Anatheism: A Third Way

“The biggest no to theism in our modern era,” writes Richard Kearney, “was not Nietzsche’s philosophical announcement of the death of “God” in 1882 but the actual disappearance of “God” from the world in the concentration camps of Europe in the 1940s.” (58) Following this disappearance, the question, according to John Caputo, is, “Who–or what–comes after the God of metaphysics?”

Richard Kearney presents ana-theism as a sort of third way between theism and atheism–a way of conceding the atheist critique of theism while maintaining the sense of the sacred, of transcendence and divinity in theism. He writes in the introduction: “Ana-theism: another word for another way of seeking and sounding the things we consider sacred but can never fully fathom or prove.”(3)

The term, anatheism, is taken from the Greek, ana, which could be translated as “after”, “again”, or “return”, and theos, which is, of course, God. Kearney thus uses anatheism as a way to say, “Returning to God after God.” In the wake of the death of God, it is an attempt, not to resurrect theism, but to embrace “a form of post-theism that allows us to revisit the sacred in the midst of the secular.” (57) Anatheism is a humble third way that

differs from dogmatic atheism in that it resists absolutist positions against the divine, just as it differs from the absolutist positions of dogmatic theism for the divine. It is a movement—not a state—that refuses all absolute talk about the absolute, negative or positive; for it acknowledges that the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)

I.

A central component of anatheism—perhaps, indeed, the central component—is hospitality. Kearney begins by examining moments of hospitality in the three great western monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In each episode that is considered, when hospitality is extended to the stranger, the guest, it is revealed that it is in fact God who has been welcomed.

Abraham is confronted by three strangers and faces the choice between hostility and hospitality. He chooses hospitality, opens his home to the strangers, shares a meal—breaks bread, we might say—with them, and it is then revealed that they are in fact messengers of God. Had he chosen hostility—perhaps the more rational choice in a hostile world—he would have effectively closed the door to the divine who arrived in the form of a guest.

Similarly, Mary is confronted with the choice between hostility and hospitality when the angel Gabriel appears at her door. She too chooses hospitality, and in so doing receives a message from God.

Jesus also appears to have a sense of this mysterious-mystical relationship between God and the stranger, identifying himself, in Matthew 25:31-46, with the stranger who is in need of food, water, and clothing. Those who followed Jesus’ advice to “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Matt. 5:42), it is revealed, have in fact extended their hospitality to Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke goes further in illustrating this point when Christ, having resurrected, appears to his disciples as a stranger whom they do not recognize. It is only after inviting in this strange guest and sharing a meal—again, the breaking of bread—that the stranger is suddenly revealed as Christ himself. As Kearney writes, “God is revealed après coup, in the wake of the encounter, in the trace of his passing . . . When God is revealed as having been present all the time, God is already gone.” (22)

Finally, Kearney discerns a similar moment of hospitality to the stranger-as-God in Islam, when Muhammad is met with an unfamiliar voice in the middle of the night in the solitude of a cave. Muhammad must choose whether to open himself up to the strange voice or recoil in fear and hostility. In choosing the former, he, like Abraham and Mary before him, receives a message from God.

All of these examples illustrate the way in which, as Kearney writes, “Love of guest becomes love of God.” (29) Rather than occupying some far off heavenly realm, “The divine, as exile, is in each human other who asks to be received into our midst.” (20)

II.

Anatheism, therefore, is a call to radical hospitality. Not uncritical hospitality, for “Not every stranger is divine” (45), but a hospitality that refuses to close the door to difference, to stop one’s ears and cover one’s eyes to the stranger simply in virtue of her being a stranger. To instead devote one’s discerning attention to the needs of the Other, who “is sacred in that she always embodies something else, something more, something other than what the self can grasp or contain.” (152) Our task is to translate the stranger without transforming her into what is familiar and comfortable—into another self. “But to open oneself to such radical attention one must,” Kearney writes, “abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of interconfessional hospitality can be born.” (52)

This Master God is the tribal God, the omnipotent deity who is decidedly one our side and not on the side of our enemies. “Anatheist hospitality,” however, “opposes such gnostic divides between friend and enemy, where God is always my ally and the Stranger my adversary.” (172) Rather, it is precisely through the face of the stranger that we discover God—a God who “is a promise, a call, a desire to love and be loved that cannot be at all unless we allow God to be God.” (52-53) This is the God of whom Bonhoeffer writes from his prison cell, who “is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (67) Kearney similarly writes that “the only God worthy of belief is a vulnerable and powerless one who suffers with us and is incapable of being relieved from this suffering unless we act against injustice.” (61)

III.

