Caputo’s Nihilism of Grace: Eschatology, Event, & Self-Reflexivity
by Tripp Fuller
October 16, 2013
Here’s a guest post from Blake Huggins that’s part of the Caputo blog tour. Enjoy!
My thanks to Tripp and Indiana University Press for the invitation to participate in this blog tour and for a copy of the book. I’ve been anticipating this work for a while now and I’m glad to see it being critically discussed.
What I would like to do here is go through the chapter and discuss what Caputo is trying to do and then conclude with three questions I have about this chapter and Caputo’s larger project.
If The Weakness of God was his first explicit foray into theology–his “coming out of the closet as a theologian” as Catherine Keller’s jacket blurb suggests–then The Insistence of God is at the same time both Caputo’s clarification of what he means by theology and a reflection on recent trends in continental philosophy of religion.
In The Weakness of God Caputo jumps into the pool of theology with both feet. This newest work is his attempt to further flesh out his version of “radical” theology*1 and the result is incisive, refreshingly humorous in places, and overall a real pleasure to read, which is something I may appreciate about Caputo the most–his writing is both forceful and beautiful, rigorous and poetic (a point many philosophers and theologians could stand to learn from!).
In this penultimate chapter “A Nihilism of Grace: Life, Death, and Resurrection,” Caputo continues his critical engagement with “speculative realism” and argues for a “radical resurrection theology” (231) initially focusing on Ray Brassier and his book Nihil Unbound (NU).*2 Brassier’s argument is that since Kant philosophy has been too preoccupied with human subjectivity and has in the process ignored the fact that we are headed for extinction. Nihilism, for Brassier, is the realization “that there is a mind-independent reality which…is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable” (NU, xi). This post isn’t about Brassier, so I hesitate to quote him at length. However, the lines below are stark and powerful. It works well if read in your best Werner Herzog voice.
[O]ne trillion, trillion, trillion years from now, the accelerating expansion of the universe will have disintegrated the fabric of matter itself, terminating the possibility of embodiment. Every star in the universe will have burnt out, plunging the cosmos into a state of absolute darkness and leaving behind nothing but spent husks of collapsed matter. All free matter, whether on planetary surfaces or in interstellar space, will have decayed, eradicating any remnants of life…. [T]he stellar corpses littering the empty universe will evaporate into a brief hailstorm of elementary particles. Atoms themselves will cease to exist. Only the implacable gravitational expansion will continue, driven by the currently inexplicable force called ‘dark energy,’ which will keep pushing the extinguished universe deeper and deeper into an eternal and unfathomable blackness." (NU, 228)
In response, Caputo asks: what are we to do in the meantime while we are still here? Brassier’s analysis may be true, yet here we are, human beings enfleshed in human bodies floating through space on planet that just so happens to sustain life as we know for a short cosmic millisecond (not that we are at all helping!). What are we to do? How are we to spend the time that we have been given?
Caputo doesn’t necessarily disagree with Brassier’s description of nihilism as eventual extinction and death. To this he says yes, this is the case. The problem, though, is with the conclusion that because everything is headed for entropic disintegration nothing is worthy of value.
In a way, what Brassier offers is an inverted version of Radical Orthodoxy’s primary thesis. Whereas John Milbank and his ilk argue that becoming a classic Thomist metaphysician, participating in God’s Eternal Being (with disastrous political consequences!) is the only alternative to the threat of nihilism, Brassier, in Caputo’s rendering, suggests that nihilism is all there is at the end of the day and because there is nothing Eternal or permanent, because total annihilation is our ultimate horizon and nothing will endure, there is nothing worth our time (226-27).
This Caputo roundly and compellingly rejects. For the bulk of this chapter Caputo is in full on Dionysian mode, channeling his inner Nietzsche, the early Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy who engages in a full-throated celebration of life in spite of its frailty and manifold imperfections. Nihilism may indeed be all there is but for Caputo this is ultimately an instance of insistent grace. So instead of being-nothing (Brassier), Caputo calls for an embrace of “being-for-nothing,” which accepts nihilism as a gift and values life itself unbound and precious precisely because of its precarity.
