Can we say anything about God? If so, how? (Part 3 of ‘The Anaphatic Way’)

III. Is/Is not and Narrative as a means of retrieving speech about God.

In The God Who May Be, Kearney admits that it is hard to ‘nickname’ to his hermeneutical method.[1] Kearney admits the difficulty of placing his hermeneutics in a particular box, but he is quick to affirm that he does want to “float, nonetheless, a number of tentative quasi-names—or what [he] might call methodological pseudonyms.”[2] Names that are ‘floated’ have some insecurity, always at risk of being sunk by a rogue wave of critique which exposes the name as lacking ‘buoyancy.’ Kearney states that these names are not really names, but quasi-names. They are partially accurate names; names that only go to a certain extent; superficial names that cannot express the content of his method in its fullness.

Kearney calls his hermeneutics dynamatology (to emphasize his movement away from metaphysics of actuality and the onto-theology that it produces and towards thinking about God as a possibility, a potentiality), metaxology (to stress the mediating way between two extreme absolutes of negative theology and theologies of monstrosity), and finally, metaphorology.[3] Metaphorology speaks of Kearney’s view that religious language as being “an endeavor to say something (however hesitant and provisional) about the unsayable.”[4] In his explanation of the pseudonym metaxology, Kearney eliminates from his hermeneutic, the traditional negative and mystical theology on account of the apophatic theologian’s tendency to turn God into a “hyper-ascendant deity.”[5] Kearney is unsettled by the ensuing consequences of a radical apophasis, namely “that no hermeneutics of interpreting, imagining, symbolizing, or narrativizing is really acceptable.”[6] In other words, while Kearney may be drawn to the negations and deconstructive potentiality of apophasis for the purpose of purging religion of onto-theology and other idols, he is repelled by the pessimism of the via negativa regarding human capacities to, at the very least, say something about God even if it is admitted that it is just babble. Anselm K. Min rightly states that the “sheer silence about God also means sheer irrelevance of God for human existence.”[7] It is this irrelevant God that Kearney is searching to avoid. Why bother speaking about the Unspeakable if there is nothing worth saying that will even begin to render some substantial meaning for us to live life with? The unspeakability, or in Kearney’s language, the ‘unrecogniziability’ of the Other, of God results in a closure to life, creativity, ethics, and possibility. If even a degree of “hermeneutic stitching and weaving” of connections between the self and the Other is impossible, then how can we “keep alive the practice of responsible judgment and justice. For how are we to address [and incarnate] otherness at all if it becomes totally unrecognizable to us?”[8]

Kearney’s disinclination toward a full-bodied negative theology is an indication of his conviction that language is possible; but, language used to speak about religious ‘texts’ (again, ‘texts’ is not to be taken literally) is inherently metaphorical. Kearney defines metaphor along the lines of an (ironically) literal translation of the Greek which has connotations of “to carry over or between,” “to transfer,” or “to transport.”[9] Thus, metaphors are highways between words that may have little or no similarities. Within the metaphor, there is a tenor and a vehicle which again suggest metaphors as means of transferring meaning from one to another.[10]

Metaphors are not simply figures of speech that are predicated toward God who cannot be spoke of literally. They are also loci for interplay between different ‘texts’—not just physical works, but also metaphorical ‘texts’ like our inner selves or the Divine. Metaphors are a middle way, a metaxy, between the extremes of abyssal silence (apophatic) and overly confident literality (kataphatic) of God-talk.[11] Metaphors give meaning but are not exact. There is a certain ‘give’ to metaphors. Sometimes artists or writers are permitted poetic or artistic license that prevents them from being chastised for stretching language, or images, to its limits in describing often indescribable ideas or things. As such, there are multiple ways of expressing the meaning of something with the help of the one or more metaphors.

Metaphors bind together dissimilar subjects and/or objects in an is/is not relation. This is an inherent tension, Ricoeur says. The metaphor is true, in one or more senses. But it is also not true, in one or more senses. God is our Father (as Love). God is not our Father (as object of our infantile dependency).[12] The American physician-turned-writer Walker Percy described “metaphor as mistake” suggesting that “the feature of metaphor which has most troubled philosophers: that it is ‘wrong’—it asserts of one thing that it is something else—and further, that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.”[13] But, metaphor still points us to a truth that is behind the literal truth; it can shed light on an “otherwise ineffable” truth of being.[14]

From a theological perspective, we see a very similar judgment in Denys Turner’s work. He writes that “it is in the nature of metaphors that they succeed in conveying the truths which they convey only on the condition that they are recognized to be literal falsehoods, for it is part of their metaphorical meaning that they are literally false.”[15] Again, we see the Ricoeurean tension that Kearney picks up on: metaphors knit together dissimilarities in an is/is not relation. “The stranger before me both is God (as transcendent Guest) and s not God (as screen of my projections and presumptions).”[16] Metaphoric imagination in religious experience is not uncommon; in fact, metaphor in theology and spirituality is fundamental to our ability to speak of anything that we cannot sense or study. Meaning visits us in metaphor: meaning comes to us underneath the guise of being something else. In biblical narratives, God becomes in one sense or another, a metaphor: God is the meaning behind the text, behind the person, behind the event.

