The Seminar on God and the Human Future

Spring 2018 Report on Coloniality

by John Caputo

The Fourth R 31-4
July/August 2018
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At its spring 2018 meeting, the “God Seminar” turned to the question of coloniality. In previous seminars, the Fellows have tackled the question of a radical post-theistic theology in a more directly theological way. We analyzed the logic of post-theistic positions like pantheism, panentheism, anatheism and weak theology, each of which seeks to get past the idea of God as Supreme Being, a particular, personal agent who does things or, often to our consternation, leaves them undone. This time the note of radicality was struck differently, by putting the theological question in a radical socio-political context. There is always the danger that even a radical theology will be the theology of the comfortable and well-fed, that is, that it will talk the talk but not walk the walk, not walk in the shoes of the marginalized and excluded whom it thematizes. Even very progressive theologians can remain unconscious or inattentive to the various and subtle ways that their thinking is complicit with systems of power and privilege which make it possible for them to do theological work. That would inevitably affect what they say and think about God. Theology has already been alerted by feminist thinkers that speaking of God the Father is not innocent of patriarchal prejudice and pre-scientific ignorance. In a previous meeting with J. Cameron Carter, we raised the question of God and race, whether our God is the God not just only of men but of only white men. Just so, this Seminar wondered to what extent God is the God of European colonizers, and we asked what God would look like from the standpoint of the colonized, the indigenous people who already lived there, “to see religion, and thus God-talk, otherwise,” as one of the panelists, Mary Keller, put it.

The problem of colonialism is multi-pronged, including at least three factors: missionalism, rationalism, and nationalism. (1) The colonialist is a “Christian missionary,” who brings the true religion, the light of Revelation, the one “true” God revealed in Christianity to indigenous people whose own native religious traditions are denounced as primitive superstition, the darkness of mythology and idolatry. (2) The colonialist is a man of reason who brings the light of Enlightenment rationality to the benighted minds of the “savage,” who wallows in the dark waters of ignorance and the irrationality. (3) The colonialist is a nationalist. Any pretense that the “missionary” and the “man of reason” have the best of intentions, to bring light and truth where previously there was darkness and ignorance, is dispelled by the third factor, which is the will-to-power and will-to-profit of European nations like Spain, Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands for the spolia Egyptorum, for land and natural resources. If the Europeans intended to give these people reason and religion, they would do so despite having to kill every last one of them in the process (still more died of the infectious diseases they carried). In short, colonialism means the unbaptized have no rights; the irrational has no rights; might makes right. What runs through all three “isms” is power and domination and we can see all three streams coursing through the presentations made at the meeting.

Indigenous Religion and the Divine

To get a concrete sense of what is at stake, I begin with Mary Keller (University of Wyoming), who made an engaging presentation of indigenous religion by establishing an analogy between stories taken from two different indigenous traditions. The first story, taken from the Crow Nation, which translates its Native American name “Apsáalooke,” is the story of the gift of tears granted by the mountain, which washes clean the eyes of men so that they can behold the divine powers immanent in the natural world around them. The second story, taken from the indigenous peoples of Benin, whose “Vodoun” (Voodoo) religion is of African origin, attributes the origin of the world to adjamanklo leaves. Initiates take herbal infusion baths which allow them to see the divine powers of the world. In contrast to the universal dominion of divine power claimed in monotheism, Keller identifies the place-specific nature of the several divine powers found in the (local) sacred mountain, in the (local) vegetation (leaves). The theological implications are materialistic and polytheistic—the indigenous is heterogenous—making up a multiplicity of local worlds on a single earth (a world of worlds), each with its own locale, its own local integrity. In contrast to the matter-transcending and power of the monotheistic creator formulated in a totalizing theology, we have to do with an immanent “divine materiality,” an “immanent metaphysics” in a locative theology. We also see here what Keller calls “agentive landscapes,” landscapes that are personified and given agency, very much like what Bruno Latour, a French philosopher of science and technology, calls “actants,” agents both human and non-human. One could imagine, Keller says, what novelist Toni Morrison calls a world map whose boundaries are not drawn by the mandate of conquest but by polychromatic locales.

We are all “indigenous,” all earthlings, born of the earth in a particular place, even as we are virtually all settlers whose ancestors long ago migrated from our African home.

