A Return to God After God

November 25, 2018   •   By Kevin Hart

Richard Kearney’s Anatheistic Wager

Chris Doude van Troostwijk

The Art of Anatheism

Matthew Clemente

IN 1991, a little book by Dominique Janicaud appeared entitled The Theological Turn in French Phenomenology, which took issue with several contemporary French philosophers for seeking to introduce theological concerns, Jewish and Christian, into phenomenology. The various moves were illegitimate in one way or another, Janicaud argued, for phenomenology is at heart a matter of how things manifest themselves to us here and now and God simply does not appear in the horizon of the world. A year later there came a riposte, Phenomenology and Theology, which sought to clarify and extend the position to which Janicaud objected. Here we find important essays by Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michel Henry, and Jean-Luc Marion, and a long piece by Paul Ricœur in which he expressed caution about the project. By the time Janicaud could respond in Phenomenology “Wide Open” (1998), phenomenological theology had taken several large strides in diverse directions, in particular in France and the United States; it had become a big wave in parts of the academy, in which all sorts of people had been swept up. Not all these people had been sufficiently well educated in Husserl, Heidegger, and their forebears, and very few of them had a deep knowledge of Christian theology. Only Jean-Yves Lacoste and Jean-Luc Marion, among the French, can be said to know both phenomenology and theology in the inch and mile.

Now, in 2018, the original movement has both intensified and become diffuse; it has probed the nature of the Kingdom of God and even the Trinity; it has folded into itself arguments by Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas; it has been criticized (and amplified in a fresh direction) by Jean-Luc Nancy; it has been extended into the realms of liturgical and biblical studies; and aspects of it have been taken up in related theological projects: black theology, feminist theology, pragmatist theology, political theology, and the theology of art, among them. One way of approaching Richard Kearney’s work and the recent flurry of commentary about it is to see it as offering a single word to hold together the diverse energies released by phenomenological theology and redirected by other developments in contemporary theology. The word is “anatheism,” and it forms the title of Kearney’s volume of 2011, to which the volumes under review mainly respond. What does this word mean?

Always the good teacher, Kearney explains himself clearly and concisely: it is a return to God after God. That is, an invitation to rethink “God” after a very long period of withering criticism of theistic religion (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and so on up to the ephemeral figures of the “new atheists”). Also, the rethinking comes after a highly creative period in European philosophy in which Derrida and Levinas, Breton and Marion, among others, have enabled us to think more deeply about religion. Kearney knows the work of these scholars inside out. His interviews with some of them — Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers (1984) — are the best of their kind, in part because of the clarity of his questions and the clarity he expects in return. And so, finely aware of negative criticism and affirmative rethinking, Kearney seeks a retrieval of religion. Not that he advocates a return to traditional ways of believing and thinking about God: he seeks to go back to the roots of religious belief and to render possible a fresh engagement with what stimulates belief or non-belief. This, for him, is the double movement of ana- before theism. At first, the position seems highly accommodating, since it appears to embrace both belief and non-belief; yet closer inspection shows that it affirms a new position or positions somewhere between these limits. One might be spiritual without recourse to orthodoxy; or one might acknowledge a non-personal deity; or one might remain religious while abandoning certain creeds as insupportable; one might revive overlooked or marginalized senses of the sacred, as in modern paganism; or one might find spiritual consolation in art, in contemplating the landscape, or in practicing mindfulness.

To understand Kearney, we need to return to Ricœur, his Doktorvater, whose work permeates much that is good in his eminent student’s thought. Two things in Ricœur’s extensive œuvre must be stressed. First, the claim that phenomenology needs to be supplemented by hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation, in order to prevent an inevitable slide into idealism. Hence Ricœur’s insistent question: “From what place do you speak?” That is, what are your assumptions, your traditions, your trajectories? And, second, the claim that revelation is divided: in addition to religious revelation, as in Scripture, there is a non-religious, non-biblical, and even non-theistic revelation, which is given by the poetic function of language, especially metaphor. I must say that Ricœur’s attempt to suture hermeneutics to phenomenology is based on a hasty reading of Husserl’s Ideas I (1913). Phenomenology is already hermeneutical, in no grave danger of succumbing to subjective idealism, and Ricœur’s project limits much of what Husserl tells us about intentionality and givenness. Where Ricœur is perfectly correct, however, is in drawing attention to Husserl’s inadequate philosophy of language.

One lesson that Ricœur learns from Husserl is the importance of concretion. For him, and rightly so, Christian talk about God becomes meaningful at the level of one’s existence only when one finds oneself in a particular situation in life. For Kearney, the exemplary case is when one encounters a stranger. It is elaborated most fully in his Strangers, Gods and Monsters (2003), and it bears the imprint of Derrida’s subtle investigations into the idea of hospitality. Should one act with hostility or hospitality? God “comes to mind,” as Levinas (another of Kearney’s great teachers) says, in moral action. One might demur and say that God comes to mind in many another situation as well and that moral action is only one aspect of a religious life. In Christianity, to restrict myself to that religion, love of God and love of neighbor form a unity. No doubt, the love of God becomes concrete when one is challenged by the face of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger; but it is not the only mode of concretion. God also becomes meaningful when one participates in the liturgy, prays over Scripture, or contemplates the divine beauty. These modes of concretion are more elusive than moral situations, to be sure, but to restrict religion largely to ethics is to underestimate the range of its power, its appeal, and its ability to form the soul and to console the heart.

