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.

A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte

“True atheism”, J. G. Fichte writes in Divine Government of the Universe, “unbelief and godlessness in the real sense, consists in calculation of consequences” (1).  In other words, Fichte seems to be saying that it is not so much one’s abstract beliefs, but instead how one lives (which is, of course, the truest way to learn what one believes – how do they live?), and if one lives as a utilitarian–calculating consequences–Fichte would call her an atheist.   Why exactly this is the case will be considered shortly. Fichte also rejects the notion of an infinite, personal God who exists separately from our world.  His argument may be summarized thusly: When God is understood as a being that has a personality, self-consciousness, will, etc. He/She/It is no longer something completely transcendent, for such characteristics “can be employed only if what they refer to is limited and finite” (2).  After all, it seems that a necessary condition of my having a personality is that there are characteristics which differentiate me from every other individual: there are certain traits and combination of traits which no one else has and vice versa.  Furthermore, my having a specific personality, with such-and-such a trait and without such-and-such other trait obviously necessitates that in virtue of this I am not (qualitatively) infinite.  So, Fichte would say, for me to say that God also has a personality just as I do, is to create God in my own image, which, according to Xenophanes, is precisely what we humans tend to do, and precisely why our “gods” tend to not be godly at all, but merely human creations. (3)

It is also worth commenting on the above qualification of Fichte’s understanding of the name “God” necessitating qualitative infinity.  Spinoza would agree; Leibniz would not.  For this reason, Fichte’s arguments must not be initially applied to all religious conceptions of God as such.  Perhaps this is the best way to understand the concept of God, but it must be allowed that it is an open question.  Some (such as Leibniz) would reject outright the notion of God’s qualitative infinity and instead affirm His/Her/Its quantitative infinity.  But such a discussion is beyond the scope of the present paper.

In the hope that the above sketch of what Fichte rejects about the notion of God has been deep enough to do so, we will move on to what it is that Fichte affirms concerning God.  Fichte writes, “This is the true faith: this moral order is the Divine which we accept.  It is constituted by acting rightly.  This is the only possible confession of faith: to do what duty prescribes” (4).  Very clearly we once again find Fichte affirming faith in God as a way of acting as opposed to an abstract belief concerning metaphysics.  He goes on to state that the “moral world order is identical with God” (5).  The moral world order is, according to Fichte, acting according to one’s conscience out of a pure, Kantian sense of duty, with no consideration for the consequences–consideration which is not moral in any meaningful sense, but simply utilitarian. Thus, the utilitarian denies the moral world order–God–and is therefore an atheist.

So, God is morality and morality is God.  Sound familiar?  According to the New Testament, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (6).  Similarly, John D. Caputo seems to apply a Fichtean concept of God to this verse: “…love is a how, not a what” (7), which means, furthermore, that “God”, too, “is a how, not a what” (8).  For Caputo, this how is unconditional love, and for Fichte, it is acting out of a Kantian sense of moral duty.  So, in this sense, God is more accurately understood as a verb as opposed to a noun.  This is what Caputo refers to as a “theology of event.”

In a way, to the mind of the present writer, this understanding of God makes beautiful sense, and, in another way, is still quite elusive and mysterious.  But perhaps this mystery too is part of the beauty – after all, according to Caputo, “Religion is for lovers” (9).  The question of whether or not this particular notion of God is plausible is admittedly sticky, for, before it can be addressed, certain preliminary questions regarding the probability of the existence of a God, and the question of which religious texts (if any) are held to contain the true writings concerning the nature and actions of this God must be answered.  Does it jive, for example, with the aforementioned passage from 1 John?  In a way, yes, but such a passage must not be extracted from its context; for, according to the tradition in which the author was writing, God does exist as a personal being, and became as personal as possible when He/She/It appeared in the form of a man (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth).  Nevertheless, John is saying quite simply that God is love, which might suggest that he saw Jesus as pure love manifested in human form.  All of this seems to suggest that God is not reducible to a personal being, in the way that, say, I am – for I am and always will be only a noun; I cannot become a verb.  But, according to this interpretation, God can.

