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The Forgetting of Christianity


Author(s): Gil Anidjar
Source: ReOrient, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn 2015), pp. 27-36
Published by: Pluto Journals
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.13169/reorient.1.1.0027
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THE FORGETTING OF CHRISTIANITY


Gil Anidjar

Abstract: What is Christianity? What is its sense? Is it a religion, a religion like all other
religions? In joining a chorus of European philosophers who have returned to Paul or to
Christianity, Jean-Luc Nancy retains the Latin word religion as the uninterrogated marker of
Christianity and other world religions. Religion is thus the site of an ambiguous sharing, of
which Christianity partakes perhaps more than others but within which limits? Besides its
deconstruction, has there been a critique of Christianity?
Keywords: Christianity, religion, secularism, critique, Nancy

From the beginning, which was not quite the first time, Jean-Luc Nancy warned
us about the risks of forgetting.1 I refer to the forgetting of philosophy obviously
(Nancy 1986), but more recently as well to the forgetting of Christianity. We have
shown ourselves, Nancy explains, to be resisting our Christianity. We might have
wished, that is, not to look the Christian in the face (Nancy 2008: 140); we might
even have liked in fact to speak of it as little as possible (Nancy 2013: 22). In
proposing that we discern in what sense the West is Christian in its depths; in
what sense Christianity is western as if through destiny or by destination (Nancy
2008: 34), Nancy joins a number of European philosophers who have asked us to
think or rethink Christianity and its sense or senses. With them, the Christian or
Christianity is the thing itself that is to be thought (140). By Christian, Nancy
does not mean this or that Christian individual, not merely the Christian in us, in
other words, but that which is Christian, and therefore much more expansive,
possibly massive: What is important is ... that Christianity is present even where
and perhaps especially where it is no longer possible to recognize it (33).
The forgetting of Christianity which may include the recent return to Paul
as well as the broad concern with political theology (175n3), along with other
affirmations (or negations and denials) of Christianity and Judeo-Christianity
can therefore be seen as an extension of the forgetting of philosophy and requires
that we consider both anew.
The question is less that of the sense of Christianity than that of Christianity as a
dimension of sense, a dimension of sense that and this is the point to be analyzed is
at once the opening of sense and sense as opening. (147)
Gil Anidjar, Columbia University.

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Toward that dimension, the question we should stop avoiding is, at any rate, how,
given the existence of Christianity, has our entire tradition, including the one
antedating Christianity, found itself gathered up and launched anew? (140).
Now, neither in what he describes here as a first attempt, nor elsewhere
since to my knowledge, has Nancy proposed a completely finished systematic
exposition of this Christian question (140). This means that he does not quite
manage to look at our entire tradition in the terms he advocates, admittedly
all too massive an undertaking. So what does Nancy do as he seeks to answer
the question of what has been handed down to us by our own tradition from the
depths of this storehouse of Christian self-evidence, which is so self-evident to
us that we do not examine it more closely? (ibid.) How does he respond to the
Christian question? From the storehouse of self-evidence, and presumably away
from it, Nancy broaches his deconstruction of Christianity, and he begins his
enterprise with three and only three aspects or components of Christianity:
faith, sin, and the living God (141).
Self-evidence aside, these three terms remain at the core of Nancys entire
reflection on the Christian. With varying degree of emphasis, God, piety, and evil
or la trinit, lincarnation, la rsurrection (to follow some of the translations
Nancy himself proposes) are the coordinates that map out the terrain of his resolute
confrontation with Christianity.2 It is a confrontation that Nancy is explicitly
demarcating as a turn away from critique.3 There will have been moreover no
concept of Christianity, nor of the Christian, none defined, assessed, or indeed,
mapped. Yet confronting we must, even accuse and more, albeit without opening
a critical front, without agon (2008: 9). One might say: without political theology.
This may be because what we ourselves are confronted by is something that we
do not yet know or recognize (either because it is blindingly evident, or because
it has yet to be thought, or both), or because it escapes us still in its magnitude
(our entire tradition). Christianity, at any rate, is not a concept. It is less a body
of doctrine than a subject in relationship to itself in the midst of a search for self,
within a disquietude, an awaiting or a desire for its proper identity (38). And note
that we consider, perhaps too frequently and too simplistically, that the religious
dimension (or what we believe, perhaps wrongly, to be simply religious) behaves
like an accident in relation to the facts and structures of civilization (31). It might
therefore be surprising to remark that, although it is in excess of itself, and even if
it is as though that regime carried in itself the permanent possibility of dividing
or self-interpreting in two distinct registers (37), this subject, Christianity, is
tenaciously characterized by Nancy (and by the European chorus he joins) as
areligion.
Is religion, then, a concept? Granted, religion appears, from the very opening
paragraphs of Dis-enclosure, as the negative ground upon which, or away from
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which, the ensuing meditation on the deconstruction of Christianity will be


