Some Candid Thoughts on Caputo’s The Weakness of God [Repudiated]

[It has come to my attention that someone has dug up this post in light of the recent controversy surrounding Harman’s remarks about Caputo. The tone of this post was ill-considered and regrettable, and its critiques are exaggerated. I can no longer stand behind my remarks here.]

I am a third of the way through the book, and I must ask: Where’s the argument? What is Caputo actually trying to do with this book? If he wants us to indulge him as he shares his more or less unsubstantiated opinions on theology, then that’s fine, though it is perhaps the kind of thing that is better done over wine than in a 300-page book with 50 pages of footnotes.

He might gain some credibility were he to, for example, actually risk taking a position about whether “there is” a God such as he describes, however one wants to qualify it — yes, yes, God is necessarily beyond being, etc., but seriously, answer the damn question! Enough with your hand-waving! (“Oh, who am I to pass judgment on this?” Well, who are you to be writing a book on theology at all?). As it stands, the whole affair is difficult to take seriously. We have the same prose style as The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, here reduced to a kind of “Caputo does Caputo” — foreign words dropped in here and there, but without the elegant instructional quality one found in Prayers and Tears (where the juxtapositions were sometimes quite illuminating), paragraphs made up of nothing but questions (“What if we thought of God as being weak rather than strong? What if we thought of creation as a risk rather than a sovereign act?” Yes, truly — what then?!), completely useless name-dropping (most egregious in the case of Zizek, where the references have a negative tone without making it clear either what is supposed to be wrong with Zizek’s position or even what Caputo takes that position to be), and, to top it off, a wonderfully “clever” recurring image of “rouged theology” (the kind of theology that is a “whore” for power — nothing says “liberation” like misogynistic imagery!). The chapter on Genesis is admittedly somewhat interesting, but that is probably because the whole thing is cribbed from Catherine Keller. He keeps making references to being “anarcho”-whatever, but it’s painfully obvious that Caputo isn’t an anarchist in any serious way. Yet another empty gesture in a book built around them.

This book risks retrospectively discrediting Prayers and Tears, of which I have become increasingly skeptical over the years. If theology really doesn’t have anything to teach us other than to be “good liberals,” then I say let’s be done with it–and the same goes for deconstruction.

62 thoughts on “Some Candid Thoughts on Caputo’s The Weakness of God [Repudiated]

  1. It’s really bad. How it won a book award I know not how.

    The anarchist bit is very disingenuous. At the Nexus conference in 2005 he spoke on the first chapter and asserted that the political import was the American political system writ large, though of course he repeatedly told us he had no authority to really tell us anything. That’s right, anarchy leads to a bland liberalism of checks and balances, just making sure no one gets too crazy with power. No one gets fed either, but at least no one is to blame.

  2. Caputo’s recent work makes me reevaluate the laziness of Altizer’s “I can’t take _________ seriously” line. Maybe it’s something you need to live nearly eighty years to realize, that you’ve only so much time to read good books.

  3. Amen.

    Caputo’s career arc is deeply saddening to me as his earlier stuff was my introduction to both Heidegger and Derrida. While I’ve grown (very) incredulous of (large) parts of it, (you know, after I actually *read* the thinkers he was name-dropping, which seems to be more than he cared to do in several cases [Nagarjuna and Zizek come to mind]) Prayers and Tears will ever hold a special place in my heart.

  4. Well, I’m glad everyone liked it. Too bad my career is over now.

    Is Caputo really that big of a player in the world of continental philosophy? I remember graduate students at Loyola and DePaul regularly making fun of his work a decade ago– especially after he released the ridiculously titled More Radical Hermeneutics –and I never see his work cited anywhere. He seems to belong to that moment in American continental scholarship characterized by the work of Krell, Sallas (who does actually do some good work), and Lingis… A period that subsequent scholarship seems to have worked hard to forget. Perhaps I’m just not reading the right things, but I’ve always found his work to be very “fluffy” (I haven’t read Prayers and Tears, so I don’t know whether this differs fundamentally from his other work).

  5. I heard him give a talk last year at the North Texas Philosophical Association and it seemed that his conception of religion was just that it’s a bunch of symbols about life’s existential dilemmas. He actually compared religions to what we find in comic books, and came down very hard on Marion’s way of reading Scripture. Maybe I missed the whole point of what he was arguing, but a number walked away from the talk wondering where the hell the religion is left in Caputo’s conception of religion. I mean, if that’s the case, why not just read Dostoyevsky and Kafka. Certainly they are often much better writers.

  6. I meant that often these writers are better than anything you’ll find in the Bible, not Caputo. Following what little I understand of Caputo’s “weak theology” from his talks, there seems to be no reason to read sacred texts at all when we have so much great literature.

  7. Oh, okay.

    You may be underestimating Caputo’s influence somewhat — he’s the editor of the Fordham series that seems to be “the new Cultural Memory in the Present,” for example.

  8. Best bit is in the copy Anthony is reading at the moment, which I picked up lying around.

    Someone will no doubt fill me in here, but its the bit where he says that Zizek will find no real orange juice in these pages, a reference to Zizek’s review blurb of one of one of Milbank’s Ontology and Pardon which says it is “like a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice after a chemical orange drink”. My friend Stewarts maginalia says “Oooo bitchy!”.

