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Postmodern Hope: The Coming of the Lord


This is the eleventh post of a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. The reading schedule, along with links to previous posts, can be found here.

John Caputo recently spoke at Subverting the Norm II in Springfield, MO.  The conference tagline and question was, “Can Postmodern Theology live in the churches?”

Caputo’s answer (of course) first involved deconstructing a few words in the question. 

Then, he paused, and after recognizing that we can’t place every word in scare quotes and carefully explore their multiple meanings, he answered the question.  In short, his answer was: “No, not really.”  But, his long answer, one I’ll summarize, was more interesting.

“Postmodern theology,” he said, “does not really live in the churches.”  Rather, it haunts them.  Like a specter it moves from the halls of academia into classrooms down the hall from the sanctuary.  It filters through the pages of books, blowing like the wind where it wills through cracks in the walls and whispering between the lips of those gathered in churches.  It strikes fear in the hearts of fundamentalists, keeps pastors awake at night, and motivates those who love truth.  Through deconstruction, it burns away the accretions of church history, revealing present truth and keeping it molten and malleable.  Postmodern theology, or as Caputo prefers to call it “radical theology,” happens on the edges — in hushed conversations at the edges of the foyer and in summer reading groups on fringe websites.

Gschwandtner introduces Caputo by identifying a trajectory over his career, moving from an affiliation with Heidegger, to seeking a middle ground with Derrida, and finally identifying closely with Derrida’s “religion without religion.”  Caputo, she says, “is particularly interested in the structure of religious hope and desire and thoroughly disenchanted with (and often very critical of) particular religious traditions or commitments. All this is driven also by a concern for justice and hospitality, which is expressed primarily in terms of openness and affirmation.” (242).  This affirmation is echoed in Derrida’s “Viens, oui, oui” (“Come, yes, yes”) which Caputo often uses as an open ending to his books and which he sees as the least “bad” summary of deconstruction (248).  This positive summary may surprise critics of deconstruction who often misunderstand that the destabilizing agency in deconstruction is not a reckless relativism or an acidic skepticism but rather an affirmation of the hope contained in our contingent beliefs and practices for the unimaginable and inconceivable which is à venir (“to come”).

Similar to the way postmodern theology haunts the churches, Caputo sees this messianic hope haunting all attempts at deconstruction.  He says, “Deconstruction, turns on a certain pledging of itself to the future… to what is coming back from the past, and to what is arriving from the past as the future.  Deconstruction is, in that sense, a messianic religion within the limits of reason alone, that is, it is inhabited and structured in a messianic-religious way” (The Prayers and Tears of Jacque Derrida, 149-50, quoted in Gschwandtner, 249).  This hopeful messianic structure, without any content, is primarily hope for a coming peace and justice.  In Gschwandtner’s reading of Caputo, this hope in hope itself avoids the different concrete messianisms of our particular religions which divide us and push us to war.  In this, one can begin to envision what Caputo means by “religion without religion.”

However, Caputo is not antagonistic toward all religion.  In fact, he is critical of Heidegger’s exclusion of religion and, in particular, his antagonism toward the Jewish and Christian myth of the Holy and call of the other.  In excluding the biblical call to justice and favoring a poetic neo-paganism with a “sweeping myth about Being’s fabulous movements through Western history,” Heidegger ties the Germans and Greeks together in a dangerous metanarrative which silences other traditions, employs violent themes, and ignores the victim (244-247).  This series of fatal flaws may explain Heidegger’s failure to speak prophetically, in the biblical sense, against the power of the Third Reich.

Caputo turns to questions of power and weakness in his more recent works.  Rather than understanding God in a literal or onto-theo-logical sense, for Caputo the name of God is an event which awakens hope for justice and is indistinguishable from that hope.  This understanding of God defies the traditional theological emphasis on God’s existence and omnipotence and instead recognizes the weaker force of the invitation to peace, patience, and forgiveness. 

Caputo associates this “weakness of God” with Paul’s theology of the cross.  Using Christ’s revelation of God’s self-emptying and attracting love as an interpretive lens, Caputo rejects the “traditional doctrine of creationex nihilo [out of nothing] in favor of creation ex amore [out of love] (259).  Since creation ex nihilois connected to the Greek philosophical concepts of omnipotence and perfection, Christians who understand creation this way ironically face the same difficulty that Heidegger brought upon himself in preferring Greek myths to biblical ideals of love, the call to relationship, and goodness.

While I find much of Caputo’s work inspiring, I feel he goes too far in some areas and is too shallow in others. When it comes to his analysis of theological warfare, I don’t think he goes deep enough. It is not our religious differences that divide us so much as what we hold in common: our tendency to form our identities in opposition to others. We need to discover ways to be confident in our unique identity without an insecure hostility in order to begin real relationships with others. On the other hand, Caputo’s insistence in the futility of hope in a bodily resurrection, refusal of the possibility of a literal advent, and denial of God’s very existence, fan the flames of the traditionalist (Adventist) embers burning in my heart with concern that he has taken deconstruction a few steps too far. 

Our discussion of the philosophers highlighted in this book has shown us that postmodern theology may not comfortably live in the church; but, churches will surely die in our postmodern society without the important apologetic role of postmodern philosopher/prophet/missionaries like Caputo.  While Caputo’s critique of organized religion and heretical statements may cause many traditional Christians to fear his radical ideas and deconstructive critique, if we listen with ears to hear, we might discover in the specter of his thoughts the right questions to begin asking if we mean to expand the Kingdom of God in our respective time(s) and place(s).

The idea of an ever expanding and evolving Kingdom of God fits well with Caputo’s ongoing hope; but, a final full revelation of God (as the Messiah’s second coming is popularly (mis)understood) would silence every question and fulfill every human desire, bringing hope to an end.  Instead, Caputo offers me hope that the deep longing for a better future that wells up within me when discussing a successful procedure with a sick child’s family, or rejoicing over my developmentally delayed daughter’s new skill, or singing “We Have This Hope” with the cracked and broken voices of my Adventist family, need not, indeed must not, ever come to an end.  

We hope in the God who has already come to us in the mystical, the Other, deconstruction, poetry, sacrifice, truth, beauty, liturgy, brokenness, faith, hope, and love.  And just as each coming has opened up countless new vistas and inspired deeper questions, we are reminded that the God of excess cannot be contained in our ideas and can never be fully revealed or comprehended even in an event like the second Advent. Thus, we should never be closed to the possibility of hope for more, infinitely more, to come. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20 KJV).

Brenton Reading is a pediatric interventional radiologist practicing at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO.  He is one of the co-chairs of the planning committee for the 2013 Adventist Forum Conference, which will focus on the hope of a strong and kind Christian identity to play a healing role in interfaith relations.

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