Can we say anything about God? If so, how? (Part 3 of ‘The Anaphatic Way’)

III. Is/Is not and Narrative as a means of retrieving speech about God.

In The God Who May Be, Kearney admits that it is hard to ‘nickname’ to his hermeneutical method.[1] Kearney admits the difficulty of placing his hermeneutics in a particular box, but he is quick to affirm that he does want to “float, nonetheless, a number of tentative quasi-names—or what [he] might call methodological pseudonyms.”[2] Names that are ‘floated’ have some insecurity, always at risk of being sunk by a rogue wave of critique which exposes the name as lacking ‘buoyancy.’ Kearney states that these names are not really names, but quasi-names. They are partially accurate names; names that only go to a certain extent; superficial names that cannot express the content of his method in its fullness.

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The Anaphatic Way – Introduction

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.[1] 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.[2] 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?[3]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?

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What I am up to, in a 50-minute nutshell.

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.

The God Who May Be – Pt 2

ego eimi ho on / I am the one who is misses too much of the original dynamism of the Hebrew expression, and concedes too much to Hellenistic ontology. (28)

Kearney wagers that the Exodus 3.14 revelation of God’s ‘name’ is not so much about the revelation of God as “an ontological substance.” Rather, the revelation of God’s ‘name’ is one that emphasizes an utterly novel mode of relation” that places the ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ in dialogue with one another; Moses (and thus the Hebrews) in dialogue and co-operation with God. The name of God is also a relation of the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou:’ the ‘I’ of the past is present with the ‘Thou’ of the future. “This is why the Name is both theophanic and performative.” (28) God’s name is a promise of presence in the future of the Hebrews. God’s ‘name’ is a “promissory note” (“You have made your promised word well above your name,” Ps 138; 28) that accompanies Moses’ mission to the Hebrews, and the subsequent liberation of the people from Egyptian bondage.

The importance of understanding God’s ‘name’ as a promise for the future also lends to us an understanding that God and Moses are engaged in a mutual relationship that “carries a dual responsibility not to be come too distant or too familiar with God.” (28) God’s presence is immanent, here, now, but this presence is also transcendent, requiring Moses to bare his feet in reverence as he stands at a distant. Kearney even poetically considers God’s words to Moses, come! but not too near! as a two-part affirmation of the future. Come God, make your justice present! But it is not too near, it still needs to be brought forth. Already. Not-yet.

Here God commits Himself to a kingdom of justice if his faithful commit themselves to it too; the promise of Sinai calls forth a corresponding decision on behalf of the people. To phrase this otherwise: the I puts it to the Thou that the promise can be realized only if those who receive it do not betray its potential for the future. (29)

Both God and Moses, and the Hebrews by extension, bear responsibility for the outcome in the future. What happens will be the responsibility of both parties. The mission of Moses is a co-mission by and with God to bring about liberation of the Hebrews. Without Moses, no Exodus. Without God, no Exodus. This is not to say, Kearney posits, that God’s promise of liberation is some how conditional: “…the promise is granted unconditionally, as pure gift. But God is reminding his people that they are free to accept or refuse this gift. A gift cannot be imposed; it can only be offered. A gift neither is nor is not; it gives.” (29)

The God Who Comes – Historical Mandate

With the relation of his Name, God says of himself something like ‘with you Moses–and with Israel throughout history–I stand or fall!’ Exodus 3 is the proclamation that God has invested the whole of Himself in his emissary’s history.

The “utterly novel mode of relation” that God reveals to Moses in Exodus 3 is one “of fraternity, responsibility, and commitment to a shared history of ‘becoming.'” (29) God is not simply a static Being who has constructed the whole history of the world and is now simply watching it play out like a pre-programmed movie at a cosmic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. God is becoming. God is not nor is, but may be. For Kearney, the Exodus promise is not a static covenant, but a dynamic pledge from God to the Hebrews that puts forth the challenge of acceptance and participation. God is a dynamic actor in Israel’s history:

YHWH is now revealed as affected and vulnerable , showing himself henceforth as one who wrestles with himself (Hosea), laments (Jeremiah), regrets (Samuel), seduces and forgives (Psalms). Here we witness a God who persuades rather than coerces, invites rather than imposes, asks rather than impels. This God of Mosaic manifestation cannot be God without relating to his other–humanity. And seldom has this wager been so dramatically expressed as in the following midrash [Rabbinic commentary] on Isaiah 43:12: “If you are not my witnesses, I am, as it were, not God. (30)

Likewise, the Hebrews are called by God to accept or reject this promise that Moses delivers to them. (And it is quite apparent through the history of the OT, of the Israelites rejection and then acceptance of this promise.) God’s promise “solicits action from the addressee.” (30) God is not so much a “being who is” but a “God who does.” (Kearney paraphrasing Moses Maimonides; 31)