  9. Poor Krell. Come on now, he wrote some good stuff. I mean, the language stuff gets a bit annoying, but that’s his writing style. I’ve yet to find an academic writing style I don’t find somewhat annoying.

  10. Adam:

    I (very strongly) recommend that you immediately cease and desist with your reading of Caputo’s The Weakness of God, and begin straightaway to work through the essays in Michel de Certeau’s La faiblesse de croire. Not only is there some real theology going on in the work of this “post-structuralist,” but it is theology that is much more attentive to and infected by Marxist and Lacanian thought — a theology that thus realizes wherein lies the real “weakness” of all of this stuff.

  11. Evgeni,

    You’re going to have to give up on your desire for a clear-cut answer to that question.

    (Does everyone remember back when I was really fixated on the idea of doing a translation? Those were the days!)

  12. Krell’s earlier essays on Heidegger were fantastic (though the dedications were a bit excessive and flashy– Rorty, Derrida, Lingis, and Janicaud come immediately to mind), and his book on Derrida is, if I recall, quite good. On the other hand, his novels…

  13. Evgeni:

    No, to my knowledge only two of the three essays from the final, Part IV of the volume are translated into English, as far as I know. “From the Body to Writing, a Christian Transit” is available in The Certeau Reader edited by Graham Ward, and “White Ecstasy” is available in the collection The Postmodern God, again edited by Ward. Someone else who knows Certeau scholarship more extensively that I do in my limited “theological” readings of Certeau may be able to say whether any of the other essays in the volume have appeared in English, either in journals or otherwise.

  14. U of C’s holdings in Certeau are surprisingly weak. (I.e., they don’t have literally everything he’s ever written, in two or more languages, like with most figures.)

  15. I debated with myself as to whether I should take the bait here, but to my surprise, there is nothing that really stings (I am deeply invested in this book as Caputo is both an advisor and a friend).
    (To be honest I cannot tell if Adam is mostly just kidding.)
    The objections seem to be that after reading 50 pages the book is wordy and is a little too generous with its rhetorical questions. Okay.
    The main thrust of Adam’s critique seems to echo what I would expect from the Society of Christian philosophers: there is no argument here, I would be interested in it if he was willing to take a position on the real question: the existence of God. I have not been keeping up with this website, so perhaps there has been an analytic turn that has occurred in my lapse of reading, but this seems truly odd.
    Another thread seems to be that this is not “real” theology. I think that the book is largely about finding a different approach to the task of theology, so it is not surprising to me that someone mired in the structure of reform theology, or that expects something like dogmatics would not find it to be “real.” (I have no problem with this charge, you can keep the claims of orthodoxy, and maintain this binarity of the real and the imitation.)
    What seems to be most interesting out of these objections are those from the Marxist vein. I am not sure how much work gets done with using the heading liberal (which has repeatedly been acknowledged as complex on this very cite and not a word that Caputo often uses) and citing some anecdotal comments. This all seems kind of equivocal and lazy. But I think that the political implications of this work are something interesting to consider (though I would prefer to see less chest thumping or off handed dismissals based on impressions).
    But as blogs seem to be mostly about gossip and snap judgments, I must say that I enjoyed ease dropping on your not so inflammatory conversation.

  16. It’s awesome how we completely fall into the scheme Caputo lays out in his book.

    “Hurray for divine sovereignty! Does anyone want to go get a beer and talk about double-predestination? Reminisce about the days when we could burn heretics?”

  17. Wilson,

    I should give you more, but I just have to ask, you really don’t think that Caputo’s political import is incredibly weak (in a bad way)? Even confused (‘I’m an anarchist! More reform! More American style democracy! Anarchy in the theology departments! Yay Democrats!’)?

    I don’t often say this sort of thing, but I find this book devoid of any real value. The theology isn’t new – it’s liberal Protestantism. What does it explore? What does it give us? That God is a name? That God has no power, but is just a call? Do calls have no power? Even Caputo says it does, but then says ‘it is a weak power’. I’ll stick with Metropolitan Anthony on these issues.

    I used to very much like Caputo, even wanted to study with him. I went into this book wanting a lot more and it just failed to deliver anything other than a loose liberalism (without the bad shit). So this isn’t analytic, especially Christian, or even all that Marxist.

  18. One last thing – you seem to be kind of defensive but do you admit that Caputo comes across pretty bitchy in places? The kind of bitchness that might put others’ students on the defensive while reading his book? Considering all the prophecies of the forces of orthodoxy reigning down on him, even dragging him before the Inquisition, he ended up alright. One of the highest paid professors of religion in the US, book award, respected by a bunch of emergent church nerds.

  19. gentlemen, i’m about about a third of the way into this posting and its comments and i must say – where is the argument? what exactly is so wrong with jack’s book? maybe i should finish this thread before i make up my mind, but i think i’ll just go ahead and make it anyway, because it’s really about ME posting a comment on the website for everyone to see how incredibly smart and sophisticated i am – i swear i would write something even more brilliant and gut-busting, but it’s my bus stop soon…

  20. Great, and you’re showing off that you have a PDA, too!

    In all fairness to Caputo, though he is unlikely to be persecuted by the Guardians of Orthodoxy, I think his intuitions about not having much success in running for elective office are probably correct.

  21. Evgeni,

    You’re being quite strong here, aren’t you? I feel some ontological violence here.

    Seriously though, this is my website. It rarely makes me feel smart or sophisticated. That said, if you would like to avoid seeing anyone here try to look smart or sophisticated you can avoid the website.

