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The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event.

John D. Caputo

The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event

Indiana University Press, 2006. 356 pp. $24.95 (Paperback)

Bible and theology: so what's with the philosopher, you might well ask? Did we think we needed Jack Caputo to make us honest postmodernists? Are we meaning as theologians and biblical scholars to provoke a tricky enough interdisciplinarity? Why muck it up with a third genre? With the main structure for interchange between biblical scholars and theologians facing its death, our effort captures a certain mood of the postmodern: whatever might happen will come after the fact, in an indeterminate post, a promise that is also a postmortem. Not that there is some satisfactory history of bible/theology relations to which we may strain backwards. Biblical theology can be a pretty dreary modern affair, where protestant Biblicism tries to curb the philosophical imagination and the critical questions to which theology is from its pagan origins tempted; or it is where doctrinal theology subjects biblical interpretation to the alien disciplines of propositional orthodoxy. Not exactly the best of both worlds. We thought that the binary interdiscipline of biblical theology would be suffocating without deconstruction to cut it open. Philosophy as a third genre may be like the khora that interrupts the binary closure. But after all, in the Weakness of God, we may not be reading a work of deconstructive philosophy, so much as an experiment in poststructuralist biblical theology. At least that is my reading.

I will ask if it is the theopolitics of power that pushes Caputo over the edge of philosophy, into a biblical theology: power as divine omnipotence, as ecclesial hierarchy, as messianic imperialism. But the very phrase biblical theology would only be a quaintly familiar harbor for a hermeneutical event, where, in his language, something unknown is stirring. "Something that doth suffer a sea change/to something rich and strange."

Yet I do not want to claim that Caputo is doing something discontinuous with his own voluminous hermeneutics, radical and then more radical. His work has never not been theological in its questions and its companions, its Kierkegaard and its Eckhart; his dialog with Derrida stimulated some of serious kibbutzing with theology, indeed with Abraham, Paul and Jesus. Nonetheless there is a shift. I had read him before as a subversively theological philosopher; now, as a subversively philosophical theologian. Subversion may entail conversion. Here what he had called a "devilish hermeneutics" gives way to a what he admits is a scriptural hermeneutic--to what he calls the "poetics of the impossible." Is this a deradicalization? Or a most radical hermeneutics--in the root sense which might still sound like an aporetic impossibility: that of a deepening of poststructuralism?

The book is driven by the root theological question: God. Its pivotal question is this: what event, irreducible to any name, is harbored by the name of God? He reminds us that the "name God may be the incognito of the event, as surely as the event may be the incognito of God." For while he has long deconstructed the high modernisms of the death of God, refuting Taylor's claim that deconstruction is the hermeneutics of the death of God, there is no weakening of the radicality of deconstruction and its deconstruction of authority and its authors: "the death of the author the death of God, is the narrow gate through which we reach the kingdom of God. God is not the authority who enforces the kingdom of God." [116] But this is the very stuff of radical theology, theology that in its refusal of the worship of power goes to the root of its own imaginary: "The name of God is possessed, not of ontological foundations, institutional support, a large bank account, Swiss guards, a television network or ecclesiastical authority, but only of phenomenological appeal or solicitation." That solicitation, that call, is akin to the lure or divine eros of process theology. It becomes audible only when the din of diverse theological dominologies, with their church and state bully pulpits, dies down: in a certain vibrant apophasis: what he calls "the silent promptings of God's divinely subversive call." [299]

So I wonder if it is the prominence of scriptural interpretation in Weakness that pushes it over the line into theology? In fact the book performs massively more scriptural hermeneutics than most theology properly so called. It is organizes its question about God in terms of scripture--by way of a Pauline argument for weakness, through a friendly reading of the Gen 1 creation from chaos as a means of deconstructing classical omnipotence; and then several chapters arranged around gospel stories. This scriptural density is apparent not just in the iterations and cadences of biblical metaphor characteristic of much Christian theology, but in the writer's willingness to dwell in specific biblical stories; to hang out in them, elaborating, interrogating, explicating them and implicating himself in the narratives. As in the iconoclastic literary strategies of poststructuralist biblical scholars like Moore or Yvonne Sherwood, a jaunty irreverence may reengages many of us more surely in these overly familiar texts than can an authoritative solemnity. But there is nonetheless a reverence at play in this reading, which renders it theology and not just deconstructive hermeneutics. For the call is no joke: "for these texts are solicitations that call for a response, appeals coming from I know not where about a way to be, a style of existence, about a poetic possibility that we are invited to transform into existential actuality." [117]

