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The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event

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Applying an ever more radical hermeneutics (including Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology, Derridian deconstruction, and feminism), John D. Caputo breaks down the name of God in this irrepressible book. Instead of looking at God as merely a name, Caputo views it as an event, or what the name conjures or promises in the future. For Caputo, the event exposes God as weak, unstable, and barely functional. While this view of God flies in the face of most religions and philosophies, it also puts up a serious challenge to fundamental tenets of theology and ontology. Along the way, Caputo’s readings of the New Testament, especially of Paul’s view of the Kingdom of God, help to support the "weak force" theory. This penetrating work cuts to the core of issues and questions—What is the nature of God? What is the nature of being? What is the relationship between God and being? What is the meaning of forgiveness, faith, piety, or transcendence?—that define the terrain of contemporary philosophy of religion.

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1. God without Sovereignty

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Nothing is less sure, of course,
than a god without sovereignty,
nothing is less sure than his coming, of course.

(Jacques Derrida)1

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,
and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength …
But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
God chose what is low and despised [ta agene] in the world,
things that are not [ta me onta],
to reduce to nothing things that are [ta onta].

(1 Cor. 1:25, 27–28)

All this talk about the stirring of the event within the name of God should not stir up expectations of power. On the contrary, precisely insofar as it is the locus of an event, and not the nominator of an entity, the name of God indicates a certain weak force, at most a power of powerlessness, even though it is addressed to us in unconditional terms. Let us venture further down this risky road.

Suppose we dare to think about God otherwise than metaphysics and metaphysical theology allow? Suppose we say there is at least this much to the death of God: that the God of metaphysical theology is a God well lost and that the task of thinking about God radically otherwise has been inescapably imposed upon us? Suppose we say that metaphysical theology has been given enough time to prove its case and that the time has come to think about God in some other way? What then?

 

2. St. Paul on the Logos of the Cross

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Wherever possible, I invoke the authority of St. Paul, from whose protective cover I never stray any more than necessary. I am above all in Paul’s debt for what he calls the “logos of the cross” (logos tou staurou, 1 Cor. 1:18), which is quite central to the idea of the weakness of God.1 But Paul inscribes his idea of the weakness of God that is revealed in the cross in a larger economy of power—“for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10) and “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25)—from which I will, with fear and trembling, take my leave as circumspectly and inconspicuously as possible so as not to attract the attention of the authorities.

The strong point about weak theology is that it is a theology of the cross. In the Christian tradition, the force of the event that calls to us and overtakes us in the name of God arises crucially from the cross, where all the lines of force in Christianity intersect (cross). The life and death of Jesus are interwoven with defeat and death, and not simply death, but a humiliating public execution reserved for the worst criminals. God’s mark is upon an executed man, suffering an agonizing death, taunted as a king and dressed mockingly in purple, his “kingdom” being, from Rome’s point of view, a joke, which is not to say that Rome did not wish to cruelly crush it all the same. God crossed out by the cross, the kingdom of God as a kingdom of the crucified. Surely there is as much askew in an unnuanced celebration of God’s power in Christian theology as there is in the gold-and-diamond-studded crucifixes worn by corpulent clerics or the luxurious life styles of the televangelists. That is so much rouged theology. The notion that Jesus could come down from the cross had he wished belongs to the unbelieving, uncomprehending Romans who taunted him, as if Jesus were a magician, whereas the genuine divinity of Jesus is revealed in his distance from this request for magic, in his helplessness, his cry of abandonment, and above all, in the words of forgiveness he utters.

