In the second edition of his classic On Religion, John Caputo lays out the framework for his post-secular and postmodern ‘religion without religion’ by exploring secularization, the beginning of singularity and the post-human and religious violence. He develops a ‘weak theology’ that combines postmodern critique and mystic insights. By evaluating the works of Kierkegaard, Derrida and Tillich, he provides a radical framework for Christian practice and theology. Caputo’s work addresses issues in the postmodern world that heavily blur the lines between atheism and theism, with Religion and politics being the primary cause of violence and strife today.
In the first chapter, Caputo starts by calling out the ambiguity of ‘religion,’ in the sense that the entity does not exist; rather, Religion encapsulates God’s love. He explores the love of God through the Augustinian formulation “What do I do when I love my God?” which, in his understanding, assumes that anybody worth living loves God and, if not, is too caught up in the meaningless pursuit of self-gratification and self-love. Simply put, Religion represents those who love and are passionate about things other than personal benefit and profits, the opposite being a loveless person who only contemplates and understands the highest pleasure of his visage. The question of love and God constantly persist in the thoughts and actions of religious person, pursuing them throughout their days and nights and adding salt and firer to their lives.
The second chapter explores the postmodern and post-secular world through the works of St Augustine and the critique of historical or ‘ancient’ philosophers such as Nietzsche, Freud and Marx by modern contemporary philosophers. Caputo centres on Anselm’s idea of God, which explains the existence of God based on his perfection, bountifulness and incomprehensibility. He is particularly interested in the presentation of this description, which indicates humility, loving reverence, and faithfulness towards God. In the modern religious environment, the reverence and rehearsed choreography of the seventeen and eighteenth centuries are replaced by bare-bones logic. Caputo puts it, the passion and religious spirit have been drained out on secularization. The Middle Ages description of Religion, a far cry from modernity, represented scrupulous loyalty and rigorous selflessness, faithfulness and love for God. Modern and secular society questions the existence of God through reason and rationality, which according to Anselm and other ancient writers, God is already dead.
John Caputo, in chapter three, suggests investigating Religion by asking questions and looking inwardly within ourselves, within the limited and concealed depth that ultimately conditions our lives. The mystery of life is ironically what directs human beings through their causes, educating themselves, writing and teaching and trying to make sense of the darkness. He acknowledges that thinking and looking for answers and solutions is human Nature and that the desire to know has kept the species alive for as long as we know. The urge to know and understand our origins and what we are gives Religion a free pass. God becomes a necessary being who exists eternally, necessarily and absolutely. Not everyone agrees that God is the necessary being, the reason for our existence, but instead, we are because of the laws of Nature. It, however, seems that no matter how much we think, we cannot, as human beings grasp our being and reasons for existence. Caputo underlines that coming before thinking. From the religious point of view, “What do I do when I love my God?” comes down to experiencing life in genuine, non-knowing awe and wonder, mixed with a substantial measure of anxiety and fear.
In chapter four, Caputo presents an argument that Religion could exist without the confines of the narrow, strict confessional sense. The radical Religion, the deep structure of all human experience, is not confined to any particular experience and thus can be found anywhere. He adds that the different confessional religions are neither true nor false in their explanation of life and its existence. Each Religion provides a unique perspective and connection to the deep structure of the human experience, resonating with the mystical elements and power drawn from a powerful being. Radicalization in Religion does not oppose the confessional traditions and their theologians in a binary way but understands that radical theology exists within the confessional traditions.
The fifth chapter of John Caputo’s On Religion explores the problem with the twenty-first-century resurgence of Religion which has taken an ugly anti-modern turn instead of post-modernity. Caputo notes that modern-day Religion has turned against modern democracy and science, opposing the modern-day celebration of diversity and difference and waging a holy war against modernity and post-modernity. Religion has fueled the current global geopolitical climate, at least for the major parts, with most issues arising from Euro-American colonialism, the American thirst for oil and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, which amplified Islamophobia (Caputo, 2019). Caputo notes that while Religion is a problem, it provides human life with the crucial structures without which life would be short, poor and nasty. Instead of demolishing Religion, we should keep the structures honest, open-ended and at risk. Instead of keeping politics away from Religion, we should interpret the relationship between Religion and politics sensibly.
