This is the first post of four that considers Richard Kearney’s new book Anatheism: Returning to God After God. More information about the book can be found on the Columbia University Press site here, and interested readers may also want to check out Kearney’s recent article, “Sacramental Imagination: Eucharists of the Ordinary Universe” in the open access journal Analecta Hermeneutica, which can be accessed here. In this article, Kearney explores some of the topics that are very similar to parts of the book, especially the work of Merleau-Ponty and several modern novelists.
Summary: Kearney opens the book with a reflection on his first experience in a 1977 seminar with Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur asked the students: d’ou parlez-vous? Where do you speak from? In several ways, this question guides Kearney’s approach throughout the book. Kearney retraces some of his broad intellectual journey in the preface, touching on his time spent traveling and encountering various thinkers from outside of his Christian tradition, studying under Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas for his dissertation, dialogues with his friends Jacques Derrida and Jack Caputo over the years, and, significantly, his time much earlier in his life studying with Benedictine monks in Ireland. One of the key moments that Kearney calls attention to was a doctrine class in which the monks insisted that the students read strong arguments against the existence of God before even considering whether God might exist.
In this way, one of the central parts of the anatheist wager of faith is that atheism is indispensable. Readers who are familiar with Paul Ricoeur’s hemeneutics of suspicion and hermeneutics of affirmation will no doubt see the influence of Kearney’s teacher here, and the book can pretty much be seen as a recasting of these themes in constant dialog with a hospitality to the stranger. Indeed, if there is any “starting point” to Anatheism, it is Kearney’s recourse to the hermenetics of the stranger (this is further evidenced by his course going on in the Spring at Boston College). The book is similar in spirit to Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith, but somewhat different in content. Westphal’s book takes up a very close reading of Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, Ricoeur’s “masters of suspicion,” whereas Kearney’s book focuses more on what could be broadly called contemporary culture.
I think the best way to understand the logic behind the book is as an attempt to open up space for dialog in the return of the religious, and Kearney alludes to both the religious turn in Continental philosophy and the antireligious turn in the “secularism” of authors such as Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett. I view Kearney’s proposal as pretty modest, and for those of us already reading work in Continental philosophy of religion, little of what Kearney takes as his approach will be controversial.
Turning to the introduction, Kearney introduces anatheism with the unfortunate appeal to the nefarious “third way,” here between what Kearney calls dogmatic theism and militant atheism (pg. 3). While I think this opens up some interesting questions, the language of the third way is a bit presumptuous, and is not actually what Kearney is up to in the book. Later, he says that “anatheism is nothing particularly new” (pg. 7). Much of the book will actually be descriptive of moments that Kearney takes to be indicative of anatheism.
In part 1, Kearney will approach “anatheistic moments” in a very broad sense. Such moments are those that gravitate between atheism and theism. He will first focus on the world religions, then attempt some description of the “anatheist wager” and finally turn to political and religious messianism in a chapter on philosophy after Auschwitz. Part 2 is more specific than the rest of the book, although still somewhat tentative. Here Kearney considers “the sacramental imagination” in ch. 4 with Merleau-Ponty and Kristeva and in ch. 5 with Proust, Joyce, and Woolf. Finally, part 3 sees Kearney turn to the practical import of anatheism in the lives of people such as Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier, and Gandhi after first making some comments on the secular and sacred.
Comments/critique: One of the major problems that Kearney refers to in the preface is how anatheism is distinct from atheism. The preface ana- means after, and thus we have after-theism. It seems evident that Kearney remains sympathetic to Christianity, but another question that I think needs to be on one’s mind while reading the book is how anatheism differs from agnosticism. Perhaps the only way to really define “anatheism” is with Kearney’s words at the end of the introduction that “the choice of faith is never taken once and for all. It needs to be repeated again and again – every time we speak in the name of God or ask why he abandoned us” (pg. 16).
After reading the book, I think that it may actually be understood as “clearing ground.” I realize that I’ve attributed this to the preface and introduction just now, but that is largely what I take Anatheism to be about. I consider myself to be pretty sympathetic to what Kearney is doing, but I think the book opens itself up to be so wide that it doesn’t cover anything with specific rigor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and Kearney mentions in the book that there are two companion books in the works on non-Abrahamic religions. Still, I think there is room for more in the way of what Kearney discusses in part 2, although as an introductory work, the book fares pretty well. I will hopefully draw some more specific questions that I had out of the book as I continue the summaries this week.