Monday, November 16, 2015

John Caputo's "Theology of Perhaps."

         I am reading a very difficult but wonderful book.

         The book is John D. Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps.

         The book is difficult because after finishing each paragraph, I have to read it over again. It takes a long time to get through a chapter, and time always feels like the one thing I don’t have enough of.

         The book is difficult—painfully so, sometimes—because it is about me for about 80% of my life, and I don’t like what I see there. I grew up with what Caputo calls the “militant logic of omnipotence, the imperial logic of onto-logic and theo-logic.” And so, from Caputo’s perspective, throughout my career I’ve written and spoken, “the theology of an agent-God, [that] requires ventriloquists, people, up to now invariably men, who authorize themselves to speak in the name of God.”

         Caputo is right. I used to be so sure, so quick to tell others, so on guard for the benchmarks of orthodoxy, so free and easy with my “Christian” perspective on everything from politics to education, so eager to write editorials in the imperative. It’s what church leaders do.

         Many events in my life eventually conspired to rock my certainty. I’ve written about some of them before: travel to places like Hiroshima, Rwanda after the genocide, and Haiti; and relationships with people from other races, ethnicities, and classes all telling the same stories about white privilege, structural racism, and the power of wealth for the few. I started reading widely outside of the pool of approved Christian scholars I was schooled in. Teaching the Heidelberg Catechism kept me asking myself, “really? How can anyone be so sure?”

         Caputo’s book is difficult. It isn’t that the vocabulary he uses is unfamiliar. I understand the common sense meaning of Caputo’s favourite words, words like, “insistence,” or “perhaps,” or “existence,” or “event,” or even “prayer.” It is just that how Caputo uses these words stretches the contexts I’m used to, or sometimes turns them upside down. Reading Caputo is like the experience I had this summer, as a speaker of basic Dutch, trying to understand the Afrikaans speakers of South Africa. I think I get it, I think I get it, but then I don’t.

         Caputo is also hard because he’s a prose poet, using literary tools like rhythm and assonance and repetition to make his words sing. Along the way, though, his words become more evocative than definitive (if definitive writing was ever really possible). 

         Ultimately, Caputo writes in a different paradigm while still using theological and philosophical language that’s half-familiar. It’s disorienting. Thomas Kuhn famously said (something like) communication across different paradigms is incommensurate—that is, that people working and living in two different scientific paradigms couldn’t understand each other. When I read Caputo I do so with ears and mind trained in one paradigm straining to understand with a heart that has landed in another. It takes patience.

         But reading Caputo is both difficult and wonderful. Wonderful because he says things that suddenly break through my fog and move me: “What we call in Christian Latin ‘religion’ may be thought of as offering hospitality to God . . . and then keeping our fingers crossed.” Or this quote that made we smile and ache both: “No one who reads the New Testament slowly would ever come up with a theory that associates God with ‘natural law,’ not when irregularity, interruption, and lawless miracle are the very occasion of the appearance of God.” Every page of Caputo is full of these opportunities to stop reading and meditate instead.

         His book is also wonderful—for me—because it is heuristic. His writing inspires new ideas for preaching, and for thinking about old problems—like the problem of evil, or the problem of using Greek philosophical categories to talk about God in the creeds. His book also inspires all sorts of flights of fancy that may or may not go anywhere. He reflects, for example, on how the church fathers—always suspicious of the flesh—wondered of what use teeth or sexual organs or digestive systems could be in heaven when surely we would not need such things anymore. That got me to thinking about Jesus’ saying that in heaven we will be like the angels who do not marry. Is there an alternative interpretation of these words that doesn’t cater to the church’s historic suspicion of the flesh? God, after all, actually created that flesh, according to the Genesis myth. Could it be that in heaven we're all friends with benefits with everyone? That we could love others with perfect agapic selflessness, erotic pleasure, in a companionable manner? In such a heaven, marriage might be an outmoded and unnecessary institution!  We could enjoy the heavenly banquet and then romp. Sure, these are silly theological meanderings—especially if you’re no longer sure about heaven—but these meanderings also suggest that theology can sometimes be a playground rather than a battlefield.

         Caputo has a serious program that constantly breaks out into laughter. He challenges me with refreshing ideas like the notion that God needs me (rather than just me needing God), or that using the language of substance and essence (rather than insistence) to speak of God is fundamentally wrongheaded. I’m searching for something in all this to build on, a bit worried that Caputo might be better at deconstruction than construction. In fact, he is. But once he’s done, there is something new there that whispers to me. If only I knew what it was.

         Caputo is a very difficult, but wonderful writer!


  1. Hi John, Just read this now. You have traveled a long distance. I am working on a longer essay about what it was like to be a really smart young woman in the CRC, who was told by all those 'men, who authorize themselves to speak in the name of God', from my father to pastors to professors, that I would never be able to say anything authoritative, much less in the name of God (i.e. no point studying theology). I said earlier that I had not expected your book to be helpful and was surprised when it was. This is of course why. You have traveled a long way. warm regards, Marianne

    1. Life is more interesting if it is a journey! Thanks for the thoughts.


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