Step/Not, Hospitality and 'Realism' (What Would Jesus Deconstruct?)

Carrying on from my last post I thought I’d point out a few more aspects to John (Jack) Caputo’s book I do like and then say something about what I don’t like. If you’re interest in getting into the discussion on deconstruction, and what it has to do with the church, especially in its more Catholic and Emerging forms (Caputo is a Catholic) this really is a great book to read. It’s helpful not just in how this applies to church, but also in his very succinct and easily understandable explanations of some pretty hard-to-get-at ideas.

The Step/Not

One thing I found helpful is his discussion on the step/not. The best way to think of this is a reflection on “how (not) to hold any position.” The basic point is that for Derrida pas in french is an ‘undecidable’ that is, it can have a variety of meanings, even opposed meanings, depending on the context of the sentence. So you have faux pas, which means “false step” but you also have je ne sais pas, which means “I don’t know.” Caputo uses this undecidible to explain how faith is a ‘counterpath,’ not simply a path where our journey is completely calculated, where we have a clearly marked trail and know exactly how we will get to our destination, and at what time etc. But rather where we see faith as a counterpath, a step/not, which basically means, when we put our foot to the trail, we’re not sure how it will all end up. Our step (pas) could very well be a misstep (or pas as not). Unfortunately, all too often when we approach our faith it is in the more calcuable way. We want to make sure you have all the major points of Christianity down. We want to make sure there are no unexpected actions, ideas, or (even) people who may question or throw us off our nicely paved path. So these ideas of step/not and the counterpath have the potential to add some humility to our understanding of ‘truth’ and faith.

Hospitality and Hosti-pitality

Another point, connected to this, is Caputo’s discussion on hospitality. Hospitality gets its name from welcoming the stranger, yet when we practice hospitality who do we normally invite? Our friends, our family, the people we like or who are like us. Caputo argues we need to break the circle of ‘the same’ by welcoming the uninvited. As soon as you remove all risk from hospitality, it is no longer hospitality. Undecidability is built into hospitality (like pas). Hospitality in latin can be broken down like hostis + posse. Hostis means stranger, but it can also mean alien (like immigrant), and can even mean hostile. Posse basically points to the possession of space, I don’t invite strangers over to my next-door neighbors house. Thus the danger to my own space or home is built into the very notion of hospitality ((Caputo, 76-77)). In fact, Derrida sometimes refers to hospitality as hosti-pitality to stress this ‘undeconstructable’ feature of the word ((An undeconstructable is something that points beyond itself, calls us to respond to it, yet is never fully actualized. A name can be deconstructed, whereas ‘the event’ of hospitality is something that can never be deconstructed because it is lays within the realm of already and not yet happening. p. 58ff)). Here the point isn’t that we should be reckless but that we cannot (and should not) seek to avoid the true nature of hospitality. A great example of hospitality in the Gospels is perspective is found in the parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:12ff).

A Basic Criticism

But, as I stated on JR Johnson’s recent blog post, for all the fancy philosophical footwork Caputo ends up right where Reinhold Neibuhr modern liberalism left us. Up until page 98 I was fully tracking with Caputo’s arguements. In fact, I’d argue that up to this point his use of deconstruction makes a knockdown case for nonviolence and the Kingdom of God. But when Caputo gets practical he completely lost me. I like what Tony Jones says of the book:

But then Jack has to go and climb out of his ivory tower and start walking the streets. No longer safely ensconced in his Derridean cloister, Caputo weighs in on real-life topics: war, women’s rights in church, homosexuality, and abortion. He rails against the Bush administration, berates the “Religious Right,” and steers us all toward the social teachings of the Catholic church…But, having re-read Jack’s fifth chapter, I wonder: Is it possible to move beyond these damned antitheses, false though they may be?!? Or is deconstruction’s answer to ethical dilemmas, moral dilemmas, all dilemmas always nigh unto liberalism’s?

In this way I agree with Jone’s “critique” where Jones basically is unhappy that Caputo came down on the issues. It’s not that I don’t think we should come down on the issues when need be, I do, but its more that a) I don’t think Caputo’s positions are radical enough, b) for all the deconstruction and philosophical jargon it takes to arrive at the positions it makes it (the deconstruction) all seem a little unnecessary. Here’s what I said on Johnson’s blog:

I found his arguments on the weakness of God, the kingdom, Jesus deconstructing this and that binary all wonderful arguments for the kind of theology we both subscribe to [as Quakers], yet he then says “but there’s no one-to-one correlation between Jesus’ time and ours so sometimes we have to kill, etc.” That’s a total cop-out in my opinion. At least come up with a more nuanced position, at least try to be somewhat creative with your view on war, and abortion, etc. I found this part of the book a real let down. And this is why I think John Howard Yoder, Hauerwas, McClendon and others [like Zizek and Badiou] are actually far more ahead on the ‘coming up with something new, fresh and actually useful,’ I feel like their views actually are “hyper-realist” where caputo turns out to just be a wanna-be [or a realist in disguise].

I guess the basic point is that while I found the first part of the book very inspiring, the second half just felt completely flat. Even though I may agree with a majority of his positions in theory, I don’t agree with how he proposes to understand them in a ‘lesser evil’ type of way, or how through deconstruction he basically disconnects the practices of the kingdom from having any concrete connection to our historical traditions. While we may not have a one-to-one correlation with Jesus and his context, we do have our particular traditions which do help us follow on the counterpath.

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

4 thoughts on “Step/Not, Hospitality and 'Realism' (What Would Jesus Deconstruct?)”

  1. Preach it, brother Wess. At the point of your comment on my site, I had not finished chapter 4 – and now I have. You are absolutely correct (is that possible in postmodernity??) in describing the praxis of his argument as a cop-out. It is as though Caputo is paralyzed by deconstruction so that all he leaves is a basic (yet needed) social gospel. I want a Christology that is robust, not weak. And Caputo’s, in the end, is weak.

  2. Thanks for the review…I have heard about this book and thought of ordering it. I’m also hesitant from the same things you mentioned, and I’ve read elsewhere about it.

    Cheers.

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