Anatheist spirituality, then, is not one of metaphysics and ontotheology but one of temporality and immanence: “[F]aith becomes a commitment not to some transcendental otherworld but to a deep temporality in which the divine dwells as the seed of possibility calling to be made ever more incarnate in the human and natural world.” (142) Again, it recognizes the atheist critique of theism and does not make attempts to cling to the Alpha-God of old, but rather to find a post-theist language which can, in conceding the death of God, nevertheless not ignore or categorically dismiss “this radical and recurring sense of something more—something ulterior, extra, and unexpected—that various religions call God.” (183)

It is a faith—if we dare use such a loaded term—that maintains “a deep mystical appreciation of something Other than our finite, human being: some Other we can welcome as a stranger if we can overcome our natural response of fear and trauma.” (180) In this sense, “God thus becomes a God after God, a God who no longer is but who may be again in the form of renewed life.” (80)

IV.

The reader may finally be wondering whether or not the anatheist will just come out and say whether or not she believes in God, and why or why not.

“[T]he anatheist,” according to Kearney, “at least when philosophizing, provisionally brackets out questions of ‘God’ and ‘religion.'” (75) In other words, it seems, the anatheist is, in addition to a hermeneutist, a bit of a phenomenologist, with this statement recalling Joseph Dabney Bettis’ following description of the phenomenologist as one who “brackets out the question of truth as ‘actually being the case’ to expose the question of truth as meaning.” (8) He continues:

If I should say, ‘I believe that the Bible is the Word of God’, the phenomenologist might say in reply, ‘Let us bracket out for the moment the question of whether or not your statement is true and ask the question, what do you mean by ‘believe’? It is not self-evident what you mean. Describe what you mean. (8)

In other words, the phenomenologist is not, at least in the first instance, as interested in the arguments for God’s existence that fill the pages of philosophers of religion’s books, but rather with the question of what names such as God even mean. After all, can we really discuss the existence of God before having agreed upon what we mean when we say God? W. Brede Kristensen recognizes this difficulty when he writes

When we consider the idea, ‘God’, even ignoring the fact that this is absent in Buddhism, we must conclude that there is no particular idea of deity which is everywhere applicable. And if we relinquish the given forms of particular ideas of deity in order to find that which is common behind them, we are then left with empty concepts. (44)

God, while perhaps having a fairly unified identity in the southwestern United States, where I grew up, is in fact a difficult figure to pin down. There are even different theological positions in Christianity—take the differences between Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism, for example—which, while agreeing upon the basic shell of who/what God is, seem to ultimately present deities with some pretty radical differences, and the acceptance of one or the other will likely affect one’s entire practice of Christianity (i.e., how one prays, worships, reads and interprets the Bible, etc.).

Does anatheism therefore simply ignore the question of God’s existence? No. Rather, “Anatheism tries to introduce reasonable hermeneutic considerations to the theist-atheist debate.” (171) It looks for meaning in the narratives of religious texts and indeed the name of God itself beyond the questions of literal history and existence. “Mindful of the inherent art of religion,” Kearney writes,

we are more likely to resist the temptations of fetishism and idolatry—that is, avoid taking the divine literally, as something we could presume to contain or possess. The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. Spiritual art may thus teach us that the divine stranger can never be taken for granted, can never be reduced to a collective acquis, but needs to be interpreted again and again. (14)

Anatheism recognizes that “The Bible, like most spiritual texts, is an assembly of fables, histories, chronicles, polemics, letters, and moral teachings as well as some inevitable primitive prejudices and errors” (169), while at the same time recognizing that “to say that holy Scriptures are made up of stories is not to say that they are just made up . . . For stories . . . can often reveal more essential and profound truths than histories that chronicle a mere sequence of events.” (170)

V.

Anatheism is, as has been said, a third way. A way of puncturing the false binaries and either/or reasoning of our western minds and suggesting that maybe—just maybe—there is more to the story. For this reason, Kearney emphasizes that anatheism should not be taken to be a static position, but rather a movement which, “Instead of never making up its mind . . . is always making up its mind.” (184) Therefore, he concludes, we might best think of anatheism as an adjective: “I make a distinction here . . . between anatheist atheism and antitheist atheism, on the one hand, and between anatheist theism and dogmatic theism, on the other.” (184) In the end, then, while Kearney makes no bones about his suspicion of theism, the anatheist may or may not believe in something that we could call “God,” and whether or not she does, she attempts to maintain an aversion to dogma and a healthy skepticism toward any word that claims to be the final Word.

 

Notes

Bettis, James Dabney, ed., Phenomenology of Religion. (New York, Harper & Row, 1969).

Kearney, Richard, Anatheism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Kristensen, W. Bede, From The Meaning of Religion, tr. John B. Carmen, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1960, in Phenomenology of Religion, James Dabney Bettis, ed., (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

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