On Religion

‘For the love of God, read this book’ says Patti Whaley, reviewing John D Caputo's latest work...

"Thinking in Action" is an enticing new series edited by Simon Critchley of Essex University and Richard Kearney of University College Dublin. It aims to take philosophy to the public through short and accessible books, each focusing on a major issue in contemporary life. Eight monographs have appeared so far, addressing the Internet, refugees, belief, religion, film, stories, science, and forgiveness; further volumes are planned on literature, authenticity, humour, and the meaning of life.

I sampled On Religion by John Caputo, professor of philosophy at Villanova University in the US and author of several books on Derrida, Heidegger, and ethics. And—I feel obliged to warn you—I loved this book. I loved its passion, loved its ideas, and loved the alternately sassy and incantatory rhythms of its prose. The religion that Caputo describes is the one that I want to belong to, so I may sound more like a convert than a critic.

Caputo’s apologia is based on a post-modern, post-secular reading of Augustine—not Augustine the bishop, but Augustine the lover of God, as he reveals himself in the Confessions. Religion, says Caputo, is about the love of God, love that overpowers and unhinges you, love that by its nature leads you to believe, hope and dare impossible things. But hand in hand with this love is the realization of the unknowability of God, posed as the unanswerable question of Augustine: "what do I love when I love my God?"

Perhaps God is love, so that God is our way of naming our hunger for love; or perhaps love is God, so that love is our way of naming our hunger for God. Or, mutatis mutandis, perhaps God is justice, or beauty, or truth, or life, or transcendence—it is impossible to say; so all true faith must admit a core of agnosticism. And at a level even deeper than agnosticism about the nature of God is agnosticism about the very fact of God: faith cannot completely conquer or nullify our fear that we live alone in an unconscious, anonymous, random universe. Nor indeed should it try to: "the anonymity is inexpungeable; it is first, last, and constant, preceding and following faith, all the while invading the very interstices of our faith", for otherwise faith would be knowledge instead of faith.

Such a love of God may or may not involve a particular creed; indeed, by Caputo’s reading the distinctions between the orthodox and the heterodox, the theists and the atheists, or the religious and the secular are less important than the distinction between those who love "with passion and salt", and those who opt for the safer, more controllable, reasonable, manageable paths of life.

This does not mean that the creedal religions are unnecessary, however; the love of God, however agnostic and indeterminate, cannot exist without an institution that consistently, systematically, publicly preserves the stories and rituals of faith. The confessional religions and the churches must continue to exist, but they must be "open-ended, revisable, honest, on their toes, always threatened and at risk", always aware that they are only the humanly-constructed raft on which we sail the unfathomable sea of faith in God. No religion is The Truth, but all religions are ways of loving God; "religion, which is a human practice, is always deconstructible in the light of the love of God, which is not deconstructible".

By way of illustration, Caputo explores various ways in which this unhinging love of God manifests itself in current society. In the world of philosophy, the Nietzschean critique of the Enlightenment and the disappearance of the Grand Narrative have re-opened the possibility of non-philosophical faith, faith that does not rely on knowledge, logic or reason. This is the best sense of post-modern, not the end of rational criticism but "the end of all those projects of unmasking and of cutting through to what is Really Real, the renunciation of the attempt to speak the Final Word, be that a sublimating Theological Final Word or a desublimating Critical Final Word".

Instead of killing God off for good, post-modernism opens up space for hyperreality, virtual reality, the disembodied nonmaterial reality that we conjure up every time we surf the Internet or talk on our mobile phones, rendering the old matter-versus-spirit distinction "unstable and even slightly obsolete". In the world of popular art, we now get our religion from stories like Star Wars, a space-age re-mythologizing of the virgin birth, sin, the fallen angel, the battle of good and evil, discipleship, and redemption, all working towards the final realization of the one, eternal and indescribable Force. Even fundamentalism testifies, paradoxically, to Caputo’s view of faith; its extremism and violence are symptoms of the effort required to repress the awareness of radical unknowability, to contain the uncontainable, to get God under control and convince ourselves that he is on our side.

True religion, in this view, is not a matter of "a list of propositions drawn up at a conference of well-fed theo-logicians" (ouch!), but the medieval vera religio, the heartfelt love of God, held fast by faith, not by knowledge. It is tolerant of other faiths, because it has faced up to the radical agnosticism at its own core. It is activist, because not knowing The Truth, its only option is to make truth happen, by responding "in spirit and in truth" to the call of love. The content of its activism is justice, because only when we love our neighbour do we enact the meaning of God.

There is much here that is grist for our mill. To those frustrated by SoF’s seeming emphasis on the head rather than the heart, here is both head and heart, not competing with each other, but each urging the other on. To those worried about the tension between SoF’s orthodox non-realists and those more agnostic or even hopeful for some sense of theological reality, Caputo is friendly to both. He cares more about how we go about realizing God than about whether God is real, and preaches woe to those who sit in conferences resolving questions about God but fail to rise up and enact love and justice in the world.

If I were to be critical, I would note that in a book titled broadly On Religion, Caputo writes exclusively from the standpoint of monotheistic religion, with exclusively Christian phrases and examples and with a clearly personal and committed viewpoint. Readers expecting a more philosophical or systematic approach may be disappointed. But I can’t criticize Caputo for not writing a different book when the one he has written is so exhilarating. As the voice called to Augustine, "tolle, lege": get this book and read it.