Skip to main content

On Religion

John Caputo
Published by Routledge in 2001

Philosophy and Theology

John Caputo
Published by Abingdon Press in 2006

The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event

John Caputo
Published by Indiana University Press in 2006

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernity for the Church.

John D. Caputo
Published by Baker Academic in 2007

The Prestige, a 2006 film about competition and revenge between two antagonistic Victorian era magicians, takes its title from the last of the three acts that characterize all successful illusions. Every magic trick begins with Act 1, “The Pledge,” when the magician presents to the audience some rather ordinary and unsurprising object or situation; for example, having his beautiful young assistant step inside a cage. In Act 2, “The Turn,” the magician does something with the object or in the situation that is surprising and perhaps quite baffling to the audience; for example, making his assistant disappear from the cage. Finally, in Act 3, “The Prestige,” the magician confronts the audience with an experience of the mysterious and of the enigmatic that escapes the limits of rational explanation and evokes in them a joyful sense of awe and wonder; for example, making a tiger appear within the same cage from which his assistant most recently disappeared.

I must confess that while watching that film last year, I had an uncanny feeling of something approaching déjà vu, not so much that I had already seen the film, but that I had previously been in the presence of some wily wizard who had bewitched me with those same three movements. I just knew that I had felt a sense of astonishment in some other context, not one of bewilderment or confusion, but of being captivated by an almost magical clarity. And then, abracadabra, the realization appeared! I had just been reading and re-reading John D. Caputo’s 2006 monograph entitled Philosophy and Theology, and in that moment of lucidity, I recognized that he was the wizard that had enchanted me with his postsecular theological sorcery. Of course, Caputo might be somewhat ambivalent about being called awizard under the present circumstances. Most likely, he would not disavow the term given its etymological association with being wise and clever (!); however, he might well distance himself from its colloquial association with the magical. On multiple occasions and in several texts, he has expressed publicly both his rejection of magic and his disdain for miracles, which he thinks diminishes the salutary nature of our finitude and “distorts real life” as the opposite of good sense.1 Not-withstanding his possible repudiation of the analogy, however, I do not consider it to be an illusory reference but a pragmatic rubric for prosecuting the tripartite structure of his text. Indeed, one may read the book as a three-act presentation, echoing the three components of every good magic trick.

Yet, after giving consideration to how Philosophy and Theology (PT) correlates with the substance of Caputo’s other work over the past six years, specifically with reference to On Religion (OR, 2001), The Weakness of God (WG, 2006), and What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (WWJD, 2007), I have reached the conclusion that the text actually offers a fascinating précis of Caputo’s theology of the event and his poetics of the love of God, a summary one might call “theopoetics in a nutshell!” Of course, for over three decades now, Caputo has never attempted to misdirect his readers and hide up his sleeve a genuine sensitivity to religion and a central focus on the mystical tradition, both of which permeate his work as a philosopher.2 If one examines Caputo’s recent bag of tricks, however, one will discover his magical transformation into a more overt theologian, more specifically, mirabile dictu, a more overtly Christian theologian, a creative bit of literary legerdemain through which he transmutes from postmodern philosopher into postsecular prophet. Consequently, one can structure Caputo’s recently published expressions of his developing philosophical/phenomenological/quasi-systematic/biblical theology around the three acts of Philosophy and Theology. Furthermore, in doing so, one can follow the methodology of his hermeneutical expertise without losing the enchantment of the signs and wonders that he employs in order to proclaim his poetics of the Kingdom of God.

Philosophy and Theology begins in chapters 1-4 with Act One, The Pledge, wherein Caputo presents to us something rather mundane and familiar—the centuries-old tension between philosophy and theology or, perhaps, better known as the often tumultuous relationship between faith and reason. We have seen and heard it all before, of course, and, as does Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes, we come to the pedestrian conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun left to intrigue us. Still, even in the context of the unremarkable, the magician’s appeal often derives from his showmanship, the creative style in which he offers the pledge in all of its ordinariness. Caputo’s style in this book is, as usual, one of amazing dexterity and provocative simplicity, a style that demands the skill, insight, and experience of a master interpreter, one who has practiced his craft for years with discipline and genius. There is something beautiful in the way he moves so effortlessly from erato era and from thinker to thinker, charting in frugal detail the historical itinerary of the dis/junction between faith and reason (PT 12-20). In other words, The Pledge reveals that the Great Caputo is indeed no sorcerer’s apprentice when it comes to comprehending the history of theology and philosophy.

