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Interview met John Caputo

Voor het tijdschrift Volzin was ik gevraagd om de beroemde Amerikaanse theoloog en godsdienstfilosoof John Caputo te interviewen. Het interview ging via Zoom en vond plaats op 8 januari, dus slechts enkele dagen na de bestorming van het Capitool door Trump-aanhangers. Ondertussen is de Nederlandse versie van het interview te vinden op de website van Volzin (betaalmuur), maar dit interview was noodgedwongen slechts een deel van het gesprek dat ik met Caputo had. Ik weet dat er ook in Nederland liefhebbers zijn van het werk van Caputo. En terecht, want het is een bijzonder interessante denker. Hij is ook één van mijn grote inspiratiebronnen. Gezien de belangstelling voor het werk van Caputo, heb ik hieronder voor de liefhebber het volledige Engelstalige transcript van het interview met Caputo afgedrukt.


I really like your writing, it’s so poetical. Theologians don’t write like that anymore. Most theologians are so analytical.

“Yeah, it is not simply stylistic. What we’re talking about does not admit of a sort of cold-blooded conceptual analysis. You shouldn’t discard cold-blooded conceptual analysis. It’s important. I’m not dismissive about it. But to get to what we’re talking about you need another kind of discourse. More supple and subtle. I don’t shy away for the word ‘poetic’. But I didn’t quite start out writing like that. It’s not that I didn’t dare, but that I didn’t think of it. I didn’t think it was the way you were supposed to write. If you look at my earlier stuff, it’s absolutely straight scholarly discourse. There is nothing unorthodox about it.

It is not until I got tenure and became a full professor that I came to write in this alternate way, in this poetic way. But that doesn’t actually happen to be an accident. It happens to be the case that around that time I was reading and taking into serious consideration what Derrida was saying. But I always tell my students: don’t start out writing like that, because it’s not professionally prudent.”

So what was the response from your theological and philosophical friends?

“Well, when you’re in continental philosophy… I like to say that analytic philosophers minor in Science and continental philosophers minor in Literature. So, I could get away with it among continental philosophers although I did get a certain amount of heat. A friend of mine who was a very generous and open-minded analytical philosopher told me once about one of my books (raising his finger) ‘don’t write any more books like that’. (Laughing.) Recently I wrote a book called Cross and Cosmos and it got a review in the Notre Dame Review which is the most prominent review crossfeed in the United States and it was absolutely panned because of what you’re saying, for its poetic style.

So yeah, I do get a certain amount of kickback, but at this point in my life I couldn’t care less. It’s serious, because in a certain way you could sum up what I’m saying as that I think that theology in the strong sense of logos, of concepts, propositions and arguments, has to be weakened into theopoetics, that is to say a figurative [way of thinking and speaking]. I think that the Scriptures are a form of literature. But they’re not any old kind of literature, they’re very powerful and serious kind of literature. They are theo-literature, or theopoetics.

Hegel had it right in a certain way. He said religion is more sensuous than philosophy but less conceptual. And it’s more conceptual than art but less sensuous. More sensuous than philosophy, more conceptual than art: perfect! Religion is figurative, imaginative, what Hegel called a Vorstellung, an imaginative production, but it’s very serious and important. It’s like what Tillich said about a symbol. He said two things: never confuse a symbol with what it’s a symbol of, and secondly if you understand what a symbol is, never say ‘it’s only a symbol’. People kill each other over symbols. We live in this very serious symbolic, figurative, imaginative, poetic discourse. And when I’m writing about that, I try to respect that, I try to do it no injury. And I do think that too much of analytic philosophy of religion injures it.”

You also call your theology radical theology. What is so ‘radical’ about it?

“Radicalism is actually a traditional image for foundationalism. Radical metaphysics conceives itself to be radical, foundationalist knowledge. I use the term ‘radical’ almost ironically. I mean by ‘radical’ not radically foundationalist, but radically exposed, radically vulnerable, radically honest but also prepared to admit that you don’t know what’s going on. It’s like entering combat without any weapons, shield, sword or gun. Your exposed and vulnerable.

