God After Auschwitz (Part 4 of ‘The Anaphatic Way’)

IV. Speaking about or in the name of God after Auschwitz.

The subtitle, “After Auschwitz who can say God?,” of Kearney’s third chapter in Anatheism gives us a more concrete vantage point from which to look at Kearney’s interest in the question of speaking of God. “The biggest ‘no’ to theism in our modern era,” writes 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.”[1] Kearney sustains a post-Holocaust consciousness—an acute sense that the monstrosity of the Holocaust cannot simply go unnoticed or unanswered by any mature thinking, political, religious, social, or otherwise. After World War II, “one can’t believe again in the same way…The God of theodicy, the omnipotent, the omni-God, the alpha God who is going to come to our rescue, who has a plan for us all, a providence…Who can believe in that? What’s left?”[2]

The Holocaust must be seriously and carefully wrestled with if one is to speak of or about God. On a purely historic, social, and political level, the Holocaust might be explained to some degree. It is a situation of ethnic and religious cleansing. But once one considers the Holocaust with the ‘illumination’ of theology, we enter a darkness and silence, the fires that burns faith with fierce intensity. While God has been questioned for centuries, the Holocaust is the ferocious wind that turns a few flames into a raging fire. The fire of the crematorium was certainly a literal fire, but also a metaphorical fire that engulfs our presuppositions, authorized theologies, pietisms and, in a criticism far more scorching than philosophical treatises or any popular account by atheists, calls into question God ‘himself.’

Scholar and rabbi Eugene Borowitz observes that while Christianity wrestled with the philosophical pronouncements against God in the twentieth century, Judaism was not fazed by this realization that “empiricist-oriented philosophers found it difficult to speak meaningfully about a nonempirical God.”[3] However, despite the Jewish ability to avert the challenges of empirical and positivistic critiques of religion, the Holocaust could not be avoided so easily. The concrete event of suffering went much deeper into the Jewish consciousness. The Holocaust (Shoah) became the foremost challenge to Jewish thought. Strangely, Borowitz observes, “the Holocaust under Hitler could somehow be ignored by Christian scholars talking about the reality of God, but for Jews it was the central question.”[4]

Robert Allen Brown’s recollection of his visit to the Birkenau death camp epitomizes the inner clash yet mutual affection between the via negativa, or the hermeneutics of suspicion, (atheistic and religious) and the hermeneutics of affirmation, and the possibility of an anaphatic way. The Holocaust is the intersection where these two paths inevitably engage in an exhaustive dialogue where the denial of God seems to have the upper hand and any affirmations of God, faith, hope, and love appear mortally wounded. Brown writes:

…on the roof of one of the crematoria at Birkenau, the death camp of Auschwitz, on a gray, cheerless day in the summer of 1979…I reflect: if Golgotha revealed the sense of God-forsakenness of one Jew, Birkenau multiplies that anguish at least three and a half million times. For the rest of my life, this crematorium will represent the most powerful case against God, the spot where one could—with justice—denounce, deny, or (worst of all) ignore God, the God who was silent. Of what use are words at such a time? So many cried out to God at this spot and were not heard. Human silence today seems the only appropriate response to divine silence yesterday. We remain silent.  Our silence is deafening. And then it comes—first from the lips of one man, Elie Wiesel (standing in the camp where thirty-five years earlier his life and family and faith were destroyed), and then in a mounting chorus from others, mostly Jews, the great affirmation: Shema Yisroel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echod, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. At the place where the name of God could have been agonizingly denied, the name of God is agonizingly affirmed—by those with most reason to deny. I shake in the tension between my impulse to deny and their decision to affirm. Because of having stood at Birkenau, it is now impossible for me to affirm God in the ways I did before. Because of having stood at Birkenau with them, it is now possible for me to affirm God in ways I never did before.[5]

Brown captures the essence anatheist wager’s tension in speaking and affirming God in the wake of suffering. Denial, negation, and silence are moments in the anatheist wager; but they are just that: moments. This affirmation and belief is not a casual ascent to a series of ideas or statements. This is an affirmation that is birthed out of the ‘death’ of everything that was once certain about the world and the world beyond it. This is an affirmation that is rebuilt out of the wreckage and ruins. So was Brown simply affirming the same ‘God’ that he believed in prior to the experience of the Holocaust and its repercussions? It is hard to say, but more than likely not. One thing is clear in the anatheist wager: affirmation is not a simple about-face and restoration of previously held and subsequently given up conceptions of God. Affirmation is not repetition of old ways, but the encounter with new possibilities of thinking and speaking about God.

