This past weekend I was in Ohio at Kent State University for a graduate philosophy conference. I knew going in that Kent State was, as some philosopher’s like to say, a bit on the Continental side. Now, pace Leiter, I think that there is a difference between the broad philosophical camps. I fall nicely within the Analytic and the majority at Kent State are Continentals. As one colleague of mine puts it, here at Western Michigan, where we are all analytics, we do real philosophy and all those other chaps are putting on a show. After my experience at Kent State I can quite honestly heartily agree. Of the eight papers, plus keynote, presented only two were what I would consider analytic philosophy (although, there was one on the philosophy of romantic love that was very entertaining, albeit badly argued).
Now, I also knew before-hand that John Caputo was the keynote speaker. For those who do not know who John Caputo is, suffice to say that while he claims to be a theist he is anything but. He self stylizes himself as a radical theologian (and, indeed, if he is anything I suppose it is that; he is no philosopher). This post is mostly a rant against Caputo, and for that I apologize. I do feel, however, that I was gipped out of a decent keynote presentation. I didn’t sit all day listening to dribble about Hegel and Marx only to get more dribble at the high-point of the conference. I confess that I had more intellectual interaction with my pasta and marinara lunch than with his presentation.
Caputo wants to be a radical theologian. A radical theologian, so he says, is one that engages the scriptures and traditions of the traditional or confessional theologians, yet answers to no one. There is no bishop, no flock of the faithful to keep him answering to some line of dogma. In effect, the radical theologian is free to “theologize” in any way, shape, or form that he please and will try to convince anyone who will listen. That is, the radical theologian is an ultra-liberal, a person who takes what has been confessed and preached, believed and practiced, and alters the meaning to fit their agenda. This is, plain and simple, what Caputo does. Gone for him is any notion of incarnation, or resurrection, or trinity, or salvation, or, even, God. This is why I cannot understand why or how he styles himself not only as a theist but also as a theologian (albeit, a radical one). There is, at the end, nothing left of what any traditional theist would understand as theism. Although, he claims that if a traditional theologian thinks hard enough then he will think himself into radical theology. (I guess the implication there is that no one else is really thinking).
Case in point: God, for Caputo, is not a being but an event. God is, as he put it in Derridain fashion, the “happening within the happening”. If you are confused as to what that might mean, welcome. This is one case in point as to why much of Continental philosophy is an oxymoron. God is an event, not a person, not a being, not a force, but really when it comes down to it a feeling that one “has” when participating in certain activities. God is not a compelling feeling but a propelling feeling; presumably God is what causes one to engage in certain activities and practices. Chief, for Caputo, would be activities of kindness and practices of tolerance. All well and good I suppose, but I don’t know why one needs to drag the name of God into it. Over dinner I asked him what would happen if everyone actually believed his theory, wouldn’t it be self-defeating? He, candidly, affirmed that it would be. If everyone were like John Caputo then no one would believe in God (not even the facile and absurd version of “God” that he apparently believes in). At least Caputo can be honest. I confess to not understand the authority Caputo could have to call himself a theologian, rather than, say, a social theorist who absconds with common terms and reworks their meaning. As a friend of mine at the conference put it, and I agree, Caputo is engaged in activities aimed at confusing the common person (who can be quite gullible) through blatant obfuscation and reworking of the meaning of terms they already accept. His whole work as a “radical theologian” is parasitic upon the fact that most people in the worlds already believe in God (and God as a being at that). I asked him what the difference was between acting in the name of God and acting in the name of Justice, and he candidly remarked that it means more to the common person to act in the name of God (and, hence, there is only a parasitic difference and no real difference). God is a “thing” on its way out for Caputo.
Sadly, it seems that even many mainline and what ought to be solid Christians, leaders in the church, also buy this line of thought. One of the graduate students shared a story to Caputo and myself at dinner of his cousin from Scranton P.A. (a Catholic stronghold). His cousin was seriously considering becoming a Jesuit but wanted to talk it over with his old parish priest. On sharing his desire, but also some of his misgivings over some of the doctrines of the Catholic faith, the priest took him to one side and said, “honestly, do you think any of us believe this shit?” One might wonder what fool would give his life to the ministry of being a priest (which is no small occupation) if they thought it was “all shit”. I suspect that he is also a radical theologian of the likes of Caputo. Augustine was certainly correct when he remarked that there are many sheep without and many wolves within. It is up to the sheep to guard themselves against the wolves and to refrain from even listening to the likes of Caputo and his ilk.