Does the Kingdom of God Need God?

By John D. Caputo

From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 5
September – October 2017

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The “kingdom” of God means God’s “rule” (basileia, regnum, imperium). It refers to what the world would look like when God is our pilot, when God is at the wheel, when the world is subject to the rule of God, and God makes our enemies our footstools. The problem my hypothesis encounters is that there is no mistaking that kingdom talk is high and mighty talk. The kingdom means that, at the opportune time (kairos), God steps in and takes over the controls, and the powers and principalities are scattered, brought to their knees, made to rue the day they were ever so foolish as to take on the Almighty. The coming of the kingdom of God means that the tables are turned, and it is the world that is made up of fools and God who is holding all the cards.

Unless it does not.

Unless the “rule” of God is a kind of divine irony, a holding sway that does not hold with violence and power.

Unless the business of the kingdom is conducted according to the logic of the cross.

Unless the kingdom is folly from the point of view of the powers that be in the world, just as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18–25.

Unless the kingdom is foolishness in terms of what counts as a kingdom in the world, like a tiny mustard seed growing into a massive tree.

Period, with nothing up our sleeve, a weak force all the way down, with no follow-up chapter in which we take it all back and say that eventually, probably very soon, the enemies of God will be laid low. If not here, then in the hereafter, but eventually we win. The world is all about winning, even and especially under the name of religion, in which the folly of God is a move made in a divine chess game in which the world is completely outsmarted.

My claim is that in speaking of the folly of God, of the name (of) “God,” in terms of something unconditional without sovereignty, of a weak force without an army to back it up, of the powerless power of the kiss not of the power of the sword, we are speaking of the kingdom and of God differently. We are speaking of another kind of kingdom, a kingdom without a king in the world’s sense, in which the world is subject not to the mighty arm of the Almighty King who has come to settle the accounts of the world, but a kingdom subject to the soft sway of something unconditional without power as the world knows power. We are not talking about winning, and we do not use weakness as a strategy in a game in which God finally makes the winning move.

That means—to come back to our guiding question and frankly to bite the bullet—the folly of God, the folly of the kingdom of God does not need God. In fact, the Supreme Being would ruin everything. But—and everything depends upon what we say next—that is not the end of the kingdom of God. It is the beginning; it does not mean there is nothing to the name (of) “God.” This salutary, theological atheism about the Supreme Being does not spell the end of God’s kingdom; it dispels the misunderstanding. It does not dispel the gospel’s news; it dispels the misunderstanding of the gospel and preserves what is good about the good news. It opens the door to understanding the coming of the kingdom otherwise than in terms of power, and to understanding power otherwise, God’s power or anyone else’s, to understanding the powerless power of something unconditional but without power as the world knows power.

Let Your Kingdom Come

To approach this issue, when we pray, “let your kingdom come,” let us ask whether we are asking the Supreme Being to intervene in history, to come to our aid and do something down here below in space and time, to make something happen? Are we all then left in suspense waiting for a response, especially as centuries of delay tick away? Does the mystery lie in this, that the kingdom is coming at some future date that remains unknown to all but the Supreme Being? That is the mythological view for which I have tried to make as much trouble as possible. Far from needing the ology’s Supreme Being to come to our rescue, the coming of the kingdom would actually be impeded by it. Were the Supreme Being to show up, in all his glory, surrounded by all his angels, seated on his throne of glory, with the nations arrayed before him (Matt 25:31–32), that would be bad news, the worst. It would prevent the event harbored in the name (of) “God.” The rule of God must be otherwise, must be something else.

The folly of the kingdom is that the kingdom calls, unconditionally but without power, without the power to enforce its call or to reward or threaten its responders. The kingdom is what is called for. Both caller and what is called for, the kingdom is what is getting itself called, in the middle voice, in and under the name of the kingdom. The coming of the kingdom is the call, the promise, of something to-come, while our “come” is the response, the hope, the prayer, the dream of a form of life that lures us on its own and is not enforced from above. The rule of God rises from within the world; it does not descend upon us from on high. The kingdom of God is within us; it is not a powerful force intervening from without. The kingdom runs under the impulse of the events that already pulse through it, rather than being ruled from above by a strong if invisible hand. The kingdom is always to come but it is not a future state of affairs. It is the solicitation here and now of a form of life, one that has already begun and is already here, already solicits us.