Of course, one may find The Pledge in earlier texts as well, such as in On Religion (24-42). In this work, Caputo begins by channeling the spirits of Augustine and Anselm as he writes about the “Sacral Age,” an age in which faith and reason occupy the same stage and performed well together. In this period, the choreography of faith and reason follows the rhythm of Augustine’s restless heart (corinquietum), that organ whose erratic beating drives each individual toward the love of God. Caputo insists that, for Augustine, religion (faith) is, indeed, nothing more and nothing less than a passion for the transcendent, for that which cannot be reduced to human ingenuity but does not require a sacrifice of intellect. It is ap assion for the love of God—in both senses of the genitive, God’s love for us and our love for God (OR 1-2). Indeed, Caputo contends that Augustine’s “religion ascaritas” lies behind the later Medieval axiology of religio as centered specifically on the requirement that individuals act virtuously in doing their duty to God, serving and loving God with all their hearts, all their souls, and all their minds (OR 43).3

Religio as the correlation of faith and reason finds explicit expression five centuries later in Anselm, who continues the Augustinian tradition summarized in the incantation “fides quaerens intellectum,” faith seeking understanding. Here Caputo moves from Augustine’s heart to Anselm’s knees, specifically to how Anselm postures himself in order to develop his rational proof of God’s existence. Although Anselm relies on reason as a proper medium for comprehending the divine, Caputo insists that his comprehension of God’s existence ensues from his more pious contemplation of God’s holiness and transcendence. In other words, the unique inflection that Anselm gives to rational theology is in reality a genuflection, a kneeling before God in prayer and worship. His ontological argument for God’s existence is concurrently a doxological argument, one that precipitates out of both logic and love. Consequently, Anselm acknowledges no animosity between philosophy and theology, faith and reason, or prayer and deliberation. Since both faith and reason are gifts from God, both can be practiced while kneeling in worship.

Unfortunately, the Sacral Age begins to wane and Reason eventually stands up, bids faith adieu, and leaves the sanctuary. Caputo argues that with the rise of science and the modernist manifesto “sapere audi,” the spirits of Augustine and Anselm are exorcized and the incantation “faith seeking understanding” is replaced with a new magical formula, the “Principle of Sufficient Reason.” This principle’s posture depends more on its rear than its knees, since it sits as the principal judge of truth and knowledge, issuing subpoenas to every interpretation, explanation, or theory, summoning each to stand before the bar of Reason and testify as to why it should be granted the dignity of a science. Even God is “brought before the court, like a defendant with his hat in his hand, and required to give an account of himself” (OR 46). The Principle of Sufficient Reason, therefore, rules as the Prince of Knowledge and demands that faith, religion, and theology prostrate themselves before it and pay appropriate homage. Indeed, if God cannot reveal Godself through the scientific method or through the strict laws of logic, well, so much the worse for God.

Caputo personifies Reason’s usurpation of faith in the “Secular Age” with René Descartes and Immanuel Kant (PT 21-34; OR 42-49), philosophers who, ironically, never intended to subordinate belief or to exile God from modernity. On the one hand, Descartes repeats Anselm’s Ontological Argument and emphasizes the reality of the Infinite, while on the other, Kant confesses that he critiques reason in order to make room for faith—a little Königsbergian “Thomism” whereby understanding seeks faith by recognizing its limitations! Caputo details, however, how the former ’s emphases on foundationalism, methodologism, and absolutism in concert with the latter’s emphases on the autonomous epistemological ego and the transcendental possibilities of valid experience eventually break Augustine’s heart and cut Anselm off at the knees. The ensuing modernist epistemology eventuates in the atheism of both nineteenth-century positivism and also of the masters of suspicion—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—who reduce faith to an oppressive ideology, a barbaric instance of bad taste, and a debilitating infantile neurosis. It is just a matter of time, therefore, before religion just disappears magically, and the illusion of God just dematerializes, and faith just becomes so much smoke and mirrors beguiling the intellectually naive.

Well, perhaps not—or so suspects Caputo. As one turns the page from chapter 4 to chapter 5, one enters Act Two of Philosophy and Theology; one turns to The Turn. The reader cannot mistake the transition, since Caputo, in full view of his readers, directs our attention explicitly to four “turns,” four metamorphic and interruptivere interpretations of human experience that call the hegemony of modernist discourse into question: (1) the “hermeneutical turn,” that is, the unavoidability of interpretation, (2) the “linguistic turn,” that is, the significance of a plurality of language games, (3) the “revolutionary turn,” that is, the inevitability of paradigm shifts in knowledge, and (4) the “postmodern turn,” that is, the suspicion toward every pretension to totalized systems of thought. When Caputo waves his magic wand at these four turns, he accomplishes something quite surprising. He proffers an argument that makes the traditional binaries of philosophy/theology, reason/faith, and logos/mythos just disappear.

