Tuesday, February 18, 2014

John Caputo and the Deathly Hallows

           In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “The Tale of the Three Brothers” offers significant commentary on religion. As a reward for evading Death (a being), Death awards the three brothers magical items of their choosing. Though the items of the oldest and youngest brother are important to the story, the item of the middle brother offers up a critique of religion. As his reward, the middle brother “wanted to humiliate Death still further… [he] asked for the power to recall others from Death” (Rowling 407). Death granted the brother this power in the form of a stone entitled The Resurrection Stone. Ironic due to the obvious harkening to the infamous Easter story, this stone represents the unique power not to raise people from the dead, but rather to present the user of the stone with images of his or her beloved. As a result of this power, the brother is “driven mad by hopeless longing” and commits suicide (409). Thus, it appears that the critique of religion that the story of the Resurrection Stone offers is exactly what John Caputo means when he writes that “Literalized, heaven and hell ruin everything” (241). Because of this I am contending that both the Stone and Caputo argue that confessional religion demeans the value of life by its negation of death. Thus, Caputo’s idea of the Nihilism of Grace rescues religion by negating its negation of death; placing the value of life being shown through death, just as the stone shows that the value of life is shown in its necessary and permanent end.
            The consistent theme of Insistence is the continual hammering home that people are finite beings. Things must be able to end. Caputo writes, “The beauty of the songs lovers sing is intensified by the fact that they know they will die” (237). Insistence is not so much about “God” as much as it is about the relationship that humanity shares with the name. It is, more than anything else, about negating the negation of death that confessional religion has resulted in. The negation of death that confessional religion has championed has been the reduction of life to something that has no meaning beyond the answer to a question. In Christianity, if to accept Jesus is to gain a ticket that permits access to a heavenly realm, then this realm is forsaken. Why is there need to save the planet? Why is there need to act morally? Why must I even love God if it is, in the end, of no consequence to my eternal consequence? Even within the doctrine of universalism stirs the unsettling idea that nothing in this life is important. If past villains such as Stalin and Hitler will join me in this other realm, why was what they did any better or any worse than anything I have done? The result of a literal heaven and hell is the negation of this life; and this is above all what Caputo is desperately trying to save religion from.
            Caputo is a radical Kierkegaard who not only mocks the idea of so-called Christendom, but goes a step further by arguing that fidelity to even the God of Kierkegaard is distinctly dangerous to the event that is housed within the name (of) “God.” However, to establish this, I must first directly confront Kierkegaard. In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard defines sin as “before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself” (77). Thus what Kierkegaard is attempting to expound upon is his declaration that within each person lays their infinite self, placed there by God, who is infinite. He writes, “A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis” (13). To Kierkegaard, this synthesis is represented by the infinite regression created by self-conscious. If an individual is self-conscious of the fact that she is conscious then she is conscious of the fact that she is self-conscious of her self-consciousness. These degrees of consciousness regress infinitely, and for Kierkegaard, if they are ideally balanced, are a synthesis between a person’s finite body and her infinite soul, placed there by God. This also, for Kierkegaard, creates a need for God. Because the regression of consciousness (the soul) is infinite, it can never be filled by the finite. Therefore God is a necessity to humanity’s condition because only the infinite (God) can fill an infinite space.
            Though Kierkegaard calls God a conception, that is simply because he is writing of the human mind. For him, God is very real and the greatest form of despair (sin) is defiance, or “the self that a person in despair wills to be…he himself wants to compose his self by means of being the infinite form” (68). This is to say that the greatest sin is imagining oneself as in total command of becoming her true self. This sin replaces God, to Kierkegaard a non-anthropomorphized hyper-being, with oneself. Thus, here is where Caputo and Kierkegaard must part. For Kierkegaard has proclaimed that life has true meaning only in willing to become one’s true self before God, thus finding salvation in bringing something that is beyond this world into one’s self to synthesize the finite and the infinite that make up a person. However, to Caputo this participates too much in the idea of two-world metaphysics; and above all “Life is demeaned the moment it is made a means, the subject matter of a covenant or contract, instead of recognizing that we already belong to a contract with life that was signed in advance for us being born and does not require our countersignature” (242). However, using Caputo, Kierkegaard can be reframed into something he most certainly would not want to be: a theologian of the perhaps. To the Kierkegaard of the perhaps, to sin is to either not will to be oneself before God, perhaps; or to will to be oneself in defiance of God, perhaps. Thus, if life is demeaned at the moment it is viewed as a means it is also negated, and this would be the Kierkegaard’s sin. However, there is a Hegelian double movement required in the logic of the perhaps: a negation of the negation that results in an affirmation. By willing to embrace Caputo’s Nihilism of Grace, a binding to life unbound, one negates the negation caused by a confessional religion and wills to become oneself before God, perhaps.
            This represents the response to God’s insistence, thus it becomes an event as it is “entirely on the plane of the event, extricated from all commercial exchange with divine beings about an after-life, forced to face the fateful fact that the chance of grace comes down to the grace of chance” (242). Here, the negation of the negation results not in an affirmation of unending life, but in a life that will end in the death which affirms life. It does not attempt to distance itself from the mortality of humanity, but instead embraces it as recognition that death is what assures us that life happened. Thus we must return to the resurrection stone, which denies that death is what creates life. If Caputo is correct in arguing that the death of God is actually the birth of God, then this means that death is the bearer of life. The resurrection stone negates death as it once again denies death the opportunity to birth life. The resurrection stone is the manifestation of a literal heaven and hell. What is done on this earth does not matter because the stone removes the meaning from the event. With the stone there is no room for events because there is no possibility for the impossible. There is only the possible.
            We are suspended between the beginning and the end. What Caputo does is demand that this fluctuation we flirt with have meaning precisely in its lack of meaning. Where, according to Caputo, Ray Brassier says that for humans there is only being-nothing (which is our new Kierkegaard’s idea of willing to be oneself in defiance of God, perhaps), Caputo says that there is “being-for-nothing” (244). Once again there is something suspended betwixt “being” and “nothing;” between “birth” and “death.” The “grace” of the Nihilism of Grace is the embrace of the suspension between the two sides that ultimately will mean nothing because it is pure chance that it was even a possibility. It is a result of the possibility of the impossible.

