“Poetics of the Sacred,” Richard Kearney (Charles Seelig Professor in Philosophy, Boston College), November 12, 2014

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November 11th, 2014

Richard Kearney’s lecture looks at how certain artists and poets have been able to retrieve and explore ‘epiphanies’ of the sacred even after the disappearance of God. Beyond the traditional opposition between dogmatic theism and atheism Kearney proposes a third option – ana-theism, meaning faith ‘after’ (ana) faith. The recovery of God after God.

8 Comments on “Poetics of the Sacred,” Richard Kearney (Charles Seelig Professor in Philosophy, Boston College), November 12, 2014

  • Richard Kearney added depth, image, and voice Wednesday night to the argument he made in his book Anatheism: Returning to God After God (2010). Kearney, however, unfortunately did not speak on the lecture series’ theme, the future of religion, and when questioned after the talk about what Kearney envisions for that future, he misunderstood the questioner. However, I do not think it too presumptuous to posit that Kearney believes anatheism to be the next stage of religious belief. He finds the anatheistic return to be a universal event. It is, he says, “what, in short, comes after theism and atheism” for the person. Historically, anatheism would appear to be what comes after the age of theism (pre-nineteenth century) and the age of atheism, inaugurated by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche and continuing through today. Anatheism could be tomorrow’s theology. But, will it it be? I think not.
    First, the movement from theism to atheism to anatheism as a global religious Weltanschauung or Gestalt seems hampered first in the very structure of the anatheistic wager. To return anew (to anatheism), one must depart from somewhere (theism) to somewhere else (atheism). Anatheism thereby depends upon theism, if only of the Freudian “Father Substitute” variety of early childhood. The factuality of this powerful narrative is suspect, so Kearney, I do not think, could assert that future theism will be of this reductive form. The essence of this critique is that anatheism, being dependent upon a starting point in theism, is bound to be a minority position, for children and adults to leave theism must first be taught it. Anatheists, I do not imagine, will teach their children to be theists.
    Second, Kearney’s anatheism does not grapple with an existential atheism. Whilst glossing those that Georgetown’s John Haught calls the “hard atheists,” he addresses their critiques on the level of the “soft atheists,” i.e., Richard Dawkins and those like him. Atheism certainly involves the rejection of anthropomorphic theism on empiricist and the “Omni-God” on moral grounds. There are two of the major critiques Kearney lefts from atheism, but it is more than those. Philosophically-informed atheism, i.e., any atheistic position that is more than just “anti-theism” or “not-theism,” is a “dark night of the soul” in which doubt, skepticism, and angst threaten to overcome the fundamentally human desire to live, not just to be alive. Atheism includes “star[ing] into the abyss,” fearing that its emptiness reflects an emptiness in humanity’s being. Atheism is also positive, the resolve to make that which was not metaphysically, epistemologically, aesthetically, and ethically provided for us by an Omni-God.
    Kearney does not address these aspects, merely taking from atheism its anthropocentric iconoclasm and moral condemnation of a personal God. Important aspects, indeed, but insufficient to justify anatheism as he describes it. If there is a fresh return to a form of theism after such an atheism, I would gather it would quite different from Kearney’s version. How exactly, I am unsure.

  • The lecture was very thought-provoking and offered a unique perspective on contemporary religious options (for the believer and non-believer). What I find most intriguing is the anatheist’s return to traditional religions. A return is obviously different from a “first encounter” in many ways. In this case, the differences are even more dramatic; it feels as though religions rely heavily on their privileged status as theistic traditions, and so they have highly-developed strategies of education. But after the atheistic “wake up calls” we’ve gotten from Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – these traditions and their pedagogical schemes look very different (and somewhat worthy of criticism). In what way do the anatheists return to their “old” God? Can an idol that has knocked down and smashed really be the same after it has been glued together? In what way does the theist-anatheist believer fit into traditional religious communities?

