John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo

After the Death of God

Review by Eric Dorman, 2009

After the Death of God. By John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo, Edited By Jeffery W. Robbins. Columbia University Press, 2007. 204 pages. $25.50.

The death of God movement was not simply an aberration, but an influential body of thought that had to be faced in order for theology as a craft to survive. After the Death of God, a volume edited by Jeffery W. Robbins, offers a look into the aftermath through the eyes and words of two postmodern intellectuals. John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo each offer their deconstructive responses in both expository and dialogic form. The book asks, “How do we get from the post-Christian, post-Holocaust, and largely secular death of God theologies of the 1960s to the postmodern return of religion?” (13). After the Death of God is structured into three parts. After an introduction by Robbins, Part I introduces and immerses the reader into the “weak thought” philosophies of Caputo and Vattimo. Part II pulls back the lens and reexamines their views in dialogue, granting unscripted insight. Finally, Part III is a brief afterword given by renowned Protestant theologian Gabriel Vahanian. By the end of the book, Robbins, Caputo, and Vattimo thoroughly address the central question, intentionally leaving only matters of nuance to linger on the critical person's mind.

Jeffery W. Robbins' introduction to After the Death of God provides an historical and philosophical context for both the rise of the death of God theologies and the subsequent responses from postmodern thinkers. After the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, the Western world faced an unparalleled theological and ideological crisis. This coming-of-age era raised painful awareness of Christianity's history, going back to its “devil's bargain” (6) with the Constantinian structuring of Christiandom that added the foreboding element of authority to early Christianity's mystery and miracle. Christian figures such as Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer voiced concern for Christianity's institutionalism, joining Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud– with their “hermeneutics of suspicion”–in prophesying the death of God. Upon the death of the moral-metaphysical God, postmodern philosophy grew and with it came a revived interest in biblical exegesis on the long-veiled aspects of God's suffering and love through Christ (9). The Church may have to carry the weight of history, but Christ carries the weight of the cross (10). Vattimo offers his interpretation of the death of God as “a faithful recovery of kenotic Christianity and a reorientation toward the very essence of the Christian faith–namely that of agape” (14). Similarly, Caputo offers his philosophy as a deconstructive critique, viewing postmodernism as “a more enlightened Enlightenment [that] is no longer taken in by the dream of Pure Objectivity...” (20).

Gianni Vattimo expresses his views toward a nonreligious Christianity in the first half of Part I. Vattimo first explores the meaning and role of interpretation. Moving aside metaphysical speculation and the Enlightenment's fondness for reductionism and objectivism, what we are left with is interpretation; everything is seen through a lens and even scientists, the supposed bulwarks of truth, cannot objectively describe the world. What changed? Vattimo states that the difference between Kant and Heidegger was the “discovery” of other cultures, wherein the Western mind realized the peculiarity of its own worldview (30). In addition to this philosophical foundation, Vattimo describes how the rise of subjectivity corresponded directly with the advent of Christianity. Augustine wrote, “truth lies in the inner human” (31), effectively dissolving the Platonic objective ideal, and thus, “Christianity turns the mind inward and...makes possible the Kantian subject and anticipates modern philosophies of subjectivity” (33-4). In retrospect, Vattimo sees figures such as Christ and Moses as interpreters, and considers the gospels as interpretations. Thus, since interpretation cannot be objective, there can be no authoritative rendering of biblical truth. After all interpretive aspects are taken into consideration, Vattimo argues, what remains is charity or love. Charity is greater than absolute truth because the latter leads to the inability to question, which eventually results in power structures and violence. This being the postmodern age of deconstruction, though, Vattimo foresees a Christianity that becomes fully aware of interpretation and thus moves ahead toward charity and love.

In the second half of Part I, John D. Caputo presents his “spectral hermeneutics,” a philosophy built around the theology of the event–the focal point of postmodern philosophy and theology–and the weakness of God. The event is something that goes on in what happens. Events are restless, unlike names, which merely attempt to formulate events. An event is not a thing, but something that is astir in a thing such that the flux of things are explained by events. While things are deconstructible, events are not. Caputo fashions events into “tender shoots and saplings” (48) growing in the garden of postmodernism, menaced by the varmints of overarching theories. In this formulation, theology takes a postmodern turn when meditation on God shifts to events. Events thus express a “hauntology,” existing in the paradoxical world of being and non-being. Like a specter, the event destabilizes the inclined mind, bewildering and discomforting their foundation of being–like a Buddhist koan–until upon ecstatic realization they have a genuine affirmation of God. While Caputo accepts removing God's omnipotence, here he goes a step further than Tillich by also removing the ground of being, leaving only the event (186).

