guilt before others. Therefore, to say God without confession, without profession, means that there is no separate group of believers who are joined to him, and that there is no admission of guilt before him.

What is left, then, for God? Generally speaking, very little is left - you could even say that nothing is left. The name of God remains, that is true. And it is then worth asking: is it possible to erase the name of God? Thus, the name of God, a ghostly silhouette, hovers above us in its various guises, in various confessions and pseudo-confessions. And this name of God migrates into various spheres, philosophy included.

Even the relatively young philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, a student of Alain Badiou (All members of Badiou and Nancy’s generation were atheists - A.M.) promotes a new kind of God beyond existent gods and beyond religion.

This is a very popular trend. You all know that Jean-Luc Marion is also developing this version of Catholic phenomenology. In America there are all possible forms of God, theology without God, and so on. There is the weak theology of Gianni Vattimo; and even I, Jean-Luc Nancy, am sometimes associated with this movement. I wrote two volumes on the deconstruction of Christianity (Déconstruction du Christianisme), which are taken thusly: even though they are concerned with deconstruction, even so, something from Christianity is left over, which means that I too adhere to this theological branch.

And Jean-Christophe Bailly, another remarkable French philosopher, wrote an essay entitled “Adieu”, which means “Farewell”, or, literally - “to God”. In other words, when you say “to God”, you are parting forever, severing all ties with this world. It is meant to say: we will meet again with God, until we meet again with God.

Even though Jean-Christophe Bailly is more of an atheist than I am, in this essay he wrote: “atheism couldn’t bring water to its own desert”. Bailly is certainly correct in saying that there is a desert. But the most important part isn’t the desert itself, but rather the fact that we don’t have any water to bring to it. And God is water to a certain extent, that is to say, that which quenches our thirst, that which gives us strength. And when we pronounce the name of God, it refers to water in one way or another.

The first thing we must mention in our search for this God who quenches our thirst is that monotheism, the way it formed among the human race, that is to say, in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, but also in non-theism like Buddhism, and even Lao-Tzu  - not only is all of this monotheism, it is also a religion which is in a way without God, or, to put it more precisely, without a God. No monotheistic God can be a God who is ever truly present. He is blurred, dissolved in some sense. Monotheism excludes the possibility of a religion with a concrete god: Krishna, Zeus, and so on.

This monotheistic culture gave birth to our entire civilization, and that which we call globalization today, and capitalism, which we should not forget here, are both a result of the growth of monotheism.

With monotheism, one of the most important functions of God is that of creator. And this is not only creation, but creation from nothing: ex nihilo. What does ex nihilo mean? Not that God takes nothing and makes something out of it: he has no materials, it’s simply creation in which all of existence arises from emptiness.

Wittgenstein, though not a particularly religious philosopher, possessed a sense of holiness, and in one of his lectures on ethics he said: “The creation of the world lies simply in the fact that the world exists”. Here Wittgenstein means that the creation of the world consists of the emptiness from which it arises. The simple existence of the world, the very fact that it exists - these form its border with nothing. There is no reason - the world simply exists.

And it bears mentioning that this idea of a Creator, regardless of faith, is always the same idea. God is such an all-powerful entity that he is somehow able to make existence arise from nothing. This is a form of almighty power. And it doesn’t lie in the creation of something incredible, for example, some kind of spaceship that could take us to a different galaxy and so on. It lies in the simple fact that it crosses the boundary between nothing and something. This power, the power of creation, is a power of the second order, that is, the power of power, which in some sense is more than power itself. It infinitely succeeds ordinary power. It is demonstrated in the simple fact, for example, that the human fetus forms in a woman’s belly - it’s possible that we will soon be able to create a fetus in a man’s belly or with some kind of device - but for now this fetus forms in a woman’s belly: merely a handful of cells. This itself is the highest form of power. In some sense this power has been called the power of life. And it’s no accident that the Christian god is often understood as life itself, the god of life, a living god.

It’s hard to say what bearing god has on modern times, on the present moment. It’s true that we have man - a living, speaking being. And this speaking is in itself interesting. In some sense, any and all speech is dedicated to the idea that we exist. It expresses existence above all else. You can speak about anything you like, but the most important part of your speech is simply that it bears witness to the fact that I exist. We see this even with Descartes and his cogito, he even signals us in that direction. Here we are talking specifically about speech. Although there is also, of course, the question of meaning - that is the next question of this speech. And when we say “meaning”, we are obviously raising questions about causality, about active, purposeful causes.

While our speech does possess the word “to be”, it is fairly enigmatic, empty; as Trakl says: “a thing must simply be”.. And our speech truly does revolve around this question. If we take a name - Artem, for example - it expresses nothing but the fact that it exists, as does the person who possesses it. A name says nothing of the qualities of this person; we can learn nothing new about him. But the name points to the very fact of existence.

A.M.: But if this name is invented, does it exist?

J.N.: The author exists, as does the moment of creation on the part of this author. And it’s possible that reading works of literature consists of determining the qualities of the character, Raskolnikov or Don Quixote, which was created by the author, by Dostoevsky or Cervantes -  that is to say, the moment of creation here is key. Speaking generally, a similar story arises with God as well, since God is also a character in a book; we learn about this or that accomplishment from books, and these books are written by people. Here we encounter the question of creation. Islam, for example, is very interesting here, because the current dominant interpretation of the Koran is that it was not created - nobody wrote it, it simply descended from the sky. This topic is obviously a matter of discussion within Islam, and there are various positions concerning this idea, but this is the dominant interpretation. One could say that God is the result of the desire to somehow give a name to life, to existence itself. And it is no accident that complications always arise concerning the name of God. In Judaism, as you all know, there is the tetragrammaton, which cannot be pronounced; in Islam, there are a hundred names for God, one of which is unknown, and those that are known aren’t exactly names, but rather qualities, categories of God.

