About once per month, I’m going to post an interview with one of the authors from Theology for the People, the line of books that I’ve launched at Fortress Press. The first is with long-time friend and eminent philosopher-cum-theologian, John D. Caputo.
Tony Jones: Jack, you have been more committed to writing books “for the people” than most philosophers, but this book takes an even more personal, confessional turn. What provoked you to write this?
John Caputo: It’s an extension of my life as a teacher. Teachers are not just specialists training apprentice specialists in their specialty. They’re supposed to touch lives. I think all these ideas are precious, and they need to be communicated in American English and made available “for the people,” just as it is put in the title of your book series.
Which people? Intelligent, literate people who cannot spend a lifetime trying to read the professional philosophers and theologians. So I try to build a bridge between the academy and the wider community.
But doing books like this also has has a lot to do with with being retired, which means I’m no longer bound to the protocols of the university. The personal testimonial quality does not play well in the university, which looks askance at texts written in this register. I like to say, my university press books are the books of my right hand, but these are the books of my left hand, when I am no longer building my c.v. and I feel completely free to write from my heart. These are matters of the utmost importance and they should not confined to academics reading almost unreadable papers at one another at the AAR. And it doesn’t hurt philosophy or theology to have a sense of humor.
TJ: Tell us a bit about these characters in the book — different iterations of you: the altar boy, the young novice and scholastic, the striving professor — and how they culminate in who you are now.
JC: When you wax autobiographical you must try to cut a clean cross-section in which a whole group, a generation, can see itself. So “Jackie” is me, even now, a little boy who is always smiling at me. But he also stands in for a generation of pre-Vatican II Catholics, the grandchildren of immigrants, raised in closely knit blue collar Catholic neighborhoods, growing up in the shadow of a towering and intimidating figure, “Holy Mother Church.” But he also does wider service for the ardent piety and unquestioned faith of childhood.
“Brother Paul,” that too is still me—monkish, meditative, scholarly, theological. But he is also the figure of the transition from piety to theology, no longer the simple piety of Jackie but someone who is digging deeply into the theology behind Church doctrine, learning to think it through, to ask questions.
The Professor, that really is still me, but he is also a figure of theology meeting philosophy, and of someone from a religious tradition daring to think, just as the Enlightenment urged us.
So three figures: piety, theology and philosophy. But this philosopher does not undertake a pure off-with-its-head Enlightenment Critique of religion. Why not? Because this is still Jackie, this is still Brother Paul, and he has a feel for religion and theology from the inside, and he remembers, he understands what it is like to live inside religion. So instead of an Enlightenment Critique, the Professor undertakes a rereading, a reinventing of religion, repeating its tropes, its mood, its heart, its confessions, its inner life, but in another way. So he is a figure of postmodern thought and of what is sometimes called radical theology, and the book reflects a life spent in the distance between philosophy and theology.
TJ: Two phrases that frequently occur in the book are “the nihilism of grace” and “religion without why.” Can you give us a hint about what you’re getting at?
JC: I am trying to cut through to what the name of God really means, in practice, in life, what it is doing, what is getting done in speaking and thinking of God—and to do so without illusion. I am saying, look, what I think it really comes down to, this the bottom line, is a form of life, a way of living in the world. The kingdom of God means what the world would look like if the name of God held sway, and to be what it is integrally, this must be extricated from the system of rewards and punishments, which is religion in a puerile state.
If we ask someone whose life is dedicated to the feeding the hungry, why they do that, they would be dumbfounded. Because the hungry are hungry—why would you even ask? Medieval mystics like Marguerite Porete and Meister Eckhart built a theology around this insight by saying that love is “without why,” we love because we love, not because we will be rewarded if we do and punished if we don’t. Life is a pure gift and it is not given to us for something else, it does not have a trade-in value.
The “nihilism of grace” means we live because we live, for nothing else that comes in exchange for life. Life is a pure gratuity to be celebrated for itself. The kingdom takes the form of lives lived with uncompromised mercy and compassion and forgiveness. But why be merciful and compassionate? Why would you even ask? Why this why? Are we to understand that you want nothing to do with mercy and compassion unless you are to be rewarded for it and those others who prefer instead to party are to be punished? Is that what God means to you?
JC: Pete and I are making the same point, and we have the same bottom line—the “without illusion” thing I mentioned above, the “how not to speak of God” motif we both borrow from Derrida. For us, the name of God is not the name of a Big Being in the Sky who is coming to save us, to make straight the crooked, and see to it that all turns out well, which means that the economy of rewards and punishments is going to be strictly enforced. We are both trying to save religion from itself, both drawing on postmodern thinking, both doing a theology from below, not one that has dropped from the sky and fallen into our laps, without the mythology and the semi-blasphemy of this Big Being.
The difference? For Pete, this whole thing has been taking on more and more a psychoanalytic form, dealing with the pathology of what a French psychoanalyst calls the “big Other,” some illusory saving power that has an answer for everything. I agree with the bottom line in psychoanalysis, about the illusion of the big Other, and about the tricks of the unconscious, and I agree with Pete that the advantage of psychoanalysis is that is a therapy and so aimed at changing lives. But I retain a kind of postmodern “incredulity” about its underlying philosophical assumptions. I worry that it is a kind of crypto-Calvinism, which says all our faculties are depraved not because we are born in sin but because we are born sick. I prefer to think that birth is a new beginning, a chance for life, and that the main problem is that too often that chance is closed off from the start, by being born into desperate, crushing poverty, so the children of the poor have almost no chance at all.
JC: The one thing I most miss about being retired is teaching, and going on the road to lecture is the closest thing to teaching for me now. So I do as much of this sort of thing as my life permits. I meet great people on the road, people who are making the kingdom of God come true in the concrete, community organizers and peace and justice activists, pastors, people who are looking for a bridge between the academy and the working church.
Subverting the Norm is fast becoming one of the main forums for making this kind of contact, so I am greatly looking forward to that. I do podcasts with Tripp Fuller’s Homebrewed Christianity and with Creston Davis’ GCAS (the Global Center for Advanced Studies). I will also be speaking to a School of Theology for the Laity in Fort Worth, Texas, just the kind of forum I most enjoy.