conducted.4 Thus, what must be established from the outset is that it is not a
question of reviving religion, nor is it our concern to save religion, even less
to return to it (1). And yet, the caveat that opens Dis-enclosure is there because
Christianity is our question and because it recurs as a religious question. We are
guided by it toward and away from religion, toward and away from the (sur-)
religious threat that surrounds us (3), and we must accordingly interrogate the
conditions of possibility of a so powerful and durable religious domination (9).
What we are tending toward is the possibility of a religious and hyperreligious
upheaval or surrection as well as an exit from religion all religions. What is at
stake (religiously reiterated, as it were) is therefore religion. What must be set
in motion, moreover, can only be effected by way of a mutual dis-enclosure
of the dual heritages of religion and philosophy (6). That is why dis-enclosure
(here defined for the first time) denotes the opening of an enclosure, the raising
of a barrier. For ahead of us, or perhaps already behind us, is a barrier that is still
very much in place between philosophy and religion but also between religion
and science, religion and politics, democracy and politics, either as democracy
founded anew qua religion or as something else, a reinvention perhaps, of what
secularity means (5). Ahead of us is that curious day still before us, ever before
us, ahead of us, like a day that would be neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Muslim
(60). Everything is therefore as if, along with the other monotheisms, along with
the other religions mentioned here and there and mostly in passing throughout the
two volumes of the deconstruction of Christianity, Christianity were a religion.
Just like any other.
Do we know this for sure? Do we know the range and extent, the limits, of
Christianity and the way it relates or compares with other so-called religions?
Nancys implicit answer is negative, and he makes clear therefore that it is not yet
a question of envisioning, for the time being, the whole [ensemble] formed by the
three monotheisms in this history: Christianity here denotes both itself and the core
of this triplicity, whose components will have to be untangled later on (176n10).
Yet it is again granted (unless it is blindingly self-evident) that Christianity is a
religion. And especially so if, with regard to Christianity, our task is making of it,
in Marcel Gauchets phrase, the religion of the exit from religion (146).
No doubt Nancy is looking for an exit from religion (not a retreat of or from
the political, not this time),5 at the same time as he suggests that we (but who,
we?) have already departed from the religious (34). Either way, he appears to
reinscribe religion in its well-defined and defining place, even if that place is,
as it were, unrecognized or exceeded, obsolete, and out of season. It seems
important, therefore, to demonstrate more fully the past and current equality,
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at times the identity, which Nancy posits among and between religions, all-too
religious religions.
What I am saying about Christianity does not confer a privilege upon it, nor
does it place Christianity at the top of some list of honors ... I am not setting up any
competition between Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism (2013: 25-26).
That would explain why everything that can be said of Christianity can also be
said of other monotheisms, other religions, and vice versa. Christianity is merely
an example, or an illustration, a prism even (2008: 39), which may explain the
ease of a general description of the moral, political, and spiritual infamy that
religions no doubt [indiscutablement] share (and especially monotheistic ones, a
matter that should be examined elsewhere) (22); or the symmetric uniqueness of
the Gods involved in the current war on terror (40). More positively, perhaps,
Nancy affirms that which is shared by the different religions, even at their margins.
He describes
the thinking of alterity opened by and exposed outside of sameness, as that which
exceeds thinking infinitely without in any way being principal to it. Yet this thinking is not
foreign to Christian reflection no more so than to reflection in Judaism or Islam.(26)

