Caputo and Tillich’s Theological Similiarities


Last night I read an interview with John Caputo in the latest book showcasing his theology entitled Cross and Khôra. I’ll always have a soft spot for Caputo. His work introduced me to postmodern thought especially Derrida. His work also freed me from the illusions of much of my theological upbringing. While I do not support all of his work (especially his theology), I’ll never forget reading two of his more philosophical works on deconstruction and religion: Prayers and Tears and Deconstruction in a Nutshell. The interview got me thinking about the content of his theology. Caputo argues for a weak theology. While his theology is more or less pluralistic, at its base is Christianity (more specifically the life of Jesus of Nazareth). While he would agree with Paul Tillich that God does not exist, insofar as he does not consider God to be a ‘being’, he still believes that there is event that goes on in the name of God. He calls this event that calls which calls us unconditionally, albeit in the name of weakness. Virtues such as the forgiveness are paradigmatic for Caputo. In typical Derridean fashion, forgiveness’s condition of possibility is only realized in its im/possibility. True forgiveness is forgiveness that extends itself unconditionally. That is to say forgiveness can only forgive the impossible. Furthermore, love is only realized when we love the unlovable (i.e. our enemies). Otherwise, love is simple economics. Who wouldn’t love their friends when it pays off in the end?

Caputo’s God is weak in the sense that God has been divested of all God’s sovereignty. Caputo believes that all political concepts, following Schmitt, are secularized theological concepts. I’ve also been listening to Caputo’s course where he critiques more confessional theologies in favor of a radical or weak theology. Confessional theologies are metaphysical and strong. Think of Barth’s God that intervenes without conditions with a straight perpendicular into the world. Caputo critiques such a notion, because he believes phenomenologically we would have no way to experience such an event. The unconditional cannot be experienced phenomenologically because there would be no way for us to integrate such an experience. He likens Barth’s God to the 800 lb gorilla sitting in the corner of the room. This contrast between Barth and Caputo reminded of the passages Genesis 15 & 17 that document the Abrhamic covenant. In the first story we have the God that reminds us of the immanent anthropomorphic God of Genesis 2-3 who walks in the Garden with Adam. In the later story God approaches and Abraham falls face down on the ground. This would be the God of Barth. When the Word of God breaks in all we can do is tremble and pray for mercy. Caputo prefers the first God, the God who walks with Abram and shows him the stars, the God who walks with Adam. This is the God who calls unconditionally to serve the widow, orphan, and stranger (a concept borrowed from Levinas and the Jewish scriptures).

Here I believe we begin seeing parallels develop between Tillich’s God who is the ground of being and Caputo’s God who is the weak unconditional call. God is not up there sitting sovereign over humanity. Another parallel is Tillich’s definition of faith as that which concerns us ultimately. In a similar vein, Caputo (following Derrida following Augustine) believes God is best understood when we ask the question, “What do I love when I love my God?” This passion, this theology of desire is the theology Caputo is attempting to capture. He takes this to be Biblically grounded in idea of kenosis, and St. Paul’s verse in 1 Corinthians 1 that talks about the weakness of God. Tillich’s understanding of faith as that which concerns us ultimately is in many ways a reformulation of Augustine’s question.

However, differences emerge when we begin contrasting both Tillich’s and Caputo’s view of the cross. For Tillich, the cross is a symbol that literally embodies Jesus’ ultimate concern. However, ultimately the cross points beyond to the glory of Christ. Caputo stays at the cross. The cross is Jesus’ renunciation of violence, God’s identification with the victim. According to Caputo, no debt is lifted from us on the cross, no metaphysical transaction occurs between God and man, but rather a responsibility is imposed on all of us. We have seen the example of God in Jesus, now we must go and do likewise. I think if Caputo could choose a gospel ending, he’d probably end with the traditional closing of Mark. Jesus is out on the streets, he’s not in the tomb. At the conclusion of the gospel of Mark we have no guarantee of redemption, or eternal life. All we have is an exhortation to incarnate the life of Jesus. This is the risk of faith. Perhaps there is no afterlife or resurrection of the dead, but faith is ultimately a heeding of a call that demands a risk be taken.

