This is my contribution to the Homebrewed Christianity Blog Tour of John Caputo’s new book, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. First, a big thank you to Homebrewed Christianity and Indiana University Press for a copy of the book. This post will cover chapter 11, “A Nihilism of Grace,” and to get caught up with the thoughtful and critical discussion go over to Homebrewed Christianity. For my part, I want to have some fun and reflect on the text differently (Hopefully, Blake will do proper justice to this chapter).
I did not go to the Subverting the Norm conference but I followed the conversation and have continued to wonder if, in fact, this sort of theology (what Caputo describes as “radical”, “theology of perhaps”, “theopoetics”, and still his “theology of the event(s)”) can live in churches (the subtitle of the second conference). So, although I am late to the party, I want to read this chapter through the lens of spiritual care and counseling and specifically hospital chaplaincy (my context). I had patient visits this month in which Caputo’s “impermanence intensifies existence” (227) remained with me as I watched the fear of a loved one’s death bleed into regret. I wondered if a theology of perhaps could actually help real people encounter real pain, but I am getting ahead of myself.
[Side note: I think Caputo would like spiritual care as chaplains are typically on the outside of mainstream theological conversations – those conversations with “seminary-trained ventriloquists” (62).]
We must start with the meantime… This is always our starting point, this world, this plane of immanence. We can set our coordinates eschatologically and hope against hope, but this doesn’t necessarily help in the meantime. Caputo’s nihilism of grace embraces the cold dark reality of our cold dark reality. No filter, just reality. No Secret, just reality. I had a Hebrew Bible professor at Fuller, Dr. Goldingay, say that he has faith in the end time, but needs faith in the meantime, and I think this is an apt way to begin looking at Caputo’s understanding of meantime and his nihilism of grace. Caputo’s early move is to embrace life; embrace our roles and embrace the event:
We should not confuse the call of the event with any mundane vocation, for these vocations belong to the passing form of the world (225).
We remain in the meantime focused on the event and, borrowing from Deleuze, therefore live lives worthy of the event that has happened to us. Caputo wants to talk about ethics, but I am more concerned with what happens when the event that has happened to us is tragedy: suffering, loss, and death.
As you would safely assume, a hospital chaplain is consistently asked, why. Why cancer? Why this car accident? Why has it metastasized? Why did I stub my toe? I hear that question with more vehemence as I have shifted my focus to pediatrics; parents desperately want to know why this as opposed to that has happened to their child. To the why question, Caputo states that “life is more important than any why” (226). I agree, in theory, but this needs unpacking before one rushes in and exclaims this philosophical gem. When we verbally engage in this it comes off as end time understanding instead of meantime living – and doesn’t it sound eerily like a strong theology forcing its way into our psyche? Parents do not get this hindsight view in the midst of hell, and unfortunately they typically get pithy statements of orthodoxy – once again from that very strong confessional theology that Caputo seeks to haunt!
This is something you get to say before an event has happened to you, or once you have a hindsight’s view. It is not uttered in meantime. So how can a nihilism of grace work in the church (or what I am referencing in a spiritual care relationship)?
I understand much of my role as re-authoring myths, and theological myths can be the most insidious: “God needed another angel”; “God gave me cancer to slow me down”; “God is in control” and “there is a good reason.” Entrenched in some tragedies is the guilt or the perception of sin punishment; God is punishing me, us, or my child because of “x” sin.
In other words, understanding the why gets in the way of embracing life’s reality in the moment, which is the reality Caputo insists we embrace.
In order for this to live in the churches it must be modeled by others. Therefore, it is I – as the caregiver – that lives as if life is more important than any why and I provide care from this vantage point. When I live as if life is more important than a why I am more likely to remain present in the face of tragedy and begin to journey with the family as they encounter reality and are able to also grasp that life is more important than any why. [I am, of course, not saying that a family couldn’t do this on their own, but I am saying that having a partner to accompany with throughout the journey is of value.]
Spiritual care providers, as Charles Gerkin said, are interpreters of stories. What are we interpreting? In each present encounter, we assist in interpreting meaning, and this is precisely where a nihilism of grace is of importance. I want to assist families in recognizing that “impermanence intensifies existence” (227). What this does, is eliminate some of the fear. There is the fear of death (there is no Pauline, “death where is your victory” just yet), the fear of guilt, but also the fear of regret. Is there enough time to tell you how I feel?! Is there enough time to seek reconciliation?! The regret could be the fear of telling the loved one they are dying; and this disavowal prevents Caputo’s impermanence of intensifying existence.
The only way to live a life more important than a why is to confront and face death. While families are “hanging on by a prayer” – perhaps watching a heart rate monitor – they can live in that moment. Live into the intensity. Don’t turn your back. That precarious moment will pass away (it is impermanent), but it is of vital importance that the family confront that moment because “they know their love will not last forever” (227). What is permanent? What does last forever? This moves into Caputo’s definition of resurrection.
In Caputo’s final resurrection “body” narrative he discusses Jesus. It is Jesus’ actions on the cross, the extension of forgiveness, the refusal to command the angels to his side, and his refusal to fight back that is Caputo’s first understanding of resurrection. “Such forgiveness,” Caputo states, “is the way Jesus lives forever” (236). God is not found in the places of strong theology (e.g., not on the plane of transcendence or as a sovereign power that will raise the dead to slaughter all those Romans soldiers), but God is located “in the chance for grace, in the insistence of a chance for existence. God does indeed play dice, a game of chance with grace” (237).
Caputo concludes the chapter with an answer to the question of life’s meaning (I will provide you the answer, but still buy the book!): Life, because. The love of life in all its complexities, joys, and darkness is what Caputo urges the reader to come to grips with. A life that has a why supplanted on it will only damage it, or as Caputo himself eloquently puts it, “Life is undermined from the moment it is subjected to the economy of a ‘why” (241).
To answer my earlier question of this living in the churches, yes, this sort of theology can live (or haunt in Caputo’s vernacular) in the church (or in a ministerial context) as long as It lives in relationships. That is my main push back for Caputo. To live a nihilism of grace where God insists is helpful only in a setting in which dismantling a confessional “why” is safe.