No Miracle for You or, Perhaps John D. Caputo Gives Faith a Chance

Jesus concludes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus by noting a miracle will not help. Hardly the sort of encouragement from him who turned water to wine, who walked on water, and who bid Peter to get out of the boat. The modern imagery conjured by the prospect of Dives’ brothers, where Dives is a fictitious Latin name added later, being warned by Lazarus returned from the dead would be the stuff for many a Judgment House. The problem is Jesus says, “No, it won’t work.”

The Law calls a material structure possible to cultivate a culture of neighborly well being, if practiced. Before John preached, urging as it were, the Kingdom of God, the Law insisted God. Actions and behaviors commensurate with the Law called for human beings to create a community that did not cohere with normal human desires. The call to radical humanity insists God. And, as such connotes that the mission of God requires such a community of radical human beings.

Ignoring the sort of material structures that leave people begging for crumbs at the tables of the wealthy haunts us all. Confessional-ly we point up human dignity and worth. We claim exclusive right to talk about the Kingdom of God, to build the Kingdom of God, to live in the Kingdom of God. Pragmatically we engage in a play of words that leaves us, like the Pharisees, exposed. Our desires find structural safety in the very way we, that is a good many Christians, seek to comfort the sorrowful with thoughts of what is to come as much better than what is. Yet, we do little to challenge the structures and systems that continue to produce pain and sorrow. And, we insist God exists.

Imagine as it were the Pharisees consoling beggarly Lazarus that if he just holds on, he will find it better in the life to come. All the while the Pharisees claim the very resources intended to help care for their aging parents cannot be used as they have been dedicated to God – Corban. The Pharisees know that once their parents pass from this life those same resources would then be free of obligation, as God surely would want them to have a new house with the very wealth they had dedicated to God. And, the Pharisees insist God exists.

insistenceI thought I would try my hand at something of an acknowledged abridgment of the first chapter of John D. Caputo’s recently released, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. It certainly contains interpretive moves.

My friend Tripp Fuller organized a Blog Tour around Jack’s book, as some know him. Surprise might be too soft a word to describe that one of the lead off participants in the Blog event serves as a pastor of a Southern Baptist Church in Oklahoma. There is little doubt I may receive an email, or more, like the one I did after having referenced Walter Brueggemann years ago that included, “What is a Southern Baptist doing reading Brueggemann?” Only I suspect emails that may follow this piece might begin, “How could you?!”

Perhaps, for Caputo, becomes the cut between traditional binaries giving space for the event of God’s insistence. Strong theology is the place where certainty lurks and is an affront to faith. Weak theology is not an indecisive, inept project but one where real possibility exists and God insists. Caputo argues that talk of possibility is problematic where strong powers dominate the discourse. Real possibility must include the possibility things might not turn out as we hope. This is truly unsettling, decentering. But, we who often quote Philippians 4:13 cannot but be drawn in by the thought of an omni-potentializing, omni-possiblizing God. (p.14)

In order to raise the specter of something needed in Confessional Theology, Caputo calls for a Derridian “hauntology” of Confessional Theology.(p.5) And, perhaps is just the word to unsettle the powers of a Strong Theology. Caputo argues, as he has elsewhere, for a Weak Theology. Such a theology is haunted by the “may be” God of perhaps. For Jack, Strong Theology minimizes human responsibility. Weak Theology maximizes human responsibility.

The first chapter introduces the insistence of God. If it is not de-stabilizing enough to consider the need for a haunting of Confessional Theology, perhaps, one may be scandalized as Caputo invites readers to consider the insistence of God above the existence of God. The theme, and title of the book, will unfold throughout as he explicates the three pills that Confessional Theology must swallow to get over its fear of perhaps – The Insistence of God, Theopoetics, Cosmopoetics.

Perhaps I look for Caputo’s newest book to give faith a chance where faith no longer arises from the certainty of Strong Theology that in its discourse looks very little like faith. Perhaps I wonder if Caputo will take his own omni-possiblizing, omni-potentializing of the Event of God to the place where a metaphysics, even if a weak metaphysics, is possible. Perhaps I wonder how a Confessional Theology that places great emphasis upon human responsibility will respond to a Theology of Perhaps that creates a hyper-human responsibility.

Perhaps you will get a copy and risk reading for yourself.

