The Insistence of God presents the provocative idea that God does not exist, God insists, while God’s existence is a human responsibility, which may or may not happen. For John D. Caputo, God’s existence is haunted by "perhaps," which does not signify indecisiveness but an openness to risk, to the unforeseeable. Perhaps constitutes a theology of what is to come and what we cannot see coming. Responding to current critics of continental philosophy, Caputo explores the materiality of perhaps and the promise of the world. He shows how perhaps can become a new theology of the gaps God opens.
About the Author
John D. Caputo is Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion Emeritus at Syracuse University and the David R. Cook Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Villanova University. He is author of The Weakness of God (IUP, 2006), which won the American Academy of Religion's Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Constructive-Reflective Studies category.
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The Insistence of God
A Theology of Perhaps
By John D. Caputo
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 John D. Caputo
All rights reserved.
The Fear of One Small Word
"Peut-être—il faut toujours dire peut-être pour ..."
"See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. —MATTHEW 10:16
I dream of learning how to say "perhaps." I have the same dream, night after night, of a tolle, lege experience, in which I open a book—I cannot make out the title—always to the same sentence, "Peut-être—il faut toujours dire Peut-être pour ..." In the morning I cannot remember the rest of the sentence.
I am dreaming of a new species of theologians, of theologians to come, theologians of the "perhaps," a new society of friends of a dangerous "perhaps." I would like to think we are, perhaps, already a little like these theologians we see coming and that they will be a little like us. But, of course, since we cannot see them coming and do not know what they will be like, we can only call, "come."
There is every reason for philosophers and theologians to fear this one small word, "perhaps." It seems the very antithesis of what we want from them. We expect philosophers and theologians to help us decide, but "perhaps" is the language of indecision and of the suspension of judgment. We expect knowledge and precision from philosophy but "perhaps" is vague and evasive, an admission that we just don't know. We expect faith from the theologians but "perhaps" means we are uncertain, skeptical, too timid to say anything definite. "Perhaps" is the abdication of faith, decision, ethics, judgment and knowledge, of philosophy and theology, a retreat to the safety of the indecisive and uncommitted. "Perhaps" is the motto of the aesthete in Either/Or: if you do it, you will regret it; if you don't do it, you will regret it. So, play it safe and stay out of it.
Unless, perhaps, there is "another experience of the perhaps." Unless "perhaps" has another role and belongs to another order, otherwise than the business as usual of philosophy and theology, otherwise than logic, ontologic, and onto-theo-logic. That is the premise of the present study. I pursue the possibility that "perhaps" belongs to another "regime" than that of mere opinion and hazy indecision, that it enjoys an "irreducible modality" all its own. I am in search of a "perhaps" that is not a category of logic but proves to be of a more subtle disposition, one uniquely accommodated to address the "event," one that is indeed "the only possible thought of the event."
"See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16).
In an undertaking as uncertain as this, I call upon the animals of Jesus to be my companions. Animal that I am, I am following (je suis) an alternate zoology, a zoo-theological order of beasts who distrust sovereigns that is proposed by Jesus and Derrida, and my candidate for such a strange beast is "perhaps." Accordingly, my advocacy of the weak force of "perhaps" must be as innocent as a dove and as shrewd and sly as a snake, able to brave the wolves of philosophy and theology and their love of monarchy and sovereignty and principial order. I am issuing a call for a new species of theologians, weak theologians who must be, just as Jesus says, as wise, shrewd, and prudent as serpents, the wise ones (phronimoi) of the "perhaps"—even as they must be as harmless (akeraioi) as the doves. This is a combination so odd as even to merit a pink "perhaps" from the Jesus Seminar, which is exceedingly high praise for the Seminar. Even the Jesus Seminar is forced to admit that this is such a strange saying that Jesus might have actually said it—perhaps, in the pink, almost ruby rubric red.
