Today I interview philosopher and theologian John D. Caputo. Among other things, we discuss:
- Analytic vs. continental philosophy
- Postmodernism and relativism
Download CPBD episode 065 with John D. Caputo. Total time is 55:44.
- John Caputo at Syracuse
- John Caputo at Wikipedia
- Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church
Links for things we discussed:
- Augustine and Derrida
- Caputo, Philosophy and Theology
- Richard Rorty
- Paul Kerr and Jean-François Lyotard
- Logical Positivism
- Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism“
- Demarcation problem
- Deconstruction, hermeneutics, existentialism, phenomenology, post-structuralism
- Michel Foucault
- Brian McLaren
- Peter Rollins
- Conference on radical theology and emerging Christianity in October, featuring John Caputo and Peter Rollins
- Bob Jones University
- J.L. Austin
- John Searle
- Stanley Cavell
- Napoleonic Code
- Paul Tillich
- Council of Nicea
- Charles Sheldon
Luke Muehlhauser: Dr. John D. Caputo is a professor of religion and philosophy at Syracuse University, and one of the leading thinkers in post-modern theology. John, welcome to the show.
Dr. John Caputo: Thank you very much, Luke.
Luke: Well, John, I’d like to start very briefly by just sharing with our audience how I encountered your work. When I studied the historical Jesus and lost my Christian faith, I called out to my Christian friends to help me recover my faith. Even if it wasn’t the evangelical Protestantism with which I had been raised, I wanted to recover any religious view that I could. One of my friends recommended your book, “Philosophy and Theology.” I read through it, and I was an atheist at that time, but I remember thinking that I didn’t quite agree with the tone of the book or maybe the general impression it left with me.
But, as I read through the book, I was looking for particular sentences that I actually thought were actually false, and I couldn’t find any, [laughs] which was a very strange experience for me. And now, years later, I’m doing this podcast and I’m a bit more familiar with the projects of philosophy, and theology and post-modernism. I thought, “Now, Caputo, he’s a guy I’d like to talk to.” So, I’m very pleased that you accepted my invitation.
John: I would think that the part where you would start to feel some sympathy and you might resonate with is that concluding section where I confront Augustine with Derrida and/or Derrida with Augustine, depending on your point of view. In which, the point is to show that the theism/atheism debate is futile. It doesn’t touch bottom. It’s a disputatious exchange of positions that don’t get at what I think is the most important thing, which has to do with our elemental structure of human existence, which twists free from those sorts of beliefs. Atheism, theism are belief systems, and I think that they’re contingent and I think they’re accidents of birth, or of education or surrounding influences. It doesn’t touch bottom. I think that there’s something that cuts beneath them, which is more important.
I was hoping to show in that little book that there’s something that is not properly called philosophy or theology, which has to due with a passionate structure of human existence, which is more important than either one, and could take either form and it wouldn’t much matter which form it took.
Luke: Which belief system hooked in with that?
John: I mean, I think one could pursue the passion of life within a conceptual framework, which could be described as theistic or atheistic. That wouldn’t matter so much. What would matter is this question of the passion of life.
Luke: And, John, I anticipate that you’re going to talk about philosophy and theology a bit differently than many of my past guests, which like myself have mostly been thinking in analytic modes of thought. So before we get to more specifics of your thought, I wonder if you could explain for us what you see as major differences between analytic and continental philosophy, if you think there are any.
John: Well, obviously, there’s a big difference in style. The manner of analytic philosophy is technical, precise and tends to focus on narrow and more settleable, resolvable issues. That’s fine. I think that’s fine. That’s important. You can do that; sometimes you have to do that. I had a certain amount of training in it.
Now, remember I went to graduate school when there practically was no continental philosophy. My bachelor’s and master’s degrees were in medieval philosophy, because I grew up Catholic. And my PhD was in the secular program where we did a fair amount of logic and analytic philosophy, and then a study of the history of philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon British style.
Mostly, I think the more important distinction in philosophy, as Rorty likes to say, is the distinction in foundationalism and non-foundationalism. I don’t think that there needs to be the war that there is between analytic and continental philosophy. That war, I think, is mostly political. I think that each camp has declared war on the other.
The analytic philosophers have the power and they manage to keep continental philosophers out of elite universities, so that when you find continental philosophers in the elite universities, they’re not in the philosophy department. They’re in comp lit, or some French department or somewhere else. They keep them out of prestige fellowships, out of lectureships. They do their best to contain them in the American Philosophical Association.
