I have discovered a new writer, already a personal hero of mine, John D. Caputo. I started earlier this week with “More Radical Hermeneutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are” and just this afternoon began “On Religion.” The following passage is from the second text, though I am sure the first one will yield lots of quotes, too, and I hope to fill up the rail at right in the next couple of weeks.

What follows is a paraphrase from “On Religion,” which defines religion as a taste for uncertainty and a passion for the impossible. In other words, it’s another approach to radical relativity … and, Marge, it sums up what I am getting from “Gilead.”

See also The Future of Religion and The End of Faith.

OR = “On Religion”
MRH = “More Radical Hermeneutics”


I am not recommending a life of ignorance of fence-sitting. Far from it. I have defined life in terms of salt and passion, religious passion, a passion for the impossible. But I am saying that the condition of this passion is non-knowing, that non-knowing is the inescapable element in which decisions are reached, which intensifies their passion. This non-knowing is not a simple garden variety ignorance but rather more like what the mystics call a docta ignorantia, a learned or wise ignorance, that knows that we do not know and knows that this non-knowing is the inescapable horizon in which we must act, with all due decisiveness, with all the urgency that life demands. We are required to act, but our decisions are covered by a thin film, a quiet and uneasy sense of unknowning.

I am not trying to be discouraging. Far from it. I do not regard “the secret” to be all bad news but part of an upbeat and salutary minimalism that proceeds on the assumption that we get our best results by confessing fully the difficulty of the human condition and not putting too high a spin on things or too good a face on our predicament. The secret, on my hypothesis, is that there is no Secret. I am not saying all that in the service of a kind of hip academic skepticism, of a phallic, modish nihilism that is one of the luxuries of life in the tenured lane. On the contrary — to put it in terms that even an investor in mutual funds will understand — I think that in the long run this pays the best returns, even if in the short run it is unnerving.

As far as I can tell, and I think this is essential to the unhinging and impassioning sense of life that I am trying to describe, we are not hard wired to some Transcendental Super-Force, which communicates to us The Secret about The Meaning of our lives, or of the universe, or of good and evil, on the condition that we pray and fast and have no impure thoughts. That, I think, is how a lot of people think about religion, including a lot of religious people themselves, and I am trying to talk them out of it. As a rule of thumb, I should add, the best way to flag the tendency that I am cautioning against is to capitalize it (It).

We have not, to my knowledge, been visited by some Super-Revelation, some Apocalyptic Unveiling, that settles all our questions. Nor have we, I should add, come up with some Super-Method in philosophy or even in science that will, so long as we follow It rigorously, expose the Essence or Hyper-Essence of Reality, that will steer us through the stormy waves of becoming or cut through the veil of appearances. We cannot by science, philosophy, or religion, situate ourselves safely in some privileged spot above the mortal fray below, having gained the high ground of a Privileged Access to the Way Things Are, which distinguishes “us” (philosophers, physicists, priests, true believers, etc.) from the poor beggars down there in quotidian life who wander about two-headed and do not know The Way.

We all need “a way.” I am not denying that, but I deny that anyone has the authority to Capitalize their way. There is no way to know The Way, no way that I know, anyway.

By confessing up front that we do not know who we are, that we are cut off from The Secret, we find ourselves forced constantly to traffic in “interpretations,” the inescapability of which is a good way to define “hermeneutics.” And I am arguing that the best way to think about truth is to call it the best interpretation that anybody has come up with yet while conceding that no one knows what is coming next.

Pressing this hermeneutic point about the inescapability of interpretation will also force a shift in what we mean by “truth,” a shift into doing the truth, which will be a little like doing the impossible.


The perverse idea behind this prankster enterprise is to think of knowledge — which we are all for, understand — as building walls of identity around what happens. The hypothesis that wends its way through these studies is that we do not “Know” ourselves or one another, that we do not “Know” the world or God, in some Deep and Capitalized way that yields the capitalized Secret. That, if anything, is who we are, the ones who do not know who they are, and whose lives are impassioned by the passion of that non-knowing.

We lack a grasp on things that will really hold up, one that has teeth enough to cut through every “appearance” to some Reality behind appearances, which is what it would be like to know The Secret. What we know, as Socrates insisted, is that we do not know, and that is the beginning of wisdom. I do not deny that some days this non-knowing drives us hermeneuts into the ditch, but the idea is to climb back out, dust yourself off, and try again.

