A PostHope Hope: a book review

Can Hope survive  with the collapse of epistemology certainty? Is God necessarily existent for spiritual experience? Can the nihilism of our age open us up to the possibility of grace? Phenomenologist and deconstructionist John D. Caputo wrestles with these questions and more in his intellectual memoir, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim). The book is a spiritual autobiography of sorts, but it only reveals the broad contours of Caputo’s life, focusing on the development (or deconstruction?) of his thoughts on God, faith and certainty.

Hoping Against Hope by John D. “Jackie” “Brother Paul” Caputo

Caputo was raised in a devout Catholic family. He spent four years as a De LaSalle monk,  before his illustrious career as a philosopher and theologians (thirty-six years as professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and professor of philosophy of religion at Syracuse University for seven years). In Hoping Against Hope he gives voice and personality to these various stages of his intellectual development. As a child Caputo was an altar boy in pre-Vatican II Catholicism who had memorized the Baltimore Catechism. Caputo refers to this younger self  as “Jackie.” “Brother Paul,” is the monk Caputo who grew callouses on his knees in an attempt to learn prayer and had a love for the mystics. The professor, “John D.,” is the the philosopher who’s tongue was loosed by Jacques Derrida (the other Jackie) and the French Postmodernists.

Caputo writes:

My life as a philosopher gas taken place in the distance between theology and philosophy. Like everyone else, however far forward I thought I moved, I was always circling around my origins. I soon found that the audacity of the philosophers who “dare to think” according to the Enlightenment motto, fails them when it comes to theology. There they panic, in fear of contamination. They treat the name of God like a terrible computer virus that will corrupt all their files, or like a real one, like the Ebola virus, where the odds of recovering are against you. So, mostly at the beginning of my professional life, when “John D.” stepped forth and responded to the title “professor,” while telling Jackie to stay at home, I was worried that they would say, “This is not philosophy, this is just his religion.” But my religion is between me and Brother Paul and Jackie and several others. How can they know anything about that? (104-105).

With the Continental Philosophers, Heidigger, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotoard, Levinas, and others, Caputo thoroughly rejects the narrative of the Christian tradition and the official line of the Roman Catholic church. He dismantles dogma, expresses his antagonism toward  the afterlife and a God that is either ‘ the Prime Punisher and the Royal Rewarder (64). He also regards the arguement between atheism and theism to be wrong-headed. With a Zen-Koan-like-air he proclaims, “God does not exist. God insists” (114). He gives fresh and unique interpretations of scripture and imagines the textual variants he wishes to one day uncover. Caputo’s thoughts run far a field from classic Christian orthodoxy.

But his project isn’t wholly negative. Caputo upholds active service to the poor and marginalized and the non-religious religion of love. He says his idea of nihilism is stolen from the mystics and he employs insights from Miester Eckhardt and Marguerite Porete (both mystics ran a foul from official church teaching). What Caputo proposes is a religion of the Rose–“The rose is without why; it blossoms because it blossoms; It cares not for itself, asks not if it’s seen” (27). He brings this verse from Angelus Silesius into conversation wiht Lyotard’s religion of the smile and posits a nihilism where all of life is received as a gift  (with or without a giver), where all of life is received without condition (181).

As an intellectual memoir/spiritual autobiography I give this three stars and thought it was an interesting read. I especially loved the ‘short nocturnal dialogue’ where Caputo imagines a dialogue with himself at his different stages of faith and intellectual development. I appreciate how Caputo’s postmodernity leads him to pluralism and relativism without the need to posit an underlying universal faith in God.  However, I am unconvinced by Caputo’s theological vision and see his radical (or weakness) theology as incompatible with the Christian gospel of grace. I was aware of Caputo before reading this book, so wasn’t particularly surprised by what he says here.  I have read him before and have seen him lecture. I find him fascinating. I also find it ironic that I received this book from Cross Focused reviews. If Caputo mentions the cross at all (and I don’t remember that he does in this book), it is clearly not his focus. Anyway, I received this book in exchange for my honest review. ★★★

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