    This is pretty much what I would say; it has already been written. I was hoping to do a mapping of hierarchy via deconstructive theology and radical orthodoxy, but I’m not getting much from Caputo that I can work with. Maybe Robbins book would be better.

  22. Wilson,
    You rock! Of course Caputo is not about liberal Protestantism–as I have learned having read him and studied with him over the years. In fact, he’s much closer to Rowan Williams’ theology than he is to anyone in that so called liberal protestant camp. [Oh, and the silly claim that Williams is the ‘grandfather’ of Rad Orthodoxy is just that, silly, as anyone reading Williams’ critique of Theology and Social Theory (“Saving Time”) will soon realize!.]

    Caputo’s engagement with Saint Thomas, Eckhart, and the Catholic mystical tradition is long standing and has not been adequately reflected upon in many places–but he is a catholic and Catholic thinker, albeit with a strong deconstructive twist away from power plays and ecclesiastical strong-arming.

    Snap judgments, placing folks into camps and then dismissing then in toto is tempting. Alas, it does seem to be what we graduate students are asked, to do, even by our advisors who ought to know better–make pretensions that we have ‘read everything’ and then give our not so humble opinions as to where everyone in the world stands or in this case, falls. I hate the fact that academic culture seems to push me into making these kinds of quick judgments in order to survive and establish myself, and my hope is that we all might resist the urge and say, as I heard Daniel Boyarin once do at a conference when being lectured in the form of a quesion by a smart (ass?) grad student to the effect that he, Boyarin, was misreading Kant: “I’m sorry, I haven’t read Kant” with as much humility as I’ve ever seen a world class scholar muster. And you can be sure Boyarin has forgotten more Kant than that young whippersnapper will likely ever read! But he was humble enough to know that reading Kant is a life-long task, and that a quick answer would simply do violence to the depth and complexity of his vision. I would say the same holds for Caputo, not that he is Kant, but that any substantive thinker takes years of study to understand, and appreciate: sort of like fine wine and Zizek!

    Adam, I love your blogs, but my goodness, why are we doing this to one another when we have so much in common? Frankly, its the evil American empire that we are all against! Why not restrict the broadsides to private opinion and instead focus on how we can work together to fight the beast of American imperialism? I would dearly love to join you in this fight, but not at the cost of either explicitly or tacitly attacking my mentor, advisor, and friend, Jack Caputo. I’m with Wilson here.
    If you’d rather I not comment here, please do let me know. I write this with a bit of fear and trembling, knowing how hard it can be to have what feel like ‘attacks’ come onto the pages of my own blog. Please do know that I write this with deep respect and admiration for what you, Anthony, Brad and others are trying to do in your work–you guys rock with these blogs, and I am with you on Zizek, Goodchild, Lacan, and Marx in their work going after the principalities and powers. Maybe you’re determined to go after or dismiss Caputo, and if so, fine–I think that means I best keep my distance and trust you will tell me so. But I hope not, as I fear there are not enough of us continental philosophy/deconstructive theological types to go around, and I would hate to see us start a war of words and become a house divided, which, as we all know, cannot stand up to the evil forces of the day, about which you write so passionatly, persuasively, and truly.

    Yours in a spirit of peace,

  23. I don’t understand the horror at the prospect of disagreement. This is a semi-private environment, if we’re going to be realistic about it — hardly a public broadside. I bitch about Caputo’s book on some dinky blog — but so far, my biggest “public” statement was a critique of Radical Orthodoxy in a well-attended AAR session, which is now going to be published as well. As always, a little context goes a long way. Could it be — you know, based on my past statements and behavior — that I think that what Caputo is trying to do is important enough to do well?

    There is some evidence for such a reading in the post itself — for instance, the implicit praise of Catherine Keller, who is hardly doing “orthodox” theology. (Then there is also the fact that Altizer’s writings have appeared on this blog and The Weblog, indicating that the “problem” with Caputo is probably not that he isn’t orthodox enough. If Wilson wants to point out that too much of my critique is on the level of prose style, then that’s perfectly fair, but the “threads” he detects in this conversation are largely drawn from Caputo’s preemptive attacks on critics rather than from the conversation itself.)

  24. But Adam, your blog is not semi-private! It is read by a large number of us in the field, as I know you know, and I am simply suggesting that you use more rigor in your analyses or truly leave it private. If you don’t want others to read what you have to say, I am sure there are ways to do this in blogging culture.
    Let me simply add one more thought, in reference to what Caputo is up to in Weakness:
    The rhetorical style of Weakness, like some of his other writing, is indeed heavily ironic, and deeply indebted to SK: if its ‘bitchy”, its no more so than late Kierkegaard’s attacks upon Christendom.