They’re a hegemonic and deleterious influence in American philosophy. And they’re one of the reasons why Americans don’t know much about philosophy, because the sort of philosophy that they get is technical, narrow and uninteresting, for the most part.
It’s nothing like Europe. In Europe, the philosophical tradition is much more alive as a public enterprise on the continent in France and Germany, or at least it has been. [laughs] What’s a problem now is Germany is becoming under the influence of analytic philosophy, too. I say all this without trying to disguise the faults of continental philosophers, which are grievous in their own way. That is their exotic vocabulary and flamboyant style that makes it extremely difficult for people to understand them.
It keeps people like me in business. I’m someone who understands what the witch doctors say, and then I can go put it into plain English, because much of it can be put in plain English. My joke is that if the major philosophers ever lapsed into clarity, I’d be out of a job.
So, I think there’s enormous differences in style, but when you cut beneath that, I think the crucial issues are foundationalism and non-foundationalism. I think most analytic philosophers today are non-foundational, in which case they’ve got presuppositions that are quite similar to what you would call in continental philosophy, hermeneutics or constructionism. There’s a strong sense of the constructiveness of our conceptual systems and our inherited frameworks, and there’s a certain streak of pragmatism that runs throughout the continental philosophers. So, if you could ever in an ideal world get these people to talk to each other, you’d find that they have a lot more in common.
Paul Ricoeur was one of the best continental philosophers, in terms of bridging that gap and in trying to talk to both sides. Jean-Francois Lyotard was quite interested in Wittgenstein. So, there are points of contact.
I think, really interestingly, the Anglo American philosophers like Stanley Cavell, they ignore the distinction. That would really be a good way to do it, just to ignore the distinction.
I’d hope that young grad students in analytic programs would be interested in continental philosophers, and conversely, but the territorialism among the part of the professors is powerful. If you’ve got a continental program, they will do their best to keep analytic philosophy out. Each one thinks the other one is poison.
That being said, pointing out that if you look at some of the earliest things I ever wrote, you’ll see me using symbolic logic. I wasn’t even sure at that point that continental philosophy was what I wanted to do. I never have had a course in continental philosophy, not ever. I’ve taught endless numbers of courses; I never took one.
There weren’t any when I went to graduate school, for the most part. Analytic modes of thinking, I think, are good for housekeeping, but I don’t think that they build the house. I think that they, themselves, depend upon insights into the structure, with variants which are best described as phenomenological.
That’s why I’m not averse to using a certain amount of poetic discourse in my writing, because I think that poets are like that. They’re phenomenologists. They have these striking insights into things, which they’re able to unfold in their own way.
And then phenomenologists are philosophers who can discursively elaborate these kind of insights.
Luke: Let’s back up a bit. I wonder if you could explain for us what the project of deconstruction is and post-modern philosophy in general. What’s going on there? I think a lot of people, especially in America, are not going to be familiar with that.
John: Deconstruction is one of several modes of post-modern thinking. Post-modernism is a catchword that has caught on. I use the word “post-modernism” when I want to draw a crowd. So when I run a conference, I always say it’s about post-modernism.
It’s not the best word in the world. It’s a word that belongs to architecture originally. The more technical word, I think, to describe the state of philosophy these days is “post-structuralism.” Which is a critique of structuralist ways of thinking. But let’s just stick with the word “post-modernism, ” and let’s say that modernism means the tradition running roughly from Descartes through the first half of the 20th century. It’s a tradition that recognizes, that draws very sharp lines between subject and object, private and public, professional and amateur, knowledge and emotion, faith and reason.
But when you use the word “post-modernism,” the sort paradigmatic modernist would be Kant, who divides the world up into three critical domains, where the Greek word “krisis” means boundary or divider. So that you have knowledge which is pure knowledge, you have ethics which is pure ethics, and you have art which is pure art. So you get art for the sake of art, ethics as pure duty, knowledge as a purely cognitive undertaking.
And so modernism is very emphatic about drawing borders between things and enforcing those borders, policing those borders. Kant’s philosophy is a kind of meta-philosophy of meta-critique, which is a kind of science of science which polices borders. So it makes for very strong distinctions between subject and object, between politics and between public and private.
What post-modernism is, Jean-Francois Lyotard described as a kind of incredulity with all of that. It just seriously doubts all of that. And in the process, it puts into the doubt the attempt to build comprehensive conceptual systems which count things either with an epistemological bent – the way Kant does – or with a metaphysical bent, the way the German idealists would.
And so Lyotard says it’s incredulity toward all those big stories and rigorous policing of our experience. “Incredulity” is a good word, because it doesn’t say a “refutation.” If you want to refute the position, you need another metaphysics to refute it with, which you see in Kant.
