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The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps

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The Insistence of God presents the provocative idea that God does not exist, God insists, while God’s existence is a human responsibility, which may or may not happen. For John D. Caputo, God’s existence is haunted by "perhaps," which does not signify indecisiveness but an openness to risk, to the unforeseeable. Perhaps constitutes a theology of what is to come and what we cannot see coming. Responding to current critics of continental philosophy, Caputo explores the materiality of perhaps and the promise of the world. He shows how perhaps can become a new theology of the gaps God opens.

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12 Chapters

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1. God, Perhaps: The Fear of One Small Word



“Peut-être—il faut toujours dire peut-être pour…” 1

“See, I am sending you out like sheep
into the midst of wolves;
so be as wise as serpents
and innocent as doves.

                           —MATTHEW 10:16

I dream of learning how to say “perhaps.” I have the same dream, night after night, of a tolle, lege experience, in which I open a book—I cannot make out the title—always to the same sentence, “Peut-être—il faut toujours dire Peut-être pour…” In the morning I cannot remember the rest of the sentence.

I am dreaming of a new species of theologians, of theologians to come, theologians of the “perhaps,” a new society of friends of a dangerous “perhaps.” I would like to think we are, perhaps, already a little like these theologians we see coming and that they will be a little like us.2 But, of course, since we cannot see them coming and do not know what they will be like, we can only call, “come.”


2. The Insistence of God






As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying,
“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day
the things that make for peace!
But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

                                                              —LUKE 19:41

Allow me to put my cards on the table right at the outset. My criterion of truth is how well we have learned to deal with the fear of one small word, “perhaps.” That, I would say, is a general problem for us all. No one gets a pass. But in this book I am singling out theology and calling for a new species of theologians, theologians of the future. That means I measure theology by the extent to which it avoids the pitfalls of a too-comforting piety—of pious prayers and pious theology portrayed on gilded postcards. I avoid piety like sin itself. I confess up front to having had a long-standing love/hate relationship with religion and theology, which is why the measure of religion for me is that it be without religion. About religion simpliciter I worry about what Lacan says in a precious little book called Le Triomphe de la Religion. Religion is out to soothe hearts (d'apaiser les coeurs), to pacify and appease, and, no matter how grim the forecast, how bad the news, religion will come up with something—“It's absolutely fabulous.” Religion can give sense to anything, “juicy sense” (sens truculents), no matter what. That is what the priests are trained to do.1


3. Insistence and Hospitality: Mary and Martha in a Postmodern World



Now as they went on their way,
he entered a certain village,
where a woman named Martha
(hypedexato) him into her home.

                                         —LUKE 10:38

The name of God is the name of trouble. The insistence of God means that God calls for a response or, since God is not somebody who “does” things like call, it means that the calling takes place in the middle voice, in and under the name of God. God calls in the middle voice. The call is perfectly figured in an unexpected and insistent knocking on our door. A disturbing visitation in the night is an uncertainty in which all the sting of “perhaps” is perfectly concentrated, in which the dynamics of “perhaps” and a theology of insistence is both modeled and put in play. Hospitality means to say “come” in response to what is calling, and that may well be trouble. We might say that hospitality is an example of an event, but if so it is an exemplary one, a paradigm, maybe even a surname for any and every event, which can come at any moment, like a wayfarer in need of a cup of cold water unless, perhaps, he is a thief in the night. As an ancient virtue in the Bible, where the very life of the desert traveler depended upon being made welcome, hospitality cuts deeply into the fabric of the biblical name of God, where the invisible face of God is inscribed on the face of the stranger, as if God were looking for shelter. Well beyond its status as a particular virtue, hospitality is a figure of the event, a figure of the chiasm of insistence and existence, of call and response.


4. Theopoetics as the Insistence of a Radical Theology




I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short;
from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none,
and those who mourn as though they were not mourning,
and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing,
and those who buy as though they had no possessions,
and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.
For the present form of this world is passing away

—1 CORINTHIANS 7:29–31

At the end of his 1920–21 lecture course on the letters of St. Paul, the young Heidegger wrote:

Real philosophy of religion arises not from preconceived concepts of philosophy and religion. Rather, the possibility of its philosophical understanding arises out of a certain religiosity—for us, the Christian religiosity.1

We cannot start with a stable concept of “philosophy” and a stable concept of “religion” and then “apply” “philosophy” to “religion.” We must allow what are called “philosophy” and “religion” to tremble together under the force of their mutual contact, letting each push back on the other. That contact can be made not in the abstract, but rather from out of the original sources of the experience of “religiosity,” out of the concrete experience of the religious traditions. Heidegger continues:


5. Two Types of Continental Philosophy of Religion




Kierkegaard's Johannes Climacus reports the case of one Dr. Hjortespring, who was converted to Hegelianism by a miracle on Easter morning at the Hotel Streit in Hamburg.1 My own story is not as dramatic. Still, if truth be told, in the present work I fear I will shock my friends by declaring myself a born-again Hegelian, and this in order to distinguish myself from the Kantians. My reasoning is as follows. The event is an event of truth. The insistence of the event may also be called its insistent “truth.” The “democracy to come” means the truth that insists on coming (true) in democracy, that is trying to come (true) as democracy. Just so, the name of God is the name of an event that is trying to come true in and under that name. It is at this point—truth—that I call upon the approach to religion and religious truth taken by Hegel, who is, by my lights, the father or (if Tillich is the father) the grandfather of radical theology and the predecessor of the new species of theologians for which I am calling. Hegel offers a new analysis of Christian theology and a new paradigm for the philosophy of religion by formulating a new idea of religious truth that constitutes for me a predecessor form of the theology of “perhaps” and consequently of theopoetics.


