My review was originally puiblished in Philosophy in Review 20:4: 256-7 August 2002
John D. Caputo. On Religion. London and New York: Routledge 2001. Pp. 147.
$50.00 (Cloth: ISBN 0-415-23332-1); $12.95 (Paper: ISBN 0-415-23333-x)
This book attempts to explain, and indeed to exuberantly preach, the good news that post-modern philosophy has to offer for religious faith. Like any good sermon, it is peppered with readings of verses from the New Testament. The leading proponent of the new gospel is Jacques Derrida, whose religious “turn” was the subject of another recent book by Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion. On Religion offers an accessible introduction to and extension of themes from that earlier book. Remarkably, Caputo has produced a genuinely popular work of post-modern philosophy, almost completely shorn of arcane terminology and word-play, and aimed at a general readership.
On Religion is largely a meditation on a question asked by St. Augustine in his Confessions: “What do I love when I love God?” While Caputo empathizes with Augustine’s existential situation, he rejects his doctrinal solutions. In fact, Caputo celebrates faith’s unknowable mystic center. Any attempt to define the object of religious devotion merely trivializes it. Such is the sin of fundamentalism. While people who are convinced that they have achieved ultimate and final knowledge of God often possess tremendous spiritual energies, they are also prone to violent fanaticism and lack the humility required in order to appreciate the religious accomplishments of people outside their tradition. The overthrowing of all such ultimate and final answers is what deconstruction is all about.
The postmodern critique targets not only religious fundamentalism, but also the anti-religious tradition founded by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. There lies Caputo’s good news for religion: the deconstruction of secularism clears new intellectual space for the return of God and the religious life. While we must never forget the hard won lessons of the modernist critiques of religion, postmodern philosophy allows us to once again approach and learn from the old theological masters. Unfortunately, Caputo does not offer any detailed explanation of exactly how the Enlightenment’s deadly sting has been removed. In the book’s weakest chapter, he seeks out evidence of the postmodern religious revival in elements of popular culture ranging from the Hollywood spirituality of Star Wars to the angelic incorporeality of virtual life on the internet. One wonders what these phenomena have to do with a serious appreciation of the limits of the ‘Enlightenment project’.
The content of this new-style religion is, on principle, somewhat up for grabs. Traditional faiths still serve as useful repositories of potent symbols, myths and rituals, yet they must face up to their all-to-human origins and engage in constant self-criticism and growth. Otherwise they may succumb to the fundamentalist temptation. Postmodern religion (“religion without religion”) is less concerned with the cognitive content of theological doctrines than with living life as a morally engaged spiritual quest. The faithful have opened their minds to the realm of “the impossible”, i.e. to those goals and aspects of life that stand beyond the pale of prudential planning and control. Love, exuberant, inexpedient, indiscriminate, and disorienting, should be religion’s guiding virtue. Love becomes indiscernible from the Deity itself. Absolute justice, symbolically represented by the Messianic Age, is another “impossibly” imprudent religious compulsion. Here lies the hidden danger of Caputo’s vision. Love and justice find their broadest realization through political action, and politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Twentieth century history teaches us how easy it is for “impossible” politics to pave the road to hell with radically good intentions.
Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College