    • Re: Noa’s comment
      These are very good questions, and I will attempt to answer them with the caveat that Kearney might have a different response. First, I think atheism is an essential step towards anatheism rather than, as you seem to suggest, an impediment. This is because the anatheism, as I understand the concept, does not merely return to his former God. A theist who doubts his beliefs then reaffirms his convictions is not an anatheist. On the contrary, the God the anatheist returns to is quite different from the God of the theist. The anatheist does not glue his broken idols back together so much as he does rid himself of idols altogether. The anatheism that Kearney described in his lecture seemed to replace the God of the theist with a sort of general goodwill to all men combined with a spiritual feeling that there is a greater being and purpose in the universe, essentially keeping the good of theism while rejecting the bad, and thereby returning to a wholly different God than the one he left.
      (Your last question, regarding how anatheism fits, is one I too have worried about and questioned, especially regarding the organized community that theism provides so well and that seems essential to anatheism, but not wholly explained.)

  • I found Richard Kearney’s lecture to be that similar to the view of Paul Ricœur’s Religion, Atheism and Faith. In relation to the lecture given, Kearney proposes how under anatheism “the sacred is not in be part of the secular.” Accordingly it seems as though one is in tug-of-war with God. One refuses, then later accepts, refuses once more, and thinks again (Kearney Lecture); the base consistently changes.

    So, rather to ask, “When we return to God, what kind of God do we return to?” may one review the question to evaluate the issue of a person leaving a type of religion? Do they move more towards spirituality once having left a religion? Is there a different God between the two sides, religion and spirituality? What rules change once we return to God after God?

  • I couldn’t help but wonder during Richard Kearney’s lecture what exactly anatheism meant for ethics. I found myself wondering exactly what kind of world anatheism would have us build for ourselves. Kearney spoke a lot about a kind of hospitality to the stranger, but he also mentioned briefly that an important and difficult question for anatheism is the question of when to let a stranger inside and when to turn a stranger away. We have a responsibility to be cautious with our hospitality in an attempt to prevent harm to those placed under our care. I personally am drawn to the aesthetic vibrancy of Kearney’s description of anatheism, but I wonder if this kind of an ethical foundation can justify risking the all too frequent reality of the violent stranger. I am reminded of Dr. Wildman’s lecture a few weeks ago, in which he expressed that he fears we don’t take seriously the evil things that people can do when we construct our utopian schemas for the future.

  • Presumably, Kearney deems anatheism a proper step forward in the future of religion. My only concern is whether we should necessarily believe that anatheism is a form of religion, strictly taken. The belief system–or system of practice, if this is the more proper interpretation–could well be taken as an ethical system, or perhaps simply as being a nice person. Put (perhaps too) simply, are we just slapping the label “religion” on his ideas as some sort of last-ditch effort to cling onto the remnants of Christianity? Unfortunately, I cannot avoid bringing up Christianity here because of its heavy presence in his talk, but also because of the parallel I see between his idea of encountering the stranger and Christianity’s “golden rule.” The golden rule tells us to treat others as we would like to be treated; Kearney’s encounter with the stranger tells us that it’s good to treat her with hospitality.

  • I had a couple questions that I was unable to ask, so I will leave them here for others to answer.

    Richard Kearney mentioned that it is possible to be an anatheistic atheist as well as an anatheistic atheist. As I understand it, an anatheistic (a)theist would (dis)believe without, that is, forgetting that she arrived at her (dis)belief only after enocountering the stranger. In other words, without forgetting that every (dis)belief requires the (dis)believing subject to risk her belief for the sake of entertaining another. Yet, with this in mind, how does the (a)theist differ from the anatheistic (a)theist? Would the difference lie in the way the (a)theist believes as opposed to the way that the anatheistic (a)theist believes? Or would the difference be more substantial? Perhaps the (a)theist would be a (dis)believing person who has simply forgotten that her (dis)belief depends upon the encounter with the stranger? Perhaps she would be someone who rejects the reality of the stranger–that is, someone who, after encountering the stranger, forgets that the stranger ever was really a stranger? Or who gets to know the stranger too well?

    I’m not sure how to answer these questions, but I have a feeling that, despite the great possibilities for good that can come out of the anatheistic moment, we risk, at the same time, getting to know the stranger so well that we forget the reality of the encounter altogether. Or, more problematically, of admitting the stranger into our house but failing to really get to know the stranger and, in the process, reaffirming the strangeness of the stranger. Does not the anatheistic moment admit of this possibility as well?


    • The 4th line should read “anatheistic theist as well as an anathesitic atheist.”

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