I received this book for free from Indiana University Press for this review.

And, it has been on my Wish List since it was announced to be published.

Perhaps, Facebook Exposes Original Sin and the Need for a Missional Quest

You will be disappointed. After a fairly long hiatus from writing beyond an occasional photograph, I choose a title sure to generate traffic. You clicked. My intent is to point out what is to come here on the blog.


perhapsNext week I will participate in a Blog Tour around the recent release of John D. Caputo’s, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. My contribution will be to write about the first chapter, God, Perhaps: The Fear of One Small Word. All readers will wonder. Some will think I have lost my mind. Quietly, or not so quietly, you may think I have lost my faith. The truth is I have long thought there is much to learn from critiques of religion, even of Christianity. The Masters of Suspicion continue to influence those critiques that eventually produced what goes under the banner of Radical Theology. What Caputo will do in his recent book is describe a Radical Theology. Always interested in the play of words, Caputo, intentionally or unintentionally, opens us up to recognize that when people talk about Christianity, they may be describing a Christianity.

My fearful readers will no doubt find confirmation in that last line that I somehow believe there are multiple Christianities. A better way to get at what I suspect is that in Christian discourse, outside of our tribal confines, reveals to onlookers as if there are multiple versions of Christianity. The Christianity described by Joel Osteen would not be what many in my tribe would consider Christianity. The Western and Eastern Churches have long emphasized their differences in such a way one could suggest they are two different versions. We have not even begun to describe regional expressions in other parts of the world. The description does not negate, or invalidate Christianity, but it seems to equate to Lamin Sanneh’s description of Christianity as the translatable religion, not ethnically tethered.

Other readers will wonder what an Evangelical Southern Baptist pastor is doing reading the sorts of things that stir their intellect as well as their understanding that Christianity should not be less than materially lived. These friends would see the contribution of Radical Theology something akin to religious chemotherapy for a Christianity that is too other-worldly. In fact, this group would find it hard to understand Christianity and its lived expression as not less than political, and not in the partisan sense. Instead, Jesus charts the way for those whom Paul describes as new creations in Christ. These living human beings live out their faith in all relationships as people giving allegiance to a new Lord, not an old Caesar.


barrytaylorMy friend Barry Taylor concludes an interview with, “Facebook is the new suburbia.” No explanation. No exposition.

We live in a community best described as ex-rural. According to some descriptions, Tuttle is a suburb of Oklahoma City. Maybe what Barry is getting at pertains to the way suburbia tends to be a place where broken lives are shielded by nice homes, manicured lawns, and evidence of expensive hobbies. The jig on suburbia has long been up. Currently the trend is back to the cities.

But, what Taylor may help us understand is that we have long desired to desire a better projection of ourselves. People compose their identities on Facebook in the same way a nice picket fence in suburbia shifted attention from those living inside to how things look on the outside. The issue is how we understand the self and identity formation. Who could deny we continue to miss these issues amidst the politicization of identity in our politics?

Original Sin

eagletonEnter Terry Eagleton. Ironically, a Facebook post by a young friend in Divinity school pointed me to Terry Eagleton’s, On Evil. Though I am not finished with the book, he describes original sin in greater breadth than simply a pointer to Adam’s fated choice in the Garden. Instead, in the lived experience Eagleton points human brokenness as a trace in our histories. He personalizes human experience in a way that reference to a first parent cannot.

He writes,

Original sin, however, is not about being born either saintly or wicked. It is about the fact of being born in the first place. Birth is the moment when, without anyone having had the decency to consult us on the matter, we enter into a preexistent web of needs, interests, and desires – an inextricable tangle to which the mere brute fact of our existence will contribute, and which will shape our identity to the core.” (p.35)

I am interested to finish and work through my own understanding of Original Sin as bequeathed from what I suspect is an overly simplistic vision, strictly intended to target an individual without accounting for the world in which he or she will live.

Missional Quest

missionalquestBrad Brisco and Lance Ford‘s recent book, The Missional Quest: Becoming A Church of the Long Run, arrived in the mail compliments of IVP. I responded to the query to read their new release hoping to see what one virtual friend (Brad) and one real-time friend (Lance) describe. I am hopeful they have in mind something like Eugene Peterson’s, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, with the Church in mind.

