Philosophy and Theology. By John Caputo


Pp. viii, 84 . Nashville , Abingdon Press , 2006 , £8.00/$12.00 .

John Caputo, Professor of Religion and Humanities at Syracuse University, and one of North America's most interesting philosophers' of religion, has a written a lucid, passionate and at times humorous essay on the relationship between philosophy and theology. In less than one hundred pages Caputo manages to narrate the sometimes happy, sometimes contentious relationship between these two disciplines, both of which have been relegated to the periphery of intellectual discourse for roughly the last three hundred years. As a consequence, philosophy and theology today are two relatively ‘minor and esoteric voice[s]’ rarely encountered, unless one takes a philosophy course in college ‘to round [oneself] out’ before one graduates with a business or computer science major. In Caputo's opinion this is a sad set of circumstances for philosophy and theology, since very few disciplines raise – and often attempt to answer – provocative and seductive questions about the meaning of human existence, such as the harrowing Nietzschean question Caputo begins his own essay with: Does anyone know we are here?

Caputo devotes a significant portion of his essay to mapping out his thesis that the relationship between philosophy and theology becomes increasing hostile in modernity with the dawn of modern science. In the process of doing so, he offers descriptions and analogies that are witty and delightful to read. For example, his analogical account of the Enlightenment as ‘the day the West grew up, like an eighteen-year-old home from college for the first time telling his parents that while he will continue to accept their money, thank you very much, he may not always accept their advice, considering how antiquated and hidebound is their thinking’ (pp. 10–11). Or, as the term ‘philosophy’ begins to signify one specialized science among many others in modernity, he comments that we often associate the term philosophy with something ancient Greeks did a really long, long time ago, and, he wryly notes, ‘we find it a little surprising to learn that there still are [philosophers] walking around these days, which is like finding out that a species that we thought extinct is only highly endangered’ (p. 22).

The apex of modernity's fascination with reason comes in the thought of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. From Kant it's a short distance to the three great critiques of religion in the nineteenth century by Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. And by the end of the nineteenth century the autonomy of reason has God and religion on the run among intellectuals, with philosophy ‘constantly ceding more ground to the natural sciences and looking around for something to call its own’ (p. 33).

Along with its exaggerated and overwrought account of reason, the ultimate failure of the project called modernity has been, in Caputo's account, its inability to embody its own egalitarian political ideals. Consequently the ‘wheels came off the Enlightenment,’ so to speak, in the twentieth century when the enthusiasm for what the Enlightenment called ‘pure reason’ faded and eventually came under ‘fire from many sides.’

But Caputo's essay is no simple exercise in mapping out the demise of the project called modernity and declaring it dead. In fact, he is interested ‘not in the abolition of modernity but in the continuation of modernity by another means’ (p. 37). The ‘other means’ turn out to be ‘postmodernity,’ that ambiguous condition under which we conduct ‘just about everything’ today, including philosophy and theology. The term ‘postmodern’ is known for its descriptive multiplicity, and Caputo's contribution to this medley of descriptions is to render the postmodern as an ‘opening’ beyond the ‘long arms of the modern and the secular,’ into a ‘postsecular’ horizon – albeit he concedes there are plenty of ‘anti-theological (Nietzsche) motives behind the emergence of the postmodern’ (p. 44).

It is characteristic of the postmodern to produce ‘odd couples’ and this is what Caputo does in the final two chapters. He suggests we might think about the relationship between philosophy and theology by analogy to the ‘play’ of coincidence and difference between the father of twentieth century ‘deconstruction,’ Jacques Derrida, and the early Latin church father, Saint Augustine of Hippo. Caputo's simultaneously restless, uncanny and rich final two chapters prayerfully try to answer the Nietzschean question he begins his essay with, while meditating on what he finds attractive in these two thinkers, the mystery and ‘endless questionability’ of human existence: ‘that perplexity [that] gives life beauty and depth, passion and power, even while it decenters us, knocks us off our pins, robs us of the ease with which we negotiate the rapids of everyday life, divesting us of the sense that we have everything in control (p. 73).