Caputo makes the four turns by now channeling the spirits of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jacques Derrida, who, in various ways, reveal that the Enlightenment dismissal of religion and faith is itself an illusion, atrompe l’oeil created by the smoke and mirrors of a putatively homogeneous and immutable rationality. Kierkegaard’s insistence upon the repetition of existence, Nietzsche’s metaphorical hermeneutics of truth, and Derrida’s claim of “il n’y a pasde hors-texte”—“there is nothing outside the text”—reveal both that the reversal of traditional polarities vanishes into the thin air of a deconstructive displacement and also that the modernist pretense of creating stable and comprehensive rational systems evaporates in the kinetic turbulence of finite existence. There is simply no way for us to transcend finitude, language, or the occasional reminder that interpretations often have a specific shelf life, that sometimes they expire and must be replaced with new configurations or paradigms of thought. As Caputo indicates, such replacement of interpretive paradigms extends even to the rationalism and empiricism of the scientific method (if there is such a thing), according to the revolutionary turn made by Thomas Kuhn. In every component of existence, therefore, our encounters with reality depend upon the expanding and contracting angles of cultural and linguistic perspectives, on the multiple historically-constructed contexts that contaminate all human endeavors with inescapable presuppositions. Such situatedness, or existential facticity, means that one can never escape the risks inherent in hermeneutics nor establish knowledge on the fundamentum inconcussum of irrefutable reason or on the incorrigibility of empirical methodology. But that impossibility, according to Caputo, is specifically what the postmodern turn encapsulates. Postmodernism is not a return to relativism, and especially not to nihilism, but is a recognition of the epistemological humility that should characterize finite concrete human existence by evoking a “heightened sense of the contingency and revisability of our constructions” (OR 63; see also PT 50).

Since we always exist within the context of conceptual networks, language games, social configurations, and processes of power and influence, we can never achieve the value-free or theory-less engagement with the world that Enlightenment reason prescribes; consequently, the modernist proscription of religion and faith becomes problematic, and the abstraction and certainty of unbiased rationality give way to the facticity and probability of embodied existence. Right before our eyes, Caputo exercises his magic adroitly in order to make philosophy and theology, faith and reason, reappear. He brings them back, but not exactly as they were. When they materialize this time, no longer do they reveal the antagonism of the struggle for domination; on the contrary, now they manifest themselves as two different but complementary expressions of faith. Whereas previously the criteria for the conflict between the two were “seeing is believing” and “believing is not seeing,” now both faith and reason must acknowledge that neither of them can escape the spell of the other, that both depend on seeing and on believing. Reason always presupposes some commitment, some trust in language, method, or tradition, and faith cannot long exist if reduced to the absurd or to some phantasm that finds no logical purchase on reality. Since Caputo has always insisted that faith functions as a hermeneusis, one is not completely surprised when he claims that the “seeing” in both faith and reason is a “seeing as,” an expression of hermeneutical perspectivism, a combination of encounter and evaluation. Consequently, as hestates it, ultimately “[t]he distinction between philosophy and theology is between two kinds of interpretive slants…” (PT 57).4

Like the good Kierkegaardian he is, Caputo recapitulates faith and reason under a new hermeneutic, makes them reappear in a new form, which is an excellent illustration of repetition, of repeating forward by affirming horizons of expectation but engaging in genuine movement toward unprecedented possibilities. Yet, he insists that his magical touch is decidedly phenomenological; that is, in many ways he is describing merely the reality of the renewed significance of religion, faith, and spirituality that characterizes postsecular culture. The “turn,” therefore, is the return of religion and faith to social and intellectual respectability; it is the death of the death of God and the discrediting of religion’s discreditors (OR 56-66).

Caputo’s “Turn” as the fourfold turns that explain the postsecular return of religion and faith finds an overtly Christian expression in his latest book. In this work, he addresses the beneficial, albeit provocative, symbiosis between deconstruction and the New Testament kerygma by engaging the contemporary resurgence of Charles Sheldon’s classic Christian novel In His Steps. That work from the early 20th century has left an indelible mark on popular Christian piety through its legislating question “What Would Jesus Do?”—a question that has recently become de rigueur for encapsulating the ethical significance of the imitatio Christi. Caputo proposes a fascinating re-interrogation of that question and contends that what Jesus would always do is to deconstruct religious and ecclesiastical constructions by raising the oftentimes disruptive hermeneutical questions that seek to reevaluate, reconsider, and reinterpret sedimented traditions claiming to embody his kingdom and speak in his name—“You have heard it said, but I say to you” (WWJD 32).

Caputo insists that the proper question is actually “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?” so consequently, he connects Jesus with Jacques (Derrida) and argues that both seek to expose the uncontainable contingency of truth that trembles within sacred texts and church structures, both of which, as contingent, historical, and provisional, are open for deconstruction (WWJD 34). Of course, the church has grown powerful and has long attempted to monopolize the interpretation of Scripture; therefore, it does not take kindly to the interruptive dynamics of deconstructive skepticism—much like the Sanhedrin cared little for Jesus’ or John the Baptist’s prophetic protests against their hypocrisy. Indeed, Caputo waxes Dostoyevskian and concludes that were Jesus to return proclaiming his mad message of repentance and grace, the ecclesiastical authorities would execute him again! They could not allow him to disrupt the ruling orthodoxy, to step off the straight (ortho) path of the accepted fundamentals and opinions (doxa) of the official faith and possibly lead people to reconsider the proper path and journey in a new direction under the transgressive and uncertain guidance of the Holy Spirit—who, as Jesus reveals clearly, moves like the wind refusing to be domesticated or dominated by human expectations or interpretations.