In the sixth chapter, Caputo examines the modern understanding of mysticism and materialism under Cosmo-theology as humans begin to embrace post-humanity, challenging the future of everything and particularly that of Religion. The new coming-of-age cosmology presents an inspiring form of cosmo-theology with a more mysterious, magical and mystical materialism, reflecting the deep relationship between old cosmology and old theology. In the new panentheistic model, cosmo-theology views God as the wellspring of life, not a supreme being with supernatural powers capable of performing miracles. God is the ground of being and the inexhaustible source of all existence where all things, living and non-living, originate from and to which they return.
In the final chapter, John Caputo explores the idea of Religion beyond fundamentalism, outright superstition and literalism, thus Religion without Religion. Religious truth has to be distinguished from ‘true religion’ as all religions are unique and true in their way and represent the numerous different ways to love God through irreducible repositories, distinct narratives, and ethical practices. There needs to cease the idea of ‘one true Religion and the habit of trying to claim particular beliefs as being a better fit for Nature or the existence of human beings. The idea of Religion without Religion necessitates the return to the medieval meaning and application of Religion, where it meant a virtue and way of life, not an organization with institutional headquarters.
Religion is often a controversial topic that divides people into believers and non-believers, and John D. Caputo, in his book On Religion, strives to develop ideas beyond modern and standard Christian theology by overcoming traditional and confessional divisions. I think that the fundamental questions Caputo asks consistently throughout the book’s chapters are meant to provoke thoughts about the religious worldview and the place of spirituality in the modern worldview. The author also cleverly explores and presents the institution of Religion and whether or not it is necessary, as well as the meaning of love to God. In addition, he attempts to reconcile the realities of the modern world with Religion, particularly Religion’s role in modern society.
While society’s perception of Religion has greatly changed, thanks to radicalization and the ‘misinterpretation’ of science, Religion is still an important factor in most geopolitical decisions and occurrences. I call it misinterpretation because society used scientific findings, concepts and theories to rival Religion; yet, both provide different, rich and meaningful perspectives on our existence. I feel as though Caputo’s approach to religious thinking throughout the book, balancing solemnity required by the text’s substance and light-heartedness, was meant to provide readers with a chance to rethink their standpoint on spirituality.
The postmodern perception of Religion and the world seems to subject the existence of spiritual truth to doubt. The pragmatism could, however, be addressed by Caputo’s arguments in the earlier chapters of the book, where he asserts that spirituality and Religion could be supported by belief and the hope of the impossible over the certainty of statistics and pragmatic forecasting. However, this orientation does not answer the question within which the book is hinged, “What do I love when I love my God?” and contradicts the author’s main argument. Another orientation issue is that it is predicated on knowledge that cannot be possessed. However, this epistemological ambiguity allows Caputo to manoeuvre the Western Christian doctrinal beliefs without being obligated to them. The ambiguity also allows for an in-depth discussion without the restrictions of conforming to a constructive confessional paradigm, ultimately allowing the author to present the concept of Religion without Religion.
John Caputo’s work provides a deeper understanding of Religion and the state of faith in modern times by alienating the traditional confessional frameworks. However, in some sections of the book, he also criticizes modernity for the egocentrism and shallowness that propels thinking and actions. It should be noted that although Caputo dismisses most of the traditional theological teachings, he argues that the ideal form of Religion involves love and passion for things other than personal profits and benefits (Caputo, 2019). He equates the conditions of the post-industrial society to the temptations of the Devil, outlining the consequences of post-modernity for love for God and the human condition.
On Religion provides an extensive insight into the significance, state and history of Religion in postmodern societies, exploring poignant questions on the need for organized Religion, expressions of spirituality and the love of God. The book is presented in a light-hearted yet solemn manner without overly complex and academic language for easy consumption and understanding. Caputo’s writing is poetic, imaginative and stylistic, which stirs the reader into uncharted waters from their comfort zone. He skillfully integrates traditional theology with postmodern philosophy to deliver a compelling argument for a form of weak theology that combines atheistic perspectives with Christian insights.
Caputo, J. D. (2019). On Religion. Routledge.