Lyotard says, “Incredulity means we greet it with a yawn.” We just don’t believe that stuff anymore and we’re going to spend out time doing something more constructive. We’re not going to get caught up in those kinds of modernist projects, and we’re going to do things that can be done. We don’t want big stories, we want small ones.
Now, having said that, it’s not to attack modernity. It doesn’t want to go back to pre-modern ways of thinking about things. So it’s a continuation of modernity by another means. It wants to emancipate human thought and inquiry, scientific inquiry, from the hegemony of the medieval and of the church and of theocracy and of this strong theological view of the world, which goes hand-in-hand with a strong theocracy and a monarchical way of thinking about things. That top-down power structure, et cetera.
So everything that modernity tried to dispel, post-modernists also want to dispel, but they want to do it in another way. They want to do it without the overarching, very strong epistemological and metaphysical claims that modernist philosophers embraced.
Luke: When you talk about modernity as policing borders and distinctions between things, I think of logical positivism and the strict divide they wanted to police between analytic and synthetic thought. And then Quine comes along says, well, it’s really a lot fuzzier than that. Or you’ve got the classic demarcation problem in science, where we want to police a border between science and non-science. And pretty much all philosophers today would say that’s kind of a hopeless project and it’s really a lot fuzzier than that.
I think, kind of like what you were saying before, there’s a lot of agreement between even analytic philosophers that a lot of traditional distinctions just don’t have a clear border on them. And so it seems like there is a lot of agreement on many issues between analytic and continental philosophers.
John: That’s exactly right. I think that’s exactly right. I think Quine, with his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism, ” that would be a quintessentially… I mean, Jacques Derrida could have written an article like that. Derrida actually was interested in Quine. Once when Quine was in Paris for a visiting professorship, he was using Derrida’s office. [laughs] Derrida was a young, unheard-of person at the time. And so it’s sort of a funny anecdote.
But, yeah, the kind of dissolving of rigorous, dogmatic distinctions of the sort you see in Quine is quintessentially deconstructive. That’s exactly the kind of thing deconstruction does. Deconstruction, which is my favorite flavor of post-modernism, is a very affirmative operation, despite the fact that it’s about dissolving those kinds of borders, because it’s trying to get at something which the borders tend to close off, and which are blocked by rigorously formalistic conceptions of things.
So it’s way of opening things up, of reinventing them, of giving them a future. The negative tone of the word “deconstruction, ” that it’s grammatically a negation, throws you off. If somebody deconstructs you they’re doing you a favor. But they’re breaking the rigidity of beliefs that are being held too tightly and to fiercely. They want to open you up into the ways in which things can reinvented.
I like this word “reinvented.” Deconstruction is a way to reinvent things. Which means you need something to invent to begin with. You need some kind of tradition, inherited belief, structures, et cetera, which is where you start.
So you start where you find yourself, you start in the middle of things – in media res – in the middle of all the things you’ve inherited: the language which you speak, the time in which you live, your body, your gender, et cetera.
And you try to reinvent this, give it a future. You can see it in the big divide in the philosophy of law between the original intent people and the living Constitution people, the people who say…
First of all, you’ll never get to the original intent. Second of all, if you could, that doesn’t settle anything. That was just the first interpretation; it’s not the last.
So one of the more interesting applications of the idea of deconstruction that you find in Derrida is the distinction between justice and the law. The law is deconstructible, and it deconstructible precisely in the name of justice.
So deconstruction is the affirmation of justice, and it’s the deconstruction of the law because it’s the affirmation of justice. The affirmation comes first. That’s the not the case with the word. The word “deconstruction” is grammatically negative, so it makes it sound like the negation comes first.
Deconstruction is not the word Derrida would have necessarily chosen for his project; it’s the word that caught on. He just sort of went with it because it had an appeal and it gave him a chance to make himself heard. So he went with it. It’s not conceptually the best way to describe what he’s talking about.
What he’s talking about is a theory of radical reading, radical interpretation, radical practice, which is conservative in the sense that is keeps something going, it keeps it alive. But it keeps it alive by realizing that the only way to keep it alive is to reconfigure it, reinvent it.
So it’s an extremely good way to think about traditions, institutions, inherited beliefs, et cetera because it keeps them on the move. That’s why it has it has a value in thinking about religious traditions because it breaks into religious debates and allows you to open them up, give them a future. And so it makes conservatives in the religious tradition nervous. But you’ve always had people who were interested in keeping religious traditions open, and they are in constant tension with conservatives.