In the European tradition (excluding Russian), the name for God usually comes from the word “day”. In ancient Greek we find this root in the names of both Zeus and Dionysus. Here we can understand day as forming a border with night: night is the time of emptiness, the time when there is nothing. And when day begins, something appears. And in this sense we come again to the idea that, when something exists, God exists. We might recall the experience of waking up - when we wake up, especially after an unpleasant dream, we often don’t know where we are. In that very first moment, everything seems to have fallen apart a little bit, and it’s only after a period of time that we realize exactly where we are, especially when we travel. Today I woke up and gradually realized that I was in St. Petersburg. This is the exact moment of the recognition of existence or, more precisely, the beginning of existence.

The name of God is different from the name “Artem” because Artem is sitting here, whereas again, God is not sitting here, and he never is really here. It’s as if he never exists anywhere, but his name exists. And this name, the name of God, is the name for the unnameable. How is that possible? It’s a problem in many senses, linguistics being one of them.

Atheism actually grew out of monotheism, particularly out of Christianity. The thesis of atheism comes down to the idea that God is not anyone’s name - it’s the name of no one.

In this atheistic period the question still stands: what should we do with this name “God”, even if it doesn’t mean anything? For example, I’ll say a few words about Heidegger. We won’t speak now about the larger political mistakes made by Heidegger: if you want to know my opinions on this matter, I recently wrote a text about the Black Notebooks, but we won’t talk about it now. As you know, Heidegger was an eminent German philosopher, and he has a formula for the “last god” which can be found in his book Beiträge zur Philosophie. This “last god” doesn’t have a name; nothing concrete is said about him except that he is the last, and that he therefore completes the series of all gods. And Heidegger describes his existence with the German word winken, a suggestion, a signal.

What does this German word mean? It is often used when talking about children, very young children, who still cannot talk; but when, for example, their grandmother comes, they greet her with their arm or leg, and their parents encourage this. The child makes this gesture for parting as well. The grandmother leaves, and this has to have its own signal. Additionally, this can be a subtle sign, for example, a girl winking. A sovereign can also make this relatively small gesture, and immediately his helper executes one of those present. So that’s what we mean when we use the word winken.

Heidegger’s winken is related to the idea of Ereignis. Essentially, this word refers to an event. But Heidegger gives this word a particular terminological meaning which might be translated as an “isolated incident”. That is to say, something existent in this event obtains a special, specific character.

Similarly, God is related to his own existence. (Here we encounter the French word propre, which is difficult to translate into Russian: Bibikhin translated it as “one’s own”, as did Eigen. Here the meanings of truth and belonging are combined in one word, both in French and in German. A.M.). What exactly is one’s existence? That which appears in some sense at birth, at death, somewhere in the interval between these two moments, or something which happens constantly, but even then not in any one precise moment. This is the moment of isolation. In some sense, Ereignis is when an entity claims its own existence.

We encounter this feeling of existence often. We absolutely understand what is being discussed: for example, when we fall in love (tomber amoureux), or when we find ourselves in grave danger. These are moments when we truly become aware of the unique quality of our own existence. And, respectively, there are moments when we contemplate works of art, or a landscape, moments which seize us; and these moments differ from mundane experiences like breakfast, lunch, dinner, brushing our teeth, and so on.

A.M.: Jean-Luc also told a story about how he met a little girl this morning, and how this meeting was a revelation of two beings meeting one another. This is a similar event of being seized - a small one, but these moments leave traces through the course of our lives, just like the example of meeting with existence.

J.N.: In his book Beiträge, Heidegger emphasizes that Ereignis is not only appropriation, not only isolation, but at the same time Enteignis, or expropriation, de-isolation. We can also add a third related word: Zueignis, which means dedication to someone. Various translations are possible here: Derrida suggests ex-appropriation. But one way or another, there is a dual motion here.

Essentially, this “last God” is meant to allude to a triple event, that is to say a discovery of one’s self as well as the understanding that this self expropriates, tears away that which was yours from the very beginning. Similarly, this very self gives, entrusts to someone else, makes an offering to someone else. Here we have the moment of dedication. In order for existence to become one’s own, it should extend beyond its own boundaries; this creates a paradox. And one existence extends towards another. This other existence could be a person, or an animal, anything you want.

Thus, this final God that Heidegger talks about is actually just the name of God. All that is left after the death of God, after Buddha’s body standing in a cave for a thousand years, is the name “God”, whose meaning we don’t understand - the meaning of the need for this unifying isolation, this call for both isolation and movement beyond the limits of one’s self at the same time.

This assertion by Heidegger isn’t unprecedented - we encounter this God paradox in all traditions to varying degrees. Despite the gravity of official theology, there is always a drop of mystery, of the tradition of mysticism which makes similar remarks about God, i.e. that he is the last God. We might quote Meister Eckhart, who said that we ask God to free us from God, in all senses: to forgive our debts, so that he would release us. This dual motion is present in all mystic traditions: in Islam and Christianity in Catholicism and in the Orthodox Church.