Caputo’s The Insistence of God, Chapter 5 and A Childhood Identity

BookThis last semester I’ve been involved in a reading group exploring Caputo’s new book, The Insistence of God, with Jim Olthuis, Author, philosopher, professor, and rollerblader. Last week, Dean, a fellow student who also has a blog and has written about our reading group (his blog is so good I encourage you to stop reading this and head over there), brought our attention to Caputo’s decision to focus on the topic of religion. Caputo gives two related reasons for focusing on religion, even though, according to him, he could just as easily focus on being and finitude. First, religion is more important and less obscure for American culture than being and finitude. Second, Caputo’s own embeddedness in this tradition provokes him to take up his heritage. This interesting (and on some levels disingenuous) rhetorical move, motivated me to think about chapter five without explicitly referencing religion. What does it look like when we remove religion from the discussion?

Perhaps we can have this conversation using an example from my childhood. Back then, I found myself in a context that encouraged competition and sport. This context both enabled and limited me. It limited me in the sense that it determined the perspective through which I saw the world, one full of winners and losers. As unhealthy as this perspective can be, it was a large influence on my choice to self-identify as an athlete. In addition to limiting self-understanding, my competitive social context afforded me the opportunity to learn how to play with others, to lead, and even on the rare occasion, to lose gracefully.

The finite nature of my historical perspective hid from me the “event” taking place in the name athlete. At the age of eighteen, I unexpectedly blew out my knee, an injury that forced me to see the world from a new perspective. The injury made me skeptical (or atheistic) of my own confessed identity. Although I had matured as an athlete, this identity did not fully contain the truth of who I was—past, present, and future. Dogmatically holding on to the name “athlete” would have been detrimental to my own development and a poor expression of self-love.

In order to love yourself, you need to hold onto a particular name, but when a devastating injury or an enlightening encounter with foreign cultures shake native perspectives, names become porous, demonstrating their necessary insufficiency. In order to love myself, my finite nature requires that I hold on to self-definitions loosely. In fact, rather than using a definitive statement like “I am an athlete” to describe who I am, it might be better to express identity in a more poetic or narrative form, a form that embraces the necessary weakness of names. In other words, a form of naming that finds the weakness itself beautiful. Perhaps this would enable us to express a more adequate love.

To return to religion, Caputo claims that religion functions as the middle term in a way that perhaps love does in our example above. As the middle term — identified as the Christian way of life by Hegel (according to Caputo) — religion is that which, through death and resurrection, raises humanity up with Christ, as Paul writes in Ephesians, over and “above every name that can be named.” The power of Christ — the mystery of the cross — insists that we hold definitions accountable. This does not mean that the particularity of Jew, Gentile, or athlete should be dissolved into a totalizing Christian identity, or a nihilistic secularism. Rather it means that all these symbolic identities are subject to critique and renewal as the infinitely complex social world (a complexity resulting from particular identities or, in Arendt’s terms, the miracle of birth) calls them to account, or in Caputo’s words, “insists.”

Interestingly, as Christ and Derrida point out, this insistence comes from the boundaries, the poor and disenfranchised, all those with blown out knees—border dwellers who depend on those inside as much as insiders depend on them— which is a point I don’t think Caputo stresses enough. Regardless, Caputo calls for a theology that takes up a necessary middle position both inside and outside ones home or self-identity, a position that he believes can be filled by something called a theopoetics of trouble.

1. Caputo apologizes to Orthodox Christians stating that, what he is describing does not resemble an empirical Church. Yet, what’s to say that theopoetics doesn’t resemble an orthodox liturgy, with candles, incense, icons and sacraments? Rather than apologizing to Orthodox Christians, it might be more productive to encourage them to imagine how their liturgy resembles theopoetics and functions as a middle term–as a religion with/out religion.

2. Other than a “middle discourse,” what does Caputo mean by “poetics.” He states that it is not an aesthetics adorning a prior religious belief, “but a creative-discursive evocation (poiesis) of an unnamable faith to come” (14/56). What does this mean and what would it look like?

3. Does Caputo’s text achieve theopoetic status? It seems to me that in order to understand Caputo’s discussion one needs to be knee deep in continental philosophy. His text has trouble “troubling” those outside Caputo’s own circle. Even Brian Mclaren, a well-educated and articulate Christian writer, admits to being intrigued but ultimately baffled by Caputo’s text. Caputo’s insider language fails to occupy a middle position.

4. How do we approach a God without “agency”? Would it be more appropriate for Caputo to argue for a God with/out agency? Do we really need to confess the impotence of God to hold Caputo’s “radical” “Hegelian” postmodern perspective? Could a creator function as one voice among many, as an original author who gives the gift of authority?

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