Postmodern Kataphaticism?

J. Aaron Simmons
Department of Philosophy
Furman University


Let me begin by simply offering the following thesis: The genuinely important negative theological trajectory in much of postmodern/continental/deconstructive philosophy of religion has led to its own problematic dogmatism.  Specifically, in the crucial attempt to overcome onto-theology, much of continental philosophy of religion has seemingly given rise to what I will term an “apophatic orthodoxy.”  By “apophatic orthodoxy,” I mean that postmodernism has, for the most part, insisted on only one approach to the truth-claims, religious practices, and determinate authority structures of religious communities.  Namely, it appears that the only legitimate possibility for postmodern religious existence is one in which faith occurs “without seeing, without having, and without knowing” (Caputo 1997, 103), such that the structures of religiosity are maintained without determinate content.  It is as if many postmodern philosophers read the second half of Johannes Climacus’s famous statement, existence “cannot be a system for any existing spirit,” but paid no attention to the first half, “Existence itself is a system—for God” (Kierkegaard 1992, 118).  Even if we follow Merold Westphal and introduce the hermeneutic awareness that reality “may very well be” a system for God (2001, 190) rather than the stronger claim that it “is” that way for God, it is important to realize that for many postmodern philosophers, since existence is not a system for us, it simply is not a system at all.   Yet, as Westphal rightly points out, this move is an obvious non-sequitur.  While there are a host of reasons for worrying that an overly determinate religious discourse would slide back into onto-theology and epistemic arrogance, whereby theology is made to answer to philosophical categories assumed to be objectively stable, there are not good reasons to think that all determinate religious discourse is necessarily overly determinate.  Accordingly, I want to propose an idea of “Postmodern Kataphaticism.”

This idea is not new, though the phrase might be.  I am drawing heavily on Westphal and other postmodern philosophers of religion such as Jean-Luc Marion, Richard Kearney, Kevin Hart, James K.A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson, among others, who all warn against the dangers of self-protective theological insularity (where claims to certainty insulate one from critique), while also realizing the danger of moving too far away from the religious traditions in which the God-talk being criticized finds its historical expression.   So, although Postmodern Kataphaticism would certainly resist reducing religious existence to a matter of propositional assent, it would maintain the importance of trying to hold true-beliefs about the nature and existence of God.  In this way, Postmodern Kataphaticism need not be exclusively “continental.”  Many philosophers of religion working more in an “analytic” mode are also likely to be at home with this basic idea.  I am thinking in particular of thinkers such as William Hasker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and C. Stephen Evans, who all resist propositional reductionism while taking quite seriously the importance of tracking with truth.

Similarly, though Postmodern Kataphaticism would be suspicious of thinking that human cognitive and linguistic abilities are adequate to the task of understanding God, and in this sense would continue to maintain an apophatic dimension, it would not give in to the temptation of thinking that if we cannot understand God fully, then we cannot understand God at all.  When Levinas said that the Other “overflows comprehension,” he is careful not to suggest that the Other is absolutely incomprehensible, for that would eliminate the very possibility of an encounter with the Other in the first place.  Similarly, when postmodernists rightly stress the problems with thinking about God as a being, they should be wary of going further and saying that God does not exist or that God cannot be a being.  Instead, with Marion, we should admit that it is possible that God is at least a being, though Being is likely not the best category in which to think of God, and probably not the primary name for God.  Yet, when Marion suggests that Love is a better name for God than are “prime mover” or “causa sui,” he does not mean this as empty rhetorical play, but instead as a determinate truth-claim.  He is putting forth that “God is Love” is a better way to understand God than other alternatives on offer.  Accordingly, Postmodern Kataphaticism would understand that one is not stuck with the false dichotomy of either Classical Onto-theology or something like Derridian “Religion without Religion.”  Instead, determinate religious identity (Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or whatever) is still possible for those who have embraced Derridian deconstruction.  Following Derrida on some things need not mean that one follow Derrida on all things.  Being deconstructive in terms of language, textuality, and identity need not entail that one also “rightly passes as an atheist.” That said, an important upshot of Postmodern Kataphaticism would be that atheism would also be a determinate identity that remains possible as well.  Kierkegaard was right to stress the importance and difficulty of “Becoming a Christian,” yet Sartre was just as right to stress the importance and difficulty of “Becoming an Atheist.”  The apophatic orthodoxy that threatens postmodern philosophy of religion would make Kierkegaard’s notion a non-starter and Sartre’s notion entirely too safe, and thus unimportant.  Let me give just one example in order to work some of this out—if only very tentatively.

