Postmodern Kataphaticism?

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2012)
For a more developed consideration of these ideas, see my more recent essay: “Postmodern Kataphaticism: A Constructive Proposal.”

Let me begin by simply offering the following thesis: The genuinely important negative theological trajectory in much of postmodern/continental/deconstructive philosophy of religion has led to its own problematic dogmatism.  Specifically, in the crucial attempt to overcome onto-theology, much of continental philosophy of religion has seemingly given rise to what I will term an “apophatic orthodoxy.”  By “apophatic orthodoxy,” I mean that postmodernism has, for the most part, insisted on only one approach to the truth-claims, religious practices, and determinate authority structures of religious communities.  Namely, it appears that the only legitimate possibility for postmodern religious existence is one in which faith occurs “without seeing, without having, and without knowing” (Caputo 1997, 103), such that the structures of religiosity are maintained without determinate content.  It is as if many postmodern philosophers read the second half of Johannes Climacus’s famous statement, existence “cannot be a system for any existing spirit,” but paid no attention to the first half, “Existence itself is a system—for God” (Kierkegaard 1992, 118).  Even if we follow Merold Westphal and introduce the hermeneutic awareness that reality “may very well be” a system for God (2001, 190) rather than the stronger claim that it “is” that way for God, it is important to realize that for many postmodern philosophers, since existence is not a system for us, it simply is not a system at all.   Yet, as Westphal rightly points out, this move is an obvious non-sequitur.  While there are a host of reasons for worrying that an overly determinate religious discourse would slide back into onto-theology and epistemic arrogance, whereby theology is made to answer to philosophical categories assumed to be objectively stable, there are not good reasons to think that all determinate religious discourse is necessarily overly determinate.  Accordingly, I want to propose an idea of “Postmodern Kataphaticism.”

This idea is not new, though the phrase might be.  I am drawing heavily on Westphal and other postmodern philosophers of religion such as Jean-Luc Marion, Richard Kearney, Kevin Hart, James K.A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson, among others, who all warn against the dangers of self-protective theological insularity (where claims to certainty insulate one from critique), while also realizing the danger of moving too far away from the religious traditions in which the God-talk being criticized finds its historical expression.   So, although Postmodern Kataphaticism would certainly resist reducing religious existence to a matter of propositional assent, it would maintain the importance of trying to hold true-beliefs about the nature and existence of God.  In this way, Postmodern Kataphaticism need not be exclusively “continental.”  Many philosophers of religion working more in an “analytic” mode are also likely to be at home with this basic idea.  I am thinking in particular of thinkers such as William Hasker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and C. Stephen Evans, who all resist propositional reductionism while taking quite seriously the importance of tracking with truth.

Similarly, though Postmodern Kataphaticism would be suspicious of thinking that human cognitive and linguistic abilities are adequate to the task of understanding God, and in this sense would continue to maintain an apophatic dimension, it would not give in to the temptation of thinking that if we cannot understand God fully, then we cannot understand God at all.  When Levinas said that the Other “overflows comprehension,” he is careful not to suggest that the Other is absolutely incomprehensible, for that would eliminate the very possibility of an encounter with the Other in the first place.  Similarly, when postmodernists rightly stress the problems with thinking about God as a being, they should be wary of going further and saying that God does not exist or that God cannot be a being.  Instead, with Marion, we should admit that it is possible that God is at least a being, though Being is likely not the best category in which to think of God, and probably not the primary name for God.  Yet, when Marion suggests that Love is a better name for God than are “prime mover” or “causa sui,” he does not mean this as empty rhetorical play, but instead as a determinate truth-claim.  He is putting forth that “God is Love” is a better way to understand God than other alternatives on offer.  Accordingly, Postmodern Kataphaticism would understand that one is not stuck with the false dichotomy of either Classical Onto-theology or something like Derridian “Religion without Religion.”  Instead, determinate religious identity (Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or whatever) is still possible for those who have embraced Derridian deconstruction.  Following Derrida on some things need not mean that one follow Derrida on all things.  Being deconstructive in terms of language, textuality, and identity need not entail that one also “rightly passes as an atheist.” That said, an important upshot of Postmodern Kataphaticism would be that atheism would also be a determinate identity that remains possible as well.  Kierkegaard was right to stress the importance and difficulty of “Becoming a Christian,” yet Sartre was just as right to stress the importance and difficulty of “Becoming an Atheist.”  The apophatic orthodoxy that threatens postmodern philosophy of religion would make Kierkegaard’s notion a non-starter and Sartre’s notion entirely too safe, and thus unimportant.  Let me give just one example in order to work some of this out—if only very tentatively.

