Philosophy and Theology (Horizons in Theology) Paperback – 30 Mar 2002
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About the Author
John D. Caputo is Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Humanities at Syracuse University inSyracuse, New York.
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The first six chapters go by quickly and enjoyably, mainly because Caputo is a masterful writer, about as good as any I've run across so far. He speaks with conversational directness and clarity while also maintaining philosophical rigor and precision. The key ideas I gleaned from these six chapters are as follows:
(1) Philosophy and theology are kindred quests because they're both concerned with the big questions, even if they (purportedly) come from different angles.
(2) In the premodern era, (religious) faith dominated reason, but there was still meaningful interaction between the two.
(3) During the modern era, reason became dominant and faith went into defensive retreat. Science likewise gradually managed to marginalize both philosophy and religion. Descartes delimited God to what can be understood through reason. Kant likewise limited our understanding to a rational natural and moral order, dismissing any other ideas about God as superstition. Hegel added a historical dimension, but still centered his model on reason.
(4) The Romantics reacted to Enlightenment rationalism and scientism by attacking its austere incompleteness. Kierkegaard asserted that rationalism can never catch up with faith.
(5) Postmodernism challenged the hegemony of reason and science by noting that all reasoning and even perception involves using a perspective (language game, paradigm, etc.), and that requires tacitly accepting all the presuppositions built into the perspective. As a result, infallible "Truth" is unattainable and faith is unavoidable. This situation evokes incredulity towards meta-narratives and steers us to instead accept and appreciate details, differences, history, multiplicity, complexity, etc.
(6) In the postmodern era, each religion involves a perspective which is irreducible to any other perspective, and so it must largely be understood on its own terms, rather than according to the dictates of rationalism or science.
All of this seems reasonable to me and, again, Caputo lays all of this out in beautiful prose. This prelude thus sets the stage nicely for what I hoped would be an innovative and compelling postmodern integration of philosophy and theology in the final two chapters, using Derrida and Augustine as representatives of each camp. To present his vision, Caputo's tone shifts in these last two chapters, becoming more poetic and thus appealing largely to our aesthetic judgment rather than our critical faculties. The chapters are short, so Caputo offers only a preliminary sketch rather than a detailed portrait. Let me try to present a miniature version of his sketch, effectively a sketch of a sketch:
Augustine and Derrida are both involved in a restless search from which they can't escape, and perhaps they don't really want to, even though there's plenty of suffering along the way. Augustine's search leads him to a love of God, but he must still struggle to answer the question "What do I love when I love God?", so his search never really ends. Derrida is unable to give the name "God" to the object of his search, so his search is more indeterminate than Augustine's, but the fact that Derrida relentlessly continues to search reveals that he's also motivated by a kind of faith and hope, and maybe even love. While these mutual searches are full of ambiguity and thus disorienting, the consolation prize is that they at least generate passion for life, which thereby elevates us above the superficial and mediocre and gives life a kind of meaning (this reminds me of Nietzsche in some ways).
I think Caputo makes some good points here, but I generally find his juxtaposition of premodern religion and postmodern philosophy to be somewhat anti-climactic and thus disappointing. Part of the problem is surely that he just hasn't provided sufficient richness of detail. But even if he fleshes out his vision, I wonder if he's on the right track in emphasizing passion for life as a sufficient consolation for the ambiguities and suffering entailed in wrestling with the big questions. I'm not so sure, but you can judge for yourself ...
The first six chapters of this book easily warrant 5 stars, but the culminating two chapters are closer to 3 stars, so I think 4 stars overall is fair. Regarding whether I recommend this book, that's hard to say, since I loved most of the book, but then finished it feeling somewhat disappointed. Perhaps the book will work for if you expect only a starting point for looking at philosophy and theology in a new way.
The conversation certainly is not over at the end of the book. The postmodern relationship between philosophy and theology is in the early stages of being mined for all that is has to offer. This book is a welcome encouragement for those who are not afraid of what that may bring for people of faith and for those outside of the church.
Just before this period, the pre-modern era, faith was held supreme, with reason as her handmaid, but modernism reversed the hierarchy, essentially confining faith in the realm of irrelevance (11, 22). Modernity eventually ran into trouble however when the Romantics accused it of lacking emotion, failing to consider historical context, and over-aggrandizing the objectivity and ability of pure reason (38, 42-43). On this backdrop, postmodernism gained a foothold, and on this hold, Caputo rests his third thesis: the difference between philosophy and theology is "drawn between two kinds of faith," by which he means two kinds of "seeing as" (57).
Since neither subject is without fault, and considering that every human enterprise comes with a "complex web of presuppositional structures," the best philosophy and theology can do is illuminate within a context (57). What then is the point of pursuing these disciplines if they cannot give universal truths? Caputo gives his answer in his final thesis: philosophy and theology, though different, are companion ways to nurture the passion of life, Caputo's axiological summit (69).
As can be seen, Caputo needs his third thesis to enable his fourth, which means he needs postmodernism to effectively establish his third. According to Caputo, postmodernism consists of "the collective idea that human thinking turns on the ability to move among shifting perspectives and vocabularies, and paradigms" (49). Humans are always subject to the presuppositions they inherit, the existing languages of communication, and the occasional revolution in scientific thought (45-48). In light of this, there cannot be one grand, overarching story for history and mankind; there can only be a multiplicity of stories, shades, and textures of truths (48-49).
