How to make Shelby Spong look conservative

Many of the leaders in the Emergent Movement have just gotten…well…weird lately. Tony Jones, for example, has been falling further and further off the deep end. He has especially caught my attention, from posting an article from the Huffington post that mocks Rick Warren’s prayer (not that I’m a huge fan of Warren, but what he’s mocked for is what all real Christians believe), to talking about how motherhood is not a calling, discussing how homosexuality is acceptable (though he admits a “weakness” in the argument), celebrating interfaith heroes month, and how conservative Christians are somehow Gnostic (which is somewhat of a joke as he misrepresents what Gnosticism is). Let’s also not forget that believing in the Trinity is optional according to Jones. Let’s also not forget that Doug Pagitt is running for public office in Minnesota. 

Before getting into the issue I want to discuss, I must ask this: Whatever happened to the “Third Way” that the EC was going to provide? How is anything above different from the liberalism that has plagued Christianity for the past two hundred years? The inerrancy of Scripture, Christian ethics, conservative Christians, the exclusivity of Christ, and the doctrine of God are all challenges by the EC, just as they were with the liberals. The greatest irony is that Christian liberalism is a direct result of the Enlightenment (modernism) and the EC has gone to great lengths to show how modernism is bad. Yet, a great portion of their beliefs center on modernistic ideas.

With all the “weirdness” above, however, I think John Caputo takes the cake this week. In quoting from his book The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana Press University, 2005), I want to show how far the EC has begun to dive into heresy.

I’m going to put up some of Caputo’s quotes (from what I’ve read so far) and then explain/respond to them. 

“The modest proposal I make in this book is that the name of God is an event, or rather that it harbors an event, and that theology is the hermeneutics of that event, its task being to release what is happening in that name, to set it free, to give it its own head, and thereby to head off the forces that would prevent this event.” (p. 2)

In other words, God is not a being, but instead an event. God is something that has happened and cannot be described. When we say “God” we are just using a name to mask what is actually there – no different than Allah, Brahman, or even a made up term like Ickyzu – and we must look past the name to come in contact with the event. This, of course, makes God wholly unknowable and fully deconstructable. Because “God” is just a mask, we can move around the mask to see what the mask is hiding, constantly deconstructing, and tearing down our beliefs about God (pg. 3-4).

“Nothing guarantees the success of the event. Its links are not assured of asymptotic progress toward some goal…The event is subject to all the contingencies of time and tide, of chance and circumstance, of history and power – in short, to all the forces of the world that conspire to prevent the event, to contain its disruption, to hold it in check at its bottomless disseminative disturbance, to betray its promise.” (pg. 5)

If you are confused by the previous sentence, simply replace the word “event” with “God” to get an idea of what Caputo is trying to say. Now, why in the world would Caputo teach that God is both subject to time and space? This makes God weak, unable to impose His Will upon His creation (which isn’t really His creation, Caputo later argues). The importance in weakness, so argues Caputo, is that it allows God to relate to the weakest in society (pg. 13-17). If God were powerful, then all the power that human hierarchies hold would be fully justified. Of course, Caputo is a postmodern poster child and thus believes that all attempts or hints at power are inherently evil. To postmoderns, to desire power is to desire to impose your will over others, to enslave others, and to kill the spirit of others. If God has power – even if He masks that power (as process theologians teach, God doesn’t know the future because He limited Himself; Caputo teaches that God never had that power to begin with) – then God cannot relate to the weak in society.

“Suppose we say there is at least this much to the death of God: that the God of metaphysical theology is a God well lost and that the task of thinking about God radically otherwise has been inescapably imposed upon us?” (p. 23)

This is Caputo’s tip-of-the-hat to Nietzsche, who taught us that “God is dead.” What Nietzsche – and Caputo – meant by this is that the God of power, the God who controls the Universe and all within, the God that is wholly powerful, is dead and no longer believable. Modern discoveries in science rendered Him useless. Caputo, rather than disagreeing with Nietzsche’s premise, instead embraces it and seeks to move from there. He seeks to show that God still exists, just not as we thought He did.

