Sunday, 14 November 2010


Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God after God (Columbia Univ. Press 2010) argues (I quote from Patrick Gardner's Expositions review):
Ever since Nietzsche pronounced the death of God, philosophy has been searching for a second opinion.... [some] grant that the traditional God has met his demise, but they reason that if only a few conditions are met, religion could carry on post-mortem; it could return to God after his death. Among Nietzsche’s progeny are theorists of the well-known “religious turn,” the rebellious teenagers of post-metaphysical thought. They prove resourceful in their attempts to modify theological concepts, developing new perspectives on religion capable of overcoming the life-negating parodies of ages past. But how are we to think posthumously in a culture so deprived of its taste for higher things? And more importantly, what kind of God can we expect to rise from this modern graveyard?

One answer to this question is provided by Richard Kearney in his latest work, Anatheism: Returning to God After God. Having studied with two pioneers of the “religious turn,” Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas, it is unsurprising that Kearney has risen to prominence among religious thinkers in the continental tradition. From his earliest work, Heidegger et la Question de Dieu (1981) to his more recent, The God Who May Be (2001), Kearney has been haunted by the question of God’s fate in a postmodern world.1 In Anatheism, he specifically addresses the challenge of man’s return to the sacred at the dawn of the third millennium. He offers readers a “philosophical story” (xvii), introducing 'reasonable hermeneutic considerations into the theist-atheist debate' (171). According to this story, modern disenchantment is a symptom, not of atheism, but of a pervasive and dogmatic sense of security. Kearney’s self-appointed task, then, is to unsettle believers and nonbelievers alike, to guide them into a post-theism and a post-atheism. Faith, either in God or his absence, can never be a possession or a finished product. It is rather a wager made again and again, constantly renewed to remain enduringly authentic. But to wager rightly, man must be a proficient interpreter of his own experience. Even the God-denier must accurately interpret the God he denies. Thus underlying the wager of faith should be a disposition of hospitality toward the Other who exceeds all of our self-certainties. Such a disposition fosters openness to the divine as the stranger always remaining beyond our comprehension: the third way along which a renewed quest for God can proceed. This, according to Kearney, is the path of anatheism: a “religion of agnostics,” as Wilde called it, defined and inspired by a space of “holy insecurity” (5) and radical humility.
There's something very attractive sounding about this, I'll concede; although it also seems to me to betray its bias. 'Even the God-denier must accurately interpret the God he denies' only carries the weight Kearney needs it to if the God-believer is instructed equally to interpet the absence-of-God he denies. But these two things cannot be equally balanced, partly because the world is mostly believers, and the discursive gravity-field of belief shapes so many of our assumptions; but mostly because Kearney is asking the non-believer to contemplate the possibility (which he denies) of transcendence, where the believer must be asked to contemplate the possibility of his own idiotic credulity, and these are very different things. This, indeed, in various ways undermines a project like Kearney's: it can't quite rinse off the odour of 'my heart wants to believe, my head tells me it's all nonsense, so I shall try and reconcile these two impulses in favour of the former...' It's wishful thinking in the strictest, most demanding sense of the phrase.

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