The kingdom is found every time the displaced are given shelter and the hungry are fed, every time the poor are comforted, every time the imprisoned are visited. The kingdom comes here and now, insofar as we live here and now under the weak force of its lure, even as it is always still to-come. The “to-come” does not signify a future present but the weak force of a call for something coming. The to-come does not belong to calendar time, but to the crazy clockwork of messianic time. The kingdom is not governed from on high but organized from within by the unconditional call to which it is the response, which constitutes its own integral mode of being-in-the-world, its own particular experience of the unconditional. The rule of God takes place by way of the gentle provocation of a poetics—without a powerful metaphysical theology to back it up; without a Supreme Ruler who dispatches a heavenly host of warrior angels to come to our aid; without an apologetic theology to defend God’s rule against its detractors; and without a world-wide system of divinity schools and seminaries to work out its logic and train and commission its emissaries. The rule of God is more unruly, more disarmed, more like outright folly.

The kingdom does not require a royal agent; it does not require, indeed it does not tolerate, a backup, a foundation, a ground, a cause, a telos, an economic system, all of which would undermine it. The kingdom is the folly of the unconditional, the folly of call that emanates from the face of the stranger, from the bodies of the leper and the needs of the poor and imprisoned. The folly is that it is sustained by that and nothing more, because anything more would be too much, a power play that would overwhelm its delicate networks, a way to win, which shrinks the kingdom down to a reward for good behavior. The “rule of God” cannot mean the rule of an omnipotent and sovereign power but rather an unruly and unroyal rule of a weak force, of a certain sacred impotence and divine folly. The rule of the kingdom does not constitute a hierarchy but a sacred anarchy. After all, the ikon of the God in the kingdom of God is an unjustly crucified man who forgave his executioners and whose disciples scattered in the moment of maximum peril. There is no greater folly than that. The kingdom whose coming he announces is not sustained by a show of might but by a certain invisible and weak force.

The ikon of the God in the kingdom of God is an unjustly crucified man who forgave his executioners and whose disciples scattered in the moment of maximum peril. There is no greater folly than that.

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The Insistence of the Kingdom

To identify the kingdom with an existent state of affairs, with a future-present existence that will arrive in some future time and place, when God will set up his rule and the powers of the world will scatter, is at least as destructive of it as any attack by cold-hearted atheists. The mythologists of the kingdom erode it from within even as the atheists would attack it from without. It would be the worst mythologization of the kingdom to treat it as a real imperium governed by the powers and principalities of a High and Mighty Being, a Supreme Being, asserting supremacy over the powers of the world. That would be to play the game of the powers and principalities. To that the right religious and theological response is a salutary atheism, one with the best interests of the kingdom in mind.

The kingdom is sustained not by an army but by an event, and the event does not exist but insists, while the response to the event is the only thing that really does exist. That is what I mean when I say that the existence of God is up to us and that is why God needs the kingdom of God. We are the ones whom God is waiting for, the ones who have been expected to fill up what is lacking in the body of God, to pick up where God leaves off. We are the ones God needs to supply the insistence of God with existence, to make what is being called for in the kingdom of God come true. My claim is that our response, our existence, is the truth of the kingdom of God; it is the way the kingdom comes true, which is the way the kingdom comes, if it comes. The coming of the kingdom is its coming true in us, in our response. The truth of the kingdom of God is such existence as God enjoys, such existence as the event that insists in the name of God enjoys.

That means that the weakness of God requires our strength to make God whole, and the folly of God is to let so much depend upon us. The folly of God requires our courage to take a risk on God. The unconditional demands our strength to respond to what calls upon us under the particular conditions in which we find ourselves. The kingdom calls, the kingdom is what is called for, the kingdom is always already being recalled—the rest is up to us. Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing says that the worst will not happen. No invisible hand ensures a good outcome. No Providence guides it like a ship to a safe harbor. Nothing says that the good will triumph and the evil will repent their ways or be punished. The event means the coming of what we cannot see coming and nothing says that it will all end well. To pray for the coming of the kingdom is an exercise of hope.

Matthew 25:31–46

31When the Human One comes in his glory, accompanied by all his messengers, he’ll be seated on his glorious throne. 32Then all peoples will be assembled before him, and he will separate them into groups, much as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. 33He’ll place the sheep to his right and the goats to his left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right, “Come, you who have the blessing of my Father, inherit the empire prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a foreigner and you offered me hospitality; 36I was naked and you clothed me; I was ill and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to see me.”

37Then the righteous will say to him, “Master, when did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you a drink? 38When did we notice that you were a foreigner and offer you hospitality? Or naked and clothe you? 39When did we find you ill or in prison and come to visit you?”

40And the king will respond to them, “Let me tell you: whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”

41Next, he will say to those at his left, “You, condemned to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his messengers, get away from me! 42For I was hungry and you didn’t give me anything to eat; I was thirsty and you refused me a drink; 43I was a foreigner and you failed to offer me hospitality; naked and you didn’t clothe me; ill and in prison and you didn’t visit me.”

