an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 9, July - December 2012, ISSN 1552-5112



      Philosophy, Theology and the Narrative of Hope


Geoff Dargan




In the last few decades, the so-called ‘theological turn’ has emerged as one of the most provocative themes within Continental philosophy.  The theological turn has claimed for itself thinkers as diverse as Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Ricoeur, and Marion.  More recently, even committed atheists like Žižek and Badiou have felt compelled to interact with Christian theology, if only in an attempt to extract a purely materialist, revolutionary, ethico-political Real from its otherwise “perverse core.”[1]  Among theologians, the renewed rapport with philosophy via the rather unexpected channels of poststructuralist and postmodern thought has been met with a range of responses, from elation to dismay.  Nevertheless, many on both sides agree that the turn has advanced genuine dialogue between the disciplines, and the prospects of continuing interaction currently seem bright.

However, a new generation of speculative thinkers is attempting to radicalize—indeed, even dismantle—this revived collaboration between theology and philosophy.  For example, here is a quote from the introduction to a recent collection titled After the Postmodern and the Postsecular, edited by Anthony Paul Smith and Daniel Whistler:


Both the postmodern and the postsecular contamination are two sides of the same coin: a one-way injection of theology into philosophy until what is proper to philosophy becomes indiscernible.  The deconstruction of the philosophy/theology binary has resulted, not in a true democracy of thought between philosophy and theology, but in the humiliation and debasement of philosophy before the Queen of the sciences, theology… ‘[T]he liberation of philosophy of religion’ is therefore to call for a critique of such tendencies… in order to free a practice of philosophy of religion from the constraints imposed on it by theological thinking.[2]


Smith and Whistler argue there must be a return to “the modernity, the secularity, and the speculative intent of philosophy of religion.”[3]  With Deleuze, they insist that if philosophy is to retain its proper autonomy as a discipline, it must re-establish the methodological atheism which is necessary for philosophical integrity.  That is, “only by stepping back from the ‘insider perspective’ which informs theological study can the philosopher gain the necessary freedom to exceed the representational.”[4]  As evidence of the “theologisation” to which philosophy of religion has been subjected, Smith and Whistler suggest that we need look no further than Radical Orthodoxy.  It is, they contend, a contamination that blatantly and aggressively challenges the possibility of philosophy maintaining its own sphere of legitimacy.  Indeed, Radical Orthodoxy presumes that all attempts to establish such a sphere ultimately end in nihilism.[5]

While I am sympathetic to Smith and Whistler’s desire to emancipate philosophy of religion, so that it stands or falls on its own merits, irrespective of its relation to theology, I wonder whether bracketing out all theological claims will in fact lead to the independence which they expect.  Might the presumption of methodological atheism (or agnosticism) as a starting point involve an insider perspective of its own?  My worry is that such a reactionary posture, if followed through to its conclusion, simply does not allow for any potential affinity between philosophy and theology.  Instead, it hypostatizes both philosophy and theology, treating them as though they are identifiable objects rather than fluid discourses.  I would like to offer here an alternative approach—admittedly, only a broad outline—for consideration, trusting that any concerns about potential contamination will certainly make themselves known.


Philosophy and Theology as Form and Content 

My thesis is fairly straightforward: we may be able to salvage, rather than dismantle, the partnership between Continental philosophy and theology, by viewing them not as competitors within a speculative field but instead as dialogue partners within what might be called a narrative of hope.  If we apply the general categories of form and content to this narrative (recognizing, of course, the extensive debate that surrounds the definitions of these terms and the nature of their relationship), we may begin by hypothesizing that philosophy provides the element of form.  But without an identifiable theological content, philosophy cannot make meaningful claims about religion, other than in a purely speculative mode.

Perhaps, for some, such pure speculation is sufficient.  But I suspect that for most philosophers of religion, speculation per se is not an end in itself.  Speculation must involve application, if philosophy intends to be meaningful.  Inversely, theology may indeed provide meaningful religious content.  The faithful certainly hope so.  But, without the formal acuity provided by philosophy, theology’s ability to describe the meaning entailed in that content remains severely diminished.[6]  We can already see this at work in the New Testament book of Acts, where, regardless of the Gospels’ perceived status as “foolishness to the Greeks,”[7] the Apostle Paul nevertheless carefully makes use of Greek philosophy and poetry in an effort to explain what Christianity means.[8]

