The subjunctive Power of God
by John D. Caputo
Table of content – Inhaltsverzeichnis – Índice – Table des matières – 目錄
The translation of the New Testament Greek basileia tou theou as the “kingdom” or “reign” of God has become controversial these days. Feminists object to the gender – a king, not a queen – and either way, king or queen, the image of reigning royalty brushes against the grain of the citizens of modern democracies, who distrust images of top-down power. The sovereignty of God easily translates into earthly political sovereigns. This is not just a translation problem. It forces us to ask, what is the power of God? Is it inseparable from divine sovereignty? How are we to think it?
We do not want to give up on power altogether. When people are disempowered – the poor and persecuted, immigrants and exiles, the third world, racial and ethnic minorities, women – justice demands that they be empowered. That is the cry of the prophets: to empower the powerless. Even the word “hospitality” makes reference to power, the power (posse, potens) to welcome the hostis, the stranger. I cannot make the other welcome in someone else’s home. It must be my home, where I am the proprietor and the one taking the risk. I must be in the position to say welcome.
We don’t want to be weak about true power. We want hospitality to be stronger than hostility. We would like to think that love has real power, and that the power of love is greater than the power of hatred and aggression. The New Testament expression is referring to what the world would look like if God ruled, if true power held sway, and not the “powers and principalities,” the evildoers, who represent the reign of brute force, which in this case meant the brutal imperium Romanum. We want God’s power, the power of the good, to be stronger that the powers and principalities, the power of evil. So we need to distinguish the divinity of true power in the kingdom, the power of the truly divine, from the profanity of mere force, which cannot be God’s power.
1 Cor 1
The paradoxical thing about Christianity is that, unlike the Greek and Roman divinities, unlike almost any divinity, the mark of the divine, of the true power of God, is found in what for all the world is weakness. In one of the most explosive texts in the New Testament, Paul writes:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God (to asthenes tou theou) is stronger than human strength…But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not (ta me onta), to reduce to nothing the things that are (ta onta) (1 Cor 1:25, 27-28).
Against the Greek philosophers of Corinth, who advance the cause of wisdom, power, and being, Paul announces the counter-principle of the cross, of folly, weakness, and nullity. In speaking of “ta me onta,” the non-beings, the nothings and nobodies, Paul uses an expression that would have scandalized the philosophers, that would have been foolishness (moria) to them. Paul is confronting head-on the elite, the powers that be (ta onta), the men of substance (ousia), with the scandal of the cross. For them, this is sheer nonsense. For Luther, this is the logic of the cross, where the revelation that takes place in the New Testament is made sub contraria specie, under the appearance of the opposite, according to which what is foolish is wise and what is weak is strong and what is null and void enjoys real being.
Paul says he did not meet Jesus in the flesh but his words to the Corinthians ring true to what we know of Jesus. The kingdom whose coming Jesus announced turned on a logic, or alogic of amazing reversals, of paradoxical overturnings – the first shall be last, the poor are privileged, the uninvited are special guests – which make the kingdom of God look like Alice in Wonderland, like a divine topsy-turvy. The evangelists have Jesus announce his mission by way of a citation of Isaiah, that he brings good news to the poor, the hungry, the lame, and the imprisoned. Jesus’ mission was to desperately poor people living from day to day, praying very literally for their “daily bread,” the lowest social stratum in an occupied country in an obscure corner of a powerful empire, the very nobodies of this world Paul is describing.
Icon of the Invisible God
Jesus took the side of the oppressed and fearlessly spoke truth to the power of the Romans and the religious authorities. Still, Christians are not just saying that Jesus was a great man, a courageous truth-teller, and a martyr for the truth. We already have Socrates for that. The distinctly Christian claim is that apart from his human qualities, there is something qualitatively different about Jesus, which marks the qualitative difference between the human and divine. The Christian claim is that in Jesus we are given an intuition of the divine – that Jesus is an icon of the invisible God (Col 1:15). Socrates was an icon but of an entirely different sort. He incarnated the Greek principle, where the divine meant wisdom, power and being. He was an iconic man of reason, of the laws of the polis. Jesus is an icon of the prophetic principle, where the divine meant solidarity with the outlaws and the victims of the polis, which is the foolishness of God.