    Now one could, I suppose, take Barth’s turn away from Kierkegaard, into a more robust dogmatic stance, but it is clear to me, at least, that Barth’s reading of Kierkegaard leaves much to be desired. He seemed unwilling, or unable, to keep the pseudonyms straight, which means that he was prone to attributing to SK stances of the pseudonyms. This was common, of course, at the time Barth was reading SK, as his work was still quite newly translated and scholars had not yet developed the sophisticated rhetorical strategies that we know have (with Pattison, Mark Taylor, even Caputo and Syracuse’s other Kierkegaard scholars, Ed Mooney and Marcia Robinson being good examples of how far we have come in our reception of the mad Dane) One can clearly give an ‘orthodox’ reading of Kierkegaard, which I would not favor, and one can give a radically a/theological reading, as my undergraduate mentor and friend, Mark C. Taylor, is well-known for.
    Or, one can look for a third way, one tied explicitly to a theology of desire, resistance, and deconstructive energy, without becoming unmoored from the traditions, philosophies and theologies of a church community. Such a reading might open the walls of the church to be more hospitable to non-christians, and even non-religious types in the hopes of forming bonds of solidarity to fight the evil empire which currently holds sway, and about which Adam, Anthony, Brad, and others on this site write with such passionate conviction. I am very grateful to the work you all do, and hope we might get past name calling and into the real hard work of uniting to fight imperialism in all its guises: political, theological, philosophical and otherwise.
    With a hope for a true and lasting peace,

  25. Maybe I’m underestimating this blog’s reach. (Currently, on its best days, it gets maybe 60-70% of the traffic of The Weblog, which is now devoted to petty griping and jazz mp3s.)

    If it’s widely read in the field, hopefully we’ll be able to put together a conference on invariant vitalism sometime in the next couple years.

  26. I can’t help but notice that the people defending Caputo’s book know him personally. I don’t deny that Caputo is a nice person (though he was not nice to me the one time we met) or a good advisor. John Milbank, whom many of the pro-weak theology proponents find it easy to slag off, is also a nice person and has been very gracious and helpful to me at Nottingham. That doesn’t mean I agree with John’s project, even though I do think much of it should be considered. I repent and repudiate this statement.

    Caputo’s book, you keep telling me, is great. I’m just about done with the book and I don’t see it. I’m not sure if he’s following Derrida here, but it seems quite clear to me that Caputo is very much just a liberal when it comes to issues of politics and religion. This is why I don’t find it surprising that Brian McLaren or the Emergent movement likes Caputo. That’s fine, but classically liberal values towards religion are not shared by me. That’s a decision before coming to the text that shapes how it is to be read. Caputo’s weak politics of reform ignore the political reality of the left-liberal party in America and most left-liberal parties in Europe. I don’t know that the answer is Marxism, I like to think that is part of it, but it is certainly something else. The problem has changed and Caputo, from what I’ve read, isn’t on to that problem. I really think, in large part, Raschke’s criticism gets to the heart of it.

  27. Clark,

    I don’t really see why making the blog “truly private” would be a help. We are committed to the myriad forms a blog might take. I drivel on in my serialized posts, heavy with rigor and theory, and typicaly succeed in saying very little. Adam has been consistently committed to the blog format as “tossing things out.” I would hope that the academic audience we do have would realize they’re reading a blog, not a journal. All of us are capable of writing sustained engagements with books we don’t like. But on a blog it’s far more provocative to be dismissive — see the fact that this post has jumped up to around 40 comments. And that’s the beauty of a blog w/ comments. When they work, the comments become a part of the post — sometimes the very thing that causes somebody to link to or bookmark a post. As such, disagreements like yours are potentially pivotal. Were we all to agree, united and standing in defiance of American imperialism in the security of the blogosphere, well, that would make for a pretty boring blog.

  28. I’ve been trying to talk myself out of responding to this, but I can’t. I both sympathize with and appreciate the critiques, because it took me awhile to really appreciate and understand what Jack is doing and how valuable it is. In the interests of disclosure, while I am not a student of Caputo, I appealed to him for help after my mentor, Charlie Winquist, died, and he has been incredibly kind and gracious to me. I love and admire him immensely as a person.

    Also, it’s interesting that many of the people that so dislike Derrida have made the same charges–there is no argument; if there is one, though, he’s not saying anything that hasn’t been said; and he’s really a liberal trying to sound radical.

    I just think the issue and the frustration occurs at the level of style and rhetoric. He’s not writing for us, or rather, he’s writing _for_ us (even if we don’t want to recognize ourselves in that we, or that ‘oui’), but his key audience is not us but a broader and more general one. A large part of the reason that religion is theoretically interesting and relevant in the US is due to Caputo and his Religion and Postmodernism conferences. Even if it gives us something to resist, it provides a continentally informed philosophical discourse in terms of which to do so. I remember talking with Richard Kearney at one of the Villanova conferences about how and why Derrida had to seem like such a jerk when he was starting out, and how it’s hard not to be a ‘young turk’ when you want to say something and change how we think and shake things up. It’s so much easier to be and appear gracious and nice afterward. Sociologically, I’ve thought a lot about how we have to want to challenge the folks in power, to criticize reigning orthodoxies, etc., and I enjoy reading this blog because I still identify with that spirit to a great extent. On the other hand, as we become more established we dig in, and it’s hard not to defend our ‘heroes’ or those who helped us think and survive and sometimes even flourish.

    As for Weakness of God, I do think it’s a great and valuable book, although not in terms of traditional arguments. First of all, as the quote by Keller on the back cover says, I celebrate the fact that Jack is “coming out of the closet” and embracing a certain kind of theology, one that is weak and nondogmatic. If Derrida loosened Jack’s tongue to help him speak and write in his own voice, here it is Deleuze whose language and logic contributes to a theological voice, which reads the New Testament and the Christian tradition in terms of a scrambled “logic of sense.”
    There is both an honesty and a rhetorical flourish that combined can seem empty and grating on some ears, but there is a movement and vitality there that I have come to love, even more so as I have taught Caputo to undergraduates. I thought the chapters on creation and on Lazarus were outstanding, and I agree with what he says about theology on pp.285-6: “If all theology means is to treat God as the subject matter of an objectifying discourse, then theology is not possible….But now I think that this impossibility should be counted in among the conditions of possibility, a delimiting condition, so that any possible logos of this name, any possible theology, must be a logos of prayer, the logos of a passion or a desire, where theology is, like a prayer, a wounded word.”