“That is what I mean by an event – a summons, call, demand, claim or appeal, as well as a promise and a lure – whose structure is on display in what Derrida calls a ‘sovereignty without force’…which of itself lacks force or worldly power, lacks an army or an armature, the material means to enforce its will, that is, to forcibly bring about what it is calling for.” (pg. 29)

The reason God (or I should say, the event) calls us to justice and to act a certain way is because He cannot forcibly manipulate the world toward His Will. He might want us to act a certain way, but He cannot make us act that way. This, of course, is somewhat true, yet mostly false. It is true that God doesn’t make us act a certain way, He does hold Himself back in that aspect, but if He wanted to He certainly could. A perfect example is that of Pharaoh – it says five times that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh. God made Pharaoh act a certain way so God could achieve His ends (of course, as I’ll later quote, Caputo believes all claims of miracles is just talk about “mindless magic”).  

This betrays Catpuo’s view on why God must be weak. All claims of earthly authorities that have oppressed people through the centuries have rested on an authoritarian God. If God is absolute and establishes kingdoms, then the king can do whatever he pleases because his reign, like God’s, is absolute. Rather than saying that such a belief is non sequitur (in light of Paul’s admonishments for masters and rulers to fulfill their positions justly, because they have a Master and a Ruler in Heaven), he simply throws God under a bus. He argues that we should view God as the most powerless, most weak being we can imagine (p. 33-37). According to Caputo, God is not up in Heaven, does not have control, is not more powerful than us, relies on us, and is nothing like we thought He was (because Caputo doesn’t even believe God is a being).

The weak force of God is to lay claim upon us…but not the way a sovereign power in the domain of being invades and then lays claim to territory, overpowers its native population and plants a foreign flag, but in the ay of a summons that calls and provokes, an appeal that incites or invites us, a promise that awakens our love. The name of God harbors an unconditional appeal without the sovereign force to enforce it.” (p. 38 )

As stated before, God lacks the power to enforce His Will on us. He calls us, He invites us, but no matter what He cannot make us do anything. God is limited and this limitation is not self-imposed; God is limited because God is fallible and weak according to Caputo.

“By ‘God,’ on the other hand, I do not mean a being who is there, an entity trapped in being, even as super-being up there, up above the world, who physically powers and causes it, who made it and occasionally intervenes upon its day-to-day activities to tweak things for the better in response to a steady stream of solicitations from down belong…By the name of ‘God’ I mean the event of this solicitation, an event of deconsolidation…all the while readily conceding that there are other names than the name of God.” (p. 39-40)

To validate my previous claim – that Caputo believes any name of God works – I put this quote forth. It doesn’t matter what you call God or even if you believe God exists, so long as you move toward the Event. God calls us and doesn’t ask to be known. He holds no power over the world and cannot stop anything from happening (as Caputo goes on to say) and it’s “strong theology” and “rouged theology” to teach that God has any power to influence the acts of the world.

“Is Jesus really unable to come down from the cross, or does he only seem to be? Remember, the world is what is there, in all its violence and strength. Are we to think that behind this helpless moral frame, he is holding his infinite power in check?…But his kingdom did not belong to the world, to the realm of meeting power with power. His strength was the weak power of powerlessness…not the real power of the world, and so he was killed, quite against his will and against the will of his Father.” (43)

This is where Caputo begins to flirt with denying the deity of Jesus – amongst many other things (sadly enough, denying the deity of Jesus might be the lesser of Caputo’s heresies in the above quote). Forget that Isaiah 53 says it pleased God to crush Christ or that Christ asked for the Will of God to be done while asking for the cup to be passed from Him (and subsequently Jesus died), Caputo teaches that Jesus died against His Will and the Will of God because Jesus was too weak to stop it. Of course, like many other heresies, it gets worse:

“On my accounting, Jesus was being crucified, not holding back; he was nailed there and being executed very much against his will and the will of God. And he never heard of Christianity’s novel idea that he was redeeming the world with his blood. His approach to evil was forgiveness, not paying off a debt due the Father, or the devil, with suffering or anything else.” (p. 44)

As along with the previous quote, Caputo teaches that Christ’s death was not intentional and was not planned. Christ intended to live a happy life being an example of powerlessness and discovering the event of God. Unfortunately, those Romans wanted to exert their power and in so doing killed Him.

