The work of philosophy can be exciting, helpful, and fascinating—and yet it is also often couched in language that admits no entry. The difficulty of acquiring the insider vocabulary in order to understand and appreciate the work of philosophy is such that one could write above the door “Despair all ye who enter!”

John D. Caputo, our guest for the Thursday morning session of the Spring 2016 meeting, along with the members of the new Seminar on God and the Human Future, is working to share the latest developments in philosophical theology with the public, in language that welcomes more people to the conversation.

God as the Unconditional

Caputo 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 has spearheaded a notion he calls “weak theology,” which is set forth in his The Insistence of God (2013) and The Weakness of God (2006), winner of the American Academy of Religion award for excellence in constructive theology. At the Westar Institute national meeting, he drew upon the work of Paul Tillich and Jacques Derrida to introduce an approach to God not as a being that exists in some physical or super-physical state associated with kings (a being appropriately designated a “He” because of it), but instead an approach to God understood as the depth dimension of life, a call that shatters the horizon of everyday expectation.

Caputo introduces this idea of God in The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional (Polebridge, 2015). The title comes from Saint Paul’s famous statement in 1 Corinthians 1:

At a time when Jews expect a miracle and Greeks seek enlightenment, we speak about God’s Anointed crucified! This is an offense to the Jews, nonsense to the nations; but to those who have heard God’s call, both Jews and Greeks, the Anointed represents God’s power and God’s wisdom; because the folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are.
— 1 Cor 1:22–25, SV trans.

“This is a theology that begins in atheism,” Caputo said, but this is just that—a starting point. Caputo’s statement needs to be understood by drawing upon Paul Tillich’s idea of atheism, where God is “always that which precedes this division [of subject and object].” When something becomes real to us, it enters subject-object relations, but we need to resist this tendency when it comes to God because it naturally leads to misguided attempts to “prove” God’s existence or nonexistence.

The concept of a supreme being, an entity among entities, is unavoidable and yet also half-blasphemous and mythological. It projects an idea of God as somebody like us, only bigger, better, smarter, who out-knows us, out-wills us, and out-wits us at every turn, a God who casts an eternal, relentless eye on us. This notion of God is almost impossible to avoid and yet it’s theologically spurious! It anthropomorphizes and finitizes God. The proper theological and religious response to this “God on high” is atheism, but that’s the beginning of theology, not the end. And that is the point of departure for Caputo in The Folly of God.

For God to be God, God must not, should not, ought not exist, not if the Kingdom of God is worth pursuing.

We don’t want to lose the unlimited depth of God. If you’ve got a problem with something, change the metaphor, Tillich says. In this case, we need to think of God not as on high but in the depths. Think of God as the matrix—the womb. Tillich uses the word “unconditional” to describe God. Caputo, in response, goes as far as to say this: “If God exists, that would ruin everything. If God exists, that would ruin what we mean by the Kingdom of God. The unconditional demands that God not exist. For God to be God, God must not, should not, ought not exist, not if the Kingdom of God is worth pursuing.”

But if God doesn’t “exist” the way an object exists, if rather we need to think of God as “unconditional,” what do we mean by that? We need to consider it from two different directions.

REALITY/OUT THERE: The unconditional from “out there” breaks in and seizes us without giving us any say in the matter. There’s no compromise or barter. It’s coming at us without our invitation and maybe even against our wishes. This is not a projection from us but a projectile coming at us. We might even like it to go away! It wakes us up in the middle of the night and it won’t let us get back to sleep.

SELF: The unconditional in this sense is something I affirm. I hope for this if I’m worth the oxygen I’m breathing. This is the sort of thing for which there is no small print.

A good example of this is the ideal of welcoming the other. The unconditional is about welcoming the other and being hospitable in the best sense of the word—not how we normally do it, inviting only people we like and need and who somehow serve us. What would it be like to welcome the Other? Maybe we wouldn’t use the word “invitation” but “visitation”—it’s the knock of the door in the middle of the night. Is it a stranger in need of a cup of cold water, or is someone there to do you harm?

The risk of genuine hospitality is irreducible. If there’s no risk, it’s all welcoming the same. This means that, yes, whether we like it or not, the unconditional includes disaster and unforeseeable harm and evil. Nothing guarantees that it is good. But if you play it safe without opening yourself to this moment, if you’ve taken every precaution to remove every possibility of danger, you’ve also drained life of its vitality.

Another example is forgiveness. What does it mean to forgive someone? Traditionally, it means the penitent meets all the conditions and then you get forgiveness—like a bank “forgiving” the mortgage you paid off! That’s not forgiveness; that’s a merit system! It can be complicated even when you are the giver. You don’t want to offer someone forgiveness only to have them say, “I’m in your debt! I’ll always remember this!” No, no, no! Don’t put an obligation or condition on this. It was a gift freely given. The more typical feeling, though, is that the gift has become a debt instead.