In The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, the groundbreaking book which significantly contributed to the contemporary prominence of “Continental” or “Deconstructive” philosophy of religion, John Caputo argues that deconstruction yields a “generalized apophatics” according to which “negative theology is everybody’s business, that it has a general translatability, that we cannot trust any discourse that is not contaminated by negative theology” (1997, 28; see also 32, 41, 46, 55).  Caputo continues on to claim that generalized apophatics involves a “deeply affirmative desire for something that is always essentially other than the prevailing regime of presence, something tout autre—too, too other, oui, oui—is of general interest.  A passion for the impossible is a matter of general concern” (1997, 28).  I think that it would not be too far off the mark to say that all continental philosophers of religion are sympathetic with Caputo’s account and display similar suspicions and desires.  Nonetheless, is it the case that one has to go quite as far as Caputo seems to suggest?  Must a generalized apophatics get cashed out as a rejection of what Caputo (2006) elsewhere terms “strong theology”?  Why can’t the “contamination of negative theology” be something that invites merely epistemic humility rather than metaphysical exclusion?  Another way of saying this is that the non-sequitur discussed above occurs when one moves from epistemic antirealism to metaphysical antirealism without additional argument.  Apophatic orthodoxy occurs when one assumes that no such additional argument is needed.

The point is that Caputo seems to suggest that we can trust a discourse that is contaminated by apophatics.  Yet, this general epistemic anti-realism would not prescribe the content of such a contaminated discourse—i.e., it would remain metaphysically uncommitted.  It is entirely plausible that theistic, atheistic, nontheistic, etc., accounts might all qualify if they are accounts held with requisite hermeneutic sensitivity, contextual appreciation, historicist sensibility, and perspectival understanding.  As Westphal might say, we might be restricted to lower-case t “truth,” but that doesn’t mean that “the truth is that there is not Truth.”  Indeed, it might be that “the truth is that there is Truth.”  This would be the difference between the equally perspectival accounts of Kierkegaard on the one hand and Nietzsche on the other hand.  Deciding one way or another would always involve risk and, as Derrida would say, amount to a real decision.  Accordingly, postmodern philosophy of religion should not and, indeed, cannot start from a rejection of particular theological accounts, because that would be to assume the very thing it fundamentally challenges—a systematic and final view available for existing individuals.  Rather such philosophy can, from the outset, only critique particular ways of relating to such accounts: as held and affirmed with certainty.  Problems arise when, having moved from epistemic to metaphysical antirealism, one then assumes that only some metaphysical accounts, namely those which stress the ineffability, unknowability, excessiveness of God, are viable while other, namely those which stress the intimacy, personality, proximity, relationality, and historical incarnation of God are not.  That is not to say that one might not be able to then go on to provide good reasons for moving in one direction as opposed to another, but the point is that arguments are required to justify such a move.  Just being a postmodernist, a deconstructionist, or a continental philosopher is not sufficient.  Again, let’s consider examples from Caputo.

