Literary and Critical Theory John D. Caputo
by
Jeffrey W. Robbins
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0064

Introduction

John D. Caputo (b. 26 October 1940), Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Humanities Emeritus at Syracuse University and David R. Cook Professor Emeritus at Villanova University, is an American philosopher of religion known for his works in hermeneutics, Continental philosophy of religion, and radical theology. He is the author of nineteen books, co-author of two, and editor or co-editor of eight. His books have been translated around the world in multiple languages. There are many book-length studies devoted to his work, and he has been widely interviewed both in print and on radio and podcasts. He is perhaps the foremost Continental philosopher of religion alive today, a field of study that he helped to establish as a distinct area of specialization through the influential conferences on “Religion and Postmodernism” and “Postmodernism, Culture and Religion” held biannually during the years of 1997–2011. These conferences hosted a number of the world’s leading philosophers, theologians, and critical theorists, most notably Jacques Derrida. It was Caputo’s original reading of Derrida that was his most pioneering work, specifically his argument that deconstruction was not a negative or exclusively critical exercise of thought, but instead, that deconstruction is motivated by an affirmative religious passion, and that Derrida can rightfully be read as a religious thinker in his own right. Caputo’s original formulation for expressing this nontraditional and distinctly postmodern faith of Derrida’s was through the phrase “religion without religion.” Caputo depicted Derrida as a quasi-Jewish prophetic “apostle for the impossible” whose secret faith operated on the terrain of the unknown and the unknowable and followed a messianic hope for a future that was always to come. While remaining deeply indebted to Derrida, Caputo eventually developed his own distinct approach to religious thought with his “weak theology,” a form of radical theology that rejects traditional approaches to religion predicated on supernaturalism and traditional approaches to theology predicated on an all-powerful and all-knowing God. Caputo’s weak theology bypasses the old arguments over God’s existence or non-existence between theists and atheists by conceiving of God in non-theistic terms in a way that is akin to Paul Tillich. Caputo’s argument is that God does not exist as either a being among beings, or as the supernatural being above all beings; rather, God “insists” as a call or summons for human beings to realize the impossible demands of the kingdom of God here on earth.

General Overviews

The list of studies of Caputo’s work and legacy continues to grow. The two earliest volumes of collected essays are Dooley 2003 and Olthuis 2001, both of which focus on Caputo’s original reading of Derrida as a religious thinker and deconstruction as being driven by an affirmative religious passion. Perhaps the best overview to the broad scope and historical development of Caputo’s writings is Putt 2018. This is an expertly curated collection of Caputo’s major writings, together with an editorial introduction that details the evolution within Caputo’s thinking from his early interest in mystical theology and hermeneutics to his later contributions to radical theology. Štofanik 2018 provides a more experimental orientation to Caputo’s work by focusing on Caputo’s authorial voice, and by reading Caputo’s work in relation to his life. It remains risky to provide a general overview to Caputo’s work. That is because Caputo is still very much an active thinker and prolific author who continues to develop and forge new connections. Any overview at this point therefore is bound to be incomplete.

  • Dooley, Mark, ed. A Passion for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003.

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    One of the first systematic treatments of Caputo’s work by a collection of philosophers, theologians, and critical theorists. The collection includes an interview with Derrida about Caputo’s original interpretation of him as a religious thinker.

  • Olthuis, James H., ed. Religion With/out Religion: The Prayers and Tears of John D. Caputo. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

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    This volume of collected essays focuses on the impact of Caputo’s systematic treatment of Derrida’s “religion without religion” on contemporary Christian theology. It includes an interview with Caputo conducted by B. Keith Putt.

  • Putt, B. Keith, ed. The Essential Caputo: Selected Writings. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.

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    This collection curated and edited by Putt provides the best overview of the full span of Caputo’s work over a forty-year period. It demonstrates both the pervading themes and historical evolution of Caputo’s thought. It includes an interview with Caputo conducted by Clayton Crockett.

  • Štofanik, Štefan. The Adventure of Weak Theology: Reading the Work of John D. Caputo through Biographies and Events. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2018.

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    A critical and constructive analysis of the transformation within Caputo’s thinking that can be discerned by careful attention to shifts in Caputo’s writing style and rhetoric. The argument is grounded in references to Caputo’s life story.

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