In a world that is being transformed by access to information, it can be hard to appreciate the power of words. There is so much noise, there are so many possible distractions. It can be difficult to appreciate what the philosopher Paul Ricœur referred to as the “efficacity of speech.” For those of us intent on doing so, and for those of us also intent hearing the Christian message, listening can easily succumb to lassitude. There are a seemingly endless array of voices clamouring for our attention. Ricœur draws attention to the power of speech in order to highlight their ability to change the human heart.

In another of Ricœur’s trenchant little essays, “Religion, Atheism, Faith,” he places the power of speech and the act of listening to the Christian message beside one another. The title is indicative of the course of the argument. He contends that when religion passes through critique it can emerge as a more vital faith. The three critiques Ricœur focuses on are those levelled by the famous “masters of suspicion”: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Although they thought that they had provided a knock-out blow to religion, it turns out, in Ricœur’s estimation, that they were wrong. Rather, their atheism “clears the ground for a new faith.” Only one lane remains closed off by these critiques, that of the “ontotheological” God who shores up a morality of obligation and proscription.

In a recent book by one of Ricœur’s former students, Anatheism, Richard Kearney picks up on this thread, moves it into a broader domain, and develops it into a contemporary program of engagement. Anatheism is a search for faith after the dogmatisms of atheism and theism. And so Kearney’s book can be profitably read alongside Gavin Hyman’s A Short History of Atheism, which is written from a similar philosophical perspective. For Kearney as for Ricœur, when Nietzsche’s Zarathustra proclaims God’s death, it is simply the death of the ontotheological God. The God of Scripture, the God of the Word, the God of faith, remains.

The prefix “ana,” taken in its etymological sense, is an action signifying a movement away and a return, a repetition. Thus, anatheism is a move away from the God Zarathustra proclaims dead, back to a God about whom much cannot be said. That is, Kearney thinks we should return to the tradition of negative, apophatic, mystical theology espoused by (pseudo-)Dionysius the Aeropagite, Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich. This return is not to a mysticism shrouded in murky darkness, but to what both he and Ricœur characterize as a faithful wager in the absence of illusive certainty.

Kearney also conceives anatheism as a call to action. It is a form of attentive listening, and it necessarily has ethical implications. Listening not only to scripture, but to the stranger and the other that is often called divine, and to the many others with whom we share our lives. Basically, this is to extend the welcome shown to the stranger in the scriptural story of the road to Emmaus. Or, to chose an alternative metaphor, anatheism is embodied in the apostle Paul’s trio of faith, hope, and love. “Hope that the stranger is more than we expect. Love of the stranger as infinitely other. And wonder at the very strangeness of it all.” The practical upshot being that anatheist faith transfigures the world with and for others.

This is a provocative and potentially far-reaching project. The claim of Ricœur and Kearney is that Christian faith might be opened up and creatively renewed under the aegis of a post-critical faith, anatheism. At its best it would enable a reconception of what it means to obey the scriptural injunction to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of seeing and hearing Jesus Christ. It is an attempt to realize faith anew. “To he who has ears, let him hear.”


Anatheism: Returning to God after God by Richard Kearney. Columbia, 2009, 272pp.

*Note: This review appeared elsewhere and has been lightly revised from its original.

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