Radical Theology and Radical Hope

In light of recent events in Ferguson, I have been thinking a lot about hope – why we hope, for what we hope, in what we hope, etc. The truth is, these days I have difficulty not feeling incredibly cynical about the possibility of a better future. It often seems that all is indeed lost and there isn’t much left to do about it.

I am informed on a fairly regular basis that “human nature” is just too corrupt, greedy, and selfish, that the world is too fallen, to ever hope to achieve the (supposedly) utopian societies envisioned by radical political philosophy, and that salvation can only come through escape. We must hope for the coming of the Big Other, who will smite our enemies and lift us from the filth that is this earth. And not only are we to hope that this will happen, we are to truly believe that it will happen. It is a certainty.

As a post/non-theist, it is easy to buy into the idea that without this sort of certainty that everything will be okay and we will be saved in the end, I have no reason to hope, nothing for which to hope, nothing in which to place my hope. However, I think it is precisely this uncertainty – perhaps even this apparent hopelessness – which allows for the possibility of genuine hope. It is precisely because I don’t know what will happen, because the future is open and could go in any number of possible directions – because the responsibility rests upon us – that I can hope.

“What remains now is to hope,” writes John Caputo, “and to hope, Levinas says, requires first to be driven into a state where, calculatively speaking, it is hopeless, where the odds are hopelessly against us, to hope against hope, as St. Paul says.”[1] He goes on to write, “Hope is not hope if can see what you are hoping for on the horizon.”[2] If I can see the Big Other on the horizon, and know with certainty that he will come and will prevail, I have nothing in which to hope. All that’s left to do is wait for his arrival. I am absolved of all responsibility.

The author of the Book of Acts expresses his own ambivalence toward this cloud-staring – which seems to function as a means of regaining control over our uncertain and (potentially) hopeless state – when he has two men appear to the apostles following Jesus’ ascension:

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’[3]

These men seem to be essentially saying, “your business is here, on earth, in the messiness of daily human life, which is dark and violent and uncertain and often seems utterly hopeless. But that is the world that Christ came to redeem, and you will find him in the faces of the least of these, who need bread and water before they need the promise of a blissful hereafter.” Now, of course, I took a liberty or two in that rendering, but I think it gets the point.

Radical theology[4] has taken up the Judeo-Christian notion of Messianism, but has begun to talk, following Derrida, of a Messianism without the Messiah. According to Derrida, when we deconstruct a name, which is always historically contingent, we seek to unleash the undeconstructible event that is harbored within that name. Example: Laws are contingent, debatable, and subject to change; however, what the law aims at is justice, and justice, says Derrida, is undeconstructible. In other words, justice can never be contained or grasped in its totality, for to do so would be to render justice a lifeless thing. Justice is always to come, and if we think we’ve got it that is precisely the moment at which we can be sure that we don’t. As Caputo writes, “The event can never be held captive by any particular instance of the event, never reduced to any present form or instantation. It would be the height of injustice, not to say of arrogance, to say that justice is finally realized in some existing form, in some present person or state.”[5]

It is the same, in Derridean deconstruction, with the Messiah. Particular persons may come, but the Messiah, the messianic event harbored in that name, can never properly arrive, can never be fully and completely present. But Derrida puts it even more strongly. God in this sense must be a completely and utterly “impossible, unimaginable, un-foreseeable, unbelievable ab-solute surprise.”[6] For this God to truly be God, for Derrida, she must be so totally Other that there is no conceptualizing or imagining her in any way. Otherwise, we would be able to grasp the event harbored in God’s name, and effectively empty God’s name of its eventiveness.

However, Richard Kearney, in The God Who May Be, challenges this notion of the absolute otherness of God.

Yet – to repeat – how could we ever recognize a God stripped of every specific horizon of memory and anticipation? How could we give content to a faith devoid of stories and covenants, promises, alliances, and good works, or fully trust a God devoid of all names (Yahweh, Elohim, Jesus, Allah)? If the powers of human vision and imagination are so mortified by the impossible God of deconstruction – leaving us ‘without vision, without truth, without revelation’ – then must not our encounter with the coming of the other find itself not only blind but empty? We might be tempted to put to Derrida here the question he put so adroitly to Levinas in “Violence and Metaphysics” – how is alterity to be experienced as other if it surpasses all our phenomenal horizons of experience?[7]

According to Derrida, the to-come is the most important part of the democracy-to-come or the justice-to-come, because those names – democracy and justice – may change. But the event that they harbor, the to-come, will not. But if we are talking about the Messiah- or justice- or democracy-to-come, surely they cannot be absolutely beyond our comprehension, otherwise we would not know them or even be able to experience them. On this model, it seems, we have no idea precisely what is to come, other than that it will be so completely other that can never see it coming. But it seems here we would run up against Meno’s paradox[8] and could no longer talk meaningfully about hope if we don’t actually know what we are hoping for. Isn’t it justice and not injustice? Love and not hatred? Yes, the names justice and love may indeed be historically contingent names that harbor uncontainable events, but I would rather say that the names can still be meaningful insofar as they can’t be referring to just anything – which seems to be a dangerous implication of Derrida’s approach here – but that for which we hope and desire (i.e., again, justice not injustice, love not hatred, etc.).