To Caputo, postmodernism is not a crass relativism or even an ignorant skepticism but rather a sense for the complexity of things, close attention to details, and sensitivity to differences (49). Where modernism tried to find one system that would speak to all of life, postmodernism recognizes that many parts of these systems, having been seen as undoubtedly correct before, are now being shown for what they are: incomplete or wrong altogether. So instead of trying to learn one comprehensive system, postmodernism encourages learning multiple systems and experiencing the legitimate truth represented in each. Eventually every system breaks down for Caputo because to account for all things, a system would have to "reduce the irreducible," such as when science accounts for ethics as an "evolutionary coping mechanism" (52). When this happens, all one has to do is switch languages, or systems, in order to get another perspective that can account for the phenomenon in question without reducing its irreducibility (such as applying a theological system). In the end, there is "seeing as" opposed to seeing directly because one is only ever seeing something in relation to the system or paradigm through which they are looking. With this understanding of postmodernism, Caputo emphasizes passion as the goal because definitive answers cannot be universally applied to all systems; therefore what fills one with passion in the lifelong pursuit of understanding becomes praiseworthy.
Postmodernism does afford theology grace that modernity does not. On the one hand, theology constitutes a paradigm for viewing life as much as science does. There are certain irreducible things that get done in theology, "certain things that [can] only be done by switching into the language game" of theology (53). No other paradigm sufficiently addresses issues like God and prayer without reducing them past their irreducibility. So in this way theology gets lifted up back into the realm of acceptable epistemology. Jointly, as the uniqueness of theology is realized, the inadequacies of other disciplines like philosophy and science are also realized. The throne reason sat on during modernism has been razed as thoroughly as theology has been raised from it cellar of irrelevance, thereby levelling the field for all players. This works for Caputo because, as mentioned, all views in postmodernism are viewed simply as "seeing as," for nothing sees all there is to see.
In spite of these advantages, postmodernism also delivers a crippling blow to theology. Theology makes many claims of objective, universal truth. Theology has a dreaded meta-narrative. Theology sometimes "reduces the irreducible." All these traits break postmodern etiquette. In postmodernism, theology's claim to absolute truth would be ruled as "incredulous" (49). Postmodernism would rather only ascent to theology's fostering of spirituality, storytelling (and only in the micro, never the macro), community, and culture.
Ultimately, I disagree with Caputo's argument. While he certainly outlined the development of philosophy and theology expertly, his conclusion fails to resolve the dilemma. Rather than focus on the answers to life's questions, Caputo would have us enjoy exploring the questions and possible answers. For Caputo, we are adventurers who find our greatest fulfillment in the passion that arises as we explore our world. For me, this is unliveable.
After reading his final two chapters, I imagined an analogy that resembles his conclusion. The whole episode of pilgrimaging, designed to inspire primal emotion, could be likened to a teenage, joy ride in one's first car. In those days, driving just to drive invigorated the soul. Sometimes one would gather a few friends and take a road-trip with no specific destination in mind. While these rides can certainly be fulfilling for the teenager, they probably do not satisfy an adult who has been driving for many years. Even if they did, the issue isn't the level of enjoyment but the duration of the drive. At some point these drives always come to an end and the car gets pointed back home. Why? Because a person cannot drive endlessly lost forever (or the course of their life). It's impractical. It does not fit reality and responsibility and relationship.
For me this is Caputo's theory: a life with no direction or purpose, save for an experience of comradery, appreciation, and emotion. People, however, need something solid in regards to truth, no matter how palatable living only according to paradigms that inspire passion may be. The human heart always winds down after a high; what support can postmodernism provide? Arguing like a neo-Romantic, I need something definite, like a certain Rock perhaps; a Rock that Caputo, ultimately only "sees as" solid in one paradigm.
A worthwhile read, if only for Caputo's tracing the development of Western thought.
3.5 out of 5.
Caputo does not attempt to create a theory, or grand narrative of how the two areas of thought work together. He is simply interested in how they communicate with each other. What Caputo accomplishes, however, is an coherent engagement with theologians and philosophers that promotes the sense of awe found in both disciplines. His point is made repeatedly, but perhaps most pointedly when he says, "What matters is that if the account I have given is right, then the old boundaries and high walls that modernity tried to build around reason, science, and philosophy have come down. If that is so, then the language of faith has reacquired respectability, and if faith has been restored to its rightful place among the virtues, that gives theology, which turns on faith, a new opening" (68). Philosophers and theologians are, in Caputo's words, "fellow sailors on that ocean." That ocean, then, is the ocean of faith or opposition to a "cynical refusal to believe...any surpassing quality in things that leaves us wide-eyed and breathless" (68).
Skeptical philosophers and orthodox theologians alike should read Caputo's Philosophy and Theology. Instead of accepting the modernistic notion that distinctions equate differences, and thus seclusion, the opportunity exists to risk, to find what fresh opportunities rest in both the philosophical and theological discourse. Also striking is the fact that Caputo covers a long history in such a short space: 74 pages. Whether one agrees with Caputo or not, the theologian and philosopher alike will see how to communicate complex thoughts through engaging and inviting language.
Philosophy and Theology is a must read for the theological and philosophical scholar, and for the layperson and clergy. Caputo issues a call of the coming change within academic thought. In an age when the relevancy of Christian Theology has been brought into question, Caputo responds succinctly and accurately. We must rally around the sense of awe shared in both philosophy and theology, and uplift shared questions that have demonstrated varied solutions. "Does anyone know we are here? Nietzsche asked, and he asked this for us all. In all this lies the passion" (74). "What is `the passion,'" you might ask. To find the answer, purchase, checkout, borrow a copy of John D. Caputo's Philosophy and Theology and answer that for yourself.