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notes on “On Religion”

Here are my “lecture” notes from Thursday’s class. Thank you to everyone for the lively and engaging discussion, it is a real privilege to struggle alongside you.

In this text by Caputo we find him using the tools of deconstruction, as made popular by Jacques Derrida, to work on the question of what religion “is” or could be in our contemporary world. Caputo argues for “weak thought”, for humble statements about how we each attempt to love, in general or love God in particular. He shows the misplaced concreteness of the modern notion that we could or should have an absolute, scientific-like understanding of God or religion.

some definitions/key words: “the other”, deconstruction

As is typical of the deconstructive methodology, Caputo begins with a classic, traditional text from which he can then tease new meaning for this time and place. The text he chooses, the text he mimes, the text he has a love-affair with, is Augustine’s Confessions, particularly book 10.

(read excerpts from Confessions 211, 215)

Deconstruction gives us permission to keep reading texts like these anew for our time. “I want to keep the right to read these texts in a way which has to be constantly reinvented. It is something which can be totally new at every moment.” says Derrida in Deconstruction in a Nutshell (21-22).

Deconstruction should never be mistaken as that which takes apart and destroys leaving nothing. It does the exact opposite in fact, it instead opens up new possibilities. “Deconstruction” says Caputo in in a nutshell “is turned toward opening, exposure, expansion, and complexification, toward releasing unheard-of, undreamt-of possibilities to come, toward cracking nutshells wherever they appear.” (This is why we ought to be suspicious of Caputo when he tells us what something is “really” about.)

Derrida speaks of faith as something that is integral to our everyday life – “You cannot address the other, speak to the other, without an act of faith, without testimony. What are you doing when you attest to something? You address the other and ask, “believe me.”… “Trust me, I am speaking to you” is of the order of faith.” Faith is not just religious then, but is implicit in what it means to be human. And faithfulness is not a one-time decision, is not a singular act, but an ongoing process of saying Yes over and over again. “If tomorrow you do not reinvent today’s inauguration, you will be dead. SO the inauguration has to be reinvented everyday.”

Every tradition, every institution, is inaugurated anew every day (sound like process? hm? things constantly in flux?) which means that new meaning is always being revealed and opened-up, new possibilities always possible, new futures always not yet to come. The exciting thing is that this possibility allows those seemingly immovable structures to become vulnerable to new meaning-making, yes, even that monolithic structure to beat all structures, religion.

And perhaps it is that monolithic, immovable structure of “religion” that Caputo’s religion is without (religion without religion, he calls it, quoting Derrida). That too is open to re-imagining.

This very notion of possibility, of vulnerability, of daily reinvention, is what religion is all about for Caputo. The entrustment of ourselves into this uncertain future is an act of faith, and whether we name it as such or not does not seem to matter so much to Caputo. “The meaning of God is enacted in an openness to a future that I can neither master nor see coming, in an exposure to possibilities that are impossible for me, which surpass my powers, which overpower me, which drive me to the limits of the possible, which draw me out to God, a Dieu. With whom nothing is impossible.” (139) “The meaning of God is enacted in… multiple movements of love, but these movements are simply too multiple, too polyvalent, too irreducible, too uncontainable to identify, define or determine…. It is not a matter of finding a dictionary equivalent for the love of God but of  doing it, of giving testimony to it, of seeing that its effect is to translate us into action, to move and bestir us. Love is not a meaning to define but something to do, something to  make.” God, for Caputo is not what is to be translated, we are, our lives, our actions. “The love of God is something to do. The love of God is not explained or explicated in a proposition but testified to, enacted performed.” “”God” – is not only a name but an injunction, an invitation, a solicitation, to commend, to let all things be commended, to God.”

How then can we love our God? Neighbour? World?

In the radical Yes to possibility is the implicit sacrifice of status quo, of normal, predictable existence. When we open ourselves to the possibility of love, when we make ourselves culnerable so as to live the Yes, we are taking a risk, making ourselves uncomfortable, binding ourselves to the passion of God – a passion which, at least in the Christian tradition, leads to The Passion, namely a hill, a cross, a conviction, a crucifixion. The Yes is a path so uncertain that we risk nothing less than everything. Any “religion” that demands anything less than everything ought to arouse suspicion. “We are supposed to be crucified to the world” says John Caputo in On Religion (54). This is a path where victory is always ironic, triumph always suspect.
Here, at the end of Christendom, we who find ourselves in the so-called “mainline” churches are discovering anew what the cruciform path looks like. Could it be that from the belief of victory through death, we too, in our triumphant religion, have inevitably reached the point where we must allow Christianity itself to be crucified as/with Christ? Ought the task of churches really be “survival” or “growth”? I would argue that a posture of openness to possibility, embodied in and through radical hospitality, is our proper work in the world – not survival or growth. We must allow ourselves to be humbled, levelled, bound by the love of God.
The city is perhaps one of the best examples of where radical hospitality is most needed and where it is put to the greatest test. There is no more important place for “religion without religion” (Derrida), for religion without the dogmatics, victory cries and dominations. Today we are called to do theology – and likely implicit, not explicit theology – in all of the places where justice must be enacted in the city, where devoted service is needed.

John Caputo. On Religion. New York: Routledge, 2001.
John Caputo, Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction in a Nutshell. New York: Fordham, 1997.
Saint Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Garry Wills. New York: Penguin, 2006.


November meeting

Our next meeting will be on November 29th in the salons at St. Andrews-Wesley and we will be discussing the book On Religion by John D. Caputo.