    There is nothing I can disagree with here, even if the cultured despisers want something stronger or nothing at all. I love reading Adam and Anthony and their criticisms on this blog, and I think it is a great and valuable space, which is why I hesitated to say anything, and I can appreciate the value and importance of polemics, of which badiou is a master, but at the same time I think and work more productively according to a Deleuzian logic: and…and…and. So for example: Lacan and Derrida and Deleuze. Or: Caputo and Zizek and Badiou.

    My only suggestion, beyond my personal affirmation, is to try to reflect on how and why Caputo’s work helps and has helped to contribute to opening up a space for us to think and work and ask serious theological questions, and I think that it is still doing so in The Weakness of God.

  29. Adam, what’s a PDA? i was being sarcastic and bus image was to create a sort “not-thought-through” postings atmosphere? can i really post while on the bus? that would be awesome!!!

  30. Anthony, how can i resist reading your website? i get a daily jolt with expressions like “ontological violence” and “deconstructive theology”? seriously, i’m mostly full of shit – don’t mind my misplaced humor – i do enjoy the discussions, i just have a hard time expressing my love and admiration directly, difficult childhood, you know?

  31. i’m sure Raschke will be super-excited to know that his argument was approved by this blog’s owner – someone should send him a quick note…

    how is knowing the author necessarily force one to argue in his favor?

  32. I don’t know. Why do you ask? I will remind you that I didn’t say knowing someone makes you argue in their favour, but only pointed out the empirical reality that everyone who is arguing here for Caputo, aside perhaps from you, knows him personally as a mentor.

  33. Oh, and one more thing, in response to Clayton:

    My dislike of his recent book in no way means the work he has done in terms of opening up the discourse is invalid or lacking in value. It is the book that I think is bad.

  34. Dear Anthony,
    I do indeed read what you write here and on The Weblog–not as often as I would like, but I do–I’ve been interested in your writing on Bergson as well as your interest in Goodchild and critiques of capitalism. I admire your humor, fervor, and passion.
    I am glad you have had a good relationship with Milbank. I too have a good working relationship with Caputo, even if we don’t agree on everything. He’s great to work with because he will tell you what he thinks, even if that means disagreeing directly with a grad student–that can be hard to hear (I say with some experience) but it sure beats working for an advisor who smiles to your face and tellls you you’re wonderful and then privately either dismisses you or worse when it comes time for recommendations. Jack’s honest, true blue honest, and that means a lot to those of us who know him.
    And as for the term liberal. I suppose you are right, Jack is a kind of liberal, but as Wilson pointed out and as I know Clayton has suggested in his work and stuff he has edited, the term liberal can hold a tremendously diverse cast of characters. I recall how vociforously Reinhold Niebuhr ‘attacked’ liberal protestantism in his day for not being radical enough, and many thought his Moral Man and Immoral Society was a vicious and overdone broadside against the liberal protestant tradition from which he came. Reinie didn’t do much to counter that reading of his book as it was meant to be a deeply radical, Marxist influenced piece of work and its influence on Martin Luther King points to how much it could do for genuine politically engaged theological thought. (I wonder if Hauerwas, in his critique of Niebuhr’s liberalism, and privileging of Barth, might admit that MMIS is more than just liberal–the problem there seems to be that its not pacifist but even tries to launch a theological justification for Christian violent resistance to power!)

    But at the end of his life, when pressed on it, Niebuhr admitted that at the end of the day, he was committed to many aspects of the classic liberal project, and that the marxist tinged rhetoric was often the passion of a young man seeking some way to break through the complacenty of the liberal Christian world of which he was so much a part, yet so frustrated by. Is that what we are trying to do now? Or are you genuinely anti-liberal? Is Milbank, in spite of his rhetoric, not largely a liberal minded man? I know he has written fiercely and brilliantly about the ways in which the American empire masks its rapaciousness by means of liberal political rhetoric–but that does not mean that another kind of liberalism can’t launch a sustained critique of just this means of deception. That’s what both Niebuhrs did, what MLK did, what even Hauerwas seems to be up to–even Altizer, Taylor and the death of God crowd were not anti-liberal in toto.

    And if you go back and look at the classic american representatives of liberal protestantism, Rauschenbush, Gladden, etc., man, these guys stood up to Rockefeller, Standard Oil, etc. as fiercely as any postmodern Marxist launching rhetorical grenades from the safety of a tenured faculty position. They were in the trenches, as Reinhold was when he took on Ford in Detroit. I’d want them in a street fight anyday with the principalities and powers, and I’d take Caputo too! Even Barth, for all his attacks on Schleiermacher, would admit that he was writing from within that tradition, albeit with a twist and I just don’t see how we can pretend that we are outside liberalism’s parameters–actually not sure, other than to claim a position of ethical purity, we’d want to. The point is to get into the positions to change the world, not stand along the side and take potshots.
    Well, I apologize for being a bit too long winded. This will be my last comment on this thread (“mercifully,” they shout sotto voce) and I hope you will accept these words as a sign of my deep appreciation for your work and sympathy with your sense of a world gone terribly wrong and an impatience to have religious/theological voices, even of a secular sort begin to step up to the plate. You have stepped up many, many times, Anthony, and I for one am deeply grateful.

