"Philosophy asks unanswerable questions; theology gives unquestionable answers." According to John Caputo, author of the astonishingly lucid book Philosophy and Theology , the anonymous wag who first coined that sardonic witticism can only have been born in the twentieth century. We know that (rough) date for a fact because, even if we cannot track down its first citation on Lexis-Nexis, we can recognize in ourselves two gut-reaction attitudes, both of which have been handed down to us by the relatively recent past: We are simultaneously suspicious of religious authority (inherited from the so-called Age of Reason), and yet we despair of the deliverances of reason (the legacy of postmodern skepticism). Kant told us that theology must be confined "within the limits of reason alone," but Nietzsche showed that this boundary-policing reason has failed to deliver on its promises, since its claims are nothing but disguised power plays. So neither philosophy nor theology can avail, it would seem, and all we are left with is the din of unanswerable questions trying to shout down unquestionable answers. But according to Caputo, that doubly compounded despair only holds true if the two disciplines of philosophy and theology are allowed to go their separate ways. What God hath joined together, he wants to say, let no man put asunder. For its author, the most important word in his book’s title is that tiny, unassuming conjunction and. This thesis is hardly the Rodney King bromide ("Why can’t we all get along?") that it might sound like at first. For inside these apparently breezy (and often witty) pages, the author provides a vivid and entertaining account of the neuralgic marriage, subsequent separation, and lately the wary rapprochement, between philosophy and theology. Caputo uses this marital metaphor from time to time (as when he suggests that contemporary feminism owes perhaps more than it recognizes to the modern victory of reason in her "marriage" with faith); but in keeping with long-standing tradition, he reverts more often to the image of the queen and her handmaid: "Theology was called the ‘queen of the sciences,’ and it tended to be the ultimate authority, the conversation-stopper, just the way that today starting a sentence out by saying, ‘Science has shown …’ tends to silence everyone else in the room. Whenever royalty speaks the rest of us are cowed." What the image of the queen attended by her ladies-in-waiting stresses is the power relationship between faith and reason (not that marriage is a redoubt of power-free relations either). The crucial point, however, is not the image invoked but the fact that, for the modernity bequeathed to us by Descartes and Kant, reason’s claim to power is all encompassing: "Reason does not take what is out there on face value and then adjust to it. On the contrary, by reason we mean the authority to determine what is out there in the first place and to set the standards to which things have to measure up. That is what the ‘Age of Reason,’ the ‘Enlightenment,’ means. It all has to do with who has the ‘authority’ and the power¯faith or reason." The challenge thrown down to theology by reason’s Machtübernahme could not be more profound. Either theology tries to dismiss philosophy, that overbearing shrew or uppity chambermaid, from the palace (thereby reducing seminary training, in Caputo’s words, to "Bible-thumping and choir practice"); or theology gamely admits Enlightened reason into her proceedings, only to see herself usurped from her throne, transformed into something alien to her subject matter:
[When] God . . . comes under the principles of reason, which are the jurisdiction of philosophy, rather than reason coming under God, the subject matter of theology, God has to stand in line like everyone else; what’s fair is fair. . . . [But] to say that God "obeys" these principles is to put it all perversely, wrong-headedly, even impiously, like saying that a father resembles his son instead of the other way around. . . . As St. Augustine said, when we human beings think something true, that is in our own imperfect way to think something about God, who is truth. God is not "true" but Truth.