My interest is beyond getting a free book. I am in my 20th year at Snow Hill. In Baptist terms, even Southern Baptists, that is a long run. And, I am not tired. It will be interesting to see what sort of parallels may be found between what I would describe as theorists, and that is not intended negatively, and a practitioner. We need those 30,000 foot thinkers. But, if there is not translatability at ground level, someone is wasting their time. I suspect Brad and Lance will not be wasting ours.

These Things and More

All of this is to come. The careful reader will know that blog posts on these subjects will have a measure of the eschatological to come. Amid best intentions there is always the regular work that comes with pastoring and sharing life with those in our congregation. When you witness the occasional infrequencies in the flow here at The Edge of the Inside, know that there is always the to come.

As always, thank you for reading and commenting.

The Lights Are Flickering – What’s A Church to Do?

Power went out at our house Friday night. We were not alone. Thousands lost power. Some are still waiting on electric companies to turn the lights back on.

Friday afternoon we suffered another loss. The power went out. There is no more waiting for her. The power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in her.

CatherineDDallas Willard remarked before his death that, according to his understanding of human consciousness and Resurrection, it might be some time before he realized he had died. If that is true, the accident that took Catherine’s life did not interrupt her awareness of the love of God. The Apostle Paul concluded such a conviction about the love of God and the notion of separation. “Nor death,” he wrote.

The blog has been quiet for a few days. And, it may for a several more. We will share in a Memorial Service this Friday. This is not the first time our church family has lost a young person. Five times in 19 years I have stood to grieve with families, friends, and this community. Each young person was unique because each life presented us with particularities of personality and relationship.

Tragedies often force us to defend the notion of a personal God that participates in the events of life. My skeptic friends deny magic but then accuse God of not performing such in times like these. I care not to get into a protracted defense at this point. What I am concerned with is that we take more time to hone our skills than our arguments.

Books abound on apologetics. I think we need to apologize. What matters more, and seemed so to Jesus, is the learned practice and participation in Divine Love. Were we more adept at loving the unloved, the hard to love, and those that do not want love we may offer a stiffer defense of both the Incarnation and the Resurrection. For us at Snow Hill, I am hoping that is the path we take when answering the question, “What’s a Church To Do?”

I offered some thoughts on the life of Jesus as we faced that question this past Sunday. I generally do not link to my own sermonic endeavors. But, as odd as it sounds, I may need to listen again a time or two as I need Jesus mediated to me early and often. If you are inclined, here is the link.

Religion and The New Materialism or, Can I Get a Material Witness?

Religion (always) falls on hard times. No matter how one attempts to rehab religion, and the notion that things need to tie well together, plenty of anecdotal stories emerge that point to how religion may be responsible for how things fall apart. The old materialist critique, and its spokespeople, would quickly make use of current religious events to illustrate their assertions.

The media works hard to temper the religious mood of the recent perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing. One could explore the way religion may have functioned for at least one, if not both, of the young men. Did the two young men project their vision of humans writ large onto a version of Deity that would convince them violence is the best persuasive tool for material change? Could it be, the way it has been variously described, that the two young men found happiness in their religious turn such that faithfulness to that turn required a violent act in order to alter their material reality? Or, did religion function solely as an infantile neurosis that left the two young men split such that their action reveals unconscious desire?

It was revealing that a Boston area Imam asserted that, according to the Koran, to kill an innocent condemns a person to hell. Even the defense of a religious tradition does not provide a means to evaluate the way religion, even belief, functioned in this instance, or others.

That I used the recent high profile event that contains a religious angle does not mean religion, as I have used it, pertains to other than Christian traditions. That would be both naïve and hubristic. One could easily consider the upcoming Trustees meeting at Louisiana Baptist College and the intrigue related to these events. The two sides actions’, as in most internecine squabbles, call into question the way religion and belief function on the ground when divergent claims are at stake and God’s will is the trump card.

Even more prevalent is the oft misleading Congressional debates. Immigration. Gun control. And, we see quickly that the means to important ends is when everyone suffers a lack of Air Traffic Controllers. Politics does not get a pass, especially for Crockett and Robbins any more than Energy policies. But, this review focuses on their assessment of Religion and particularly how religion functions.

What about The New Materialist critique of religion? How would it differ from the old materialist critique?