Said another way, philosophy examines and clarifies the concepts and the language by which one may posit a narrative of religious hope, while theology, in providing the content (potentially both in doctrine and in practice), offers the possibility of seeing that hope actualized.  Of course, there will always be a blurring of boundaries since we cannot determine absolutely where form or content begin and end.  And, alternatively, the philosopher may decide to pursue a non-theological narrative of hope provided by, say, a materialist vision of reality that rules out the divine.  In such a scenario, philosophy could certainly continue to provide the form as well as offering speculation about meaning, but it would remain dependent upon the particular theological (or atheological) content given by its predetermined vision of reality.[9]

Adriaan Peperzak helpfully, I think, suggests that we employ the term ‘religion’ as “the dimension… where the question of decisive or ultimate meaning is asked and—at least tentatively and in an embryonic form—answered.”[10]  Using this definition, we may describe as religious all manner of reflective attitudes toward our existence in the world, including many forms of agnosticism and atheism.[11]  What we call faith is then understood to be any “affirmation that existence (including the entire universe insofar as one has to deal with it) has an overall meaning. Even if it is not full of meaning, it must be more meaningful than nothingness…”[12]  Peperzak continues, “Although, on this level, a clear answer to the question of life’s meaning is not available, desire darkly anticipates that it must be possible to discover it and that it is already operative in the search. ‘Faith’ is thus linked with hope.”[13]

Does this mean that philosophy is forced to admit a transcendence against which it makes and validates its claims?  There is no a priori requirement that philosophical form be wedded to specific content.  Philosophy’s genuine autonomy stems from the fact that it may be called upon to provide form for any content whatsoever.  Distinct speculation regarding meaning will flow from each specific merger of form and content.  But it is a mistake if one concludes that philosophical form can be established as content in its own right, independent of any other field of inquiry.  This results in the re-assertion of a transcendent philosophical subject which has privileged access to a realm of thought in which it can make decisions about itself absent all content.  In other words, if we accept the above definition, in the decision to bifurcate philosophy and religion, philosophy itself becomes a religion.  The alternative is that philosophy recognizes “the particularity of its own bias.  This… does not necessarily preclude the task of speaking in a universally recognizable way, but it entails the awareness that it cannot do this in a non-particular language.”[14]

With Peperzak, I affirm that fraternity between philosophy and theology is indeed possible and profitable.  However, this friendship can only be maintained if both sides admit their limitations.  This immediately raises a concern regarding syncretism, since the boundary lines are often far from clear.  What troubles some theologians, as well as philosophers like Smith and Whistler, is a concern that the opposing side—already the friendship has become a battle!—will use that lack of clarity to mount a sneak attack in which the autonomy of the other will be compromised and contaminated.  This is admittedly a danger that can never be entirely eliminated.  But, on the other hand, perhaps compromise is not in itself entirely a bad thing, and makes available a field within which hope might be cultivated.[15]

This leads to a second concern: does the employment of a category through which philosophy and theology are affiliated then become a principle that raises itself above both?  This would be as unpalatable for philosophy as it is for theology.  This is precisely why the category of hope may prove invaluable, since it is not only foundational to theology,[16] but also resonates deeply in Continental thought, while avoiding the epistemological baggage carried by the word ‘faith’, which is often employed as a synonym for “my beliefs.”  Rather than a term which threatens either discipline, it is a vital term for both.  And, since hope is fundamentally dependent upon its correlate, the hoped-for, it is not easily bent to form an over-arching principle.  Any attempt to do so would quickly reveal another universalized object.  With this in mind, I now turn to offer some examples of hope’s vitality within Continental philosophy.


The Continental Narrative of Hope

The concept of hope has long been valued by Continental philosophy; indeed, its articulation drives one of Kant’s guiding questions.[17]  Here I only offer the briefest of outlines.[18]  I begin with an instructive quote from Eugene Long, who argues that a kind of transcendence is essential to human-being:


Our way of being in the world is best understood in terms of possible ways of being… In this sense we appear to be different from other beings in the universe. As beings of potentiality, beings on the way, we are always transcending boundaries, moving into new possibilities of being.[19]


While there are incessant and intractable boundaries, it is also incumbent upon human-being to continually pursue the transcending of these boundaries.  Even the final boundary, death, is not something we simply accept.  Indeed, many brilliant minds carry out research, and vast sums of money are spent, in the hope of delaying—or even removing—this most defiant of boundaries.[20]  If this somewhat Heideggerian description of our human situation is accurate, then the category of hope becomes a helpful paradigm through which we can describe the human need for transcendence.  We all hope for something.  And to hope is to begin using religious language, in the sense described above.

