On Religion

Second Edition

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John D. Caputo
  • New York, NY: 
    , August
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The 2nd Edition of John D. Caputo's On Religion is a significant revision of the 2001 original, replacing two of that edition's five chapters with four new ones. According to the author, in the new edition “the question of religion is widened to include both its political and its cosmological dimension, and deepened to include an exploration of the groundless ground or displaced place of religion” (xi). The latter meditation is central.

Caputo, like his “hero” Saint Augustine (2), finds himself disturbed or perturbed by the question, “What do I love when I love my God?” Religion, Caputo stipulates, is the love of God (1). God is the “given,” but what is given—that is the question that insists, that perturbs, that twists and turns us in the restless heart of our being and our thought.

On Religion is an essay in radical theology. It does not offer an alternative to confessional theology, but rather it is parasitic upon it (34). Were there not confessional theology, there would be nothing for radical theology to do. Radical theology, true to its name, aims for the roots of theology, sunk deep into “the ultimate ground of Being,” or “the Holy,” or “the unconditional” (Paul Tillich), into “the dark center, the unlit core, the concealed depth, the mystical element,” as Caputo puts it (x, 125, 136, 189). Radical theology holds that religion in the sense of the institutions and practices formulated by and from confessional theologies is haunted by a “depth dimension” that disturbs and perturbs it, is “spooked” by that which is promised in–but never fully delivered by–any particular, concrete, historical religious expression.

Caputo's Tillichian approach calls into question the religious/secular distinction, a distinction only as old as modernity. Caputo’s “religion” is not something separate from science, art, or politics. “Rather than a particular region in experience, this [religion] is the deep structure of experience itself, what is fundamental to all experience …this religion does not take place in experience; experience takes place in it” (89).

Thus, one can encounter “religion without religion” within religion as well as “without” (95). “Radical religion and confessional religion do not form a dualism,” but rather “the hermeneutic circulation between the conditional and the unconditional. The unconditional, if there is such a thing, does not exist; it can only be realized or actualized under certain determinate conditions, while the conditional, which does exist, is always a limited realization or actualization of something unconditional” (99).

Caputo, like Tillich, has a revulsion to idolatry—the taking as the ground of Being that which is (merely) an expression of it. The insistence of the unconditional necessarily gives rise to conditioned expressions of it. The tendency is for those conditioned expressions (dogmas, theologies, practices, institutions) to be taken as the unconditional “itself.” The very theopoetical expressions that give “access to” the unconditional also block access to it in the sense of constraining and constricting the possibilities of the unconditional. Theopoetics is the condition of possibility and impossibility of access to the ground of Being. As Caputo puts it, “[t]he saving thing in the concrete religious traditions is their power to make contact with the powers of the deep in figurative and imaginative ways unavailable to straightforward calculative thinking. Their danger—to themselves and to the rest of us—occurs when the theopoetics breaks down, when the figurative is literalized, when the unconditional is contracted to its conditional expression, when the undeconstructible is identified with historically constituted constructions” (106-07).

As Jacques Derrida is his muse, Caputo's radical theology is informed by deconstruction, which is not so much something some philosopher or theologian does to ideologies or institutions as it is that which happens to the conditioned expressions of the unconditional. Deconstruction de-absolutizes contingent historical constructions of the “undeconstructible.” One might think that on Caputo's view deconstruction—contrary to a popular notion that it is purely destructive—is simply salutary, that it diagnoses that a certain conditioned manifestation has somehow lost touch with or purports to have lifted off from the unconditional and that this recognition will somehow lead us to fix the idolatrous problem by re-connecting theopoetically with the ground of Being.

Yet how could we lose contact with the “powers of the deep”? If we could, it would signify that the secular/religious distinction is meaningful—which Caputo argues against. If he is right—that all of this is a manifestation (in all its diversity and complexity) of the unconditional—then how could we really “get it wrong”? If there were a Revelation that is unconditional and absolute, the “direct Word of God,” then “getting it wrong” and “making it right” are meaningful. However, one cannot distinguish “bad” versus “good” religions (125), at least not in any “ontological” or “metaphysical” sense. For Caputo, it is impossible to separate religion—which is about love—from violence. As much as Caputo loves Augustine, it is risky to counsel: “[l]ove, and do what you will.” God only knows what one will do! However, we cannot simply, per impossibile, try to do away with the unconditional all together for being too dangerous, as some of religion's cultured despisers would have us do. It is that which insists on and in religion. It is rather a matter of hoping-against-hope that what comes next will not be a disaster.

The same could be said for Caputo, as what he says of both Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche: he is “a brilliant stylist who [breaks] the mold of philosophical propriety by writing in a madly beautiful, bitingly witty, and unnervingly aphoristic style” (57). Caputo, like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, “writes with his blood,” with a perturbo-charged insistence that wrenches the reader out of comfort and complacency. Sometimes it stings. Sometimes it makes you laugh. Sometimes it bites off more than it can chew, as in the chapter on “cosmo-theo-poetics,” transhumanism, and panentheism. On Religion, 2nd Edition entertains as it provokes, and it should not be missed by anyone concerned with religion in a postmodern condition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Weislogel is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Saint Joseph’s University.

Date of Review: 
September 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John D. Caputo is Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion Emeritus at Syracuse University and the David R. Cook Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Villanova University


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