The caress of the breeze

“​Be like the lilies, without why and without care.  They bend and blow under the gentle listing of the breeze, which is the ruach Elohim, the soft winds of the spirit blowing across the epochs from creation that caress us.  Be open to the gratuitousness, the grace, the chance, or perhaps just the “perhaps” in life, which keeps life open, in motion.  Say yes to the grace of the day, dismiss the shackles of the past, and keep the future open, because astir with life, with grace, with the spirit, with the gratuitous gift that the lilies enjoy.”
– John Caputo, The Weakness of God

“To your pleasure you will quickly discover that Caputo has a poetic side.  He can be witty, lyrical, and sometimes quite biting, as when he criticizes religious people who, from his point of view, are too rigid or too self-confident in their thinking.  Nevertheless there are aspects of the book that are surprisingly gentle and Zen-like.  Read the passage above.  He invites you and me alike to be wise like the lilies of the field; to feel the gentle listing of a breeze across our face; to say yes to the grace of each day and keep the future open; to recognize the singularity of each new situation and be open to novelty. (WG, 153)  He thinks we can sense the presence of this breeze not only in the movements of the lilies but also in the faces of the other persons and in our relationships with them.  It wouldn’t take much to add that we can experience the breeze in the rest of nature, too: the hills, rivers, animals, and stars.  He has a sacramental sensitivity.

But he is not all about sweetness and light.  He thinks that when we experience the breeze we can be shaken in our foundations and called to think new thoughts and feel new feelings, especially as they dismantle our more conventional and calculative ways.  The breeze comes to us as messianic callings to remember the dead even though we cannot bring them back to life; to forgive the unforgivable even they have harmed us and those we love; to extend hospitality to strangers even if we are more inclined to despise them; and to get up each morning even in the face of bottomless despair (WG, 96).  Thus there are two sides to the book: a sacramental side which finds the breeze in the things of this world and a prophetic side which experiences the breeze a de-stabilizing call toward an unforeseeable future.

Perhaps there is some wisdom in living from the listings of the breeze or, as he speaks of it, living from the kingdom.  A process theologian like me might call it living from the initial aims or the lures of God.  But the wisdom at issue does not lie in holding philosophical positions which function as armor in a field of conceptual combat.  Nor does it lie in pretending that we have answers to all life’s important questions.  Caputo thinks it is better to live with unanswerable questions than pretend we have answers for them.  Thus for him wisdom is not a philosophical position, but rather a way of living which includes our deeds and our feelings, our prayers and tears, our laughter and doubts.  This kind of wisdom is open-ended: like the wisdom of our Zen friend in Japan. Zen Master Keido Fukushima, who says life itself is the ultimate koan; or the wisdom of your ninety-two year old grandmother whose favorite saying is onward through the fog; or the wisdom of a carpenter from Nazareth who died with some questions of his own.

I know what you are asking.  Is there really a breeze that “blows across the epochs” and even “caresses” the world?  I don’t know.  It is possible that the wind is an illusion.  Maybe our world is all matter in motion, pure and simple, with nothing enchanted or grace-infused about it.  Maybe the whole of life is about power, pure and simple.  There can be no proofs.  I suggest that you listen closely to Caputo, but also that you measure his ideas with your own experience and see if you experience messianic and sacramental beauty in the lilies of the field.  If the breeze exists, it is in these experiences – these touches of transcendence — that we find it.


Where does this leave religion?  I am not sure.  If there is something breeze-like in our world — something we can say “yes” to — it would be foolish to pretend that the breeze could be reduced to a single name; or to imply could be contained by perfectly clear definitions; or to suggest that it can be owned by a group of people who claim privileged access to it.  For Caputo there is something problematic with the in-out dichotomies into which religion so often falls.  Caputo is equally critical of people who try to catch the wind and master it.  He thinks they are trying to anchor the breeze in their minds, making it something contained and definable, for the sake of control, so that they can avoid novelty and wield power over others.  You can almost imagine someone coming up to them — perhaps the carpenter from Nazareth, or your grandmother, or a philosopher named Jacques Derrida – and deconstructing their positions all in the name of openness to the truth of the breeze.

These deconstructors would not be deconstructing the breeze.  Rather they would be deconstructing what gets in the way of our awareness of it: namely a forgetfulness of the gap between the breeze and our names.  Imagine standing in a field and feeling a breeze against your face and then saying the word “breeze.”   There is more to the breeze – in his words there is an excess to the breeze and your feelings of it – than is contained in the simple word “breeze.”  This gap between words and events will be good news for poets like you.  It opens up possibilities for poetic and liberated speech: a philosophical glossolalia, a loosening of the tongue, a freedom to speak without being hamstrung by words that have become clichés.

