For all of my respect and appreciation for his theological wisdom and grace, however, I have been repeatedly frustrated by the political pronouncements with which he chooses to pepper his texts. As one friend (who acknowledges he mostly agrees with Caputo’s politics) put it after reading “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?”, “For a ‘radical’ theologian, his politics look an awful lot like any other middle-class progressive Christian.” Is there a way to resolve this tension?
Much of Caputo’s recent work focuses on the importance of “the event,” and seeing the possibility of this as the way in which God comes into being in the world. In “Truth: Philosophy in Transit”, for instance, he spends a good portion of the text describing Derrida’s explanation of the event, and the danger of closing off the possibility for it in the future by holding too tightly to our will. He includes a whole section on how postmodernism frees us from the “bucket thinking” of modernism, that forces us to neatly categorize everything despite the fact that we live in a messy world with leaky buckets. And yet, he jokes that he hopes his son will be anything but a Republican. It’s a joke that falls flat, in part because the reader suspects he is only half-joking.
Part of what I suspect is going on with this unreflective commentary is that Caputo has been unwilling or unable to extend the implications of his theological comments to the political sphere. A systems thinker is one that seeks to impose a particular viewpoint on the world on the assumption that it will be better for everyone else. In this way the actor intentionally seeks to close off possibility by controlling outcomes. It is the opposite of leaving space for the event and the unknown to take place – to leave room and hope for the future, and it presumes the use of force to control the actions of others through the use of state power. Despite raising concerns about engaging in this in the realm of the philosophy, Caputo never fully wrestles either with the ethics of such an approach in the political realm or whether it truly squares with his own theology.
What might such a postmodern political approach that emphasizes grace, hope, freedom, and the value of human action look like? The answer may be in the rejection of the metanarrative of the the state as the great protector and provider, and toward what might even be described as a politics of weakness rather than strength.
It was in conversation with a friend about the nature of free markets that I came across this quote from Jeffrey Tucker:
What I gradually discovered in the course of my daily life is that anarchism is all around us. The State does not wake us up in the mornings, make our beds, weave our sheets, build our houses, make our cars work, cook our food, cause us to work hard, produce the books we read, manage our houses of worship, give us clothes, keep the time, choose our friends and loved ones, play the music we love, produce the movies we watch, care for our kids, tend to our parents, choose where we vacation, dictate our conversations, make our holidays beautiful, or much of anything else.
These are all things we do ourselves. We shape our own world. Through the exercise of human volition, we all work to make the world around us orderly. This is what the whole of the world population does. We all work from our rightly understood self-interest to find ways to have a good life and work with others on a mutually beneficial basis to see that our good lives do not come at the expense of other people’s rights and liberties. Freedom is where the beautiful things in our own lives come from. And this is true the world over. It has always been true. A beautiful anarchy is the great source of civilization itself.
I believe that Caputo’s radical theology calls us beyond the Democrat Party. Instead, it invites us into a deeper critique of the system in which we find ourselves – one that challenges our own complicity in the violence and oppression of the state (including our desire to wield its destructive power to achieve our ends) and inspires us to both work and hope for greater space for peaceful interaction in the world.
[i] If you are interested in my previous reflections on Caputo's work, you can read short reviews of his “Insistence of God” and “Hoping Against Hope” online, as well as a message delivered in worship.