So if Christians are asked, “who do you say God is?” the answer has to be found not by Greek metaphysical speculation but by looking at Jesus, and if that is so, then we must be ready to be turned upside down:
Faced with an armed enemy, he tell us to lay down our sword.
Faced with hatred, he counsels love.
Faced with an offense, he tell us to forgive, up to and including the act of forgiveness that is issued from the cross.
The characteristic features of God fall systematically on the side of forgiveness, non-violence, and mercy, not of a sovereign lord and mighty conqueror. Unlike standard form heroes in antiquity, Jesus does not crush his enemies with his might but is instead defeated – arrested, tortured and subjected to a particularly cruel and, in an honor/shame society, humiliating public execution. The iconic body on the cross is itself one of the most abject of the me onta.
But this is governed by the paradoxical logic of reversals, where “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:25). The power of love, mercy, and forgiveness is greater than the power of brute force and merciless retaliation. So there is power here, but it is the power of powerlessness, a power without force. The divine realm is foundin solidarity with everything that the world despises, where God mixes with the nothings and nobodies, pitching his tent among the shanty towns of the world. This divine realm contradicts the power of the “world” in the New Testament, where what holds sway is the clenched fist, the strong force of the power of the present age, the human-all-too human way of doing business, the authority of “man” over other men and women – and animals and the earth itself.
This throws the top down schema of one Sovereign God in heaven – “God of gods, King of kings, Father Almighty” – into reverse. The schema of the God of omnipotence who crushes his enemies succumbs to that of a more powerless power. The image of God in the classical theology of omnipotence derives from the Greek principle, and it is at odds with the icon of God imaged by Jesus, which derives from the prophets. This God is not lacking in strength, but the strength is located precisely in the weakness, in what the world calls weakness. So Paul – at least in 1 Cor 1 – is not denouncing power and strength but reimagining it according to the icon of the cross, relocating it according to the logos, the para-logic, of the cross. If Jesus is the distinctive and defining way that the invisible God is made visible to us, then the God that is thus revealed reverses our expectations: a God not of sovereign power but of weakness, a stunning reversal.
Jesus, we should recall, is not the “founder” of “Christianity,” of which he never heard. He was publicly executed long before he had a chance to found anything. If Christianity dares to take up his name, the name of this outsider and outcast, who represents the upside-down reversal of what the world expects, then it has a paradox on its hands. It is an institution, which means a worldly power, that exists in the name of a powerless power, a power which does not operate by way of worldly force. If the Christian presupposition is that “God” stands for an event that scandalizes the upper crusts of power, knowledge and privilege, then the institutions and structures of Christianity must be porous, open, bottom-up, hospitable, where justice reigns, not the institution. On that point the church is still a work in progress.
The paradox can be seen in the liturgical calendar where the feast of “Christ the King” is celebrated shortly before the season of advent, when the church prepares for the birth of a little baby under the humble circumstances described in the infancy narratives. This child – what the American womanist theologian Delores Williams calls “poor little Mary’s boy” – emblematizes for us the divinity of true power, the power of the truly divine. Then which is it? A child or a King? There is, of course, no paradox at all in a child born to become king, but the Christian paradox is that the royalty is lodged in the child as such, that is, the power is found in the weakness, not in spite of the weakness. This is a hard saying.