Of course humans cannot live by glossolalia alone.  Philosophers and theologians will naturally want to speak about the breeze and define it more carefully.  In so doing they may fall into the trap just noted: that of trying to contain the breeze within proper names and definitions.  For these and other reasons he believes it is wiser to speak of the breeze as an event – or a multiplicity of uncontainable yet gracious events – than as an entity or thing; and he adds that it blows wherever it wishes.  An event is a unique kind of reality.  It is neither being nor non-being given certain ways of understanding these words.  It is a process of becoming.

Caputo’s event-based ontology will remind you of Whitehead, about whom I talk so much and probably too much.  It may also remind you of the Chinese texts you have been studying this semester.  I am reminded of the e-mail you sent me last week, telling me about how Roger Ames, translator of the Analects, suggests that from a Chinese perspective the whole universe – wanwu – consists of ten thousand events.  Whitehead and Ames both propose that our world consists of moments of becoming, occasions of experience, pulsations of energy, which both make time and take time to occur and which have spontaneity of their own which makes them uncontainable.  For Caputo a lily in the field is an event of sorts and so is God, albeit one which blows across the epochs of time.  And if we use the word “God” as a name which harbors this divine activity, he thinks it wise to remind ourselves that it is but a signifier in a chain of signifiers and that other names might work as well.  For example, we can speak of the ruach Elohim, or the breath of life, the breeze of the spirit.  It all depends on context.

Amid our flexibility with names, though, we must admit – and Caputo must admit as well – that not every name will work.   We carry within our own minds some presuppositions concerning what counts and what does not count, as the divine event.  After all, evil happenings are events, too.  Today someone in our small town was murdered, leaving families behind to mourn.  All over the world people and animals are being abused, neglected, forgotten, and otherwise harmed.  Process theologians use the word “evil” to name these happenings.  Caputo does, too.  Not all events are worth celebrating.

From Caputo’s perspective acts of violence contain raw power but not grace.  So do political activities which sanction and sometimes foster such violence, both overt and covert.  In his words they have strong power, because their power silences the voices of others and can be so devastating.   Thus Caputo is more interested in what he calls weak power.  Not unlike Whitehead, he trusts that the breeze of spirit is gentle rather than violent, invitational rather than coercive, weak rather than strong.  He suspects that ultimately there is something stronger about weak power than strong power, about love than brute force.  But he knows it is not all-powerful because, like Whitehead, thinks there is creativity – a chanciness – within the very depths of matter.  “Unless there is an elemental chanciness in life, love loses its chance and we lose the chance of love.”  (“The Chance of Love: A Response to Olthuis.”)

Caputo ends his book by talking about prayer and adding some prayers of his own.  In reading the last chapter I was reminded we – you and I – used to pray every night before you went to bed; and that still today we say grace before meals when you come home for breaks.  Who knows?  Maybe you have prayed even as you have been in college.  In any case I think there is more theology in these prayers than many books in theology I have ever read, including Caputo’s book.  I appreciate the fact that Caputo is unapologetic about prayer.  He may not be sure about “God” but he seems at home in prayer and finds truth in it.  “Truth for me is a matter of prayer not epistemology.” (WG 6)

What to pray?  Of course almost any non-harmful activity can be prayer if we intend it to be so: breathing, sleeping, cooking, laughing, walking, crying, living, dying.  Sometimes we can even pray with words.  Caputo believes that in many of these prayers we are implicitly expressing a rather deep hope: a hope for an unforeseeable future in which all people are transformed into a peace, a freedom from violence and freedom for joy, for which their hearts yearn.  It is a hope for justice, for beauty, for a peace.  Caputo calls it “the dream of being transformed” and says that the very meaning of life rests on it.  Without it, he says, “faith in the event is in vain.”  (“Bodies Still Arisen, Events Still Unsaid: A Hermeneutic of Bodies Without Flesh, 94).

Whitehead seems to have known this hope too.  At the end of Process and Reality he offered the hope that the events of our own lives – the sorrows and joys of our moment-by-moment existence – are somehow transformed into a deeper love which remembers them as if they were today.  He called this memory the consequent nature of God.  An awkward phrase to be sure, but also telling because this side of God comes after the events of our world occur, as a consequence of them.  Whitehead even speculated that this love somehow floods back into the world, moment-by-moment, in messianic callings.  For Whitehead this hope did not necessarily carry the idea that we survive our bodily death, though for him this is a possibility; but it did mean that all living beings are somehow cared for and remembered a tenderness beyond their understanding, even if the tragedies they suffered cannot be erased.  Perhaps what Whitehead meant by “tenderness” is what Caputo means by the “caress” of the breeze.  It is the feeling and the hope that somehow our universe is tinged with love.

Thus I give you Caputo’s book on the occasion of your graduation, which is an event, too.  There may be times in your life when you don’t feel the breeze at all and you can only trust in its existence or hope for it.  But there may be times when you feel it rather deeply amid the callings and the beauty of the day and of your relationships.  This is why I am giving you this book.  Sometimes I feel it, too.

Jay McDaniel | From a letter to his son Byrd


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