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On Religion, chapter 5: On Religion — Without Religion

April 8, 2007

On ReligionThis is part of a series of posts detailing my thoughts on On Religion by John Caputo, a book read in preparation for the Emergent Village Theological Philosophical Conversation.

Caputo brings his little treatise on religion (without religion) to a climatic end in this last chapter. His basic premise has been foreshadowed all along: you can have religion, without religion. Meaning, one can have a deep love for something outside outside one’s self, be unhinged with a selflessness that defies bean-counter logic all the while avoiding the dark side of religion — the violence, the exclusivity, the ultimate claim to the Secret. While this conclusion is not surprising, Caputo’s steps towards this assessment bear repeating.

It is possible and indeed necessary for religions to have truth. This truth is basically the truth of being unhinged, of looking towards others, doing justice. Doing is the key. Religions do not have truth in the sense of factual knowledge (or Knowledge). They are not keepers of some Secret. Rather, religions are true in as much as they do religion. That is, in as much as they love, selflessly and unconditionally.

Of course, this is not the only option for religion in the wake of the post-secular situation in which we all live; and Caputo is honest to admit it. The other option, when faced with the abyss of a cruel universe that doesn’t care — a universe without a personified Force that watches over us — is to set one’s jaw and go on as the tragic hero. Ultimately, however, Caputo holds that we need to reject this Nietzschean religious tale, because it provides us not with a love of God but a love of machismo. Nietzsche’s view can never bring us to help those less fortunate, the downtrodden, the weak. Ultimately Caputo affirms:

Faith is faith that we can say that certain things are wrong, are evil. Faith is a memory that cannot be undone, and the hope of a transforming future.(p.125)

A beautiful statement! Caputo sees the question of what we love when we love our God(s) to be the essence in itself. The pre-modern answer (à la Augustine) was to see all love as ultimately the passion for God. The modern answer (à la Freud) was to see passion for God as really just a passion for love. But Caputo thinks that the ambiguity in itself is the real answer.

There is, I am arguing, a kind of endless translatability or substitutability, a holy undecidablility, let us say, between God and love, or God and beauty, or God and truth, or God and justice, in virtue of which we cannot resolve the issue of which is a version of which, which is the translation of which, which is the substitute for which. (p.127)

However, in the end Caputo does go beyond this utter ambiguity to state that God is not a “what” but a “how;” and the question should “How do I love when I love my God?” — a question of praxis and deed rather than ontology and dogma.


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