Nick Trakakis suggests that Continental philosophy not only tends to rely upon literature as a catalyst for its mode of philosophical discourse, but also views itself as deeply connected to political, socio-economic, and cultural situations in the world, and feels compelled to respond to them.[21]  Seen in this light, the flourishing affiliation between Continental philosophy and theology makes sense: not only is theology primarily developed within the context of a particular narrative (i.e. the Bible for Christianity), but the increased recognition of the social, political, and cultural implications of religion entails that theology need no longer be viewed merely as a private sphere, but as a very real and powerful motivating factor in peoples’ lives.  Trakakis notes, “The concerns, then, of the Continental philosopher are… to provide a new vocabulary and a new vision that will inspire people… to take up the struggle for ‘liberation’, however this is conceived.”[22]  This new vocabulary and new vision are consonant with various strands of theology and spring from a commitment to hope, even if the content of that hope varies.

Hope’s indispensability has also been made apparent in recent French phenomenology, where the theological turn is often said to have its most distinct delineation.  According to this reading, the turn begins with Heidegger’s attempt to overcome the onto-theological underpinnings found throughout philosophy since Plato.  But Heidegger is then critiqued for leaving the window to the divine open just a crack, which not only allows the return of theology, but also ensnares Heidegger within the very paradigm he hoped to escape.  It is generally agreed that the first philosopher to tread further along this path, at least implicitly, was Levinas.[23]  He was soon followed by Derrida, whose formulations of ‘messianism without a messiah’ and ‘democracy-to-come’ radiate hope and (ideally) shape our politics by encouraging our living into that hope.  As J. Aaron Simmons explains, “For Levinas and Derrida, God’s coming is affirmed not necessarily as a religious thesis, but as a political expectation lived out here and now.”[24]

John D. Caputo is perhaps one of the most energetic proponents of Derridean hope.  In The Weakness of God, Caputo announces:


My assumption, my hypothesis, my faith… is that the name of God is the name of an event that is unforeseeable, unimaginable, uncontainable, undeconstructible… an event, an advent, a future and a promise, a call and a claim, a hope and an aspiration, which is why I speak of a hyper-realism, which hopes in a being beyond or below being with a desire beyond desire and a hope against hope.[25]


For Caputo, God names “an event, not an entity.”  God is a name given to “the name of something unconditional, the object and the subject of unconditional love and unconditional hope, which concerns us absolutely.”[26]  This is hope to the greatest possible extent, hope that ultimately surpasses all the boundaries it meets.  It affects both the past and the future, inasmuch as it offers the possibility of redeeming the past by virtue of its impossible future.  According to Caputo, this differentiates Derrida’s hope from that of Walter Benjamin: “Derrida’s is not a ‘tragic’ view—the messianic is concerned not only with redeeming the dead… but with redeeming the future… the ones to come, which is the more usual meaning of hope.  For Derrida, it is not a question of choosing between the two.”[27]

But how far can a hope extend that has no guarantee?  Here we encounter the difficulty of attempting to articulate the boundaries of form and content.  The terms are finally blurred in Caputo’s account, and not without reason: he creatively pushes the boundaries and begs us to consider what it means to think at the edges, where both philosophy and theology find their most paradoxical expression.  For Derrida, the sign contains a trace which not only points to the fact that the meaning of the sign is not fully present, but also leaves the way open to possible meanings still to come.  It is this trace which not only becomes vital for Derrida, but also for Caputo, in his description of the endless deferral of the ‘to-come’ which is the hoped-for of his theology.  At some point, speculation and systematization must cease and we are left to encounter the impossible.  Hope that is guaranteed is not hope at all.  Here it is only possible to pray and wait.  But it is difficult to look forward to anything if there is no distinct ‘to-be-looked-forward-to’.  If the meaning of the sign is endlessly deferred, then it seems we cannot be assured of any meaning.  Caputo appears to be moving in a direction that would ultimately remove hope from any context, thus eliminating the hoped-for.

