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God’s New Faces

By Joseph S. O’LearyMay 15, 2017

God’s New Faces

Reimagining the Sacred by Jens Zimmermann and Richard Kearney

THIS VOLUME TAKES ME BACK to a sunny June afternoon in 1979, the feast of John the Baptist, when a group of philosophers gathered at the Irish College, in Paris, to discuss “Heidegger and God.” A dramatic aspect of the meeting was the first ever encounter between Heidegger’s eminent opponent, Emmanuel Levinas, and his loyal advocate, Jean Beaufret. Only Richard Kearney could have arranged this, sending a frisson through Parisian circles. For younger participants this was a seminal colloquium: here Jean-Luc Marion first presented his “God without Being,” Kearney first talked of God as “the possible,” and I first staked out the positions elaborated in my Questioning Back (1985). All three of us were excited by the project of “overcoming metaphysics” in theology as Heidegger had done in philosophy, while we subscribed to Heidegger’s strict division of labor between the disciplines, which accorded quite well with Thomist prescriptions.

O'Leary and Kearney







Kearney has arranged many seminal events since then, and I have been continually jousting with him and Marion, though with much uncertainty, due to the fact that each of them has published an entire library, so that whatever response one attempts to formulate is quickly overtaken by some new metamorphosis in their thinking. The current volume sails under the rubric of “anatheism” and is a companion volume to Kearney’s Anatheism: Returning to God After God (2009); two further volumes in response to it are in the works. It was preceded by the wide discussion of his The God Who May Be (2001), notably in After God, edited by John Panteleimon Manoussakis (2006), and it has perhaps already yielded place to a new project, in Carnal Hermeneutics (2015).

“Anatheism” is a very positive, edifying word whether one reads it as “an-atheism” — no to atheism — or “ana-theism,” theism anew, theism come back. The dialectical movement from the triumphalist God of the past, through the purifying ordeal of the crisis of belief, to the recovery of the gracious God of the Gospels, is a tried and tested trope of Christian apologetics. As David Wood mischievously remarks:

“God is willing to lose his own being in order to give more being to his beloved creatures.” If you heard that last sentence from an Anglican vicar in the pulpit of a little village church in Gloucestershire, you wouldn’t blink.

But to present a basically familiar idea with audacious, iconoclastic rhetoric is an excellent strategy, which has paid off in the willingness of both atheists and believers to meet on the broad ecumenical platform Kearney has constructed. The notion of anatheism also crystallizes into firm unity the various strands of Kearney’s thought: an evangelical piety about caring for “the least of these,” a philosophical insistence on the existential and the phenomenological in opposition to metaphysics, a search for traces of the divine in the everyday with the help of literature (Proust, Woolf, Joyce), a theory of radical interpretation that gives all religious statements the status of mere convention, as Buddhists would say. That the result reads more like theology than philosophy is of a piece with the current “theological turn” in continental philosophy. What became of Heidegger’s and Aquinas’s boundaries between philosophy and theology? Why do philosophers now seem interested in writing only about religion (though both Kearney and Marion have continued to publish staid, strictly philosophical volumes as well)? Why are so many writing on St. Paul (a theme that terrifies theologians) instead of on Plato or Aristotle? I would like to see Kearney distill from his rich Christian vision a strictly philosophical one, leaving aside such edifying figures as Jean Vanier and Dorothy Day in order to construct a pure metaphysics, tacitly inspired by the Gospel but avoiding the homiletic.

I have just used the forbidden word “metaphysics.” Kearney, like Marion, wants an exclusively phenomenological and existential language about God, and rejects a metaphysical “God of sovereign plenitude and totality, a unity without division, difference, change, possibility — or humanity. This becomes God as pure act, or causa sui, in the more reductive forms of Scholasticism: Deus est purus actus non habens aliquid de potentialitate.”

