A Personal Preface, Pt 1
This being human is a guesthouse;
Every morning a new arrival.
The hermeneutic that I have adopted for interpreting and understanding the world I live can be summed up in Richard Kearney’s word anatheism. It informs my thinking, directs my language, creates new ideas, and is slowly emerging into the daily praxis of my life. I first stumbled upon Kearney’s work on anatheism last December while doing some transcription work for a professor at my university. Though I’ve been immersed in the often overly abstract world of academic theology, I had the worst time trying to understand what was being said in the conversation that I was transcribing. Canadian philosopher and public intellectual Charles Taylor and Boston College professor of philosophy Richard Kearney were having a nice three-hour chat about Kearney’s latest work entitled Anatheism: Returning to God after God (surprise!). I struggled quite a bit with the philosophical language that the two were using. But 28 hours later, which is how long it took me to get a pretty accurate transcription, I had a fairly basic picture of Kearney’s ideas. As a side note, I had no idea transcription work would be so intensive. But I literally spent more than a fully day listening to the lecture, over, and over, and over, and over.
A few weeks later, I was transcribing a conversation between literary critic James Wood and Kearney. It was a fascinating and mature dialogue between Kearney, a self-described anatheist, and Wood, an atheist. It was, in the language of Kearney, an opportunity for a radical sort of hospitality where the atheist was welcomed into the conversation about God and faith, not as an opponent, but as a fellow sojourner. This, to me, was radical to say the least. But Wood’s humility, intellectual honesty, openness, and conviction were refreshing. I admit sheepishly that atheists were never seen by me as possible dialogue partners, but only as adversaries (a notion I grew up with), or annoying critics who made my life messy and confusing as I wrestled with questions about faith. They became a nuisance.
The ideas proposed by Kearney were compelling and at a time when I was trying to uncover, albeit reluctantly, the possibility of a return to faith, I was interested in learning more. So I read Kearney’s book while in Texas at my cousin’s wedding. I couldn’t get over the intellectual rigour of Kearney’s thought and the amazing practical work that emerges in Kearney’s own life (The Guestbook Project). It also gave me hope for finally walking the delicately balanced rope between thought and action. Four years in university had exhausted me and I was desperate for real work in the everyday world. Life happens. Academics had become an escape for me, an excuse not to act. Thinking about things was the perfect reason not to do anything.
While reading the book in Texas, I had an interesting encounter that brought the Kearney’s call to radical hospitality to life (which is just an echo of a powerful ethic of hospitality found in the great religious traditions). While driving to Dallas on the I-30, my sister’s friend’s car began to overheat. So in 95 degree heat, we pumped up the heater to keep the car cool as I called my dad to ask for advice. Needless to say, it was quite toasty. As the temperature gauge began to creep up, we finally decided to pull off the highway into a Wendy’s parking lot. I am entirely ignorant when it comes to vehicles. I know how to change the oil but that is about it. As my dad gave me instructions on what to do and what not to do with the radiator, a dark sedan with tinted windows pulled up a few spaces away. A Latino man in his mid-30s sat with the window rolled down.
I did not grow up in the most diverse community. Coupled with a suspicion of immigrants (especially anyone from south of the border), cultivated in the context of a relatively conservative religious and political community, my lack of experience and introversion made for a big wall to climb in order to interact with people who were different from me. One would think after four years of university in one of the most diverse regions in Canada, the Greater Vancouver area, I would have gained a greater appreciation and general warmth towards people of other ethnicities and backgrounds. The Christian university I attended, which has hosted North Korean teachers, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs as students, was a microcosm of the wider diversity. Yet my suspicions and stereotypes, I am sad to say, had remained remarkably intact.
Hot, stressed, and not sure what to do about the overheating car, I consciously kept a close eye on our Wendy’s parking lot neighbour. Here I was in an unfamiliar city with two women, one of whom was my sister, and I only had a cell phone. I fumbled around with various pieces of the engine and took uninformed glances at various parts of the engine as my dad instructed me on the phone. Then it happened. The man next to us got out of his car. I hoped he was just going to Wendy’s but instead he headed straight towards us.
“Do you need help.” The man asked.
“Uh, yeah.” I replied, looking worriedly at my sister and her friend, feeling a bit of unsure if I had made the right choice in accepting his assistance.
The man mechanically checked different parts of the engine, doing many of the things my dad explicitly told me not to do, like open the radiator fluid cap. But this man seemed completely unfazed. He knew what he was doing. After a few minutes he finally diagnosed the problem for us: the radiator fan motor looked broken. We asked him if we could still get to the north end of Dallas and he said probably.
We thanked the man for his help. Just as he was about to turn and walk away I realized I was at a pivotal moment of choice. Here I had been reading a great deal about hospitality, the stranger, sacred moments in the ordinary day, encountering the Other who is different from us, and I had a chance to act in accordance with these ideas. I had a chance to enflesh, incarnate, bear witness to these ideas. The word become flesh.
I stuck my hand out, hoping he would respond warmly. “I’m Ryan. What’s your name?”
“Jose.” He replied. I thanked him again. (Yes, his name actually was Jose.)
We shook hands.
Part two will follow.