Keller concluded by introducing what she calls the “I/indigeneous,” a coinage meant to signify a tension between a universal and a particular indigeneity. According to the United Nations, there are some 5,000 (upper case) “Indigenous” people around the globe. Just what constitutes a particular Indigenous group can be contested, which shows up in disputed land claims among Native American tribes and competing casino ventures. This is a cultural category, turning on a religious sense of the sacredness of the earth on which one is born, not a biological or scientific category. This in contrast to the fact that we are all indigenous (lower case), all earthlings, born of the earth in a particular place, even as we are virtually all settlers whose ancestors long ago migrated from our African home and have now lived for centuries in the same place. Indeed, all our religious traditions go back to some local origin, but some of them, like Christianity, became vast global institutions with universalist pretensions. The slash between the upper and lower case signifies the ongoing tension between the colonial forces of the West which has “settled” these lands and the native peoples who already occupied them and have survived as something of the sacred remnants of once flourishing cultures. In the discussion Michael Grimshaw observed that we ought not to let this distinction become a disguised power-play—we are all indigenous—which obscures the specific plight of dominated peoples. But perhaps the acrimony of the politics of today could be diminished if we all recognized this tension and understood that the land, the earth, does not belong to us but we belong to it and have a responsibility to it which is being threatened by the environmental harm human activity is inflicting on the very earth which gave us birth, as the indigenous traditions teach.

The acrimony of the politics of today could be diminished if we all understood that the land, the earth, does not belong to us but we belong to it and have a responsibility to it.

Seen from the point of view of past sessions of the God Seminar, this presentation resonates with the work presented to us by another Keller, Catherine Keller, whose presented a panentheistic understanding of God, a theology of God-in-all and all-in-God. As Catherine Keller shows, this is a tradition which goes back as far as Scotus Eriugena’s natura naturans (ninth century), passes through Cusa’s work (fourteenth century) on the coincidence of opposites and Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura (seventeenth century), up to Whitehead’s twentieth-century process theology, where God is decidedly not what Catherine Keller calls the “Big Guy in the Sky.” The two Kellers agree, this immanent metaphysics issues a similar alarm about the violence we are doing to the earth now taken as the immanently divine.

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Islands and the Divine

An Yountae’s (State University of California, Northridge) paper was similarly focused on the indigenous world, which he approached in terms of a distinction made by French post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze in an essay entitled “Desert Islands.” Deleuze distinguishes continental islands, which like England have split off from a continent, and oceanic islands, which have emerged from the sea, like the Hawaiian Islands, which are the tips of volcanoes protruding through the sea. Continental islands remind us that the sea covers the land and will take advantage of every sag and slope in the land to assert its dominance. Oceanic islands remind us that for all the oceanic immensity, the land is still there, ready to emerge. The dream of the island, its mythology, is to make a new beginning. To live on a deserted island, like someone shipwrecked, is to take up a condition of radical creativity as if one were oneself a creator god or a goddess. Robinson Crusoe is the defilement of the élan of the island, obscuring its mythology, since everything he does is to reconstitute bourgeois civilization on the island and so to create nothing new. Still, the island is not a figure of an absolute beginning (the island is already there, with its resources) but of a new or second beginning, a re-birth after the initial birth. Like the re-creation of the world following the flood in Genesis, it re-makes a pre-existent world, as the floating ark settles down on high ground. This is the law of repetition, where the second birth (human creation) is more important than the first (divine creation). The desert island is the image of an immemorial and profound movement of creativity.

Deploying the resources of this essay, An Yountae takes the sea as a figure of the history of colonialism, and the oceanic island as the indigenous culture, ever threatened with being overwhelmed by the oceanic abyss. As Argentine-Mexican philosopher of liberation Enrique Dussell has pointed out, the modernity of Europe is constituted by its conquest of the Americas, by its power to cross the ocean. Modernity (the conquistadores) and its other (the conquered Americas) are co-constitutive—as opposed to thinking of colonialism as a consequence, a dark effect, of an already constituted modernity. The “Greco-European” is a colonial construction, meant to consolidate Euro-centrism. In antiquity, Europe was an outlier, “the sticks.” The colonial attitude to the island is Deleuze’s “tourism,” a visit which samples the exotic without residing there, the simple reproduction of the same, bringing civilization’s conveniences with you and staying in a pleasant hotel where you are waited on by the “natives” who are “charming.” It is unwilling to embrace the island’s own form of life, unwilling to embrace its radical difference. Life on the island is not Romantic. The real task to make a new beginning, which is not as charming or enchanting as it sounds. An Yountae describes what Edouard Glissant, a pioneer in decolonial thinking, calls a “creolized ontology” as a work of building something new by taking as its raw materials the sacred remnant, the shipwreck of fragments, the surviving shards, what still remains of a nearly destroyed tradition—like the Native American names for so many places in North America that Mary Keller pointed out. The loss, the wounds, the trauma must be the occasion of a new creation, a re-actualization of nearly lost possibilities, not a pure creation but a recreation. Recreating is not the work of the modern autonomous ego, the rational secular self, but of a self constituted by its situatedness in a pregiven web of relationships.