However, this also calls into question Fichte’s notion that God must be understood as a qualitatively infinite being.  If God is love, as John says, He/She/It cannot, by nature, also be hatred.  Indeed, to allow our metaphysical abstractions to devolve into something like “Pure Being”, thinking this will defend us from the danger of a less-than-infinite God, will actually, in leading to the purest abstraction of being as such, simultaneously result in nothing.  Pure being is presumably so irreducible, so beyond the pale of particularity, that it is at the same time nothing.  Quite often, it seems, folks who think themselves incredibly pious feel the need to affirm the qualitative infinity of God in order to avoid any sentence beginning with “God cannot…” despite the contradiction.  But the contradiction is not necessary, according to 1 John.  There are such things as intrinsic impossibilities, which do not necessitate that one deny God’s omnipotence or infinitude, if this is in fact what one is hoping to defend. As C.S. Lewis explains:

His [God’s] omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk about God. (10)

And this applies equally to Fichte’s God: if God is morality, God is necessarily not immorality, rendering Him/Her/It less than qualitatively infinite. It seems that Spinozistic pantheism is the only option for one who wants to affirm the qualitative infinity of God, but Fichte is clearly not arguing for Spinozism here.

One final point: I think Fichte offers an interesting insight into the common usage of the name, God (albeit, given an almost ironic reading). There seems to be a tendency to tack God onto our moral statements in order to give them legitimacy. Think about it: “My opinion is (X)” carries considerably less weight than “God said (X)”. Consequently, when we have strong moral beliefs on a certain issue, we find a way to spin it as the word of God, rather than our own, fallible opinions. And in this way, we do seem to conflate the idea of God with our own conscience and almost end up (unintentionally) agreeing with Fichte. And in so doing, “God” becomes nothing more than what the ideal being who perfectly embodies our personal moral views would look like. Thus, the soldier sees a warrior God, the pacifist a God of nonviolent love, the traditional soul (so to speak) a God of conserving tradition and maintaining proper authority, and the progressive soul a God of liberation and freedom from oppression.

It is not my intention to offer the above thoughts in a cynical tone. I sincerely hope that “God” is not simply a result of a Nietzschean will to power, as it were–or, more specifically, ressentiment–driving the weak to find a “metaphysical higher ground”, so to speak, over the strong by saying that it is actually an absolute authority over and above all of us which is the source of my personal moral beliefs. Such a god would be a reactionary concept and nothing more. Perhaps that is the case, but I’d like to think it is not. But then again, perhaps I am simply a naive romantic. If it is not the case, however–if we can speak of God in a meaningful sense as removed from our own ideals–how do we do so? How can we look at the concept of God outside of our cultural context? I think it was Gadamer who said something to the effect of, we cannot escape our cultural context and all of the biases that come along with it; the best we can do is recognize our biases as such and do our best to move beyond them. I think the same applies here. I may never know for sure if my concept of God is authentic or received, but I think that simply recognizing that and striving for the authentic is the best place to begin.

Notes

1. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, On the Foundation of Our Belief in A Divine Government of the Universe. Translated by Paul Edwards, reprinted in Nineteenth Century Philosophy, eds. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 1997), 21.

2. Ibid., 22.

3. Xenophanes writes, “But mortals think that gods are born, and have clothes and speech and shape like their own . . . But if cows and horses or lions had hands and drew with their hands and made the things men make, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, cows like cows, and each would make their bodies similar in shape to their own.” (Early Greek Philosophy, Trans. and Ed. Jonathan Barnes, (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 43.)

4. Fichte, 21.

5. Ibid., 21.

6. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 1 John 4:16b

7. John D. Caputo, On Religion.  (New York: Routledge,  2001), 134.

8. Ibid., 135.

9. Ibid., 2.

10. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 18.