In Hoping Against Hope, John D. Caputo shares his spiritual journey which began early on in his youth and simultaneously puts forth what he calls a “religion without religion,” or the “religion of the rose.”
He begins by explaining that based upon the scientific evidence of the continuous expansion of the sun, the world will literally end. He calls this “inhuman”, because all people will literally be no more, along with their stories and their thought. He admits that as a young boy and later, as “Brother Paul,” — another name he’s given himself from a previous stage in his life in which he was committed to Catholicism – he would have readily pointed to religion to find comfort in this coming doom. However, he points out that much of what is going on in religion, or what he likes to call “in the name of God,” is full of ugliness and hatred that don’t seem to offer a sense of hope in the face of a looming “nihilism.”
All of this is what leads to his venture into arguing for a religionless religion, which includes his main ideas of the religion of the rose, the nihilism of grace, living without why, and the pure gift. Each of these ideas feed into the other and are tightly woven together. The religion of the rose is that it blooms simply because it blooms. Of course there are many biological factors that cause its blooming, but ultimately, the rose is not blooming for any reason. It is simply being a rose. Therefore, Caputo sees the rose an example for us, as it “lives without why,” selflessly and essentially, purposelessly. This is the perfect example of his “nihilism of grace,” which he says to think of “as depending on the power of nothingness, something that is because it is, nothing more, without why” (p. 44). The rose and the way it simply exists gives way to Caputo’s idea that ultimately, God does not exist, rather He “insists.” As he explains in great detail, if God first exists and demands our allegiance to Him, all of His gifts are no longer pure, and neither are ours, because He gave to us in order to indebt us to Himself, and we give gifts and do good works in order to secure our own heavenly rewards (which brings up another concept in the book, the economy of salvation). If a gift is known at all, then it is no longer pure, no longer grace. Therefore, God does not exist, rather He insists, and we, humans, give God existence with our good works. In fact, Caputo even says that our good works are the kingdom of God; that our “pure gifts” to the world which we do without why are the existence of God in the world themselves.
Fundamentally, this book is Caputo’s offer of a hope that is not in Jesus Christ or in any other god or supreme being coming to save us from the eventual destruction of this world. Instead, this hope is one that hopes that this indeed is not the case; that the Day of Judgment is not what we believe it to be, because hoping in Christ’s return to save us into eternity with Him would mean that those who do not hope in Him would be doomed for eternity (a grim and uncomfortable thought). The only thing to do, then, is to live without why, bringing God to life with our pure gifts of grace, and embracing the world as it is, chaotic and perishable.
John D. Caputo is an extraordinary writer. His eloquence and witty humor make Hoping Against Hope a challenging yet fun and engaging read. He makes excellent points, for example: about the danger of the “economy of salvation”; that many do good works only to inherit eternal life, ultimately for selfish gain, or even out of pure obligation to God without love for Him in their hearts. He is clearly an intelligent man with extensive knowledge in many areas. However, Caputo lacks a few core beliefs that are fundamental to Christianity, which, from the perspective of a believer who believes in the final authority of the Bible, steer most of his postmodern concepts in the wrong direction.
First, he doesn’t believe that there is one objective Truth, and therefore does not believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:16). On page 98, he writes, “I do not think that there is an underlying, universal, cross-cultural religious truth that can finally be unearthed with enough empirical digging into the different traditions. The only universal I embrace is the universality of difference.” On page 99 he goes further to say, “I imagine a meeting of Jesus and the Buddha, in which each bows before the other, each confessing what he has to learn from the other…” As much as I admire his creative imagination, this picture is clearly in stark opposition to God’s commandments to have no other gods beside Him (Exodus 20:3) and to love Him above all else (Matthew 22:37-38).
This leads me to another core problem with Caputo’s theology: he doesn’t believe that God is who He’s revealed Himself to be throughout the Scriptures, nor who God reveals us humans to be in the Scriptures either. This is a seam that can be traced all throughout the book. On page 62, he speaks of the work of Mother Teresa and writes, “Her work stood, with or without God; her work stood, without why. Her work was the work of God, which is what the rabbis mean when they speak of loving the Torah more than God.” With such a statement and concept, Caputo has either forgotten or disagrees with the Bible – and therefore with God – as it tells us that we’re sinful and incapable of doing any truly good thing without the help of God Himself. We have no good nor any value in and of ourselves. On page 82, he explains his agreement with Meister Eckhart and writes, “Eckhart went so far as to say that God needs human beings in order to be God. This is the mystical predecessor of what I am calling the ‘insistence of God,’ where God needs us to be provided with existence…the world is the place where God gets to be God.” This statement sums up clearly enough that he believes that God needs us; that the Lord is indeed, needy. Again, this is exactly the opposite of what the Bible teaches. God doesn’t need us at all, not only because we’re fallen, imperfect people, but also because He is perfect, and not to mention – Creator. He created us; we’re His creations. Yet He needs us?
This takes me to my final main trouble within the cracks of Caputo’s concepts, and it’s a bit of a two and one: I believe it’s safe to say that Caputo neither believes in the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God, nor its final and ultimate authority concerning Truth, which makes me wonder: is he a Christian at all?
Don’t get me wrong; Caputo is, as I said, a wonderful writer, incredibly intelligent, and he makes many good points. The issue I found is that his good points veer off into a direction that I, as a devout believer and follower of Jesus Christ, would say work in opposition to what we find in Scripture. All in all, I would say that this book is an excellent read in terms of eloquence, entertainment, and even for the challenging of one’s mind and faith. However, I strongly question to what extent, if to any extent at all, he writes from a Christian perspective.
In any case, check out Hoping Against Hope for yourself, for a good read and for a challenge!