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Beyond Human? Science and the changing face of humanity

G. Taylor Aiken

John D. Caputo
Indiana University Press, 320pp

John Caputo loves 'perhaps'. He wants to learn to say it more often, and to mean it when he does. 'Perhaps' is the word philosophers and theologians fear most. Likewise evangelicals, or any purveyor of certainty: those who pedal nouns and numbers. Is this what we want? We want faith from theologians, but 'perhaps' suggests uncertainty, scepticism, even timidity. Perhaps? 'Perhaps' seems the opposite of faith, of decision, ethics, even judgement and knowledge.

'Perhaps' is not just opinion and hazy indecision but belongs to the 'weak theology' of Caputo. This responds to Christendom, to a physical and metaphysical God and Christianity's trail of damaged lives: shattered innocence from abusive priests, a Russian Orthodox Church in thrall to the cult of Putin, or the patriarchy and homophobia in my own Protestantism. And that is just currently; never mind the ever-accumulating historical legacy of wrongs. For Caputo, anything approaching certainty in a church that has wronged more than it has righted, is naive at best. 'Perhaps' means humility, 'perhaps' means never settling for easy or straightforward answers, 'perhaps' respects the complexity of life and our experience of the world.

God does not exist, Caputo provocatively postulates. Rather, God insists. God lays a searing need for response within us. God asks a question of us, no answers are provided, rather an irresistible urge to find out answers. Any answer. Something to scratch that itch. God's insistence needs our existence to get anything done. God insists, and we as humans are compelled to respond to such insistence. God insists, people exist. Such is Caputo's division. God cannot be said to exist, because for God to be God he/she/it must be above/beyond/ below/underneath/within any existence or even any conception of existence. Humans and the world, we exist. We are insisted upon. God's existence then comes into being through our response, and return of the call of God. An insistent call, a still small voice undergirding all, a shot a beauty ridden though everything.

'Perhaps' is important not only for theoretical reasons. Caputo's insistence on 'perhaps', and of the value and valour in responding to God's insistence, against an accepted existence, can be seen in the US Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Doctrine, who in 2011 named academic theologians as a 'curse and affliction upon the church'. Caputo sees this as high praise: to curse and afflict the patriarchal and homophobic power of powers' as he calls out his Catholic Church. The God for these 'palace guards' of the institution 'clearly privileges men and excludes women from ordination.' Caputo is excoriating of anyone who 'makes a profitable living from the Crucifixion - while trying to keep dissident theologians out of work', and 'protecting sexual predators from the law'. For these reasons Caputo sees the necessity of a theology of 'perhaps'.

Much of this is socking it to the scholars of systematic theology. Caputo's God is defined, known and best grasped by 'perhaps', against the orthodox God as sovereign, powerful, universal. Caputo's privileging of God as 'perhaps' is seen in the Sunday School shorthand: God is love. Sure, love provides sustenance and always perseveres. But love is also the riskiest thing out there. Love is uncertainty, unknowingness, and commitment to an insistence, tied up with the desire to receive and to offer, to connect. Love makes much more sense in events, specific occasions, and realised in particular people, than in any definition, rational explanation or theory. If God is love, then surely God is risk, fulfilment, unquenchable desire and utter abandonment. All together. What could be more 'perhaps' than those traditional words of a wedding service: 'for better or worse'?

The glory in this way of seeing it lies in the responsibility we have. No one can ever claim 'I was just following orders', even God's orders. No one can claim that 'it is written' is final, definitive law. Rather everything is response. We have a responsibility to listen quietly and fully for the insistent voice, the insistent call. Insistent not for its clarity or loudness, but its ever presence and persistence. There is no force to enforce God's will; it's up to us. This is where 'perhaps' comes in: perhaps I have misheard? Perhaps. Perhaps? Perhaps. God insists, we exist, and in between is a chasm of 'perhaps'.

I read this book alongside the latest volume of Tom Wright's magisterial series: 1,500 plus pages on St Paul. (I won't pretend I'm finished yet.) The differences between Caputo and Wright are instructive. Wright is a powerful force of a near perfect theologian: a brain the size of a planet, read by clergy, laity and peers, he provides a grand sweep of ideas, is firmly orthodox in many ways and continually builds towards the knock-down-drag-out point that proves beyond doubt his case. He is a prop forward of a thinker, bruising and powering his way to point after point, through sheer weight of references, footnotes and page after page of accumulating argument. Caputo seems to belong to another era (to continue the rugby analogy) before even wingers were expected to be 6 foot tall, as wide as a flanker, and still as quick. Caputo jinks and cheekily sidesteps the onrushing weight of questions you expect to flatten him. He rephrases your questions; he somehow emerges from a pile of bodies without being tackled. He seems to think and write for the love of the game. He settles for no easy answers - indeed at times he seems to suggest there might not be any. At all! Is this really what we want from a theologian? Hasn't he been paid to write this book? Does the publisher really expect people to buy a book where we end up more confused than before we read it? Perhaps.

Caputo is interesting, intriguing, inspiring; he is funny, has fanfare without fanfaronade. I suspect this book is well worth it. I cannot be certain, but perhaps that is the book's virtue rather than deficiency.