Caputo begins the chapter with this humorous story:
“One day one of our children came home from school and announced to us that he was an atheist. I had two responses. First, I said, never tell that to your grandmother. Secondly, don’t ever come home and tell me you are a Republican!”
Caputo has always been proud of this response and he believes it tells us something about what he means by religion. When he uses the term “religion,” he means Augustine’s “idea of the restless searching heart in the midst of a mysterious world…” -and not the outward formal trappings including the confessions of the traditional churches as institutions. He notes however that at their best, the confessional traditional churches exist for this reason–this search. I think that is a very good point. A religion is really just the formalized embodiment of this search. A church building or headquarters, the formal role of priest, the history, the writings, the seminaries and colleges, the endowments, the property, all this is just the outward manifestation of this internal restless searching. Once we think the outward manifestation is the “thing,” the reality or goal of the search, we have lost it. Thankfully, the wiser of those within the religious traditions know this.
Therefore Caputo’s point with his story is that he was much more concerned that his son have compassion in his heart and especially toward the least among us (sorry for the slight Republicans) than he was with his having a formal belief or disbelief in a god. Caputo moves on and tells us the purpose of why he brings up religion:
“…as a way to launch the problem I want to tackle here and in much of my work, which is that we require a new way to think about truth and to find a way to think ourselves outside the box or buckets we call modernity. One that finds a way to ‘love the truth’ and makes room for the ‘search for wisdom’ without engaging in a headlong retreat into nostalgia for the premodern world, but which also realizes that premodernity communicates in an important way with postmodernity.”
Caputo is clear he doesn’t want to lose what is clearly progress in modernity, quipping at one point that he’s not about to give up air-conditioning. Again, just like premoderity or the ancient is not all bad—neither is modernity. This requires multi-tasking as it were and keeping several ideas in balance at once. It requires losing our bias against certain historical periods or thinking they can be summed up in quick and shallow blanket understandings. Caputo compares it to juggling with keeping many balls in the air and these include:
“…both the old and the new, the true and the good and the beautiful, faith and reason, all together. That reflects the original sense of the word ‘postmodern’—a term that was first used in architecture where it denoted a blending of harsh modernist lines with other and older styles, like a building of glass and steel that evokes the lines of a Gothic cathedral.”
Notice the “both and” in all those comparisons. Postmodernity is “both and.” Modernity is “either or.” Caputo sees religion as a keystone or “touchstone” issue:
“My own work as a professional philosopher is centered on the study of religion in the postmodern condition, where I argue that by criticizing the excessive rationalism of modernity, postmodernity has created an opening for what has been called the ‘return of religion’. But I also argue that the religion that does return ought to be a good deal more open than the inquisition or biblical inerrantism, so that postmodern theory cannot be used as an excuse to retreat to the safe confines of traditional religious faith or as a theoretical back-up for sectarian strife.”
Here again we see that Caputo is critical of both secular and religious fundamentalism. He is trying to drive down the center of the road lest he careen into the ditch on either side as we imagine those two ditches to be named secular and religious fundamentalism. And I wonder if any readers out there take umbrage at such a project or find it suspect somehow. Careful before you respond. I can tell you this: The people who are most critical of Caputo are people in one of the two ditches. Neither Dawkins nor JP Moreland would like what Caputo is doing here. So before you respond, please take note: You are probably identifying where you live. Is it in a ditch? If you do live there, proud even, or just clueless, then please tell us all about your complaints or problems with Caputo’s words and this very project. It is always interesting to hear from the ditches. I, on the other hand, support his project. I don’t like ditches–call me crazy. Now, suppose you have some other critique—one you feel doesn’t come from one of the ditches. It would be great to hear those as well. I don’t want to presume I know where someone is coming from until I hear them out. That’s why I just give a word of caution. Moving on…
Caputo sees religion as the barometer of what is going on when we talk about truth. He compares it to thinking about frogs:
“In this book I am proposing that we should watch what happens in and to religion the way ecologists worry about the fate of frogs whose dwindling numbers tip us off to some wider phenomenon occurring throughout the ecosystem. So, with all due respect to my religious friends, I think of religion as my frogs. Every time a serious question about truth arises, the clue to seeing what is going on is to look at what is being said about religion.”