One wants to deny, being suspicious of any and all speech about God. One wants to give up on God. One wants to be silent. Not only that, but, one feels drawn to denial. One feels compelled to deny and to be silent about God for the sake of honouring the six million victims of the Shoah. One feels that they must do so because to speak about a loving God who cares for his children, understood as the whole world, and more specifically, his Chosen People, would be akin to mocking the memory and the anguish undergone in the Birkenau crematorium and every other place of death. To speak about God or faith or love is to actually be irreverent. To attempt to explain this mystery of human history in relation to God is nothing less than a perverse compulsion to rationalize and justify the irrational and unjustifiable with speculative thinking.

Further, Brown’s recollection of being at Birkenau is an example of the convergence of the two via negativas. The suspicion-within propels Brown to deny God as God had been known to him. But the will-to-affirm-within compels him to re-affirm God in a new way that is inherently apophatic because it is an affirmation through negation: ‘God is not this’ is in fact saying ‘God is something else,’ but that something else is not necessarily accessible to our intellect, or speakable with our language and imagery.

Brown, like others, has seen affirmations of God and the experience of faith as faltering in the metaphorical light of the crematoriums. In fact, faith and God, as understood traditionally, are essentially unjustifiable; the choice to renounce, condemn, or simply disregard God and faith is always there. This God is silent for shameful or appalling reasons: ‘He’ did not do anything to stop the Holocaust. And as such, we may respond to God, justifiably, in silence. Conventional theism emphasizes the sovereignty of God to the point where questioning a deity is tantamount to sin. The sovereign ‘God’ is the equivalent of an emperor where dissent is defiance and even the slightest unease regarding the relationship between God and suffering is hush-hushed, or explained away with theodicy (as if an emperor God needs defending).

A new vocabulary of theology must be delivered and nursed. Thinking and speaking must make room for something new, something possible beyond “conventional theism.”[6] The Holocaust is a summons to a re-appraisal of what was once thought to be certain about God, and religion in general for that matter. Brown identifies clearly his divestment of his past affirmations of God. But this divestment is followed by an investment: new affirmations are on the horizon that are only possible after old affirmations are adequately analysed and critiqued. A dual motion of affirmation and suspicion creates a tension that is never resolved, but always present and bidding our decisive choice. In short, the Holocaust and its aftermath should cause us to second-guess, reconsider, reform, and perhaps do away with certain ways of thinking and speaking about God.


[1] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 58. Kearney, in his interview with David Cayley, comments that for Paul Ricoeur and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two thinkers he invokes in Anatheism, “[World War II] was absolutely central” to their thinking, especially to their notion of a post-religious faith, or faith after religion, or religionless Christianity. Kearney continues, “In fact, the whole idea of anatheism, [World War II] has been very crucial, because of the disillusionment brought about by Hiroshima, the Gulags, [and] Auschwitz” See Richard Kearney interview by David Cayley, “After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion.”

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

[3] Eugene Borowitz, “The Postsecular Situation of Jewish Theology,” In Studies in the Meaning of Judaism, 133-148 (New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002), p. 145.

[4] Borowitz, Studies in Jewish Thought, p. 145.

[5] Robert McAfee Brown, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity (Notre Dame: University of  Notre Dame Press, 1983), pp. 189-190. This will-to-affirm mirrors Ricoeur’s notion of our desire-to-be. See Kearney, On Paul Ricoeur, pp. 26-29.

[6] Kearney, Anatheism, 58. I would be interested to explore Jurgen Moltmann’s proposal in The Crucified God which poses a fascinating idea that Christianity is not monotheistic. Rather, Moltmann stresses the Trinitarian antithesis to monotheism.

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