I said I have some criticisms of Caputo. In After the Death of God, he criticizes Vattimo for being a supersessionist. That is to say Christianity is a completion and perfection of Judaism. Caputo attempts to move beyond this. That is why he views such notions as unconditional calls like the one Levinas mentioned in our responsibility to the widow, orphan, and stranger as being found in multiple traditions. Neither religion is better; both instill within us a passion for justice, a passion for the impossible. However, I’m reminded of Zizek’s critique of Levinas in the Neighbour where he accuses Levinas of being too Christian. This might help explain why Christian theologians are so prone to appropriate Levinas’ thought. Furthermore, I question to what extent Caputo’s theology is not supersessionist. He argues for a weakness of God, but can he honestly ground this in Scriptures? Is the omnipotent, metaphysical God really just a perversion of Greek metaphysical thought? I don’t think a faithful reading of Scriptures would uphold such a reading. I think this weakness of God is almost completely grounded in the Greek Bible, and it would be difficult for Caputo to reconcile his notion of a weak God with the tribal God of the Hebrew Bible.

Either way, Caputo’s theology of desire and weakness, is intriguing. I need to read more of Tillich because I’m realizing more and more both hold such a similar view, albeit Caputo’s has rid his theology of Tillich’s ontological baggage. I’ll try and make a detour through Tillich’s Systematic Theology later on this year.


12 Responses to “Caputo and Tillich’s Theological Similiarities”

  1. James H Says:

    Excellent post, a bravura display of your erudition, and a good example of why I miss you when I am doing Theology Pub down here in Austin. We’re doing “The Courage to Be” this semester, by the way, at the request of group members (I pushed for “Jesus: God and Man” personally…maybe in the summer). Missed you over the holidays…

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Glad to know Theology Pub is still up and running. The Courage to Be is not bad, however I found it to be more existential and less theological than say Dynamics of Faith. Either way, Tillich is great, and it’s fun to taunt Barthians like Phil with Tillich’s theology. Speaking of Phil, he’s not reading Church Dogmatics this year with me, and he has no excuses. I don’t even like Barth as much as him, I’m mostly just doing it to learn more about his theology and other theologies along the way. Pressure people to read Pannenberg, I like him more than Moltmann, if you can’t convince people to read that long book consider Theology and the Kingdom of God. It’s shorter, and not as erudite but it’s solid. Jesus: God and Man is a true tour de force plus he pretty much gives you a concise history of the debates of Christology.

    I also didn’t get a chance to come down to Austin, maybe in May or August.

  3. Reader Says:

    I like Caputo too. He is, in fact, the only living philosopher with a book that I have read (meet “the anachronist”). At least my father-in-law was impressed that a Syracuse professor held this dubious distinction (he’s an 85-year old alum). : )

    I read (not studied) Tillich’s Systematic Theology too early in my intellectual history to be able to offer a comparison. Now I don’t seem to have time, my theological interests lie in different directions (I thought). However, I sensed his importance enough to collect used copies of most of his books over the years. Now your “similarities” theme between Caputo and him intrigues me.

    My Caputo book is only the little volume On Religion, which was one of the highlights of last year’s light reading for me (except the “Star Wars” chapter). I actually bought a copy after, because I think there’s something there (a post-secular stance that entails a kind of getting over and getting out of the atheist secularist cul-de-sac of the last century). Caputo asks the question, If God is dead, why is religion getting bigger?

    I tried for weeks after to start those books of his which you mention above, but always found other, earlier authors to draw me away from the pile of his books I had home from the library.

    My own preference runs to late Christian civilization (which I think ended in the 1930s). The churches, I think, and the times, contributed to a situation in which religion stopped attracting the best minds. Until this changes, I think the “religion getting bigger” phenomenon is not necessarily a good thing.

    This summer I took aim at “reading along” with prof. Caputo’s published reading list for his radical theology course this fall, but when I browsed the Zizek and other volumes, I blanched. Life is too short to spend 3 months trying to pierce what, in my opinion, is a haphazard and flawed meta-narrative. I forced myself to purchase the Hegel edition only (the Phil Rel.), at least thereby gaining a source book for the erroneous view of religion from Marx to Zizek.

    But when you say “I’m listening to Caputo’s course…” do you refer to the fall course? I’d be interested.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Really, in my opinion On Religion was one of his worst books. It was way too pop-philosophy for me. The ones to check out are Radical Hermeneutics, Prayers and Tears of Derrida, Weakness of God, or After the Death of God (shorter version of Weakness).

    To understand Caputo’s post-secular weak theology require that one understands his sources and his theological influences. I’d say one should get a hold of Derrida and Heidegger along with Thomas J J Altizer and Mark C Taylor. Taylor had a more atheistic, Hegelian interpretation of Derrida best summarized in book on his a/theology entitled Erring.

