Back to the Rough Blog!

I have neglected my little corner of the internet for quite some time, buried as I have been by an overly ambitious workload as I round out this year of my program at the Institute for Christian Studies. My academic activities have left little room for blogging, but as I enter the summer (and MA thesis preparation), I suspect blogging will again become the useful exercise it was before.

I figure it’s wise to sound this note now for two reasons: (1) I have only one week left of coursework before the summer, at which point I will begin paper writing season and thesis compilation and (2) Matthew David Segall recently called attention to my blog in his excellent project “footnotes2plato.”

Regarding the first reason, I have much to say in the way of my experience thus far at ICS as well as my coursework and projects I’m working on. This semester was very fruitful in terms of exposing me to a variety of literature I was only marginally aware of before. As to the second, Matt graciously engaged in a conversation with me via e-mail which is now published on his blog. Matt’s is a courageous and creative voice in a variety of domains, especially religion, science, cosmology, and philosophy, and I appreciate his time. I hope to follow up with him soon.

Consider this my anticlimactic return to this rough-and-ready reading space. Thanks to all who have stumbled across, and my apologies to those who have attempted to contact me recently who have been neglected. I look forward to continuing the journey.


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Exciting Happenings at the Institute for Christian Studies

Institute for Christian StudiesThe facebook page for my school, the Institute for Christian Studies, posted this today, detailing the recent and upcoming accomplishments of its junior members (I’ve edited it for better blog formatting). I share it to express my deep appreciation for my fellow junior members, the institute that supports us, and to highlight the kind of work that can be done at ICS for those considering graduate school options:

Our students are just killin’ it! Check out the list of ICS Junior Members presenting or publishing their work so far this year (and check some of these papers out in our Institutional Repository):

Ruth Bott:

“Holy Blood, Menstruation as a Signifier of the Holy: A Study of the Ritual Purity Codes of Leviticus 15.”

Advanced Degree Student Association Theology Conference at Toronto School of Theology, March 14th 2014.

Dean Dettloff:

“Back to the Rough Ground! Into Life!: Anti-Philosophy as Christian Philosophy.”

Society of Christian Philosophy/Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology Conference, Trinity Christian College, March 27-29, 2014

Joshua Harris:

1) “Propositions, Art, and Truth: Zuidervaart’s Critique of Wolterstorff,”

Society of Christian Philosophy/Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology Conference, Trinity Christian College, March 27-29, 2014;

2) “Gadamer and Praxeology: The Hermeneutics Debate Revisited,”

IHS Research Colloquium, George Mason University. Washington, D.C., November 2013;

3) “Quantification, Sein and Univocity: A Response to Peter van Inwagen’s Critique of Martin Heidegger,”

Philosophical Perspectives on Theological Realism, Erbacher Hof. Mainz, Germany, August/September 2013;

4) Review of Heidegger and Philosophical Atheology, by Peter S. Dillard. Praxis;

5) “Philosopher” and “Anthropomorphism” in Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Matt Johnson:

1) “Songs of Solidarity: A New Approach to Liturgical Music and Community Cohesion,”

20th Annual Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, Concordia University, Montreal, March 6, 2014.

2) “A Particular Collision: Arendt, CERN, and Reformational Philosophy,”

Society of Christian Philosophy/Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology Conference, Trinity Christian College, March 27-29, 2014.

Joseph Joonyong:

“The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in a Christian Context,”

in Christian Higher Education. Volume 13, Issue 1, 2014: 74-87.

Joe Kirby:

1) “Ontology and Living Death: Solitary Confinement in Prisons and Monasteries.”

Penn State Graduate Conference in Philosophy, March 1-2, 2014;

2) “Mysticism and Madness in Prison Awaiting Death,”

20th Annual Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, Concordia University, Montreal, March 6th, 2014.

Carolyn Mackie:

“This Thinking Individual: Conscience and Subjectivity in Søren Kierkegaard and Hannah Arendt,”

Ryerson Graduate Philosophy Conference at Ryerson University, Feb. 22, 2014.

Caleb Ratzlaff:

“Ephesians and the Household Code: a Conversation with John Howard Yoder,”

Advanced Degree Student Association Theology Conference at TST, March 14th 2014.

Joanna Sheridan:

“Identity and Difference in Derrida’s “The Other Heading,”

Traversing Traditions: A Polyphony of Thought, Ryerson Graduate Philosophy Conference, Feb 22, 2014.

