Theological discourse is (too) easily cast into two opposing methods: the kataphatic and the apophatic. The former suggests there is much we can and must say about God. The later asserts that there is far more that we cannot say about God and we must therefore be silent. Moreover, these two ways both succumb to tendency to see itself as the only way, exclusive of the other. The artificial boundary between the two is in fact much more porous and, as we shall see, Kearney takes complete advantage of this, exercising an anaphatic back and forth between the two domains. Finally, both ways show up in theology in extreme ways. Kataphatic theology is inclined towards decisive statements about God with varying degrees of certainty. Apophatic theology is equally swayed towards resolute denials that are also held with differing intensities of certainty. Both are steadfastly intent on saying something about God, whether by affirmation or denials, and both hold their statements quite tightly. The kataphatic becomes too confident in their capacity and authority to say things about God; they forget that they are talking about something inherently mysterious and unknowable. The apophatic may steer themselves too closely to the shores of apathetic silence: If we can’t say anything, why bother?
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. 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. 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?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?
I started writing this post a few days ago and when I logged back into WordPress, the draft came up as ‘(no title).’ I thought it was a perfect title for a short musing on negative theology.
On our drive out to Alberta on Monday, my wife asked me what sort of conclusions I came to after finishing my papers on negative theology. My reply was something to the effect: “Well, negative theology is critical. It is an absolute must in any theology. It is irreplaceable. We can’t do without it. It allows us to become ‘silent’ and ‘catch our breath’ when we’ve been chattering and making noises about God that we think say it all. Critique is the gift of negative theology. We have to knock down our idols, recognize the total inadequacy of language to encapsulate the Divine. Negative theology helps us realize how idiotic we sound talking about mystery.”
I can imagine this all sounded pretty bleak to her.
I wasn’t done.
“But! But! We must speak! We need to say something about God and that something is poetic. It is not necessarily precise scientific facts, verifiable, fixed once and for all. Instead, we need metaphor, narrative, story, liturgy, art, iconography, and a host of other mediums to ‘speak’ about God in still meaningful ways. And we must always realize that our ‘languages’ about the Divine are interpretations that are open to new possibilities.”
The next day, I randomly came across this quote that I thought was such a simple way of expressing the whole of what I’ve learned this past year.
When those who love God try to talk about Him, their words are blind lions looking for springs in the desert. (Leon Bloy)
The lions need water. But their imperfections prevent them from finding and beholding the totality of the wellspring they search for. Their search is not in vain, but it is a difficult task to undertake.
Unless the eye catch fire
The God will not be seen
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named
Unless the heart catch fire
The God will not be loved
Unless the mind catch fire
The God will not be known
I still have quite a difficult time summarizing what exactly my studies are circling around. Most of the time, I just leave things ambiguous and say that I’m studying English and Philosophy. But, if pressed a little further, I’ll say that I’m studying ‘theology.’ Maybe a bit further, and I’ll say ‘anatheism.’ Of course that confuses many people because it sounds like some sort of New Age conglomeration of religion (which it’s not). So I have to explain: ‘Something that takes into account the critiques of atheism and the affirmations of theism.’ Or, ‘something that takes seriously doubt and faith working together.’ Puzzled looks or a polite “Oh interesting” is often the response.
Lo and behold, Richard Kearney, the author of Anatheism did an interview on CBC Ideas this past year and it’s probably the most straightforward explanation of what ‘anatheism’ is. Kearney is pretty good at breaking it down into more manageable bites.
Click here to go to the CBC website to listen to the interview.