Can the Call be traced? Some reflections on the “God” of Jack Caputo

Caputo talks a great deal about the “call” of God. The call is our human desire to enact justice. I ask whether this call can be traced. I conclude that for Caputo the call is untraceable because there is no one who calls us.

Caputo has written The Weakness of God (WG) and What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (WWJD). Let me list just a few of the ideas in these works with which I find agreement.[1]

  • The work of God often leads to the unexpected. For example, though there is enough in the Hebrew Bible to justify the messianic job description held by the disciples, Jesus was not the sort of messiah they expected which is why they initially thought they were wrong about him (Luke 24:21).
  • We have a lack of guarantees in life, even when God is involved. We work towards goals for which there is no guarantee of success (WWJD 50)
  • God often has to go to “plan B” (I would add C, D, etc.)
  • Deconstruction as a “troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:7). I reject strong foundationalism and the quest for certainty both of which are prominent in evangelical theology. Caputo reminds me to vigilant about epistemic humility (though he would likely say that I need more of it).
  • “The gospel is not a set of doctrines but a way of life” (WWJD  124). Evangelicalism in particular has placed far too much importance on doctrinal precision and on the one correct interpretation of the Bible. It has forgotten that the purpose of doctrine is to help us love God and live the Christian life.[2] Ephesians 4:15 is typically translated as “speak the truth in love” but there is no verb “to speak” in the Greek text. Because Western thought conceives of truth only as propositional translators do not know what to do with Paul’s statement to “truth in love.” However, I do not exclude the importance of doctrines and rituals as aids to this way of life since the gospel does include notions of the nature of God and what God wants of us.
  • We are always on the way, never arriving. The church, as the body of Christ, is never without blemish. With Kierkegaard we can say that we are always becoming Christians.
  • We need to develop theologies of Jesus as the gift rather than the dominant Anselmian and penal substitution views (WWJD 75). There are a number of evangelical theologians writing on this today.
  • Rejection of the need for God to be an UMP—ultimate metaphysical principle (WG 35)
  • Critique of divine sovereignty understood as meticulous providential control (WWJD 88). Yet, I suspect Caputo would lump my model of divine providence into strong theology: “The more it talks about weakness, the more we can be sure it has power up its sleeve” (WG 8).
  • Caputo, like a Hebrew prophet, says much with which I agree when he critiques the power brokers and the religious right (WWJD chapter 5).
  • That those who are sure they are “in” may be in for a big surprise (WG 259).[3]
  • There is pointless, gratuitous, unredeemed evil—it is not all part of a plan (WG 91,181, 242).
  • The importance of forgiveness and the need to remember that our judgments are never pure.[4]

Though I share much in common with Caputo’s ideas I have problems with his ridicule of those who believe God is an agent, a being with personhood.

Caputo writes:

“In a strong theology the name of God has historical determinacy and specificity—it is Christian or Jewish or Islamic, for example—whereas a weak theology, weakened by the flux of undecidability and translatability, is more open-ended.” (WG 9)

By “God,” . . . I do not mean a being who is there, an entity trapped in being, even as a super-being up there, up above the world, who physically powers and causes it, who made it and occasionally intervenes upon its day-to-day activities to tweak things for the better in response to a steady stream of solicitations from down below . . . That I consider an essentially magical view of the world.  I do not mean anything that is there, because what is there belongs to the order of being and power; to the strong force of the world, where you solve problems by raising money—or an army. (WG, 39)

“The truth of the event does not belong to the order of identificatory knowledge.” (WG 299)

 Does Caputo believe it is legitimate to speak of God at all? Is it ok to ascribe definite qualities to God? He does not want to talk “about” God at all. In the end there is no God, weak or otherwise. It seems to me that Caputo believes that the notion of God as a being (especially a being with the characteristics of personhood) is apriori off the table for discussion. In personal conversation Caputo denies this but his constant disparaging remarks about an agential God suggest to me (and Kearney and Putt) that, for Caputo, “God” cannot be an agent.[5]