Kearney would rather situate our messianic hope – our hope for a more just future – back into the biblical tradition, which, he thinks, means to put the responsibility back onto our own shoulders. Rather than a Big Other who will inevitably come and rescue us from our helpless state, Kearney’s God-who-may-be is utterly contingent upon our acting to bring her about. This possible God is the justice-to-come, the hope and desire that draw us forward into an open and undetermined future, where justice will flow like waters only if we are willing to act.

Kearney finds the first suggestion of such a God in Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. The Hebrew is commonly rendered to favor Greek notions of being and substance, as “I am that I am,” but Kearney argues that a more faithful reading of the original Hebrew, which would not have carried this Greek influence, would be, “I will be what I will be,”[9] or, “I am who may be.” In this sense, God is revealed as a promise, a possibility-to-be, rather than pure actuality. To quote at length:

In the circular words, I-am-who-may-be, God transfigures and exceeds being. His esse reveals itself, surprisingly and dramatically, as posse. The Exodus 3:14 exchange between God and Moses might, I have been suggesting, be usefully reread not as the manifestation of some secret name but as a pledge to remain constant to a promise. God, transfiguring himself in the guise of an angel, speaks through (per-sona) a burning bush and seems to say something like this: I am who may be if you continue to keep my word and struggle for the coming of justice. The God who reveals Himself on Mount Horeb is and is not, neither is nor is not. This is a God who puns and tautologizes, flares up and withdraws, promising always to return, to become again, to come to be what he is not yet for us. This God is the coming God who may-be. The one who resists quietism as much as zealotry, who renounces both the onto-theology of essence and the voluntarist impatience to appropriate promised lands. This Exodic God obviates the extremes of atheistic and theistic dogmatism in the name of a still small voice that whispers and cries in the wilderness: perhaps. Yes, perhaps if we remain faithful to the promise, one day, some day, we know not when, I-am-who-may-be will at last be. Be what? we ask. Be what is promised as it is promised. And what is that? we ask. A kingdom of justice and love. There and then, to the human “Here I am,” God may in turn respond, “Here I am.” But not yet.[10]

Due to considerations of time and space, I cannot go into great detail regarding this provocative reading – I highly recommend Kearney’s book – but I would like to suggest, in a fusion of Caputo’s deconstructionist reading, and Kearney’s hermeneutical reading, that this “kingdom of justice and love” is the God whom we desire and for whom we hope as we struggle for justice. More precisely, this kingdom is the event that is harbored in the name of God.

This is not, to be clear, to claim at some point a being called God will literally come into existence, but that there is something going on in this name, something which cannot be reduced to the name, nor captured in historical instances, or ever fully conceptualized and foreseen – all of which is to say, an event – for which we are striving as we pursue this kingdom of justice and love. The name of God itself is historically contingent, but, as Caputo says, it “is very simply the most famous and richest name we have to signify this open-ended excess and an inaccessible mystery.”[11]

As we struggle and hope against hope for justice in our racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic world, I think there is something very real, but perhaps so deep, so utterly meaningful, that it is bursting at the seams of our understanding, that it irresistibly draws us forward into a kingdom of justice and love, which is always to-come – insofar as it cannot become a graspable thing – but not so completely unforeseeable as to exceed even our desire and our hope, our songs and stories, our gods and angels, or even – perhaps! – ourselves.


 

[1] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 256.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Acts 1:10-11, NRSV.

[4] Everything that I say about radical theology is admittedly provisional. I think the writings of radical theologians are incredibly provocative and I continually return to them and feel challenged by them. At the same time, I am sympathetic to such critiques as that of Walter Kaufmann in The Faith of A Heretic, who argues that liberal and radical theologians need to let their yes be yes and their no be no, rather than redefining God into existence. Ultimately, however, I tend to think the deconstructionist approach, which does not want to redefine God, but to deconstruct all of the social and historical contingencies in the name of God and see what is left, is a valid one.

[5] John D. Caputo, “Spectral Hermeneutics: On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event,” in After the Death of God, ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 55.

[6] John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 73.

[7] Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 76.

[8] “And how are you going to inquire about it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? For what sort of thing, from among the ones you do not know, will you take as your object of inquiry? And even if you do happen to bump into it, how are you going to know that it is the thing you did not know?” From Meno, in A Plato Reader: Eight Essential Dialogues, ed. C.D.C. Reeve, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2012), 72.

[9] This alternative possible rendering is included as a footnote in my NRSV Bible.

[10] Kearney, 37-38.

[11] Caputo, “Spectral Hermeneutics,” 53.