Undoubtedly, Sheldon’s question turns Christian ethics decidedly toward Caputo’s four turns: hermeneutics, language, paradigms, and the epistemological fragility of postmodernism. What would Jesus do? Where are Jesus’ steps leading us? How do we know when we are following Jesus’ steps and not our own under a pseudonym? These are hermeneutical inquiries that cannot be answered with absolute certainty. We read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for guidance, but they are texts that archive particular traditions, traditions that might be contaminated by ulterior motives or mistaken conclusions. Why these texts and not others? Could one step outside the biblical canon to find the footprints of Jesus inmanuscripts that did not meet the ecclesiastical authorities’ imprimatur? As Derrida declares, texts might not get delivered to the proper audience; their message(s)might not get translated without alteration; and even delivered texts might manifest an over-determination of meaning, a plurivocity of potential interpretations that drowns out the certainty of one absolute voice speaking one absolute truth (WWJD 47). Caputo indicates that Sheldon himself recognized this postmodern, deconstructive dilemma when he has one of his characters raise the tenacious “agnostic” question: “How are we supposed to know what Jesus would do?” (WWJD48).

Caputo addresses the question of the risk posed by the WWJD question by concentrating on Sheldon’s primary analogy of life as a spiritual journey, an analogy that Caputo asserts offers another point of contact with contemporary postmodern French philosophy, specifically with the thought of Maurice Blanchot. Blanchot takes advantage of the polysemy of the French word pas and plays off of its double meaning of “step” and “not.” In a work entitled Le Pas au-delà, Blanchot presents translators with something of a conundrum. The title can be translated both as “the step beyond” or as “the ‘no’ beyond,” or as the English translator chose to express it, “the step not beyond” (WWJD 41-42). Caputo loves this play on words and connects it directly with Sheldon’s conceit. To walk in Jesus’ steps is certainly to walk beyond the usual paths of the world and to exist beyond the usual categories of human ingenuity. To follow Christ as “the way” requires the humility to move beyond one’s own arrogant desires and goals and to journey through life in obedience to Christ’s guidance. Yet, the postmodern twists and turns continue to remind us that we might not be walking in his steps; we might actually be putting the wrong foot forward, guilty of various faux pas, false steps, claiming to follow Jesus as the way and the truth but in reality stepping into falsehood and going our own way. Should we not adopt a variant of the via negativa, the negative way, and constantly confess: “We are walking in his steps—NOT!” or “We are doing what Jesus would do—NOT!” Is that not the appropriate confession of those who walk by faith and not by sight, who hope in that which is not seen, and who affirm humbly that we believe but need God’s help with our unbelief (WWJD 44)? Caputo’s insistent refrain is that perhaps, just perhaps, what Jesus is deconstructing constantly through the convicting power of his Spirit is our predisposition, both individually and collectively, to delude ourselves into thinking that we see the path clearly instead of through a mirror dimly.

Were the Pledge and the Turn the only two acts in Caputo’s exhibition of postsecular philosophical theology, one might still consider his to be a creative and enjoyable performance. Nonetheless, one would feel simultaneously somewhat dissatisfied that there were not more. Presenting us with the stereotypical conflicts and connections between faith and reason, making those stereotypes disappear, and then making them reappear in a more postmodern context of undecidability may not be enough to provoke us to amazement. In other words, is there not a Prestige to this act? Does Caputo not have an Act Three, a blockbuster finale that will leave us awestruck and calling for more?

Well, yes, actually he does have a third act, a concluding Prestige, a fascinating climax that both enchants his less serious readers with the sheer joy of the unexpected and also continues to amaze his more devoted followers with the magical implications of his radical hermeneutics. Indeed, in the concluding three chapters of Philosophy and Theology, he not only makes faith and reason reappear, but he begins to transform them into a decidedly postsecular theological “system,” into a substantial reinterpretation of theology and religion from a more concrete, Christian perspective. He renews the language games of religion and theology with a captivating conjoining of a premodern Christian pastor with a postmodern Jewish philosopher and establishes his prestigious new postsecular theology on what he terms the “atheistic Augustinianism of Jacques Derrida” (PT 59). Caputo indicates that Derrida associates himself explicitly with Augustine, especially with the latter’s Confessions, a text that Derrida mimics in his own Circumfession in which he writes of his personal religion, a religion of which no one ever knew, and of his own dedication to a life of prayer, praying to and for something he cannot name. Indeed, he testifies to how the idea of God in his life goes under multiple names (PT62), and to how, while confessing that he passes rightly for an atheist, nonetheless he borrows from Augustine a theological enquiry that acts as a controlling authority in his own deconstructive philosophy: “What do I love when I love my God”(PT 64)?