All of the above quotes (and there are many more, but I can’t stomach writing them right now) point to a few things (many things actually, but I only want to focus on a few):

1)   I’ve said it in private circles before, but now I’ll come out in public and say it: the Emergents are too stubborn to be orthodox, but too cowardly to be atheists. What I mean by that statement is they make statements, much like the ones Caputo has made, without offering any reasoning or rationale thinking behind it. For instance, Caputo claims that the belief in a powerful God – especially one that created ex nihilo (Caputo claims that God had to use the “cards He’d been given” and didn’t create out of nothing [pg. 57, 59]) – didn’t exist until the 2nd century AD (or, CE as he puts it…adding to the fact that he denies the Lordship of Christ). There is, of course, no scholarship in such a claim and it’s almost laughable to anyone that has read the Bible or even pagan philosophers. Aristotle, who predates the New Testament, argued that an “unmoved mover” (which Caputo, ironically enough, mocks while still claiming that such a belief didn’t come about until the 2nd century AD) who controlled the universe existed. For Caputo to argue what he does is just plain ignorant. In fact, the only reason he argues that way is that he can’t get past the arguments from atheists. It’s blatantly obvious, at least to me, that Caputo is working from a naturalistic point of view. However, he just can’t make the leap into atheism because atheism has no fantasy, no imagination, and no mysticism. There are no mystic atheists out there. Instead, atheism is cold. The part that desires God in Caputo is still so much active that he won’t call himself an atheist and holds on to some semblance of God. Like most Emergents, he’s too ignorant to be orthodox and too cowardly to be an atheist.


2)   He makes believe in God absolutely pointless. If God is not all-powerful, then why seek Him? If God is not all-powerful, then what is the point? If God cannot display His love in the way He sees fit, then why take the time to believe in Him? I can, conceivably, overpower God. The point is this – since Caputo’s god is subject to all the principalities that we are subjected to, the promise of justice, the promise of Romans 8, and the multiple promises of the Bible are worthless. Christ promised that the gates of Hell would never prevail, but they might. Paul told us nothing could separate us from the love of God, but it’s quite possible it could happen if God is so weak.  Caputo misses the biggest point in Christianity, the most beautiful point: God, being so powerful, is under no obligation to love us or use us, but does so anyway because of His immense and self-sacrificial love for us. The very act of creation was a sacrifice. If God is on par with us, then there is no sacrifice in loving us. He loves us because it benefits Him to use us. It benefits Him when we move toward justice because it helps accomplish His goals. This love, though still love, is lesser than sacrificial love because the lover still has underlying motives. Caputo’s belief robs God of both glory and love and makes God no better than a used car salesmen.

3)   He ignores the purpose of the cross and destroys it. The sacrifice of Jesus becomes no more important than the murder of any other martyr. If Jesus did not intend to go to the cross and went so unwillingly, then He did not love us. Even though Jesus says that He lays His life down for His friends and that He laid His life down and no one took it from Him, Caputo argues for the opposite. This robs us of the cross, of God incarnate coming down for the purpose of dying for His creation, to redeem His creation, to display the ultimate act of love for His creation.  That is the beauty of the cross, that “…God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” Though the passage is over quoted, it is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible (all of them are beautiful and inspired, but this one displays the purpose of the Gospel extremely well). It shows succinctly that Christ came for the purpose of dying because He loves us and wants to spend eternity with us.

Compare Caputo’s god with the actual God. Caputo’s god is unable to enact his will, unable to love us without some motivation, did not want to die for us, was too weak to stop himself from dying, and draws us to point us to something higher than himself (justice). The true God, however, created this world out of sacrificial love. He could not add to His glory by creating because He is infinite in His glory. Had God never created us He would have just as much glory. Though creation displays His glory and was made for His pleasure, His pleasure is derived from loving us. He has the power to intervene when necessary and in accordance with His Will. He does so in order to protect us and love us. The Father willingly sent His Son to die for us so that we might be reconciled to Him, and leaves His Spirit with us so that we are never alone or without Him. That is the beauty of the Trinitarian God. The one true God is far more real than Caputo would like to realize. I can think of no better way to end this post than to post some orthodoxy via the Athanasian Creed. Though long, I choose to do this because it responds to the heresies of Caputo and is a statement that all Christians should live by (note: Catholic Faith simply refers to the unified faith of Christianity, not the Roman Catholic Church – it also doesn’t literally mean we’ll be saved by our good deeds, but by what we have done with Christ [accepted or not]):

Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.

