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The Gods of the Philosophers

16 July, 2008

John D. Caputo is a philosopher who is enamored with the love of God. He also really likes (some of) Augustine. I’ve been reading his book, On religion.

He thinks the modernist critique of ‘religion’ is wrong and that all that’s left for irreligious people is self-love and self-gratification. Religion isn’t ‘irrational’, either, because modernism put rationality on such an impossibly high pedestal that it was as such impossible to attain. He also thinks that Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous anti-Christian philosopher who coined the phrase, “God is dead”, is actually rather helpful for regaining a sense of the reality of genuine religiosity:

The result of a more sober reading of Nietzsche is not relativism and irrationalism but a hightened sense of the contingency and revisability of our constructions, not the jettisoning of reason but a rediscription of reason, one that is a lot more reasonable than the bill of goods about an overarching, transhistorical Rationality that the Enlightenment tried to sell us. For that is a highly unreasonable Reason, a hyper-enlightened illusion that no one can live up to. No one foresaw that Nietzsche’s theory of fictions would converge with the biblical critique of idols, of mistaking our own graven images for the divinity. In this way of looking at things, the Enlightenment and its idea of Pure Reason are on the side of Aaron and the golden calf, while Nietzsche, God forbid, he who philosophizes with a hammer, stands on the side of Moses as a smasher of idols, and stands right beside Paul giving the Corinthians holy hell about the idols of the philosophers.

There are a lot of things Caputo says that I agree with in certain ways–but the real problem comes in when Caputo suggests his replacement for the modern idols he feels have been smashed. He says Nietzsche’s clearing of the temple (so to speak) opens the way for something else:

That opens the door for a notion like the love of God, the idea I love most of all, to get another hearing among the intellectuals.

Caputo wants to replace the modernist disdain for religion with the recognition of the reality and importance of the love of God. So what is the ‘love of God’ for Caputo? Is it the love of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator and covenant Redeemer God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God manifest in the flesh in Jesus Christ? Is it the love that this God first showed us so that we may love in return by the Spirit through faith? Not even close.

One of my main arguments in this essay is that “love and “God” go together, for “God is love”, as the New Testament tells us….That is my Archimedean point, my true north. But notice how easily saying “God is love” slides over into saying “love is God.” This slippage is provocative and it provides us with an exceedingly important and productive ambiguity, opening up a kind of endless substitutability and translatability between “love” and “God”….To love God is to love something deeply and unconditionally. But it is also true — there is no stopping this slippage or reversal — that to love deeply and unconditionally is to be born of God, to love God, for the name of God is the name of love, the name of what we love.

The dangerous thing about people like Caputo is that they’re relatively successful and compelling in their critique of other errors, so that when they present their alternative errors, their convincing critiques make their own errors more convincing. Yet Caputo’s kind of vague mystical drivel, equating ‘love of God’ with ‘passion for life and reaching for the impossible’, is just the sort of thing that the modernists loved, and just the sort of thing Nietzsche (rightly) despised! None of the Enlightenment’s leading lights would’ve objected to such unobjectionable fluff. What they objected to was historic Christianity, its particularity and its foolish wisdom and the scandal of the cross.

I find it supremely ironic that Caputo’s ‘idea of the love of God’ and what he means by that, is indistinguishable from the Enlightenment idea of the pursuit of Pure Reason and what they meant by that. The only difference is that one is the modern version of projecting our own idols out into into space and calling them ‘God’, and the other is the post-modern flavor of the exact same thing. One is Burger King, the other is MacDonald’s, and neither is good for anybody.

The point of all this is that without revelation, and without the self-revelation of the God of heaven and earth that centers in and only makes sense in the historical person of Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of all the revealed Scriptures–without him, all we’re left with is self-serving notions of ‘pure rationality’ or ‘love of God’ or whatever we fancy to make our god.

Caputo, like the modernists he so cleverly criticizes, is just as guilty as anyone else of ‘mistaking our own graven images for the divinity’, anyone who tries to ‘get’ God apart from Jesus Christ, who ends up getting just another god of the philosophers. Caputo may like to think of himself also as standing right beside Moses and Paul in their idol-smashing — but he better be careful not to get too close…

  1. 19 July, 2008 4:11 pm


    Great post. Thanks for making us aware of Caputo. Isn’t it funny how people critiquing modernism often fall into the same trap? It makes you wonder how we might be doing it.

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    21 July, 2008 4:53 am


    Sadly, I think we do the same thing in a lot of ways.


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