6. Is there an Event in Hegel? Malabou, Plasticity, and “Perhaps”



Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

                                                 —LUKE 17:37

Let there be no mistake. I am following Hegel where he did not quite mean to lead, marching to a drum he did not quite beat, taking up a cause he did not quite advocate. I am proposing, as Heidegger would have said, to “repeat” Hegel, to repeat not what Hegel actually said, which has already been said by Hegel, but to repeat the possible in Hegel, remaining loyal to the possibilities Hegel opened up for us by being faithfully disloyal to Hegel. To repeat Hegel in a productive way is, of course, to repeat Hegel's own prodigious ability to repeat his predecessors, above all Aristotle.1 I am feeling about in the dark for the “perhaps” in Hegel, and for the first sightings of a coming species of theologians, seeking thus the future of Hegel, the future in Hegel, to borrow the suggestive title and thematic of Catherine Malabou's book on Hegel, which I will examine below.


7. Gigantomachean Ethics: Žižek, Milbank, and the Fear of One Small Word



And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

                                         —MATTHEW 27:45–46

Žižek's rereading of Hegel is more radical and disruptive than Malabou's. Žižek sees the Hegel of the au revoir coming, the Hegelian Absolute inching its way home through its peregrinations through world history, and he stops it in its tracks. In its place Žižek puts a more deeply doubly negative dialectic, where the Spirit does not come home, where it never had a home, where there never really was a “Spirit.” Adieu to the Spirit, good riddance. No, we will not meet again. No, no, we never met in the first place. Stop trying to recollect something that never happened. In Žižek, the death of God takes the radical form of a Lacanian Good Friday, neither Christian nor speculative-Hegelian, a Calvary of confronting the cold truth the Real deals to us, that nothing is coming to save us and we are on our own. Inasmuch as the chance of death is built into the event of life, this is of no little interest to a theology of “perhaps,” especially as there is the promise of another more spectral Hegel here, of a displacement of the Spirit by a specter, a spectral undead, Žižek's own es spukt. Hegel prevents the event, the peut-être, from above, by raising it up into a higher divine economy. Malabou finds a way around this only by replacing Hegel with Heidegger at the crucial moment. Žižek prevents the event from below. He unquestionably releases the event from the grip of an overarching divine providence, but he does so by means of a massive metaphysical attack on the old God. He introduces a radical negation so deep that it ends up suppressing the peut-être not from above, not by safely installing negation within the divine economy, but from below, by consigning the event to a fated loss, a fatal forsaken Lacanian lema sabachthani, and to metaphysical violence, constituting a kind of predestination ad infernum. The question Žižek poses for us is this: if as he likes to say “postmodernists” have created a purely “scarecrow” Hegel, has Žižek created a scarecrow of his own? Is Žižek in his own perverse way afraid of one small word?


8. The Insistence of the World: From Chiasm to Cosmos



Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

                                                                 —JOB 38:4

We promised at the start to honor the animals of Jesus, and now we must make good on that promise, this time by honoring the animal that Jesus is, the animal that I am following (je suis),1 whose animal needs were recognized by Martha. Indeed it is time to honor the history of the animals that we all are and are following, which I have emblematically called Martha's world, the world to which we all belong in the most deeply material sense. Yet, despite our pledge to follow the animals of Jesus, we have in truth been focused almost exclusively on human beings and God, on the chiasmic intertwining of God's insistence and the need God has for human existence to fill up what is lacking in the body of God. So the time has come to shed the anthropocentrism and humanism of the first two parts of this study. Now we must ask, what about everything else? Does God need anything else? Does anything else need God? More unnervingly still, does insistence have a wider reach than the name (of) “God”? What about non-human animals and non-living things? What about Nietzsche weeping over that horse? What about the stars and the distant origins of the universe? Is not the “little town” of Bethany in the story to be found on planet Earth? Does it not have a planetary and ultimately a cosmic setting and is its fate not bound up with the fate of the planet and the solar system? Does not any possible theopoetics have a wider cosmic context?


9. As if I were Dead: Radical Theology and the Real



To perceive the object as such
implies that you perceive the object as it is
or as it is supposed to be when you are not there…
So to relate to an object as such means to relate to it
as if you were dead.
That's the condition of truth…the condition of objectivity.