Critical Considerations

At the heart of God’s revelation in Exodus is “an ingenious wordplay which heralds an eschatological transcendence: a transcendence with the wherewithal to resist the lures of logocentric immanence.” (31) By this Kearney means that “I shall be what I shall be” proposes God’s promise to be present in the future of his people while at the same time remaining unnameable, unseen, unknowable and ungraspable. God’s essence is not the issue for the Hebrews; God’s action, his energies are. Thus, God remains transcendent, yet accessible. Unknowable but recognizable. This is the paradox of the persona: appear-disappear; the Bush burns without being consumed; God is in the bush as-if he is really there. God is not reducible to a name that can be co-opted for magical purposes (thus, logocentric immanence).

Kearney is keenly aware of the problems that come with the extremes of transcendence and immanence and of thinking of God as Being or Non-Being.

I removed entirely form historical being, God can become so unknowable and invisible as to escape all identification whatsoever. (31)

Jean Luc-Marion is cited as a key contemporary negative theologian. While there is a long history of negative theology in the Christian tradition (and in other religious traditions), I think Kearney chooses to focus on Marion because Kearney still sees important value in the negative theologian’s understanding of God as utterly unnameable and unknowable. Yet Marion argues that ‘naming’ God is a distraction from the reality of God as “pure giving“: “to subordinate the God of love to speculative distinctions of being and no-being is to resort to principles of reason which God radically transcends.” (31) Getting caught up in the technicalities of metaphysics and philosophical debates about Being causes us to miss the whole purpose of God: love. Again, the concern is not so much what God is, but that God is present and alive int he world, deeply concerned with the subtleties and particularities of everyday human existence.

Moreover, Kearney highlights Marion’s belief that “conceptual atheism” (a la Nietzsche and Heidegger) is essential to any talk about God: it is the “best weapons against the ‘conceptual idolatry’ of onto-theology.” (31) Critiques and pronouncements of God’s death, the death of the God of the philosophers, the death of the God of metaphysics, can open new space for a return to the God o Exodus.

While these are two points that Kearney appears to latch on to, and appreciate, he also finds problems with Marion’s understanding of “unspeakable Word” that was present in the Burning Bush. This Word, a pseudonym for the name of God, is “already given, gained, available,” Marion argues, and as a result, Kearney observes that “the transfiguring Word…does not depend on us in any way. It does not really need our response in order to be more full fulfilled.” (32) If the Word becomes present to us in phenomenon like the Burning Bush, or in other signs, “there is nothing further for us to think, say, or do, to make the Word more fully alive in this world.” (32) This obviously is a problem for Kearney who has argued that the Word is not a fully actualized reality in the world. The Word has already figured everything out for us, it is already actualized, all that we must do is sit back and wait: “We have little or no part to play in the transfiguring mission of the Word–e.g. the quest for historical justice.” (32)

For Marion, negative theology is a “theology of absence.” The absence of the Word is reversed in the “saturated phenomenon” whereby the Word becomes “flesh” as it were. The primacy of the revelation of the Word in everyday life is in a mystical communion with the Word in the Eucharist. It is necessary to encounter the “Word nonverbally” in the Sacrament of Holy Communion; then and only then can one know, or interpret the unknown God. This limited area for encounter with the Divine does not appeal to Kearney who prefers to be radically open to the Stranger (the Divine) in places least expected.

The Eucharistic encounter with the Divine is made possible by a “superabundance” of the God beyond all being. There is a “hyper-excess” of transcendence that overflows into the “saturated phenomenon” of sacraments. Kearney questions whether or not this superabundance that is present in saturated phenomenon is really a good thing. How can we determine that what we are encountering is the Divine and not something more sinister? “Who is it that speaks when God speaks from the burning bush?” (33) Rather than adhereing to a blind, mystical super-communion that Marion advocates because of the unknowability of the Word outside the context of the Eucharist, Kearney advocates for a “Pauline sobriety” that remains “awake” and “sober” to the reality that there does exist darkness which can invade the world.

Okay, English please. In summary, I am thinking that Kearney is asking a very important question that has probably perplexed apophatic theologians, not to mention people who read theology. That question is: If God is unknowable in his essence, but is somehow accessible in energies, how do we know that the energies we are encountering are of God and not of evil?

(Recall essence is what God is. Energies are what God does.)

How do we know that the God that we know is God? How do we know we are not mystically unifying ourselves with something that is not of God?

All pertinent questions I think Kearney is right to ask.

Marion is but one of the thinkers Kearney interacts with in this last section of his chapter entitled “I am Who May Be”

More later.