The Latin words quoted here are actually Aquinas’s expression of the basic principle governing his Summa Theologica. While Kearney tries to play off Scotus, Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, and the late Stanislas Breton against it, all of these would subscribe to the doctrine of divine simplicity, though inflecting it ingeniously, notably in Cusanus’s interpretation of God as posse, a power to be, a power immediately actualized in his being (not the passive potentiality Aquinas banishes). This is a God who “can be” and thus “is” (but not a God who, passively, “may be”); and this, ironically, is the nearest thing in classical theology to Plotinus’s causa sui, otherwise rejected since St. Augustine. Misled by Heidegger’s statement that causa sui is the metaphysical name for God — which refers to Hegel and implicitly to Spinoza’s definition of causa sui as that whose essence implies its existence — Kearney treats ens causa sui as if it were a Thomistic tag. In fact, the common tag that Thomas uses is: nihil est causa sui, nothing is cause of itself.

Kearney often speaks as if living religious experience drowns the God of metaphysics: “Surely Teresa’s theoerotic encounters with the mystical Other surpass the old God of metaphysical immutability and theodicy?” Yet St. Teresa herself was quite happy to speak of God as omnipresent and omnipotent. In reality, Kearney himself speaks of the dreaded “omni-God” of metaphysics without realizing it. He says: “God, for me, is always good — both actually and potentially,” which, unless it is a mere pious wish, is a basic statement of “metaphysical immutability and theodicy.” He might protest that this is just an existential conviction based on experience of the phenomenon of divine goodness, but why should it not include as well the metaphysical statement that “God is good”? Why not go further, with St. Augustine, and say that “being is good,” so that evil is not just privation of good (as Kearney often recalls) but a deficit in being, having no real existence?

We can labor to step back from metaphysics to a more primordial event, whether ontological or biblical, but we cannot step away from metaphysics cleanly, for it shadows our every statement about divine or human reality. Yes, there are subtle tensions between the various dimensions of Christian discourse, which a deconstructive reading may solicit, and, yes, the existential and phenomenological texture of Kearney’s Christian vision palpably clashes with that of metaphysical theology. But to make these tensions into stark oppositions is a mistake, and closes off the path of fruitful dialogue with and deconstructive reading of tradition.

Before that meeting in Paris, Beaufret told Kearney and me that Heidegger did not like people to take his thought as a pretext for kicking metaphysics down the stairs, because, “after all, metaphysics is true.” Overcoming metaphysics would then mean a step back to the forgotten soil in which the tree of metaphysics grows, namely, to a thinking of Being as event and phenomenon. This would not diminish the great edifice of onto-theo-logy — that is, the effort to analyze the beings of beings rationally, and to ground their being in a supreme being, sometimes called God — so well built up over the centuries from Aristotle to Hegel. But it would contest the sole authority of metaphysical reason in approaching being. That is how Kearney’s mentor, the late William J. Richardson, S. J., read Heidegger, in the only book to which Heidegger himself wrote a substantial preface.

Jens Zimmermann objects that Kearney “opposes the God of kenosis to the sovereign God, the God of becoming to the God of absolute being, the God of compassion to the God of judgment […], the God of the actual to the God of the possible, the ineffable God to the God of dogma,” and “these binary oppositions indicate a God that is too small, too much domesticated by the imagination of continental philosophy, and too little shaped by the actual biblical texts and their interpretive traditions.” Kearney responds by expressing still more eloquently his vision of a kenotic God, with a sound and subtle feeling for the paradoxical logic of the Incarnation. The Sovereign God is none other than the loving God of the Gospels, and his power is the power of the powerless. But in light of this, should one not take the second step of retrieving the metaphysical tradition in the key thus established, as Karl Barth attempted to retrieve divine “aseity” in a phenomenology of the God who loves in freedom?

The philosophers and theologians in the present volume speak with overwhelming eloquence of the existential aspects of faith: deep trust, openness to mystery, a sense of the incarnate “weakness” of a loving God who is near to the marginalized. But some of them rightly worry that without a clear objective foundation even the most inspired Gospel-based ethics could be depleted and hollowed out, its “God” becoming just a disposable label.