Ricœur’s second claim, that the poetic function of language is revelatory, also informs Kearney’s project at its very core. Yet where Ricœur is circumspect, wishing to draw our attention to the living possibilities of metaphor as a continual means of revitalizing culture, Kearney is nothing if not bold: he contemplates the recovery of new senses of the sacred in the West, and the addition of others from the East. For Kearney, and for many of his admirers in these two volumes of essays, theology is to be displaced by theopoetics. That is, the logos of theology, the impulse to give a reasoned account of belief, is allowed to fall away so that poiesis can appear more fully instead. This move is not simply a plea for “religion and literature,” or even literature, although Kearney would be the last person in the world to deprecate those things: fiction and poetry are profoundly important to him. Among his most engaging works are The Wake of Imagination (1998) and Poetics of Imagining (1998), and he has written fiction and poetry himself. Rather, the task is to reimagine God not only with all the power that vital metaphors can give but with all the resources of the visual arts, and to do so while looking sympathetically over the borders of the great world religions in order to learn from them so as to have more or better concepts with which to think God. The task is anatheistic: it involves stepping back into the ground of religion in order to begin again, to retrieve other aspects of the sacred that have perhaps been overlooked or sidelined, and to do so with an openness to disbelief as well as belief. This openness, Kearney tells us, is comprised by humor and commitment, discernment and hospitality, as well as imagination.

It is odd that, over the course of two quite thick volumes, there is no concern registered about what one might retrieve of the sacred in the brave new world that Kearney sketches. Kearney himself chooses the word “wager,” most commonly associated with Pascal and Kierkegaard, to talk about his project. What we choose to bring home from the past or elsewhere determines who we are, and there are few opportunities to calculate the consequences of one’s choice. Certainly, Kearney is not directing us to wager on traditional religion or militant atheism; it is what is in between the two that intrigues him, and his hope is that we can reach this middle ground by way of iconoclasm, prophetic work in art and philosophy, and a sacramental imagination. Yet not all the sacred is benign. Some of it is quite malign. Between the two there is a great deal of material that has been sifted and rejected, for good and bad reasons; and it is surprising that the balance of good and bad is not addressed in these books. There are, alas, religious impulses that are violently antisemitic, that devalue the body, that demean women, that enforce ethnic borders, that despise reason, and so on. Can one wager that these things will be ruled out of Kearney’s genial program? After all, some people might argue that religion should be hospitable to its dark side. Does Kearney have resources to object to this? After all, many a good wager ends in a complete loss of all one has.

One target of Kearney’s criticism, endorsed by several of his admirers, is Christian dogma. The reason seems to be that dogma is authoritarian and ossified, as well as being armed with many spikey anathemas. Before agreeing with this claim, it would be worthwhile to ponder it. One might wish to ask, for example, if dogma is found only in churches. A plausible response is that it is found far more widely: in the arts, in the media, in politics, and in the university. Certainly, dogma in these places differs from what is found in churches, which tends to have been carefully defined, adjusted over the centuries, and to have specific uses. Implicit dogmas as to what to think, say, and do are worrying precisely because they have not been formulated and often one does not know to what one is being asked to assent. Also, one might expect some understanding of dogma by way of theological method, such as one finds, for instance, in Karl Rahner’s magisterial essay “What is a Dogmatic Statement?” On reading that essay one might come to recognize that not all dogmas have the same strength, status, or scope. And, if one is to displace theology by theopoetics, one might want to ask, “To what extent?” and, “In what ways?”

There are, no doubt, instances of religion which do not invest at all heavily in dogma or creed, but before agreeing to dissolve or at least minimize reliance on doctrine, one might want to be given good reasons why one should do so. Imagination is splendid, if one has the faculty to any extent; but most people draw only from the imagination of the great thinkers and artists of their tradition who fashion dogma or are nourished by it: Augustine, Luther, and Michelangelo; Maimonides, Spinoza, and Celan; Ibn Sina, Rumi, and Ghalib. Imagination, in religion as in art, tends to be in very short supply. Finally, it seems peculiar that there is no awareness shown that some dogmas, if not all of them, attempt to indicate mysteries. In Christianity key doctrines, such as the incomprehensibility of God, have arisen precisely to counter claims that limit God to the human imagination. Eunomius (d. c. 393) argued that God’s essence can be known and were it not for this extraordinary claim we may not have had Gregory of Nyssa’s rethinking of the nature of God such that the deity is characterized by infinity, in the metaphysical sense of the word, and not by unbegottenness. Without this dazzling piece of theology, simple in its conception and far reaching in its consequences, we would never have had a convincing account of the Trinity.

