Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida. By Hent de Vries. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. 443 pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by Charles K. Bellinger, Brite Divinity School

Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72/1 (2004): 247-249.


Hent de Vries is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. His main goal in this book is to reflect on how the notion of violence relates to ethics, politics, and understandings of collective and individual identities. He contends that if we are to come to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of violence in human culture, we will need to take religion more seriously (both as an ingredient in violence and also as a potential cure).

            Religion and Violence consists of four large chapters, each about one hundred pages long. The first chapter focuses on Kant and his recent interpreters, such as Jacques Derrida, Hannah Arendt, JŘrgen Habermas, and Charles Taylor. Focusing on The Conflict of the Faculties and Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, De Vries argues that these works, which have not received as much attention as they deserve, “cast a remarkable light on the debates concerning the emergence of the modern public sphere and its present-day transformation in the challenges that globalization, multiculturalism, and the information age pose to the institutional arrangements that make up liberal democratic societies, their conceptions of citizenship, justice, tolerance, hospitality, and so on”(19).

            The second chapter shifts the focus to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, particularly as it is refracted in the thought of Levinas and Derrida. Tensions between philosophical and biblical theology, as they consider radical evil, violence, and the monstrosity of human acts, are unpacked by the author. Derrida can sensitize us to the very subtle ways in which each of us may feel a "call" from some mysterious source to sacrifice something near and dear to us. Whether we are theistic or atheistic, sacrifice may be a much more essential part of our everyday existence than we usually realize. The first two chapters, considered together, argue that “modern” philosophy, despite its ostensible secularity and autonomy, has actually accepted the sphere established for it by religion. Religion has established “the transcendental condition of possibility for the philosophical”(211). De Vries suggests that the story of modern philosophy could be told under a heading such as “Philosophy within the Boundaries of Mere Religion.”

            The third chapter considers the significance of mystical speech in relation to politics and theology. Authors shaping the discussion include Michel de Certeau, Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, and Martin Heidegger, along with the omnipresent Derrida. De Vries puts forward a hypothesis in two parts: “first, the turn to religion discernible in modern and contemporary philosophy goes hand in hand with a reassessment of the ethical and political; and second, this reassessment of the good, the just, and the best, their conditions and their promise, ultimately takes place in light of a concern with the possibility, the reality, or the risk and threat of ‘the worst’,” i.e. violence (212).

            The last chapter of the book turns to a consideration of hospitality and friendship in the writings of Kant, Levinas, and Derrida. Hospitality and friendship are nonsynonymous concepts pointing toward openness to the other. Religion is a special example of such openness, though this may be openness to both the best and the worst of what human beings have to offer. Kant provides additional impetus to reflect on cosmopolitanism and democracy in his Metaphysics of Morals and Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Reflections on the significance of hospitality should not lead to neglect of the concept of hostility, which is its continual shadow. The “pervertibility” of the good into the evil is considered in connection with Derrida’s interpretation of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity. The book concludes by understanding its content to be a prolegomena to future work in philosophy at the intersection of religious studies, political theory, and cultural analysis.

            The principal authors analyzed and referred to in the work are Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, S°ren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas, and Carl Schmitt. Of these, Derrida is by far the most prominent in setting the agenda and tone of the discourse. The use of Kierkegaard in this book strikes me as somewhat cramped, since the author gives the impression that Fear and Trembling is the only book by SK worth discussing, and it is only considered after it has been pushed through the Derridean sieve. De Vries refers to RenÚ Girard in passing, but does not take his thought seriously. I find this odd and problematic, given that Girard is one of the most important contemporary commentators on the relationship between religion and violence. Another glaring omission is any reference to John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. Recent years have seen the publication of a growing literature on violence, such as Scott Appleby’s The Ambivalence of the Sacred and Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God, to cite two examples. De Vries displays little to no interest in this literature that discusses actual historical examples of violence in the Middle East, Bosnia, India, and so forth. One gets the impression that he considers such historical situations as these, and Hitler and Stalin, to be at most spurs to thought in the very rarified air of Derridean speculation; they hold no intrinsic significance that is worth investigating within the pages of his book on Religion and Violence.

            The writing style of this book suggests that the intended audience is limited to scholars who are engaged with the task of Derrida exegesis. Here is an example: "Each gesture of the other toward me obligates me to respond by sacrificing the other of the other, his or her (or its) other gesture, or the absence thereof, but also the other other and, finally, all the other others" (159). Only a tiny portion of the academic world will be able to glean some meaning from this sentence and from the many similar sentences in this book. The number of persons who will have an interest in the topic, the ability to comprehend the dense jargon, and the perseverance to wade through 400 pages is rather small. I cannot, therefore, recommend the work to a more general audience beyond the circle of Derrida experts. Most scholars, graduate students in religious studies, or seminary students who pick up the book will likely give up after wading through a portion of the text and deciding that the effort required to decipher the jargon is not being repaid with a significant offering of new insight.

The extreme narrowness of the intended audience leads me to my main criticism of the book. Is it not the duty of a scholar to use his or her gifts for the betterment of society? Should not an author who is writing on violence seek to make his or her message understandable to more than a tiny minority? Would it not make more sense for him or her to write for the broader audience of "the average educated reader," or at least for the average graduate student in religious studies? What is the author who writes for a very select in-crowd saying through that choice? Is he saying that the "others" who are not part of the in-crowd are not worth communicating with? That message, even if it is not intended, may yet be sent, and it connotes an exclusionary attitude that is the exact opposite of the movement of spirit that is needed to constructively address the violence of our age.