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On Religion (Thinking in Action)
On Religion (Thinking in Action)
John D Caputo
Routledge, 2001
147 pp., 28.95

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Stephen N. Williams

On Religion and Revelation

Reading John Caputo.


In the letter which produced the famous phrase "religionless Christianity," Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over."1 We hear the word-weary sigh. Bonhoeffer's sentiments have been the subject of radically contrasting interpretations, but it looks as though, one way or another, prayer and righteous action constitute the inner heart and outward form of his religionless Christianity in a new world come of age.

To its detractors, deconstruction might seem to be the opposite of word-weariness; rather, it is a case of indulgent wordplay. But John Caputo's work has highlighted the messianic longing for that which is to come, for justice, in the work of deconstruction's éminence grise, Jacques Derrida.2 Derrida is the proponent of religion without religion. So Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity and Derrida's religion without religion are both matters of prayer and righteous action, if I may loosely apply the latter description to Derrida. Looked at from one perspective, what we have here is the alliance of two divorced parties. In the first case, a religion without religion is a religion divorced from determinate beliefs couched in propositions. In getting rid of beliefs and propositions in their familiar associated form, you might think that you are getting rid of religion, but not so, as Schleiermacher, Tillich, and others have long taught us. In the end, and by the time we come to Derrida, religion can stand without a cognitive or propositional apparatus. In the second case—the case of justice—the "virtue" of justice was once grounded in positive religion. But it need not be, and a justice embedded in an indeterminate messianic impulse is a justice separated from its grounds. Nietzsche famously complained about a state of affairs whereby moderns attempted to retain morality, e.g., justice, without belief in God.3 If the marriage should never have happened, it should nonetheless be indissoluble.

What if the divorced parties ally—religion without religion and justice without religion getting together? They do in John Caputo's work On Religion. What is said in this work about justice, about our oppressions and neglects, is fairly standard—a characterization that is not meant pejoratively—but the point about religion obviously receives more elaboration. At the heart of Caputo's enterprise God-language is retained, but "God" signifies nothing determinate in its content. However, the word has a determinate function, which is to keep open the future, the impossible, and thus sustain hope: "The name of God is the name of the ever open question." So we have undecidability: what kind of ground "God" is can not be decided, since we humans are constitutionally a question to ourselves: "No one really knows what they love when they love their God."

What if God harbored a lot of love in his heart for this little planet? What is the closest that he could get? Answer: become human.

In remarking on this proposal, it would be possible to proceed analytically and look into the question of the meaning of "God." We shall not be proceeding along this course. Such a procedure is doubtless both valid and necessary, but there may be some advantage to following a different trail. Obviously one question that arises from Caputo's work is an old one by now, namely, in what way the proposal differs from atheistic humanism. However, Caputo wants us to redefine the religion/atheism boundary if there is one and, as I understand him, acknowledges the possibility that atheistic humanism (if we wish to use that traditional designation) is indeed the order of the day: such a possibility is included in undecidability. He certainly does not want a brand of atheistic humanism that expels the category of morality so as to make cruelty become innocent, as his discussion of Nietzsche and tragic possibility makes clear. As things stand, religion for him, we might say, is a messianic space, directed to which the striving for justice has its deep dimension, power and, perhaps, meaning. What we love when we love is God.


On two significant points, I am sympathetic to John Caputo. First, I agree that at the heart of true religion we find love. Love is a rather rarer flower than the ubiquity of the word suggests and, allied to it, the passion for (not just declaration in favor of) justice is also both important and rare. It is certainly right to give the notions of love and justice overwhelming importance in the construction of an idea of vera religio. As a way in to the second area of sympathy, we recall a dictum of Leibniz to the effect that people are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they reject. Leibniz was a severe logician and understood better than practically anyone the obvious truth, namely, that some affirmations entail rejections. But is the sentiment not vacuous taken out of any context? Over the years, I have found it patient of surprisingly wide application. Before stating my sympathy, let me note, in the spirit of Leibniz, that my difficulty with John Caputo's essay On Religion lies less in what is affirmed than in what is rejected.4

What is rejected? Inter alia and especially, the following notion of revelation:

It is always possible—in fact, you can bet on it—that someone might fold their hands and piously looking up to heaven tell us that we must take the bull by the horns and face up to the fact that God's special revelation at just one time and place to just one people in just one language is all part of a Great Divine Mystery, that God's ways are not our ways. Excuse me? There is nothing divine or mysterious about that (although there is a great deal of bull). It sounds much more like our ways, not God's, our own very unmysterious and human all too human ethnocentrism and egocentrism, our own nationalism and narcissism, our own sexism, racism, and self-love writ large, in short, a gross human weakness that is being passed off as a Great Divine Attribute. The nerve of some people! The exclusivist claim that almighty God has been exclusively revealed to a particular people, at a particular time, in a particular place and language, is at the root of a good deal of the violence that religion perpetrates in the name of God.5