So I think that theology has a deep apophatic quality to it. It is limit discourse, you’re talking about things that are on the the limits of our experience. And when you’re there make no pretense that you know what’s going on. Classical apophatic theology talks about non-knowing as a form of praise. I’m not praising anything. I’m saying: I don’t know what’s going on. I’m genuinely amiss, genuinely lost. I’ve become a great question to myself, Augustine said. And I mean it. It’s not that the darkness for me is because the light is too bright and I can’t see. The darkness for me is that it’s dark!”

So if someone asks you whether you believe in God, how would you respond?

“I take the word ‘God’ very seriously. And I think that something is going on in the name of God, what I call (following Derrida) ‘the event’. The event that takes place in the name of God. And I take that very serious, but I think it is mythological to identify God with a being somewhere. So no, I don’t believe there is a being somewhere, a supreme being, that answers to the name of God. I think that is mythological thinking. But I don’t think that’s the end of theology, it’s the beginning! Of radical theology.

So I think there are two stages to get to the radical theology. The first is this. There’s a ‘reduction’ in a Husserlian sense from God as a supreme being to what Tillich would call ‘the ground of being’. God as the being of being, being itself. This first reduction deprives God of this sovereign, independent, self-subsistence, and brings God down to the level of immanence. Then a second reduction is to deprive this ground of being of all its ontological depth and recognize that we don’t have access to the very depths of being. So what’s there is what in standard philosophical turn is a phenomenological event where we come in contact with… the mystery that we are all and that things are.”

And how do you think we can experience this kind of mystery?

“I uhm… We’re led to experience it. We’re born into a tradition in which this discourse is already up and running. People have asked me: why do you keep talking about God, why don’t you just drop it and say what’s on your mind? But I didn’t choose it, it chose me. I was born into this world, I grew up in this utterly catholic conception in Philadelphia, where everybody was either Irish or Italian and then there were other kinds of Catholics, but hardly any Jewish people (there was one kid in the neighborhood). And I was completely assimilated into that world and ended up in catholic education and a catholic religious order. I first wanted to be a priest, because I thought this was my way into the classroom, because that’s where my interests were, in education. That was my world. I inherited it, appropriated it and began thinking it through.

And then the decision came whether I wanted to continue my search either in theology or in philosophy. And that was a hard decision. It was the late 1950s, early 1960s, pre-Vatican theology. I didn’t want to get into theology, I didn’t want to be pulled over by the police of Vatican theology for driving under the influence of philosophy. So I thought: I go into philosophy so I don’t have to deal with, you know, the crap. I don’t have to deal with the powers that be. But the theology was always at arm’s length. There was a while where I was only working on deconstruction and phenomenology, but then the underlying theological things that always had interested me resurfaced.

And I ended up doing continental philosophy of religion. It was chiefly Heidegger that got me going. Because Heidegger has a similar way: started out in this very Catholic world, wanted to be a priest, found phenomenology and begun philosophizing clearly coming from some religious atmosphere. And it was classic philosophy that he started out in. So we inherit all these words and ideas like God and truth and love and being, and we start thinking them and worrying about them. If you were born in another place in another time, none of these things may have hit you. But it had me before I had it.”

So would you then say it’s all relative? That it doesn’t really matter how you call… it? In your book The Folly of God you call God ‘the unconditional’. So do you say: it doesn’t really matter how you call God? Or is there a difference? For if you speak about ‘the unconditional’, that’s a kind of philosophical, abstract concept, whereas for many people the word ‘God’ has an aura of relationality around it. You can’t have a relation with the unconditional.