Post-modern theory generally, but I think deconstruction in particular, has been getting a hearing among religious people, Interestingly, evangelical Christians who are turning an ear toward post-modern theory and hearing something there which helps them reinvent the Gospel and reinvent their religious tradition. Then they come in conflict with the more conservative set. It, I think, has a salutary effect in a lot of evangelical thinkers, somewhat more so than Catholic thinking.
That’s a curious thing because Catholic thinking has tended to become more and more analytic. Because when you look at the great medieval masters, they were very technical, precise, and analytic thinkers. So there’s an argument out that that says, well, look, the true successors to Catholic theology are the analytic philosophers, not the Continentalists. Because Continentalists were too wild-eyed. That’s a curious reversal because kind of once we first hit the shores of the United States, it was through Catholic universities. And also English departments in the secular universities. But Catholic universities, they didn’t have an Anglo-Saxon tradition. The Anglo-Saxon tradition was Protestant. The Catholic tradition was Continental.
Right after the Second Vatican Council back in the 60s, Catholic universities opened their doors to Continental philosophy. But then I would say in the last 20 years, they were happy with hermeneutics, existentialism, and phenomenology, but they’ve become very cautious about post-structuralism, about Derrida and Foucault and those guys. Much more suspicious of them. And they sort of closed the doors a little bit and have become much more analytic. But a lot of evangelical Christians, whose background figure is not the high Middle Ages but Saint Augustine, they’ve actually become more interested in post-modernism.
Luke: Well, when you say that about evangelicals, I know there are a couple of movements that go by the names Emerging Church or Emergent Church.
Luke: Are you familiar with those?
John: Oh yeah, sure. I try to work with them as best I can. I try to be a philosophical consultant for them whenever they ask my advice. Brian McLaren is a good friend of mine, and a lot of people I’m quite close to and really help as much as I can. There’s this young man, Pete Rollins from Belfast. Do you know Pete?
Luke: I don’t.
John: Well, Pete should be on your list of people to interview. Pete started up a group in Belfast called Icon, as opposed to idol. The Church as icon, not as idol. And was involved in peace and justice work, reconciliation work between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. And that thing, he’s got that up and running. He is now is the United States for three years. He found this benefactor who’s supporting his work in the United States, and he’s going to be here for three years.
We’ve been on programs together in the past, and we’re going to be on another one at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri in October I think it is. I’ve worked with Pete on several occasions and also Brian.
There’s a group of young evangelicals who are restless with the elders. They think the elders are racist and sexist and homophobic and xenophobic, and they’re sick of it. And they don’t think that the point of the New Testament is to ban gay marriages, it must have some broader point than that. It must mean something more than that. And they’ve gotten much more interested in peace and justice issues and in the spirit of the Kingdom of God, and they look to progressives like Brian McLaren to show them some alternative, what Brian calls “more generous orthodoxies”.
So the orthodoxy is bad news. The orthodoxy means beating people over the head, blackmailing them with the fear of eternal damnation, making them get in line. There’s a group of mostly young people, younger evangelicals who are sick of that, and they want to hear something else. So there’s an opportunity.
That’s why I wrote a book like “Philosophy and Theology”. It’s also why I wrote a book called “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?”
John: Trying to get an entre into some young people who are thinking things through for themselves and not listening to the racists that have running evangelical Christianity for the last… Well, ever since Bob Jones University case, when it was clear that conservatives, Christians were going to have to send their children to school with black kids, that’s where they drew the line. They said that, “Suffer the little white children to come unto me.” So their racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia, conservative Christianity has turned them off. And they want something else.
Luke: Well, going back a bit to the analytic and Continental traditions, another touchpoint that I would see there is the rejection of a first philosophy approach to epistemology where… You said that one way to describe post-modernism is just kind of a incredulity towards all of these very strict divides and distinctions. And I think a very dominant mode of thought in contemporary analytic epistemology, what you might call naturalized epistemology, is sort of a incredulity toward this first philosophy way of doing things where you’ve got some first principles and you build up knowledge from there or something like that. And naturalized epistemology is very much just starting in the middle and looking around and saying what kinds of things work? We’ve got men to the moon, that looks pretty impressive. We’ve cured polio, that looks pretty impressive. What are these things that are working? And just sort of starting from the middle rather than starting from the beginning. It would seem like there could be some agreement there between the analytic and the Continental traditions in this incredulity towards first philosophy systems of knowing step by step, rigorous deduction.
