Incarnation and Language (Part 5 of ‘The Anaphatic Way’)

V. The Sacramental Imagination and ‘Speaking’ of God

The third arc of the anatheist wager is the sacramental imagination that urges us toward a “sacramental return to the holiness of the everyday.”[1] The sacramental imagination is the via affirmativa of anatheism, the invocation “of yes in the wake of no,” which marks the potential return to God after ‘God.’[2] This includes the possibility of speaking, or better yet re-speaking, God. After having ‘traversed’ the dark night of the soul, initiated by the Masters of Suspicion, one now has the possibility to come out the other side, into a ‘second faith.’ The inclusion of the Holocaust into this dark night introduces a crucial ‘ethical’ imperative to the anatheist movement through atheism: how do we love God and the other in the moment of injustice?

In some sense, the sacramental imagination is ‘saying,’ in creative action, that the Unsayble—that is, God—is somehow intimately intertwined in the ordinary things, people, and experiences of ordinary life. Especially, a sacramental narrative tells stories of Strangers who have turned out to be Deus incognitus (‘God not knowable’). The sacramental arc of anatheism is a statement that Emmaus-encounters happen on a daily basis, but only if we are willing to discern—to interpret—and to decide.

Kearney, indebted no doubt to one of his Parisian doctoral advisors, Emmanuel Levinas, negotiates a philosophical and theological itinerary that sees the stranger as a vital tendon connecting the self to the Divine. This is where Kearney’s words become flesh: the summons to acknowledge “the divine stranger who dwells in the flesh.”[3] This sacramental animation of human language moves us beyond language to a place of action wherein “one’s faith in God as stranger is not a matter of theories or ideas but of living witness to the word made flesh.”[4]

Hence, Kearney points to the likes of Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and Jean Vanier, who have all in one form or another told stories of sacramental encounters with God in the poor and addicted (Day), the sick and socially oppressed (Mother Teresa), and the handicapped (Vanier).

A sacramental imagination makes it possible, in the wake of the death of God (“Death meaning here the dissolution of a counterfeit divine.”), to re-speak, through action (and retrained language) the God of life.[5] Language is no longer given full and free reign of theology. Knowledge facilitated through language is no longer the only mode of knowing. Ethics, action, work, experience, participation, and performance become as basic to theology as language.

Praxis becomes the space where a renewal of faith, in the wake of suspicion and negation, can begin; it is the concrete soil in which new seeds can be sown and reaped. Without praxis, we live in a totally abstract realm, apart from the reality of what it means to be an active participant in our individual and communal lives. Praxis ‘speaks’ realistically; it ‘speaks’ not with words, but with real events and behaviours. A number of religious and spiritual traditions have abided by a principle of love being embodied rather than love being only being spoken about. “Beloved, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 Jn 3.18).

But praxis is not action for action’s sake; it is not disconnected from the ‘something more’ of the Divine. It is and must be sacramental if it any way is to say something about God. For something to be sacramental, in Kearney’s thinking, the object, subject, or event must be re-cast in our imagination as an encounter with the God-Who-May-Be. Thus, anatheism has embedded deep within itself a robust ethic of hospitality: the Stranger is/is not God. At the key events of many religious traditions— Kearney gives attention to the Abrahamic faiths—there happens to be an encounter with the Strange(r). Abraham and the Three Strangers who bring a promise. Muhammad and the Strange voice telling him to write. A Stranger annunciating to Mary, seeking cooperation. Hospitality, within the sacramental imagination, is more than simply being ‘neighbourly.’ It is entertaining God, no longer just in the mind, but in the fleshly experience of the here and now. Whereas theology is an an abstract intellectual hospitality—and it remains critically important—the sacramental imagination creates a hospitality in the flesh.

Life infused with a sacramental imagination is poetic. It is creative in the original sense Greek root, poiesis, imagining new events, interpretations, symbols, and ethical action that is forward, yet a repetition of religious tradition (e.g. Christian, Islamic). The sacramental affirmation of life creates possibilities for God to become fully God in the concreteness of ordinary life.

The sacramental imagination of anatheism, which is the incarnation of anatheism’s prophetic arc, acts as an additional counterweight to the iconoclastic. For example, Kearney’s sacramental imagination nudges him away from an excessive negation (the iconoclastic) that places the Divine so far away from the world that “there is no way back to the flesh of the face.”[6] The sacramental imagination instead creates in us a “new acoustic attuned to the presence of the sacred in flesh and blood.”[7] Without a sacramental imagination, negation becomes excessive; without negation, sacramental imaginations become superstitious, unfettered, and at times farcical. Hence, the need for them to be ‘held together’ in a poetic possibility of creating and finding meaning underneath, beyond, and behind what we once thought we knew.


[1] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 85.

[2] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 86.

[3] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 156

[4] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 153.

[5] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 165.

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

[7] Kearney, Anatheism, p. 166.

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