It is neither life alone, which we take for granted, nor death alone, in which we concede that death comes to us all, but precisely the suspension between life and death, the fluctuation between two worlds, that is truly “solemn.” That is the solemnity of life/death, the solemnity of the ur-ethical and ur-religious event of life/death, I would say. (233)

Caputo succeeds where Kierkegaard does not because Caputo has no preoccupation with a thought that this life has any meaning for anything outside of ourselves. Kierkegaard will not stand for a negation of a negation not simply because of his hatred of Hegelian thought, but due to his inability to perceive God as something other than a hyper-being; where God is the ultimate being because he is the ultimate conception and to sin is to deny this. Caputo’s theology relies not on a conception of God, but on the name (of) “God” and the event that is housed within it.
            Life is made by death. This is just to say that death is not an anathema of life, but is actually the fulfillment of it. The event that is housed within the name (of) “God” is one in which life is found by realizing that life must be lost in the annals of time. The insistence of God is the call of the event that is harbored within “God.” It is a call that requires us to embrace the suspension between life/death in order to live for nothing. But to live and then to die is all that matters, for death establishes that we lived at all. To no surprise, this is also the close of the “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” The first brother wished to become a master of ending life, leaving no room for the tension that must lie between life/death. The middle brother took the resurrection stone, ending death’s sting by ending the ability to grab what was suspended between life/death as life extended past death, becoming life-(death)-life. The youngest brother, however, took the cloak of invisibility, allowing him what was necessary to embrace life until it was time for it to end, and then, just as Caputo would demand of any practicing radical theologian, “he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life” (Rowling 409).

Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death. Ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.

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