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


The event of desire

“As Caputo has expressed it, what the persistence of the religious or the postmodern return of religion reveal is that beyond or after the death of God there remains the desire for God. In other words, the death of God is not the final word, and religion is more fundamentally about desire—even, or especially, when our old beliefs have been worn away or stripped apart, whether it is by the brutalities of modern life to which we have all become spectators, or more complexly still, the pretence of self-sufficiency. God is the (or, at least, one) name that we give to this desire, and religion is the (or, at least, one) means by which it takes its institutional form. But even when the name rings hollow and the form grows stale, it is the event of desire that stirs beneath that we still strive to articulate, that we still mean to affirm.”

Jeffrey Robbins The Hermeneutics of the Kingdom of God: John Caputo and the Deconstruction of Christianity

We are all children of the same dark night

“It is a confession that we do not have such a prodigious head as is required to answer the question what is happening, that we cannot get on top of what is happening, that we are stuck in the middle of it, in medias res, inter-esse, amazed and bewildered. We cannot soar over what is happening with philosophy’s eagle-wings. What’s happening has clipped our wings.”-John Caputo

“There is no “answer,” no cognitive solution, to the questions that self-destructive people put. They are, I think, putting questions before which philosophers no less than their analysts (if they can afford one) are struck dumb, the difference being the philosophers’ ignorance comes cheaper. Moreover, self-destructive people do not require an answer so much as companionship. We are all children of the same dark night, inhabited by the same demons, haunted by the same spectres… It is not a question of finding an answer to the night of truth but of sitting up with one another through the night, of dividing the abyss in half in a companionship that is its own meaning.”–John Caputo

“I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.”–Rainer Maria Rilke

You are also the physician who must watch over yourself. But in the course of every illness there are many days in which the physician can do nothing but wait. –Rainer Maria Rilke

The joys that life has to offer are entirely internal. Life is like a game we enjoy playing. One desires life for the sake of life. “If someone asked life for a thousand years, ‘why do you live?’” Meister Eckhart said, “then if it could answer, it would say nothing other than ‘I live because I live.’” One is not trying to get somewhere with life, and it would make no more sense to offer someone help in getting where life is going—death—than it would to offer a jogger a ride in one’s car. In fact there are laws against offering such help. –John Caputo


A Theology of Perhaps

“Prayer is not our projection onto a God of our needs, but an exposure to trauma that is the tumultuous call of God that attacks our narcissism and pushes us outside of ourselves. God, as Caputo writes, is a problem that won’t go away, that is constantly stirring up trouble and leaving us to deal with it. We might, perhaps, respond to this call and set things on a different course “for better or worse.” Therein lies the peril. To pray, to respond to God, is to risk this new course, hoping that perhaps it is for the better and not worse”

– T. Littleton, review of John D. Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps


Ledger stones


“And what importance do I have in the courtroom of oblivion?”

“How much does a man live, after all?/ Does he live a thousand days, or one only? For a week, or for several centuries?/ How long does a man spend dying?/ What does it mean to say ‘for ever’?” – Pablo Neruda

I have been enjoying Chester’s old churchyards. I feel a sense of peace, walking here.

I keep thinking of the words from Vision by the poet Siegfried Sassoon:

“I love all things that pass: their briefness is music that fades on transient silences…”

A churchyard is a reminder of life’s transience.

Some of the churches go back as far as the 9th century; they display Anglo-Saxon and Norman architectural features, and of successive periods: Gothic, and Gothic Revival.

Sacred places, layered with history, and some no longer sacred: deconsecrated, their gravestones lying in spaces no longer visited or valued for their religious meanings.

I’m drawn time and again to the old ledger stones. Moss and lichen-covered, weather-worn. I brush snow or winter’s brittle leaves from their surface. Nature gradually subsumes each stone back into herself, gently eroding the carved letters and the memories they represent. Perhaps our attempts to memorialize must all ultimately fail.

I can just make out the name of a 6 year old girl, and below it trace with my finger the age of the father who died some years later. I imagine for a moment his grief at the child’s passing, before he too was gone. Their lives – joys and sorrows – a fading epitaph.

Moss grows within the weather-softened letterforms; bowl, counter and stem are ccented in living green and yellow. The soft rain has caused water to pool in shallow serifs

Human foot-fall has worn away entire words. But it’s this very erasure, and the patina of time, which entrances.

I am physically within a few feet of the stone where some three hundred years ago a stonemason crouched with his tools. What were his thoughts and feelings as his chisel struck the stone surface? Did he wonder who might touch these letters 300 years hence?

“Hand carved stones give us a way to bridge the past and future.” – Joy Neighbours, blogger at A Grave Interest

“Long after the traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.”

John N. Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

The absurdity of certainty

At the blog Recovering Agnostic I came across the phrase, “… a breach in my previously impregnable certainty”. I rather like this thought – and the blogger’s honesty – that certainty, like some fortress, might be breached. Are our opinions not often like walled cities, defended at all costs? There is a humility in acknowledging that what is self-evident to ourselves might be unsustainable for another.

I am living in Chester, a city which was originally a Roman garrison, surrounded by an ancient wall; not a five minute walk from here is the place where in 1646 Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces breached the wall, forcing the capitulation of the Royalist stronghold.

How fiercely I defend my ideas, and how fiercely others seek to assert their own! There’s nothing wrong with conviction – but it too easily ossifies into an impregnable citadel, or becomes the fanatic’s clarion call. Bertrand Russell said it well:

“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.”


“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

Could we oppose tyranny without conviction? I doubt it. But conviction and purpose need not preclude doubt or self-questioning.

Voltaire noted that “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Perhaps we must find a place between doubt and certainty, a place where we permit our opponent a little dignity, without surrendering our own.