Reimagining the Sacred

Richard Kearney Debates God

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Richard Kearney, Jens Zimmerman
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , December
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Reimagining the Sacred, Richard Kearny takes the reader through a series of discussions he has had with intellectuals who seek to redefine how we talk about God and transcendence in our current age. Kearney describes this project using the term anatheism. The doubled “a” prefix points us towards a dual process of allowing the critiques of traditional theism to stand (for example, those of Nietzsche or Freud) yet permitting us to return to the notion of theism to reconsider, reinterpret, and revise it. Kearney describes the views of anatheist atheists as well as anatheist theists: the dual implications of the term works its way outwards. This reimagining is a process that lends itself to dialogue and creative thinking. Kearney seeks these two elements as this book collects his discussions with various thinkers from around the world. The end result is a genuinely fascinating read, albeit with some elements that may alienate certain readers.

Reimagining the Sacred offers a window to some very powerful discussions by sophisticated thinkers. This allows a certain degree of exploration and open-endedness, providing different lines of reasoning as well as diverse perspectives on what it means to conceptualize the sacred today. The conversations unfold in a manner such that each thinker is given space to develop their ideas, while Kearney uses these encounters as a catalyst to insight, rather than insisting upon a particular conclusions or a fixed end point. The reader is thus exposed to a wide range of approaches to the question of the sacred, including psychoanalysis, mysticism, atheism, deconstructionism, constructivism, feminism, literary criticism, philosophy, theology, and hermeneutics. Each foray is treated with an equal measure of interest, analysis, and depth as Kearney offers both probing questions as well as valuable insight throughout his encounters.

Out of this dialogical approach, however, there are elements that may estrange some readers. Because we are privy to a wide variety of discussions, at times the book can meander, suffer from repetition, or distract from more interesting themes. Dialogue can be a valuable catalyst for developing new (or redescribing old) ideas. Through a juxtaposition and tension between diverse positions we may construct, discover, or articulate new cognitive avenues. The end point is not one final, grand, enduring synthesis, à la Hegel, as Reimagining the Sacred repeatedly reminds its readers. Instead we are reading part of an ongoing description/redescription (or imagining/reimagining) that could theoretically go on ad infinitum.

The project of anatheism itself can appear too broad. Since it encompasses both atheists and theists it may be difficult to know what exactly it stands for, and what it opposes. There are times when Kearney uses the dialogues to expand or explain where he stands on issues (like whether evil is an ontic force, or when he addresses the value of sacred narratives), though the structure of the book denies us a central thesis. This is (in part) the point. We are reading dialogues, not an argument from a single author. But the result is a tension between clarity and ambiguity.

As Kearney is very much discussing theism by and for intellectuals it is somewhat divorced from the discourse of traditional communities and their versions of a transcendent God. In fact, the one element all the thinkers agree upon is that the traditional version of God is no longer viable, and therefore we must re-imagine our theism. The fact that many maintain this non-viable vision of God is not discussed. Clearly Kearney has read the main writings of all his conversation partners, and most seem familiar with his work. As a result, the reader may be reading unfolding conversations where certain assumptions and ideas are not articulated in the dialogues themselves, though they play a strong role in the background. The introductions both to the book and to each chapter do help assuage this difficulty, though the introductions to certain thinkers may seem cursory.

By and large the book has a lot to offer, particularly to those interested in reinterpreting the notion of theism. The intersection between literature, philosophy, theology, and many other strands of thought does spark a variety of intriguing and compelling ideas. Those who want an in-depth explanation of the sacred will likely find this book too exploratory. Those not versed in some of the context behind these discourses may find them somewhat opaque. However, the fact that the book manages to maintain and make use of such tensions allows for a unique and dynamic series of philosophical and theological dialogues.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Napier is Instructor of Religious Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Kearney holds the Charles H. Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Strangers, Gods, and MonstersThe God Who May Be, and Anatheism: Returning to God After God.

Jens Zimmermann holds the Canada Research Chair for Interpretation, Religion, and Culture at Trinity Western University. He has published widely on philosophy, theology, and literary theory. He is the author of Humanism and Religion: A Call for the Renewal of Western Culture and Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction.



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