This is the second post in a series considering the implications of a post-metaphysical God, and likewise, a “religionless religion.” In the first post, which you may read here, I made two (seemingly) contradictory claims: God does not exist, and God is real. Understandably, the most consistent question I received after publication centered upon these two claims. If, as I suggested, God does not “exist,” then how is it possible to say that God is also “real”? That introductory post, apart from the obvious intention of setting the stage for this series, had a hidden agenda. I knew what I was doing.
My journey toward this conclusion—God does not exist, yet God is real—began with the work of John D. Caputo. It therefore seems appropriate to begin our respective journey with his work. Admittedly, I have problems with Caputo’s philosophical theology, even as I am indebted to the same work for pushing me toward a different understanding of God. Some of these concerns will come out later. In the meantime, let us commence our journey toward the post-metaphysical.
In the beginning, there was Reason, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God. Reason was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through It, and without It not one thing came into being.
Or, so we thought.
The central claim of modernity is that Reason deserved a metaphysical status of being—a power and presence, even transcendence—all its own. It was, in essence, to grant it a proper name by capitalizing the “R”. Yet, a name for what? For whom? No worry: Reason would find out soon enough. Just give it time.
I cannot fault modernity too much, no matter how strenuously I reject some of its principal claims. The “breaking-free” of the institutional Church and subsequent rise of scientific discovery are certainly good things. Even so, modernity, with its emphatic emphasis upon the validity, efficacy, and power of Reason, created a dichotomy that I find untenable.
And so does John Caputo. John wrote it before I did, and so to give him the credit he deserves, let me quote a passage from one of his books.
“What happened in modernity is that the relationship between faith and reason was reversed, and now the principle that whoever is in power abuses it was visited upon the church and, what is much worse, since the church often enough deserves the grief it gets, upon God. It is not so much that theology and religious faith were driven out of court as they were hauled into court, made to stand before the tribunal of reason, made to answer for themselves in terms that do not suit or fit religious life or theological reflection, with the result that they were reduced to something less than themselves. Religion and theology were made to answer for themselves before the “Court of Final Appeals,” where the sitting judge bore the name of “Principle of Sufficient Reason,” which meant: anything that claims to be must possess sufficient reason for being.— John D. Caputo, “Philosophy and Theology” (Abingdon Press, 2006; 22-23)
It goes without saying that this tiny book was transformative for my understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology, specifically the relationship between modernity and what constitutes the “post-modern.” In under eighty pages, Caputo captures the spirit of modernity, affirming its value and yet not settling for the errors which arose in the decades following. Before reading this book, I had no clear understanding of what constitutes the “pre-modern,” “modern,” and “post-modern.” These words all meant something, of course, but whether due to ignorance or the limits of upbringing in conservative evangelicalism, I had no actual understanding; if you had asked me to explain the three and how they relate, all you would have received was a blank stare. (And so I thank God for John Caputo.)
Where I began this journey, the journey you and I are now walking together, is the realization that modernity created a dichotomy between faith and reason. In its honorable quest for the efficacy of Reason to determine both the nature of the world and our relationship with it, modernity made a crucial error: it assumed that Reason alone was capable of such enlightenment, that faith, religion, or theology had no claim to such enlightenment. This assumption created a divide which still exists today.
Of course, the caveat to this critique is that faith alone is not capable either. Instead of “either/or” the solution is “both/and”—it is not faith versus reason, but faith and reason working together. There is no clear separation between the two; the dividing line is more hazy than we care to admit. The divide is therefore artificial. And, to be fair, it is not a 50/50 relationship between the two: there might be more faith involved than pure, unadulterated reason, and vice-versa. The relationship is never tidy, but always necessary.
Modernity was a very good thing. It also had problems. While its desire to see human livelihood improved under the auspices of Reason was honorable, the unfortunate result is that philosophy and theology were separated, and faith was brought underneath the authority of Reason. Do you see the dilemma? Modernity rightly sensed an authority problem. The institutional Church was, ostensibly, the arbiter of truth, goodness, and beauty. It declared access to objective truth—God’s truth, presumably—so long as one believed rightly, living their life with faith that the Church did—truly and honestly, we swear!—have claim to objective truth. Yet, the philosophers of modernity realized that this authority was largely predicated upon superstition and fancy, not logic. The institutional Church was doing its constituents a disservice by ignoring simple logic and clear-thinking; all hail the arrival of pure, unadulterated Reason! By and large, modernity was not anti-religion, but anti-superstition. As such, it traded the authority of faith (and right-thinking; orthodoxy) for the authority of Reason to determine that which was true. If religion or faith came out the other end, whatever was left was deemed acceptable for human livelihood, but the preexisting institutional authority no longer had any weight.
Modernity kicked the chair out from underneath the Church, so to speak, by making a simple yet radical claim: human Reason was capable, in and of itself, to delineate between truth and fiction. And yet, modernity did not escape the power-structure it rejected within the institutional Church. It traded the authority of faith and religion for the authority of Reason and logic. Its intention, again, was honorable. (I’ll take my religion without the superstition, thank you very much.) But Reason alone is no more capable of determining truth than faith. Modernity rejected the authority of something and instituted a new authority structure, not realizing that this institutional authority, in and of itself, was the problem all along; faith won’t solve it, and nor would reason…at least not by themselves.
Why? It is here, the inevitable question of “why?” that we come to the insights of the post-modern age. And, since this piece centers upon the work of John Caputo, I will now utilize insights from one of his more recent books to help us continue the journey.
In another (relatively) short book, The Folly of God, Caputo summarizes his central claim: the folly of God is that God does not exist. He reaches this conclusion by engaging the work of the mystics (Meister Eckhart) and existential theologians (Paul Tillich). I wrote a review of this book for the blog of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, which you may read here. It is not my intention to rehash that review, but suffice it to say, the central claim of this book is helpful for pushing us toward the post-metaphysical.
Caputo begins by appropriating Tillich’s claim that any effort to “name” God is to therefore impose a limitation upon God; in other words, because names are “proper” and ostensibly point to a definite “being,” God must necessarily be beyond or above any available name we might surmise. The name (of) God makes God less than God. Caputo, in turn, also appropriates Tillich’s use of the word “unconditional” to describe God, or at least the God that cannot be properly named. God, the unconditional, is that which is not conditioned, whether by a name or any other force.
Now, for those reading who—through no fault of your own, let me assure you!—live and breathe within the boundaries of evangelicalism, let me translate Caputo (and Tillich) in this way: why are there so many names offered in our sacred text for God? Is it because, as we often assume, God is partial to having all of the names, simply because God is God, the only God? Or, perhaps, is it because no name will ever capture Godself as such? Is it possible that when I call you by your name, and you call me by my name, we remain comfortable with the name as such to identify each of us, yet God, being God, will never be identified by any particular name?
This concept of the name (of) God is where I began my journey. After realizing the Achilles heel of modernity—its inability to escape the problem of authority under the auspices of Reason alone—I soon came to realize that when it comes to names and the divine, there was a problem. The first step toward the post-metaphysical is realizing that God is not beholden to any particular name; God is the unconditional. In other words, there is no authority in names, or in language itself, to capture the essence of God. If God exists in any way, it must be unconditional, ineffable, with no status of being that would be identified by a particular name. God is that which escapes naming by virtue of its inexistence.
In the next post, we will continue this train of thought and bring in another interlocutor to our journey, considering the implications of the unconditional and the post-metaphysical. For the time being, let me leave you with this question: If God has a name, what is it?
(The header image for this post is Modernity II by Lia Perjovsch, 2009).