The "perhaps" of which I speak here does not belong to the "strong" or sovereign order of presence, power, principle, essence, actuality, knowledge, or belief. The "perhaps," "powerless in its very power," does not belong to the "dominant thinking about the possible in philosophy." "Perhaps" does not mean the onto-possible, the future present, where it is only a matter of time until it rolls around at some later date. It does not belong to the system of categories organized around the binary pairing of necessary and contingent, presence and absence, being and non-being, knowledge and ignorance, belief and unbelief, certainty and uncertainty, actuality and potentiality, substance and accident, theism and atheism. Nor is this "perhaps" a simple compromise between these binaries, a safe middle ground that would maintain a strategic neutrality while still remaining within that order. It belongs to a different register altogether, not the presential order of ontology but a weaker, more dovelike order, what Derrida amusingly (but he is dead serious) calls the order of "hauntology," which means the order of the event which haunts ontology. The event spooks the black-or-white to-be-or-not-to-be of metaphysics and so it unnerves the onto-theologians. The haunting specter of "perhaps" provokes a more radical opening in the present. It prevents the present from closing down upon itself, from being identical with itself, leaving it structurally exposed to the future, not the future present but the very structure of the to-come (à venir). The event (événement) is the advent of what is coming, the coming (venir) of what we cannot see coming (voir venir), the coming of the future (l'avenir), which always comes as a surprise and includes the best and the worst. "Perhaps" twists free (sly as a serpent) from the grip of thinking in terms of the power of the actual, of the prestige of the present, and opens thinking to the weak force of the to-come. I hold my ground on the groundless ground of "perhaps" in order to stay alive to the chance of the event.
"Perhaps" is the only way to say yes to the future. Yes, yes, perhaps. Yes, yes, to the "perhaps." That is an act of faith (foi) that exceeds the simple binarity of belief (croyance) and unbelief, an affirmation more elusive than any positive position, deeper than any positively posited belief. "Perhaps" is thus a non-knowing which exceeds simple ignorance as faith exceeds simple blindness, because it is responding to what solicits us from afar, sensing what might be coming, desiring something beyond desire. The weak force of "perhaps" is more resolute than any simple credo, a knight of faith more unflinching than any firm belief, more ready for the ordeal, for the test. "Perhaps" is not a simple indecision between presence and absence but an exposure to the promise of what is neither present nor absent. "Perhaps" is not the safety of indecision but a radical risk, for nothing guarantees that things will turn out well, that what is coming will not be a disaster. "Perhaps" is not paralysis but the fluid milieu of undecidability in which every radical decision is made, by which I mean a decision that is not merely programmed or dictated by the circumstances.
"Perhaps" is not a simple disinterest but a word of desire for something, I know not what, something I desire with a "desire beyond desire." "Perhaps" does not mean the diffidence of maybe-maybe-not but the hope harbored in what happens. Perhaps, I hope, perchance, there is a chance, a ghost of a chance, in what is happening.
"Perhaps" is not to be confused with the "possible" as the counter-part of the actual, with a merely logical possibility or empirical unpredictability. To think "perhaps" is to follow the tracks of a more radical possibilizing, of the weak force of a more unpredictable implausible chance that comes quietly on the wings of a dove. To say "perhaps" is to expose ourselves to a possibility that for all the world seems impossible, that may also turn out to be a disaster. To say "perhaps" is to abandon the shield of safety provided by power, presence, principle, and predictability, by actuality and the real. "Perhaps" risks exposure to a spooky, irreal, inexistent insistence, where insistence exceeds existence and existence can never catch up to what insists.
"Perhaps" gives us access to something that eludes the rule of knowledge as certainty and method because it belongs to another register. "Perhaps" is a principle without principle, an anarchic and unmonarchical arche, issuing in an odd sort of affirmative, grammatological and "aphoristic energy." It is not a failed way to know but another way to gain access to what is otherwise than knowledge, to what comes otherwise than by knowing. The un-certainty of "perhaps" does not constitute a defect, a failure to attain certainty, but a release from the rule of the certain, an emancipation from the block that certainty throws up against thinking or desiring otherwise. "Perhaps" galvanizes another kind of thinking. "Perhaps" does not signify a simple lack of purpose but a way to stay on the tracks of something unknown, something structurally to come. "Perhaps" is a surmise of the promise, a relation without relation with what is given only as a promise, given while held back. "Perhaps" bends in the winds of what insists without existence, of what withdraws from presence, pointing like the arrow of a weathervane in the direction of the promise, of the flickering possibility of what neither is nor is not. "Perhaps" shelters things from the harsh light of the concept or the program which prevents the event. Instead of constituting a failure of exact knowledge or of determinate decision, "perhaps" represents a greater rigor and a more resolute adhering to what solicits us, a refusal to allow the prima facie claims of the present to take hold, a refusal to be taken in by an accident of birth. Its weakened vision makes for a more resolute listening and heightened attentiveness, which keeps on the tracks of an ever-vanishing trace.
