The Essential Caputo

Selected Writings

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R. Keith Putt
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , January
     504 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


B. Keith Putt has gathered together writings by John D. Caputo that introduce readers to Caputo’s projects of radical hermeneutics and radical theology. Putt takes his selection as confirmation of his own reading of these projects as expressive of “a nascent political theology” (15). The Essential Caputo is to be celebrated by readers on both these counts. Putt, who has long been a contributor to the literature on Caputo (whom he refers to in his introduction as “Jack”), is very well placed to act as a guide to anyone encountering Caputo’s work for the first time. His organization of the material in this Caputo reader, along with his excellent introductory essay, does a very good job of presenting the scope, trajectory and significance of Caputo’s work in hermeneutics, ethics, philosophy, and theology. 

Putt begins his introductory essay, “The Repetition of Sacred Anarchy” (3-17), by recounting his own first encounter with Caputo’s work via a 1990 keynote lecture. “Sacred Anarchy: Fragments of a Postmodern Ethics” (287-304) reprises significant themes that appear in the final chapter of Radical Hermeneutics (Indiana University Press, 1987) and that continue to animate Caputo’s work today, but Putt claims further that this previously unpublished lecture can be properly described as a “textual synecdoche” encapsulating Caputo’s project to date (4). For Putt, the notion of “sacred anarchy” itself functions as a “textual adhesive” binding together the four decades of work that make up the “Caputoan” corpus and the selection of writings that make up The Caputo Reader (8). 

Putt divides the material into sections—from Aquinas to Heidegger, from phenomenology to deconstruction, from Augustine to Derrida, and from sacred anarchy to radical theology—highlighting the importance of Caputo’s engagements with Eckhart, Heidegger, and Derrida in particular for the development of his work. Putt reproduces an interview with Derrida about Caputo (44-54) and includes a substantial new interview with Caputo conducted by Clayton Crockett (18-43). The latter includes questions about Caputo’s seeming reticence to, as Crockett puts it, explicitly “engage in theorizing the political” (38). It therefore offers readers some insight into why Putt’s wider argument—that “sacred anarchy” functions as “an axiological principle” capturing why Caputo’s radical theology is also a politicaltheology (8)—is an important contribution to the existing secondary literature on Caputo.

Building on his 1988 article, “Beyond Aestheticism: Derrida’s Responsible Anarchy” (184-94), Caputo’s 1990 lecture, “Sacred Anarchy,” is an exploration of ethics amidst our postmodern incredulity towards any arche. Caputo is not proposing an irresponsible anarchy but, rather, affirming an assumption of responsibility for putting the archein question, not in order to establish anarchy as another arche (the arche of the Other) but in order to respond to the an-archical, to that which is the Other of the arche: “what is missed or lost, passed over or unseen, forgotten about or left out, excluded or ground under, erased or violated, cast out or cast down by the arche” (291). “Sacred Anarchy” returns to Caputo’s distinction in Radical Hermeneutics between the religious and the tragic as two different ways of interpreting suffering, with “sacred anarchy” being an ethics that adopts the religious hermeneutic in protesting the suffering of others and affirming our obligation to respond with justice.

All this anticipates much of Caputo’s Against Ethics (Indiana University Press, 1993), but the phrase “sacred anarchy” itself only receives book-length usage with the first of Caputo’s more explicitly theological works, The Weakness of God (Indiana University Press, 2006), after which it persists as part of his theological vocabulary. But Putt identifies a 2002 essay, “In Search of a Sacred Anarchy” (305-320), as the point at which the idea of “sacred anarchy” becomes more central to how Caputo articulates his project and where that project could, therefore, be said to become more explicitly theological in nature. The essay also has significant import as a piece of politicaltheology since it overtly connects “sacred anarchy” to the incarnation of the kingdom of God as an an-archic kingdom of the kingdomless. The works of love, justice, hospitality, mercy, forgiveness, and gift-giving that are our response to the Other excluded by the arche of this world are not undertaken in order to earn the kingdom of God as another arche of another world; they are the an-archical kingdom of the kingdomless, here and now, already but also not yet, in this world. Furthermore, the distinction between the existence of God and the insistence of God, which is one of the key ways that Caputo’s theology is articulated after The Insistence of God (Indiana University Press, 2013), is first introduced here as well, with Caputo focusing not on whether God exists but on where and how God exists immanently (10). As becomes clearer in later works, these practicesare not just how the kingdom of God is realized but how God is done, made or given material existence by us. These essays are vital for understanding Caputo’s theology as a political theology because “sacred anarchy” is where and how God “exists.”

Putt does valuable work bringing these three essays together and tracing the development of “sacred anarchy” across the time periods that they span. His interpretation of Caputo is a good reading of his corpus, not just established by the selection of material in this reader but also substantiated by the rest of Caputo’s body of work. “Sacred anarchy” is Caputo “in a nutshell,” to borrow another phrase from Caputo (see Deconstruction in a Nutshell, Fordham University Press, 1997). But more space in Putt’s introductory essay could have been devoted to the contemporary political contexts in which this Caputo reader is being read today. Caputo speaks to this in part when he talks about neoliberalism in American politics during the portion of his interview with Crockett on political theory, but the extent to which radical theology calls for radical politics beyond Caputo’s own social democracy could be attended to more fully, especially in view of the significance Putt’s argument affords to the 1990 lecture. At issue in “Sacred Anarchy” was how a responsible postmodernism differs from an irresponsible postmodernism that cannot condemn Nazism. So, given the fascism, racism, misogyny, and white supremacist terrorism of the emboldened far right in many countries today, Putt might have addressed more clearly the potential of Caputo’s sacred an-archical ethics, precisely as a political theology, for readers in this contemporary moment.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katharine Sarah Moody is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

B. Keith Putt is Professor of Philosophy at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is editor (with Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins) of The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion.


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