 

3. The Beautiful Risk of Creation: On Genesis ad literam (Almost)

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Twenty-six attempts preceded the present genesis,
all of which were destined to fail.
The world of man has arisen out of the chaotic heart
of the preceding debris; he too is exposed
to the risk of failure, and the return to nothing.
‘Let us hope it works’ (Halway Sheyaamod)
exclaimed God as he created the world,
and this hope, which has accompanied the subsequent history
of the world and mankind, has emphasized
right from the outset that this history is
branded with the mark of radical uncertainty. (Talmud)1

With the mention of the majestic words of Elohim presiding over creation in the opening verse of Genesis, I raise a touchy subject. For truth to tell, while all this talk about a sacred anarchy or the “weak force of God” may have an appeal to a select few party radicals, it is not a proposal likely to win mainstream votes in a general election. So I cannot proceed without first dealing with a problem that threatens to inundate me before my campaign is barely started. For one of the most powerful images in Western literature, one of the most archical ideas in the cultures of the great monotheisms, one of the most memorable verses in world literature for anyone who can read, or who can look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, undoubtedly the greatest show of sheer force in the history of everything, the most hierarchical, patriarchal exercise of pure omnipotence ever thought up, in comparison with which everything else, biblical miracles included, is small potatoes indeed, is surely the majestic opening verses of Genesis: “In the beginning (en arche), God created heaven and earth.”

 

4. Omnipotence, Unconditionality, and the Weak Force of God

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The preceding inquiry into the Genesis narratives was meant to build up our nerve to stick with our thesis about the weak force of God in the face of God’s mightiest feat, creation, which, however exhilarating, is nothing exnihilatory but rather a feat of clay. We should thus have the heart to hold fast to our hypothesis to the end, and not at the last minute reveal that we have had power up our sleeve right from the start. It would be mere cunning to side with the lowly of this world in order to spring a trap on the unwary, who would then be visited by the mighty power of God Almighty, who smites his enemies. The humbling of human power in order to exalt the power of God is a ruse; it uses weakness in a bait-and-switch game, as a lure in order to spring power at the crucial moment. We should have the strength of our convictions and allow our weak theology and anarchic hypothesis to play itself out, to stretch all the way from the world to God, from ta me onta of the world, whom God has deployed to confound the powerful, all the way to God, to what we have been calling the weakness of God.

 

5. The Poetics of the Impossible

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The angel said to her: …
For nothing will be impossible to God.
Then Mary said, me voici. (Luke 1:35–38)

Let us take a moment to regroup methodologically.

Theology is the logos of our passion for God, with or without religion or the churches or what is ordinarily called theology, the name of God being too important to leave to the special interest groups. The theological work undertaken here may be described as a hermeneutics of the name of God, the explication (Auslegung) of what is unfolding in the event of this name, or even as a deconstruction, which means to release the event that is trapped in the name. The next step in this hermeneutic, or deconstruction, this radical hermeneutic of the name of God, is to take up what the Scriptures call the “kingdom of God,” which is where the name of God is incarnated, gets flesh and bones, blood and sinew, where it is stretched out in space and time. We will argue that, with a perfectly perverse symmetry, God’s weakness and God’s kingdom, God’s powerless power and God’s rule, are well and truly suited to each other, so that God’s kingdom provides a perfect way to concretize or embody the weak force of God, nothing like what you would expect if you were expecting a kingdom in the royal sense, full of the paraphernalia of purple and power and princely potentates.

 

6. Hyper-Realism and the Hermeneutics of the Call

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And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on
the lowliness of his servant. (Luke 1:46–48)

The basic presupposition of this study is the experience of the promise or the call. As a matter of method, the call has the status in this investigation of what Heidegger describes as a “hermeneutic pre-understanding.” By this Heidegger means the implicit fore-structure that guides all interpretation in advance, upon which all interpretation draws, by which every inquiry that is anything more than an “unphenomenological construction” is nourished. Fleshing out a pre-understanding is how to constitute what Heidegger would call the “hermeneutic situation” of any inquiry.1 In virtue of such a pre-understanding, we take ourselves, we who are interpreting and trying to resonate with the event that is harbored by the name of God, to be always already on the receiving end of an address, overtaken by the event of a promise. Theology, any theology, weak or strong, is the explication of the event that is implicit in the name of God. Weak theology means that the call originates from the name of God, from God knows where, from something I know not what—from God, from some World-Soul, or from a dark corner of the unconscious—soliciting us from afar and calling us beyond ourselves. If you do not have the least idea of what that means, you would probably be better served to stop reading and check the stock market page to see how your portfolio is doing. This little treatise will not be of any further help to you. (That is how hermeneutical pre-understandings work.)