John: I agree with you. It just it gets lost in the shouting. I’ll give you an example of this. Early Derrida was quite interested in Austin and was working on exactly the same kind of cautious, pragmatic, how to do things with words, language as a way to make your way around the world. Seriously interested in Austin, loved the way Austin would make a distinction and throw it into doubt. Was enamored of Austin. And then he was attacked, and I mean attacked, insulted, attacked, demeaned by Searle, who basically said, “Look, Austin is our private property, and you wild-eyed French should keep your hands off him.”
Luke: [laughs] “You’ll corrupt him.”
John: Yeah. So whatever chance there was for that kind of that little sprout the young Derrida had planted in his interest in Austin was suffocated by the dogmatic imperial excommunication of Jacques Derrida as a reader of Austin by Searle.
It got nowhere! Why? Well, it’s a sort of Anglo-Saxon suspicion of the French, it’s the cultural difference, the stylistic difference. But it was also, I think, a hard-headedness and a refusal to listen to somebody who didn’t share the same cultural presuppositions when it came to matters of philosophical style. But that would have been a splendid opening for a constructive dialogue between non-foundational analytic philosophy and non-foundational post-structuralism. I mean, there are people that work in this field, but they don’t make all that much headway. Their camps are entrenched. They make jokes about one another.
Analytic philosophers say that continental philosophers are people who can’t understand logic. Continental philosophers say the analytic philosophers are people who can’t understand foreign languages. But philosophically it’s a much more fertile region for dialogue than the politics of this.
I think that it’s a shame that in most continental programs they don’t get to study symbolic logic. And they don’t see what a formal system is, which is a real severe handicap for continental philosophers, because the post-structuralism has a lot in common with Godel. It’s arguing that formal assistance can’t be both complete and consistent.
That’s an exaggeration, but it’s not totally an exaggeration. There really is something to it. Continental philosophers really don’t see what the formal system looks like, and they have to learn something about axiomatizability and formalized ability. But, they don’t, because they don’t study the logic.
On the other hand, analytic philosophers who bend their knee before linguistic practices don’t study other languages. [laughs] They think that Plato spoke English and that he lived in Cambridge. They’re dead in their ear to the nuances of language.
When you understand language, one of the things you’ve got to understand is that there’s a multiplicity of natural languages. Each natural language is a way of seeing the world. It’s a way of singing the world, which is what Merleau-Ponty said. So, when continental philosophers say things like that, “Language is a way to sing the world, ” then analytic philosophers shut their door real quick. But, that’s true.
So, each tradition has paralyzed itself or immunized itself against the other, the one by not studying logic, the other one by not studying foreign languages. In most analytic programs, you can substitute the foreign language for the PhD, but with logic, which defeats the point of having a language exam.
And the continental philosophers don’t learn logic. They don’t learn that you have formalized ability.
Luke: Well, many analytic thinkers will say that post-modernism is bound at the hip with relativism about truth and morality. Of course there are many analytic thinkers who are relativists, but for many analytic thinkers, that’s a real concern, because they want to be realists about truth and morality. But, do you think this is true anyway, that post-modernism is bound at the hip with relativism about truth and morality?
John: I think it thinks in terms of situational, contextual, pragmatic conceptions of truth. I don’t think it’s relativistic, but I do think it’s relational. It’s very sensitive to the context in which you make judgments. It thinks in terms of the singularity of the situation. It doesn’t think that anything goes, because take this distinction that I referred to earlier, between justice and the law. With someone like Derrida, and I think most of the other post-structuralists are like this, too, they think justice has to do with the singularity of the situation, with what this situation, this context, demands. So, something is demanded of us. We are responsible before this singular situation. There’s nothing “anything goes” about this.
Relativism means anything goes. There’s no “anything goes” element at all here, because there’s the demands that are placed upon me by the other. The other is one of the holy words in this vocabulary right there. There’s all this stuff about the ethics of the other.
So, the other one is the one who lays claim to me, which makes demands upon me. There’s no subjectivism. There’s an alterism or an altruism, an otherness, an other-directedness in ethical decision-making, which is the focus of the idea of justice.
Justice is what the other one lays claim to, demands of me. It’s an ethics of not so much my rights, but my responsibilities before the other, so no relativism. But, what is it that the other demands of me?
Well, it depends. I mean every time someone thinks that they have been done in, been treated unjustly, they say, “This case is different.” And when the law is applied to someone in such a way that the application is injurious, on the one side they say, “This is the law.” And the other side just says, “But, this case is different.”
Well, that’s true. This case is always different. It has a unique, singular, contextual quality about it, so that the law is not disregarded, but the law is reinvented.
