Thanks to Tripp and Indiana University Press I also get to contribute a post to the Insistence of God blog tour, John Caputo’s latest and most “insystematic” (had to!) treatment of the theological. Full disclosure, I’m selfishly taking part because I’m working on a chapter engaging Caputo for an edited volume from the recent Subverting the Norm conference organized by Katharine Sarah Moody and Phil Snider, so getting the copy early insured I knew what his latest said before I publish on him!
Warning: This review is too long and heavy on the academic language.
In chapter five, entitled The Two Types of Continental Philosophy of Religion, Caputo sets out to distinguish the direction of his brand of Radical Theology as distinctly Hegelian as opposed to Kantian. For Caputo, these two thinkers are starting points (intellectual makers) for what he schematizes as two different ways to do postmodern continental philosophy of religion, by which he means post-metaphysical philosophy of religion. He wants to show how the followers of Kant do well enough as postmoderns, but offer an essentially ‘abridged’ version of postmodernism, one that ultimately becomes out to be a buffer between existent confessional theologies and rational critique from the outside.
This is not a new distinction for Caputo, but one previously invoked in a recent work quarrying his ideas called Reexaming Deconstruction and Determinate Religion: Toward a Religion with Religion. As the title suggests, these folks fall flatly in what Caputo considers (in an included response to the essays) a Kantian defenses of confessional theology. What then is this distinction doing for Caputo?
Historically, Caputo shows how Hegel and Kant’s very different treatments of rational (philosophical, reason-grounded) theology and revealed (sacred, of-the-book) theology maps onto what he’s trying to do in contradistinction to postmodern Kantians. While they both reacted against the excesses of the rational theology of the 17th and 18th century, Kant maintained the distinction between rational and revealed, considering the revealed pure superstition, and delimiting the realm of the rational down to just the moral. Religion is grounded by a rationally necessary God of practical (ethical) reason. This is religion within the bounds of reason alone–a God who grounds the moral. It is radical in so much as it denies the ultra-rationalist access to speculative reasoning about God beyond this moral grounding.
Hegel for his part, collapsed the distinction between revealed and rational. Quite the opposite of superstition, revealed theology is the stuff to be rationally probed for Hegel–it’s the good stuff that presents a sensuous representation (Vorstellung) the unfurling dialectical movement of the absolute. It is here that Caputo locates the genesis of his radical theology–the end of two worlds where God is supra and supernatural; the end of revealed theology’s separation from philosophical exploration; the end of theological language’s being more than pictorially vivid images of something more deeply philosophical happening within the Absolute itself.
Here though, Caputo’s theopoetics following Hegel must swear off this metaphysical langauge of the Absolute. There is not telos to the spiration (dialectical movement) of becoming. His Hegel is headless, not guided by an ultimate logic, no über-being at the helm. A good Derridian, anything less would not be properly in deference to différence, the fundamentally anarchic energy in which ‘we live, move, and have our being.’ The “truth” of theological thought is in its imaging the deep structures of life, which for Caputo is going to be a radical contingency, the sheer exposed openness of life in a chaosmos.
What the Kantian’s are doing, while admirable in so much as it chastises a confessional theology’s own denial of its situatedness, is turning Kant’s delimiting critique against the rabid modernist critiques of a theistic metaphysic (i.e. the God of classical theism). In this way, it’s a bit of Kant against himself and others. We cannot count God out, making those kinds of metaphysical claims, and you too Kant, you can’t called our tradition and narrative superstition, because your categories, your purified reason has been shown to be tainted by your context. Churches can get on with it, as long as they’re as epistemically humble as the next.
This move here is the insulation or religion and theology that Caputo wants to get beyond. The rest of The Insistence of God is precisely this, Caputo’s exploration of the trace of the eventive happening underneath or within the confessional all the while fully exposed to past and present critique. Anything less is a form of soft-fideism, a postmodernism that lacks the guts to face the reality of the coming entropic death of the universe and still find a material grace and meaning in life. Theopoetics, cosmotheopoetics, for Caputo is a Hegelian ordeal of looking at life honestly (materialism it is, physics is all the metaphysics we’ll get), but nonreductively–creatively discoursing our way through the hurly burly of life that is defined by perhaps (contingency, openness, unprogrammatizability). God, perhaps means “God,” aka the perhaps-ness of life.
Now to a bit of response…
First, Caputo’s writing reads like jazz. It’s so fun to read him careen his way through so many thinkers with the ease of a master wordsmith. There are too many gems to count here, but you could honestly compose great philosophical hip hop verses with so many of his lines. It is also fantastic to see him be so synthetic in who he engages, and the near manifesto-like vigor with which he wants to chart a course for a kind of theology. He is at his most frank as well, about his materialism, his a/theism, and many other previously less-unpacked aspects of his thought.
On a more critical note, one cannot help but struggle to make sense of insistence without existence, something “getting itself done” that’s not a ‘something.’ This is of course no less puzzling and tedious than fleshing out Derrida’s notion of the quasi-transcendental which must precariously be constantly disassociated from the metaphysics of presence. Perhaps it is my analytic philosophy background rearing its head, but when the crux of the book–of a whole philosophy of religion– has this ambiguity, it risks being too beguiling to be useful. However, it appears that it is precisely this tedium, this weak wabbling distinction, that Caputo wants to drum up as what theology thinks.
More concretely, I am not so sure Caputo has left Kant behind. As my blog title suggests, while Caputo has in fact exposed theology to philosophy’s full force, at bottom, it seems terribly hard for Caputo’s theology (following Derrida) to not collapse into some kind of religion as ethics, or proto-ethics, or ur-faith (‘ur’ as in originary or earlier). While he would (and has!) demurred, the language of promise–a thoroughly Derridian starting point for understanding the roots of life and religion understood as testimonial pledge–the democracy to come, hospitality, obligation, messianicity all betray some sense of a foundational ur-ethic.
Indeed, Derrida himself towards the end of his career was searching for this ur-faith, this more fundamental nature of life, community etc., and revived a brand of Kantian moral religion, albeit radicalized. A willing openness to the other (of which every other is wholly other) is fundamental. Caputo has further theologized this ethic, this ur-faith, and told us it includes much more–the aesthetic, life itself, etc. But is it not, to bastardize a Kantian phrase, some kind of ‘de-regulated ideal’–this insistence that comes from life itself, a weak contingent call with no ground? Has he, like Kant, given us a ‘religion within the bounds of hauntology alone?’
What’s more, like Derrida’s “democracy to come,” I’m wary of it being able to give us more than the niceties of some brand of liberalism. We are always open, always seeking the unprogrammable possible impossibility, but from whence it will come, we cannot say. How much can we do?