The "Greco-European" is a colonial construction, meant to consolidate Eurocentrism. In antiquity, Europe was an outlier, "the sticks."

The lesson for theology, including radical theology, is to resist theological tourism, visiting radically indigenous ideas of the divine while retaining all the air-conditioned comforts of its orthodox home. Instead it must theologize from the island. Otherwise its exploration of the indigenous simply reproduces the colonial order. The demand this puts on the post-theism of the God Seminar to find new names for God, new metaphors, a new theopoetics of creolization, of the oceanic island, which requires the resilience of a beaten people to begin again. It requires the power to create in a condition of what is called by Derrida “the monstrosity of the unrecognizable ... the absolutely unshareable … the solitude of worlds.” It requires the strength to create a world without gods and to find a way to love the world in spite of history, in spite of the absence of God, of the absence of a world which is whole and symmetric. As Noelle Vahanian remarked in her comments, this invites comparison with Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz, which depicts the death of the transcendent biblical God of history and submerges God in a suffering world. For the tourist, the island is an enchanting space cut out of the secular world where we can vacation and take photographs of religious ruins. It is like Gadamer’s criticism of the museum, viewing a work of art hanging on a wall without coming under the influence of the real world it disclosed. In the real life on the island, the divine, the sacred, is found in the shard, the fragment, which disturbs the reigning onto-theological order which, pegged to the sovereignty of God, supports the colonial order. Far from enchanting us, the island should disrupt and disenchant this order. On the island, An

Yountae concludes, “God is another name for the sigh of optimism, of the fragile hope that remains in the aftermath of survival.”

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Un-colonialism and the Divine

The paper with the broadest theoretical sweep, given by Devin Singh (Dartmouth College), turned on distinguishing three different critiques of colonialism. The anti-colonial seeks to extend the modern order of Enlightenment emancipation and self-determination to include colonized people. Represented by Marxism and liberation theology, Singh says it has to do with the when; it says now it is the Third World’s turn, now is the time for it to catch up with the march of the history of emancipation. The post-colonial is rooted not in modernity but in the postmodern and, drawing upon Derrida and Foucault, questions the assumption of a linear march of history, of the self-identity of constructions like History, Modernity, Reason, and Emancipation, in caps and in the singular. It troubles the notion of a neat binary opposition between colonizer and colonized; it thinks in terms of hybrids, not simple identities. It is asking who is the colonizer and the colonized. For the de-colonial both the modern and the postmodern are European discourses, so it shifts the emphasis to the where, seeking to let local voices and forgotten histories of indigenous peoples outside of Europe talk back to the master narrative. That is the approach taken by both An Yountae and Mary Keller, to inhabit the indigenous from within and let it speak for itself. Although it shares much in common with post-structuralism, it remains suspicious of post-structuralism because the latter is of continental European provenance. It is seeking something radically other than the European and to decenter Eurocentrism. So, in Black Studies (we have already seen this in Enrique Dussell), it is pointed out that in the classical Greco-Roman world Europe was considered a backwater. Once again: it is only after Europe “discovers” its “other,” the Americas, that it can think of itself as the “same,” as the “center,” and to constitute itself as the Greco-European, Reason, Modernity, Enlightenment, the bearer of the torch of History. Furthermore, post-colonialism is academic discourse, while the decolonial sees to de-link from the Eurocentric academy and the conceptuality deriving from the “Greco-European” history of knowledge, which is what Heidegger meant by the “history of metaphysics,” relief from which he found in Japanese thought as well as the poets and mystics of the West.

Singh’s project is to re-think the secular/religious distinction by bringing de-colonial resources to bear upon the secular project. If the secular-modern is co-constituted by its excluded other, the colonized, it also co-constituted by another excluded other, the religious. This it not only polices (keeping watch over religious violence) but also protects inasmuch as the secular wants to be neutral, tolerant of differences, including religious differences. It is this protective function that Singh wants to underline and buttress with de-colonial support. The problem with the current discourse on the post-secular and the return of religion is that it often means the recurrence of fundamentalism and the denunciation of the secular—in the West, by the Christian Right in the USA and by “radical Orthodoxy” in the UK, and in the Middle East by Islamic extremists for whom the secular West is, beyond soulless, the “Great Satan.” In the face of that kind of post-secularism, the secular separation of church and state proves irreducibly important. In point of historical fact, the modern neutral-secular state protected religious minorities in Europe, even as it protected the academy from the church. But the situation is delicate because the secular is also implicated in its own form of violence, in colonial violence, which is why it has something to learn from the de-colonial project. Indeed, it would be possible to construct a religious justification of the secular (as an order of tolerance and respect), which would be sensitive to indigenous voices.