 

7. Metanoetics: The Seventh Day, or Making All Things New

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Abba of ours in heaven,
let your name be hallowed,
let your rule come,
let your will be brought about,

We might, as a kind of artistic ruse or authorial conceit, think of Part One of this book as having devoted its time to the first week of creation, while Part Two turns its attention to our everyday life in the world God made, to the “eventiveness” of all the days that follow after that very eventful and famous first week. We might also think that while the first half commented on the book of Genesis, the second part is dedicated to a kind of commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, which is a venerable theological tradition to which I will make a peculiarly deconstructive contribution. To carry this conceit to an extreme, the “Interlude” may be seen as a commentary on the “Angelus” (the impossible) and the “Magnificat” (hyper-realism). To be sure, my contributions are of such irregular and modest proportions that they may very well be returned to me in the mail by the authorities, who might on the whole think themselves better served without them, a judgment for which I cannot entirely fault them.

 

8. Quotidianism: Every Day, or Keeping Time Holy

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Give us today the bread we need from day to day.

(Matt. 6:11, my translation)

Having reflected on the first days of creation, and having given a somewhat symbolic interpretation of the seventh day as a supplementary day of re-creation needed to mend what goes amiss in creation, we turn to the nature of the “day” itself, the way we pass the day in the kingdom, from morning to night, each day of our lives.

The event that is harbored in the name of God is an event of time, signifying a thoroughly temporal sense of life. The structure of that event is captured quite nicely by John Dominic Crossan, who wrote some years ago that the basic idea that Jesus had was to keep time holy and to ward off the idolatry of time:

[T]he basic attack of Jesus is on an idolatry of time…. The one who plans, projects, and programs a future, even and especially if one covers the denial of finitude by calling it God’s future disclosed or disclosable to oneself, is in idolatry against the sovereign freedom of God’s advent to create one’s time and establish one’s historicity. This is the central challenge of Jesus…. It is the view of time as man’s future that Jesus opposed in the name of time as God’s present, not as eternity beyond us but as advent within us. Jesus simply took the commandment seriously: keep time holy!1

 

9. Back to the Future: Peter Damian on the Remission of Sin and Changing the Past

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… and send away our debts …

(Matt. 6:12, my translation)

Axiom 1: What’s done is done.

Axiom 2: With God, everything is possible, even the impossible.

Aporia: Can God make it to be that what’s done is undone? That, of course, is impossible, the doing of which, however, in a way of speaking, is God’s very job description, or what we mean by the name of God, and something that touches close to the nerve of the “event” that stirs in the name of God.

That is the aporia posed by the theology of the event as it was framed back in the eleventh century by Peter Damian (1007–1072). Damian wants to know how hard a hard fact is, whether time is hard, fast, and unyielding, or whether God, for whom nothing is impossible, can make time yield and release the event, whether God can change the past, making it to be that what was done was never done. This was not simply a bit of speculation for Peter Damian, but a question about forgiveness and the healing of wounded souls. Damian represents a telling case study in this poetics of the impossible, both a hero and an anti-hero. For Peter Damian was one of Christianity’s first gay-bashers, who coined the word sodomy, and he was also a most unforgiving ecclesiastical authoritarian, who had no compunction about torching heretics. But even here the situation is complicated. It cannot be forgotten that his critique of sodomy occurred in the context of an outspoken and courageous campaign for clerical reform on his part. While we today on the left cannot countenance his homophobia, that should not prevent us from seeing that Damian was out to put an end to the sexual abuse of women and children by the clergy, and of junior clergy by senior clergy, in a time when clerics were not subject to civil law. He forthrightly pinned a lot of the blame for this problem on the hierarchy of the day, on the bishops and the pope himself, for looking the other way and for refusing to root out the offenders by strictly enforcing church discipline. Indeed, he looked to women and the laity for help in setting things straight. Is there nothing new under the sun?1

 

10. Forgiven Time: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

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… as we send away our debtors.

