The very first book I got around to reading by John Caputo was his first edition of On Religion (London: Routledge, 2001). I loved it. It’s now in a much revised second edition (2019) that I’m still absorbing. One thing that’s changed dramatically is that, as I had hoped would happen, Caputo has gotten over most of his suspicions about process thought’s versions of metaphysics and God. In the first edition you wouldn’t have known that these movements even existed, but he’s now a bit of a fan. He still wants to “weaken” it even further, for reasons I find less than compelling. But I doubt that my reasons for differing from him are any more compelling than his.
Readers of the 2001 edition, with its focus on “religion without religion,“ may also be intrigued to learn that the new edition has a whole chapter (pp. 93-109) entitled, “Can there be a religion with religion?” His short answer is, yes: “One very good reason I am not trying simply to oppose in a binary way this more radical religion to the confessional traditions and their theologians is that confessional theology is very often just where radical theology is found—right there, precisely inside the confessional traditions. Truth to tell, one of my favorite places to locate religion without religion is in religion itself” (2019, p. 108). Since I am both a member and a leader in one of those confessional traditions, I’m especially glad to see this.
But I’m still a bit exasperated that he then writes as if those of us who welcome and share insights like his are liable to get in trouble with our churches. I’ve never gotten in trouble. I know plenty of ministers in my church (and in Brent Hege’s church) who haven’t gotten in trouble for that. Some of them are even bishops. A Baptist minister in Toad Suck, Arkansas, might get in trouble, but an Episcopal or ELCA minister in Indianapolis would probably get a lot of appreciative feedback (plus, I’m sure, a little grumbling, but nothing our respective bishops would take seriously).
A major influence on Caputo’s becoming a cautious fan of metaphysics is his ongoing dialogue with perhaps my favorite process theologian, Catherine Keller. Indeed, the two of them seem to belong to a mutual appreciation society, writing glowing blurbs on the backs of each other’s books. It’s Keller who convinced him that he is more of a theologian than he thought he was. And she also convinced him that a version of “metaphysics” or “ontology” is still viable even after poststructuralism.
So now Caputo defends a kind-of, sort-of, metaphysics: “What [Catherine Keller and I] mean by this word metaphysics is ‘a series of metaphors mutely appealing for an intuitive leap,’ as Whitehead says, a work of creative imagination construing our place in the world and the world’s place in us … We might describe our common ground here … [as] a kind of metaphysics without Metaphysics.” (Online here. Keller’s response is here.)
More recently, Caputo has suggested replacing “metaphysics” and “ontology” with “onto-hermeneutics”: “The field of experience is neither purely epistemological nor purely metaphysical because these two abstractions—the epistemological subject and the metaphysical object—have not yet been constructed… So conceived, onto-hermeneutics has to do with that point where we reach out to the world while the world rises up to meet us, or we meet the universe halfway … Knowing-being and being-known are one and the same event described from different perspectives.”—Cross and Cosmos: A Theology of Difficult Glory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019), pp. 232-233. Works for me.
And Caputo is also much more open to panentheism than he once was. His second edition of On Religion devotes most of a chapter (pp. 138-157) to an entirely appreciative portrayal. “On the panentheistic model, God is the divine milieu, not Captain Marvel. God is a wellspring of life, not a Superhero in the Sky … God is the inexhaustible source from which things—all things great and small, persons and agents, rocks and trees and cats—come to be and into which they return. God is not a Supreme Being but the ground of Being” (p. 150).
But for all his appreciation, Caputo still would rather not identify himself as a card-carrying panentheist. He’s clearer about this in Cross and Cosmos: “without signing onto [panentheism] in its strong form, I would like to file an amicus curiae brief on its behalf, to go on record as a friend of the court if the panentheists are ever put on trial. Some of my best friends are panentheists” (p. 209).