“No, I don’t think it’s all the same. I think like a phenomenologist, it’s not settled by decisive arguments but we are guided by more persuasive accounts. There are stories we tell that are more fetching, ring true in a way that we can resonate with and that capture some of our experiences. Whereas other accounts don’t. Say you go to a film and you come out and someone asks you: ‘What do you think about that?’ and you’ve been touched but you can’t really say how or why. And then the next day you read a review of the film and you say: ‘Oh my God that’s it! What he said, that’s it!’ So again, some accounts are more persuasive than others.

I don’t think it’s all relative, you can come up with very distorted versions of reality, very hateful accounts even. So there’s always an ethical and political dimension to it. Or you can come up with skeptical, despairing accounts. When I talk about the unconditional I refer to what Tillich says about it. He says God is the unconditional, but the unconditional is not God. So God is one of the ways we name the unconditional, but the unconditional itself is just sitting there and names are bouncing off it. You don’t have a name for what we are calling the unconditional, because as soon as you have a name, you circumscribe it with a certain set of conditions, of contingent, historical constructions, whether they are literary of philosophical or theological or scientific. You’ve then begun to construe it, to interpret it, which is important. Some ways of construing are more solicitous, amiable or loving than others.

But the idea behind radical theology or radical phenomenology is that you can never get to what Hegel calls der Begriff. That’s a great word, because people sometimes say ‘can’t get your head around something’ in English. That’s perfect, that’s exactly the right way to translate the term Begriff. Because you try to grasp it, comprehend it. And that’s what you’re not going to do [in the case of the unconditional], not in philosophy, not in theology, and not in physics. I love Hegel, but his notion of der Begriff… I’m with Kierkegaard on that, who calls Hegel ‘the absolute Professor’.”

You also speak about ‘the insistence of God’, it’s even the title of one of your most important works. How would you explain that concept to someone who hasn’t read your books?

“Kierkegaard lets in the Postscript Johannes Climacus say: ‘the name of God is the name of something to do’. It’s not a nominative, it’s an imperative. Or as I like to say: the Kingdom of God should be thought in the subjunctive. It means what the world would look like if ruled by God instead of the powers and principalities. And what would that look like? That’s the portrait of the topsy-turvy upside-down world of the New Testament, where the outsiders are in and the insiders are out, and the last are first and the first are last, and this I have come to bring good news to the poor, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to visit the imprisoned, etc.

That’s the way the world is supposed to look if God rules. And that’s not the typical exegesis of a poem. That’s an imperative, it’s saying: I’m talking to you! Make this happen! The Kingdom of God depends on you, on me. It’s not merely a theoretical object, it’s an imperative, it’s a command, it’s a call. People like Marion and Heidegger love the image of ‘the call’ that addresses us. It’s a quiet call, or as Derrida says: it’s a spook, it’s a specter that’s haunting us, disturbing you. Just as you lay quietly, you can’t sleep. Something is disturbing you. That’s what getting itself said in the New Testament under the Kingdom of God. So then I put it in terms of the insistence of God. God is a call that keeps insisting itself upon us, and keeps insisting itself into our lives, and it’s up to us to make it exist. So, insistence in the simplest terms means that the name of God is not the name of a cosmic super-being, but it’s the name of a call.”

So it’s also an ungoing process.

“Sure. And if you take physics seriously, they say it’s all expanding into eventually nothing, into the dissipated lowest energy.”

That’s a kind of hopeless situation, isn’t it.

“Well, it’s kind of hopeless if you want to live forever. I like to look at it as a sort of ‘Camelot moment’. Once there was a spot like Camelot. Once there was this moment. In a certain remote corner of the universe, the universe became aware of itself and celebrated itself, and said: Yes, yes, oui oui, and then as Nietzsche said, ‘the universe moved on and left us behind’. So it’s a sort of precious moment, and probably it’s multiplied an infinite times throughout the universe. Tomorrow some PhD in physics could say that this is all not true, I would just say: okay. I call this the ‘nihilism of grace’, it turns life into dust, transient, transitory but made more precious by the finitude.”

So life becomes more precious because of finitude than it would be if it existed forever.

