Talking Caputo and Vattimo

This weekend I’ve been reading a lot about/by Gianni Vattimo and Mark Driscoll. I mostly just wanted to mention those two names in the same sentence. One a homosexual Italian Catholic, the other a homophobic American Protestant.

The Vattimo books are Weakening Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo and After the Death of God (conversations with John Caputo & Vattimo). Caputo is challenging for me; I’ve pre-ordered his What Would Jesus Deconstruct? and so will probably comment more after reading that.

Here’s my problem with Vattimo: I can’t figure out why he’s a Christian. Think about Heidegger, in which we’re unsure on what philosophical basis he can reject Nazism — and he doesn’t. Vattimo is clearly indebted to Heidegger, though philosophically not politically. But as easily as Heidegger slipped into Nazism, so too has Vattimo easily slipped into Christianity. I get the distinct impression that were Vattimo born in India he’d be a Hindu or a Buddhist if born in China. His choice of Christianity seems completely arbitrary — if asked “Should, or why should, I be a Christian?” I think Vattimo would be dumbfounded.

I’ve changed my mind, I’m going to comment on Caputo just briefly. I’ll give a longer quote just for kicks:

“The [I think he means ‘a’] meaning of postmodernism is to weaken the classical difference between theology and philosophy. The distinction between faith and reason, for example, does not finally hold up for me. I take reason to be deeply structured by faith and I take any faith that is not simply madness to be obliged to be articulate about itself and, so, rational in that sense. Virtually all of contemporary philosophy is bent on showing the way in which to understand something is to operate within a horizon of understanding that has to remain tentatively in place for you to get anything done. That horizon of understanding is something like a faith. It’s a presuppositional structure that is constantly getting tested, but it has to be in place.By the same token, the natural/supernatural distinction also comes apart. To distinguish a natural order into which is injected some supernatural influx, some supernatural empowerment of our natural faculties, is, I think, to believe in magic. It’s a good thing I retired from Villanova just as I was getting to heretical! To think clearly about religion you have to clear your head of supernaturalism and magic. That is our permanent debt to Tillich. A religious faith is a historically inherited symbolic system, a hermeneutic, a symbolic way of looking at things that has been handed down to you by a cultural and literary tradition with which you have a built-in resonance.

So, there aren’t any clean distinctions that you could make between philosophy and theology that I could not deconstruct, if you give me a computer and an hour and a half. The dispute between them is a lover’s quarrel. Mostly it comes down to what extent you’re willing to talk about God. When your discourse keeps returning again and again to God, and you cannot be cured of this, then you think, this must be theology. And that may be permitted so long as it [is] a confession, not a self-congratulation.”

The first and third paragraphs are very good; the second not so much. Caputo has failed to sufficiently deconstruct: he has not subverted the binary, but merely inverted it. Now he’s distinctly modern and the natural takes precendence over the supernatural — indeed, we’re to clear our heads of any notion of the supernatural. It’s that sentence that betrays Caputo, for I’m with him on the first two sentences. What he ought to have said is that the natural/supernatural dichotomy truly falls apart when we realize that the supernatural is natural in a world created by God, and that the natural is supernatural in a world sustained by God.

FWIW, Tony Jones has called Caputo a “sheep in wolf’s clothing,” though I’ve not decided if that’s a phrase suited to Caputo… recognizing, of course, that this deciding – this naming – is itself an injustice to the man & his thought. However, perhaps this was just all an awkward segue to a Tony Jones article that’s really worth reading; it’s a blog post in response to the question “Why is the Emerging Church drawn to deconstructive theology?” Part of his answer makes me think he would agree with this quip: Deconstruction is what Scripture does to us, not what we do to Scripture. The Church and Postmodern Culture: Conversation blog is generally good and recommended by me. They have a good PDF collection of their best posts from the 1st half of this year.

I believe that I believe

Research log:
I finished James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? earlier this week and am wrapping up Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernim Serves (My) Faith (“Question Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art”). In the back of the book she has a list of resources that were helpful to her and one of them is “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Postmodern” by one Gary Percesepe. The name jumped out at me because Gary Percesepe taught philosophy at Cedarville for a number of years and, I think, is the founder of CU’s Honors program. I could only find the article on microfiche (Dec ’90 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review) and I’d highly recommend it to you, my enterprising readers. The article is more amazing in light of how controversial postmodernism has been at Cedarville in the last couple years — yet here’s a sympathetic voice from 17 years earlier. I may try to put the whole thing online soon, but here’s an excerpt:

“The postmodern conversation after all is our conversation, and it is we postmoderns who shall have to live amidst the fragments of a world whose unraveling can be traced back to the work of our own hands, doing what we have always done — making and unmaking texts of meaning. This is no mindless, deathlike nihilism; it is merely the realization that it is the discourse of modernity, after all, that has put forward the unpresentable in its own presentation, moving the conversation along until now. The mark of the postmodern is the stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable. Rather than strive for the unattainable in the shadow of the total, the postmodern searches for newer presentations, if for no other reason than to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. The postmodern marshals resistance to the totality, knowing that the price of the illusion that one can have it all is terror. And we have had enough of the terror of the totality, we moderns” (pg 129).