It’s a little more like — and this is not an accident because these are largely French philosophers. It’s a little more like a Napoleonic code than the Anglo-Saxon conception of law with whether it’s a theory of legal precedent. There is no notion of legal precedent in the Napoleonic code.
There’s the law, and then there’s this concrete situation in which the law has to be brought to bear. So, the law has to be brought to bear, but there’s an emphasis on the flexibility of the law. There’s no attempt or element of trying to do away with the law, or with obligation or with the demands of justice. But, there is an attempt to be flexible and to allow a maximum amount of leeway in adjusting to the singularity of the situation.
The antecedent figure for this in history of philosophy is Aristotle and the notion of the phronimos in the ethics. He says, “Well, look. If you’re going to be creative, that means don’t be rash and don’t be cowardly. Be just right.” You say, “Well, how do you do that?” He says, “Well, with practice.” [laughs]
He says, “You do this for 15 or 20 years. If you are someone who is just for 15 or 20 years, you’ll start to get the hang of it.” And what does it mean to have the hang of it? Well, that’s what the phronimos has, he’s got this ability to size up an unprecedented situation. Right?
The ethical situation is always, in some way or another, unprecedented. It’s singular. It’s got precedence, but it’s still unprecedented. It’s still different, because phronimos is the theory of judgment, rather than the theory of rule.
Luke: It sounds like you’re still saying that there are truths about the way the world is, and maybe there are demands of ethics as well, but maybe this is just a continuation of the incredulity towards very rigorous, strict rule systems that don’t seem like they can succeed.
John: Sure. That’s exactly right. If truth is a demand that’s laid upon us, an obligation we have, something that calls us, solicits us, demands something from us, then post-structuralism is a theory of truth, but not a capital T truth. It’s a lot of small T truths.
I sometimes say that it’s not realist and it’s not anti-realist; it’s hyper realist. It’s not realist in the sense that it takes an hour of mental constructs are picking up things that look just like them. It’s not anti-realist, in the sense that it’s not saying that there’s no world out there making demands upon us. But, it’s a kind of hyper realist.
That is saying that the real is always just beyond our reach. It’s always more than we get our hands on, it always tends to slip from our grasp. We shouldn’t count ourselves too quickly to have possession of it. The real is always the thing that we keep missing, not because it’s not there, but because we can’t get it. We can’t get our hands on it.
Luke: Well, John, let’s get back to religion. Derrida had an approach to religion called “religion without religion.” What was that about?
John: The “without religion” part is easy, and that is Derrida’s an atheist. What’s more interesting is what’s the sense in which there’s still a religion after all of that. Well that’s because he’s got what you might call a secular, or a phenomenological, or an experiential conception of the religious structure of experience. He tends to put that into Jewish terms. I like to call him an atheistic quasi-Augustinian Jewish Messianism. He’ll use this notion of the Messianic. He says, “Well, the Messianic is the very structure of hope itself, the very structure of faith itself.” Where those are human experiences, those are structures of human experiences; they’re not confessional ideas.
We should not let the theologians have the word faith. We should not give it to them. We should not give them the word hope, or other words like grace or even prayer. They don’t belong to the theologians; they belong to us. They are part of the furniture of human existence, part of the structure of human existence.
No legal system, no national constitution, no institution can function without hope, and without a faith if there’s any future, without a structure of expectation, and without an attempt to keep the future open. Those are what I’d say are religious structures but without religion, without the dogmas of Christianity or Islam.
When you put it in academic terms, I would say religion needs to be taught in the humanities program. Studying religion is like studying literature or studying history. You’re studying something basic about the nature of human experience, rather than studying some dogmatic confessional system.
The predecessor figure in theology itself would be somebody like Tillich. What he says is, “Religion is a matter of the ultimate concern, whether or not you believe in God or not.” That would be the closest thing I can think of, among the Greek theologians the closest thing to this sort of argument that Derrida is making.
You find the passion of life in many places, under many headings in different situations, with or without what we call religion. Sometimes the most irreligious people of the world are the officials of religion.
They think their job is to protect sexual predators from the law, and they call that religion. Whereas you find someone with no religion at all working on behalf of the most destitute and defenseless people on Earth, but with no religion to speak of, no confessional religion.
Don’t give religion to the theologians. Don’t let them have it. It’s not theirs. They don’t get to build their fence around it. You have to keep the police away from literature, and keep them away from religious questions, too.
Religious authorities are terrified of genuinely thinking about religion in a deep and probing way, because they know that will expose all the uncertainty in religion and the fact that nobody knows just what’s going on. The stronger and the louder you shout your confessional faith, from my point of view, the more insecure you prove yourself to be.