44Then they will give him a similar reply: “Master, when did we notice that you were hungry or thirsty or a foreigner or naked or ill or in prison and not take care of you?”

45He will then respond, “Let me tell you: whatever you didn’t do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you didn’t do for me.”

46The second group will then head for everlasting punishment, but the righteous for everlasting life.

Precious, Perfect Folly

The kingdom is sustained best, indeed it can only be sustained at all, when it abides by the searing, searching, and simple account of the unconditional in Matthew:

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
Matt 25:37–39

The text describes the works of mercy with merciless simplicity—when we feed the hungry and quench their thirst, when we clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned, and care for the sick. What interests me about this text is that all these works are carried out in the weak mode, or in the mode of folly—by which I mean in the absence of any deeper cause or purpose to be attained, of any Categorical Imperative or Divine Command, of any promises or threats. If there are rewards at stake here, they are an absolute secret. These works are undertaken unconditionally. Love does not exist; love calls. Love is a weak force, not one of the powers and principalities that threaten reprisal if it is not heeded and promises a reward if it is. The works of love are performed “without why,” as the mystics say, on the grounds that love is always “without why.” If love is love it does not have anything up its sleeve. If you ask two people why they love, what they hope to get out of this love affair, they would be nonplussed. Any answer as they might muster would be circular; they would just end up saying because love is love. The works of mercy, which are works of love of the other, friend or foe, are performed without anything else in view, without knowledge of or motivation by some deeper reason to do them. They represent a gift in the truest sense, undertaken unconditionally, done without the expectation of a reward or the fear of punishment. They are a precious, perfect folly. They are carried out without the least knowledge of any Big Story in which they are playing their appointed part.

Love is a weak force, not one of the powers and principalities that threaten reprisal if it is not heeded and promises a reward if it is. The works of love are performed “without why.”

What Big Story? The half-blasphemous and mythological one that turns love into one of the powers and principalities, a Strong Force in the world that makes our enemies our footstool. Like the one about the coming of the “Son of Man.” Before it was reworked by these Greek-speaking gentile followers of Jesus, this expression simply meant a simple man of flesh and bones, a mortal man, one of the nothings and nobodies of the world to whom Paul was writing at Corinth (1 Cor 1:25). But by the time of Matthew 25 the Son of Man is one of the mythological forces, one of the powers that be, one of the powers and principalities, a High and Mighty Being coming to judge the nations, to separate out the sheep from the goats. When this royal judge—this is what has become of defeated, crucified Yeshua—arrives, he will tell the faithful that a great treasure awaits them, that they have been granted entry to the kingdom as reward for having performed these works of mercy. How so? the merciful will rightly ask, having had no such thing on their mind. These people were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned, and that was the beginning and the end of it. That was all that mattered. They intended nothing else. The claim made upon them by those in need speaks for itself. The call calls, unconditionally, but without force. They could have walked away, but instead they responded. Why? It may seem a little mad, but they chose to love, rather than not. If it was a little mad, it was with the madness of the kingdom. It has no further “reason” than that. If love has a reason, if it has been entirely relieved of folly, if it all makes good sense, you can be sure what is going on is something other than love.

What need is there, what neediness drives us to say anything more? What need is there to make this stronger, to amplify it, to supply it with heft and punch and power? Why add anything else? What else is there to add? But religion cannot resist a chance to make a profit. Everything depends upon how we read the famous reply made by the royal judge: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). Taken in its weak mode, left in the mode of folly, submitted to the condition of the unconditional, that is the beginning, the middle, and the end. There is nothing else to say. The figure of Jesus is a figure of solidarity with those who have been beaten down by the powers of this world, with the least among us. Jesus is the ikon of the nothings and nobodies of the world, who bear the mark of God, of the weakness of God, on brows bloodied and beaten but unbowed. These afflicted people are the body of God, and those who responded to their afflictions were filling up what is lacking in the body of God. That is all! The mark of a good storyteller is to know when the story is over and not to keep on talking. The merciful are responding to the call that is called unconditionally in and from these afflicted bodies, making the kingdom of God happen, making it come to pass in the bodies of the hungry, naked, and imprisoned, supplying the insistence of the call with real existence in a brutal world. See how they love one another. How? Without why. Thus does the kingdom come. Period. The end.