    I was referring to Caputo’s class on radical theology of this fall, which I finished just yesterday. I had completed Milbank and Zizek’s book the Monstrosity of Christ this spring, so it was helpful to hear him situate the debate. I really enjoyed it, and Caputo attempts to try and propose a third way beyond atheistic Christianity and radical orthodoxy. I’m probably somewhat more sympathetic with Zizek than Caputo, but ultimately Altizer’s one of my theological hero in this debate (liberation theology is something I also highly value).

    Which meta-narrative are you referring to? Hegel’s? Zizek’s? Milbank’s? The death of God? What’s erroneous about Marx’s view of religion?

  5. Reader Says:

    I think Marx was in error to attempt an analysis of religion devoid of the objective reality of God. This error seems based in the positivist and materialist fallacy of the absolute adequacy of scientific method, on an honest reaction to the religio-political machinations of the Prussian Church-State complex, and on Hegel’s confused mysticism of the state.

    I think Kierkegaard’s is the more true-to-life model for any “attack upon Christianity.” SK goes after the distortions and hypocrisy which manifest alongside all externalized spirituality that is not motivated by love.

    I have all of Marx’s (and Engel’s) writings on religion, and I can say the early pieces are full of an immature snarky and materialist swagger, impossible to an author who had even the least existential stake in the reality of faith’s object. They read (to me) like the sneering rants of a college political columnist. I am amazed that Marx’s concept of religion could be taken seriously by non-communist scholars who were not interested simply in refuting him.

    As for Zizek, yes, it is his long-winded meta-narrative that I can never begin in earnest. As I said, life is too short. I do not understand his religious commentary except insofar as it extends to the mere externals of religion. Just to that extent it is fine. But not profound.

    The religious interest is paramount with me (and the criticism of its external manifestation important but already well-accomplished by prophets and heretics, whom I prefer to atheists), so there is not much of Zizek left to my liking.

    Maybe when I retire from the 50-hour grind of work and commute (hopefully in 8 years!) I will have time to see what folks like Peter Rollins (whose books I like) sees in Zizek.


  6. Jeremy Says:

    I’ll admit that I haven’t read any of Marx’s original texts. My understanding of Marx’s view of religion is in many ways dependent on liberation theology’s appropriation of Marxist social theory. I can understand your reservations of analyzing religion in a wholly materialistic way. However, I do think religion often does function as a drug to keep people down by promising them promises for a better life in the future. Heaven and hell are so often used as tools of manipulation to maintain the status quo.

    I guess I’m not sure what your understanding of Zizek’s Christianity is. It follows the trajectory of Hegel’s reading of Christianity supplemented with Lacanian psychoanalysis. I’m not quite sure if you’re asking for a summary. But, here’s my best shot.

    I’m pretty familiar with Peter Rollins and his work with Ikon. I think one of Zizek’s concepts (from Lacan) that Rollins implemented was the understanding of the big Other. The big Other is any master signifier that occupies the sovereign position in the social order. It demands our attention and gives meaning to life. Hence, the big Other might be God, capitalism, history (in Stalinism). The idea for Lacanian analysis is helping the patient realize the big Other does not exist. The analyst’s goal is to help divest the the patient of the belief that anyone can fully give meaning to his suffering. It pushes back responsibility onto the client and demands that he take responsibility for their his problem. Reading Christianity through a Hegelian lens, Zizek also understands that Jesus experiences the same disillusionment on the cross in his cry of dereliction. There’s no Father God out there to save him, he’s stuck. God is dead. I understand Rollins’ structures his community in such a way that the only leader fit to serve is the person who refuses to lead. Hence, the big Other (in this case the pastor) refuses to structure the social order, everyone must do their own part.

    The movement of Zizek’s theology can be understood like so: God the Father negates himself in the incarnation, he’s ultimately negated in the crucifixion. The resurrection is the Spirit’s presence among the egalitarian community of believers. The Holy Spirit, for Zizek, is merely the social bond connecting the community of believers after Jesus’ death. With the foreclosure of the big Other (Father God), Christianity offers a possible paradigm for a society not controlled by ideology.

    Adam Kotsko summarizes Zizek’s use of Christianity quite well,

    “Well, the master-signifier is a type of social bond, and Spirit (in Zizek’s reading) is another type of social bond — at no point is a “literal” God at play. What the “Christian experience” gives him is a model of a self-abdicating master-signifier — that God “dies” means that the entire role or conceptual “slot” occupied by God is closed off. It’s always possible for the community defined by “Spirit” to relapse and become yet another ideological community, and Zizek thinks the Christian community in fact did that in practice, but something analogous to “the Christian experience” is a necessary step to producing a non-ideological community.”

    Let me know if you’d like any more explanation. If you didn’t in the first place, well hopefully that was a somewhat intelligible summary.