Life is being-for-nothing other than itself, it is its own because, a pure gift, pure grace, pure contingency, where grace, givenness, and the aleatory vicissitudes of material existence are such that they are because they are without why (244). To paraphrase a comment Samuel Beckett once made with regard to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, life, for Caputo, is not about something, it is that something itself, which is why it is to be celebrated and enjoyed without why. “Nobody asked anybody for anything,” writes Caputo. “We answer a call we never heard. It’s just a pure gift in which what is given is given without good intentions, without any intentions at all” (230).
It is against this backdrop that Caputo reads various resurrection narratives, namely those of Lazarus and Jesus in the gospels. Resurrection is not the negation of death or the attempt to somehow write mortality and temporality out of the cosmic equation. Instead, these stories serve as theopoetic instantiations of a desire for life, of a certain faith in more life, not a particular, individual life, but life itself bounded by materiality and impermanence. Resurrection, for Caputo, is faith in life, a hope (against hope) for more life through the chance of the event, the chance of grace because as long as life persists, as long as we’re still here and haven’t disintegrated into elementary particles, as a long as this planet and this universe sustain us, as long as there is soil beneath our feet and sky above our heads, as long as blood flows through our veins and breath through our nostrils — as long as all this is the case there is the possibility and the chance of more life, not a life or my life, but life itself.
But there are no guarantees. In this “radical” theology of the event, in this topsy-turvy theopoetics of the perhaps, even God is a gambler, rolling the dice on the outside chance that maybe, possibly, perhaps, more life might happen, that grace might come, that the impossible may surprise us, that the event could facilitate resurrection. But perhaps not. Hell, for Caputo, is “ruined time” (242) which is one possible outcome of chance. Grace does not automatically heal everything; it may turn out to not heal at all. “Loving life is our best theory for everything,” but this does not mean we are safe, that things are ultimately determined, or that ‘love wins.’ Grace and love are not ultimate metaphysical categories here — there is just as much a chance for horrific atrocity as there is for resurrection and more life. Things could go horribly awry. Or, not. It all turns on “the reduction of the event” (231) and the passion for the impossible which means, simply, that there is no why: being-for-nothing. And as long as this is the case there is a chance for the possibility of more life, of the gift of grace, the grace of the event, perhaps.
TL;DR – Rather than allowing nihilism to be paralyzing (being-nothing) Caputo calls for an embrace of nihilism as grace, as a type of gift involving a full-throated celebration of life itself without why (being-for-nothing). Resurrection is the promise, perhaps, that there is a chance for more life, a chance for the event.
Now a few questions…
1. The first has to do with Caputo’s use of Deleuze. This has increased quite a bit since The Weakness of God and shortly thereafter. In particular, he loves to use a line from Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense in his discussions of the event.*3 This continues in The Insistence of God, especially in this chapter. Caputo borrows from Deleuze quite a bit but is ultimately “disloyal to his metaphysics” (234) wanting “no party in the war between Deleuzeans and Derrideans” (298 n23). But other than employing the word ‘metaphysics’ and assuming it to be a pejorative label–which I normally agree with though here I’m not as clear as to why–Caputo does not fully elucidate his differences with, and from, Deleuze. For instance, Caputo worries about Deleuze’s notion of “the plane of immanence” (again because it is too metaphysical) and instead opts for a more phenomenological description of the event in his discussion of resurrection. Yet later in this same chapter he will describe the event as “an emergent effect on the plane of the world” (239) a phrase he uses more than once and is, to my mind, all too reminiscent of Deleuze. So, what is the actual difference here? How is Caputo’s plane of the world different from Deleuze’s plane immanence? Another way of putting this, would be to ask what the discernible differences are between Derrida and Deleuze. Is the difference as cut and dry as Caputo makes it out to be? What is at stake for Caputo in this distinction? This is some interesting discussion on this over on Clayton Crockett’s post. I tend to agree with the notion that Derrida and Deleuze are perhaps closer than Caputo lets on. This closeness is something Derrida himself suggested.