Nancy entertains the possibility of a shared faith, one faith for all, writing of this
faith which would be or, again, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic faith would
be the act of a non-knowledge as non-knowledge of the necessity of the other
in every act and in every knowledge of the act (54). By a similar token, there
is nothing original about qualifying Christianity as atheist nor about qualifying
Judaism, Islam, and, of course, Buddhism as such (2013: 29). The value of
humility is also equally Jewish, Christian, and Islamic (15) and the doctrine of
original sin too would by no means be exclusive to Christianity. That man should
be charged with original sin is surely the Judeo-Christian invention that seems
most foreign and unacceptable to modern consciousness (one could perhaps point
to its Muslim echo: in Islam too, only faith saves [seule la foi sauve]) (53). And
so it is that the disposition which I have just declared proper to Christianity is
also present in the two other confessions (here Judaism and Islam), for each
of them possesses a vein exceeding religion as well (34). Besides, are not all
religions full of exclamations hallelujah, evoe, hosannah, om, Jesus, Allah ...
(77)? Nancy does join the many who have said that Buddhism is not exactly a
religion (2008: 36) and generally deploys the well-rehearsed lexicon of religious
studies and comparative religion in its Eurocentric translations, from faith to
prayer, incarnation to dogma and resurrection, and of course, God. Thematically
and conceptually, we are consistently referred to religion and to a recognizable
dimension that, transcended or exceeded, Nancy nevertheless calls, unoriginally
enough, the religious. Nothing suggests that we should reexamine, retreat, or
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change our understanding, even if the world that word (religion) refers to has, in
fact, ended. It remains, for the most part, a world of observance that is to say,
of what defines, in the most proper way, religio, the scrupulous observance (of
rules, of rituals) of which Rome provided, in that word, the most precise image
(55). To repeat, Nancy wishes to exit religion, and for (or against) that purpose, he
adheres to the most expected translations and platitudinous definition of religion,
a religion stricto sensu (2008: 37), a definition that was critically scrutinized
most compellingly perhaps by Talal Asad, in French by Serge Margel and others,
and, closer to home, of course, by Jacques Derrida himself (Asad 1993, Derrida
2002, Margel 2005).
One certainly senses that, although he manages to say quite a bit about them,
Nancy wishes to refrain from commenting too much on other religions. But
it would be more accurate to say that Nancy locates them in a program of sorts,
which would put the onus on future research to establish whether what is said
about Christianity in deconstruction can in fact be applied to other religions (2008:
22). At any rate, Nancy promises to share the results of future research (scholars
of religion having apparently failed to oblige). The conjunction of Greek atheism
and Jewish monotheism, for instance, which, under the name of Christianity,
constituted the major configuration of onto-(a)-theology is said to have played
out differently in Islam, but this would obviously require, in order to be precise,
supplementary consideration (20). A few pages later, Nancy goes on and writes,
How and whether this scheme functioned, or was overturned, in Judaism or
Islam, as well as in the relation or non-relation between the three monotheisms,
will have to be examined elsewhere (24).
This Abrahamic humility, this pious deferral of a research to come (which
would either confirm or contradict the general claims made about religion as
a whole, about all religions seen as equal or comparable to Christianity), is,
however, significantly undermined by another streak of argumentation, in which
Christianitys changing nature and its historical and conceptual position are
rendered as singular, even exceptional. Minimally, one oscillates in attempting
to determine whether Christianity is, once again, a mere instance or example of
a religion (the threefold monotheism and in it, more specifically, Christianity;
that part retains at least partially the monotheistic and, more precisely, the
Christian root of the thought of resurrection (2008: 37, 90; emphasis added)),
or indeed, a model and an exception with regard to other religions. Recalling that
Nancy explicitly asserts that he does not seek to grant privilege to Christianity,
one cannot help but be struck by the superlative depictions that prolifically pepper
the entirety of this, after all aptly titled, deconstruction of Christianity. Thus, it
is that Christianity assumes, in the most radical and explicit fashion, what is at
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stake in the alogon ... Christianity is at the heart of the dis-enclosure just as it is at
the center of the enclosure (10).
Christianity indicates, in the most active way and the most ruinous for itself, the
most nihilist in certain regards how monotheism shelters within itself better: more
intimately within itself than itself, within or without itself the principle of a world
without God. (35)