And this is why it is important to understand how moderns think about and treat religious belief. He writes:
“If we can get a fix on both the advantages and drawbacks of the way moderns treat and mistreat religion, we will have an angle on the whole problem posed by modernity and the circumscribed and truncated fate of wisdom in the modern world.”
Now clearly if one thinks wisdom doesn’t belong in a discussion about truth or belong in any meaningful way, what Caputo is saying here is probably moot or pointless. I doubt most people would go that far however. Who would want to separate wisdom from truth? He continues:
“Interestingly, religion is a hybrid phenomenon, in which elements of knowledge (the true), ethics (the good) and art (the beautiful) converge, in which all three components of wisdom are fused in one composite, which explains why it provides a clue to what is going on in the broader culture. I am arguing that what we say about religion is repeated in other areas like art and ethics, in everything that goes to make up our wider conception of life. My hypothesis is that religion is a clue to the travels and travails of truth, not the truth of assertions [See JP], but truth as a thing to love, to live and die for, as Kierkegaard put it.”
And a key point here is that, at the end of the day, these other areas (art, ethics) belong to those aspects of life we find most important and actually live for. No one lives and dies for a fact, like, noting the sun is hot. No one finds great joy (sorrow perhaps?) in memorizing a tax chart. No one dreams great dreams, goes on great expeditions, or gives body and soul to some endeavor (or a loved one) because they learned water boils at a certain temperature. This is not to disparage knowledge in the slightest. But it is to recognize that we can hardly think of such knowledge as the only way something can be “true” if we want truth to truly matter. And it also underscores the point that if we do find great joy, or if we do live and die for a fact, it is never in isolation from a greater context that belongs to art or ethics—in fact belongs to all those areas which cannot be proved empirically. That alone should tell us that pure knowledge, by itself (asserted facts), cannot be the only form of, or the only way, something can be true. Every day, every common experience, every encounter with another, every tear, every laugh, every joy, every disappointment, all of what it means to be alive, testifies against such a truncated, shallow, and evacuated idea that truth can only be (reduced to) empirical/scientific correspondence.
“I am trying to stage a comeback for the old idea of truth and wisdom but now wearing a postmodern hat. The challenge is finding a postmodern counterpart to the role played by truth and wisdom in classical times that is not going to drag us under the waves of the divine right of kings and the old menace of theocracy. We cannot become premodern and we do not even want to be…but the modern solution of tolerance to the problem of religious truth is phoney, contrived, an artifice, a tissue of abstractions and formal distinctions that come apart as soon as you pay a visit to the real world. I am not saying this primarily because I think modernity is hurtful to confessional religion [take note JP], which as often as not deserves what it gets from modernity, but because without some counterpart to religious truth in the postmodern world, without what I am going to call a ‘repetition’ of religion, resulting in a ‘religion without religion’, we are hurting ourselves.”
And one way Caputo thinks we hurt ourselves is because without some “counterpart” we lose the very idea of the “human.” We become robots. He writes: “Religious concerns are close to our heart—or else we are robots. It’s as serious as that—religion or robots!”
And again, what Caputo means by religion is the “search of the restless heart in a mysterious universe.” He continues:
“When I say robots, I mean modernity promotes an image of our lives as if truth were a matter of reason, and as if reason were a matter of disembodied intelligences passing dispassionate judgment about gradually accumulating heaps of facts, and everything else is a subjective buzz. So add robots to our inventory of complaints about modernity…I want to take the Enlightenment idea of Reason down a peg, remove the capital letter and put it in the plural (reasons), which disables robots and makes room for religion, ethics, art and everything else that matters to our contemporary culture.”
And to that, I can only reply: amen.