Caputo says that if God is an entity then God is “trapped in being” (WG 39).[6] For me, God as an entity does not entrap God but allows God to call us onward in particular ways. Is Caputo’s understanding of actual entities negative? Or does he have Tillich’s view in mind in which to possess being is to have finite characteristics?[7] For me, all of our human constructs are finite and that is all we have to think with and, contra Tillich, I do not find this “an insult to the divine holiness.”[8]

In WG (10, 40, 96) he says he is not saying strong theology is a priori off the table. But I wonder how this squares with all the ridicule and denigration Caputo heaps on the position which holds that God is a being who interacts with the world. This strikes me as Indian-giving: Caputo says to go ahead and think of God with definite qualities but then he takes back what he has just granted when he accuses people who do so of believing in magicians, being idolaters, and wanting to raise armies to enforce their view (WG 35). How can a person honestly say something is legitimate and then turn around and call that same thing all sorts of denigrating names? Caputo’s claim that he is not excluding God as a being from the discussion rings hollow in light of all his name-calling.

The God of religion and strong theology is an idol (WG 35).  He says “we should be very cautious about pronouncing what ‘God’ is or means lest we find ourselves falling down before an idol” (WWJD 54). Ok, does this mean we can say something (even in a halting fashion) about what God means so long as we do so very carefully?  Or, does it mean that if we ascribe any definite characteristics about God we have constructed an idol? If thinking of God as a definite being, even a kenotic one, is strong theology and thus idolatry then pretty much any theology but Caputo’s is idolatrous. If so, then I’m an idolater, but one in good company, since then all traditional Jews (including Jesus), Christians, and Muslims are idolater as well.[9]

Are all names for God illegitimate? “The hiddenness of the source is actually constitutive of the call…” “Is it really God who calls or is it some hidden power in my own mind?” “How am I to say?” “To pursue that question is to treat the call like a strong force with a definite place on the plane of being…” (WG 114, see also WWJD 49).[10]

“God is precisely the one of whom we cannot speak adequately and so cannot not speak, cannot stop speaking about” (WWJD 131). By “adequately” does Caputo mean it is legitimate to speak of God but we can never do God full justice or that no language is legitimate because it falls short? Does inadequate mean illegitimate?

The assertion that God is unlike anything in the world may be understood in at least two different senses: (A) God is not completely like anything in the world, or (B) God is completely unlike everything in the world. It is one thing to assert that God does not share all properties with anything else, but it is quite another matter to say God does not share any properties with anything else. It seems to me that Caputo takes the latter view and affirms an absolute ineffability.

“God is nothing said” (WG 271).  Does Caputo think that God, by definition (i. e. Caputo’s definition) cannot have determinate qualities? I call this the “Teflon God” because no property sticks to it.[11] Jamie Smith, one of Caputo’s most esteemed students, agrees with my reading of Caputo when he says Caputo excludes a priori any determinate revelation.[12] No humans have any disclosure from God and thus have no proper conceptions of God.[13]

If Caputo’s main point here is that we can never have certainty of which determinate qualities God would have—our knowing is always fallible—then I agree but if he means that we can have no knowledge of God whatsoever then I demur.  I never have certainty before or after our marriage that my wife loves me but I made the commitment based on fallible and limited information about her. If someone had asked me prior to our marriage, “What do you know about her” and I responded with a list of characteristics about her and then the person responded, “Ok but do you have knowledge that is “impartially accessible to everyone or uniformly desirable by everyone” (absolute certainty) that she actually possesses those characteristics?” I would think the interlocutor silly.

Perhaps Caputo simply is not interested in the question of whether we can have any understanding of God. Perhaps he thinks that inquiry into the characteristics of God has distracted us from what is more important and thus we should put a temporary moratorium on the question of the name (WG 38, 115). Is The Weakness of God a hyperbolic outcry to get us to focus on the event for a while instead of the name? If so, then inquiry into the name is legitimate but unhelpful at the moment.[14]

Once again, I don’t see how Caputo’s scorn for those who think God has definite characteristics, or his calling us idol worshippers, or his claim that we believe in a magician, or that we all want to raise armies to destroy the Caputo’s of the world, squares with the idea that all he means is that we should spend more time talking about the event.

How does Caputo escape Feuerbach’s criticism of Fichte and others who sought to “protect” the divinity of God by asserting that God is that which cannot be thought because thought requires the categories of finitude? Feuerbach rejected an anthropomorphic God but he also rejected the idea that “God” is that about which nothing can be said.