  7. Reader Says:

    Very helpful. This saves me a lot of time. Thankyou.

    I dropped a short critique of this “doubt from the cross” narrative on Peter’s blog when he first posted it. I did not know it originated with Zizek.

    These guys go too far for me, on the whole. But in so far as the postmodern critique can be applied to the mythology and the “outward manifestation” of religion, I stay tuned for developments. I’m just not used to philosophy that itself sounds so much like mere narrative, midrash, d’var torah, etc. This morning I was reading vol. 2 of Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies (on Hegel and Marx). There’s a lot to ponder.

    Thanks again for bearing with me


  8. Jeremy Says:

    I’m not sure if it started with Zizek. I’ve written a couple of posts on the death of God. Both Bonhoeffer and Chesterton likewise spotted a very atheistic aspect of Christianity. It’s not merely the cry though. It’s also what happens afterward. Dead bodies rise, earthquakes, darkness, something seriously bad happened. Something was out of joint. There’s also the idea of kenosis where God empties himself. Another aspect that God negates Godself through the Spirit in love. But, hey if you don’t buy it, you don’t buy it. I can only tell you what they think.

  9. Reader Says:

    I go this far – – a real incarnation and a true bestowal of a truly holy spirit should eventually spell the end of “religion.” Not the death of God.

    The end of human, evolutionary, anthropological, superstitious religion.

    But that’s far from a death of God. And yet there is a lot of “death of God” talk that I can use for “death of religion.”

    Thanks again

  10. Jeremy Says:

    I guess it really all comes down to what you mean by death of God. I follow Altizer in understanding that the incarnation means the transcendent God has emptied himself into immanence. I also, think historically that Modern Philosophy means the death of God because the locus of authority in society was transferred from the church to the individual subject. So, would your end of religion talk resemble Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity?

  11. Reader Says:

    I have not read Altizer nor seen him expounded until I saw your summer posts today. But you have been so kind I feel I ought to.

    Here it sounds like you’re saying Altizer’s theory utilizes an incarnation-concept but dismisses all forms of resurrection/ascension, in order to posit a crucified, post-transcendent God, modally transformed once and for all “out” of transcendence (in which mode he is no longer found and therefore “dead”) and “into” immanence (in which mode he still lives) as the potential spirit of a new global humanity. Am I close?

    If so, there’s still a spot there (the modal transaction) where the curtain seems drawn for a moment, and we have to trust. But this kind of thing is encouraging to a hard-working writer like myself, who might someday require the same reasonable suspension of disbelief in his own readers.

    As for religionless Christianity, I have to admit a difficulty in picturing its purest form. Bonhoeffer’s little hint hasn’t helped much. I can at leaast say that he could not have meant a vehicle of “secular salvation” – that was Hitler’s idea.

    I’m still hoping Barth’s sec. 17 (CD.I.2) will give me some leverage that I can use without having to simply diss all forms of religion other than Reformed Christianity (which I think may be his intention). I’ve got some other promising things home from the seminary library just today. I’m trying to keep as manner platters spinning at the same time as possible, hoping for light.

    Thanks again, Jeremy, you are a very pleasant host and a teacher.


    God is true – – though all believers love a lie! (my current motto for my project)

  12. Jeremy Says:

    I think your assessment of Altizer is more or less correct. In his book the Descent Into Hell, he understands the ascension to be a reversal of the incarnation. The transcendent God takes flesh, and this process is truly fulfilled by Christ’s descent into hell. The resurrection is merely the Word or Spirit reborn into the community of believers in which the gospel functions to unite all followers of the Way. In some way the resurrection and crucifixion are simultaneous occurrences in which both Christ dies and his Spirit is resurrected .

    Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity was merely hinted at in Letters and Papers. I think most clearly he argued for a secular Christianity in which the church would be a servant church wholly committed to serving the world. It’s something of a kenotic ecclesiology. I think the best model at constructing a religionless Christianity was attempted by liberation theologians in Latin America. They understood that the church needed to meet the poor’s needs in the streets.

    Soon enough I’ll be in Barth’s CD I/2, and I’ll be sure to post my thoughts on his Christianity without religion once I get there. The one thing that worries me about Christianity minus religion is that evangelicals seem so prone to embrace such an ideal. They’ll often say it’s not about religion but about a personal relationship. This is probably merely just an inevitable result based on a highly individualize interpretation of Christianity. I suspect Bonoheffer’s sketch was intended to be a communal effort that was more interested in making Christianity useful and not simply inffectual. I’m sure there will be more to come though in the weeks and months that follow. Thanks again for the engagement.

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