In The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, the groundbreaking book which significantly contributed to the contemporary prominence of “Continental” or “Deconstructive” philosophy of religion, John Caputo argues that deconstruction yields a “generalized apophatics” according to which “negative theology is everybody’s business, that it has a general translatability, that we cannot trust any discourse that is not contaminated by negative theology” (1997, 28; see also 32, 41, 46, 55).  Caputo continues on to claim that generalized apophatics involves a “deeply affirmative desire for something that is always essentially other than the prevailing regime of presence, something tout autre—too, too other, oui, oui—is of general interest.  A passion for the impossible is a matter of general concern” (1997, 28).  I think that it would not be too far off the mark to say that all continental philosophers of religion are sympathetic with Caputo’s account and display similar suspicions and desires.  Nonetheless, is it the case that one has to go quite as far as Caputo seems to suggest?  Must a generalized apophatics get cashed out as a rejection of what Caputo (2006) elsewhere terms “strong theology”?  Why can’t the “contamination of negative theology” be something that invites merely epistemic humility rather than metaphysical exclusion?  Another way of saying this is that the non-sequitur discussed above occurs when one moves from epistemic antirealism to metaphysical antirealism without additional argument.  Apophatic orthodoxy occurs when one assumes that no such additional argument is needed.

The point is that Caputo seems to suggest that we can trust a discourse that is contaminated by apophatics.  Yet, this general epistemic anti-realism would not prescribe the content of such a contaminated discourse—i.e., it would remain metaphysically uncommitted.  It is entirely plausible that theistic, atheistic, nontheistic, etc., accounts might all qualify if they are accounts held with requisite hermeneutic sensitivity, contextual appreciation, historicist sensibility, and perspectival understanding.  As Westphal might say, we might be restricted to lower-case t “truth,” but that doesn’t mean that “the truth is that there is not Truth.”  Indeed, it might be that “the truth is that there is Truth.”  This would be the difference between the equally perspectival accounts of Kierkegaard on the one hand and Nietzsche on the other hand.  Deciding one way or another would always involve risk and, as Derrida would say, amount to a real decision.  Accordingly, postmodern philosophy of religion should not and, indeed, cannot start from a rejection of particular theological accounts, because that would be to assume the very thing it fundamentally challenges—a systematic and final view available for existing individuals.  Rather such philosophy can, from the outset, only critique particular ways of relating to such accounts: as held and affirmed with certainty.  Problems arise when, having moved from epistemic to metaphysical antirealism, one then assumes that only some metaphysical accounts, namely those which stress the ineffability, unknowability, excessiveness of God, are viable while other, namely those which stress the intimacy, personality, proximity, relationality, and historical incarnation of God are not.  That is not to say that one might not be able to then go on to provide good reasons for moving in one direction as opposed to another, but the point is that arguments are required to justify such a move.  Just being a postmodernist, a deconstructionist, or a continental philosopher is not sufficient.  Again, let’s consider examples from Caputo.

Although Caputo does claim that he offers “no final opinion” about God “as an entitative issue” (2006, 10), his account of the “strong theology,” to which he is so strenuously opposed, ends up looking a lot like any perspective that understands God as a personal being.   Indeed, Caputo’s suspension of judgment regarding whether God is a being is offered just one page after his claim that “The name of God is being’s aspiration, its inspiration, its aeration, for God is not being or a being but a ghostly quasi-being, a very holy spirit” (2006, 9, emphasis added).  Moreover, it is offered just two pages prior to his claim that “the name of God is the name of an event rather than of an entity . . .” (2006, 12, emphasis added).  Accordingly, it becomes difficult to know what to make of Caputo’s seeming allowance for what we might term a “divine personalism” within a deconstructive frame.  Though he says that he has not excluded such a possibility, he then seems to deny that very possibility twice within three pages.  In this way, Caputo appears to follow quite close on Derrida’s suggestion that “We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more—into the bargain, precisely—capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places” (2008, 108).  This proximity to Derrida is explicit when Caputo goes on to say that “I do not think of God as some super-being who out-knows, out-wills, out-does, out-powers, and out-exists every entity here below, a higher super-entity, a hyper-presence dwelling in a higher world.  I do not think of God as an omnipotent onto-theo-cosmo-logical power source for the universe, but as the unconditional demand for beneficence that shocks the world with a promise that is not kept, as the heart of a heartless world, as the call from below being that summons us to rise beyond being, beyond ourselves” (2006, 39).  “By ‘God’,” Caputo continues, “. . . I do not mean a being who is there, an entity trapped in being, even as a 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 below (a hurricane averted here, an illness averted there, etc.).  That I consider an essentially magical view of the world” (2006, 39).  Lest we think that we have now made sense of Caputo’s account as denying that God is a being, which given the three passages above would seem like a safe assumption, on the very next page he again insists on his neutrality on that issue: “Whether over and beyond what we might call the hermeneutics of the event, the lived experience of the call and of being on call, there is some entitative cause calling, some entity or hyper-entity out there with a proper name, verifiable by a metaphysical argument or certifiable by a divine revelation, is no part of my hypothesis, one way or another (for or against)” (2006, 40).