Before taking issue with this, I note the second area of sympathy: I agree that damage has been and can be done by exclusivist claims. Living in Northern Ireland while reading the story of religious controversies since the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, should impress that on anyone, if we need it impressed on us. Nevertheless, I want to look afresh at the notion of revelation Caputo rejects here. A kind of dogmatism is, of course, involved in the rejection. To summarize the tale with sweeping crudity: when the Academic skeptics of old affirmed that nothing could be known, Pyrrho and his skeptical epigones detected a dogmatic limit to their skepticism, for were they not claiming to know that nothing can be known? So let us instead take skepticism to the extreme: we can not know if anything can be known or not. This whole antique scene advertises the difficulty of avoiding dogmatism. If I say that I do not know if anything can be known, this is a remark about myself and not about whether anything can be known. But if I say that no one can know whether or not anything can be known, this is as dogmatic a piece of skepticism as we find among the Academics. Dogmatism is hard to shake off.

Caputo says that no one can know whether or of what kind God may be. But let us consider what that implies. Let us assume, ad hominem, the intelligibility of the traditional Judaeo-Christian notion of God. On Caputo's account of things, no one is justified in claiming to know that such a being exists. That means that there is no clear revelation of or by such a being. For if there had been such a revelation, someone, somewhere might be justified in claiming to know that such a being exists. No one is so justified; therefore there has been no such revelation. Why no such clear revelation? Well, three possibilities come to mind. First, perhaps there is just no being there to do the revealing. Alternatively, there is, but this being does not want to. Or, finally, this being wants to, but is unable to. However, on any of these accounts, the deity of Near Eastern monotheistic notions, and perhaps that of Ramanuja and Madhva in the Hindu tradition, is nonexistent. The possibility of this deity is not kept open; this is decidable. As no one can justifiably claim to know through revelation, then knowledge-bestowing revelation has not occurred and the God of those traditions—who is and will and can clearly reveal—does not exist. Such is the particular tie between the concept of God and of revelation. And this is where I want to look again. What is the logic of what is sometimes understood as an "exclusive" revelation according to the Judaeo-Christian tradition?


The late Douglas Adams opened The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy as follows:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time… . [M]ost of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.6

Let us try a thought-experiment. Supposing you were a being called God, independent of but not detached from this planet as though you were some sort of material entity. Supposing you cared for the unhappy people. What would you do? You might blazon across the sky in big letters: "Here I am. I love you. God." Well, that might make things clear at least to most of the people most of the time in some cultures. But no one would really know you. What if God harbored a lot of love in his heart for this little planet? What is the closest that he could get? Answer: become human. And what is it to be human? There are different ideas on that point, but suppose we do not buy into the idea of reincarnation and maintain instead that humans are embodied beings, embodied on this earth once: you are who you are as an individual in this space and time. You die once. Maybe you are raised, judged, live again in another dimension or on a transformed earth, but you only live here once.

Here is the problem. God loves the world enough to want to live a human life in order to reveal and to identify. In fact, there is something more at stake; if you go to a cross, it is not just because you are telling people to be nice to each other.7 What this means is that you can only express your love by being confined—if being human means being confined—within a single space, time and culture. Problem: this will look like the opposite of love. It is going to look as though you favor one space, time, culture, and set of people. But what is the alternative? Multiple incarnations? Not possible. You can't, as a self-identical person, be a 1st-century Jew, 2nd-century Chinaman, 3rd-century Egyptian, and, highest incarnation of all, 4th-century Welsh man or woman. We are talking incarnation, after all, not theophany or indwelling. And supposing you overcame the problem of multiple incarnations in time, still, at any one time, only one space would be privileged, so most people and places would miss out. You would only increase the number of favored spaces, times, and cultures; the huge majority of humankind live outside the charmed circle.

What can be done? Love impels you to want to build a bridge between heaven and earth that reaches humanity in human form somewhere. Your action is going to cause a fuss, namely, accusations of favoritism. So perhaps the following steps could be taken:

  1. Form a preparatory community and make sure that the people in it know that they are privileged (and so they should be the humblest of all people) and that they are meant to attract other people not to themselves but to the one God of all (and so they should be the most self-effacing of all people).

  2. When you become flesh, make clear that you are there for everyone, seeking, saving, serving, instructing, so that God is shown to have no partiality, to borrow a phrase from that ancient book, the Bible.