Caputo takes the Augustinian/Derridean question as his evangelium in nuce, since it inculcates all of the primary themes of his postsecular theology (PT 70).5 As discussed above, Caputo defines religion, in On Religion, as the love of God; consequently, religion and theology must traffic in the kinesis of passion, in the movement of a restless heart, which is a passion, desire, or love for life (PT 69) but also for transcendence, for what cannot be named properly, controlled, or reduced to the categories of rational expectation. As a result, the love of God is a passion for the impossible (OR 7-17; PT 70), an ultimate concern for that which eye has not seen nor ear heard, the coming of what does not cohere with prior human horizons of expectation. This passion is, therefore, open-ended and uncertain, a beautiful risk awaiting the advent of the messianic, the l’invention de l’autre, the “in-coming of the other” who is always “to come” in the future perfect tense.

Continuing his Derridean theology as a “prayer for the impossible” (WWJD57), Caputo designates “event” as the “proper” name for the messianic future, for the unanticipated impossible “to come,” and for the name of God as that which is desired beyond desire, since “event” refers to an experience of undecidability, an encounter with a systemic je ne sais pas. Consequently, Caputo considers his postsecular theology to be a “hermeneutics of the event that is a stir in [God’s]name” (WG 6). His theology of the event comes to concrete expression as a poetics of the Kingdom of God with Jesus of Nazareth as its “centerpiece” (WWJD 134). Indeed, although he insists that no one name can exhaust the excess of the event, and no one name can possibly define what we love when we love our God, Caputo does take a functional leap of faith and suggests an answer to his ruling question: What does he love when he loves his God? He loves the God revealed in Jesus’ kingdom kerygma. He privileges the disruptive and transformative dynamics of the Kingdom of God as a “sacred anarchy” (WWJD 86; WG 13-17),6 as a hyper-reality of metanoetics, of changed hearts and minds, of rebirth and renewal (WG 123, 149), of a certain madness inherent in loving enemies, blessing persecutors, and of refusing to repay evil with evil. Not surprisingly, Caputo considers Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God to be an instance of deconstruction, a prophetic indictment of the status quo for the redemptive and affirmative purpose of maintaining a genuine expectation of something new “to come,” of a new truth that can ensure justice, gift, forgiveness, hospitality and love (WWJD 63-80), a new truth that can have actual socio-political implications for responding to widows and orphans, to the oppressed and disenfranchised, to those marginalized individuals who struggle with regressive tax laws, sexism, the violence of war, homosexual bigotry, or the traumas of abortion (WWJD 90-116).

Caputo’s theology of the event as a poetics of the Kingdom of God correlates the centrality of Jesus’ deconstructive sacred anarchy of metanoetics with the Apostle Paul’s “word [logos] of the cross [stauros]” and its emphasis on a prophetic critique of established power structures deriving from the sovereignty of Reason and Being (WWJD 82-83).7 In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul contrasts such structures with the weakness and foolishness of God and makes the audacious claim that God chooses the “nobodies” (ta me onta) in the world to mediate the good news of the redemption “to come” (WWJD 87).8 Consequently, the word of the cross rejects both atheologia gloriae and a “church triumphant” mentality; it refuses to confine God within the typical philosophical categories and human definitions of prestige and control. Instead, the word of the cross speaks kenotically of a theopassionism, of a suffering God revealed in the event of Jesus’ crucifixion. By embracing the Pauline perspective, Caputo develops his own postsecular theologia crucis, a staurological poetics of the event that symbolizes unconditional divine transcendence without playing the sycophant to onto theological criteria of sovereignty, such as omnipotence, impassibility, and immutability.9 One might go so far as to say that Caputo’s theology of the event is a postmodern variant of Open Theism, although one that, unfortunately, fails to exploit the relational implications lying latent in that approach.10

In The Weakness of God, Caputo presents a substantial and meticulous quasi-systematic theology of Jesus’ anarchic Kingdom of God. He includes a prolegomenon that charts the primary presuppositions of his theology of the event(WG 1-20) and follows that with his own personal interpretation of Pauline theopassionism and its retroactive implications for a rereading of the creation narratives in Genesis (WG 23-97). Caputo’s revisionist reading of divine creation, with its playful but provocative contrasting of Elohim and Yahweh and its rejection of the manipulative sovereignty expressed in the “Gnostic” doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, is a tour de force of Caputoan “devilish hermeneutics.”11 Following his explanation of the biblical foundations for a theology of the weakness of God, he introduces a brief parenthesis on the “keys to the kingdom,” a “hermeneutical interlude” in which he fleshes out how his theology relates to the passion for the impossible as the love of God and how the “hyper-realism” of the kingdom results in a messianic call to an undecidable future (WG 101-24). In the second half of the work, Caputo sketches out a poetics of sacred anarchy by following the ancient Catholic tradition of writing a commentary on the Pater Noster, using the Model Prayer as his guide for investigating deconstructive reinterpretations of sin and forgiveness, divine providence and anxiety, resurrection and salvation, and the excessive and universal character of the messianic call.