“Simone de Beauvoir wrote a novel in which a fourteenth or fifteenth century count takes an immortality potion which works. The story then is about how his life is rendered meaningless, because he can’t be brave, he can’t risk anything, nothing is at risk, so he can’t love anything. It’s a great novel. It’s exactly the opposite of Neoplatonist Christianity which says that something which doesn’t last forever is not worthy of our love. You should use it but not love it. That’s nihilism, that’s cynicism.”

Obviously in the US the last four years have been quite a turmoil and the storming of the Capitol was quite an apotheosis to that. Did these four years influence you in your theology? Did it change anything?

“Yes, because you have to see how complicit a certain brand of Christianity has been in all of this. Even though there is another brand of Christianity that is the voice of resistance to it. The last four years taught us something about Christianity that we knew but we didn’t quite face up to it. Christianity is not a body of doctrines, it’s a form of life. And for better or for worse. It’s an impassioned form of existence.

I think that the radical Christian right is responding to the unconditional, to the ground of being, but reactively and in a regressive way. But they think – and I think they’re right about this – that their entire world is disappearing. It’s not just a matter of political opinion, but they think a world is disappearing. And they’re right, it is. But they’re dealing with it in a regressive, reactionary way instead of a more progressive, enlightened way. But it’s the very ground of their being that’s at stake, that’s why they’re so violent.

The unconditional is fraught with violence, for better or for worse, there’s a thin line between of a martyr and a terrorist, it’s a matter of interpretation. The world is not as they hoped for, a world of white, pious Christianity. These people who don’t look like them, talk like them, behave like them, they’re a threat to the very meaning of their lives. And that actually is true. They identified Christianity with white people and with a certain mode of life. And it’s threatened, and what Trump did was he tapped into that. Viscerally, he didn’t think it through, but he tapped into it and exploited it. And they responded to it in a hateful reactionary way.  They’re not reading the New Testament well, they just read parts of it.

But there’s something seriously at stake there which has to be addressed and the problem with the left is that they ignored it. Problem with the left is that it doesn’t understand religion. That’s so wonderful with the election of Warnock, the just elected pastor of the same church as Martin Luther King here in Georgia. He’s a black Baptist pastor. The black Baptist church has been the most important and profound political force in the US in the last hundred years, it was the backbone of the civil rights movement. It’s why there was a civil rights movement. It drove it with the power of the unconditional.

When you can hear what the call is saying, when you respond in a felicitous way to the call, it is profoundly productive. And if you don’t, it’s profoundly destructive. It’s Derrida’s pharmaca, the poisoned cure, it will poison you if it doesn’t cure you. The demonic and the divine are the two faces of the unconditional. It can unleash violence and it can unleash heroic service to the other.”

So is there a way in your view that those two powers can be brought together so that they work more harmoniously?

“Yeah! The answers we are looking for can be found in the tradition, in classical philosophical and religious sources. The enlightened texts and teachers and people who have shown the way, such as Martin Luther King and other activists. The problem however is more complex and is about political strategy. It’s all very murky. But at least the left needs to wake up to the importance of religion in these people’s lives, and it needs to address their needs in a serious way. Because we live in a divided world where Republicans have identified themselves with common people and Democrats are identified with the elite. And that’s completely crazy. The Democrats are on the side of the common person, the poor and the middle class, not big business and elite structures! But the left has lost this.

Richard Rorty wrote years ago that the left is no longer interested in poverty or labor unions, but with running the English department. The left are not paying attention to the working poor. And someday – he wrote this in 1979 – a strong man will come along and will appeal to these people and wipe away the gains of the last forty years. Part of that is not understanding the role of religion as a progressive force. ‘I have come to clothe the naked and the feed the hungry and visit the imprisoned and announce the year when debts are forgiven’: that’s Martin Luther King, that’s the kind of vision Christianity has and is. And the left has become what Schleiermacher calls ‘the learned despisers of religion’. And that’s a political mistake.