But the eyes of the teller of this story grow large with the prospect of a profitable economy. He has bigger ideas than that and a taller tale to tell. For the author of Matthew 25 there is serious income to be had here, not the incoming of the event, the madness of the kingdom, which loves without why, but real income, real celestial income. Of this these simple-minded merciful ones are evidently ignorant but the author will disabuse them of their ignorance, like someone showing up at our door to give us the good news that we have inherited a fortune from a relative we didn’t know existed. Don’t be foolish, the author of the story says, there is profit to be made here. The innocence of these works of mercy is pure gold! It is worth a fortune in eternal rewards. These works are then inserted within a great cosmic story, made a party to a massive cosmic economy, in which these merciful deeds acquire serious celestial value. For the teller of this Big Story about the judgment of the nations, the kingdom is not to be found in these deeds but it is bestowed as a reward for these deeds. The kingdom comes as a celestial reward for feeding the hungry. But there is more. Every economy includes both credits and debits. When it comes to the coins of the celestial realm there is always another side of the coin: What about those who ignored the afflicted? The story has a place for them too, an accursed place, for they are “accursed” and condemned to “eternal fire” (Matt 25:41). Here they are to be subjected to unimaginable suffering, from which the only relief would be death and so, of course, this suffering is worse than death, intensified as it is by the impossibility of death. Instead of Yeshua, a master of forgiveness, the Royal Judge is a master of retaliation, visiting an infinite fury on the offender.

By now the account of the works of mercy, originally performed without any knowledge of any promised rewards or punishment, has been distorted into a great economic schema, a “half-blasphemous and mythological” account of royal rewards for the merciful and a merciless punishment for those who did not practice the works of mercy. The Son of Man enters into combat with the powers and principalities, thereby becoming one of them, even more fierce and furious than are they, proving himself their better by overpowering them! The wine of the works of mercy is converted into the water of mercenaries. The folly of the kingdom of God turns out to be the good sense of winning an eternal reward. For after hearing this story, their original innocence is destroyed. After hearing this story, the word will go out among the merciful: do not be a fool; feed every hungry one you see—the rewards are unimaginable, the punishments unendurable! The Son of Man comes seated on a throne of celestial economics, a chief accountant of sheep and goats, a keeper of credits and debits, a cashier of rewards and cruelty. The kingdom of God is entered into a transaction where it is offered as a reward. So conceived, the kingdom of God ends up corrupting the works of love, selling these acts of unconditional mercy for thirty pieces of celestial silver.

In a weak theology, on the other hand, just as God weakens into the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God weakens into the works of mercy. In a theology of the unconditional, the works of mercy do not earn the reward of the kingdom of God; the works of mercy are the kingdom of God. That confusion of the two is the deep corruption—the mythology, the half-blasphemy—of the kingdom introduced by the author of Matthew 25. The kingdom is the kingdom of the unconditional, of the first responders on the scene to an unconditional call, the call which calls for a cup of cold water for the stranger, for care for the sick, which calls this call unconditionally. With the advent of Neoplatonism, this celestial economy and its pre-Copernican cosmology become part of a dualistic metaphysics of time and eternity, of body and soul, this life and some other, here and hereafter. The eternal is the reward for time, eternal life the return on coping with the trials of temporal life. The good news is that sweaty, dirty, and needy bodies, which are exposed to hunger, cold, and nakedness, which grow old and sick and die, may now be exchanged for incorruptible bodies. Weakness is traded in for strength; every sorrow is paid back with eternal joy; every tear is counted and invested in eternal funds; this wretched corruptible body can be upgraded into a maintenance-free incorruptible one that comes equipped with an (eternal) lifetime guarantee. Life is traded in for life-after-death—sometimes even gladly; wanting to be a martyr is an ancient problem—counting on the terms of the deal that is on the table: that death is the doorway to eternal life. Religion finds this economy irresistible. It cannot resist this line, this lure of power and of final triumph—of making our enemies our footstool, the lure of the final fist-pump of winning. “Where, O death, is your victory?” (1 Cor 15:55).

Win, it might, but it loses everything worth having; it makes a mockery—a half-blasphemous and mythological mockery—of the event that is called for and recalled in the gospels. Or better, the event makes a mockery of it! God, the name of God, the event that is harbored in the name (of) “God,” is the name of a call to lead an unconditional life, a life that responds to an unconditional call, without hypostasizing the call and treating it as one of the powers and principalities, without subjecting it to the condition of a Supreme Being, and without, in particular, inscribing it in conditions as cynical as the story of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25. There the children of the light prove to be smarter than the children of the world. Is it not a good deal smarter to invest in celestial goods that are moth-proof and do not rust as opposed to buying long term pain for short term gains that will rust out in no time? The author of Matthew 25 makes nonsense of the folly of God.

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John D. Caputo (Ph.D., Bryn Mawr College) is the Watson Professor of Religion Emeritus at Syracuse University and the Cook Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Villanova University. A hybrid philosopher/theologian who works in the area of radical theology, Caputo is the author of many books, including The Folly of God (2015), Hoping Against Hope (2015), The Insistence of God (2013), and The Weakness of God (2006), winner of the American Academy of Religion award for excellence in constructive theology.

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