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?
Read Part One.
IV. Biblical Revelation
The full meaning of the Biblical words was not disclosed once and for all. Every hour another aspect is unveiled. (GSM, p. 273)
The meaning of the Bible is not a given. Heschel states “Revelation is not vicarious thinking;” that is, revelation and its meaning do not come to us pre-assembled. Revelation is not a “substitute” for our thinking abilities. (GSM, p. 273) This isn’t to say that revelation can and must be reduced to that which is rational. Reason has its limits. Revelation is not inherently rational, nor is it intended to be understood with only our natural faculties. Revelation is meant to be interpreted through means that are often supernatural, namely through faith. Heschel writes that the prophets did not speak to deliver a timeless, monolithic, and conclusive message, the meaning of which is inhospitable to the changes of time and culture.
In the beginning was the Word. (John 1.1)
And because the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics, or, interpretation. Words are just noises that we make or scribbles on a page unless we first attach meaning to them and after that interpret them as a whole. Words require interpretation. Interpretation is the art of turning words into thoughts, beliefs, and actions. That interpretation is a primal event and undertaking is the assertion that Richard Kearney puts forward throughout his own philosophical project. This also seems to be the reasoning of Abraham Heschel when he refers to the Torah, the word of God revealed through the prophets, as a “call for continuous understanding.” (GSM, 273) What I am interested in doing is looking at how Heschel’s “continuous understanding” and Kearney’s hermeneutics affect how we understand the biblical text (or any sacred text for that matter).
In a three-part CBC Ideas interview featuring Kearney discussing his book The God Who May Be, and his overall interpretation of religion, Kearney begins with the statement from which I derive the title of this post.
In the beginning is [hermeneia], interpretation in the beginning is the Word. Not a stone. Not a certitude. Not a God you can put in a bottle and bring out every so often on festive occasions to prove that you’ve got the absolute truth and nobody else has…and as we know words are dialogical and you’ve got to listen and to respond.
Interpretation is perhaps one of the most primitive human acts. Before there was written and spoken language, there were symbols. Communication was through imagery and gestures. Progressively communication could be accomplished through utterances and more specific symbols. But in each situation, meaning had to be created in order for there to be any sort of coherent communication to take place. Of course, this meaning was not perfect and thus interpretations could vary. Whatever the case, interpretation became necessary. Communication became possible only through interpretation. And it remains that way today. You will read these posts and will interpret them. You are engaging in hermeneutics.