So in terms of strategy, the left needs to recover its sense of a certain kind of religion. That’s a hard pill to swallow for the left, for the right has made itself so ugly, and reactionary and antiscientific and ignorant and racist and sexist and homophobic and xenophobic, so ugly that I myself find myself wondering whether I want to use the word religion anymore. Religion can’t save anyone right now, somebody has to save religion. It’s very hard for the left to understand it. You and I know this kind of Christianity is there, Martin Luther King knew it is there, and Pastor Warnock knows it’s there, Obama knew it was there. So that would be important. That’s part of the solution.

There was a time that people assumed that Catholics were Democrat, when I grew up Catholics were Democrat. Why? Because they were still second and third generation immigrants. My grandfather was born in Italy and we were poor or lower middle class and only a few gotten out of that, the Kennedy family is a famous example. And this got stampeded by the abortionist movement more than anything else. When I grew up, Catholics and Protestants hated each other. Now they’re in alignment on abortion and other cultural issues. So the abortionist movement has become reactionary, and some people like Trump exploited that. Republicans are great in stirring up resentment and xenophobia, homophobia, they know how to reach that. And Trump did that.

Abortion is such a complicated issue. There’s something instinctual to resist it. There’s the ethical issue of the defenseless other, the fetus, almost the definition of the defenseless other. It is a good example of the ethics of the lesser evil. People don’t have abortions because it’s a good idea. It’s because it’s the lesser evil, sometimes that is what you do. So it has to be handled with great sensitivity to human life. And it has to be handled intelligently. The white anti-abortion position is the white anti-poverty position. It is not an accident that there’s a direct correlation between poverty and unwanted pregnancy and consequently abortion. As you go up on the economic scale, they become educated, they could have a lot of abortions, but they can avoid unwanted pregnancies. So Democrats have to say things like that.

I’m not a political strategist, but I do think… the last four years have confirmed my view that religion is a form of life and that expresses itself in generous and self-sacrificing forms of life and in very reactionary forms of life. But it’s the unconditional, the apophatic, it’s the depths that are rising up and erupting. For better or for worse.”


Vind hier meer boeken van John Caputo, waaronder de prachtige Nederlandse vertaling Hopeloos Hoopvol.


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2 thoughts on “Interview met John Caputo

  1. Hoi Rinie,

    Het hangt er wat vanaf hoe goed je Engels is. Ik kan alleen maar aanraden om zijn boeken in het Engels te lezen, omdat hij nogal veel werkt met woordgrapjes die vaak in Nederlandse vertaling wegvallen. Hij schrijft bovendien erg goed, bijna poëtisch. Ik vond de Nederlandse uitgave Hopeloos hoopvol goed vertaald, ofschoon ik het Engels toch prefereer (Hoping against Hope). Ook The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional is goed te volgen, een relatief dun boekje van zo’n 140 pagina’s, ook erg goed geschreven. Soms kun je tweedehands de Nederlandse vertaling van zijn boekje Religie (uit 2001) nog te pakken krijgen, maar hij heeft dat onlangs opnieuw in een sterk aangepaste en uitgebreide versie uitgebracht (On Religion. Second Edition, Routledge 2019), dus die zou ik dan aanraden. Dit zijn allemaal boeken voor een vrij breed publiek, en dus behoorlijk toegankelijk, en toch uitdagend (met name voor meer traditionele gelovigen). Uitdagender want eigenlijk voor een meer academisch publiek bedoeld, is Caputo’s “trilogie”: The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (2006), The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (2013) en Cross and Cosmos: A Theology of Difficult Glory (2019). In die laatste boeken gaat hij ook vrij uitgebreid met andere denkers (zoals Derrida) in gesprek, die zijn echt een stuk lastiger, maar uiteindelijk vormen die werken wel het vlees dat zit op de botten die de essentie zijn van zijn meer publieksvriendelijke boeken. Om zijn denken te proeven zou ik persoonlijk aanraden om met Hopeloos hoopvol of het Engelstalige origineel te beginnen.

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