So, one does not find in these collections of essays much interest in considering examples or posing counterexamples. Responses to long-standing and difficult issues tend to be quick, and historical complexities are avoided. In one interview a questioner ventures, “the Enlightenment enabled us to rid ourselves of God.” Not all conversations can be precise, but one expects scholars to be exact, especially when their words are to go into print. The Enlightenment was never homogeneous, for one thing: convinced Christians Samuel Johnson and Charles Wesley are as much Enlightenment figures as David Hume and Baron d’Holbach; and even Voltaire, that arch-critic of the Church, was a deist, not an atheist. Besides, one didn’t have to wait until the 18th century to deny God, if one means the Christian God: just think of Celsus whose treatise On the True Doctrine upset the Christian community in the second century so much it called forth a voluminous refutation by Origen. I mention Celsus and Origen mainly because one characteristic of the contributors to the two volumes is that they constellate around contemporary figures and have little time for patristic, medieval, and early modern writers with the exception of Meister Eckhart, whose “I pray to God to rid me of God” echoes like a mantra. An exception is Christina Gschwandtner, who writes well on Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306–373).

I found myself asking why almost all the contributors seem so uninterested in putting pressure on Kearney’s ideas. It is strange. Kearney is a philosopher, well trained by Ricœur and others, and philosophers live and move and have their being in active disagreement with one another. It is the means whereby they can correct their ideas and improve their arguments. Yet upon completing these two volumes one would put them down with a sense that anatheism is the very last word in the philosophy of religion, with little to be said by way of correction. This is largely because not many of the contributors have a rich knowledge of theology, a condition usually associated with analytic philosophers of religion, who tend to prize cleverness over erudition or, sometimes, even linguistic and historical competence. Many in the collections seem to be theological liberals, but theirs is not the theological liberalism of Ritschl or Tillich; it is a liberalism home grown in the thin soil of cultural studies. Reading these books, I wondered: Would it not be interesting to see how a critic of theological liberalism might respond to anatheism? A good thinker has seldom more to gain than when he or she exposes work to a sharp, generous thinker of a quite different persuasion.

I’m not sure that the editors of these volumes were wise in not opening their pages to one or more people trained more richly in theology, including, perhaps, a historian of dogma. One does not have to be theologically conservative in the slightest to recognize that the dynamic of Christian theology over the centuries turns on criticism of what has been done before along with immense imaginative reworkings of the idea of God or the relationship of God and human beings. One of the most stunning imaginative moves in the history of theology occurs in the 13th century, when Thomas Aquinas introduces a new word into theology, revelatio, at the very start of the Summa Theologiæ. We have natural reason, which allows us to do a great many things in the world, and God also reveals some things to us. This distinction enables Aquinas to displace Augustine’s reliance on illuminatio for all our cognitive and moral activity (but does not absolve him from having to engage with it in detail later). It is difficult to think of a more enterprising, more radical move in the history of Christian theology, unless one returns to Gregory of Nyssa in his affirmation of God as infinite. “Imagination” was not a revered word in the 13th century, but on reflecting on earlier periods we see that there are various modes of imagination. Kearney writes in the wake of late Romanticism, with its theory of the productive imagination, and his admirers are strangely indifferent to bringing that understanding of imagination under dialectical inspection.

One of the most fertile aspects of anatheism, as Kearney conceives it, is what he calls inter-religious hermeneutics: how we better understand our own religious beliefs in the light of awareness of the beliefs of people in other faiths. Here anatheism converges, to some extent, with other vital movements in Religious Studies: Francis Clooney’s comparative theology, on the one hand, and Peter Ochs’s scriptural reasoning, on the other. Some of the most stimulating writing in these collections speaks to Kearney’s inter-religious hermeneutics: Joseph O’Leary’s essay “Buddhist Anatheism” is a case in point. Here we have a contributor who is deeply versed in the religious thought of two rich traditions, respectful of a new word that is ventured, yet willing to bring critical vigilance to its adventures. To learn from another faith is not necessarily to yield all or even some of what one has been taught and what one practices, although it is often to criticize the institutional limits of one’s religion and, finally, by help of other minds and other hearts to see more deeply into one’s own tradition, which will have grown slightly wider by virtue of the encounter. Every concept of God is inadequate to the reality of God. As one of Kearney’s most revered teachers in phenomenology, Levinas, used to say (in a slightly different context), one must be contre-dieu before one can be à-dieu, against God (or, better, a certain concept of God) before one can truly go toward him. It is a lesson that Kearney has learned well.


Kevin Hart is the Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia. His most recent books are Barefoot (Notre Dame University Press, 2018) and Poetry and Revelation (Bloomsbury, 2018). He is currently preparing a set of Gifford Lectures to deliver at the University of Glasgow.