In this and other ways, Christianity shows a characteristic inscribed in the very
principle of monotheism, a characteristic developed most paradoxically within
Christianity (ibid.). More precisely perhaps,
everything takes place as though Christianity had developed like no other, at once a
theologico-economico-political affirmation of power, domination, and exploitation, for
which Rome was the weighty symbol as well as a part of the reality, and an inverted
affirmation of the destitution and abandonment of self, whose vanishing point is the
evaporation of self. (39)

A religion that is more, much more than a religion (2013: 22); that is more equal
still than other religions,
Christianity itself, Christianity as such, is surpassed, because it is itself, and by itself, in
a state of being surpassed. That state of self-surpassing may be very profoundly proper
to it; it is perhaps its deepest tradition which is obviously not without its ambiguities.
(2008: 141)

It should come as no surprise that Nancy expresses, and never withdraws, to


my knowledge, his overwhelming agreement with the triumphalist (supersessionist?) work of Marcel Gauchet, and particularly with the part related to
Christianity, titled The Religion of the Departure from Religion (142). As
Paul Veyne unforgettably puts it in his (un)apologetic praise of its superiorit,
Christianity is clearly un chef duvre (Veyne 2007: 31-32).
We return then to forgetting and to the limits of Christianity. Let us therefore,
very simply but very firmly, posit that any analysis that pretends to find a deviation
of the modern world from Christian reference forgets or denies that the modern
world is itself the unfolding of Christianity (Nancy 2008: 142-44). Of Christianity,
then, and not just of any religion! Nor can one forget what ends up separating
rigorously, implacably, Christianity from the element of religion in general (146).
Yet this cannot quite be said in the way Nancy, along with Gauchet and others,
means. For whether or not Christianity has surpassed itself, whether or not it has
become something else, something better, than a religion (the modern world),
depends first of all on determining and defining what it has been, what it remains,
in excess of religion. The forgetting of Christianity, in other words, is the forgetting
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of critique, the forgetting that, at its limits, Christianity was never a religion, never
a religion like any other, and certainly not in the sense that we intend when we
speak of world religions (Masuzawa 2005). Instead, Christianity (as colonial
and global modernity, as capitalism, as a certain conception of human rights, as
well as a certain determination of the relationship between politics and religion
(Nancy 2008: 33)) reduces itself, as if by magic, to a religion, in the restricted, and
now well accepted, modern sense of the term. It turns itself into what it has never
been in order to become something else, something better, than religion. Doing
so, and without subjecting itself to adequate critique, the marking of its actual
and resilient boundaries, Christianity exonerates itself more than it deconstructs
itself. True, it is necessary, if possible, to extract from a ground deeper than the
ground of the religious thing [la chose religieuse] that of which religion will have
been a form and a misrecognition [mconnaissance] (Nancy 2013: 26). But with
the caveat that religion is a form and a misrecognition of Christianity vis--vis
itself, and, once it exited religion, a misrecognition of other religions too as
examples, precisely, of religion. After all, Christianity alone has produced the
West (40), produced itself as the West (26), right? It alone has undone itself
from its religious past (34), because it alone understood itself as a religion, an
attribute it long denied others. Is it not worthy, then, of its own critique?
Instead, Christianity exempts itself from critique, swiftly moving, as if in a line
straight out of a Monopoly game, to deconstruction and auto-deconstruction. But
why exonerate? Perhaps because it proceeded to equate itself with all religions,
as equally worthy of critique (and colonial, historical, or global management). Or
perhaps because of the Jew, the Arab: because of the claim that What the hatred
of Jews becomes with Nazism is not Christian in principle (36), or that never
have Christians hated Muslims (56). Really? But so what is anti-semitism?
asks an instantaneously forgetful Nancy, who goes on to tell us that, unlike religion
apparently, anti-Semitism is poorly named because Arabs are Semites (36).
Are the Christians Aryans? Is that it? Did not Christianity invent these Semites
at the very moment it began exercising its most global domination (political,
economic, racial-scientific, and, alright, religious) over them and others? Was
it not Christianity which, circa 1945, reinvented itself as Judeo-Christian, in
part so that it could continue saying such things as the case of Islam is obviously
quite different (36); so that, once extracted from mere and outdated religion,
Christianity could deliver such unheard wisdom as Islam today forms states
founded on a reference to religion (37)? Christianity exited religion, alright, just
so it could continue to look down some more on those it alleged (and still alleges)
are mired in an unreconstructed past.
So, what is Christianity?
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To this different Christian question, I would not want to offer a definite


