Letter to the Editor: Matthew Clemente’s Response to Kevin Hart’s “A Return to God After God”

January 13, 2019   •   By Matthew Clemente, Kevin Hart

Matthew Clemente’s Response to Kevin Hart’s “A Return to God After God” (November 25, 2018)

IT IS UNCOUTH to respond to a review of one’s work — this can be admitted from the start. Doubly so when one holds one’s reviewer in high regard, as I earnestly do. I have an enormous respect for Kevin Hart, who is not only a careful scholar but also a genuine artist, someone who brings together theology, philosophy, poetry, and the artistry of living in the manner called for by The Art of Anatheism. What is more, I was honored and humbled by Dr. Hart’s interest in the two works I co-edited. His review was thorough and thoughtful, engaging not only the volumes themselves but the philosophical currents that inspired them. Nevertheless, after reading the review I could not help but to feel that — out of fairness to our contributors who put so much time, care, and effort into their chapters — a couple of his claims necessitated responses.

First, Hart makes the assertion that “not many of the contributors have a rich knowledge of theology […] 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.” Admittedly, I myself have not undergone the type of rigorous theological training needed to plumb the depths of my own Roman Catholic tradition. But I don’t believe the same could be said of, say, Emmanuel Falque, who has written extensively on the Church Fathers — in particular, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine — as well as medieval theologians such as Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, and Erigena. John Panteleimon Manoussakis’s most recent book, The Ethics of Time (2017), proposes one of the more original, yet orthodox readings of Augustine’s Confessions in recent memory. It does so, in part, by developing key concepts such as the problem of movement (kinesis) in the thought of Maximus the Confessor, and the understanding of the diastemic nature of fallen creation in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, then relating them to contemporary thinkers, including theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Zizioulas. Another contributor, Marianne Moyaert, has spent her career developing the notion of “Comparative Theology,” which attempts to “help theologians to further develop their doctrinal traditions” by encouraging them to engage rigorously with the sacred texts of other faiths. And, as Hart rightly notes, Christina Gschwandtner has written clear and careful treatments of many theologians and philosophers of religion, including a remarkably thorough consideration of the works of Ephrem the Syrian, in one of the volumes under review. All these scholars possess a rich understanding of Christian theology. None of them, as far as I am aware, considers himself or herself to be a theological liberal. Nor, I think, would most impartial observers question the depth of theological understanding of some of the more renowned contributors to the volumes such as Julia Kristeva, Thomas Altizer, John Caputo, and Jean-Luc Nancy.

Second, Hart writes, “I found myself asking why almost all the contributors seem so uninterested in putting pressure on Kearney’s ideas. It is strange […] 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 assertion struck me as odd for two reasons. First, because The Art of Anatheism — which I co-edited with Kearney — makes plain that its purpose is to “further develop the anatheist proposal.” That is, to explore how “anatheism — the return to God after the death of God — opens naturally to a philosophy of theopoetics.” The import of Kearney’s thesis is, as expressly stated, to be assumed. Second, and more to the point, it is patently untrue that neither volume includes criticism of Kearney’s work. Indeed, the very critiques that Hart raises in his review are addressed at length. “One target of Kearney’s criticism,” he writes, “endorsed by several of his admirers, is Christian dogma […] before agreeing to dissolve or at least minimize reliance on doctrine, one might want to be given good reasons why one should do so.” A fair point — one which Marianne Moyaert explicitly makes in her essay “Anatheism and Inter-Religious Hospitality.” Distancing herself from Kearney, she writes:

I share with Kearney the firm conviction that a spirit of interreligious hospitality has the potential to break through the spiral of tribal tendencies, but I do not share his negative stance on dogmatic traditions. I do not think dogmatic theism necessarily excludes welcoming strange gods; matters are more nuanced.

Relying on documents such as Dei verbum (the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) and the writings of thinkers like John Henry Newman, Moyaert argues that her “particular dogmatic tradition contains theological resources for dialogue even though it also claims that in Christ, God’s revelation reaches its climax.” Agreeing with Hart’s assertion that “some dogmas, if not all of them, attempt to indicate mysteries,” she concludes that “Catholic theology also acknowledges that Deus semper maior est. Not only do we not grasp the fullness of his revelation; his gracious self-communication extends beyond the boundaries of our own Christian tradition.”