I think that I respond to the Caputan appeal to a poetics of the impossible, because it modulates regularly and rhythmically into the poetic possibility.... [The impossible is not the greatest mobilizing cry: "Let us attempt to overthrow republican control of the house and the senate, even though it is impossible." Yet nonetheless something that seemed impossible became actual, opening up a space of greater possibility in this very city. But have I already depoeticized the appeal?] The call for a possible response, from within an existential and presumably social context, marks scripture as word of God, and God as the harbor of the event that actualizes the possible. For Caputo "scriptural hermeneutic" is "where the Word of God, the Scriptures, undergo what we might entitle a methodological transformation into an event." This definition quite precisely weakens the strong scriptural theology of a scientia divina that deploys a divine revelation with a uniquely authorized provenance; but it is a theologically engaged hermeneutics: it does not read scripture as a mere document to be studied historically or comparatively without "engaging my existence or passion." This is Caputo's consistent dance: to sidestep both the authoritarian traditions and the modernisms that remain content to relativize. In his avowal of an actualizing response to a call, I hear the claim of a more radical relationality that may elude and forgive both the absolute and the dissolute.

In the meantime, let me reframe the initial question: if it is a scriptural hermeneutics that lures this poetics of the possible off the deep end of philosophy, into theology--is this precisely because scripture itself offers not so much a theology as a theopoetics? If theology however remains enmeshed in the logics of ontotheology, its redemption may lie precisely in "taking the scriptures as the site of an event," liberating the word of God to its breathing, its ruach and its poetic creativity. But not to literary dissolution, for a poetics makes a truth--claim: "a poetics does not record the strong force of hard facts; it describes the weak force of a call for the kingdom, or for justice, which is true even if the real world is truly unjust."[118]

Early in the Lazarus chapter, two sentences put his hermeneutics in a nutshell: "What event stirs within this story? What event is harbored there and kept safe, sheltered but also concealed?" [237] This compact formula may apply to any scripture or any doctrine: what event stirs within, is harbored within, this dogma, this symbol, this name? Of course in the infinite regress of interpretation the doctrines are themselves already harbors of harbors, shelters of shelters, tempted to close the harbor and build themselves into fortresses or cathedrals by the sea. I do not know of any fresher and more exacting formulation for liberating bible and theology from its literalisms or its univocalisms, without losing its truth-traction. We have in the harbor of the event a metaphor of metaphor; and a gift for a tehomic theology, or any meditation upon the shining face of the dark depths. For the oceanic chaos of creation will, if left to itself, wash out meaning, drown us in its postmodern indeterminacy and undecidability, flood out our constructions and our communities in the interest of an infinite multiplicity. The tehom requires precisely the harbors of meaning. As a theology of the event, the weakness of God is a prolonged meditation on the event harbored in the name of "God." For some of us this weakening of the name of God will seem a reduction of a strong reality; for others it makes theology possible. Can one call the event-harbor the hermeneutical key for a postmodern biblical theology--without already anchoring the event in too self-enclosed a disciplinary space? Whether that phrase holds, I am grateful for the harbor given theology by the very metaphor of the harbor. Since many of us are engaged in the metamorphosis of gender symbolism, I not that both ocean and harbor release welcome gynomorphisms into our vocabulary.

Sheltered for the moment from the navies of orthodox ex-nihilism and the storms of modern nihilism, I can pose a couple of, well, stronger, questions.

While I find myself happily berthing in the metaphor of event harbors, that of weakness--the weakness of God, of theology, of hermeneutics--leaves me at sea. I understand that the weakness-metaphor harbors for Caputo a theological event, an event in whose importance I am a true believer: that of the deconstruction of the divine omnipotence in favor--not of a no god, a dead god, but of a possibly better one--a more believable, more worthy, indeed more biblically and existentially resonant divinity. But "weak" by what measure? According to the measure of strength understood as dominance, as the power to subjugate, to subject, even to produce ex nihilo the subjects of one's kingdom? Calvin offers the most consistently strong God, blowing out of the water all the compromises of medieval split-level causality, of divine permission, and early modern deism: God as the foreordaining omnipotence without whose express will no raindrop falls; and who therefore has consistently double predestined us already to choose God or sin. Strong theology takes a strong stomach. Such divine superpower exercises an all controlling, preemptive providence, which some of us think legitimates the sole global superpower and its indispensable Christendom. Certainly by the standard of dominance, any God who is either imaginable or morally worth imagining, will be weak. Caputo's Pauline tour de force, his divine strength made perfect in weakness, offers passionate witness to the lie--yes, really, untruth--of omnipotence.