Now this is the catholic faith:

 That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.

What quality the Father has, the Son has, and the Holy Spirit has. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is immeasurable, the Son is immeasurable, the Holy Spirit is immeasurable. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal. And yet there are not three eternal beings; there is but one eternal being. So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings; there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.

Similarly, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty. Yet there are not three almighty beings; there is but one almighty being. Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God. Thus the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord. Yet there are not three lords; there is but one Lord.

Just as Christian truth compels us to confess each person individually as both God and Lord, so catholic religion forbids us to say that there are three gods or lords.

The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten from anyone. The Son was neither made nor created; he was begotten from the Father alone. The Holy Spirit was neither made nor created nor begotten; he proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Accordingly there is one Father, not three fathers; there is one Son, not three sons; there is one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits. Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other.

So in everything, as was said earlier, we must worship their trinity in their unity and their unity in their trinity. Anyone then who desires to be saved should think thus about the trinity.

But it is necessary for eternal salvation that one also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully.

Now this is the true faith:

That we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is both God and human, equally.

He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely human, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity.

Although he is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one. He is one, however not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person. For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh, so too the one Christ is both God and human.

 He suffered for our salvation; he descended to hell; he arose from the dead; he ascended to heaven; he is seated at the Father’s right hand; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. At his coming all people will arise bodily and give an accounting of their own deeds. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.

This is the catholic faith; one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.



2 thoughts on “How to make Shelby Spong look conservative

  1. I say Caputo is just an event. I’ve never seen him, I’ve never corresponded with him, I’m not even sure if the books published under his name were actually his writings. I say, whatever Caputo says is actually orthodox Christianity buried beneath masks of postmodernism. I believe it is his reader’s task to unmask his true proposition that God is really absolutely sovereign.

    Do you think my “beliefs” make sense?

    Yeah, I don’t think Caputo makes sense either!

    Well written Joel. Get well soon.

  2. I think Caputo- and I’m not very conversant with Emergent anything, or much in contemporary Protestant trends to be honest- is angling, via Derrida-da-da and the rest (God help us!), at the heart of Orthodoxy: the Cross. That he ends up denying the power and reality of God is just silly- he takes the propositions and trends (mainly trends- catch-phrases and buzzwords, to an unfortunate degree) of postmodern philosophy/literature/etc and absolutizes them. God can only be an event- for Him to even possess power would make Him uncool in postmodern lingo. This is not a particularly imaginative engagement with postmodern philosophy. Discussions of power and Empire and so on are useful, and part of what he says is spot-on (though hardly novel!).

    God really is weak, God really dies, God loses. Christ emptied Himself- kenosis- and His doing so is vastly more exciting and meaningful for the fact, as you point out, that God doesn’t have to, that God is in fact all-powerful. Yet the Lord becomes the Servant, lays down His power and authority and might and consents to die. Christ explicitly rejects Empire and might and all that- if in fact He was incapable of those things His rejecting them isn’t a very big deal. I can declare my rejection of ruling the world all day long and it doesn’t make me any more virtuous, as I have no possibility of ruling the world…

    So yes, God is weak, is beaten and bloodied, and we reject the way of the Sword, of power and coercion, because our Lord has led the way- He Who alone can justly lay claim to absolute power in absolute justice. Yet He enters humility, His defeat is His victory, and our victory, as St. Simeon the New Theologian said long before Foucault or Derrida discoursed on anything:

    “For Christians the Cross is magnification, glory, and power: for all our power is in the power of Christ Who was crucified; and all our sinfulness is mortified by the death of Christ on the Cross; and all our exaltation and our glory are in the humility of God, Who humbled Himself to such an extent that He was pleased to die even between evil-doers and thieves.”

Comments are closed.