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Bill Nye the Science Guy vs. Ken Ham the Creationist Bloke


My thoughts exactly–Matthew Segall does a great job explaining the real problem in the Nye/Ham debate. In the end, capitalism reconciles every opposite.

Originally posted on Footnotes 2 Plato:

Whatever you do, don’t go watch the entirety of the three hour debate that Bill Nye and Ken Ham just had at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky. Total waste of time. If you are interested in the “Science and Religion” dialogue, do watch at least the last 4 minutes. Here is a link. Fast forward to 2 hours and 38 minutes and listen to Ken Ham profess his faith in the creation story of the Bible, followed by Bill Nye’s inspiring scientific rhapsody about our place in the cosmos.
Overall, I think Nye did a great job remaining reasonable in an impossible conversation. But then at about 2:41 you’ll hear the same defense of science Nye repeated all night (my summation): “yeah, yeah, aside from being true, the universe story is emotionally thrilling and wonderful and all that–but ultimately the reason we should teach it to our kids…

View original 274 more words

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Pete Seeger, 94, Rest in Peace

“Experiment. there’s no such thing as a wrong note as long as you’re singing.”

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Caputo’s The Insistence of God II: Caputo, Perhaps

The Insistence of God

This post is part of a series. You can find the previous post here.

Chapter 1

God, Perhaps: The Fear of One Small Word


Caputo begins his book with a characteristic poetic meditation on the word “perhaps” and its ramifications for theology. Say what you will about Caputo’s ideas, the man can write. The poetic style is sure to alienate readers, and there are plenty of moments where it’s a bit too cute, but I found it creative and stimulating.

We are first introduced to Caputo’s messianic dream, learning how to say “perhaps,” which will inaugurate “a new species of theologians, of theologians to come, theologians of the word ‘perhaps,’ a new society of friends of a dangerous ‘perhaps’” (3). With all of Caputo’s poetic flourish, it does seem clear that he/we is/are still learning to say “perhaps,” given that it seems to encompass quite a lot, and the chapter is rife with intentional backtracking, affirmations, denials, and circles. And all of this is appropriate, I think, for a meditation on “perhaps,” which connotes this very attitude; it wants to say yes to a possibility yet not so enthusiastically as to remove the chance that this possibility is in fact not a possibility. It occupies the slash in im/possibility.

The “perhaps” “enjoys an ‘irreducible modality’ all its own,” we learn, associated explicitly with the “event” (4). In other words, this “perhaps” is a structural part of existence, whether we acknowledge it or not, and Caputo is attempting to give this structure some voice. We might consider this a kind of psychotheology, attempting to call attention to what is repressed in theological language. The “perhaps” is always oscillating “between,” attempting to avoid lapsing into theism or atheism, God or the devil. It occupies a kind of “semiotic” space, in Kristevan terms, that is, not without content but neither without full expression. This between is not “a simple compromise between…binaries, a safe middle ground…” (4-5). Nor does Caputo want it to be a point of indecision; it must be tied to “risk” and necessitates action and work (7). The “perhaps” must manifest, oscillations and all.

God, Perhaps

All of this talk of the “perhaps” takes an explicitly theological turn. When speaking of God, Caputo is only willing to speak of “God, perhaps.” He notes that individuals perpetrate the greatest atrocities and also the most beautiful healings in the name of God, and “God” inhabits a precarious place as a result. The best we can say is “perhaps,” for it may turn out that God is precisely the opposite of what we wanted in the first place. “The name of God is the name of a hope, which means of a promise/threat which also licenses murder” (12). This is the risk of belief in God.

From here, we are introduced to the title of the book–the insistence of God. This insistence is preferred over speaking of God’s “existence.” God occupies the position of a call which it falls to human beings to realize in actuality. God is not, on Caputo’s view, an existing Person, but rather a pressing hope–in a series of inversions, God prays to us, hopes for us, depends on us, requires us. The weak God of Caputo is only existent insofar as individuals respond to God’s insistence. No response, no existence.

Amid Caputo’s poetry, we are given three particular ways in which God remains weak in God’s insistence:

  1. Insistence. The identity of the “caller” is “structurally inaccessible…It may not be God” (15). Claiming to know the caller would result in turning our response into obedience, which eliminates our responsibility.
  2. Existence. The call can be ignored or resisted, and, if so, it will not come into existence. “It has the force without force of ‘justice,’ not the real force of law; there are no police to enforce it” (15).
  3. Insistence to Existence. The translation of the call into existence could turn out to be a disaster. “In the case of the name of God, justice may flow like water over the land or perhaps what will flow will be the blood of injustice, the worst violence, which happens time and again with names like ‘God’” (15-16).