answer. Derrida did suggest that Christianity is either the only religion, or no
religion at all. Have we ever been religious, then? For my part, I merely wish to
reiterate that, in Nancy, the term religion the most self-evident of designators
for Christianity is never subjected to either critique or deconstruction. More
precisely, if the gesture of deconstruction, as a gesture is neither critical nor
perpetuating, then the word religion is here subjected to nothing but rigorous
perpetuation (2008: 148). Minimally, the word is used or invoked, deployed to a
great extent, and no doubt to great benefit, but without ever being subjected to an
engagement with its limits, historical or, if I may put it this way, geo-linguistic.
If Christianity is the very thing that we must think, at any rate, Christianity as
religion (or not), at once a theologico-economico-political affirmation of power,
domination, and exploitation, seems to be that which we are here witnessing in
its withdrawal or retreat from thought (2008: 39). To paraphrase Nancy, we must
recognize that something of that enormous, massive Christian reference has been
systematically obfuscated qua explicit reference in and by philosophy (2008:
139). What reference specifically? The reference to the Christianity of religion.
As Derrida, again, puts it, with regard to the history of Abraham-Ibrahim (but
hardly restricted to it), as soon as I call it a religious phenomenon or the
founding archive of religion as such, the moment of Christianization has begun
(Derrida 2001: 88). But Derridas lesson, from which I have implicitly drawn here,
had begun earlier, expressed in his reservations to Nancys community and to
fraternity. Commenting on our entire tradition, on the Politics and therefore on
the religion stricto sensu of Friendship as a whole, Derrida writes,
I shall retain here only that which will be of the greatest import, from the vantage point
of its contents as much as that of its methodology, to the outcome of my argument,
notably with regard to a Christian semantics of fraternity or sorority. At stake would be,
in short, the Christianization of fraternization, or fraternization as the essential structure
of Christianization. (Derrida 1997: 96)

Derrida held a line of, shall we say, anti-Christian questioning, when, addressing
Nancys work, he asked why retain the word fraternity rather than another?
Nancys answer, at once Freudian and Christian, is one that we would have
difficulty understanding as nonfamilial (Derrida 2005b: 58).6
The Familienhnlichkeit, or perhaps the family quarrel, I have been interested
in here has little to do with a self-congratulatory exceptionalism, popular as it is
these days, and more to do with the retaining of the word religion, the narrow and
reductive (as well as generalizing and benevolent) understanding of Christianity
qua religion, with the attending notion that Christianity is one religion among
others. No deconstruction of Christianity, then, not yet, and certainly not as the
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deconstruction of a generalized monotheism. The generous and expansive


gesture thereby extended carries all too easily within itself all religions, as
alluviums, perhaps, are carried by the implacable waters of a flooding river. And
who was it that built the dam? For now, and again, it cannot be said that Christianity
is (just like any other) religion. What can be said is that Christianity, and with it
all monotheism, merely comforts the closure and makes it more stifling (Nancy
2008: 7; strikethrough added).

