The Art of Anatheism

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Richard Kearney, Matthew Clemente
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , December
     314 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What can give our lives meaning, at this late hour, some two-hundred thousand years into mankind’s existence? The omnipotent god of “everything happens for a reason,” and other anodyne platitudes, has been deposed, bound, and led away behind a procession of history’s horrors; atheism, once toothsome and scandalous as the pretender, has become stale and unsatisfying upon coronation, delivering somewhat less than was promised and still less than what departed with the late king. In this era of secular disaffection, we are craving something that can give voice to that lingering surplus beyond normative rationality where the sacred might live, something at once urgent and original, something like Richard Kearney’s anatheism.

Anatheism is the possibility of encountering the divine again, and for the first time, by surrendering certainty and embracing the soundless dark of the atheist aubade. It exists both before and after the loss of faith: it is a repetition forward of the primordial encounter with God, not as a laureled conqueror atop a triumphal car, but as a strange, dubious, even vulnerable, other. The wager—indeed, the gamble, as all wagers are gambles—is to say yes to this stranger from the very beginning, after everything time has disproved.

How we might hope to have commerce with this odd divinity is the problem The Art of Anatheism begins to address— I say “begins” because an idea with the depth and breadth of anatheism only admits beginnings. As the title suggests, the lingua franca of the human and the divine is art, specifically art in its essence: creation. As John Caputo demonstrates in his essay Theology, Poetry, and Theopoetics, making precedes, and may possibly exceed, the creedal, the dogmatic, and even the logical foundations of theology: “[T]he poetic” he contends “is the very birth of God, the natal event in which the name (of) ‘God’ comes to words, the heart of a more primordial logosnow transformed from claiming to being claimed” (47). The radical proposition animating this volume is that God co-depends on us for the completion of creation, or more precisely, for the fullness of his presence in creation: if we are to welcome God to our table, we must make a place for him. This collaboration of human and divine making in the manifestation of the divine is the art of “theopoetics,” anatheism’s art.

The Art of Anatheism comprises five sections, but its design is two-fold: first, to probe theopoetics and its necessary relation to anatheism; and second, to examine theopoetic art that bears the stamp of anatheism. The volume tills these fertile themes with an impressive array of fascinating and unlikely interlocutors.

An illuminating conversation between Chris Doude Van Troostwijk and Jean-Luc Nancy investigates “the curious opposition and apposition” (123) between anatheism and theopoetics, on one hand, and Nancy’s exploration of the latent atheism within monotheism, on the other. Nancy’s discussion of some of his most pressing objections to theism—God’s silence in prayer, the outrageous claims of transubstantiation—allows one to appreciate the sincerity of anatheism’s engagement of the atheist critique and the stakes of such an engagement: once the triumphalist God has been banished, the possibility remains that no God will arrive in His place.

In the realm of popular culture, M.E. Littlejohn identifies The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and U2 as proto-anatheists, who “pointed beyond themselves, directing their listeners to see through the contemporary idols of secular exclusion, political ideologies, and narrow religious or atheist dogmatisms” (158). Similarly, Stephanie Rumpza discovers the anatheistic call to hospitality in three contemporary films that “[challenge] the clarity of our polarized distinctions, [illustrate] the vulnerable power of the [anatheistic] wager, and [reveal] to us that sometimes even a sincere desire for moral perfection can become a dangerous obstacle to God” (235). As both Littlejohn and Rumpza demonstrate, the iconoclasm of anatheism can be found in the most accessible of contemporary artists and artistry.

In the collection’s standout effort, Cracked: The Black Theology of Anatheism, John Panteleimon Manoussakis explores, with his inimitable, polymathic style, the fissure in both God and man that at once allows and demands theopoetics. Through Aristoxenus’s rhythm, Plato’s soul, \Freud’s psyche, \Lacan’s cracked consciousness, and Von Trier’s nymphomania, Manoussakis reveals man’s creation as a negation, a destruction, a lust for death. Yet, he also suggests that the same cracks that bring the pleasure and inevitability of Thanatos, “can be openings to God’s grace” (62).

The success of the Art of Anatheism lies in its exclusion of exclusions, its lowercase ecumenism, its ability to walk the walk of Anatheism’s talk of hospitality. The diversity of the contributors—artists, philosophers, theologians, poets, and pastors—and the vertiginous range of their discussion topics, from Buddhist art all the way to the Beatles, testify to the arrival of an idea with a universal application achieved only by true and timeless insight.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William J. Hendel is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Kearney is Charles Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College. His many publications include Anatheism: Returning to God after God (2010), Debates in Continental Philosophy: Conversations with Contemporary Thinkers (2004), On Paul Ricoeur: The Owl of Minerva (2005) and Navigations: Collected Irish Essays 1976-2006 (2007).

Matthew Clemente is Teaching Fellow in Philosophy at Boston College. He is co-editor, with C.H. Doude van Troostwijk, of Richard Kearney’s Anatheistic Wager: Philosophy, Theology, Poetic (2017).


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