If power means power-over, then God is either weak or plain nonexistent by the standards of dominance. That root problem of theodicy has never been driven by abstract doctrinal questions but by the suffering of every Job, the passion of every God-forsaken one: or ones forsaken by a strong theology. But in our own writing, teaching, activism, don't we seek to exercise power, and as much of it as possible? Power as influence--the in-fluency of our fluid relations? Feminist theology can hardly embrace a weak theology for ourselves (though we might not mind it if you guys do). In order to grow our public strength we have followed the call and the image of an alternative power, a power that does not lord it over, a power of empowerment, akin to a radical democracy, the democracy to come. And my own Whiteheadian patrilineage of the God who is the poet of the universe, the fellow sufferer who understands--does not intend to lessen God's power but to convert it: God's will translates into the divine eros of the universe, luring each event--to happen. Of course the theological authorities always and not without reasons accuse both feminism and process theologies of weakening the Lord. We reply: God is neither omnipotent nor impotent but-inviting. [Perhaps process theology goes over the edge into a kataphatic confidence that I must translate (with Roland Faber's help) into an apophatically tinged theopoetics.] But contextually speaking, process theology lets me teach seminarians whom we maybe don't want to send into their fragile old-line Christian settings to preach the weakness of God. At any rate don't we weep and pray not for weakness but for alternative power--not a God who will do our work for us [though a holy housewife might be nice for a change] but for the inspiration to resist the theopolitics of violation, to insist upon a shared power of transformation? This divinity and its creaturely actualizations would counter the love of power with the power of love. Certainly the most vulnerable of powers. Between divine weakness and the divine lure, I recognize a certain "divine undecidability."

Finally a word about "The event." The word God is the name of an event, of an event that comes calling at our door which can and must be translated into the event of hospitality." [269] The Caputan event is no merely dark horizon of the unpredictable, or so it seems; here it radiates a certain satyagraya, a truthforce that is inviting in its calling. Its force field reverses itself, to appear as the one who calls and asks for hospitality. So I wonder if the theology of the event can account for its own dimension of reciprocity? Or is it too worried that if it admits this asymmetrical mutuality it would cash in The Gift--put that in caps--for a mere exchange? Does the concept of the event that itself is harbored itself give harbor to the myriad and motley relations that make up its basileia? In other words, in this event-hermeneutic does the relationality that comprises our existence, our selves, our bodies, our planet find its needed conceptual welcome? Put simply: event-language can conjure a picture of singular unrelated bursts, or in this case even a single singularity, exploding--gently of course--as though from nothing.

I understand the event to be Caputo's alternative to substance metaphysics. He recognizes its affinity to a Whitehead read through Deleuze, who is reading Leibniz by way of a Joycean chaosmic reading of the Whiteheadian event. All these guys replace ousia with event. Caputo cites Deleuze on the Alice and Wonderland of the "very special things: events, pure events." Caputo is not describing space-time, as Whitehead is, in terms of a cosmology of events rhythmically emergent out of the matrix of their relations. It is the divine event of the basileia that concerns him: "the coming of the kingdom is an outcoming, from evenire (Lat), the coming-out, the evenement of bursting out of something we did not see coming...." Does he want the event, as with a Moltmann or a Levinas, of a transcendent coming that trumps any emergent becoming; what comes from an exterior, a sheer alterity. Then won't "the event" occupy a rather too familiar place of beyond, the over and against of a bad infinite; indeed the bad impossible of an infinite deferral? This matters because of the bodies that Caputo's theology attends with rigorous compassion. I suspect the nonsubstantial and interdependent processes by which we materialize moment by moment as creatures need an event-cosmology to harbor them in our attention. Or else we slip back into the habits of essentialism--at least when it comes to our unexceptional quotidian bodies.

"The world quivers quietly under the weak force of an event"--is this event one? Does it happen once for all, whether of God or that for which God's name is a place holder--is this a single event? What of the multiplicity of events, the webs, chains and iterations of events that make up the world--the creation emerging even now from its chaos? If the theology of the event offers a relational alternative to substance metaphysics, isn't it by way of the mutual immanence of events--their enfolding and unfolding one another? Would an event cosmology threaten the bursting singularity of the Derridean-Caputan messianicity--with metaphysics?

At any rate, how can I not agree with lines like this, in his conclusion: "We are incited by the powerless power of some quiet provocation, like the words 'good, good ... very good' sweeping softly across the surface of the deep, making being restless with the good."[299] The book is no postmodern postmortem of God, but a sturdy new harbor for her unknown name. But just as clearly: "The truth of the event does not belong to the order of identificatory knowledge, as if our life's charge were to track down and learn the secret name of some fugitive spirit." It is a truth--and there is a delicate power after all in the very solicitation of truth, here--of "making truth come true, making it happen, facere veritatem, letting the event happen." This theology, whether or not it can bear the cross of biblical theology, swerves in the end to the gospel: "Lord when did we see you hungry and give you to eat." The singularity of that vulnerable body gets endlessly repeated. The actualization of its truth has been weak. At best.
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:Keller, Catherine
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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