Perhaps some of you remember sitting in a college dorm room late at night with several other sophomores talking about religion and what it means to you. There's a reason such conversations have been called sophomoric. What they lacked in depth they made up for in the certitude of some of the participants.
In a good way, John D. Caputo's new book, Hoping Against Hope: (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim), may remind you of some of those late-night conversations, except that this time all the participants are Caputo himself -- as a devout Catholic boy, as a young man then known as Brother Paul, considering giving his life to the church, and finally as a mature college professor who focuses on philosophy and religion.
It's a fascinating -- and also, at times, disconcerting -- read. Caputo challenges himself and his readers at every turn:
"I am seeking," he writes, "to know what religion would look like, what form it could take, if it were wrested free from people who consider themselves authorities in matters in which we are all unlearned novices and perpetual beginners."
Clearly, his respect for the pre-Vatican II Catholicism he learned as a child has waned profoundly. And yet there is something about the religious perspective that he wants to save. The book represents his effort to find out what that might be.
Caputo knows with some clarity the religion he seeks: ". . .the religion I am trying to retrieve in the present text begins and ends with grace."
Ah, grace, that pure, unmerited favor about which people of faith speak, sometimes not understanding that for grace to be grace, it cannot come bound with conditions, cannot mandate a gift in return, cannot perhaps even reveal the giver.
For Caputo, one of the main problems with traditional religion is that too often it "allows itself to be all about winning, about beating time at its own game, about cheating death. That is religion at its worst. . .I embrace a religion of the gift, of an unconditional affirmation made without the expectation of a reward, a religion that we would lack only at our peril."
Caputo, in this internal dialogue (well, trialogue) that he invites us to overhear, draws on the mystics, those people in various traditions who have written about a more personal experience of the divine. He describes them as "those insidious insiders who make such salutary trouble for religion." But it's the kind of challenging trouble that religion needs to keep it honest, to keep it seeking, to keep it humble.
If, as he writes, "people who think in terms of inerrancy and infallibility are dangerous," his task is to find adherents of religion who, by contrast, are willing to explore what it might mean if God simply disappeared from the world and left us to embody, to incarnate the goodness, the love, the mercy that God represents -- and not just represents but, in fact, is. Thinking such thoughts can be, as I say, disconcerting in the sense that it feels a little like walking on a high tight rope without a net underneath to catch us.
All of that said, Caputo has not completely given up on the church -- especially in light of the new tone that Pope Francis has set since his election. But if Caputo were put in charge of the church (he would refuse), it would look much different than it does now.
He also reminds us of the profound difference between belief and faith: "When beliefs deepen, entrenchment sets in, fundamentalism waxes, searching wanes. When faith deepens, beliefs are destabilized, searching waxes, fundamentalism wanes. . .My task here is to help religion out of the hole it keeps digging for itself."
In contrast to some traditional Christian thinking, Caputo insists that God needs us. Others often say God would be God without humanity. But Caputo is having none of that: ". . .God is a promise, an unkept promise, and everything depends upon us to keep that promise, to translate that hope into reality. . .Without God we can do nothing, but then again without us God can do nothing."
Catholics deeply committed to the church as it now exists may well find Caputo to be too challenging to be taken seriously. Some may wish to label him a heretic. It's that kind of instinct toward certitude that Caputo thinks is damaging true religion. It would be fun to bring him before the College of Cardinals to hear him try to make his case. He gives a hint of what he would do in such a case: He would simply hand the cardinals a rose and tell them that the flower's unconditional grace and beauty say all they need to know about religion. And then he'd rest his case. And what a strong case it would be.
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FAITH AT PLAY IN CLIMATE MEETINGS
What role is religion playing in the climate change summit in Paris? This piece from The Economist offers an interesting look at that question, particularly as faith affects the French president, who, like Jack Caputo, (see above) has given up the Catholicism in which he was reared.