The Anaphatic Way – Introduction

Humans have been babbling, chattering, and making other noises about things ‘wholly other’ since the advent of what we could define as language. But even before that, there was a (divine?) itch to ‘speak’ about Transcendence, God, the gods, or the Divine, even if it was through rudimentary images painted on cave walls.[1] Generations after generations of theologians, professional and lay alike, continue to be puzzled by bland truisms such as “How can we speak about God?” or “What can we say about God?” Some have even ventured as far as to ask the more disturbing question “Why do we feel the need to say anything at all?” These are the most rudimentary questions that theology asks and are also of significance to the average believer, though they may not be conscious that they ask these same questions. Richard Kearney asks all three of these questions, most explicitly in The God Who May Be, Anatheism: Returning to God After God, and the many articles and dialogues that have ensued since.[2] Kearney’s hermeneutics of religion tables a moderating voice in the ‘God Debates’ between atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and theists, mostly Christian apologists seeking to put an end to atheistic naturalism. No real ground has been made by either side because that’s just the problem: they have posted their battle lines publicly and refuse to budge. This polarizing debate has recently been entered into by thinkers from all sorts of confessions (and anti-confessions) who propose a middle way. Richard Kearney is one such thinker who has evidently been faced with the very real and pressing critiques of belief, God, and faith, and sought to account for those critiques while remaining open to the possibility of faith becoming new in a time when hope, justice, love, and responsibility to others are needed now more than ever as we witness and experience social, political, economic, existential, and religious upheavals on a daily basis.

The most elementary question that I am seeking to ask here is: Can Richard Kearney be considered an apophatic thinker?[3]That said, it seems to me that there are many flavours of the apophatic way that we really can’t speak of it as some sort of monolithic theological idea. It may be best, then, to speak of via negativas, negative ways, apophatic theologies, rather than one via or one via negativa and one apophatic theology. So, is Kearney an apophatic thinker?

A. Our itinerary.

How do I go about filling out this question of Kearney’s relationship to the via negativa?

  1. First, I sketch out the contours of the via negativa, the religious and atheistic senses of the term.
  2. Second, I show how Kearney does invoke the via negativa for the purpose of ‘corrective surgery’ in religious belief.
  3. Third, I examine how Kearney’s anxiety regarding an unfettered via negativa keeps us from calling him an apophatic.
  4. Fourth, I make an effort to demonstrate that Kearney’s hermeneutics of religion is inherently grounded in metaphor, narrative, and poetics.
  5. Fifth, I describe the Holocaust as the greatest ‘negation’ of God. The Holocaust is an apophatic event, driving us away from speaking about God. It was not Nietzsche’s proclamation of the ‘death of God,’ nor the virulent critiques of other confessional atheists, nor the militant anti-God squad of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Why and how was the Holocaust the cataclysmic ‘no’ to God? And is it still ‘no’?
  6. Finally, I show how Kearney chooses not to leave ‘God’ to be the subject (object?) of the philosophers and theologians, but to allow God to become God in the Stranger, in the holiness of the ordinary. The sacramental imagination is the re-affirmation of God in the wake of negation.

In short, I argue that Kearney cannot be considered an apophatic thinker in the traditional sense, but rather a traversing thinker with a particular penchant for narrative and imagination that allows him to negate certain conceptions of God while returning again “endeavor[ing] to say something (however hesitant and provisional).”[4] Silence, then speech, then silence, then speech again. This is the “ana-phatic” way of Richard Kearney, the “retrieval of speech after silence.”[5]

