The Opening to Others

Manus Charleton

Anatheism: Returning to God after God, by Richard Kearney, Columbia University Press, 272 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0231147897

In the 1960s and ’70s atheists were given to predicting that religious belief would decline. They identified with the view which arose from the analyses of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, the view that religious belief is a comforting falsehood, a palliative for the neediness of human existence. People believe in God because it gives them security in an uncertain world and a sense of power to offset feeling powerless. It also compensates them for putting up with life’s difficult realities and relieves them from having to face up to the realities honestly. Atheists predicted that in time more and more people would see the truth in this view and religious belief would wither away. While this view may well have contributed to some decline, religious belief has remained remarkably resilient, and shows no sign of fading away any time soon in either the developed or developing parts of the world.

In Anatheism, Richard Kearney accepts that belief in God, as traditionally understood, is a consoling myth. At the same time he believes that people still have reason, based on human experience, to wager on God’s existence. This immediately raises the question of what kind of God he is talking about. He makes clear from the start that he is not talking about the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural being, capable of intervening in human history, the God from whom we feared damnation and hoped for salvation. This is the God of reified abstract metaphysical constructs of “First Cause” and “Highest Being”. Such an understanding of God has been unwarranted now for some time. Instead, Kearney’s God is linked to an illuminating experience people have of what lies beyond their understanding.

His approach in this book (he has written others on the God question) is to tell the story of human openness to a sense of the divine at the level of lived experience. In support of his approach, he reinterprets religious stories and draws from philosophy and literature. He includes the views of those such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who sought to reframe belief having had deep personal experience of the incompatibility of traditional belief in a loving and merciful God with the facts of human suffering (Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in a prison camp in 1944). Kearney’s aim, too, is to keep alive a source for religious sensibility now that a source in the old God is no longer tenable. He wants to show that a sensibility towards the divine in the world has always been part of human experience, and that it continues to be after the idea of God as a fixed other-worldly source has run its course. Hence the prefix ana, a return or going back to a sense of God he believes people have always had, and which became misdirected in a focus on the supernatural.

He makes clear his view that there are no grounds for a literal or quasi-literal interpretation of religious texts. The word of God in sacred scripture has to be treated as story, not as historical truth: “There is a difference between history and story, and to read sacred texts as if they were verifiable or falsifiable ‘facts’ is to misread them.” Hermeneutics enables us to understand that sacred texts are not literally true but open to interpretation. It is not merely that the texts have to be seen in the context of the culture and period in which they were written. Hermeneutics also arises from the factors which situate us in the world. It includes not just our time and place with all its particular cultural accretions, but “goes all the way down” to our sensory organs, cognitive structures and our emotions, through which we apprehend the world. These factors inevitably limit us to the perspective of a particular, situated human organism. One way to lessen this limitation is to provide a broad-based account which draws from a diverse range of sources, and this is the approach which Kearney takes in seeking to understand human openness to the divine.

To indicate the place of God in human experience he draws from Hölderlin the notion of “a turn towards a home that is always still to come”. God exists as a possibility of fulfilment in a beyond to our experiences. Our sense of a home always still to come is not given through any kind of conclusive evidence. Instead, it inclines us to wager that God exists there as a possibility. There is always “a primordial wager at the root of belief”. The wager is warranted, not in Pascal’s sense of a good bet to protect self-interest, if, after death, we find that God exists, but from reopening an experience in which the possibility of faith presents itself. Finding God is about reopening “that space where we are free to choose between faith and non-faith”.

How do we reopen this space? The first step is still to lose our ego, to lose, that is, all the usual things our ego has become attached to from our socialisation. We approach God through what Kearney calls “an act of dispossession from the familiar, habituated ego”. It requires “a break with ingrained habits of thought” where we suspend “received assumptions” and abandon “accredited certainties”. We place ourselves in “a moment of dispossessive bewilderment”. The good news is that this via negativa doesn’t require us to renounce the world or die to our bodily desires. This is because God no longer exists in some imaginary other-world, but is immanent in this world. Our sense of God’s existence in the home always still to come is bound up with our embodied being in the world.

The recovery of the wager on faith is, then, approached through a double-sided divesture. On one side out go all the magisterial attributes of God. On the other side, out goes culturally acquired knowledge on which we have let our ego become dependent. Kearney uses the word kenosis for this dispossession or self-emptying of knowledge. It is a key term which recurs throughout the book. The effect of kenosis is that we are left open insofar as possible to the world before it became something known. Nevertheless, some iconic cultural events or stories describe this divesture and are a means of becoming aware of the possibility of God in a home still to come. Kearney interprets the incarnation story as the prime example. It is the story of an almighty God divesting himself of absolute power and knowledge by taking human form through his Son, Jesus. And it’s the story of Jesus who lives without temporal power or knowledge in service to a spiritual mission for some possibility beyond him which he undergoes as a passion.