Because it seeks access to the inaccessible, to the unprogrammable, to the uncertain, to the "event," "perhaps" affirms a more obscure and radical faith (foi) not a well-defined and positive belief (croyance). The positionality of a positive belief shuts down the open-endedness of the affirmation of the future, provoking the formation of schools, camps, cabals, manifestos, doxa, orthodoxies, heresiologies, excommunicative communities, all closed circles, whose seeming decisiveness is in fact a way of avoiding responsibility, in full flight from a deeper and more unnerving responsibility, all for fear of one small word. "Perhaps" does not refuse to make a leap of faith. It recognizes that what passes for a "leap of faith" in "orthodoxy" is an assertion, an assertiveness, that is trying to make contact with the certain, vainly trying to contract a more abysmal affirmation into a creedal assent. Creeds dissimulate a more disconcerting leap, a more disseminated and openended faith in something insistent yet indiscernible. The faithful are of little faith; they fear the faith of this small word "perhaps," the faithful being an assembly of believers in beliefs whose contingency they do not quite confront. "Perhaps" harbors a deeper faith while looking for all the world like doubt, like a lamb amid wolves.
"Perhaps" sounds like the soul of indecision, like a lame excuse for an answer, a refusal to take a stand, the safest course possible. I, on the other hand, think it is risky business, a venture into the abyss, a wild and disproportionate risk, exposing us to an excess, opening us to the best while exposing us to the worst, deprived of the mighty armor of metaphysics. "Perhaps" sounds like mere propositional indecisiveness, maybe this or maybe that, who knows which? But I am interested not in the propositional but the expositional, not in what we propose but in that to which we are exposed, in what poses itself before us, imposes itself upon us, posing and presupposing a possibility that leaves us groping for words.
"Perhaps" is not a refusal to engage with reality but a response to the solicitation of the real beyond the real, not the real as the res, present and objective, but the real as the insistence of the ultra-real or hyper-real that insinuates itself into what passes itself off for reality. "Perhaps" belongs not to the logic of the present but to the hyperlogic of the super, epekeina, hyper, über, au- delà. "Perhaps" unhinges us from the real, making the impossible possible. "Perhaps" is not a refusal to answer but the depths of responsibility, a recognition of the extent to which the question exceeds us and puts us in question. "Perhaps" opens a door that is (perhaps) better kept shut, raises a possibility we would prefer not to think about, opens a question we would rather keep closed, makes a motion that the powers that be want to table.
"Perhaps" sounds like it has renounced all truth and has consigned itself to a regime of opinion. But in truth the society of the friends of "perhaps" is also the society of the true friends of truth, not because they are in the truth, which means inside the secure confines of certainty and dogma, but in the sense of befriending it, seeking it, loving it, exposing themselves to its unforeseeable and dangerous coming, to the risk of the "perhaps." They do not claim to be the truth but to be its friends. These friends of truth are "anchorites," solitaries, outside the commonly received opinions of the community, which means they are dreaming of a community without community.
"Perhaps" sounds neutral, like an anemic inability to affirm or deny, whereas in truth it represents what Keats called a "negative capability," an ability to sustain uncertainty and to venture into the unknown. "Perhaps" sustains our openness to the obscurity of what is going on beneath the surface of what is happening. Those who insist on certainty seize upon the actual and close off an obscure but fertile event. They lack the negative capability of thinking "perhaps not."