Marion says that: “the question for us today is not the decision about what is the most adequate or satisfactory concept of the ‘essence’ of God. […] God is a matter of decision and response, not thought and proposition. Of event rather than of being and essence.” But “faith in” God cannot long survive the dismissal of “faith that” God is, a faith expressed in propositions that are inevitably entangled with metaphysics. Marion still condemns metaphysics along with Heidegger’s cult of Being as “idolatry,” as he did in 1979, when Maria Villela-Petit warned that this inapposite moral category closed the door to genuine appreciation of metaphysics and of Heidegger.

To phenomenologize and existentialize church doctrine on

one true and living God, creator and Lord of heaven and earth, omnipotent, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intelligence and will and every perfection, who, while being one singular, utterly simple, and incommunicable spiritual substance, is to be preached as really and essentially distinct from the world, most blessed in himself and from himself, and ineffably exalted above everything that exists or can be conceived beside him (First Vatican Council, 1870)

is no easy task. It is unsurprising that John Henry Newman wrote in his Apologia (1864): “Of all points of faith, the being of a God is, to my own apprehension, encompassed with most difficulty, and borne in upon our minds with most power.”

Kearney has refined our sense of how the idea of God is borne in upon our minds, and bodies, but he has side-stepped the intellectual difficulties that make this idea such a thorny one. These difficulties fueled the powerful critique of Feuerbach, exaggerated by Nietzsche into “the death of God.” I still do not know of any full systematic Christian refutation of Feuerbach. Anatheism tends to whisk the power of atheism under the carpet, as when Marion proclaims “the death of the death of God.” Maybe we need to deepen still further the sense that our God-language is a fragile interpretive web, alongside the phenomenological conviction that somehow it also vehiculates a sense of ultimacy. But then we have to revisit respectfully our metaphysical tradition (while drawing on Buddhist “metaphysics” as well).

The God who returns after the death of God is at the mercy of human beings in a very unsettling way. John Caputo asserts that God “has to become divine in and through humanity” and remains “an abstract, one-sided concept” until we humans do “all the heavy lifting” so that “God becomes God.” Kearney adds: “God is up to us, in the end.” Perhaps such utterances can be given an existential or phenomenological justification, but if read metaphysically they reduce God to a wisp. They suggest that God is just an effort of the human imagination. Unsurprisingly, some of the interviewees in this volume say that they entirely agree with Kearney’s ethical and spiritual vision but feel no need to bring in God. Simon Critchley talks of “atheist transcendence,” and distinguishes between “religion” as “the bond which ties me to others in community” and “theology” as “a discourse founded on a transcendent metaphysical deity, which I remain very suspicious of.” He treasures in Paul, Augustine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard “the subtlety, complexity and depth of thinking about the human,” while bracketing their talk of God. Kearney dexterously tries to bring out an unacknowledged divine depth in Critchley’s thinking, at the risk of reenacting the old apologetic strategy of seeing the good pagans’ questions as valid as far as they go but inviting them to open up to solid faith. Indeed Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” hovers around the corner in these dialogues: the theists believe that everyone is a theist deep down; conversely the atheists believe that everyone is an atheist deep down.

Gianni Vattimo is the one who manages most suavely the amphiboly of faith and unbelief of which anatheism is the charter, asserting that “divinity announces itself by subtractions, withdrawal, kenosis, free negation” and quoting Bonhoeffer: “there is no god who is there”; “God does not exist as a Supreme Being, nor as any kind of ‘real’ presence.” I am left wondering whether these smiling pastures are not just a return to the gloom of Browning’s Bishop Blougram:

All we have gained then by our unbelief
Is a life of doubt diversified by faith,
For one of faith diversified by doubt:
We called the chess-board white, — we call it black.

Be that as it may, few will read this book without being challenged to clarify their ideas on God and their attitude to faith, making their own two questions that haunt Richard Kearney: “From where do you speak?” and “Where are you?”


Joseph S. O’Leary is an Irish theologian resident in Japan.

LARB Contributor

Joseph S. O’Leary is an Irish theologian resident in Japan since 1983, former professor at Sophia University, author of books on fundamental theology, including Conventional and Ultimate Truth (Notre Dame, 2015).


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