When we strip away our customary perceptions, the world reveals itself as strange. And Kearney believes it is our experience of the other person as a stranger which can lead us into a sense of the unknown as the location of the source which invites the wager. He reminds us that each of the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is inaugurated by a visit from a stranger: Abraham by three strange men; Mary by an angel; and at the summit of Mount Hira “Muhammad is woken from his sleep by a strange presence in the cave.” Kearney notes also that in the holy books “the stranger is often treated as the human persona of the divine”. And perhaps the most dramatic story is the one in which the travellers meet the stranger on the road to Emmaus, and over supper they have their eyes opened as to who he is. Kearney writes: “There is a sense of surprising irruption about the coming of this [the uninvited one] estranged and estranging outsider – a sense of unknowability calling for risk and adventure on our part.”

However, such experiences of divine revelation as those mentioned are clearly not for everyone. But Kearney is not suggesting they have to be to in order for us to have our eyes opened. Instead, it is the recognition of the existential presence before us of any other person as a stranger which opens the way to an experience of what lies beyond us and which can incline us to want to wager on it as home to the divine.

Merleau-Ponty described the existential presence to us of another person as “a second openness” upon the world to our experience of our own openness. It is a second openness which faces us with the unknown because we can never install ourselves behind his eyes, and experience, as he experiences it, his centre of vision and its horizon. This give the other the power “to decentre” my openness. Such an existential understanding underpins Kearney’s emphasis on the stranger as sacred in that “she always embodies something else, something more, something other than what the self can grasp or contain”. Equally, we realise that we must be a stranger to the other person, and, indeed, that we are a stranger to our self, for there is always a sense of something eluding self-understanding. And it is in this movement towards the source of an inexhaustible “surplus of meaning”, which we encounter in particular through the other person, that Kearney locates the sense of God.

There is always something more to be said and understood, some inexhaustible residue never to be known. And it is this “more” – which many religions call God – that allows the stranger to remain (in part at least) always strange to us.

It is “a surplus of meaning which surpasses the limits of normative rationality”. And crucial to being prepared to make the wager, when people are open to this depth of meaning, it can crystallise in an “epiphanic moment of awakening”.

From accounts in the sacred books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Kearney selects examples which he sees as illustrating the message that if we are to experience God we must set aside our apprehension of the stranger and be open to him or her in welcome. Abraham, Mary and Muhammad are open to receiving their strange visitations. The nativity story itself can be read as an apocryphal example of both rejection and welcome. For the landlord who had no room in the inn for the strangers there was no epiphany. But there was for the three wise kings who came to the stable with gifts. On being open to the infant as stranger, they had their eyes opened in epiphany, the inaugural event from which the word gets its meaning. And Kearney see it as significant that the nativity story involves the advent of foreigners, who symbolise a break with the familiar and the customary, as an element in the experiencing of an epiphany. Also, from St Matthew’s Gospel, there is Christ’s statement of the way to God through him as a stranger: “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

Of course, we are also understandably wary of the stranger. He can be the source of our fear of the unknown, and at a practical level he can do us harm, as happened to the man the Good Samaritan came upon. Kearney sees a longstanding recognition of our ambivalence towards the stranger in the fact that the words “hospitality” and “hostility” have the same etymological root. Ultimately, we can avoid the response of hostility by becoming aware of the other person’s sacredness in providing us with access to a wager on God. And for Kearney it is because we have not developed a sense of the other as sacred that we are capable of doing him terrible harm. If we had developed it, then the egregious suffering people have inflicted on each other throughout history could have been avoided.

Empathy is a fundamental disposition for upholding the other person as sacred. Empathy enables us to appreciate that other people are experiencing their own existential openness and to see them as having understandable protective need to inscribe their openness with particular strands of meaning and value, whether of belief or of material security. Drawing from Edith Stein, Kearney sees genuine empathy coming from recognition and appreciation of the other as ultimately unknowable. This avoids belittling his or her experience through presumption. In this sense the limitation of empathy is not a privation, but richness. It enables us to appreciate an unknowable dimension in other people, no matter what they disclose to us or how perceptive we may be of them. And there is “an ethics of kenosis” concerned with helping the poor and the oppressed, which the Gospels and other religious texts show is part of the way to stay in touch with God. Kearney sees kenosis as leading directly to “action” and “service” on behalf of others, as well as raising the question of justice.