Luke: You mentioned that your approach to religion is called weak theology. And I imagine that’s coming from the point about keeping religion away from those who would abuse their power to control it, and decide for others what it means, and what the belief content of religion is, and just de-powering or de-structuring the dominant approaches to religion.
John: Yeah, and de-dogmatizing it in a way. Dogma is an attempt to rigidify religious experiences, and to bring the faithful in line and to enforce an orthodoxy. I think that’s a power play and it has no place in religion. It’s not an attempt to protect the faithful from error, which is a line that Jesus liked to call “the long robes.” [laughs] It’s what “the long robes” say they’re doing. But, in fact, it’s an attempt to consolidate their own power and their political influence.
Strong theology is dogmatic theology, concessional theology, where somebody feels authorized to put an end to the conversation and to say, “This is what this means, period.” All right. So in strong theology there’s a conversation stopper. And in weak theology there isn’t, there is simply endless interrogation and open-endedness.
And you tend to treat the strong theological claims and the dogmas as more or less symbolic constructions. And it’s pretty clear that Jesus of Nazareth, that historical figure, is almost entirely lost in the fog of history. We might have 20 or 30 words that he actually uttered. And that’s a generous count.
There are some things that we probably have good reason to think he said. He probably said, “Abba.” [laughs] Most of what we know he said or what we’re told he said is written in Greek. So it’s a translation of something that he said. One way to figure out what he said is to see whether the Greek translate back felicitously into Aramaic. If it’s a Greek pun, he obviously didn’t say it. He didn’t know a word of Greek. So whatever he said, he said in Aramaic.
It somehow or another left it’s traces in something we call the New Testament. But how much of a trace and of what sort is the work of endless study, investigation, debate. It’s kind of hard to do that study and investigation in an Ecclesiastical setting because you’ll lose your job if you say something unfriendly to the power structures. So it will tend to get done elsewhere.
Try to get from that figure lost in the fog of history, to the Council of Nicaea. And Jesus would have walked around that council scratching his head, asking, “Are you people talking about me?” He wouldn’t have understood 99% of it. The part about the creation of the world by the Father and the resurrection of the body at the end of time, he would have understood that part. Everything in between would have sounded like Greek polytheism to him.
Is that to say that Christianity is just a charade? Well, no. I don’t think it’s a charade. I think it’s an imaginative construction which has an impetus back in something that happened in this figure largely lost in the fog of history called Jesus of Nazareth.
Luke: Now you asked us to imagine Jesus walking about the Council of Nicaea and saying, “What are you guys talking about?” Are you having in mind there these grand theories of atonement and Trinity and incarnation and Christology and all of that? You think that would have been very strange and foreign to this first century Galilean Jew?
John: Yes, would have dumbfounded him. He probably thought that, “First of all, why are you even here?” He would have figured the world would have been over by then anyway. He seems to have an apocalyptic expectation that the end time was beginning. And this is a point in which Paul was quite enthralled. His own imagination was quite close to Jesus. They both thought the world was starting to wrap up and that God was going to come and establish his rule. And Jesus thought of himself as making that announcement. Then Paul agreed with him. And Paul is sort of rushing around Asia Minor trying to shout in the ears of the Gentiles that the end of the world was coming, like a cartoon character on that point.
His only hope was that he was going to live long enough to get the word out before the End Time arrived. And the Thessalonians start writing to him and they say, “Hey, look. Some of us are starting to die. I mean, how does this work?” And then Paul has to sort of come up with an account of just how this is all going to work. And he’ll raise the dead from their graves and come down on a cloud. And they’ll all meet on a cloud.
Paul was a great theologian, had a great imagination. So he supplied them with a story to cover the fact that the End Time didn’t come.
He would’ve been surprised anyone was still around several hundred years later. He would have been utterly baffled by the supersession of Judaism and the incarnation and Trinity, all the stuff in-between. He would recognize the Ponchos Pilate part and the resurrection of the dead part and the creation of the world by the Father Almighty. The rest of it, I think, would have been utterly strange to him.
Luke: Now, John, I would imagine that the traditional religious people who are listening to you say these things would say well Caputo, he’s just a radical atheist, that’s what he is.
John: Yes, a number of them do.
Luke: I would imagine you would want to respond by de-centering the theist-atheist divide, or how would you respond to that?
John: I just think that the theism-atheism decision is lame. I think that what’s going on in the New Testament is a praxis of forgiveness, love, radical hospitality to the stranger with a privileged eye on the displaced, dislocated outsider.
