Religion Snapshots: Deconstructing Caputo, Part Two


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in this series, see herehereherehere and here.

Editor’s Note: The following is part two of a conversation that developed in response to a recent New York Times interview with scholar of religion John D. Caputo, entitled “Deconstructing God,” which focuses on his approach to religion via Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction. Part one can be found here.

Question: Is John D. Caputo’s use of “faith” in this article problematic, or is this language required by deconstruction (i.e. is it possible to use deconstruction without invoking this terminology)? Moreover, can Caputo’s position be reconciled with the more Foucauldian approach to the study of Religion found in the work of J.Z Smith?

Donovan Schaefer: Can the early-Foucauldian approach to religion represented by J.Z. Smith be reconciled with the deconstructive approach advanced by Caputo? Both recognize that religion is not a universal category and that the term “religion” means and has meant different things in different times and places. Ultimately, though, they inhabit different methodological positions and labor within different genres of scholarship. Smith is interested in writing histories of how the word “religion” has been used within fields of power-knowledge. Caputo is interested in using it.

This aligns Caputo more closely with the late Foucault, who turned in the final decade of his life to devising new provisional strategies for founding ethical systems. He wrote in “On the Genealogy of Ethics” that “[r]ecent liberation movements suffer from the fact that they cannot find any principle on which to base the new ethics.” By deconstructing religion, Caputo makes available the resources of religion–including its vocabulary–outside of top-down, logocentric determination for post-secular conversations about power, meaning, and value.


Karen de Vries: I’ve been aware that Derrida’s work both is and is not taken up by different camps of scholars who define their work in relation to the category of religion, and I’ve long been curious about the logics of who does and doesn’t and why. Accordingly, I found the prompt asking us to map a constellation of ideas around Caputo, Foucault, and Jonathan Z. Smith to be productive. The previous responses have helped me sort out some of the distinctions in a way that might be useful for ongoing conversations that refuse the religious/secular binary. 

I want to begin by complicating the characterization of Jonathan Z. Smith’s approach as Foucaultian. Smith’s work is not necessarily opposed to Foucault, but it also has some significant differences. Smith’s famous and often quoted passage about there not being any data for religion comports well with the (earlier) Foucaultian archeological and genealogical approaches that identify and track discursive formations. But I read Smith as occupying more of a neo-Kantian position, albeit one with a serious attachment to Marxist linguistics and geography. His frequently quoted and perhaps more famous essays pointing to the ways the religion category has been differently constructed are provocative and easily extensible to a variety of Foucaultian projects, but he does not venture into the territory of analyzing discursive formations or employing an associated vocabulary which understands the subject as a product of discourse. Instead, Smith focuses on human activities of thought, particularly insofar as they are oriented around making distinctions of similarity and difference.

Smith’s angle of vision has done serious work to illustrate the Protestant bias undergirding dominant understandings of the category of religion. His refusal to abide by an essentially Protestant classification schema opens up a much larger world of data for him to work and think with than would be possible if he obeyed the strictures of Christian folk categories, particularly its emphasis on belief. Focused on human activities of thought, he analyzes the modes of historicization, comparison, and classification employed within social groups while also demonstrating a hyper-awareness of the ways he and other scholars also employ these thinking procedures (e.g. Drudgery Divine, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” “The Devil in Mr. Jones”). He develops a theory of ritual that isn’t circumscribed by Protestant bias or world religions classifications but instead incorporates a sophisticated collection of Marxist inflected geography (e.g. To Take Place). 

To the extent that “the secular” is a product of a Protestant classification scheme Smith refuses, I read Smith’s work as amenable to and useful for conversations that travel under the banner of “postsecular.” Because he focuses on human thought processes and not discourse, however, the JZS route is paved with more structuralist signs than post-structural. Productive conversations will require more literacy and translation efforts. 

With translation in mind, I return to the data that prompted the series of responses here. I approached the interview with a serious immersion in both Smith and Foucault’s (early and late) work; a proficient understanding of Derridean and deconstructive tools and an appreciation for that tradition’s critique of logocentrism and phallogocentrism along with its understanding of inheritance. I arrived at the data with no familiarity (other than name recognition) with Caputo’s work. 

Two notable thoughts emerged from my encounter.

(1) I agree with Matt’s comments that this particular interview does not succeed in promoting or enabling outsider literacy regarding deconstruction. The interviewer continually enacts tendencies towards binary oppositions and desires for fixity in a way that almost completely misses the deconstructive point. Both Tenzan and Matt’s readings are helpful. 

(2) Caputo’s use of the adjective “underlying” triggers my critical resistance. He uses the word to describe “an underlying form of life” which he first juxtaposes to the theism/atheism binary and then uses to describe the “underlying faith” of the martyrs and Mother Theresa. Caputo initially describes this underlying form of life not as beliefs but rather “the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain” and later takes pains to say that he is NOT resurrecting the old comparative religion thesis of an “underlying transcendental form or essence or universal.” I’m not satisfied with Caputo’s explanation of what this underlying form of life is and is not. It reminded me of Talal Asad’s recent use of the phrase “an ungraspable totality” which Russell McCutcheon critiqued for its lack of specificity in a Culture on the Edge post. While I get that deconstruction resists specificity that becomes fixity, I also worry that such broad generalizations quickly become false universals.

My Smithian and Foucaultian formations require more specificity than Caputo provides. Yes, we all participate in something we might call Being and we all experience affects and desires, but the forms these participations take – the discourses that form us and in which we experience the world and fashion ourselves and our ethics – are often radically different. Both Smith and Foucault, in their different approaches, teach me to be attentive to the structures of difference and their material effects across the web of Being. For those of us invested in conversations and ethics that refuse the religious/secular binary, I worry that Caputo’s model (at least as presented here) ignores differences – differences that, if taken seriously, demand an ethics that doesn’t gloss over them.

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