John Caputo: The Insistence of Hospitality

This is the third stop in a book tour of John Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. Stop one was was hosted by Todd Littleton, and stop two was hosted by Julie Clawson. CaputoCover

My task is to jump into the chapter entitled “Insistence and Hospitality.”

What Caputo has already established in chs. 1 & 2 is this: when we say God, we are not speaking of some being who exists, but of an acting, an event that demands human response.

Aside: Does anyone else hear the echoes of Rudolf Bultmann here? Or, on the more conservative side, of pietistic revivalism that calls people to recognize a moment in which God manages to break in and demand a response?

Here’s a quote that sums up the chapter in a nutshell:

Hospitality means to say “come” in response to what is calling, and that may well be trouble.

We are insufficiently accustomed to the dangers of “hospitality” to instinctively appreciate where Caputo is driving us here. Hospitality is not inviting our best friends over for a meal or opening our home to family for the holidays.

Hospitality as Caputo articulates it, following Derrida, is about saying “yes” and saying “come” to the unknown stranger who is seeking shelter. “If you already know who is on the other side of the door, it is not hospitality. Or, only half.”

Where is God in this? God is in need. In need of our hospitality. This is not to say that God is the stranger at the door, but it is to say that God is insisting on the hospitality in the event of its being requested.

If this all makes us nervous, then we’re en route to understanding Caputo’s point.

His depiction of God intends not only to turn our attention to the insistences of the world in order that the God who needs us might find in us the existence of faithful response, but to turn away the God who is easily controlled by the dogma surrounding the church’s traditional descriptions of the God who is.

At the heart of this chapter is a delightfully revisionist reading of the Mary and Martha story inspired by Meister Eckhart.

JohnCaputoIn short, Jesus’ “Martha, Martha” is the pronouncement of a double blessing on the woman who understood that Jesus came in full need. He stood in all the scandalous need of incarnation: needing food, needing drink, needing rest, needing to relieve himself. The “peace” of Jesus’ presence cannot be purchased without the very real threat of his physicality–a threat both to him and to those in whose need he stands.

And with this recognition that God is found in the insistence of hospitality, our interpretation of the weakness of the flesh is rewritten: they co-constitute life, intensifying life to a fever pitch, providing opportunity to respond to the name of God.

Throughout the book, Caputo’s theological concerns shine through: he wants to disempower the bully God in whose name power is wielded to the detriment of the many. With a God who insists rather than exists, Caputo wants it crystal clear that the actions of religious faith are the actions of humans responding to the insistence of God–with no danger of being confused for God themselves.

Random Thoughts that the Book Generated

1. I have a tremendous amount of affinity for the notion that God is bound to the story of the humans who enact it. I posted a week or so ago the scandalous idea that God might, actually, need us. (Cf. the subtitle of my blog: telling the story of the story-bound God.)

2. In advocating a storied theology, in which God is intimately entailed in the unfolding narrative, I have been driven by the concerns that the dogma of the church (what some of my readers have told me goes by the label “analytic theology”) is a source of power whose use in practice is often contraindicated by the cross of Christ.

In both of these trajectories of my own, I find myself resonating a great deal with Caputo’s work. But, having said that…

3. To this point, the book is not Christian in any significant sense. It uses some biblical, and New Testament, imagery as a reflection of Caputo’s native tongue, but not as anything more than husk that might be cast away in favor of wheat. It is a “radical theology” in the sense of being a way to speak about God that demonstrates its positioning in a pluralistic world.

I hold out for a more robust Christian theology, and I think that a theology of the cross as the lens for making sense of the Biblical narrative as a whole holds promise for such a theology from within the Christian tradition in an explicit fashion.

4. For all its universality, I think that most people will find it sufficiently incomprehensible that Caputo’s project holds little hope of being the wave of the future. (Cf. Tony Jones’ “Walmart Test,” and his claim that Caputo’s theology fails on this basic level: it can’t be explained to someone with whom you’re standing in line at Walmart for 3 minutes.) What is it to say that God does not exist but that God insists? There is a great deal to learn from here, but one wonders whether the miracle of trickle-down economics will ever allow the theology of insistence to increase to the account of the religiously would-be-faithful.