While it is crucial to appropriate the postmodern apophatic suspicion that Caputo hopes to cultivate, it is equally important to understand that such suspicion is always directed toward something.  Apophatics can only contaminate something if there is something there to contaminate.  So, when Caputo defends a notion of “weak theology,” as an alternative to “strong theology,” this must be done with argument and not with assumptions about what postmodernism entails—for it does not entail anything metaphysical in such ways.  Whether Caputo successfully offers such argument is beyond the scope of my brief remarks here.  Yet, if he is successful, then even his own “weak” model is still a demonstration of Postmodern Kataphatics, because it would make the case that within postmodernism a determinate account of God is possible.  One can be determinately negative or determinately positive—and both gestures can be found in historical theological archives.  The key, however, is to resist the temptation to immediately think, or to take it as obvious, that only such a “weak” model would be viable within postmodernism.  Postmodern Kataphaticism invites serious consideration of the variety of models on offer and attempts to understand them as always apophatically interrupted.  As Kevin Schilbrack might say, whether one defends strong theology or weak theology, both accounts should be “held weakly.”  To say that postmodernism necessitates exclusively defending a weak theology that is “held strongly” is going too far (again, I am not saying that Caputo does this, but simply that his work provocatively illuminates the stakes of such questions).

My hope in calling for a Postmodern Kataphaticism is that Caputo’s “theo-poetics” and something like Jamie Smith’s Pentecostally oriented Reformed version of Radical Orthodoxy would both be recognized as options worth weighing and considering within postmodern philosophy of religion (whether within a continental or analytic mode).  The debate about what reasons one might offer for choosing one over the other is a debate well worth having and, I believe, would productively help to overcome the overblown opposition between continental and analytic philosophy of religion.  Even if postmodernism, in general, invites hesitation in the face of dogmatism, one cannot sit on fences forever.  Postmodern Kataphaticism reminds us of this and helps us to understand that even the most radical apophatic discourse is dependent upon positive claims.  Such claims may or may not be true—hence the need for continued conversation and good arguments—but that they might be true is what is important.  Postmodern apophaticism does not avoid making truth-claims, but it becomes problematically dogmatic and unhelpfully orthodox when it forgets this while criticizing everyone else for doing so.

Works Cited:

Caputo, John D. 1997. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Caputo, John D. 2006. The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Ed. and Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Westphal, Merold. 2001. Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. New York: Fordham University Press.

J. Aaron Simmons :
  • Roger Haydon Mitchell

    Thank you, I like the kataphaticism alternative to the slippages of Caputo’s anaphaticism very much. It remedies makes my utter disappointment with Caputo’s lecture at the Ryerson Conference in June. Having drawn helpfully on his weak theology in my own recent work on kenotic theology I was shocked to discover that it seemed that he was offering no referrent of any kind for this to the point that he had nothing positive to say.

  • geoffh


    Thanks for this stimulating post. I think you put your finger on something here, and pulled the deconstructive wizard out from behind the curtain.

    At what point does postmodern kataphaticism and apophaticism just revert back to classical positive and negative theology? What is the difference ultimately in the end if we are not bringing back the positive moment?

  • Rose

    I don’t think that postmodernism is necessarily apophatic; in fact, as in Sartre’s affirmation of Descartes, there must be a ‘being’ at the basis of all this doubt…it cannot be any other way. One cannot describe anything, even ‘nothingness’ (if there even is such a thing) completely by negation. Apophaticism is an illusion which does nothing but affirm existence, as ‘something (which exists)’ must generate the negation.

