Caputo: Chapter Two—What Do We Do With Religious Truth?—Part Three

As noted in the last post in this series, Caputo brings up the idea of “repetition”.  How does this help us think about “truth”?  I will quote at length:
“I will have more to day about ‘repetition’ as we go along, but it is worth pointing out what I mean by this term right at the start.  This history of Hamlet, the history of its performances, of so many interpretations of this enduring classic, is an example of repetition.  A repetition arises from the underlying truth that this play bears across generations, which keeps getting replayed and re-enacted in changing times and for ever-changing audiences.  That is why we started by saying truth is on the go.  It cannot be confined to a final and fixed form; it is self-transforming, in constant transit—a feature of which we are made acutely conscious by contemporary systems of transportation and information technology.”
Caputo then uses Karl Marx as a more modern example of this process:
“So, too, Karl Marx’s passion for justice is a kind of re-enactment of the prophetic passion for God that was in his bones (he was the grandson of a long line of rabbis) and that flowed from the biblical concern for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  Marx repeats this biblical passion in the context of a demand for economic justice, and this allows a more ‘postmodern’ view of Marx to take shape, one in which the lines modernity draws between economics and religion, or between theism and atheism, or between faith and reason, begin to blur.  Such blurring I consider a blaze of postmodern light, the light of a new Enlightenment.  Part of the line I take as a philosopher is that if we could first blur and then bury these distinctions, and in particular the rigidly enforced categories of theism and atheism which I think have outlived their usefulness, if we could get to be ‘post-theists’, we could get a lot closer to what is going on in our lives.  Then we could re-establish the link between truth and passion that was extinguished in modernity.”
In other words, there are people, times, actions, ideas, and movements all of which are trying to communicate, embody, and live out something, some idea, some ideal, and what is “repeated” is an underlying truth or “event” that is sometimes captured and sometimes not.  There is a constant search, a movement toward this thing, whatever it is, that, in its-self, cannot be contained, captured, or conjured—but if it “happens” we know it and then it is gone.  Our attempts to reflect, to re-create, to define and give meaning to this “event” or happening is the “repetition” played out over time.  Caputo goes on:
“When I say something is ‘going on in’ something, this is a big part of what I mean by truth.  The confessional  religions are necessary evils, like political parties, tools that democracies or religions use to do what needs to be done while also getting in the way of what they are trying to do, thereby preventing their own event.  Truth is not what happens, but something going on in what happens.  So, to think of truth as an ‘event’ is to think of something that is trying to happen in something.  Truth is the process of trying to become-true.  The truth of democracy—to choose what is decidedly not a random example—is its trying to become-true, to constantly become democratic.  The truth that is trying to become in religion is the passionate search for the things we most care about, the restlessness of our heart in the midst of a mysterious world.”
In other words, when we speak of the truth of “justice” we are speaking of its trying to become more just, which means we are still looking for justice to come to us—for it to appear, happen, be an “event”.  We can never say “Justice is here or that it is done.”  Justice is a word we use to capture an event or happening or “truth”; the truth of justice—but it is always on the way here.  It is the difference between a law, a system of laws, a judicial system, and this thing called “justice.”  There is a gap, a space, a distance involved here.  All those laws and systems (like confessional religions and political parties) can do is try to capture that thing (we call justice) that is going on (is possible at least—it may happen) within those systems and structures.  This becomes obvious when we acknowledge that a law can be upheld, a punishment rendered (or the accused set free), and justice not be done at all—in fact, justice ends up being the victim.  Think of Kangaroo courts, lynch mobs, show trials, innocent people on death row, and so forth.  Caputo then balances this against what he is not saying:
“I am all for uttering true propositions, as many as possible.  I am not arguing against the truth of propositions; I am arguing that truth cannot be confined to propositions.  I am arguing that truth can happen anywhere, everywhere, including in religion.” 
And lest anyone think Caputo some sort of secret evangelical or undercover shill for religion he writes:
“I don’t believe in angels or devils, or in going to heaven or hell, or in the negotiations conducted between human beings and a supernatural being about eternal salvation.  But I do believe that something is getting itself said in religious narratives, which are populated by fictive beings and are not to be judged by the standards of true assertions.  Restricting truth to true assertions is, well, unnecessary, unreasonable and foolish.”