Also particularly good is his discussion at the end of Kundera and the lightness/play of postmodernism vs. the heaviness/gravitas of modernism.

So now I’m reading lots of Dr Percesepe. Intertext published a good (if uneven) short story of his called “Missionary” and I very much enjoyed an Enterzone piece entitled “The Way You Live Now” (and three poems of his at Enterzone). Also recommended is the short essay Reflections on the Integration of Faith, Learning and Life” which features a story from his Cedarville days. Percesepe was editor for a time of Antioch Review but I haven’t yet located any of his work published therein. OTOH, The Mississipi Review has published nine pieces, mostly prose. None of it philosophy per se, so take a look. I’m still wading through the MR stuff myself.

Here’s a schedule of what’s next:

Deconstruction: A Reader, will probably skip most essays except:

  • “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing” – Richard Rorty
  • “Jacques Derrida: Wholly otherwise” – Emmanuel Levinas
  • “God is not differance” – John Caputo
    The whole end of this reader has eulogies by Derrida which I’ll probably get to, plus an “Open Letter to Bill Clinton” from Derrida.Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology looks good through-and-through (features John Searle, William Alston, Roderick Chisolm, Donald Davidson, and Gilbert Harman). The last chapter is Richard Rorty’s critique/response to all five essays so I may skip them and just read him to save time and just because Rorty is my homeboy.

    I will probably read a lot in Postmodernism: A Reader just because of who’s in it (Baudrillard, Rorty, Lyotard, Habermas) and I’m particlarly excited to read Gianni Vattimo’s “The Structure of Artistic Revolutions.” Vattimo has intrigued me since his collaboration with Rorty in The Future of Religion. Vattimo’s Belief also contains a fantastic story of postmodern faith:

    “…One hot afternoon I made a telephone call, from an ice-cream shop near a bus stop in Milan, to Gustavo Bontadini, a distinguished representative of ‘neoclassical’ Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. Although I did not share his theoretical theses, I felt bound to him by deep affection and admiration. The call was about the competitive examination for a university chair. As we were both members of the examining commission, we had some confidential academic business to discuss. But while we were still greeting each other, Bontadini, with whom I had not spoken for a long time, shifted to fundamental matters, asking me suddenly whether at bottom I still believed in God. I don’t know whether my response was conditioned by the paradoxical situation in which the question aros: next to the telephone was a table of women, eating ice cream and drinking orange juice in the heat. So I answered that I believed that I believed” (pg 69-70).

  • The Future of Religion

    My Barnes & Noble order came yesterday; I’m about halfway through The Future of Religion already. A few choice quotes…

    Gianno Vattimo:

    “The existential analytic… makes us aware that knowledge is always interpretation and nothing but this. Things appear to us in the world only because we are in their midst and always already oriented toward seeking a specific meaning for them. In other words, we possess a preunderstanding that makes us interested subjects rather than neutral screens for an objective overview.””…postmodern nihilism constitutes the actual truth of Christianity.”

    “…the redemptive meaning of the Christian message makes its impact precisely by dissolving the claims of objectivity…”

    “…no experience of truth can exist without some kind of participation in a community… truth comes about as the ongoing construction of communities that coincide in a ‘fusion of horizons’… truth does not consist in the correspondence between propositions and things. Even when we speak of correspondence, we have in mind propositions verfied in the context of paradigms, the truth of which consists above all in their being shared by a community.”

    Richard Rorty:

    “…the quest for truth and knowledge is no more and no less than the quest for intersubjective agreement. The epistemic arena is a public space, a space from which religion can and should retreat.”

    Santiago Zabala:

    “…truth does not occur at the level of facts but only at that of propositions.””To surpass metaphysics means, according to Rorty and Vattimo, to stop inquiring into what is real and what is not; it means recognizing that something is better understood the more one is able to say about it. Problems are resolved with irony, privately exercised vis-á-vis one’s own predecessors rather than vis-á-vis their relation to truth.”

    “The space left open by metaphysics must not be filled up by new philosophies claiming to exhibit some foundation external to the ‘conversation.'”