I wrote a book called the Weakness of God, which I proposed as a kind of radical theology which is focused on the figure of Jesus as a prophetic figure, a figure who taught a kind of prophetic forgiveness and love which focuses on weakness, not power. That book has a lot of interest for people who are Orthodox, but think that’s exactly right, that’s exactly what the Christian life means. Which is what I think Christianity is. Christianity is the Christian Life and that life figures around this paradoxical life that is embodied in Jesus and which you can see in the New Testament without all the trappings of high theology and high Christology. You can see it in Mark, for example. You can see it.
It’s all over the place. The place where it tends to be obscured somewhat is John because it’s such a high Christology, but even John, I think, can be read a certain way that fills in the picture. There’s something, on the one hand, atheistic about what I said in which case it belongs to a death of God tradition and a radical theology and it carries the thing that Tillich started, has no truck with some super being called God as an agent who does things in the sky that affects us sub-lunary beings down here on Earth.
There’s no truck with that, but it tries to be a very sensitive appreciation of the figure of Jesus in the New Testament, which I try to capture in this poetic sort of weakness of God. God isn’t a superpower or an energy plant for the universe or omniscient super-being, but the figure of God embodied in Jesus crucified unjustly. Which stands for the solidarity of God. He was persecuted.
Luke: One of your recent books has the wonderful title of What Would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Post-Modernism for the Church. What do you think is the good news of post-modernism for the church?
John: It’s the deconstruction of the church. It’s the conversion of the church into a prophetic ministry. There’s a book in which I didn’t get into some of the more radical, theological issues which you and I are talking about right now. I just take the New Testament and I take it for what it is. I’m not trying to say look these things are written 60 years after Jesus died; I don’t get into any of that. I just take the New Testament and I say, look, if you take the New Testament seriously, certain things follow from that. Certain things about the lives that we live and the political world that we should inhabit.
What doesn’t follow is the church, or most of the churches as they’re presently constituted, with their authoritarianism, their homophobia, their xenophobia, their alignment with right-wing, reactionary political movements.
The very he’d be against – which is why God himself… He bought himself so much trouble. He didn’t like the settled power of authority, the settled structures of religious authority. And he got himself into a considerable amount of trouble with the Romans and the temple because, to be hyperbolic, he was a deconstructor.
He was. And he was trying to break up the encrustations of power. That the right-wing version of Christianity that we get right now, which is racist, xenophobic, homophobic, is at odds with everything that Jesus stood for. Everything.
What would Jesus deconstruct? He would deconstruct most of what calls itself the Christian church right now. Where would he make himself at home? Well, in certain radical churches. At the very end of that book, I point to some radical churches, one of which is the work that is being done by this young man, Peter Rollins, that we were talking about.
I once asked myself, where does this expression “what would Jesus do” come from? Well, the remarkable thing is that it comes from one of the founding fathers of the Social Gospel movement, from a man called Charles Sheldon, who was a pastor in Topeka, Kansas, who wrote a book called “What Would Jesus Do?” That actually was a subtitle. The book was called “In His Steps.”
And basically the opening scene could have been written by Jacques Derrida. A homeless man is knocking on the doors of a Christian community of this mythical town that is probably Topeka, Kansas, looking for help. He’s homeless, and the pastor in the opening scene is the pastor who is busy writing his sermon that Sunday and chases him away. He has his wife chase him away from his door.
And then that Sunday the choir has sung a beautiful hymn and the pastor is up on the pulpit about to begin his sermon, and this guy comes staggering in the door and gives a little speech and says, “You folks have really treated me badly. What would Jesus do?” And then he falls on the floor and a week later dies.
This becomes a moment in which this church and this community are galvanized under the impetus of what Jesus would really do. Then you get a little narrative in which sort of the first sketches of the Social Gospel movement are worked out.
If you go back to this bumper sticker that the right wing uses in order to keep black kids out of their schools, and in order to cut their taxes so they don’t have to support the poorest and most wretched people in our society, and in which they can oppress homosexuals – if you go back to where that expression comes from, what you find is exactly – exactly – the opposite from what the expression has become.
It published in the Christian press, with Baker. When I started out teaching philosophy, I never thought I was going to publish with Baker Academic.
John: And it’s making its way into Christian colleges, and into courses in philosophy and religion. Which is definitely what I was trying to do, because I think those young evangelical Christians who are asking themselves questions about what Christianity means, I would like my 15 minutes with them.
Luke: Well, John, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for coming on the show.
John: I thank you very much for the invitation. I enjoyed your questions.