Caputo concludes The Weakness of God by bidding adieu to his readers, literally expressing to them—and to God—the farewell, the blessing, and the prayer of á-dieu (to God). His á Dieu recapitulates his passion for the impossible, his love of God as what cannot be named conclusively, as the divine dynamic of the undecidable within the via negativa of the event. Once again he channels the spirits of Augustine and of Anselm, both of whom could not write their theologies without including confessions and prayers to the “nothing greater,” to the name of God as what is always “to come,” the advent of a messianic event that demands keeping faith, hope, and love always abiding in anticipation of the (non)revelation of the(un)nameable God. In this concluding adieu, Caputo confesses prayerfully that he is lost, that he does not know what he loves when he loves his God, and that his restless heart keeps him yearning for the kingdom that is never here except as the event of the weak force calling for the kingdom to come in anarchic acts of compassion and righteousness that seek to deconstruct what Jesus would deconstruct. Caputo’s concluding invocation is a prayer that we should “translate [the Kingdom of God] into existence, all the while letting it happen (arriver) to us, allowing ourselves to come under its spell and be transformed by the event it harbors” (WWJD57).

If one remains faithful to Caputo’s love of nutshells, to distilling the spirit of a deconstructive theology of event to its quasi-essence (if there is such a thing), how might one write a synopsis of Caputo’s three-act theological exhibition as he has performed it since 2001? Indeed, how might one review, in particular, the unique contributions of his Prestige, his postsecular biblical poetics of the Kingdom of God? One might conclude that he reveals the deconstructive prestige of Jesus’ sacred anarchy not so much through prestidigitation as through negotiation. Now, he is quick (presto) to put his finger (digitus) on former misinterpretations of faith and reason, of divine power, and of metaphysical theology, and he does not hesitate, in an instance of the fingerpost, to point out to us what he considers a more salutary hermeneutical direction—of course, the Vatican and the Southern Baptist Convention would consider Caputo to be a master of misdirection and would admonish the faithful not to be deceived by his pomo pyrotechnics and not to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain! But Caputo is no ersatz wizard. Instead, he has the sagacity to appreciate, again with Kierkegaard, that existence is kinesis not stasis, that it is a movement that cannot be suspended preemptively by the absolute claims to absolute certainty, and that faith as hermeneusis is the only way to make one’s way through existence, the only proper strategy for negotiating the flux.

I concede that Caputo uses “negotiation” sparingly in the four texts, the term being found only five times in Philosophy and Theology and only twice in The Weakness of God. Nevertheless, I truly believe that the concept captures the “essence” (again, if there is such a thing) of his postmodern theology of divine weakness. I would be so bold as to identify it as his magic word, even if unspoken, the incantation that animates all of his performance. Caputo’s final use of the term on the penultimate page of Philosophy and Theology and his one technical use of the term early in The Weakness of God give credence to my thesis. In the former, he writes that the perplexity of existence not only makes the beauty and depth of life appear, it also “robs us of the ease with which we negotiate the rapids of everyday life…”(PT 73); in the latter, he defines deconstruction as “a negotiation undertaken between a conditioned name and an unconditioned event” (WG 27). These statements obviously have Derridean fingerprints all over them, since “negotiation” functions as a primary term in Derrida’s later corpus. Derrida accentuates the Latin derivation of the word as the combination of neg, “not,” and otium, “leisure,” or “ease”; therefore, negotiation as negotium denotes “un-leisure,” “un-ease,” or “not being at rest.” Consequently, Derrida translates negotiation philosophically as “always working in the mobility between several positions, stations, places, between which a shuttle is needed… One must always go from one to the other, and for me negotiation is the impossibility of establishing oneself anywhere.”12

For Derrida, to negotiate means to be in motion, reciprocating back and forth in something of a destinerrance, always thinking and rethinking, compromising, questioning, adrift in a perpetual state of anticipation, always remaining loose and pliable, always hospitable to whatever unexpected future is to come. Negotiation, then, expresses, in nuce, Derrida’s deconstructive affirmation of the non-closure inherent within textuality; of his rejection of any transcendental signified that arrests semiotic play.