                                                       —JACQUES DERRIDA

I object to the blackmail, to the bad choice—theism or atheism!—and to the violence of double genitive in the odium theologiae—the total contempt for religion on the part of secularists, the demonization of atheism by the theologians, which leads to outright violence by religious extremists. The whole thing is a perfect recipe for war. The current form this blackmail has taken in recent years is a new wave of “materialism,” “realism,” and “atheism” that has arisen in reaction to the so-called theological turn. These terms are used more or less interchangeably, as if theology is allergic to reality and materiality, which is the point where we radical theologians sigh in despair, as if we had to choose. The (not so) new blackmail is: Reality or fiction! Materiality or spirit-seeing! Science or fideism! These not-so-new materialists seek to rekindle the old science wars and to wage a new version of the old battle over what is really real, pitting tough-minded scientists against tender-minded types who lack the heart to face reality and so take flight to the fancies of poetry and the fantasies of religion. The new breed of scientific realists, what I will call warrior realists, are merciless iconoclasts, out to destroy all the graven images of the scientific real in order to let the real itself be itself in all its unvarnished reality.


10. Facts, Fictions, and Faith: What is Really Real after All?



Thus to request the idol-breakers to smash the many mediators of science, in order to reach the real world out there, better and faster, would be a call for barbarism, not for enlightenment. Do we really have to spend another century alternating violently between constructivism and realism, between artificiality and authenticity? Science deserves better than naive worship and naive contempt. Its regime of invisibility is as uplifting as that of religion and art. The subtlety of its traces requires a form of care and attention, a form of spirituality.


Having thus redescribed “objectivity” as a way to think about the world in which we live as if we were dead or never born, let us now take a careful look at the words that have sparked the current critique of continental philosophy—Meillassoux's critique of “correlation” and “fideism,” in that order. This criticism has been set in motion by the theological turn, or the return of religion, which is taken to be a regrettable consequence of continental anti-realism. I think there is something to this critique of fideism but it should be put to better purpose. It should be used to get beyond fideism and to come up with a more worthy idea of “faith,” which I characterize in terms of our desire beyond desire, constituting the heart of a heartless world—and the lesson we learn less from a heartfelt Mary than from a hearty Martha.1


11. A Nihilism of Grace: Life, Death, and Resurrection



Martha said to Jesus, “Lord if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha said to him,
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

JOHN 11:21–24    

I return now to the hard hypothesis, that life is a passing feature of the universe, an interim phenomenon, not an ultimate or permanent part of the cosmic furnishings. An ineluctable fate lies in store for us—terrestrial, solar, galactic, and universal death in entropic disintegration, that point when there is no chiasm or poetics, no life or religion. What then of God, perhaps?

To this end we can do no better than to return to the cold, disenchanted, demythologized, disappointing, reductionistic, realistic, rationalistic world view of one of the critics of continental philosophy, best encapsulated in all of its apocalyptic fury in the brassy materialistic brio and bravado of Brassier's Nihil Unbound. Let us unbind nihilism and let it all hang out. Let us expose ourselves to the terrible trauma of the real, our heads bloodied but unbowed by the degree zero of being-nothing, which boils away both substance and subject, art, religion, and philosophy, bios and zoë, physis and techne, dissipating everything fideistic and correlational. Let us leave behind the luxurious plenitude and lush planes of the Lebenswelt for the thermal equilibrium of entropy unbound, where being-in-itself is nothing-for-us, nothing to us, and we nothing to it. What is being degree zero to me or I to it that I should weep for being-nothing?1


12. The Grace of the World






What is going to come, perhaps, is not only this or that;
it is at last the thought of the
perhaps, the perhaps itself…
the arrivant could also be the
perhaps itself,
the unheard of, totally new experience of the

                                                      —JACQUES DERRIDA

So we come to stand on the ground of a certain materialism but of an odd sort, the groundless ground of a certain religious materialism. Likewise we stand on the ground of a certain religion, but it too is an odd sort of religion, a religion without religion,1 with a weak theology not a strong, a theology of insistence not existence, of “perhaps” not of an ens necessarium. There is grace, grace happens, but it is the grace of the world. There is salvation, but we are “saved” only for an instant, in the instant, saved without salvation by a faith that does not keep us safe. This insistence upon time and mortality is poorly described as a form of radical atheism because it is a way we have come upon to reconfigure what we mean by God and to break the grip not only of a strong theology but no less of a violent atheism and above all of the tiresome wars between the two. There is salvation, but being saved is a matter of time, of saving time, of a time that saves. There is faith, but we have reconfigured faith to be a faith in time, in love, in life, a way of standing up for life, a passion for life, having faith in what Heidegger called the worlding of the world. There is resurrection, but it is only for a moment, granting more mortal life not eternal life, for which Martha, the sister of Lazarus, pressed a tardy Jesus. There is transcendence but it is the transcendence that happens on “this side” because after all there only is one side. In the terms of the classical distinction, which I am trying to redescribe, transcendence happens as the immanence of transcendence in immanence, on this side, this life, this mortal life.



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