He remains a friend of the court, not a partner in crime, because he still finds even Catherine Keller’s panentheism, as well as Paul Tillich’s, too “strong.” Tillich and Keller (and I) would all maintain that, even if there is an eventual end of the physically measurable universe as we know it (a “heat death” or a “big rip”), that does not spell the end of every sort of God/world ensemble—countless ways of newly interacting with the uniquely all-inclusive way. This ensemble is simply not reducible to its somewhat recurrent aspects that enable physical measurement. Tillich, Keller, and I simply do not know how to take seriously “the possibility of no more possibility,” and we do not find it implied by the projected “heat death” of a totally isolated system. After all, a totally isolated system is only a useful fiction. So as Caputo rightly observes, our panentheistic metaphysics “shares with classical theistic metaphysics the expectation that God’s being is everlasting, inexhaustible. The God of panentheism may give up its omnipotence but it is not going to give up the ghost. While [e.g., Tillich’s] God is not an everlasting being, God is the everlasting ground of being … For Tillich, [etc.,] God’s ‘eternity’ means that human history may come and go, but God cannot go” (pp. 220-221). Nor can some non-divine network.
This is what Caputo finds too strong. It needs a second “weakening.” “The strong point of process metaphysics is to weaken the metaphysics of the omnipotence of a superbeing in the sky and replace it with a metaphysics of the omnipotential. But that is only the first weakening, which must be followed by a second weakening, in which the omnipotential is weakened into the finitely potential, where we concede that the universe is not omnipotential if that means running forever on ever-renewable power” (221). Instead, he insists, we need to take “the possibility of no more possibility” seriously—really, really seriously.
I’m just not convinced. It’s not just that I reject the possibility of no more possibility, it’s that I don’t even know how to consider it for rejection. It’s a blatant contradiction in terms. Maybe we are supposed to file it under his “sphere of the impossible” (2001, p. 10), but maybe it’s time for me to add that whenever Caputo uses “the impossible” I’m reminded of the Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” For Caputo the impossible means “something of whose possibility we just cannot conceive.” In other words, by the impossible he means what may indeed turn out to be possible even if not currently conceivable. He doesn’t mean the strictly impossible, like “p and not-p” (2001, p. 10), which is a blatant self-contradiction. But in my book, that’s precisely what the possibility of no more possibility is, not just something of whose possibility we cannot currently conceive, not even an Hegelian “noncoincidence,” but a blatant self-contradiction.
What a reader might find most puzzling here is that he seems to think we should take this possibility with utter seriousness largely because of his reading of some (but definitely not all) physicists. It’s puzzling because Caputo himself still insists that “physicists need to examine their unexamined philosophical presuppositions” (Cross and Cosmos, p. 237). But surely the very idea that “possibility” can be exhaustively defined in terms of physics is a philosophical presupposition. He seems to be granting physicists the go-ahead to define “possibility” in that way. And yet he still chides them for trying to re-define “nothing”: “When the physicists are tempted to say things like the Big Bang is ‘creation from nothing’ or that a quantum void is ‘absolutely nothing,’ they would do well to have a philosopher at their side to whisper in their ear a more lawyerly rephrasing” (Cross and Cosmos, p. 237-238). Why such skepticism about the absolutely nothing (which also means no possibility) at our universe’s beginning but not at its end?
But perhaps the underlying motivation for his granting such authority to some cosmologists is that it gives him a further reason to celebrate what he calls the nihilism of grace. “The perishability of our lives and loves—which leads some to cry ‘nihilism’—does not destroy life’s value; it constitutes it, giving life more intensity, which is why I speak of the nihilism of grace … The prospect of the final setting of our little sun in stellar death is the setting of a new faith in life here and now … Life is its own ‘because.’ If we asked someone why they love life, they would likely be lost for words. In the nihilism of grace, there is nothing you would want life for, nothing that would not be more life, nothing other than life. So, life is literally lived for-nothing, for nothing other than itself, without why” (On Religion, 2019, p. 168).
Affirming the immeasurable value of the here and now, come what may, is of course something that panentheists, process or otherwise, want to affirm as well. But surely part of its immeasurable value is that the here and now is not just here and now and in fact cannot be circumscribed. And that is what a “stronger” panentheism aims to affirm. I don’t think this undercuts the nihilism of grace. It’s not that I need for the here and now (including me here and now) to have an endless dimension, it’s that I just don’t know how to think otherwise with any consistency, and don’t know how to take seriously attempts to support thinking otherwise. But maybe I need to ponder this more.
In any case, for the time being, while I just don’t feel drawn to follow Caputo’s lead, I can still, like him, consider myself a friend of the court. Some of my best friends are deconstructionists.