Insofar, then, as there is a human experience of God, it is of God existing in the world, and not separate from it. And for Kearney this understanding is underpinned by the very nature of our sense perception of the world. He cites the remarkable sacramental language Merleau-Ponty used to describe the essential relation between ourselves as sentient beings and the sensible world around us. Sensation is “a form of communion”. Qualities we see in things have “the power to cast a spell” on us. And we receive them by being “inwardly prepared”. But it is more than this: Merleau-Ponty located a movement of transcendence in ordinary perceptual experience. In sense perception we go out from ourselves to things and other people in the world, and this going beyond ourselves is a movement of transcendence. And it is an experience of transcendence which, through the density and depth of the visible world in particular, remains open-ended. It’s an experience in which, as Merleau-Ponty put it, “they [things] are always behind what I see of them, as horizons”. In this way, transcendence is brought down to earth. It is the central nerve of sense perception. And Kearney quotes Merleau-Ponty’s passage about the Christian God which ends with the sentence: “Transcendence no longer hangs over man; he becomes, strangely, its privileged bearer.”

Merleau-Ponty’s use of religious terms is all the more remarkable because, as Kearney notes, he was not a Christian apologist, but an agnostic phenomenologist. And he continued to draw from Christian meaning with his use of the term “flesh” to describe the unity of the perceiver and what he perceives, the unity in which, as Kearney quotes: “The seer is caught up with what he sees ... the vision he exercises, he also undergoes from the things, my activity is passivity.” Where Christians believe God’s word was made flesh, for Merleau-Ponty we experience “flesh” as the world’s primordial, unifying “element”. It is not to be understood as matter or mind or substance, but as a new element in philosophy. It is, as Kearney quotes, “a general thing ... a sort of incarnate principle”. And in Merleau-Ponty’s last unfinished book, The Visible and the Invisible, published after he died, there is a passage, not used by Kearney, in which he described flesh as having “the primordial property” of “being here and now” as well as “radiating everywhere and forever”. It is like the Higgs boson of metaphysics, which believers might be tempted to call the real “God particle”.

Kearney aims also to reveal how literary fiction presents examples of epiphanies of the flesh “in the bread and wine of the everyday”. Literary fiction is where the flesh of the everyday is made word, and the word is then made flesh in the experience of the reader. He examines in some detail Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. He notes that both Joyce and Proust saw writing fiction as a form of transubstantiation whereby the mundane and transitory details of everyday life are turned into art. And he cites Woolf’s account of having experienced something deep in nature (she calls it “It”), which provides for harmony or balance, and he sees her fiction as an attempt to convey how people can have a sense of that experience in the course of their ordinary lives.

For examples of experiences which lead to epiphany, he cites Molly Bloom’s memory in her soliloquy of her first kiss by the Moorish wall; the adult Marcel’s involuntary memories of recovered time, of which his memory of tasting as a child the madeleine soaked in tea is the most famous; and Lilly’s epiphany when, after prolonged difficulty, she finally finishes her portrait of Mrs Ramsay. For the characters, the epiphanic memory is an awakening to something which transcends the memory’s specific details. Their experience of epiphany is bound up with the human mental capacity to revitalise a past experience by bringing it forward into the present in a way that gives it continued life. And the writers have found a way of projecting the memories in such a way that they can live again in the present, and, beyond the present, in the minds of readers. “In respecting a past moment, epiphany gives a future to the past. It somehow transubstantiates the empirical thisness of a particular lived event into something sacred and eschatological.” In effect, through expressing epiphanies a literary work has “transtextual” life.

Kearney notes too that in each of the three novels epiphanies occur in the context of characters admitting strangers into their lives and discovering through the stranger’s difference a beyond to their own established horizon of meaning. From his background as a Jew from the tribe of exiles and wanderers, Bloom is a stranger for Molly, Stephen and others in conformist Catholic Dublin. Françoise, Marcel’s housekeeper, is a stranger for him when he comes in the end to recognise the genuineness of her ordinary life in contrast to the ritualised conventions and affectations of the French upper class with whom he has consorted. And Mr Ramsay is the stranger for Lily, a stranger whose influence she has to recognise in order to see the reality of her world.