  • J Aaron Simmons


    I agree, I don’t think that postmodernism is necessarily apophatic in
    the sense of a determinate approach to God-talk, but I do think that it
    will always offer an apophatic interruption (which I understand
    epistemically) to any such determinate approach. This is why I think
    that a “generalized apophatics” will likely even interrupt a “weak
    theology,” say. But, it just may be that this interruption will be in
    the form of a positive/kataphatic account. So, for me the notion of
    Postmodern Kataphaticism is meant to constantly keep this tension alive
    (as an epistemic project) that makes room for real dialogue about
    whatever metaphysical or theological view one might defend. This is not
    to say that all such views are going to be equally warranted, however.
    It is just to say that postmodernism is able to have those
    conversations in productive ways.


    Ironically, I think that Caputo has quite a bit positive to say, but in a
    “negative” direction. I used Caputo as an example in this post in
    order to illustrate that even what seems a thoroughgoing apophatic
    account is still a positive proposal of a better way forward for
    thinking and speaking about God. My worry about the apophatic orthodoxy
    hinges on the seeming way that this one way of thinking and speaking
    becomes the only option in postmodern thought. I disagree quite a bit
    with Caputo’s “weak theology,” but I think that there is a genuine
    conversation worth having internal to postmodern philosophy of religion
    about how such disagreement might run. Yet, that conversation could
    only occur if all involved recognized the potential legitimacy of the
    various perspectives within a postmodern framework. Postmodern
    Kataphaticism, I believe, is ultimately dialogically invitational in
    ways that I think are quite consistent with deconstructive ethics.


    My point would be that classical positive and negative theology are
    themselves strategies for expressing the truth about God. Postmodern
    kataphaticism, as I envision it, is a philosophical account about how we
    might approach such theological perspectives. That is why it doesn’t
    necessitate anything metaphysical about God as being, etc. Rather, it
    simply affirms the importance of not allowing postmodernism to be too
    narrowly understood as only allowing for one particular model to be an
    assumed starting point. Accordingly, I stress apophatic/kataphatic
    distinction in this sense as an epistemological (and political) matter,
    rather than a primarily theological one–though it does open space for a
    more robust theological dialogue, I believe. Ultimately, Postmodern
    Katphaticism is meant to overcome the exclusive dichotomy between
    kataphatic (what we can say about God) and apophatic (what we can’t say
    about God) and instead stress that whatever we say, WE are the ones
    saying it. Yet, what WE, or THEY, say just might be true. Again, the
    truth might be that there is Truth. But, this means that positive
    theology would always be interrupted by an apophatic hesitation and
    negative theology would always be situated in a positive framework. I
    think that this political upshot of this is that we are better situated
    to listen to others while being honest that we always engage others from
    a particular position ourselves. I worry that the apophatic orthodoxy
    can invite the mistaken belief that postmodernism either ONLY allows for
    some views to be taken seriously, or ends up eliminating all specific
    views from the outset. The former would be the dogmatism about which I
    am primarily worried, the latter would be a nihilism about which many
    critics of postmodernism worry. I am a postmodernist, but I think that
    there are good reasons to be one. I am a Pentecostal Christian and
    think that there are good reasons to think my identity as a
    Postmodernist is not sufficient to require me to reject my identity as a
    Pentecostal. However, my being a postmodernist surely makes being a
    Pentecostal (or whatever determinate religious identity one might hold) a
    risky venture (because of the hermeneutic, historical, political, and
    epistemic contexts in which such an identity is affirmed).
    Alternatively, my being a Pentecostal should also make my being a
    Postmodernist a risky venture as well. Nowhere is safety the goal! But
    as Kierkegaard says, when we are suspended above 70,000 fathoms, we
    might find God (of course, we might also drown – hence the risk!). I
    just think that we should not prima facie prescribe what that God we
    might find is able to look like. It might very well be the God as event
    defended by Caputo, it might very well be the God as at least a being
    defended by Marion, it might be that there is no God. Such risk is
    worth taking and it is only risky if all options might indeed be
    plausible. Ironically, I find the postmodern apophatic discourse to
    lessen the risk of faith because it seems to assume that some
    conceptions of God are non-starters. Postmodern Kataphaticism hightens
    the risk while at the same time allowing that we are likely to give good
    reasons for the “decision” we make. This decision doesn’t somehow make
    an island appear, as it were, but it might indeed allow us to keep

  • DavidW

    Thanks for this, Aaron. I’m writing a similar critique right now (covering a spectrum from Derrida & Caputo, through Marion and Kearney, and on to Turner), in fact, so I’d like to hear what you think of Kearney’s “poetic” solution. Bumper sticker version of my take (which should not suggest that I dislike or completely reject Kearney): his God Who May Be is ultimately susceptible to the same problem of an empty referent, because his account of becoming insists that real presence would be too certain, too strong, and send us down the inescapable slippery slope to a “triumphalist” account.

