Caputo’s headless Hegelianism, a theology of perhaps

If you like to play it safe, if you like to stay within the confines of a comfortable and familiar confessional theology, if you like to sit neatly and quietly in a pew or folding chair for a very small fraction of your week in order to be soothed into complacency, then don’t read this book. If, however, you find the all of above way too static, rigid, dogmatic, and terribly boring, as many of us do, then Caputo’s Insistence of God will provide you with an/other way to do religion without religion, an/other form of theology that offers a fabric of life by means of a theopoetics.

9780253010070_medCaputo’s most recent book articulates a theology of “perhaps” as a radical theology (as opposed to confessional). For a great explanation of the difference between confessional/strong theology and radical/weak theology see Todd Littleton’s post on the first chapter of The Insistence of God. The gist, as Todd points out, is that radical or weak theology, by refusing to rely on confessional statements, minimizes God’s responsibility for the world and maximizes human responsiblity in the world. Caputo’s theology is a radical theology of the event, of a call that gets itself called (but that may or may not come from God) and to which we are invited to respond. The event insists and impinges upon us, calling us to respond and be responsibible in our response. When we do so, our response to the event constitutes, for Caputo, the only way in which we can say that God exists. God exists through us, when we respond to the call of the event by acting in the world.

Chapter 5 turns toward a couple of philosophical/theological sources that “postmodern” thinkers/theologians have used and are using to de/construct confessional theology and think instead of a radical theology–Kant and Hegel. Ultimately, Caputo sides with Hegel, but only with what he calls a headless Hegelianism. Here is how his argument plays out.

Kant’s reaction to religion turned around two notions–morality and epistemology (theory of knowledge). For Kant “religion is reduced to ethics and the rest is superstition” (88). Additionally, Kant “found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith,” since if knowledge remained then he thought we would surely see most of religion as mere superstition–something indefensible in the face of reason and not really worth attempting to defend anyway (98). Caputo argues that postmodern thinkers who operate under a Kantian version of continental philosophy (post-metaphysical philosophy) are really still doing confessional theology as a critique of the limits of what we can know (epistemology) and as an apologetics used to defend religious belief from dogmatic atheists. This type, according to Caputo, defends religion but fails to radicalize it. It can only say that we are not God and that the new atheists (Dennet, Dawkins, Hitchens) are not right. But it fails to describe the nature of events that require a respose to their insistent calling.

Hegel, on the other hand, gains some traction for Caputo by means of the Vorstellung–“a figurative presentation, a representation of the truth in the form of a narrative or a theological figure,” an image that “required conceptual clarification” (88-89). What Kant discarded from religion as mere superstition, Hegel sees as the Vorstellung, the representation, of what the actual truth is behind the narrative, story, or image. Caputo suggests that this is far more radical, the first radical theology, because Hegel dismissed the rational arguments in favor of the irrational story and pictures that are the representations of truth–they are truth becoming true, which means that we only have images of the truth and not the truth itself. This last part is important, because its where Caputo decapitates Hegel, cutting off the “head” that is the Absolute Spirit, God, truth.

A headless Hegelianism for Caputo is “a Vorstellung of which there is no Concept,” an image without the ability to definitely and finally point to a metaphysical truth. Caputo’s theology of perhaps denies that any such truth “exists”, though to be sure it “insists” through the event. And the Vorstellung becomes the stuff of theopoetics–not poetry or aesthetics, but images, figure, narratives that (attempt to) articulate an event.

There is so much goodness in this book (including Caputo’s hilarious dismantling of Zizek in chapter 7), but the two things I appreciate most about chapter 5 are, first, the recurrent mention that he is writing not just for academics but also for people in faith communities. He takes these communities seriously because events occur in the material world, in matter. “The weakness of God means that what is done in the name of God is done by human beings in the name of ‘God'” (107). Second, in this chapter he deconstructs the old two-world theories of traditional metaphysics so that there is no longer a destinction between transcendence and immanence, God and the world, time and eternity. Radical theology, he writes, doesn’t mount a counter-attack against traditional metaphysics, but offers a better option. Rather than choosing one side of all the traditional binaries he gives us a way out of binary thinking altogether. (Of course I’d argue that Whitehead did this in 1929, but that’s probably fuel for a later post or for questions to Caputo on the blog tour video Q&A.)

To repeat, if you’re tired of complacency, tired of confessional statements, and ready for action, for enacting, then Caputo’s Insistence of God is your ticket to a radical theology of the event, a theology of perhaps that calls us, impinges upon us and requires us to respond.


Author: Jeremy

I am happiest outside, surrounded by trees or water. I rarely go anywhere without my camera, and I actively seek ways to connect my work as a philosopher and theologian with regular people who are trying to make sense of this world.

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