For my own part, I’m not ready to give up on the God project as traditionally conceived. I want there to be a God–not to uphold my power, but to call me to account.

Perhaps more seriously, I fear that the notion that the only “existence” is of our actions in response to “God’s” insistence might well backfire: rather than the human reception dethroning the identification of humans with God, it might make inevitable that the human quest for God will land on nothing more than the human at work.

This book pays back rereading for its stimulating depiction of God at work in the realities in which we find ourselves.

The Federal Government, though currently shut down, continues in its theology of insistence by demanding that I disclose to you that I received this book on promise of reviewing it here, and for no payment in cash or kind.

8 thoughts on “John Caputo: The Insistence of Hospitality”

  1. Nice write-up Daniel.

    “I want there to be a God – not to uphold my power, but to call me to account.”

    In what way does God call you to account without the mediation of human work? If in no way, then in what sense can it rightly be said that God exists? If in a way that is entirely imaginative (and I’m not discounting the power of the imaginary) then, in what sense can it rightly be said that God exists?

    I agree that Radical Theology is not likely to pass the Wal-Mart test, but I think in some ways it’s more important to ask whether or not it might someday soon pass the seminary test.

  2. I am so with you on the Walmart test. My beef with radical theology is that I’m a pragmatist. If it can’t be explained to anyone except for uber-hipsters, what hope does it have for influencing the people who need to be rescued from fundamentalism? I want a theology that liberates fundamentalists and somehow inspires hipsters to consider Christ at the same time. Those may be mutually exclusive. I’ll let you know what I find over the next 50 years.

  3. From my past reading off other books by Caputo (of which his latest book I haven’t read) I have to agree with your claim that there is nothing significantly Christian about Caputo’s books, even though he predominately uses Christianity to promote his ‘religion without religion’ it is simply nothing more than that its the religion he most familar with. To be honest, for me there is nothing overly radical about Caputo’s post/anti-metaphysical theology simpy because he reading of metaphysics in general is reductionistic, which Christopher Ben Simpson in his book ‘religion, metaphysic and the postmodern’ excellently exposes through the metaphysical thinking of Willaim Desmond.

  4. Reply to section:

    3. What is Christian therefore in your opinion is something other than Caputo’s event, something which you must define as Christian because it is more than an event, perhaps a creed: The Nicene Creed for example, a confession of belief, a “more robust Christian theology, ” a theology of the cross, for example.

    But what if the theology has not lead to living out the Christian theology in the here an now, in the event. If we call it in name of the cross that we are Pharisees, is that better than the event?

    4. Walmart theology a la Caputo: the faith of a child (event).

    What if the human quest for God will land on nothing more than the human at work, thinking that it is God at work?

  5. Its posts such as this where I find myself saying that theologians NEED to be more analytical rather than post-modern/continental in their thinking. When examined closely Caputo’s idea of God not existing but rather God insists you find that idea is, well, silly and irrational. It does not make any sense to say God is not a being that exists and on other hand say things like “God is in need of us” and “our hospitality”. To me its sounds like a person using clever language to get away with saying things that are patently absurd.
    I would challenge Caputo to present his thesis of God’s insistences in a philosophy of religion conference, my guess is he would be laughed off the stage by atheists and theists alike. Why? Because his idea shows a lack of rigor and self-critical analysis and when examined carefully his thesis is rather flimsy.
    Now you may say that this exercise in analytical theology is a “power move”, but it simply using the tools of logic and rationality to distinguish good ideas from the bad. We use these tools in every other aspect of our lives and in every other discipline. We don’t say to critical scholars of the bible that they are engaging in a power move when they use the tools of critical analysis when determining the bible’s historicity. But all of a sudden when it comes theology using the same kind of critical thinking is deemed an exercise in power and is therefore a bad thing. When theology is characterized in this way, I can’t help but agree with those who do not take the discipline seriously; and see it as a joke and an exercise in sophistry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.