    Yours in a hope for justice,

  35. “I just think the issue and the frustration occurs at the level of style and rhetoric.”

    I’ve accepted that flighty prose is the standard for contemporary continental thought. I get it.

    Rather, I think it occurs at the level of scholarship. It really is as simple as saying that stock quotes and fantastical “what-if’s” do not make good works of theological scholarship. Caputo has constructed the book in such a way that even criticizing it is little more than having a difference of opinion. Historical scholarship and good biblical exegesis are, for example, simply lacking in Caputo’s work. (The exceptions have been noted, though also has their theft.)

    Honestly, I just hoped that Caputo’s theological coming-out party would have been more substantial. The desire to understand the power of God (especially in weakness) has produced, to my mind, some of the most interesting and rigorous theological documents– period. It is a shame that Caputo’s work is so vastly disconnected from much of the work that has been done, and doesn’t really push the work into new areas.

    On the other hand, if this is merely, as Caputo seems to wish, a ‘confessions’ or prayer, I commend his honesty. Still, I hardly see the necessity for publishing it through a reputable academic press.

  36. Clark promised no more for today, but thankfully, I am not bound by his imperial sounding ‘last word’ of the day! I want to respond to Nathan’s last comment about the lack of biblical scholarship in Caputo’s Weakness of God. I would say first of all that here in this book, Caputo is wearing his scholarship lightly—not a bad thing when writing in a more homiletical mode (Augustine never had footnotes in his sermons I think—and Altizer studiously avoided showing his considerable erudition in a number of his middle works). Secondly, as any historical theologian knows, the gap between biblical studies and theology has been problematic for some time, and to that extent, Caputo has inherited that gap. Much of biblical scholarship is not readily translated into theological terms or concerns.

    It calls to mind for me the classic second and third prefaces to Barth’s theological bombshell, the Epistle to the Romans, where he responds to the criticism that his book is thinly disguised eisegesis by acknowledging that much that passes for biblical criticism barely even begins to read the text so consumed is it with historical concerns. Without dismissing the historians task, (and Barth had read all the standard Romans commentaries with care), Barth insisted that if we are to read the scriptural text as addressed to us, (and this of course is the big theological “if” which some historians will dismiss as methodologically improper but which any theologian of whatever stripe will insist is the sine qua non for a truly theological reading of scripture) we must be willing to be addressed by the word directly, rather than giving ourselves the safety of historical mediation. It’s a risky gesture, and Barth clearly had his detractors (Bultmann, of course the most significant) yet even his most sensitive critics recognized the theological power of the Romans commentary for breaking open the text of Romans in such a way as to change the landscape for the German Church and beyond during that most trying of times in European history. Barth’s Romans, a strange, new world for 20th century theology, was almost, thankfully only almost, universally misunderstood by those who were not sensitive to the religious existentialism of Kierkegaard and some others, which was the context in which Barth was writing.

    Now I am not saying that Weakness of God is wholly analogous to Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, but I am suggesting that its failure to adhere to biblical scholarship or to read as standard ‘academic fare’ should not in itself count against it as a marvelous work of groundbreaking theology. It is meant to be a tract for the times, not iron-clad, fortress building theological edifice (which is what many of Barth’s critics lamented that the Dogmatics turned into. I for one think it can be given a more kierkegaardian, even derridian reading, as early Graham Ward did, and now others, like Eugene Rogers have done—a left wing reading of the church dogmatics, that is, as opposed to a neo-orthodox reading. Again Rowan Williams would be a good example, as Clark has suggested). Time will tell, I suppose, how significant Jack’s Weakness will be. I think it will require sustained, critical, and even loving readings of it to see what riches as well as missteps it has in store. Perfect? As Paul might say, and I am sure Jack would agree, Me Genoito (God forbid!). Impish, devilish even? He would have it no other way! Full of space for others who do not share his particular concerns over the imperialism of the Roman Catholic church to find a home in which to work? I can attest that for one Anglican I know, at least, it has been that and more. It was written out of passionate love for and deep anger at a heel dragging church and world, and if this little thread at And und fur sich advances the forces forward against the evil empire, I am quite sure Jack will be well pleased. No skin off his nose if a few well placed swipes land on his not so glass jaw! He’s taken a few in his day, and man oh man, can he ever take it–and not even hold a grudge (at least not for too long!)

    Well, its off to feed the cat!

    Yours in peace,

  37. It would be nice to see the argument “you’re just reacting to his style” laid to rest here on AUFS. I mean, c’mon, you’re talking about a forum where one of the founders is a scholar of Jean-Luc Marion, Derrida, and Zizek (and Lacan?). Another who is a scholar of Deleuze and Bergson, who also has strong admiration for various phenomenologists. Contemporary continental philosophy has drawn attention to itself stylistically ever since Hegel (hell, perhaps even Kant). It’s par for the course and a part of the argument in many instances. Part of what allows us to recognize that Duchamp’s Fountain is a work of art is that it appears in a museum, and it should be understood or granted “a priori” that on a blog like that, there’s going to be an understanding that continental thought is deeply bound up with questions of style.