(Matt. 6:12, my translation)

Two men went up to the temple to pray,
one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus,
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people:
thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
But the tax collector, standing far off,
would not even look up to heaven,
but was beating his breast and saying,
“God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:10–13)

In the kingdom of God, we have been arguing, strange, incalculable, unaccountable, impossible things happen (which is also why we love it so). Among the most impossible of these, the most resistant to calculation, the most unaccountable, is forgiveness. Forgiveness, in many ways the most amazing grace (gift) in the kingdom, disturbs our sense of law and order, disrupts our sense of economic equilibrium, undermines our desire to “settle the score” or “get even,” blocks our instinct to see to it that the offenders are made to “pay for” what they did. Hence, it is the decentering centerpiece of a poetics of the impossible (if there is a center), the heart of the kingdom, the heart of a heartless world, and the principal un-principle of our sacred and eventful anarchy.

 

11. Lazarus, Come Out: Rebirth and Resurrection

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And do not bring us to the time of trial
and deliver us from the evil one. (Mt. 6:13)

Once, during the time that Jesus was using Bethany as a base of operations, staying with his close friends Mary and Martha, he had left town for a short spell when Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, became ill. The two sisters, whom Jesus loved, sent him a message to return at once. By the time Jesus got back, however, he found that Lazarus had been dead for four days. At his approach to Bethany, Martha had gone out to meet him on the road into town and as much as rebuked him for having been away at this critical time: “Lord I know that if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary, it seems, would not even meet him and came out only after being entreated by Martha and Jesus. Together the three went to the tomb where Lazarus was laid and, as the gospel says very movingly, “Jesus began to weep.” He was touched to his heart by the loss of his friend, by the inescapability of death, by the grief that engulfed them all. Then he cried to the tomb, “Lazarus, come out.” And in one of the New Testament’s most famous scenes, out came the dead man, walking—reborn to a new life by the words of Jesus.

 

12. The Event of Hospitality: On Being Inside/Outside the Kingdom of God

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[Jesus] said to her [the Syrophoenician woman],
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair
to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered him,
“Sir, even the dogs under the table
eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:27–28)

Who gets into the kingdom of God? If it is made up of the people of God, are some people God’s and some people not? If it is a time of messianic peace and forgiveness, of rebirth and of making all things new, where do I apply? What are the admission requirements? Who decides who gets in and who is left out? Is there limited seating? Does it have borders, an inside and an outside, and are there border patrols? Do they have a problem there with illegal immigrants? Do I have to be Christian? Jewish? Islamic? Must I believe in God? Is there an official language that I must learn to speak?

When you look through the kingdom texts for guidance about the conditions of membership, the results are very surprising—which is, of course, not very surprising by now. Remember that in the kingdom God rules, not the world, which means that there the human, all too human rules of entrance requirements, etiquette, and human hospitality hold no sway. From a strictly human point of view, the whole place looks a little mad or anarchical, like all hell has broken loose—holy hell, of course.

 

Appendix to Part Two: Newly Discovered Fragments on the Kingdom of God from the Gospel of Miriam

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My dear friend Magdalena de la Cruz has recently e-mailed me what she calls “Newly Discovered Fragments on the Kingdom of God from The Gospel of Miriam.” As you may know, Magdalena is quite a prankster and rather an anarchist herself.1 I have no idea about the source or authenticity of these texts, no original manuscript to submit to the experts, and no idea about the reliability of the translator, since all the texts are in English yet purport to be fragments of a missing gospel. This latter point would be, if true, quite astonishing. The English is middling good, so I conclude that the translator is an Anglophone who has mischievously introduced French and Latin into the text. Unless, of course, this is an alteration made by Magdalena herself, which I would not put past her, since her attitude to the niceties of scholarly protocol is, to say the least, rather casual. I pass them along to the reader, now as in the past, as a courtesy to an old friend, but with this proviso: whatever I receive from Magdalena is always very provocative and heterodox and, although these materials are highly supportive of my projects, I cannot dispel my suspicions about their provenance. I reproduce these texts with the admonition that the reader take them for what they are worth and not attribute too much authority to them or their author. Magdalena is a free spirit, to say the least, a very independent creature who makes me feel quite conservative whenever I am in her company, which I confess I enjoy very much, by the way.

 

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