Metaphors can issue forth through various means, but the narrative is the essential bedrock in which metaphors can be sown and harvested. The God Who May Be, On Stories, and Strangers, Gods, and Monsters are each a part of a triad that Kearney calls “Philosophy at the Limits.” By this he means that he makes the wager “that we are beings at the limit.”[17] We are limited by our finite existence to a clouded vision of the world; we are at the limits of our knowledge, sensation, perspective, language, and the inherited understanding of the world. But, Kearney surmises that despite our limitations, “the human self has never ceased to ponder its boundaries or to imagine what lies beyond.”[18] Existence is characterized by disorientation, undecidability, “blurred…intellectual boundaries,” “no credible authorit[ies]”, especially when it comes to the question of what or who is beyond the limits—God? Abyss?[19]

In the midst of the societal, social, cultural, political, scientific, and religious upheavals—in other words, when the pre-modern world gave way to Enlightenment and when postmodernity began to deconstruct modernity—a fundamental human capacity has remained: our ability to tell stories. Thus, Kearney also makes the wager that “we are beings who narrate.”[20] It is narrative which grants beings at the limits to “say the unsayable as if it were somehow sayable.”[21] How does this happen?

At first read, Kearney gives the impression that he is a theologian. While he expressly denies this label, he still seems to be practising theology. What with all his talk about God and religion, is it not theology? As I asked at the outset, is Kearney an apophatic theologian? I realize now that he is not an apophatic. But I also failed to realize that he is not a theologian nor is he really theologizing. Rather, he is theopoeticizing. The term ‘theopoetics’ is relatively recent, coming from the 1960s-70s, but the idea of theopoetics is, arguably, as old as religion itself.[22] That is because theopoetics is the art of speaking, thinking, imagining the Divine. “Theopoetics,” writes Matt Guynn, “stands in contrast to many styles of theological…practice which might be loosely categorized as ‘onto-theo-logic’….in which logic and rational ‘truth’ rises above the search for wisdom, asserts that we must accept or reject an asserted reality, at which point the writer’s (preacher’s, activist’s) task is over.”[23] Poetics, on the other hand, generates constant creation and interpretation. It is never finished, always in process, always becoming.

Poetic images—ideas, words, and other ways of speaking and thinking about God—are “all we have for the Divine,” Kearney maintains. He continues, “Theological and philosophical concepts of the Divine as a being are just poetic images that are just forgotten that they are poetic images and have, as it were, relinquished the art of poeticizing which is what religion is.”[24] Theologies and philosophies of religion are in fact theopoetic portrayals of the Divine can have lose their consciousness of being not literal but rather metaphors, symbols, linguistic constructs that are meager, albeit beautiful and necessary, attempts to say something about God. In the anatheist wager, religion is/is not art and therefore is to be understood as figural rather than literal; but, this does not mean that religion is fictious.[25] As seen in Percy’s example, metaphor is true but in a totally different sense from literal truth.


[1] See Kearney, The God Who May Be, p. 6.

[2] Kearney, The God Who May Be, p. 6.

[3] See Kearney, The God Who May Be, p. 6-7

[4] Kearney, The God Who May Be, p. 7.

[5] Kearney, The God Who May Be, p. 7.

[6] Kearney, The God Who May Be, p. 7.

[7] Anslem K. Min, “Naming the Unnamable God: Levinas, Derrida, and Marion,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 60, no. 1-3 (December 2006): p. 99

[8] Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, p. 10.

[9] See Kearney, Anatheism, p. 15.

[10] I.A. Richards created the categories of ‘vehicle’ and ‘tenor’ in 1936. Richard Bradford summarizes these categories as follows: “The ‘tenor’ of the metaphor is its principal subject, the topic addressed….The ‘vehicle’ is the analogue or the subject carried over from another field of reference to that of the subject….” (Richard Bradford, Stylistics (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 28.

[11] Kearney, The God Who May Be, p. 8.

[12] Ricoeur remarks “Biblical faith represents God—the God of the prophets and the God of the Christian Trinity—as a Father. Atheism teaches us to renounce this father image. Overcome as an idol, the father image may be recovered as a symbol, however. As a symbol it would be a parable of the ground of love…” (Paul Ricoeur, “Religion, Atheism, and Faith,” in The Religious Significance of Atheism, 60-98 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 98.)

[13] Walker Percy, “Metaphor as Mistake,” The Sewanee Review (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 66, no. 1 (Winter 1958): p. 81.

[14] Percy, “Metaphor as Mistake,” p. 88. Percy writes: “…I cannot know anything at all unless I symbolize it. We can only conceive being, sidle up to it by laying something else alongside. We approach the thing not directly but by pairing, by apposing symbol and thing.” He also adds: “The essence of metaphorical truth and the almost impossible task of the poet is, it seems to me, to name unmistakably and yet to name by such a gentle analogy that the thing behild by both of us may be truly formulated for what it is” (Percy, “Metaphor as Mistake,” p. 89).

[15] Turner, The Darkness of God, p. 37.

[16] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 15.

[17] Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, p. 230.

[18] Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, p. 230.

[19] Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, p. 230.

[20] Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, p. 230.

[21] Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, p. 230.

[22] The term emerged primarily in the work of Stanley Hopper, David Leroy Miller and Amos Wilder. See Amos Niven Wilder, Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).

[23] Matthew Guynn, “Theopoetics: That the Dead May Become Gardeners Again,” Cross Currents 56, no. 1 (Spring 2006): p. 100.

[24] Richard Kearney, interview by David Cayley. “After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion.”

[25] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 14-15.

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