PHILOSOPHICAL NOTE: On “Faith” in Jean-Luc Nancy

Jean-Luc Nancy.1

The essay below has been prepared for a Dictionary, still in progress, about the philosophical terminology of Jean-Luc Nancy. (At right, Jean-Luc Nancy shown lecturing at the European Graduate School, photo taken by Mariluz Restrepo.) The originating editor of the Dictionary, B. C. Hutchens, summarizes Nancy’s importance:

“Nancy is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, co-founder of the former ‘Centre for Philosophic Research on the Political’ and author of numerous influential books about meaning, freedom, community, art and politics. However, he is not merely another academic celebrity seduced by the allures of pedantry. His ideas not only bear on social realities; they also stem from them. For approximately a decade, he has endured the suffering of both a heart transplant and cancer, and written profoundly about both in such works as “The Heart of Things” and L’Intrus. It is from Nancy that we learn that, if each part of a body could take over or spread over the body itself, then there is no such thing as body at all, only a sharing out of bodies and their relations (Nancy, The Birth to Presence, p. 207) His misfortunes have inspired relentless enquiry into the meaning of the body’s fragility and fragmentation, the tenuous connections of a community of such bodies, and the plurality of voices that express their sense.” (in the book shown below by B. C. Hutchens, Jean-Luc Nancy and the Future of Philosophy, page ix.)

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My own thinking on Nancy’s key notion of transimmanence can be found in my most recent book, The Theological and the Political, which interprets transimmanence as the dynamic force of liberating spirit. I there place Nancy’s notion in conversation with the thought of other writers, including Richard Wright, Abdul JanMohamed, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Walter Mignolo, and other theorists (see especially chapters 3 and 4 of that book).

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Faith is what Nancy analyzes as religion’s – particularly, Western Christianity’s ­- name for “fidelity to the opening” of a totality of relations in the world (N, 83; GJLB, 16). In his earlier work, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy linked faith closely to onto-theology’s affirming a Supreme Being, such that the “death of God” entailed a death of the faith by which subjects were ordered to God (IC, 140). If in later works Nancy relates the Christian notion of faith (Latin: fidelis; Greek: pistis) to his own notions of fidelity to the world’s opening, Nancy still maintains “the death of God” in onto-theology, continues writing from “completely outside any religion” (GJBL, 12), and reminds that the “sense of the world” traced by him in his writings “no Church can claim to gather and bless.” Moreover, “there remains for us neither cult nor prayer, but the exercise – strict and severe, sober and yet joyous – of what is called thought” (D, 157).

Nancy does not utter any simple No to Christianity as religion, but his thinking does aim to deconstruct it, “to loosen the assembled structure in order to give some play to the possibility from which it emerged but which, qua assembled structure, it hides” (D, 148). Concerning Christian faith, he dissembles it, opening it toward concepts of his own thinking. Nancy deconstructs faith by reading it as distended, swelled, by a history, a traditioning, stretched between “an infinite antecedence and an infinite future” (D, 147). Faith’s being stretched creates a tense, persistent openness, eventually de-constructing its own beliefs and structures. Christianity, thus, is itself “a dimension of sense” (D, 147). Nancy can even deconstruct Christian faith’s notion of “the living God” as life always extending beyond itself (D, 156).

Relating faith to his notion of fidelity to the open enables Nancy to relate faith to two other key aspects of his writings: the labile antagonism of his always opening immanence, and the arts. The relation to antagonism emerges when he dis-encloses faith as praxis in the New Testament letter attributed to James. He discerns in the letter a “praxical excess of and an action” (D, 52), an excess that is not “belief” (N, 10; D, 152-3), but a fidelity of an ever-opening subject displaying “love of the neighbor,” “the discrediting of wealth,” and “the truthful and decided word” (D, 55). Crucial is the central phrase, by which “the glory of faith,” of faith’s excessive act, is distinguished from (actually discredits), the glory that shines like the gold of the rich man (D, 57-8). Here religious faith approximates Nancy’s fidelity to the ceaseless sense of the world working against and undoing all closed and concentrated immanences, especially “the glomus” of globalization (CW, 111-12) or Capital (C, 47).

Nancy’s commentary on faith in James is also an opening out onto his reflections on art. The praxis of pistis is also a poiēsis. This latter works the “inadequation of the self” (D, 52), so necessary for creating acts faithful to the open. Faith as poiēsis, it’s a making occurring in spaces of listening, into which selves are thrown by the appeal of others. As such this faith is analogous to “literature and art” (N, 10; L, 31). Art is a transimmanence  (M, 34-5), ceaseless opening and dis-enclosing wherever world is threatened by closure and concentration. Against “domination over the world by kings and priests (by the powerful)” the arts mark the openings, a “powerless but brilliant and shattering ominipotence” (G, 138). This is the poiēsis-praxis of faith, its fidelity to the opening of world.

Jean-Luc Nancy’s sources, as cited above:

CW      Creation of the World, or Globalization
D         Disenclosure – Deconstruction of Christianity
G         The Ground of the Image
GJLB   God, Justice, Love, Beauty: Four Little Dialogues
Hutchens, B. C., Jean-Luc Nancy and the Future of Philosophy. McGill-Queens, 2005.
 L          Listening
N         Noli me tangere: On the Raising of the Body

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