  • J Aaron Simmons


    Your project sounds very interesting! I would love to hear more about it
    (email me at We can have a longer conversation
    by email, but in brief, I would say three things (1) I am quite sympathetic to
    Kearney’s account, which I take to be compatible with a divine personalism and also some versions of Open
    Theism (which is generally where I come down, albeit usually as expressed in a more continental vocabulary). (2) I don’t want to be
    guilty of anything like a kataphatic orthodoxy in response to the apophatic
    orthodoxy about which I am concerned. Accordingly, what matters is the
    problematic slide from epistemic anti-realism to metaphysical anti-realism
    without argument. That is not to say that arguments could not be given
    for such a move, however. One of the things I find compelling about Kearney is his willingness
    to bite bullets when necessary and offer reasons for doing so. Whether or
    not one ultimately agrees with his model of God, I think it is worth taking
    very seriously because he does offer an argument for it that can be considered on its merits. (3) Kearney is one of
    the strongest critics of Caputo when it comes to the potential excessive apophaticism when it leads to a problematic indecisionism:
    “God and khora are conceivably
    two different names for the same thing—the same nameless, indescribable
    experience of the abyss. But the choice
    between names is not insignificant. Which
    direction you leap surely matters . . . .
    There is a genuine difference between anchorite fathers and
    deconstructive sons. A healthy
    difference to be sure; but one that can’t be magicked away or turned into a
    soft-shoe-shuffle of undecidability. One cannot sit on double-edged fences
    forever.” (from Richard Kearney, “Khôra
    or God?” in Mark Dooley, ed., A Passion
    for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus (Albany: State University of
    New York Press, 2003, 107-22, 111). By the way, I now realize that when I made my claim about not sitting on fences forever in the post, I was probably unconsciously thinking about this very passage from Kearney. Shoot. I am sorry for not including that reference in my post.

  • Katharine Sarah Moody

    “Caputo’s “theo-poetics” and something like Jamie Smith’s Pentecostally oriented Reformed version of Radical Orthodoxy would both be recognized as options worth weighing and considering within postmodern philosophy of religion”. Happily, my book with Wipf and Stock (forthcoming 2013, working title Post-Secular Theology and the Church: A New Kind of Christian is A New Kind of Atheist) will explore specifically both Jack’s deconstructive a/theology and Jamie’s reformed RO. You’ll be able to tell, though, from my subtitle where I go with these “options”.

  • J Aaron Simmons

    Your book sounds great! I look forward to reading it. As I tried to say in the post (and in other essays I have written on similar topics), that I might lean more toward Jamie than Jack is not what interests me (here), but simply that postmodernists can legitimately lean in both directions – and both directions would be in some sense “determinate,” “positive,” and both draw on theological “tradition.” Postmodern Kataphaticism would not, at all, eliminate the hauntology stressed by Jack (and Derrida). Indeed, I consider Jack’s thought to be one of the “ghosts,” as he might say, that constantly haunts my own view. I just hope that those who would lean toward Jack would be similarly haunted by Jamie’s thought (and here Jamie is just an example, I don’t mean specifically him as opposed to someone else); and those who lean toward either Jack or Jamie would similarly be haunted by the thought from other traditions (both philosophical and religious) and perspectives. That we are haunted, though, need not mean that some sort of generally apophatic a/theology is the only game in town. That would be to restrict what forms ghosts can take, which is what Jack so persuasively argues that we must not do. Again, congrats on the book!

    • Katharine Sarah Moody

      Thanks. All our determinate hermeneutic decisions are always haunted by their other(s). We all only “rightly pass”, even those of us who rightly pass for a/theologians or a/theists etc. I don’t think Jack would disagree with you. Of course a/theology isn’t the only game in town.

  • Gary Manders

    Thanks Aaron for making the philosophical discussion accessible and not assuming everyone has read all these authors. Now I have to add to my already large reading list!

  • Vicky Walker

    Thanks for these thoughts. Important topic and so current. Pleased to see you’ve started tweeting and will be following with interest! Vicky