Singh then reviews the implication of secularism with nascent forms of capitalism. This is not an aside, because secularization is not simply a matter of intellectual history but also of colonial economic expropriation. It oversaw the appropriation of church property which was transferred into the hands of private landlords. It discontinued the voluntary religious “vow of poverty,” which had allowed the church to say the involuntary poverty of the poor was spiritually profitable. This made work the only way for the ex-religious to support themselves. It was used as an ideological cover under which the unfair accumulation of wealth was attributed to the theocratic tyranny of the past while passing itself off as a period of secular economic freedom. Not only did this occlude its own exploitation of the European working class, it was used to castigate the irrationality of non-European “natives” whose labor could be expropriated with impunity just it did with the proletariat at home, even as it extracted the natural resources of the colonies.

Finally, Singh turned to the contribution the de-colonial makes to secularization. The mistake is to take secularization as the sacred truth and to impose it by force; we do not need to think everyone on the planet wants the same thing. In fact, religion can provide a positive support for a sense of national solidarity and hope in a people recovering from colonial rule. Just as “comparative religion” discovers that “religion” does not mean just one thing, so a “comparative secularism” would discover that the secular does not always take the same form and that secularization is not the inevitable goal of history. We already see in history examples of great and flourishing religious civilizations like the Islamic Golden Age (ninth–fourteenth centuries), where we find the prototype of the modern university and the preservation of Greek learning. The secular has much to learn about itself from listening to the very different conception of time and being embedded in the non-European world. In sum, secular actors need to appreciate the plasticity of the secular itself, and religious actors need to realize that the secular order provides a space of freedom for religious life. Both can sign on to the values of free inquiry into the true and the good and embrace a notion of the post-secular which does not mean fundamentalism.

It is a mistake is to take secularization as the sacred truth and to impose it by force; we do not need to think everyone on the planet wants the same thing.

In the discussion, Clayton Crockett raised the question of just how far the “de-” in de-colonial is from deconstruction or, more generally, whether there really is any serious difference between the post-colonial and the de-colonial, whether the latter is really just a subset of the former. Philosopher of postmodernism Jean-Francois Lyotard famously defined the postmodern as the suspicion of master narratives and the affirmation of local narratives, which he celebrated as “paganism,” and as Wittgensteinian “language games” idiosyncratic to each particular “form of life,” and even as “islands” which require an archipelago-thinking capable of island-hopping. Another way to put this point is to say that we need weaker and non-dogmatic notions of both categories, secular and religious, which would deprive the secular of its pretension to the status of a transcendental rationality and the religious of its pretension to a supernatural provenance. Another question concerned what idea of “God” this approach to the secular implies. Singh himself left this open. Is it theologically “neutral?” The Islamic example is clearly monotheistic. At the very least, we can see that Singh’s approach would be sensitive to the immanent, naturalistic and post-theistic ideas of local divine powers presented in the analysis of indigenous religion by Mary Keller and An Yountae.

Stay Tuned

In an organizational meeting, the Seminar decided to shift to a second phase, emphasizing the question of the “human future” in the Seminar’s full title, “God and the Human Future,” raising such questions as God and the environmental future and God and the “post-human” future. The results of the first phase, the seminars on the post-theistic “God,” would be consolidated in a published volume.

Spring 2018 Ballot Items

Westar academic seminars conduct periodic votes on propositions related to their research topic. Both scholars (Fellows) and public members (Associates) cast votes in response to scholar presentations and recommendations. Voting does not, of course, determine the truth–it only indicates what the best judgment is of a significant number of people sitting around the table. Learn more about this tradition at Westar.


Post-theism that doesn’t confront coloniality will continue to produce Euro-centrism.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

Just as conversations about early Chrsitianity cannot be separated from the role of the Roman Empire, contemporary conversations about God/gods cannot be separated from coloniality.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

The God Seminar must adopt a decolonial option as it proceeds in its work.

Fellows...Strongly Agree...Associates...Somewhat Agree

Photo of John D. Caputo

John D. Caputo is a hybrid philosopher/theologian who works in the area of radical theology. Prof. Caputo has spearheaded a notion he calls “weak theology,” by which he means a “poetics” of the “event” that is harbored in the name (of) God, or that “insists” in the name (of) “God,” a notion that depends upon a reworking of the notions of event in Derrida to theological ends. In his majors works he has argued that interpretation goes all the way down (Radical Hermeneutics, 1987), that Derrida is a thinker to be reckoned with by theology (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, 1997), that theology is best served by getting over its love affair with power and authority and embracing what Caputo calls, taking a phrase from St. Paul, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (2006), which won the American Academy of Religion award for excellence in the category of constructive theology.

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