The resulting depiction of God is far from the powerful cosmic force that passed away before Nietzsche's madman. What remains is a weak God, apparent in the Lewis Carroll style madness of the New Testament. Odd phenomena, flipped hierarchies, bodies passing through walls, raising of the dead, walking on water, etc. are the paradoxical cases rooted in what Paul called “the weakness of God” (62), a feature that comes to full disturbing fruition on the cross. Tying this in with the theology of the event, Caputo states that the name of God is “more of a potency than a power, a restive possibility that makes the world restless with hope for justice and impatient with injustice, while the actuality or the realization is assigned to us...” (64).

Caputo concludes by critiquing the death of God theologies and the philosophy of Vattimo. While Caputo and Vattimo share a common passion for holding “the feet of hermeneutics to the fire of deconstruction” (72), Caputo differs from Vattimo in degree of “weakness.” Vattimo weakens both Being and God, but in the eyes of Caputo his views are too strong concerning the privilege of Christianity. As with several of the death of God theologians, Vattimo carries a tone of progress. This progression often connotes (albeit unintentionally) a movement away from aspects of God characteristic of Judaism and toward that of early Christianity. Granting such privilege defies the essence of separating the name from the event and thus, for Caputo, Vattimo's “weak thought” is too strong and not sufficiently “hauntological” (83).

Part II of After the Death of God contains a pair of casual dialogues that both flesh out the thoughts of Vattimo and Caputo and provide multiple opportunities for tangential opining. Robbins' dialogue with Vattimo covers a range of topics, starting with the theological implications of Vattimo's “weak thought” and moving into more contemporary concerns between religion and politics. Vattimo's personal history as an active political figure and office holder within the European Parliament shines through as he discusses the usefulness and detriment of Christianity's outreach into ethics and politics, the perpetually future status of pure democracy, and the frightening trend toward a language of war and power among nations.

Robbins' dialogue with Caputo features a similar line of questioning. Responding to a question on the role of religion and philosophy, Caputo states that the task of philosophical and religious thought is to remind us that we are all on the same footing, to be affirmative–which does not necessarily equate to being positive–and to inspire. Eventually the dialogue turns to politics where Caputo also expresses a preference for democracy, citing its “autodeconstructibility” (121), but conserves its status as perpetually “to come” (123). Passion and desire for the future, though, have another side. He states that religion often gets used in politics as a veil for underlying ideologies, thus creating a “perfect example of treating something that is inherently deconstructible as undeconstructible” (151). Toward the end of the dialogue, Caputo provokingly asks, “[I]s it possible to inhabit a construction, understanding that it's a construction?” (155).

The final part of After the Death of God features an afterword from Gabriel Vahanian. While its intent is to shed an outside light on the philosophies of Caputo and Vattimo, it is mostly a deconstructionist exposition on the use of words and the uselessness of language to express what anyone means by the name of God. In the end, the only direct criticism of Caputo and Vattimo raised by Vahanian is that they fall prey to the “siren calls of the Sacred” as opposed to God itself (173).

After the Death of God is a strong study of two particular points of view on how theology moves on after the death of God. It offers a very accessible introduction on both historical and philosophical grounds, drawing in an audience of both specialists who could recite the history line by line and neophytes to whom 'postmodernism' is a term they heard once in art class. Throughout the book, Robbins, Vattimo, and Caputo thoroughly and consistently define most of the terms they use, such as interpretation, event, and deconstruction, to clearly present their arguments. On a conceptual level, both Caputo and Vattimo respond well to the death of God theologies. Each thinker fully grasps the gravity of the situation and offers insightful, yet tempered approaches. Especially helpful are the practical tie-ins with contemporary issues in both religion and elsewhere, allowing the somewhat ephemeral nature of their work to remain grounded. Specifically, Caputo's task for intellectuals–urging them to move beyond reductionism and to tend the fire of flux within theology–should strike a chord with the intended audience of the book.

The structure of After the Death of God, though, causes the effectiveness of Caputo's and Vattimo's arguments to dwindle. After a wonderfully written introduction and a thoroughly substantive first section, the second and third sections cause more distress than supplementation. The dialogues seem like a savvy idea, but repetitive commentary and at times meandering trails of discourse lead the audience astray just after they have finally grasped the concepts. Then, to make the uncertainty boil over into frustration, the inclusion of Vahanian's periphrastic afterword steers the book away from culminating analysis into incongruous literary criticism. Regarding the philosophical matter of the book, my most significant critique is internally levied against Vattimo by Caputo and thus there is no need for me to expound upon Vattimo's Christian exclusivity or his claim that “philosophy is a European product” (102).

While the arguments in After the Death of God are strong and coherent, the ivory tint is too opaque to have any effect outside of those who discuss theology for a living. Vattimo rightly admits that the old metaphysical structures and an authoritarian presence in Christiandom are easier to live with for most practitioners than a wholly kenotic Christianity. The questions for consideration then become, how can “weak thought,” theology of the event, or even postmodern theology in general be made accessible to a population that is clearly, as evidenced by examples given by both thinkers, in need of progressive angles into new worldviews? How can postmodern theology convince people to carry the the burden of the cross for themselves, even among populations where those specific words mean nothing?