Despite the power of art to make palpable a transcendent experience immanent in ordinary life, Kearney is not arguing for art as the new religion. That art has religious import is clear to him. But he also wants to retain the idea of religion as its own mode of practice which gives access to a secular immanence. There remains a role for the institutional churches, for their sacred texts, rituals and music. They also provide access to an epiphanic experience of God in the secular home. In doing this, religions are themselves a form of art. “What I am arguing here is that the anatheist paradigm may allow it to be both at once: religion as art and art as religion.”

What, then, of Kearney’s case for an anatheistic God located in a home always still to come? As illustrated in the novels, it is possible to identify with having an experience of epiphany in which the tight hold of the secular world loosens and flows with a sense of the transcendent. However, while this might open up for us the space between non-faith and faith, it is a stretch to see it as putting us in touch with a sense of divine reality which would incline us to wager on faith. No matter how intense the experience of epiphany or what brings it about, it is surely a further big step to find in it grounds for believing in God in the secular world.

The central problem with Kearney’s account is his decision to stick with using a term with such momentous significance as “God”. It is a term baked hard in the clay of history with traditional connotations of the other-worldly Supreme Being. The most Kearney can realistically indicate is that humans are open to having an experience of something that affects them profoundly and which is bound up with a feeling that it is coming from a source which escapes the confines of any particular experience they are having. To use the term “God” for this source is more than to risk inflating the experience with something of God’s old associations. It exposes a need to rely still on some God-like understanding to account for the experience. Why not call the source “Flesh”, that perceptual adhesion between an embodied self and the world through which there is an experience of a movement of transcendence? By calling it “Flesh” Kearney would also be clearly marking it apart from Plato’s approach of intellectual abstraction from sense perception, the approach which led the way in giving philosophical support to understanding the old God as first cause and highest being.

Worryingly for Kearney’s case, he also locates the origin and motivation for belief in the cry of human need for succour. It lies in “the oldest cries of the religious heart in both the sacred and secular worlds”. These cries are for “a promise, a call, a desire to love and be loved”. But such cries, while deeply human and real, can easily be seen as the very human tendency which gives rise to wishful thinking about God’s existence as compensation for the hard-to-bear limitations of our lives. Also, since we have to accept that hope will remain unfulfilled in a home that is always still to come, it begs the question of why bother sustaining hope through seeing divine associations in the epiphanic experience. It would seem more realistic to value the experience for its own sake without bothering to make a wager.

As against this, Kearney points to the “radical attention” required to incline us to link an experience of epiphany with a sense of God. And there is a case to be made for some form of mystical experience. While an epiphany is a revelation without particular figurative content, it can be experienced in the unity of balance. Kearney sees such an aesthetic mysticism in Woolf’s account of the portrait which Lily completes. It’s a mysticism that is not fusion with some absolute, but “that ‘razor’s edge’” where “opposites balance without collapsing into sameness”. For Kearney this epitomises the world of anatheism. The sacred is in the secular and the secular in the sacred, but they retain their differences. Their connection is one of openness to their “interanimation”. And while he identifies this form of mysticism with that “celebrated by the sages of the Upanishads and certain Jewish and Christian mystics”, it does not necessarily have to be based in a belief in God.

What Kearney does well is to mark out the way to a sense of the transcendent through an approach of self-emptying combined with existential encounter, encounter in particular with the other as stranger. And through Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh, he also opens up the space for the transcendent in ordinary perceptual experience and gives us a sense of the transcendent as something vibrant and porous as well as ultimate. Also, by treating epiphanies seriously, he shows them as openings for significant meaning.

In the end, Kearney enables us to understand why religious belief in the traditional God persists and why its demise as a consoling myth has so far not been possible. For, lying as it were beneath religious belief is a genuine sense of existential openness to the transcendent through being open to the world through perception, an openness in which we encounter others who are strangers. It is out of this experience that believers have felt a need to invent supernatural stories to give it detailed content and make it more tangible. The great merit of Kearney’s book lies in its attempt to mark out the ground on which non-believers can have understanding of the spiritual dimension in their lives. But to continue to have recourse to God, even an anatheistic one, is to obscure the ground and deflect attention from what lies within vision.

28/01/13

Manus Charleton has lectured in Ethics and in Politics in the Institute of Technology, Sligo and is the author of the textbook, Ethics for Social Care in Ireland: Philosophy and Practice, Gill & Macmillan (2007). He writes non-fiction and fiction and has been published in Irish Pages, A Journal of Contemporary Writing, Studies, An Irish Quarterly Review, and in the Dublin Review of Books. His article, ‘Abuse of Children in Institutional Care in 20th century Ireland, An Analysis Using Fromm’s Psychology’, was published in the Journal of Social Work Practice vol. 26 no. 3 September 2012.

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