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?

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Thinking about the God who may be.

Kearney’s work The God Who May Be proposes a uniquely interdisciplinary approach to speaking about God. How might one describe his philosophical vision?

Kearney explains a few different pseudonyms for his philosophy of religion:


One of the terms Kearney suggests as a descripive term for his philosophical undertaking is metaxology. He defines metaxology as a “determination to choose a middle way (Greek, metaxy) between the extremes of absolutism and relativism.” (6)


Mi-lieu can be translated from the French as literally meaning middle place. For Kearney, his position is precisely in this middle place between the two absolutist positions in speaking of God. He philosophical work is an attempt to work out an alternative to “(a) the hyper-ascendant deity of mystical or negative theology; and (b) the consigning of the sacred to the domain of abyssal abjection.” (7) These two positions both result in being unable to think, speak, or imagine God.

Characteristics of “the hyper-ascendant deity of mystical or negative theology.”
  • God is extremely above everything.
  • God is beyond being.
  • No interpretation of God is possible, whether it is by symbols, imagination, narrative, metaphor, or allegory.
  • God is unnameable, incomprehensible, unrepresentable.
  • If human language is used to talk about God, it will fall short, and will in the end be idolatorous.
  • Rejects “any mediating role for narrative imagination.” (7)
Characteristisc of the deity of “abyssal abjection.”
  • God is beneath the use of language and symbolism.
  • God is unnameable, incomprehensible, unrepresentable.
  • Rejects “any mediating role for narrative imagination.” (7)

Both positions reject mediation between God (in name and essence) and the human person (mind, experience, etc.). The alternative that Kearney is seeking is the ability to speak about God again, to “engage just such a mediating function.”


Metaphorology is defined by Kearney as the use of religious language “to say something (however hestitant and provisional) about the unsayable.” In is interesting to note that Kearney still sails near the shoals of the apophatic contention of the inadequacy of language to speak about God. However, what differentiates Kearney’s metaphorology from apophaticism is that he is suggesting we can say something rather than nothing.

Metaphorology suggests the possibility of reading texts in new ways that create a “surplus of meaning.” As an example, Kearney explains how Paul Ricoeur suggested that reading the Song of Songs in conversation (interanimation) with other religious texts can help us to, even slightly, have some understanding of the desirous God. In other words, retrieving the literal translation of the word meta-phor, Kearney suggests that the art of reading religious texts in such a way becomes a process of transferring, transitting, or carrying across meaning across different texts so as to gain a more robust vision of God.

Metaphor, in Platonic thought, suggests a “vertical transfer from the sensible to the intelligble and from the human to the divine.” That is, metaphoric meanings are gained through an ascent to the pure thoughts about the Divine, the abstract, the spiritual. Kearney, on the other hand, seeks to create meaning on a two-way street: reading the Song of Songs in conversation with the broader Old Testament suggests a metaphor of God’s love for his people Israel. Traversing the boundary of the Old Testament (and the Old Covenant) into the New Testament (and New Covenant), one comes to recognize Christ and the Church in the Song of Songs. Or, if one converses with their own (or others’) day-to-day experience, they will see the meaning of intense nuptial love that is so powerful, the author of the Song of Songs must explain the erotic in terms of landscapes.

Quoting Ricoeur, it is “the mark of the ‘power of love to be able to move in both senses along the ascending and descending spiral of metaphor, allowing in this way for every level of the emotional investment of love to signify, to intersignify every other level.” (Ricouer, Nuptial Metaphor)

To simplify, Kearney appears to be contending, with Ricoeur’s help, that it is not that texts are always metaphors for the Divine and that it is the Divine that gives meaning to those texts. Rather, those texts can be given meaning by their human interpreters, by other texts, by human experience, and by the Divine. The Divine can also be given deeper meaning from all of these dimensions as well. There is a great deal of interplay, of the transfer of meanings from one level to another, occuring in the hermeneutical activity then. This doesn’t result in a heirarchy of meanings, but a mutual ‘fleshing’ out of the meaning–cooperation, participation in each dimension’s possible meaning.

Metaphorology, then, when speaking about God, must balance itself between the kataphatic and apophatic ways. The danger for the apophatic way is that it transcends God so far beyond all being that “there is no way back to the flesh of the face;” God is but a floating no-thing out there, in there, somewhere, no-where. Kearney, as will be discussed later, is deeply sacramental and reliant on the idea of incarnation of the Divine in the everyday ‘epiphanies’ of each moment, each relationship, each interaction.

However, the kataphatic way, which says that we can say something about God all too often reduces talk about God to “foundationalist propositions.” Mystery is jettisoned. God becomes held in our hand. It often appears in theology as God becoming some sort of supreme Being. The reef of idolatry quitely lurks beneath the kataphatic, and if one is not careful, they could find themselves in a wreck sinking to the bottom of making God in one’s own image.


“God neither is nor is not but may be,” writes Kearney. This is the basic thesis of his mi-lieu, his middle way. God is not Being. God is not Non-Being. God is “the possibility-to-be.” (8) This possibility-to-be Kearney calls onto-eschatology meaning that the eschaton (the fullness of time, the coming together of all things, the ultimate destiny of the human race, the world to come) meets the “finite order of being” (what you see before you, what you experience inside of you as a human being, what you experience between yourself and other beings).

It is here that we encounter the nuptial nexus where divine and human desires overlap. (8)

Within this intersection between the infinite and the finite, “narratives flourish and abound. It is a place where stories, songs, parables, and prophecies resound as human imaginations try to sy the unsayble and think the unthinkable.” (8)

Onto-eschatology, then, is the experience of recognizing the incomprehensibility of God, but that it is remains possible to say tenative and preliminary things about the Divine through the narrative imagination. Onto-eschatology is not simply dry, theological and philosophical drivel, but the creative application of human art, literature, poetry, conversation, discussion, argument, drama to attempt, ever so slightly, to speak the unspeakable.