Caputo is no professional Enlightenment-basher, despite his sympathy for theology’s plight as described above. For him, the Enlightenment’s great boon is that it has forced Christians to recognize that their arguments must have, at least partially, a publicly accessible logic based on natural law and the deliverances of reason. But the story doesn’t end there; for not long after Hegel, "the wheels came off the Enlightenment." In a judgment that would shock the positivists and naturalists of the nineteenth century, Caputo claims that by Nietzsche’s time, "the Enlightenment had done all the good it was going to do." In the twentieth century, the postmodern turn became inevitable, once the sights of continental philosophers were focused on the exorbitant claims of a now-desiccated Enlightened reason. In Being and Time , Heidegger demonstrated, through powerful phenomenological analyses, that the Cartesian ego could not bear the foundational weight Descartes claimed for it; for when we come to be ( sein ), we find that we are already there ( dasein ). In other words, we can never get behind ourselves to see ourselves coming into being, nor can we jump out of our skins to see ourselves from above: we are, in Heidegger’s useful term, thrown into existence (no one chooses to be born, still less does anyone choose his or her sex, nationality, parents, race, mother tongue, and so forth). This "thrownness" means that we emerge into history with a pre-given perspective, an "angle" on the world, one that distorts, to be sure, but one that is also our only access to reality. This insight Caputo calls the hermeneutical turn . Wittgenstein performed a similar inversion of the Cartesian ego by pointing out that there is no such thing as a private language, so that famous Cartesian words like I, doubt, consciousness, and clear and distinct are all loaded down by history (in Descartes’ case, by the history of medieval Scholasticism). This means, in Caputo’s words, "There is no such thing as a pure, private, pre-linguistic sphere¯and, once again, it is a misunderstanding of language even to seek one." This he calls the linguistic turn . Finally, there is the revolutionary turn , referring not so much to political and social revolutions as to Thomas Kuhn’s epochal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , one of the most cited (if rarely read) books in the postmodern canon. (Yes, Virginia, the anti-canonical postmoderns have their own canon.) However much that book might have been abused by the over-invocation of terms like "paradigm shift," it certainly laid to rest the myth of positivism, which implied that scientists are bloodless templates neutrally registering data and subsequently assembling them into empirical generalizations free of idealistic biases. On the contrary, for Kuhn scientists are hurled, just like the rest of us, into an interpretive tradition, and again, like the rest of us, they are flesh-and-blood people who operate by hunches, intuitions, ambition, and other strong feelings. In other words, if Kuhn is right, then it’s no longer just religion that weaves unverifiable mythologies, but science too. If "myth" only means our angle on the world¯if myth simply denotes the fact that we see something as something¯then we are all mythographers, or so the Kuhnians claim. Many Christian theologians find these three postmodern turns a godsend, so to speak. Caputo is a bit less sanguine, for he recognizes the deeply anti-religious, Nietzschean strain in many postmodern thinkers, who can be positively phobic toward religion (or at least toward Christianity). Heidegger, for example, famously claimed in An Introduction to Metaphysics that the term "Christian philosopher" is a contradiction in terms: How can you philosophize if you already know the answers? (Maybe he was the wag?) Moreover, if the "marriage" between philosophy and theology is just a power relationship, then these two disciplines will always be in a cat fight, for¯as St. Augustine, Thomas Hobbes, Nietzsche, Lord Acton, and Reinhold Niebuhr all say¯power always ends up being abusive and corrupt. Still, postmodernism has provided a certain "clearing" (another key word in the Heideggerian lexicon) for faith, and thus for theology, although that clearing might seem to believers pretty narrow and constricting, at least if one is to judge by Caputo’s penultimate chapter, a brilliant comparison of St. Augustine’s Confessions with Jacques Derrida’s Circumfession , one of his less quirky and more accessible texts. Derrida’s life bears uncanny resemblances to Augustine’s: Both were born in Algeria (Derrida even lived for a while on a street called Rue St. Augustin), both fled their mothers for the main metropolis of their respective civilizations (Rome/Paris), both held vigils as their mothers were dying, and both wrote books addressed to a "you." But is the "you" of the Circumfession the God of Augustine’s Confessions ? Not if we consider Derrida "as" an atheist, as he is "taken" to be by his public. But then to whom is he praying? Caputo seems to be saying that, for those who have made the postmodern turn, the issue is not all that pressing: "The very destitution of his prayer does not spell the end of prayer, but it is what drives his prayer." Well maybe, but I am reminded here of Charles Ryder, the atheist narrator of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited , who prayed at the foot of the deathbed of the lapsed Catholic Lord Marchmain while a priest administered the Last Rites: "Oh God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin." Ryder, however, became a Catholic at the end of the novel, but of how many of the leading lights of postmodernism can that be said? At least one can conclude this much: We live, Caputo rightly says, not only in a postmodern age but also in a post-secular one, as can easily be gauged by seeing the nonplussed reactions of secular civilizations toward Islam, especially toward the Muslim minorities in their midst. For one thing, here is a religion that adjudicated the relationship between faith and reason, and between theology and philosophy, quite differently than did the West. For another, Western civilization¯having put Christianity on the defensive for so long, and then seeing its Enlightened sons of reason turn on their own mother¯now finds itself quite without resources for mustering a vigorous response to Islam’s much more imperious claims on behalf of its faith. Derrida, after all, did not leave Algeria just because he was ambitious, but also because the Algerian civil war would have left him with no other choice anyway, even if he had wanted to stay. But that is a topic for another day. For now, we have this remarkable work of haute vulgarization , a text consisting solely of sweeping generalizations (starting with the title!) that actually manages to say something new and fresh on virtually every page. Reading this book is a liberal education in itself.

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Articles by Edward T. Oakes

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