And I would just add that whatever that “something” is that is getting said, it is always vastly more important than a true propositional assertion like, “the sun is hot.”  Caputo then goes on to speak of what any who read this blog hear me speaking of frequently:
“I think the great religious narratives are just that, narratives, but—unless we are foolish—we should know that narratives are extraordinarily important and affecting, and we should not let our affection for computer programming, smartphones and air-conditioners blind us to that.  Narratives tell us something about ourselves, sometimes inspiring things, sometimes things we do not want to hear.  Truth, as St. Augustine said, is never neutral; it is either something we love or, when it tells us something we don’t want to hear, something we hate…”
Again, to note, Caputo is no undercover conservative backer of religion.  He comes at this most definitely from the edges of what many evangelicals/Catholics/Protestants would consider acceptable or orthodox.  He writes:
“To be sure, the Gospels are neither fiction nor history in the modern sense.  They are a proclamation, ‘good news’—think of a folk song about a legendary hero—based on a historical memory of a figure to whom people pledged their troth (that is, to whom they mean to be ‘true’).  And here’s the important bit: the truth shows up in the pledge, in the lives of the believers; it is not found in uttering true propositions about a corresponding real object—say, a real whale that really swallowed a real fellow named Jonah.”
Now, the modernist will immediately think (I can already hear the wheels turning) the only thing Caputo is saying here is that these things didn’t “really” happen, but there is a “moral” or greater “truth” behind all the talk about whales swallowing people and such.  He indeed may be saying something like that, but more importantly, he is saying questions’ surrounding the facticity of whales and so forth doesn’t ultimately matter because it is the “repetition” of those inhabiting the “event” present in the story that speaks to the “truth” or speaks to what is truly important.  Knowing we do not have time machines, he goes to what we can know, which is that the “truth” of whatever is happening in that story is repeated and lived out—or it isn’t.  He continues:
“So you see, I am treating religion in a way calculated to unnerve some pastors (although not all, by any means, and certainly not the ones who invite me to speak to their congregations!).  Religion, like art, is about life, about living well, about matters most profound, about matters of ‘ultimate concern’ as it was put so memorably by Paul Tillich (1886-1965), one of the great Protestant theologians of the twentieth century…Religion engages our deepest convictions and most passionate beliefs about birth and death, sickness and health, children and old age, love and enmity, war and peace, mercy and compassion.  That is why religious people are capable of spending their lives working on behalf of the poor or the ill, tending to victims of AIDS in Africa, for example…”
And I would add that those “passionate beliefs” and “deepest convictions” are what we believe to be really “true” and I doubt a single one could be proved empirically.  And we should not mistake his comparison of religion to art and life to mean, “made up” “subjective only” or like a fairy tale.  If that is what one is hearing, he misunderstands.  He is saying that these areas, the true, the good, and the beautiful (art, life, living well) are what is true—true in a way and significance that far surpasses just uttering “true propositions” like, “the sun is hot.”  So please don’t chime in to say, see, Caputo is saying religion isn’t really true, it’s just important like art or poetry.  Such would entirely miss his point besides revealing what one thought it meant for something to be “really” true, meaning propositionally and in a correspondence sense, which begs the question.
Of course he also notes that this same passion can be turned toward fanaticism and hate.  This passion is always at risk.  Anything that revolves around this “truth,” the truth in the event, can be risky.  It is not safe.  If it were, it would be because it was programmed and controlled—policed.  This is basically what modernity and the secular want, but it is impossible.  Caputo also believes this is a cause of religious violence:
“Once we say that such deep and elemental matters have to do with a faith that is excluded from reason, a fiction that is excluded from fact, we make ourselves look foolish.  We are saying that what is closest to our heart is furthest from reason.  This modern mentality is why we are witness today to a spate of religious extremism, which is violently reacting against its marginalization and deracination by modernity, reacting against the dismissal of something that is close to our heart, and we are drifting precisely in the direction of another round of the Crusades.”  

With the next post, we will finish up chapter two.
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