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Prayer, Spells, and God, Perhaps

2013 October 1
by Julie Clawson

This post is part of a blog tour around John Caputo’s latest book – The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. My post engages Chapter 2 “The Insistence of God.” I was sent a review copy of the book as part of participating in this blog tour.

For the last few years, my favorite description of the work of theology has been Catherine Keller’s evocative “incantations on the edge of uncertainty.” For unlike the strong theologies of ages past that all too often mirrored the monarchical power structures of their day, I am drawn to the idea of theology as the process of responding as best one can into the uncertainty of the world, not knowing if one’s response will serve on the side of good or ill, but nevertheless responding anyway.

It is for theologians of this new sort that John Caputo calls for in his most recent work, The Insistence of God. Theologians of the future, theologians of risk. Those who are willing to “stage a coup that steals the word ‘theology’ out from under the nose of the palace theologians” and who are “a curse and affliction to the patriarchal and homophobic power of the powers that be but a blessing to the people of God.” Theologians who ask what theology looks like when it is written by “the outlaws, the outliers, the out of power, the troublemakers, the poor, the rogues.” Theologians who realize what a dangerous act it is to recite incantations that call upon the name of God – who know what a perilous act it is to pray.

As Caputo argues, to pray is to encounter the projectile that is God. It doesn’t matter so much that God exists, but that God (or the idea of God) insists – that the call of God insists that we respond and come to divine aid. This is a call to respond in hope that, maybe, just perhaps, a better world is possible. 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.

For God to be alive in this world means that the people of God encounter the insistence of God and respond with action. If this call goes unheard, elicits no response, then God is indeed dead and we have killed him. The call of God therefore is a continually posed question that we may perchance answer or resist. There is no God at work in the world without us.

Perhaps Caputo’s presentation of prayer as this sort of incantation on the edge of uncertainty can be best understood through the illustration of one of the most famous literary incantations of our time. In J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, she introduced the Latin-ish spell “Expecto Patronum.” Loosely translated, it means “I await a patron or protector.” The spell is used to produce a “patronus” that fends off the Dementors – creatures that suck all that is good out of you and make you feel like you will never be happy again. At one point, Harry Potter is about to be destroyed by the Dementors when a powerful patronus appears to save him. He believes that the patronus was cast (inexplicably) by his dead father, come back to protect and save him. He later, through an act of time-travel, realizes that it is not his father, but he himself who casts the patronus. He almost let the Dementors win waiting around for his father to appear to save him before he realized that he was his own protector. To incant the words “Expecto Patronum” is to be drawn out of oneself into the realization that only by choosing to respond oneself can there be any chance that one might be saved.

This is the trauma of prayer as Caputo describes it. He argues that what we need are theologians willing to risk it all through such responses. Those who pray with “eyes wide open,” hoping against hope for what may come even though we (nor God) know not what it may be. To always ask the question that has no known answer and yet risk asking it anyway.

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. October 1, 2013

    thank you for being an outlier Julie!

  2. October 1, 2013

    Just an excellent use of the Harry Potter illustration there.

  3. October 10, 2013

    I love the image of stealing the word “theology” out from under the noses of the palace theologians.

  4. Mark Payne permalink
    June 4, 2014

    G’day Julie,

    I’m about to read the Caputo book so been checking out a few blogs. I just wanted to say that this is a brilliant illustration. Being a fellow geek I’ll now be subscribing to your blog and stealing your ideas :)

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