The decisiveness of "is" and "is not" keeps the real in check, sweeping the border of the present for illegal entrants, putting a lid on actuality, the fragility and rigidity of which is exposed by "perhaps." "Perhaps" is not a retreat to subjectivity or to some safe inner sanctum in which we are relieved of the need for commitment. It is an unnerving relationship to the real, to the real beyond the real, to the open-endedness of the real. "Perhaps" is attuned to what Heidegger called the quiet power of the possible, where the power of the possible consists in the power of the impossible. "Perhaps" does not withdraw but reaches out; it does not refuse the real but reaches out to its outer limit, to the possibility of the impossible, opening itself to the coming of something, I know not what. Je ne sais quoi. Il faut croire.
"Perhaps" is not cowardice compared to the "courage to be" (Tillich), but the courage required for what Nietzsche calls the "dangerous" perhaps, the courage for the open-ended, for the fear and trembling before the uncontainable, for the unforeseeable, a way to conquer our ontological agoraphobia, our "khora-phobia." "Perhaps" is not an empty wish or idle fantasy that takes a shortcut that skips the hard work of reality, but a desire beyond desire for something coming, for something that I cannot see coming. "Perhaps" says it is possible when it is impossible, believes when it is incredible, still hopes even after hope is lost. "Perhaps" is a steely, indefatigable, resolute openness to what seems to have been closed off—while looking for all the world like a sleepy indifference. Perhaps is sly as a serpent, innocent as a dove, a lamb among wolves.
One clue to what is going on in the present study is as follows:
"Perhaps"—one must (il faut) always say perhaps for God. There is a future for God and there is no God except to the degree that some event is possible which, as event, exceeds calculation, rules, program, anticipations, and so forth. God, as the experience of absolute alterity, is unpresentable, but God is the chance of the event and the condition of history.
One must, it is absolutely necessary, always say "perhaps" for God: God, perhaps (peut-être). Whenever and wherever there is a chance for the event, that is God, perhaps. God can happen anywhere. But history has no future, and God has no future, indeed there is no history or God at all, unless there is a chance for the event. If there is a chance for the event, if the event can happen anywhere, that is God, perhaps. If there is a chance for history, that is God, perhaps
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Table of Contents
Preface: The Gap God Opens
Part 1. The Insistence of God
1. God, Perhaps: The Fear of One Small Word
2. The Insistence of God
3. Insistence and Hospitality: Mary and Martha in a Postmodern World
Part 2. Theopoetics: The Insistence of Theology
4. Theopoetics as the Insistence of a Radical Theology
5. Two Types of Continental Philosophy of Religion
6. Is There an Event in Hegel? Malabou, Plasticity, and "Perhaps"
7. Gigantomachean Ethics: iek, Milbank, and the Fear of One Small Word
Part 3. Cosmopoetics: The Insistence of the World
8. The Insistence of the World: From Chiasm to Cosmos
9. As if I Were Dead: Radical Theology and the Real
10. Facts, Fictions, and Faith: What Is Really Real after All?
11. A Nihilism of Grace: Life, Death, and Resurrection
12. The Grace of the World
What People are Saying About This
John D. Caputo is at the top of his game, and he is not content to reiterate what he has already expressed, but continues to develop his own ideas further by way of a thorough engagement with the fields of theology, Continental philosophy, and religious thought.
Challenging, combative, witty, and incisive, this is Caputo at his best. The Insistence of God is a cry in the postmodern desert for a fuller life to come, not elsewhere, but here among the least of these. It makes bold the mission of radical theology to haunt and disrupt the slumber of confessional theology. It awakens troubling thoughts and solicits deep responses. This is a work of audacity and insight, but above allthough the word is discreetly tracedof love.
For those allergic to theological certaintywhether of God’s existence or of God’s deathCaputo delivers storm-fresh relief: the theopoetics of God’s insistence.
John Caputo has done it again with his latest work of radical theology. He has put the cat among the theological pigeons and flustered the philosophical dovecotes in no uncertain termsa real tour de force or perhaps a tour de faiblesse, choc-a-bloc with unorthodoxy but with a very serious point. It is difficult to know which to admire more his great erudition or his remarkable courage.