Although we can agree with Caputo, Derrida, and Levinas that there is a real sense in which “Hope flourishes most when the situation is most hopeless,”[28] we must also acknowledge that without an object—that is, without the content, even if it remains indescribable, of the hoped-for—hope will surely become a weaker and weaker force, and not necessarily in the sense Caputo desires.  And, while it is certainly true that hope is for the present,[29] if “the true object of hope is the Messiah,”[30] then it follows that the more distance there is between us and the Messiah, the more difficult hope will be to sustain.  If the Messiah never comes, it seems we have no eternal hope, and hope may easily become nothing more than a coping mechanism.  This anxiety leads many to resign themselves to other methods of coping with an endless deferral.  Hope deferred does indeed make the heart sick.[31]

This is why Caputo has no choice but to blur the lines, speaking partly as a philosopher and partly as a theologian, when he says, “Hope is not hope if you can see what you are hoping for on the horizon.  We need hope when we cannot see the way out.  Hope requires blindness.”[32]  Here, we move in a thick fog.  We begin to step outside the strict systematic purviews of both the philosopher and the theologian.  Here we reach Kierkegaard’s realm of the absurd—faith[33]—and hope becomes both a precursor to and a product of faith.  Kierkegaard was acutely aware of the vitality of hope.  As he states in Works of Love, “to hope is to expect the possibility of the good, but the possibility of the good is the eternal.”[34]

But Kierkegaard does not simply rely upon hope as a universal principle; he subjectivizes hope in order to provide it with content.  According to David Gouwens, Kierkegaard therefore develops his ‘Christian hope’ (as opposed to ‘earthly hope’) through a four-stage dialectic.  These stages are, first, “hope in youthfulness,” which is followed by disappointment and disillusionment.[35]  Second, there is “the supportive calculation of understanding,” which is the despair that enables one to become “sensible and calculating” in the face of hopelessness.[36]  This would imply that all pragmatic, utilitarian, or statistical approaches to ethics and religion are in fact forms of despair.  Third, one becomes fully conscious of these hidden despairs and “everything comes to a standstill.”[37]  But hope is not lost forever.  This is the point at which the fourth stage answers: eternal hope speaks, and announces that with God, the impossible—the return of hope—is possible.[38]

How is this to be understood?  It is, says Gouwens, a hope “not based on ‘experience’ or calculations of ‘sagacity’… Hope takes a different frame on life; one can ‘hope against hope’, ‘by virtue of the absurd’, not in the sense of an irrational earthly hope, but a hope in spite of a realistic appraisal of the odds against earthly hope.”[39]  This constructive interpretation of hope tempers the tendency to conceptualize hope as an over-arching principle; it resists the temptation to make hope into an end in itself.  Hope exists within faith and beyond faith.  Nevertheless, it is only the content of a theological vision that offers a reason to hope in such an absurd situation.  To hope for hope’s sake implies that hope can provide its own content and meaning.

It may sound like a return to the tired deus ex machina argument to say that the theologian has recourse to revelational content, something that philosophy cannot access, given its position as an autonomous field of speculative formation.  But this must not be understood by either side as a trump card.  It is more like clinging to a rope, while hanging over a chasm in the fog.  The theologian cannot articulate content any further, once philosophy has reached its limits, but she nevertheless can hold to or, better still, be upheld by the content of hope, so that hope does not simply fade away into a distant horizon until its promise is lost.

So, Caputo’s position is not invalidated by the appeal to revelation; far from it.  Caputo rightly recognizes that all standpoints ultimately not only reach, but must step into, the aporetic: it is the nature of both philosophy and theology to not only walk in the borderlands,[40] but to continually ask: Are these really the established boundaries, or can/should we move further?  In so doing, we reveal the sources of our hope.  Caputo’s hoped-for is the event of God, the reason for any and all goodness in the world.[41]  His articulation of this hoped-for may not be synonymous with the traditional Christian conception, but it is nonetheless a theological vision (even if a very obscure one) and operates within that realm as a response to the call of the good.  This is, of course, an impossible risk.[42]


Conclusion: The Call of Hope

As with all speculative thinking, reflection upon the above concept of hope tends to become blunted by the pragmatic or reductive response.  Even if we can never know the truth about the religious or the transcendent, it seems we do have knowledge about many things, enough to live our lives effectively and with relative fulfillment.  Why add additional constructs to a world-picture that performs quite well?  Why not let the effective structures remain in place and ignore the rest?  Such is, for example, the common naturalistic challenge to both theology and Continental philosophy.  Why bother with hope, which offers nothing more than mere speculation?

Of course, the first response involves asking just how ‘effective’ the current structures really are.  A second response might suggest that hope offers a way of thinking and speaking which transcends our finitude and catalyses our possibility.  Without concepts like hope, an entire dimension of reality for human beings disappears.  No doubt there are some who would welcome that disappearance, since they don’t believe it was real to begin with.  However, there are good reasons to think that human existence would be greatly diminished without this dimension of reality.  For example, does anyone really want to relate intimately to another person without any possibility whatsoever of genuine love?  It might be pleasurable for a while on a purely sensual level, but there is something about human-being that longs for more than the purely sensual.  We long for meaning, which involves the content of hope.