1 Cor 2
Too hard, I think, even for Paul, who did not adhere to his principle of weakness, folly and nullity with absolute rigor. In 1 Cor 2 he pretty much walks back what he said in 1 Cor 1, which now looks like a ruse. The tables are turned on the powers that be. They did not recognize the Lord Jesus and mistakenly cast their lot with Satan, and they will rue the day they did. They are doomed to perish, Paul says, when the real power of God will overthrow the powers of darkness and evil. I came to you in weakness, he says, but this weakness rests upon the power of God, by which he now means power as the world knows power. He does not mean the power of the kiss, of love, of forgiveness, but apocalyptic power, a real worldly reversal of fortunes in which the celestial power of God will strike down |the powers and the principalities. Christus victor. The worldly ones think they are smart, but they will be outsmarted by the ones who are perfected in the ways of God (teleiois, 1 Cor 2:6), by those who know better, who have the spirit, and know where the real power lies. So the first chapter is compromised by the second. Paul’s idea, it turns out, is to overthrow human violence with divine violence, in which God almighty punishes the evil doers and rewards his saints handsomely. As Dale Martin says, “Ultimately, what Paul wants to oppose to human power is not weakness but divine power (2:5)—that is, power belonging to the other realm.”
But if not even the apostle Paul himself goes far enough with his vision of the weakness of God, how can such a weak God still be God at all? Where is God’s true power? I approach the Godhead of God as something unconditional, of unconditional worth and importance. This I identify as an unconditional appeal or call, a claim that is unconditional but without force or coercive power to which we, who are on the other end of this call, respond unconditionally, without being subjected to coercive force. The operative distinction for me is between the unconditional address contained in the name of God and our unconditional response. The name of God is the name of something that lays claim to us, that draws us out of ourselves and calls upon us, not from on high but from down below,from among the nothings and nobodies of the world. The unconditional requires us to respond to the call but without coercion, without a promise of worldly victory, without an economy of celestial rewards and punishments, “without why,” as the Rhineland mystics say.
The call that issues from the hungry is without coercive force; the “world” is well-known for ignoring it. We are asked to respond to this call unconditionally, which means to feed the hungry because the hungry are hungry, without condition, without a promise or a threat. The kingdom of God is not a reward for feeding the hungry. Feeding the hungry is the kingdom of God, what it would be like if God ruled. The kingdom comes intermittently, every time the hungry are fed and the oppressed are lifted up, period, simpliciter. To think, to speak, to pray the coming of the kingdom of God is to imagine a realm where the unconditional holds sway, a realm of the unconditional, which is my candidate for a translation of the Greek.
I locate God’s power in the powerless power of the call, where powerless implies it can always be rejected, ignored, scorned or distorted and, with any worldly luck, with complete impunity. The rich get richer and they get away with it. That is the basileia of the world, the way the power of the world works. Might makes right. I do not and cannot recognize any divinity at all in the power of a God who promises retaliation, who will make our enemies our footstool, who will come one day in apocalyptic power to reverse the fortunes of the downtrodden and crush the evildoers. The power of that God is worldly, not divine. The weakness of that God is a thinly disguised power play, a ruse pulled off on the worldly-wise who are not as smart as they think they are, which is what Nietzsche meant by the ressentiment of the religious soul. That God, as Paul Tillich says, is “half-blasphemous and mythological,” and to that God the right religious and theological response is atheism.
The Subjunctive Power of God
Rushing to a conclusion – I have defended all this elsewhere – this weakness must be applied to theology itself. The theology of the cross must also be a crucified theology. The weakness of God must issue in a weak theology, one that is weakened into theopoetics. The kingdom or rule of God is a poem to what the world would look like if God ruled, not the powers and principalities, and Jesus is its poet. The basileia has the power of a poem, the power of a dream, the power of a prayer. If we press the question of what such a world would look like – now the emphasis falls on the would, on the subjunctive – one answer is found in the poem to the realm of God in Isaiah, which the Church takes to be a pre-figuring of Jesus’ kingdom:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isai 11:6)
This is not biological speculation. Neither is it a divine revelation of a coming turn in the history of evolution or in the course of human history. This is a poem, a prophetic song, and a prayer, a prophetic yearning. May this happen, please. May thy kingdom come. How long, O Lord? The power of being (être) lies in the may-being (peut-être); the might of God almighty lies in the might-be. The prophet Isaiah is a visionary, but he is not predicting a future event, like making a meteorological forecast. A prophecy is a poetic vision of a world in which a divine order prevails. The year of the Jubilee is coming but it is not found in calendar time. The “fiftieth” year is not a mathematical number; we keep counting but we never get to fifty. The kingdom of God is not a prediction of an age to arrive at some presently unknown date in the future. Neither is it to be found in another metaphysical world outside space and time, which is the Neoplatonic rendering – and I would say distortion – of the New Testament. The kingdom of God does not exist; it insists. The kingdom of God does not exist; it calls. It is what is being dreamt of, prayed for, called for – come, viens, oui, oui, amen, erchou. The realm of God does not refer to a different world but to a poetic vision of how this world would be different, how it would look, in the subjunctive, if the powerless power of God held sway. The power of God is subjunctive.