Notes
1. Christopher Watkin, for one, sees Nancy as reworking ideas that stretch back to his early Des
lieux divins (1987) (Watkin 2011: 12); for a more extensive commentary than I can provide here,
see Ignaas Devisch, Laurens ten Kate, Aukje van Rooden, and Alena Alexandrova, Re-treating
Religion: Deconstructing Christianity with Jean-Luc Nancy (New York: Fordham University Press,
2012).
2. I extract the French triad from Nancy (2010: 74).
3. I shall return to this, but for now I want to make clear that Nancy insists we must rethink Christianity,
we must reconsider the self-evidence of Christianity. At the same time, he is quite adamant
that this reconsideration must steer clear of critique, well within the bounds of likelihood or
verisimilitude (vraisemblance). After all, it is highly unlikely [il est peu vraisemblable], he
confidently writes, that an entire civilization could be affected by a serious congenital disease
(2008: 9).
4. The antiquity of the notion of religion and the (essential?) antithesis of politics (the nonessentiality of which Nancy has long been engaged in thinking) can be found in a number of places
in Nancys work. I cite from Church, State, Resistance where Nancy comments on the Greek polis
(and not, as one might think, on nineteenth-century France): Religion is nothing more or less than
the collective or communitarian possibility other than that constituted by politics. The separation of
church and state should be considered as the one true birth of politics (Nancy 2006: 103).
5. See Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy (1997).
6. As Derrida puts it in his lengthy treatment of Nancy, how to be or not to be Christian, or more
crudely, The Importance of (not) Being Christian as if this were possible (Derrida 2005a: 363n5;
also see Anidjar 2013).

References
Anidjar, G. (2013) Of globalatinology. Derrida Today. 6 (1), 11-22.
Asad, T. (1993) Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reason of Power in Christianity and Islam.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Derrida, J. (1997) Politics of Friendship. Translated from the French by Collins, G. New York: Verso.
Derrida, J. (2001) Above all, no journalists! Translated from the French by Weber, S. In de Vries, H.
and Weber, S. (eds). Religion and Media. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 55-65.
Derrida, J. (2002) Faith and knowledge: The two sources of religion at the limits of reason alone.
Translated from the French by Weber, S. In Anidjar, G. (ed.). Derrida, Acts of Religion. New York:
Routledge, 42-101.
Derrida, J. (2005a) On Touching: Jean-Luc Nancy. Translated from the French by Irizarry, C. Stanford:
Stanford University Press.
Derrida, J. (2005b) Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Translated from the French by Brault, P. A. and
Naas, M. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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Lacoue-Labarthe, P. and Nancy, J. L. (1997) Retreating the Political. Sparks, S. (ed.). London:
Routledge.
Margel, S. (2005) Superstition: Lanthropologie du religieux en terre de chrtient. Paris: Galile.
Masuzawa, T. (2005) The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism Was Preserved
in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nancy, J. L. (1986) Loubli de la philosophie. Paris: Galile.
Nancy, J. L. (2006) Church, state, resistance. Translated from the French by Voruz, V. In de Vries, H.
and Sullivan, L. (eds). Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-secular World. New York:
Fordham University Press, 102-12.
Nancy, J. L. (2008) Dis-enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity. Translated from the French by
Bergo, B., Malenfant, G., and Smith, M. B. New York: Fordham University Press.
Nancy, J. L. (2010) L Adoration: Dconstruction du Christianisme 2. Paris: Galile.
Nancy, J. L. (2013) Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II. Translated from the French by
McKean, J. New York: Fordham University Press.
Veyne, P. (2007) Quand notre monde est devenu chrtien (312-394). Paris: Albin Michel.
Watkin, C. (2011) Difficult Atheism: Post-theological Thinking in Alain Badiou Jean-Luc Nancy and
Quentin Meillassoux. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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