These three items are perhaps the most compelling, for me. Despite the fact that I’m pretty reticent about certain ontological problems with Caputo’s poetics, there can be no denying, it seems to me, the fact that this structure is phenomenologically present in religious life. Whether God is ontologically weak, strong, or whatever, human responses to the narratives and calls of God can pretty quickly turn those ontological commitments into irrelevant data.

The Trajectory of the Text

Striking another curiously trinitarian structure, Caputo offers three “pills” of a theology of perhaps, which serves as that portion of introductions which explainins what Caputo aims to work out in the remainder of the book:

  1. The Insistence of God. This is the “chiasmic” structure of the relationship between God’s call and human response. God depends on us, we depend on God.
  2. Theopoetics. Elaborating the appropriate kind of discourse related to this foundation of insistence. Caputo says he will work out two types of theologians, those following Kant and those following Hegel, surprisingly siding with the Hegelians (with a certain reading of Hegel, of course, dialoguing through Milbank, Zizek, and Malabou). Having enjoyed Caputo’s Kierkegaardian criticisms of Hegel in books like Radical Hermeneutics and others, I look forward to this portion.
  3. Cosmopoetics. The final third of the book criticizes the first two thirds for being too anthropocentric, dialoguing with the recent turn to speculation, the sciences, realism, and materialism in continental philosophy. In this portion, Caputo will aim to take stock of contemporary scientific cosmology and its relation to religious language and his own project.

Some Brief Commentary

I must admit that my relation to Caputo’s first chapter is ambivalent. There are portions at which I feel personally attacked, others where I feel gently affirmed, still others where I feel propelled to further thinking and consideration. Through all of it, however, I remain smiling as I read, and I would suspect Caputo is probably aiming for exactly these mixed emotions. He seems to be having them himself.

The discussion of the possible as promise and threat is particularly interesting to me. Much of my own reading, writing, and research has been on this theme, particularly in the areas of suffering, trauma, and religious discourse. I’m of two minds about Caputo’s presentation. On the one hand, it is plainly obvious that promises are not always fulfilled, especially theologically charged promises, and such promises can end in tragic disaster. On the other hand, however, I wonder if we have to consider promises as being structurally inhabited by threat–and the same goes, even moreso, for God. We might wonder, here, if Caputo’s God of the perhaps is already a bit too decidable; in other words, if his claims to remain outside the agnostic space and yet also outside of theism and atheism are really warranted or simply poetically covered over. I stress the beginning of my previous sentence, however–we might wonder, here. It remains to be seen what Caputo will have to say, and the jury certainly can’t proceed with such slim evidence.

There are really some fantastic passages in here. Many of them are worth highlighting, but I think this one really took the cake for me:

“In an undertaking as uncertain as this, I call upon the animals of Jesus to be my companions. Animal that I am, I am following (je suis) an alternate zoology, a zoo-theological order of beasts who distrust sovereigns that is proposed by Jesus and Derrida, and my candidate for such a strange beast is ‘perhaps.’ Accordingly, my advocacy of the weak force of ‘perhaps’ must be as innocent as a dove and as shrewd and sly as a snake, able to brave the wolves of philosophy and theology and their love of monarchy and sovereignty and principal order.” (4)

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Deleuze: What is the Creative Act?

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Caputo’s The Insistence of God I.a: More on Olthuis

This post is part of a series. You can find the previous post here and the following post here.

I will soon comment on chapter 1 of the text, but I thought I might record some of my notes from the first session that came by way of introduction by Olthuis. As such, some of this doesn’t flow too nicely (being a reconstruction from notes), and the reader will notice some philosophical jumps here and there. I must stress that one should not blame the student for perceived mistakes in the teacher; the information Olthuis presented here is published in journals and books which should be easy to round up should the reader wish to pursue these lines of thinking in a more sustained way. It must also be noted that Olthuis’s tone throughout his introduction is cordial, congenial, humble, and very positive. If critical portions of this post appear to be otherwise, it is the fault of the student.