I hasten to add that this powerless power is nothing anemic and indecisive. The power of the subjunctive is not subjective. The power of the subjunctive is the power of a dream, not an idle dream, but a prophetic dream, like the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream,” he said, of a world in which “all of God’s children” will be free. This is a dream for which King – his name is ironic – was not willing to take anyone else’s life but he was willing to lay down his own life. That is how the subjunctive power of God works. That is how the kingdom comes.
J. D. Caputo, Cross and Cosmos: A Theology of Difficult Glory, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019.
J. D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
J. D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
C. Chalamet/H.C. Askani (ed.), The Wisdom and Foolishness of God: First Corinthians 1-2. In Theological Exploration, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
J. Derrida, Without Alibi, ed. and trans. Peggy Kamuf, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
D. B. Martin, The Corinthian Body, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
P. Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C Kimball, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.
D. Williams, “Rituals of Resistance in Womanist Worship,” in M. Procter-Smith and J. R. Walton (ed), Women at Worship: Interpretations of North American Diversity, Louisville, KY: Westminster/J. Knox Press, 1993, 215-22.
 D. Williams, “Rituals of Resistance in Womanist Worship,” in M. Procter-Smith and J. R. Walton (ed), Women at Worship: Interpretations of North American Diversity, Louisville, KY: Westminster/J. Knox Press, 1993, 215-223: 216-217.
 D. B. Martin, The Corinthian Body, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995, 62. See also C. Chalamet/H.C. Askani (ed.), The Wisdom and Foolishness of God: First Corinthians 1-2. In Theological Exploration, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
 Jacques Derrida analyzes the “unconditional without sovereignty” in J. Derrida, “The University without Condition,” in Without Alibi, ed. and trans. Peggy Kamuf, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, 202-37.
 P. Tillich, Theology of Culture, Ed. Robert C Kimball, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959, 25.
 J. D. Caputo, Cross and Cosmos: A Theology of Difficult Glory, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019.
 J. D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. Spanish translation: La Debilidad de Dios: una teleologia de acontecimiento, Trans. Raúl Zegarra, Buenos Aires: Promoteo Libros, 2014; French translation: La faiblesse de Dieu: Une Théologie de l’événement, trans. John E. Jackson, Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2016.
 J. D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. French translation of chapters 2-3 in: John Caputo, “Faiblesse de Dieu et déconstruction de la théologie,” ed. Elian Cuvillier,Études Théologiques et Religieuses, Volume 90 (No. 3): 2015.
John D. Caputo, the Watson Professor of Religion Emeritus (Syracuse University) and the Cook Professor of Philosophy Emeritus (Villanova University) is a constructive theologian who works in the area of “weak” or “radical” theology. His majors works include Radical Hermeneutics (1987), The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997), The Weakness of God (2006). His most recent works are Hermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information (2018) and a second edition of On Religion (2018). The Essential Caputo (2018) a collection of his work from the early 1970s on. His latest books are Cross and Cosmos: A Theology of Difficult Glory (2019) and Radical Theology, forthcoming in 2020. He has addressed more general audiences in books like What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (2006) and Hoping against Hope (2015).
Address: Villanova University, 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, PA 19085, USA.