John D. Caputo, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim)
Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.
Though all that we eat brings us little relief
We don’t know quite what else to do
We have all our beliefs
But we don’t want our beliefs
God of peace,
We want you.
– mewithoutYou, “Four Word Letter, pt. 2”
What did you think God looked like when you were young? It’s a necessary theological category mistake we all have to go through. Children just don’t think in abstract concepts to understand that God is not a being like you or I with a fixed form for identification. Most of us probably had some image of an old man with long grey hair and the beard to match; like a wizard. Our notion of God was probably not far off from that image either. God is a being of magical power who benignly supervises his creation and who can be persuaded from time to time to do some of his magic for us if we are good—or who may punish us with those same divine powers if we are bad.
And when you put it that way we can all knowingly smile at our younger selves because we have outgrown such a silly image and idea of God. Except that it is often the case that we struggle to think of God otherwise. We have dropped the image, but not the idea. God remains for many a transcendent wizard, a superhero, a genie, some spirit who is more powerful than all other spirits and, as luck would have it, happens to be benevolent rather than malevolent. The essence of spiritual and intellectual maturation is to learn to let go of inadequate or even false ideas when we begin to see them as such, and this applies to our notion of God above all. This is the important backdrop to reading and appreciating what John Caputo is after in Hoping Against Hope.
This is a book about theology proper, that is, the study of God, who God is, what God is, if God is anything or of any other kind of essence. And then it is a book about what follows from Caputo’s argument about God. Essentially, for Caputo God does not exist, he [God] insists. Caputo outright denies the idea of a superhero/wizard God, or of a God who possesses the attribute of existence (the way you or I exist) and even hedges around the popular idea that God is the “ground of existence.” Caputo’s idea of God is simply whatever goes on under the name of God. Not what we claim what goes on under the name of God, but a force that calls us, without force or coercion or threat or any other power to back up its request, toward the direction of beauty and goodness and truth.
What I think is at work here is that Caputo is not particularly interested in the God of classic abstract thought and especially uninterested in the wish-fulfillment deity commonly operative in religious circles. Caputo is interested in the God of lived experience and that God, Caputo suggests, is not one that will make everything all right on our own terms. So Caputo calls into questions and redefines concepts like eternity, salvation, and devotion or piety in ways that are not so much defined and bound by the kinds of things catered towards our own finite sense of self-preservation and fulfillment, but rather towards something consistent with a God still defined by those core Christian virtues of self-emptying, non-coercive, and sacrificial love. The rest of the book is really about what life is about in relation to this kind of God. What is prayer, what is human existence, what is purpose or meaning, what is beauty and goodness without a big wizard God to establish them for us?
What makes this book great in my eyes, is that Caputo faces head on the scariest elements of life—the ones that we lean on religion to deliver us from, and draws upon the Christian tradition of his upbringing in a way that provides different answers to these questions: answers that are not triumphalistic or “safe” by any measure, but answers that, for that reason, seem all the more real and palatable. Caputo is espousing something in the vein of Bonhoeffer’s “religionless religion,” a trust in the value of love and truth and kindness, and life itself even if it is not eternal.
This book is heterodox to its core. Many readers, like myself, will find almost everything Caputo says challenging, and one will wonder how any of this can be reconciled with the basic claims of Christian faith. Part of that is the point. Caputo wants to help his readers see the inconsistencies in conventional notions of faith without dropping faith altogether. Faith, in fact, becomes redefined. Caputo has no love for militant atheists who see themselves as the antidote to the superstition of religion, seeing atheism as another kind of belief (with a little help from the French philosopher Lyotard) or its own kind of religious system fundamentally at work in the same project of the religions they critique.
Another thing that stuck was in one of the later chapters, Caputo discusses the essential similarities between angels and technology, insofar as they play functionally the same salvific role in the ages in which they respectively flourished. He argues that even people of faith subtly and implicitly believe along with the rest of humanity in the salvation offered by technology. In the face of the threat of the exhaustion of our world’s resources, or of the inevitable dying out of our sun, we look to the stars for other worlds to inhabit and continue the existence of our species. Short of the hope—or fantasy—of a heavenly that is not under threat of physics, technology becomes the “this world” angel that will facilitate the divine work of salvation. I think Caputo has his finger on one of the major arteries of modern life here.
“At most, such people accept the old dogmas and the old supernaturalism with a grain of salt and quietly conclude—or sometimes not so quietly—that at best the old orthodoxy has a purely metaphorical significance. By such people I do not restrict myself to the people in the pews; I also mean the people up front, in the pulpit doing the preaching.” (14)
“I am seeking to know what religion would look like, what form it could take, if it were wrested free from people who consider themselves authorities in matters in which we are all unlearned novices and perpetual beginners.” (17)
“Too often pastors and theologians behave like the stockbrokers of eternity, advising their clients on the best investments, competing with other religions over who offers the best deal. The mysticism of the rose proceeds under exactly the opposite presuppositions: that life, this mortal life, is a gift to be savored for itself, that blossoms because it blossoms. This bloom is not waylaid by death, not undermined by mortality, but constituted by it. Life is made all the more precious by its transient beauty, by its fleeting moment in the sun. Life is life/death, living on, outliving death for a time, and the “economy of salvation” is life’s worst enemy.” (39)
“That means, not that God exists, but that what calls to us unconditionally—insistently, incessantly calling for peace and justice, for the gift and forgiveness, for mercy and hospitality—is called in and under the name of God. In short, God does not exist; God insists.” (111)
John Caputo has been with me since my earliest days studying religion in college. And he’s always been an author that’s a few steps ahead of me—not in the sense that he knows more than I do (most authors can claim that title), but in the sense of articulating and advocating a theological vision that is a little beyond what I can accept, but not so far-fetched that it is not necessarily off my trajectory. He is compelling even when he says things or argues things that are almost contrary to the core of what I believe, and he does so with wit and rhetorical skill that makes reading him worth it if only because it was an enjoyable ride that I will remember even if I’m a bit scared to go back on it.