To the truly religious man, God is not a being without qualities. . . .The alleged religious horror of limiting God by positive predicates is only the irreligious wish to know nothing more of God, to banish God from the mind.  Dread of limitation is dread of existence. . . .  A God who is injured by determinate qualities has not the courage and the strength to exist.[15]

Feuerbach said this approach “is simply a subtle, disguised atheism.”[16]  It seems to me that Caputo should come out of the closet, admit this, and stop using the word God. Or, if he is going to continue using the word “God” then he ought to tell us why he continues to do so. [17]  One possible rationale is when he says that the name of God is a destabilizing act (WG 6). Yes, life is vulnerable and justice is uncertain but why drag God into it? Why not just refer to the justice than which none greater can be conceived or the justice which is inconceivable and thus not deconstructible?  Would Caputo be willing to put up a monument to the Unknown God? Or, would even that be to concede that God is an entity?  Caputo might say that he is not claiming God has no determinate qualities, only that we can’t know them. Feuerbach would say it amounts to the same thing because “something” about which we can have no understanding whatsoever cannot even be known to be a something. If there is no being, God, who issues the call, then “God” is our name for the human longing for justice. Theology is anthropology and Caputo should just say so.

[1] For an insightful discussion of agreements between open theism and Caputo’s ideas see Keith Putt, “Risking Love and the Divine ‘Perhaps’: Postmodern Poetics of a Vulnerable God.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 34.2 (2007): 193-214.

[2] See Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Mind: the Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (Oxford, 1999).

[3] For an excellent discussion of such “reversals” see Robert Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993).

[4] In my opinion, the discussion by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon, 1996) adds much more specificity and profundity to Caputo’s account.

[5] Richard Kearney and Keith Putt largely agree with Caputo’s deconstructive approach but fear that Caputo excludes the idea of God as an actual agent. See Kearney’s “Khora and God” in A Passion for the Impossible, Mark Dooley ed., (SUNY, 2003).

[6] Note that Caputo here uses the “container metaphor” in which being is the container into which God is put. For my discussion of this metaphor in light of conceptual metaphor theory see,” Theological Muscle-Flexing: How Human Embodiment Shapes Discourse About God,” in Thomas Jay Oord ed., Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science (Pickwick Publications, 2009), 219-236.

[7] For my own position on the issue of ineffability and anthropomorphism see The God who Risks, first edition, (1998), 26-34.

[8] Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 271-272.

[9] See my “Idolater Indeed! Response to Paul Knitter’s Christology,” in The Uniqueness of Jesus: A Dialogue with Paul Knitter, ed. Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes, (Orbis, 1997). Knitter accuses anyone who ascribes definite characteristics to God of committing idolatry.

[10] Feuerbach would press Caputo here for why Caputo would not simply say that the call is nothing more than a tremendous human desire.  Caputo makes fun of Nietzsche and Freud on this issue but never provides a reason to think they are wrong about this.

[11] If Caputo thinks that God is absolutely ineffable then he cannot also say that the way Christian fundamentalists think about God is wrong. This is the same problem that John Hick and Paul Knitter encounter when they claim that the “Real” or God is absolutely ineffable and yet certain forms of religion and specific social programs are more correct responses to the Real/God than others. But if we have no understanding of the “Real” then how could we know that some responses are more correct than others? How could we know that there is anything there to which we are responding?

[12] Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism ?, 120.  It should be noted that I do not agree with Smith’s affirmation of Radical Orthodoxy.

[13] 1 John 4:19 says that the followers of Jesus love because God first loved us. We have concrete, though not exhaustive, portrayals of divine love. God leads the way and we follow in the divine foot prints (but never perfectly). Caputo uses this image (WG 7) but does not mean it as I do.

[14] This would be similar to what I take Marian’s God Without Being to be saying: don’t start with the issue of being. Though God is a being we should begin with the love of God.

[15] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1957), 14-15.

[16] Ibid., 15.

[17] Gordon Kaufman says that though there is no “God” he continues to use the word because it has great cultural power. See his God, Mystery and Diversity: Christian Theology in a Pluralistic World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 109.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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