What Derrida’s “Pure Hospitality” Does to the Church

What Derrida’s “Pure Hospitality” Does to the Church August 24, 2023

“Hospitality” is a neglected virtue.  Scripture commands us to show hospitality (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9), including to strangers (Hebrews 13:2).  But the word is also being used in a different sense in contemporary churches, more like what we blogged about yesterday:  inclusion.

What I did not realize is that this new meaning of hospitality–accept everyone no matter what–evidently derives from a book by Jacques Derrida, the postmodernist philosopher who popularized the practice of “deconstruction.”

Anglican theologian Hans Boersma writes about this in an article for First Things criticizing the practice of open communion.  First, he says, the call for “eucharistic hospitality” led Anglicans and most other Protestants to offer the sacrament to all baptized Christians. Now, he says, some are saying that even non-Christians should be communed “as an act of gracious hospitality.”

“This principle,” he says, “has affected our entire cultural ethos, from our border policies to our concept of gender: the notion of what we may call ‘pure hospitality’—a desire for hospitality without any boundaries whatsoever.”

From Hans Boersma, Open Communion Invites the Devil to the Table:

The postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida published his small but influential book De l’hospitalité in 1997. Translated into English three years later, the book was an expression of Western elites’ inability to maintain any kind of stable identity or to defend boundaries with any sort of integrity. Deconstructing the West’s past as a violent imposition of sameness and identity, Derrida made a plea for “pure hospitality,” which he grounded in an eschatological messianicity that he viewed as radically open and indeterminate.

Derrida’s philosophical deconstruction in De l’hospitalité makes three moves. First, Derrida insists that hospitality must be pure or absolute. If we place any kind of boundaries around hospitality, it is no longer “pure hospitality.” Derrida recognizes that such radical hospitality may mean that we invite the devil to our table. But the objection leaves him undeterred: Hospitality must be absolute, unconditional, limitless.

Second, Derrida’s hospitality insists on an indeterminate future. If hospitality is pure or absolute, we have no knowledge whatsoever of what the messianic future may look like. Nor, in that case, should we want to shape it in any way. Instead, Derrida advocates a radical openness to the advent (invention) of the wholly other (tout autre). . . .It is a hospitality predicated on a complete loss of identity.

Third, Derrida explains that the “pure hospitality” he advocates can never actually be realized. . . .Our world will always be a violent world of boundaries and exclusions. Laws always circumscribe; they unavoidably fall short of justice. Practices of hospitality, likewise, invariably impose limits; they inescapably serve as self-interested acts of violence and exclusion. Hence, for Derrida, we must deconstruct laws (for the sake of justice) and deconstruct practices of limited hospitality (for the sake of pure hospitality).

Boersma sees this rejection of stable identity and boundaries as permeating our whole culture.  There are to be no boundaries, even biological ones, to distinguish between male and female, which are no longer to be seen as stable identities.  A literal application of this repudiation of boundaries is the immigration policy that recognizes no borders between nations.

As for the church, we see the impulse to do away with boundaries in mainline Protestantism in the ecumenical movement and the interfaith movement, but also in evangelicalism with parachurch ministries and the non-denominational movement.  Those are my examples, but Boersma focuses on open communion.  And he has strong words about it:

We should be aware what is at stake when we apply the notion of pure hospitality to the Eucharist: It is the erasure of ecclesial boundaries and hence of ecclesial (or confessional) identity. If, as Henri de Lubac used to put it, the Eucharist makes the church, then a boundaryless Eucharist makes a boundaryless church. Pure hospitality applied to the Eucharist implies a universalism of the worst sort: It is the radical insistence that the church is without any positive identity whatever.

And, “When we change our eucharistic boundaries, we change the church’s identity; and when, in postmodern fashion, we take away eucharistic boundaries, we take away the church.”

Boersma holds up Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy for refusing to go along with open communion.  As is typical, we confessional Lutherans get left out of the conversation, though we seem to catch more flack for practicing closed communion than those other traditions do.

A few other comments:  If open communion leaves the church “without any positive identity whatever,” indeed, “takes away the church,” where does that leave Boersma’s own Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), which I believe practices “eucharistic hospitality” for the baptized?  Where does that leave him?

Is he using “church” in the sense of “denomination,” or in the sense of the one holy Catholic church of the creed?  If the former, he is surely right, and most denominations have blurred their distinct identity, and not just with their communion practice.  Many would say that eliminating denominational distinctions is a good thing because they are divisive of the one church confessed in the creed.  If we think of that universal church, surely Christians in all of their variety (and boundaries) are united in Christ, which allows for some commonalities.  What is the relationship between the boundaries between different confessions and the boundary that exists between Christian and non-Christian?

I believe that for us confessional Lutherans–whose major American denominations (LCMS, WELS, ELS) don’t even share communion with each other–the boundary between Christian and non-Christian is defined by the sacrament of Baptism, which we accept no matter what church body administers it, and faith in the gospel of Christ.  Whereas the sacrament of the altar is for members of congregations that share in a common confession.

[Help me out here in explaining this, mere humble layman that I am.]

Going back to the broader topic, I find it ironic that Derrida’s exhortation that hospitality requires “a radical openness to the. . . wholly other” is very selectively applied by today’s postmodern progressives.  In the course of “deconstruct[ing] practices of limited hospitality”–that is, ordinary welcoming, help, and kindness to other people–“for the sake of pure hospitality,” which dismantles institutions, they are not radically open to people who disagree with their politics.  Conservatives, Christians, people of the past, unborn children, etc., are still “other” to them and very much outside their own strictly enforced “boundaries.”


Illustration:  Jacques Derrida by Arturo Espinosa SeguirJacques Derrida for PIFAL Pencil on Fabriano., CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons



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