B. Definition of Anatheism

Kearney’s more recent work, Anatheism, is a significant stage on which negations and affirmations play out. As such, I will be referring primarily to his notion of the ‘anatheist wager.’ The first word, ‘anatheist,’ suggests both a returning to God (oneself to the Divine Other) and a return of God (the Divine Other to oneself) after abandonment, disbelief, doubt, or death. Kearney capitalizes on the ana prefix’s connotation of ‘up,’ ‘back,’ ‘again,’ in his assertion that anatheism is characterized by “repetition and return.”[6] The anatheist returns not to a “anterior state of perfection;” in other words, it is not merely ‘going back’ to where one came from without there being any change.[7] Rather, anatheism is the experience of ‘recollecting’ “a primordial wager…an inaugural instant of reckoning at the root of belief.”[8] That is to say, the choice to believe or not believe—a ‘wager’ marked not by cunning calculation, fear of punishment, or some other disingenuous reason. After one makes their choice, they ‘repeat’ this choice forward.[9] One then creatively ‘retrieves’ from the past, applying the ‘retrieved’ to the present, in the hope of something impossible becoming possible in the future. But in the process of this retrieval, there is an inevitable, necessary, and powerful work of interpretation and re-interpretation. The anatheist wager, then, is marked by going back via “not-knowing”—through negation, through abandonment—to retrieve belief in a new way, to believe again for the first time, to come to a “second faith.”[10]


[1] In the intersection of negative theology, atheism, theism, and agnosticism, we have to ask what we mean by ‘God.’ This is vital because anatheism, as will be pointed out later, wields a ‘double-edged’ sword of affirmation and denial (suspicion) that cuts through dogmatic theisms and militant atheism. But if affirmation and denial takes place, the inevitable question must be considered: ‘Which God?’ Which God are we affirming? More to the point, which God are we denying? Denys Turner paraphrases this issue as “unless, dear atheist [or anatheist, or critical theist], you are denying what the true believer affirms, all you are doing is rejecting an idolatry that the true believer anyway rejects…” (Denys Turner, “On Denying the Right God: Aquinas on Atheism and Idolatry,” Modern Theology 20, no. 1 (January 2004): 142). This raises a myriad of other questions as who the ‘true believer’ is and if it is even possible to clearly define ‘what’ that ‘true believer’ believes is ‘God’. At best, we are left to interpret (and re-interpret again and again) what is meant by ‘God’ and to be open to standing corrected by the ‘true believer’. However, the ‘true believer’ must also be open to the interpretation of the other who can perhaps see a bit more clearly, some areas and blind spots that remain otherwise unnoticed.

[2] See Richard Kearney, interview by David Cayley, “After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion, Part 1,” Ideas, CBC Radio, Toronto, April 30, 2012; Richard Kearney, interview by David Cayley, “The God Who May Be,” Ideas, CBC Radio, Toronto, January 8, 15, 22, 2010. A series of dialogues between Kearney and Charles Taylor, John Caputo, Merold Westphal, James Wood, and others is to be published in a compedium Returning to God after God, ed. Jens Zimmerman (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, Forthcoming).

[3]My first foray into Richard Kearney’s two works that can be called (with qualifications) ‘theological’—The God Who May Be and Anatheism—was ill-informed as to what exactly the via negativa and apophatic theologyare. I use ‘thinker’ rather than ‘theologian’ because Kearney himself admits that he is no theologian. Moreover, ‘thinker’ his trans-disciplinary approach to his studies to come to the forefront rather than a partisan term like ‘scientist,’ ‘sociologist,’ ‘philosopher,’ ‘poet,’ etc.

[4] Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), p. 7.

[5] Kearney coins the term “ana-phatic” as a sub-genre of the anatheistic wager to describe the “retrieval of speech after silence.” See Richard Kearney, “Epiphanies of the Everyday: Toward a Micro-Eschatology,” in After God: Richard Kearney and the Religious Turn in Continental Philosophy, ed. John Panteleimon Manoussakis (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), p. 8.

[6] Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009),  p. 6.

[7] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 6-7.

[8] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 7.

[9] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 7.

[10] “Second faith” is a play off of Ricoeur’s “second naïveté.” See Kearney, “Epiphanies of the Everyday: Toward a Micro-Eschatology,” p. 7.

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