Even to ask for a rational or linguistic correlation presupposes that we find meaning on multiple levels.  And it seems worth giving credence to more levels of meaning rather than fewer, otherwise we may haphazardly base our decisions on nothing more than our own preferences, which is precisely what the pragmatist asks us to avoid.  So it is with hope; we must continually remain open to the multiple dimensions of meaning which may be contained in this little word.  This involves allowing both philosophy and theology to play their part, giving each its proper space, and never allowing either one to claim finality in the realm of speculation.





an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 9, July - December 2012, ISSN 1552-5112


[1] See Žižek, Slavoj. The Puppet and the Dwarf. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.


[2] Smith, Anthony Paul and Whistler, Daniel. After the Postmodern and the Postsecular. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010, p. 3.


[3] Smith and Whistler, p. 6.


[4] Smith and Whistler, p. 9.


[5] Smith and Whistler, pp. 9-10.


[6] A question for further consideration: Is there a concern that this approach might privilege Christian theology as opposed to, say, Jewish or Buddhist theology?


[7] 1 Corinthians 1:23


[8] Acts 17:17ff.


[9] A case could perhaps be made for seeing the relationship between Analytic philosophy and the natural sciences in precisely these terms, but that is outside the scope of this essay.


[10] Peperzak, Adriaan. “Philosophy, Religion, Theology.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 50, 2001, p. 30.


[11] Ibid.


[12] Ibid.


[13] Peperzak, p. 31.


[14] Peperzak, p. 34.


[15] After all, if contamination has always already taken place between philosophy and theology inasmuch as they are fluid disciplines, then perhaps a more valuable position is found in admitting the contamination and then working together to forge a relationship consisting of, in part, a willingness to compromise when necessary.  Of course, this does not eliminate the possibility of abuse on either side, but it might tend to reduce the suspicion if such an admission is made from the start.


[16] I am thinking specifically of Christianity, but there is no need to limit hope by inscribing it within a single faith tradition.


[17] For Kant, the primary questions guiding philosophy, articulated in the introduction of Critique of Pure Reason, are: ‘What can I know?’; ‘What Ought I to do?’; ‘For what may I hope?’  These three are often summed up in a fourth question: ‘What is man?’


[18] Ernst Bloch, for example, offers what is perhaps the most extensive exposition to date of philosophical hope.  Bloch’s ‘principle of hope’ depends upon thinking in terms of possibility rather than in empirical or rational terms.  On the other hand, Bloch can be rightly critiqued for holding onto a Cartesian model of subjectivity.  If we remove the universal subject, does the concept of hope still make sense?  Moreover, even if we allow that hope is a reality within human consciousness, it does not mean the object of that hope will ever be a reality in the external world.  Still, Bloch’s philosophical vision of hope deserves more attention than it has thus far been given, even though it has already been influential in theology, for instance, as a motivating factor behind Moltmann’s ‘theology of hope’.


[19] Long, Eugene. “The Quest for Transcendence.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 45, 1999, p. 55.


[20] The ‘transhumanist’ project is just one example of this ongoing attempt.


[21] Trakakis, Nick. “Meta-Philosophy of Religion.” Ars Disputandi [], Vol. 7, 2007, p. 19. (Accessed 15 December 2010)


[22] Trakakis, p. 25.


[23] Simmons, J. Aaron. “God in Recent French Phenomenology.” Philosophy Compass [], Vol. 3, 2008, p. 914. (Accessed 15 December 2010)


[24] Simmons, p. 919.


[25] Caputo, John D. The Weakness of God. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006, p. 123-124.


[26] Caputo, p. 88.


[27] Caputo, p. 96.


[28] Caputo, p. 246.


[29] Caputo, p. 251.


[30] Caputo, p. 249.


[31] Proverbs 13:12


[32] Caputo, p. 256.


[33] See Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, among other works, for an elaboration on the concept of ‘the absurd’.


[34] Kierkegaard, Soren.  Works Of Love (Hong and Hong Edition), p. 250.


[35] Gouwens, David J.  Kierkegaard as Religious Thinker.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 158.


[36] Gouwens, p. 159.


[37] Gouwens, p. 160.


[38] Ibid.


[39] Ibid, italics his.


[40] This term is employed by, among others, Donald MacKinnon to describe the grey areas between the two disciplines.


[41] Caputo, p. 178.


[42] Caputo, p. 179.