2. In this chapter and throughout the book Caputo tends to conflate telos and eschaton. I wonder if this needs to be the case. What if instead of associating eschaton with ontotheological determinacy and finality we link it with Caputo’s understanding of the event? It seems to me that the event is deeply eschatological — in fact, it could be argued that the entirety of Caputo’s work since The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida is deeply eschatological. The event harbored within the name of God, the “to-come” that is always structurally beyond anticipation, the absolute future which is distinguished from the future present, the surprise that exceeds and shatters horizons of expectation–all concepts that smack of eschatological consequence. Yet, Caputo himself is reticent to make this connection, rightfully wary of the metaphysical premises of most conventional eschatologies and their penchant to valorize closure and an other-worldy eternity. Again, I wonder if this needs to be the case. What if eschaton were decoupled from telos? There are plenty of resources within theology that can be leveraged to read eschatology against the grain. If eschatology is thought simply as the theological understanding of time and the future rather than the ontotheological discourse of the consummation of all things in some Great Beyond that saves us from the world then I think field is wide open talk about the event in eschatological terms.*4 Can there be a “radical” eschatology of the event or a poeticized eschatological materialism? What would it mean to thematize the event in such terms and to do so without recourse to the discursive strategies of the Kantian “type” of continental philosophy of religion?
3. In a certain way this final question extends beyond Caputo’s work but is certainly applicable to it. Quite a bit of ink has been spilt in the last 20 years or so over the “theological” turn in continental philosophy both in the form of support and as a critique of certain triumphalistic configurations (what Caputo calls “postmodernism light”). It seems to me that taken as a whole this “theological” or “religious” turn also places a certain exigence upon a critical re-evaluation of theology itself as a critical discourse and discursive practice. In fact, one could argue that the question of God after the death of God is one particular formulation of this exigency. But it isn’t the only formulation and I’m not so sure it is the best one for our particular cultural moment. So, for instance, I am encouraged to see Caputo deal, however briefly, with the insidious supercessionism that inheres in certain (quasi)theological uses of continental theory which privilege Christianity (152ff). His critique of neo-Kantian, fideistic configurations of “postmodern” thought as a means of protecting or saving (Christian) theology from immanent critique is also helpful here. The question, though, is whether Caputo’s “radical” theology is capable of enacting gestures of critical resistance against itself that facilitate, among other things, the decentering of Christian hegemony in religious thought. Caputo himself is still “doing” theology from a Christian standpoint, in many ways as a Christian, though I’m not sure he would claim the label “Christian theologian.” This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does speak to the sort of double-bind one faces (I include myself here). In this respect, it doesn’t seem off base to ask: what is the aim of a “radical” theology? Is its radicality contingent at least in part upon its ability to perform acts of theological self-reflexivity, to think itself otherwise, to think, perhaps, the demise of its current position? Is this, perhaps, what Caputo means when he refers to “a new species of theologians?” I realize some of this lies outside Caputo’s immediate scope, but I do think these are persistent and even insistent specters haunting any theological project, especially one which claims to be radical. Insofar as Caputo’s theology is thoroughly concerned with futurity–with what is coming–it seems worth considering what the future of theology is to be and whether such a future will sufficiently attend to its more liberative exigences. Or, not. Perhaps.
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1) Regular Homebrewed readers are surely aware that there has been quite a bit of back and forth over the meaning and use of the phrase “radical theology” recently, specifically whether the identifier is appropriately used by Caputo and others. While I understand Caputo’s use and defense of the phrase within this book (and his previous works) I do share some of these concerns. So for this post I am employing the term “radical” in quotations marks–with a certain amount of fear and trembling–to denote this contestation.
2) My exposure to Brassier is very limited and Captuo’s textual engagement with him in this chapter is actually pretty sparse. So my use of Brassier here is based on Caputo’s (brief) outline, which may or may not be the best reading. I hope readers more familiar with Brassier and so-called “speculative realism” will weigh in on this.
3) “The event is not what occurs (an accident), it is rather inside what occurs, the purely expressed.” The Logic of Sense, 170.
4) Part of my own project at the moment is to trace this development in Derrida’s thought, something I think Derrida himself was well aware of but reluctant to thematize as such. In this respect, Caputo is most certainly a true Derridean disciple. But, of course, Derrida never really claimed he was doing theology, while Caputo is basically a late-blooming theologian.