Since the term “theism” was first coined by 17th-century theologian and philosopher Ralph Cudworth, the idea has baked into a cookie jar of possibilities: classic theism, open theism, ditheism, polytheism, pantheism and panentheism, to name a few. The newest label to enter the mix: “anatheism.”
In his 2010 book Anatheism: Returning to God After God, Richard Kearney, philosophy professor at Boston College explains that the “ana” in anatheism is the Greek word for “again.” In short, anatheism is seeking God after the death of God. In the absence of God, in the dark night of the soul, in angst and abandon, between theistic certainty and atheism, a new desire is provoked that makes possible “the return of the Other God — the divine guest who brings life.”
Kearney describes this existential uncertainty as a moment of wager. In uncertainty, we have a choice between hospitality and hostility to the Stranger — the sense of something more. “For me, to have lost the illusion of God (as sovereign superintendent of the universe) is to enjoy the possibility of opening oneself, once again, to the original and enduring promise of a sacred Stranger, an absolute Other who comes as gift, call, summons, as invitation to hospitality and justice,” explains Kearney in a chapter in his latest book Reimagining the Sacred.
The beauty of Kearney’s approach is in his embrace of narrative. He illustrates the anatheist movement in the biblical story, poetically describing Abraham’s encounter with the three strangers and Mary’s waffling between belief and disbelief as she confronts the stranger Gabriel. But he doesn’t stop at the doors of the Christian narrative: he elegantly waltzes through anatheist moments in other religious traditions and philosophies, as well as through the literary imaginations of James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf, and the activism of Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier and Mahatma Gandhi.
Among the implications of Kearney’s philosophy is the ethic of embracing difference as the medium through which we return to the “moreness” of God. He provides fertile ground for an interfaith dialogue that doesn’t seek to reduce religiosity to sameness but advocates delving into difference, which, in turn, helps us attend to our own religiosity. Premised on the assumption that the sacred and secular are mutually enlightening, Kearney carves a vital role for the sacred in the midst of skepticism.
In today’s atheist-versus-theist battlefield, anatheism offers a cogent critique of both. Kearney easily disposes of the anti-God squad’s militant atheism as well as the type of closed-minded theistic dogma predicated on fearing the other. Kearney isn’t attractive to those occupying the farthest ends of the theist/atheist divide. His lack of popularity on the extreme fronts is precisely what makes him a necessary read.
Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at Southminster United in Ottawa.