Hart writes: “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 […] not all the sacred is benign. Some of it is quite malign.” This critique finds echoes in both books under review. Manoussakis dedicates a sizable portion of his essay to “Destructive Poetics, Painful Pleasure, and the Erotics of Thanatos.” Freud, Nietzsche, Lacan, Sartre, and Deleuze factor heavily in this anatheistic reading of the death drive and its relation to the divine. Jacob Rogozinski, in “The Twofold Face of God,” examines the horrible ambiguity of the divine in the story of Abraham — the God who demands the sacrifice of Isaac. Jean-Luc Nancy and James Wood each provide critical challenges to anatheism from atheistic perspectives. (Nancy even counters Kearney’s interpretation of da Messina’s Annunciata, offering a reading of his own. Where Kearney reads the painting as the secular made sacred, Nancy reads it as the sacred made profane.) And L. Callid Keefe-Perry, in “The Wager That Wasn’t,” questions whether Kearney sets up an authentic wager at all — whether the risk of choosing a “malign” deity is even possible for the anatheist proposal. “Kearney wants anatheism to persist in a moment of true tension […] And yet, I cannot help but to wonder if, in fact, the philosopher doth protest too much.”

It is neither my job nor my intention to review the reviewer or even his review. I hesitated before writing this response. As I said above, I have nothing but respect for Kevin Hart, and I would not have written this had I not felt that I owed it to the exceptional scholars who contributed to the two volumes; I felt obligated to highlight the rigor and clarity of their work. It is my hope that this congenial reply fosters more dialogue around what I consider to be a vital topic, and that it emphasizes not only the exactness we demand of our scholars, but also the hospitality, generosity, and goodwill characteristic of all those engaged in a genuine pursuit of wisdom.


Kevin Hart’s Response to Matthew Clemente

Matthew Clemente thinks I have been a little rough with regard to the two collections of essays on Richard Kearney with which he has been involved. The review struck me as benign, all the more so because I put Kearney front and center in the review; he is not only a friend but also a philosopher whose itinerary is close to my own in some respects. In more than one way, Kearney and I belong to the same family, and I would like to see him treated well. That Clemente also wishes to treat him well is evident; and at heart we disagree more about the importance of historical knowledge and the proper treatment of intellectual positions than the rightness of the path Kearney has taken.

Doubtless that knowledge and treatment would have been more expressly articulated had I composed a long and careful essay on anatheism and its supporters. However, a review is a short piece, written partly to indicate to potential buyers if a given book is something they should own, and partly to maintain as high a standard of intellectual debate as is possible in the media. To be sure, I regret that so much discussion of religion these days is conducted without due knowledge of theology and the history of theology; it means that our intellectual engagements with religion, which are so important, are conducted with reference mainly to the living present, and often in ignorance of important distinctions, concepts, arguments, and practices. Clemente begins by conceding his own lack of “rigorous theological training,” which does not put him in a particularly good place from which to speak about my criticisms. He then identifies four contributors who, he thinks, are theologically well educated, one of whom I mention in the review for the depth of her knowledge of a writer in the early Church. Three contributors are defended, then, out of 35, which I take to be consistent with my judgment that “not many of the contributors have a rich knowledge of theology” [my emphasis].

Clemente also objects to my caveat that there is little offered by way of criticism of Kearney’s project. Any interesting idea benefits by having smart and well-educated people put pressure on it, and this can be done in all sorts of ways. One can examine examples that Kearney gives, ponder different ways of drawing distinctions than the ones he proposes, and explore counter-examples to his case. These things, along with several others, help the community to assess the value and strength of a position. What’s more, they help the author to sharpen his or her ideas and so produce the best work possible.

It’s true: I did not find enough of this critical practice in the two volumes under review. According to Clemente, my discontent was because I did not notice that the contributors sought to “further develop” Kearney’s ideas. On the contrary, I did; but I thought that the bulk of the two volumes simply didn’t engage those ideas at a level that would make anyone wish to take them up in preference to others that are also put before us in conferences, seminars, libraries, bookshops, journals, and the media. No doubt I could have applauded two friends, Emmanuel Falque and John Manoussakis, among others, for the depth of their philosophical and theological knowledge; and no doubt I could have thrown up my hands, for the umpteenth time, when reading Jean-Luc Nancy, who plays a very loose game with monotheism, and whose prose strikes me as rough and ready at best. But a review is a review, not an essay and not an exercise in grading term papers; and a review of two edited collections, with a total of 35 different contributions, must look a little more often to the mile than to the inch.


Matthew Clemente is a teaching fellow at Boston College specializing in philosophy of religion and contemporary continental thought. He is author of Out of the Storm: A Novella and is editor (with Richard Kearney) of The Art of Anatheism.

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.