In 1980, Olthuis wrote a review of Caputo’s Radical Hermeneutics. Caputo, who was clearly breaking ties with his Catholic roots, was surprised that a Christian thinker would receive the book so positively. The two began corresponding, especially on the topic of religion and Derrida. The two continue to correspond, and they see each other a few times a year. Their friendship led to the book I mentioned in the previous post, wherein Olthuis says the importance of Derrida and Caputo’s seeking a “religion with/out religion” is “on the slash.” As Olthuis told us in the reading group, one can only have religion with a certain instantiation of that religion–but religion cannot be reduced to that instantiation.

This fits well with the Reformational tradition that nourishes the Institute for Christian Studies. Herman Dooyeweerd, a foundational pillar for Reformational Philosophy, posited the idea of “Law Order” (or Law/Order) as a “creational principle.” As Olthuis explained, this rests on the idea that there is a normativity present in creation, and this normativity can be “positivized” in a variety of ways. But more original than this [and this is Olthuis' main contribution to Reformational thinking] is the “Gift/Call” distinction. In creation, a gift is given–and the gift contains a call. From this call flows our normative intuitions and our impulse to create in response to the gift. This expands Dooyeweerd’s notion, which provides space for a responsible understanding of the positive contribution of institutions and laws, yet adds a destabilizing (yet not abolishing) principle–these laws and norms must be subject to the call, which is in turn bound up in a notion of the gift. The example Olthuis used was “Let there be feelings!” This gift and call cannot be identified with the “normative laws” for feelings; yet, we need normative parameters to have healthy relationships with one another. Such parameters are always relativized in the context of the gift/call. Thus Olthuis borrows from Dooyeweerd another distinction–that between structures for life and structures of life. We might understand “justice” as a structure of life. It simply is part of creational reality. The state (or whatever institutions we might use to describe that which maintains justice) is a structure for life. Again, Olthuis adds to this the idea that justice is a “call,” and as such we have a variety of ways of positivizing the norms associated with responding to the gift and call of justice.

Perhaps it is obvious, here, how Olthuis is attracted to Derrida, who meditates on these problems and possibilities, opening them up in new ways in the Reformational tradition. Derrida’s emphasis on the messianic, that which is always calling. In order to discuss this, Derrida uses the language of religion, which is a kind of irreducible part of life. It is that which belongs to the “not knowing” which is deeply embedded in our experience. As Olthuis notes, Derrida and Caputo often stress the way institutional religion closes things down and seeks certainty, hence they desire a “religion with/out religion.” Yet, the paradox is present in the slash. Religion does indeed close things down, yet it is precisely religion which names that which cannot be closed. This is good news for someone like Olthuis. Where Derrida and Caputo will suggest all religion is violent, however, Olthuis will disagree–perhaps this is the biggest point of contention between Olthuis and Caputo. For Caputo, Olthuis said, the best we can hope for is the “least violent” religion; but this poses problems for a religion which claims the Messiah is the Prince of Peace [for the record, Olthuis is not blind to the nuances of "violence" in Derrida and Caputo--I would maybe stylize this as a difference between pessimists and optimists].

In postmodernity, selves are turned into victims, little vortexes of contingent relationships of implicit violence. Under Olthuis’ Gift/Call formulation, however, humans are imbued with agency as the call demands action–we must make something of justice. We are no longer victims but co-agents and co-creators. As Olthuis says, Derrida and Caputo are great on the call side, but they remain fuzzy on the gift side of this formulation. They offer great reflections on the response to the call, but they are haunted by what Olthuis calls the “ghost of full presence.” Even though Derrida and Caputo fight autonomy, they want a knock-down battle between God and the devil. If God is not fully present the way we expect, in some kind of beatific vision or cosmic janitorial role cleaning up all suffering and messes, then there is likely no God at all–or, at best, we had better keep a big fat question mark there. Olthuis, however, suggests that if we are going to proceed into the unknown we might as well proceed in hope. As a practicing counselor/psychoanalyst, Olthuis uses an example from marriage. In marriage, we never know how our spouse will turn out–yet we proceed in confidence and love [though Olthuis dos not note this, there is a definite analogue in Kierkegaard here, who uses love and marriage to discuss the problems of certainty]. This, of course, does not eliminate doubt and the positive interactions that can come from doubt and reassurance, but perhaps it is obvious how an obsession with doubt and unknowability is deeply acidic in relationships like marriage.

All of this provides context in which we might consider Caputo’s first chapter, which I turn to next.

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