    I do not know Caputo’s work very well– I’ve only read a couple of his earlier book and seen him speak a few times– so it’s difficult for me to comment on these things. However, it seems to me that there are real, productive, and interesting questions as to how we distinguish between productions that are style without content and style with content. Certainly there are times when it is legitimate to claim that something is “just style” or that it is posturing. In many instances, however, the style is a part of the argument. Derrida both has very serious and sustained arguments and uses style to drive his points home. Lacan’s style is a part of his argument and a pedagogical tool. I would argue that Zizek’s style and his perpetual sliding from one example to another is also making an argument rather than simply deferring getting to the point. Deleuze’s style is, I think, a part of his argument: He says that we only learn when the teacher says “do with me” not “do as I do”. Deleuze’s style forces the reader to both make a selection (illustrating his claims about immanence and individuation) and to do with him. It is a modernist text in Deleuze’s sense of the term, involving, like Brecht, the audience in the production of the philosophical work. How do we distinguish between style this is just, as it were, style and style that is a substantial part of the argument? It seems to me that the random theory generators are drawing attention to precisely this question.

  38. Anthony,
    I think a sustained reading would be not unlike what Derrida has done with Kierkegaard and Hegel, among others; what Caputo has done with Heidegger and Derrida; Kotsko and Jodi Dean with Zizek, etc. And who will be your beloved nemesis? That is what I mean. Not adoring, uncritical adulation, but deeply sustained readings of a thinker’s steps, as Derrida has taught us so well.

    Rowan Williams’ critique of Milbank is, accurately in my view, that Milbank is tempted to read entire traditions far too quickly (thus Williams’ title of his review, “Saving Time”), and not keep his nose to the ground long enough to appreciate some of the historical and substantive subtleties. He is tempted to create straw men to then knock down in favor of his own project. This makes him a difficult dialogue partner, if not imperialistic, as he is sometimes accused of being. I am sympathetic to his critique of unrepentant American politico-theological liberalism, and he is clearly brilliant and thought provoking. I loved his injection of Hamann into theological discourse after being neglected for so long (of course, Kierkegaard LOVED Hamann and thought he was the funniest socratic thinker he knew, so I KNOW Hamann must be great!) So I am not entirely without appreciation for Milbank, though I reject the sustained christocentrism of his project (not to say christomonism, as Barth was also wrongly accused of in my view) Do Christians always need to say, as he and some of his fellow travelers seem so inclined to, ‘only in Christ, only in Christianity, only, only, only?) The connection with Talal Asad and Rad Orth is intriguing, as is that with Zizek, and I confess I have not followed the nature of those connections. Do you have some insight on what these attractions are about?

    By the way, I really liked your review of Theology and the Political in JCRT–I think you nailed it.

  39. Demetrius, I think you deserve a response greater than the one I am going to give here. However, if I may provide some throw-away remarks…

    You wrote, “Now I am not saying that Weakness of God is wholly analogous to Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, but I am suggesting that its failure to adhere to biblical scholarship or to read as standard ‘academic fare’ should not in itself count against it as a marvelous work of groundbreaking theology.”

    If I may state something of a purely factual nature: Caputo’s work is not groundbreaking. It is following in a tradition that either began with the witness of Jesus or the christology of Paul, and traveled through the earliest debates between Arius and Athanasius, the work of Luther, Hegel, the 19th century Anglicans, and, more recently, in Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, Jungel, Fiddes, Jenson, and so on. Caputo’s theology of the cross is comparatively weak, given the truly groundbreaking projects of each of these thinkers. I think Caputo’s contribution, which is fairly unique in a primarily Greek & German debate, is the introduction of contemporary French thought into thinking through these problems today. But that does not solidify Caputo as an interesting theologian, much less a groundbreaking one.

  40. Dear Nathan,
    I think to call your reading of Caputo’s work as not groundbreaking “purely factual” is simply false prima facie. It is your read, you are entitled to it, but it is a conversation stopper, and not a serious argument to call it purely factual. Perhaps that is as you intended, fair enough. But throwing around names as if that settles it seems to me intellectually unsustainable. I would argue that Caputo’s theology of the cross is quite weak in the strong sense, in fact, and I would agree with your earlier comment that the power of this weakness does need to be brought out more explicitly than it appears in Weakness of God. But its only a first book of theology for Caputo, and I trust it is not his last word. Thank you for pointing to this need for a discussion of liberative power in a deconstructive theology. It is sorely needed, you are right.

    Adam, yes, you are right about Mark’s role. It is interesting to note that he and Jack, though friends, have not always seen eye to eye on how to read Derrida, as Jack’s Prayers and Tears makes evident. However, I am fairly confident that they consider their work to be broadly in the same stream of radical theology, which by now is a recognizable tradition. I would say that the best way to historically contextualize what they both have in common is to read George Pattison’s marvelous book, Anxious Angels, which gives a history of religious existentialism. Pattison, the current Lady Margaret chair in anglican theology at Oxford (where Rowan Williams once sat before becoming a monkey, I mean Primate) is, I think, a neglected theologian in these discussions. His work on technology, Heidegger and Dostoevsky is first rate, and his work on Kierkegaard is without parallel for many of us who work within Kierkegaard studies. Anxious Angels has taught me how to read the work Taylor, Caputo, Ed Mooney and others with a less jaundiced eye than I otherwise might. I think it’s crucial to see that it is religious existentialism, broadly defined as Pattison does in that book, and not the tradition Nathan outlines above, which is far too broad and vague, that best fits what Caputo is doing. That tradition is combined with the catholic mystical one and the thomistic tradition of his earliest philosophical work to create what is uniquely Caputo. Mark Taylor didn’t have the training in Thomas, nor in the medieval mystics, and so at many points their projects are very different, though not, I trust, incompatible.