Taken in its Derridean sense, negotiation encapsulates Caputo’s theology of event. His postsecular poetics of the weakness of God is filled with negotiations, is itself an extended negotiation, a negotiation of negotiations, as well as a negotiation of what the defenders of the faith might consider non-negotiables. He exposes the traditional negotiations between philosophy and theology, faith and reason. Indeed, he confesses that he “shuttle[s] back and forth between the two, dashing from one to the other like a man trying to hold down two different jobs in two different parts of town” (PT 71). He bears his soul and testifies to a constant existential negotiation between Kierkegaard’s faithful leaping into the passion of faith and Nietzsche’s hammering out a rhythm to the dance of cosmic anonymity. He also negotiates expertly between the pre-modernity of Augustine and the post-modernity of Derrida, a negotiation that actually structures the Prestige of his postsecular act. These two men of prayers and tears personify for Caputo how faith and reason should be renegotiated in the contemporary context through that passionate question, “What do I love when I love my God?” Caputo insists that this question necessitates our constantly negotiating among multiple names for God, that our language for God is endlessly translatable, that every theological sign endlessly substitutable. Along with Derrida, he would declare that naming God is polynominal, open to a semiotic multiplicity that results in a plurivocity of divine naming, which, in turn, results in the postponement of any absolute divine transcendental signified (WG 2-7). In a postmodern philosophical theology, therefore, one loves God in a state of undecidability, always being required to decide to whom one prays, to decide what to call our desire beyond desire, always having to profess that we never see God face to face but always through a mirror darkly. Indeed, I suggest that in Caputo’s devilish hermeneutics of belief, negotiation may well be a translation of différance, that in naming God through faith we consort constantly with difference and deferral, iterating and reiterating our names for God and embracing the messianic expectation of God as the impossible always “to come.”13

The kinetic nature of negotiation ensues from the non-original originary passion that propels all human seeking, a passion that predominates in both philosophy and theology. Caputo insists that the passion of philosophia, “love of wisdom,” and theo-philus, “love of God,” originates from that Augustinian cor inquietum, the restless heart that energizes our conatus essendi, what Caputo calls “the passion of life” (PT 69). Perhaps here Garry Wills’ translation of Augustine’s Confessions allows us to appreciate how the cor inquietum operates in Caputo’s passionate negotiations. Wills has Augustine say to God, “you made us tilted toward you, and ourheart is unstable until stabilized in you.”14 A “tilted heart,” one bent toward God, slanted under the gravitational influence of divine love, and leaning at an angle in the direction of the Creator, always remains off-center, unstable, a potential energy poised to become kinetic. Not surprisingly, Caputo uses the same oblique imagery for hermeneutics, for faith, and for perplexity. He contends that hermeneutics and faith always give us an angle on life; that is, hermeneutics and faith as hermeneusis are a “seeing as” that inclines us to interpret reality, God, and ourselves in certain ways. Moreover, he argues that perplexity multiplies angles just as God multiplied languages at Babel, thereby ensuring the constancy of différance. He actually diagnoses this angular tilt as “a congenital heart condition, the ‘disease’ of a restless heart” (PT 72; emphasis added). The passion for the impossible, the love of wisdom and the love of God, the constant angular velocity of moving between philosophy and theology, faith and reason, belief and unbelief, religion and the secular are all symptoms of a “disease,” a “disease,” a “not being at ease,” “uneasy,” “restless,” “un-leisure,” “negotium,” a negotiation. The prestige of the disseminating negotiations between faith and reason end, without closure, the way Caputo ends his poetics of the kingdom, by gazing through a “mirror dimly.”

Although Caputo’s theological wizardry of negotiation is quite amazing, it does have one flaw that mars the beauty of his performance consistently throughout all of his recent works. Quite surprisingly, he seems to hold tenaciously to a set of historical-critical principles that differ little from classical nineteenth-century liberal biblical studies. One might say that his adherence to a von Rankean view of history remains for him a non-negotiable! As stated above, Caputo himself abhors magic, claims that the Kingdom of God “should not be confused with a strong theology of magical resuscitations or supernatural interventions upon natural processes” (WG 15), and rejects therefore any possibility that an event of God’s grace might break into the genuine structures of existence and intervene relationally into the personal lives of individuals who respond to its messianic call. The one thing that Caputo seems always to have up his sleeve is a somewhat inconsistent and reductive adherence to modernist criteria of history and science. He does admit honestly that his postmodernism is not a total rejection of the critical attitude developed in the Enlightenment, and one should never expect him to relinquish his commitment to the demythologizing dynamics of Rationalism and Empiricism; however, one would expect him to be a bit less evangelical with his postmodern positivism and leave open the possibility of the impossibility of divine reciprocity. His poetics of the event actually allows for a potential hermeneutic of divine providence as interactive in human lives, as well as supporting a genuine theopassionism in which God is truly affected by human response. While it may be merely an illusion, Caputo’s God, nevertheless, appears to be a bit too Aristotelian and Deistic, separated from reality, unable to engage it existentially and historically, and, consequently, inoculated by divine perfection from any contamination by reality. Jesus did not believe that, nor did Paul, and perhaps, just perhaps, if Caputo continues to read those two prophetic voices of the Kingdom of God, he too might discover the postsecular prestige to leave open the unexpected activity of a personal God. He might just recognize that the passion for the impossible and the undecidability inherent in the messianic structures of the sacred anarchy of the event might allow for the incoming of a Wholly Other who genuinely comes in to existential encounters with individuals. Yet, to convince Caputo to allow for that contingency might well be a most amazing trick!15