The Old Materialist Critique of Religion

Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins offer a helpful genealogy of the materialist critique, rather the old materialist critique. Feuerbach gets the ball rolling declaring religion represents human projection – human beings amplify their best traits and ascribe them to God. Marx moves to allow for religion as a form of self-knowledge. Aware of the difficulties on the material plane, religion is available for human beings whose plight robs them of happiness.

Admittedly, for Marx, it is an illusory happiness but it helps in the material experience of life. If life is hard, people ought to be allowed to create a false consciousness that makes life happy, even if it is not real happiness. Crockett and Robbins point to the way Marx pushed against Feuerbach’s analysis as merely a theoretical evaluation of the human experience and moves to demand something practical. Crockett and Robbins note that Marx believed to remove religion without altering material reality would result in another illusory form of false consciousness to take its place. Frued, however, believed religion to mask underlying needs found in the unconscious.

Interestingly while Marx, according to the authors, considered religion illusory, Freud believed religion is funded by human desire, an infantile neurosis to be sure. Participation in the religious illusion would be revelatory of human unconscious desire. Marx would retain religion, even as a false consciousness, if it could be used to effect material change. Freud would expunge religion so as to free the person from snares, and the split, that accompany false consciousness.

The New Materialist Critique of Religion

Crockett and Robbins prefer to read Marx through Slavo Zizek. While Zizek picks up the materialist critique, he ratchets up Marx by playing on Marx’s relative ambivalence toward religion as false consciousness and sees its ubiquitous presence as a place one might discover the energy to fund political change and therefore alter material reality. The new materialist critique draws attention to the way religion, and also belief, function to prop up a transcendent reality while neglecting the immanent plane, or the place where life happens.

Zizek would acknowledge, with the old materialist critique, that religion is a false consciousness but would assert all constructions of the real are false consciousness. I am guessing because they are human constructions. But, for Zizek all we have are human constructions. When life happens in a way that does not fit the constructed narrative it represents an irruption. The event, then, harbors the Real and may become a transformative experience.

The religious event that disrupts, for Zizek at least, is the Incarnation. He may not hold a creedal or confessional theologically orthodox position but his theoretical understanding of Incarnation enlivens Zizek’s project such that in God becoming materially human, reality is therefore changed. It is here that we may follow Crockett and Robbins to assess the way we live on the immanent place, where life happens.

Is it Practical? Does The New Materialist Critique Matter?

Yes. Just this morning I read my mentor describe the church his son-in-law pastors. The white clapboard building is situated on the outskirts of a town among the poor. Over the years the larger churches in the area failed to demonstrate the ways they valued those whose economic outlook would not provide compelling reason for their investment.

It is safe to assume we could use Crockett and Robbins’ EROI (Energy Return On Investment) to assess the lack of commitment to those whose personal economy would not make a material impact on the whole proportionate to others considered the not poor. As such, Incarnation becomes theologically theoretical. Christians may adhere to the creeds and/or confessions, assent to the contained doctrinal declarations, and self-describe as true-believers, but their lived reality, their own material reality, demonstrates otherwise. As such, religion, and so belief, function to maintain their personal perception of truly believing so as to avoid exposure as those who do not believe at all.

The temptation would be to be reductionist. What I describe is simply hypocrisy. It is everywhere. But, rather than be reductionist and label it hypocrisy, it may be better to take into account the materialist critique, yeah the New Materialist critique, and expand arenas of human experience in need to alteration beyond the religious individual and take in the religious, political, and energy systems that combine to maintain the status quo.

The New Materialism would harness the pervasive religious impulse as a platform to inspire the needed changes in the status quo that would substantively alter material reality for the common good, the good of real people. I like the connection Tripp has made. When God made the covenant after the flood, he included all living things. It seems apparent that to fail to fit the covenant made with Abraham into that which he made with all of creation requires another Copernican Revolution. One where human beings made in the image of God underline in their actions their relationship to the world and not just to their named God.

My personal analysis would suggest that without a prophetic community, the dominant Evangelical, even Christian, vision for human life will yet remain more focused on the future transcendent than the immanent, the place where Incarnation happens. And as such, we will always have the poor with us . . . and not be compelled to make real changes otherwise.

This post is part of the Homebrewed Christianity Book Blog Tour for Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism by Clayton Crockett, and Jeffrey Robbins.

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