I insist that I am all for knowledge, all for acquiring as much determinate knowledge as possible about our condition, about our multiple and varied conditions, all for the most searching and researching investigations, into anything and everything, where nothing is off-limits, nothing banned from discussion, or beyond question. If it were up to me everyone would be given immediate sabbatical and full funding for three years of research! But my contention is that the more we learn about ourselves, about our several histories, traditions, languages, and cultures, about the multiple ways in which our human lives are constituted, the more we will conclude that, in the face of such polymorphic, prolific, and positively dizzying diversity, our best bet is to put our shoulders to the cart of a felicitous, anti-essentialist open-endedness … to a happy minimalism about who we think we are, or who others are, or what history or nature or sexuality is — or who God is.


Every time some astute-looking fellow rises to his feet to proclaim that he has surmounted the constraints of our condition and that he wishes, with all due modesty, to announce the discovery of The Secret — of an absolute starting point, an uninterpreted fact of the matter, a pure given, or any other kind of unconditional something or other — the solemnity of the occasion is invariably compromised. In this case, the audience notices to its horror that the chair from which Herr Professor arose to address this august assembly is still sticking to his pants.


The “Word of God” is sharper than any two-edged sword, (and) the cutting edge of the sword, in my view, is its “unconditionality,” the sense that we have been handed an absolute instrument and thereby lifted above the flux of time and the shifting sands of ambiguity, indulging the illusion that God has whispered the Absolute Secret in our ear.

Then we feel ourselves absolved from the hard work of sorting out what is human and what is divine in the Scriptures, what is from God and what is just from our ego. The Scriptures are a complex of conflicting messages, and we must assume responsibility ourselves for having accepted them as the “Word of God” in the first place and for what we ourselves subsequently make of them. We must do so without laying claim to divine authorization for what is inescapably our own responsibility and our own reading.


Guiding ideas from a variety of books by John D. Caputo. Still under construction.


• The claim that circulates throughout this book, which is more a confession than a claim, is that we are not (as far as we know) born into this world hard-wired to Being itself, or Truth itself, or the Good itself, that we are not vessels of a Divine or World-Historical Super-Force that has chosen us as its earthly instruments, and that, when we open our mouths, it is we who speak, not something Bigger and Better than we. We have not been given privileged access to The Secret, to some big, capitalized, know-it-all Secret, not as far as we know. And if we have been, it has been kept secret from me.

• The absolute secret is to be differentiated from the conditional, relative, garden-variety secrets that we all keep from one another and sometimes even from ourselves, and that could, in principle, and under specified conditions, be revealed.

• For me, hermeneutics simply means the necessity of interpretation. Accordingly, hermeneutics properly hounded and harassed by deconstruction, a more radical hermeneutics, means that the necessity of interpretation is driven by the absolute secret. It is this absolute secret that no one knows, and that it is not a matter of knowing, that impassions hermeneutics and drives it on. It is the absolute and unconditional secret, this structural blindness, that radicalizes hermeneutics.

• We are driven by the passion of non-knowing. Our readings and interpretations, our re-readings and conflicting interpretations, are like so many fingers clinging tenaciously to the edge of a cliff. Instead of arresting the play of meaning, a more radical or originary experience of hermeneutics faces up to the inescapable play in interpretation.

• Think of hermeneutics as a kind of intellectual fire department that arrives on the scene to douse the flames of essentialism wherever they flare up and threaten to consume us. By “essentialism” I mean the various claims to be in on The Secret and thereby to have surpassed the limits of making a mere mortal interpretation.

• We are poor creatures who pass our days reading between the lines, learning to make our way in this dark region where no rule or method has yet trod or shown the way. We live for the most part in that in-between world that philosophy tends to leave behind. But that is the condition of our inventiveness, for it keeps The Secret police off our backs. Rorty is included in my catalogue of the masters of non-knowing, a friend of the “poor existing individuals,” a hero for those of us who think that we get the best results by disavowing claims to know The Secret.

• I cling steadfastly to Husserl’s “principle of all principles,” to stick to what is given just insofar as it is given, which has always meant for me a minimalistic injunction not to put a more sanguine gloss on things than they warrant. We are under the necessity to construe traces, to follow tracks, to read signs. This hermeneutical situation means we are up to our ears in historical, political, social, religious, sexual and who knows what other sorts of structures and networks, saturated by them, radically saturated.





©jonfobes 2005