One other way to put the “unconditional,” drawing from Jacques Derrida, is the “impossible.” What we mean by God may indeed be just this—in the phenomenological sense, not the logic of P and not-P. We go through life with a horizon of expectations. When we turn the corner, we expect to see the old familiar bank, not a sea of sulpher! Such predictability in life is necessary to our survival. We work with what is possible within a range of expectations. Nobody wants to gainsay the importance of the possible in this sense. We foresee what is likely to come, and we make preparations along the terms of the relatively stable world in which we live.

When someone breaks all the rules, we don’t know what to do. The rules come after the event because nobody saw this coming.

And yet there’s also a relative instability. It’s possible to turn the corner and discover that the bank has been torn down. Something can shatter my horizon of expectation. If it weren’t, life would be same-old, same-old. When something shatters my horizon, it forces me to reconsider everything from the ground up. I am betrayed by someone I trusted unconditionally. When someone breaks all the rules, we don’t know what to do! The rules come after the event because nobody saw this coming. This distinction between the horizon of expectations and the in-breaking of surprise cuts into all aspects of life.

We depend upon the relative stability of life, but we also need the open-endedness, the absolute surprise. Though we want stability, we also want a certain amount of chaos, what James Joyce called “chaosmos.” The name of God is the name of the great “perhaps”—not in the sense of vacillation but in the sense of newness. This is a miraculousness to life that can’t be discounted.

The Kingdom of God

Religion has to do with what is ultimate, what you take with unconditional seriousness. It’s the sort of truth for which you’re willing to live or die. Religion as a specific sort of activity in its cultural sense—institutions, texts, practices, concrete and particular structures—should be held distinct from this foundational impulse. Insofar as we treat religion as separate from culture, that’s a sign of alienation from religion.

Don’t think here of theology as an independent field of study but rather as an activity embedded in culture. We see it in art, in science, in the work of people in hospitals and schools, in our relationships with our children. It’s the depth dimension, the deep stratum of life.

When we think of religion like this, we can define a temple as wherever the unconditional is found. Caputo recalled with us the string quartet that played on the deck as the Titanic sank. What were those musicians doing? Why weren’t they running for the lifeboats? If they just wanted to be “good people,” they might have pitched in to get the women and children into the boats. Their choice can’t just be explained, in other words, by moral courage. Caputo suggests that in playing their music, they were saying, “This is what life will have been about. This beauty is what life means. Adieu to what life means.” That action becomes an affirmation of the worth, value, and depth of life—a religious action, as Tillich saw it.

A more modern version of this story can be told of Khalil al-Assad, the 83-year-old curator who secreted away artifacts so that ISIS would not be able to take them. Even under torture, he refused to admit their location. He made an unconditional affirmation of their value, not just as objects but what they stood for. This is the depth dimension in a museum curator. The Apostle Paul called this in 1 Corinthians 1 the “foolishness of God.” Forgiveness is the weak virtue; the strong virtue would be revenge. Unfortunately, in the next chapter Paul walks it all back to the economy of rewards and punishment.

There three enormous problems with the traditional idea of God as a being that exists:

  1. You’ve established a system of rewards and punishments, which has an infantile effect on human beings.
  2. If he is so transcendent and supernatural, we can’t know anything about him except what he says about us. And whenever that special revelation shows up, it just so happens to be OURS!
  3. If this being is up there, how come he doesn’t come to our aid when we need him?

We don’t need to get rid of God, but we need to rethink what we mean by God. You don’t stop at the literal meaning of a text (if you can even find it); you start there. What’s the meaning of Christianity? We don’t need it to be calcified; it’s the ongoing activity of the tradition. The name of God is the deep deposit of that tradition.

What’s the Kingdom of God? Works of mercy are the living spirit of it, not the result of a rewards-and-punishments system. The Kingdom of God is incarnate in the people who are naked, hungry, and imprisoned and is enacted in administering works of mercy. That’s what it is, if it is at all—and, in fact, it is not to the extent that people remain naked, hungry, and imprisoned without being administered to. That’s why the Kingdom of God is always coming, the Kingdom for which we hope and dream and pray. The Kingdom does not exist, but it calls and it is coming.

Thank you for reading this report on the Westar Institute Spring 2016 national meeting, which took place in Santa Rosa, California. To see all meeting-related reports, visit the Spring 2016 program page.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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1 reply
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Hi Cassandra, please forgive my mixture of hope and sarcasm:

    I would suggest that if this essay represents a language which welcomes “more” folks, it can’t be many more! It’s a case of the much repeated scenario of the top 2% (or maybe 1%) thinking that they know what is best for the 98%, actually thinking that the large group will understand what the small group is saying and assume it’s best for them. That is elitism, if not tyranny. (I’ll try not to draw any political parallels.)

    Most people don’t have an 150+ IQ and aren’t interested in complexly reasoned hypotheticals, for which philosophy is famous. They are likely not interested in beginning with atheism, whatever kind of god that may erase. Would they actually understand that God cannot exist if human life is to make sense. They likely wonder what’s the point of replacing the simple word God with fancy obscure stuff like unconditional or impossible.

    No doubt they would likely be glad to hear that religion has to do with what’s most important, with it’s risks and rewards: welcoming, hospitality, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.

    But they already know that’s what God wants.

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