  41. Allow me to be frank, if also immodest: It seems to me that any comment thread that can go on as long as this one has, as a debate about a given thinker’s own theological “importance” or “style” or “influence” (or whatever other general category of placement one might want to introduce), without ever once becoming a hashing out of a single point of his own theological “thought,” is point enough of the fact that either 1.) his work isn’t finally in the end all that theologically important, or 2.) his work doesn’t display nor evoke very much theological thinking.

    I might also add that if at any point in the future the question of my “importance” as a thinker of “status” or “influence” as a theologian should ever come up as a point of discussion between Adam and Anthony of anyone else, please make the same statement about me. And if at any point something I have written or said comes up that should provoke a discussion that actually moves minds, that actually evokes and calls forth a mode of thought and attention to something other that requires the discourse to move beyond that of mere “gossip,” I should be very happy if my name did not come up at all, or better, if noone could quite recall who it was that wrote it or said it.

  42. Dear Nate,
    Of course I don’t agree with you that Caputo’s book is not doing much theological thinking. But that begs the question of what you mean by theological. Clayton has given us a quote from the book which I will repeat, from pages 285-86.
    “If all theology means is to treat God as the subject matter of an objectifying discourse, then theology is not possible….But now I think that this impossibility should be counted in among the conditions of possibility, a delimiting condition, so that any possible logos of this name, any possible theology, must be a logos of prayer, the logos of a passion or a desire, where theology is, like a prayer, a wounded word.”

    Do you object to this definition of theology as essentially prayer? It strikes me as quite orthodox, close to what I see in a card carrying orthodox theologian like Archbishop Rowan Williams advocating (at least in one of the modes of theology that Williams describes in his book On Christian Theology) and quite committed, by its very mode as prayer, to ‘actually move minds” as you say, and I would add, more importantly, to move hearts. It follows, with its phrase ‘wounded word” the thought of Jean-Louis Chretien, whose Catholic theologically imbued phenomenology is quite important to Caputo.
    I guess I am still puzzled by why you dismiss it as not being theological, unless you mean to say it is not your brand of theology. That’s fair enough, but I don’t think to dismiss it out of hand is quite fair. Why the dismissal?


  43. But it is true that Captuo’s work is not breaking new ground–that is, in understanding God’s power in God’s weakness. My name-dropping was only to suggest that several ‘big names’ have come before him, questioning in many respects the same notions of power and weakness that Caputo later does in The Weakness of God. These are the among same people Caputo borrows from, often only in stock phrases and uncritically.

    And if I may couple two quotes–yours and Adam’s, respectively.

    “It is your read, you are entitled to it, but it is a conversation stopper, and not a serious argument to call it purely factual. Perhaps that is as you intended, fair enough. But throwing around names as if that settles it seems to me intellectually unsustainable.”

    “(”What if we thought of God as being weak rather than strong? What if we thought of creation as a risk rather than a sovereign act?” Yes, truly — what then?!)”

    My perceived tone is precisely the unsustainable foundation upon which Caputo’s work stands. And while my criticisms of Caputo may, themselves, lack a particular rigor, I can only do as much with the text as the text allows–given that Caputo’s text is a polemical one, albeit a fairly soft one, I can only respond in kind.

    Caputo questions, but not out of a recognizable theological tradition–thereby silencing his theological critics, and thereby crashing his own theological coming-out party. As I wrote above, his theological foundations are vague at best, and, has already been noted, his political sympathies are confused. (In a footnote, he even likens The Weakness of God to a work of liberation theology.) And you see, I would love to rigorously challenge Caputo, but the limits he has set for the analysis of his own text–himself more or less plagiarizing Keller in the only mildly interesting chapter in the book, himself aimlessly wandering through unanswerable questions without reference to the manifold ways they have already been asked in the history of theology and philosophy, himself pointlessly name-dropping–have limited, severely, my ability to say anything remotely interesting about the text itself. At best, I can disagree with Caputo. Perhaps I could challenge his readings of Derrida or Levinas, but then I almost certainly leave theology behind. But, as far as I can tell, Caputo’s work advances less an understanding of God in light of a tradition that has sought to understand God, than an understanding of Caputo–especially with regard to how he questions God in light of the little he knows about philosophy and theology. The latter must be true with all theology, but when it lacks the former, it is, let’s be honest, little more than naval gazing. In the end, it reads more like a spiritual autobiography for “post-modern” Christians than a serious work of theology, if only, as Nate wrote above, his work simply doesn’t display theological thinking, at least not the kind that should be published.

  44. I’m not a fan of Caputo’s book. But, if it gets more people reading Keller’s Face of the Deep, then so much the better. After all, it only took the JAAR, what, five years to get around to reviewing it?

  45. what’s with the whole “Dear John” bullshit – drop it, gentlemen, it ceased to be funny/ironic (if it ever was) like 20 comments ago…

    Adam, maybe you should start a new thread so that these comments continue in a new posting – scrolling down the screen hurts my finger.

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