Although Caputo does claim that he offers “no final opinion” about God “as an entitative issue” (2006, 10), his account of the “strong theology,” to which he is so strenuously opposed, ends up looking a lot like any perspective that understands God as a personal being.   Indeed, Caputo’s suspension of judgment regarding whether God is a being is offered just one page after his claim that “The name of God is being’s aspiration, its inspiration, its aeration, for God is not being or a being but a ghostly quasi-being, a very holy spirit” (2006, 9, emphasis added).  Moreover, it is offered just two pages prior to his claim that “the name of God is the name of an event rather than of an entity . . .” (2006, 12, emphasis added).  Accordingly, it becomes difficult to know what to make of Caputo’s seeming allowance for what we might term a “divine personalism” within a deconstructive frame.  Though he says that he has not excluded such a possibility, he then seems to deny that very possibility twice within three pages.  In this way, Caputo appears to follow quite close on Derrida’s suggestion that “We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more—into the bargain, precisely—capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places” (2008, 108).  This proximity to Derrida is explicit when Caputo goes on to say that “I do not think of God as some super-being who out-knows, out-wills, out-does, out-powers, and out-exists every entity here below, a higher super-entity, a hyper-presence dwelling in a higher world.  I do not think of God as an omnipotent onto-theo-cosmo-logical power source for the universe, but as the unconditional demand for beneficence that shocks the world with a promise that is not kept, as the heart of a heartless world, as the call from below being that summons us to rise beyond being, beyond ourselves” (2006, 39).  “By ‘God’,” Caputo continues, “. . . I do not mean a being who is there, an entity trapped in being, even as a super-being up there, up above the world, who physically powers and causes it, who made it and occasionally intervenes upon its day-to-day activities to tweak things for the better in response to a steady stream of solicitations from down below (a hurricane averted here, an illness averted there, etc.).  That I consider an essentially magical view of the world” (2006, 39).  Lest we think that we have now made sense of Caputo’s account as denying that God is a being, which given the three passages above would seem like a safe assumption, on the very next page he again insists on his neutrality on that issue: “Whether over and beyond what we might call the hermeneutics of the event, the lived experience of the call and of being on call, there is some entitative cause calling, some entity or hyper-entity out there with a proper name, verifiable by a metaphysical argument or certifiable by a divine revelation, is no part of my hypothesis, one way or another (for or against)” (2006, 40).

While it is crucial to appropriate the postmodern apophatic suspicion that Caputo hopes to cultivate, it is equally important to understand that such suspicion is always directed toward something.  Apophatics can only contaminate something if there is something there to contaminate.  So, when Caputo defends a notion of “weak theology,” as an alternative to “strong theology,” this must be done with argument and not with assumptions about what postmodernism entails—for it does not entail anything metaphysical in such ways.  Whether Caputo successfully offers such argument is beyond the scope of my brief remarks here.  Yet, if he is successful, then even his own “weak” model is still a demonstration of Postmodern Kataphatics, because it would make the case that within postmodernism a determinate account of God is possible.  One can be determinately negative or determinately positive—and both gestures can be found in historical theological archives.  The key, however, is to resist the temptation to immediately think, or to take it as obvious, that only such a “weak” model would be viable within postmodernism.  Postmodern Kataphaticism invites serious consideration of the variety of models on offer and attempts to understand them as always apophatically interrupted.  As Kevin Schilbrack might say, whether one defends strong theology or weak theology, both accounts should be “held weakly.”  To say that postmodernism necessitates exclusively defending a weak theology that is “held strongly” is going too far (again, I am not saying that Caputo does this, but simply that his work provocatively illuminates the stakes of such questions).

My hope in calling for a Postmodern Kataphaticism is that Caputo’s “theo-poetics” and something like Jamie Smith’s Pentecostally oriented Reformed version of Radical Orthodoxy would both be recognized as options worth weighing and considering within postmodern philosophy of religion (whether within a continental or analytic mode).  The debate about what reasons one might offer for choosing one over the other is a debate well worth having and, I believe, would productively help to overcome the overblown opposition between continental and analytic philosophy of religion.  Even if postmodernism, in general, invites hesitation in the face of dogmatism, one cannot sit on fences forever.  Postmodern Kataphaticism reminds us of this and helps us to understand that even the most radical apophatic discourse is dependent upon positive claims.  Such claims may or may not be true—hence the need for continued conversation and good arguments—but that they might be true is what is important.  Postmodern apophaticism does not avoid making truth-claims, but it becomes problematically dogmatic and unhelpfully orthodox when it forgets this while criticizing everyone else for doing so.

Works Cited:

Caputo, John D. 1997. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Caputo, John D. 2006. The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Ed. and Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Westphal, Merold. 2001. Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. New York: Fordham University Press.

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