Cite this article
B. Keith Putt, “Poetically Negotiating the Love of God: An Examination of John D. Caputo’s Recent Postsecular Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:4 , 483-497


  1. See for example John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and theHermeneutic Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 282 and John D. Caputo,“Spectral Hermeneutics: On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event,” in Afterthe Death of God, ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 65.
  2. See for example John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought (Athens: OhioUniversity Press, 1978); revised, paperback edition with a new “Introduction” (New York:Fordham University Press, 1986); Heidegger and Aquinas: An Essay On Overcoming Metaphys-ics (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982); The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Reli-gion Without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997); and More Radical Herme-neutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), specifi-cally Part Three, pp. 193-264.
  3. Although trained in the traditional Thomistic tradition and a published admirer of St. Tho-mas (see his Heidegger and Aquinas), Caputo would identify himself decisively as an Augus-tinian, since he considers Augustine to be one of the patriarchs of postmodernism (See alsohis “Introduction: The Postmodern Augustine,” in Augustine and Postmodernism: Confessionand Circumfession, eds. John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon [Bloomington: Indiana Uni-versity Press, 2005], 1-15). His references to Augustine are legion throughout his work, fartoo many to cite here; however, for a representative sample, consider “The Absence of Monica:Heidegger, Derrida, and Augustine’s Confessions,” in Heidegger and Feminism, ed. PatriciaHuntington and Nancy Holland (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001),149-64; “Toward a Postmodern Theology of the Cross: Heidegger, Augustine, Derrida,” inPostmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought, ed. Merold Westphal (Bloomington: IndianaUniversity Press, 1999), 202-225; and The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, 283-91.
  4. For a relatively brief (as in a nutshell!) expression of the substance inherent in the four turns,see John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (NewYork: Fordham University Press, 1997), 71-105.
  5. One can find an early exercise in developing the implications of this question in The Prayersand Tears of Jacques Derrida, 331-39.
  6. Caputo has used this phrase for the Kingdom of God since 1990, when he presented alecture under this title in February of that year at a conference at Conception Seminary in Missouri. For some reason, he never published the essay; however, a small portion of it maybe found in Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference toDeconstruction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 150-66.
  7. For a more extended discussion of the Pauline character of Caputo’s philosophical theol-ogy, see B. Keith Putt, “Faith, Hope, and Love: Radical Hermeneutics as a Pauline Philoso-phy of Religion,” in A Passion for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus, ed. Mark Dooley(Albany: SUNY Press, 2003), 237-50 and Caputo’s response entitled “Holding On by OurTeeth: A Response to Putt,” 251-54.
  8. Caputo has long loved the Pauline phrase “ta me onta.” See also Demythologizing Heidegger(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 7, 183; “In Search of a Sacred Anarchy: AnExperiment in Danish Deconstruction,” in Calvin O. Schrag and the Task of Philosophy afterPostmodernity, eds. Martin Beck Matuštík and William L. McBride (Evanston: NorthwesternUniversity Press, 2002), 239; Against Ethics, 55, 237; More Radical Hermeneutics, 218; On Reli-gion, 124; The Weakness of God, 33.
  9. For a brief introduction to Caputo’s perspective on divine sovereignty see his “WithoutSovereignty, Without Being: Unconditionality, the Coming God, and Derrida’s Democracyto Come,” in Religion and Violence in a Secular World: Toward a New Political Theology, ed. ClaytonCrockett (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 137-56.
  10. For a more developed examination of Caputo’s relationship to open theism see B. KeithPutt, “Risking Love and the Divine ‘Perhaps’”: Postmodern Poetics of a Vulnerable God,”Perspectives in Religious Studies 34 (Summer 2007): 193-214.
  11. See for example Caputo, More Radical Hermeneutics, 195-219.
  12. Jacques Derrida, Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews: 19971-2001, trans. ElizabethRottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 12.
  13. Caputo makes it clear that God should not be confused with différance, although the even tharbored in the names for God consorts with différance with regard to the undecidability offaith and the anarchic character of Jesus’ kingdom kerygma. See “In Search of a Sacred Anar-chy,” 226-50 and The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, 1-19.
  14. Garry Wills, Saint Augustine’s Childhood: Confessiones Book One (New York: Viking, 2001),29.
  15. This criticism of Caputo comes in various forms and from various sources. One of the moreconsistent and creative expressions of this critique may be found in the work of RichardKearney, who has long considered Caputo’s theology to be lacking a genuine understandingof the divine as personal. See, for example, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Other-ness (London: Routledge, 2003),193-211.

B. Keith Putt

Samford University
B. Keith Putt is Professor of Philosophy at Samford University.