  3. Make sure that a record is preserved in known languages, so that there are no mysteries of translation; that it is available on earth instead of being taken back into heaven and that the languages are not sacred, so that they can be translated into any languages. That way it will be shown that no one time is privileged, but all times and languages are privileged.

  4. Make sure that people molded by the Word go out and tell others not that they have got everything right and that everyone else has got everything wrong but that they know where that bridge came down and that they want everyone to come and see for themselves. That way it will be shown that you do not have to travel to any privileged space, but all spaces and cultures are privileged.

Of course, there is no guarantee that this scheme will work out ideally. The community you prepared might get exclusivist in attitude and arrogant in tone. The record might become difficult to figure out in detail and open to various interpretations on this and that over time and within different cultures to the point where someone asks whether there is anything at all stable in its interpretation. The bearers of the message might misrepresent it, both in content and in spirit. But supposing that you could guarantee one thing: that you actually did come to seek and save and serve and teach that little planet. Would it not be worth it? What other way is there?

The way that I have described things depicts God as though he were in the grip of a (divine) predicament with limited ability to maneuver. I don't believe that for a moment. The portrayal above is not worthy of God. But it should indicate the need to look again at what Caputo rejects:

For it never seems to fail that when God becomes man among us, right here in Greco-Christian Europe, even in Prussia or, God forbid, in California … [w]henever he speaks, he speaks to us, in our language, in Greek or Hebrew or Arabic, which endangers everybody else. Then the world is divided into those who happened to be standing in the right place, or living in the right time, or speaking the right language, when the God came, when the divine thunder struck—and those poor chaps who were not so lucky. The world divides into the "faithful," who are blessed by luck or providence, o felix culpa, and the gentiles, the goyim, everybody else, the unlucky and unblessed, those against whom the community fortifies itself.8

But that is not to look at things from the perspective which I have tried to set out. If the principle of "undecidability" prohibits someone from looking at things from such an angle as I have, then it goes seriously astray. Christianity is for ordinary people, "poor existing individuals" (Kierkegaard). It is about what might look like a bunch of hysterical women at a tomb on Sunday morning, unable to conceptualize anything to save their lives, but with sound enough eyesight to know when a place was empty. It is about stories of the tomb's occupant being seen again. That is the "little bundle of reports" (Barth) that kicks off, in fact, grounds, the Christian religion. Philosophically, it is entirely unexciting. So is the diagnosis of cancer. So, too, is the down-to-earth struggle against various forms of oppression. But cancers, oppression, and allegations about a resurrected Jew are the stuff of reality. There may well be some decidable things around here.


Why, if there has been a revelation of God along the lines described in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, is it not universally clear? Is clarity not an implicate of revelation? Pascal gave an answer.9 He asked why, if a large proportion of humankind is not even disposed to seek God, he should reveal himself luminously. The reason is that he wants to be found by those who seek. So, Pascal concluded, there is enough light for those who wish to see and enough obscurity for those who do not. I would not put it quite in the way that Pascal does. Where he speaks of people being "worthy" of revelation, we need not go along with that formulation. Nor do I suggest—if, indeed, Pascal is implying this—that everyone who disbelieves is deliberately and culpably putting up a religious-moral barrier. The point is just that we lack proper self-knowledge if we, prone as we are to flee rather than seek the light, say: "Well, if God revealed himself to us, it ought to be universally clear."

This article and the following one provide an edited version of an exchange that took place between John Caputo and Stephen Williams in Belfast in 2005. Alas, it has not been possible to include the less formal discussion between them that took place on that occasion, following this exchange.

Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is the author most recently of The Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche's Critique of Christianity (BakerAcademic).

1. Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM, 1971), p. 279.

2. The Prayers & Tears of Jacques Derrida (Indiana Univ. Press, 1997)..

3. According to Nietzsche, the attempt to retain morality while abandoning Christianity was characteristically English: Twilight of the Idols (Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), IX.5..

4. This should not be taken to suggest agreement with everything philosophically major, including, for example, Caputo's views on language and hermeneutics. These are simply not discussed here..

5. Cf. John Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (Fordham Univ. Press, 1997), ch.6..

6. Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (London: Pan, 1979), p. 1..

7. See Adams, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide, p. 1. Caputo observes that to "forgive is to lift the weight of the past and give someone a new lease of life, a new future, which is arguably the most basic thing Jesus had to say" (On Religion, p. 14)..

8. Prayers & Tears, p. 245..

9. Pensées (London: Penguin, 1966), e.g., the conclusion of 1.X1, "At Port Royal.".

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