Richard Kearney's Anatheistic Wager

Philosophy, Theology, Poetics

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Christian Doude van Troostwijk, Matthew Clemente
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , April
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The publication of Richard Kearney’s Anatheistic Wager: Philosophy, Theology, Poetics is a welcome and timely collection that engages closely with Richard Kearney’s thinking. This is the first volume of essays to critically examine Kearney’s recent work on anatheism. It follows a few months after the publication of a separate edited volume on Kearney’s work—The Art of Anatheism (Rowman & Littlefield, Dec. 2017)—which examines the ways in which different forms of art reveal and create the divine, thus showing Kearney’s idea of anatheism in action. The book under review shows the current importance and relevance of Kearney’s thought across numerous disciplines. Although Richard Kearney’s Anatheistic Wager does contain some of the performative aspects of Kearney’s idea of anatheism, its main goal is to look at the philosophical and theological meanings and implications of this approach to the sacred. The essays in this collection aim to elucidate more clearly the definition of Kearney’s idea of anatheism, that is, the wager that it implies, the necessary risks of the wager, and what its applications are. Richard Kearney’s Anatheistic Wager is compromised of fifteen essays in three sections, and my restricted space allows me to only comment on a few of them in relation to the overall themes. 

Part 1, “Conversations After God,” contains four interviews. While Kearney is known for being a great interviewer and has several published volumes of interviews with leading academics, here he becomes the interviewed. Interviews with James Wood, Chris Doude van Troostwijk, Julia Kristeva, and Emmanuel Falque allow Kearney to speak in an even more personal manner, relaying what anatheism means to him, how he came to this wager, and how it informs his understanding of relations with the sacred and the Other. Anatheism finds its roots in Kearney’s 2010 book Anatheism: Returning to God After God (Columbia University Press). Kearney conceives of anatheism as a position outside of the traditional theism/atheism dichotomy, but also as a position that remains between these two options in an ongoing productive tension. Kearney insists that the prefix ana-indicates something that is a return to theism, yet after traditional theism has been thoroughly critiqued and let go; it is also “both before and after the theism/atheism divide” (8). What these interviews highlight is that anatheism is not a dogmatic position or aufhebung but is a wager that precedes our birth and continues after our death. It is a wager that requires ongoing faith more than belief, and so it is, as Kearney says, “existential before it is propositional” (41). The wager ultimately comes down to our response to the stranger and to the sacred (41). Kearney’s position is not a stance of “wishy-washy indifferentism … [but] is about making bold and committed wagers while always remaining open and attentive and refusing the tyranny of certainty—the lure of absolutism” (62). 

Part 2 is titled “At the Limits of Theology” and examines various theological, philosophical, religious, and ethical evaluations and implications of Kearney’s anatheistic thinking. While showing sympathy with Kearney’s overall project, these essays provide critical reflection on and exploration of his thought that helps move it forward. Brian Treanor highlights how the anatheistic wager is multifaceted, composed of both philosophical and existential aspects, and is defined by ongoing risk. Thus he shows that anatheism is different from agnosticism, in that while “both acknowledge the uncertainty associated with questions about the divine, agnosticism views this as a liability and anatheism views it as an asset” (119). Treanor argues that agnosticism wagers on atheism, while anatheism wagers on theism. However, L. Callid Keefe-Perry claims that this wager is really no wager at all. He argues that anatheism “is not a wager” and “isn’t objectively a risk” (184). This view does not mean that Kearney’s anatheism is a useless venture, far from it; Keefe-Perry merely argues that we see it as “an education” (184) and realize that “it is not the betting that matters, or the odds, but the playing” (185). Keefe-Perry poses a good question for future work in anatheism: is anatheism itself “a rigged game in favor of God … [that] tends toward a kind of shadowy weak theism” (184), or does anatheism structurally maintain a neutrality wherein we lean toward atheism or theism? 

Finally, part 3, “Poetics of the Sacred,” contains essays of anatheistic readings of various literary texts. Treating texts from Homer’s Odysseyto McCarthy’s The Road, from the binding of Isaac (Aqedah) in Genesis to the imaginative eschatology of Revelation, and even to some of Kearney’s own fictional works—Sam’s Fall and Walking at Sea Level—the authors in part 3 put Kearney’s ideas to practice, highlighting the ways in which the anatheistic wager is at play in the various characters in these diverse texts. In his essay highlighting Kearney’s own novels and interactions with literary characters, Patrick Burke writes that “it is Kearney’s revelation of the richness and depth of the other in the shadows … that helps to bring Christ back to the streets after his long sojourn at the right hand of the Father” (238). Using McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road as a backdrop, one in which the world cannot be made right again, Shelly Rambo explores how Kearney’s anatheistic thought can be applied to resurrection, an event that he does not explore much in his own work. She seeks to push Kearney’s thought further, though, from a stance where what is given up “will be returned” (246) to one where the “theistic drive to resurrection is released without the promise of return” (248). 

 These fifteen essays provide thoughtful engagement with Richard Kearney’s work that deepens our understanding of anatheism and offers a great addition to continental philosophy of religion. In their epilogue the editors discuss how anatheism is a response to the ongoing birth of God, and how faith and the wager must also be continually acted out. If this is true, then our reflection on anatheism and its implications must also be ongoing.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Novak is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian Doude van Troostwijk is Professor of Philosophy and Philosophical Ethics at the Luxemburg School of Religion and Society (Luxembourg) and Visiting Professor for Liberal Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam.

Matthew Clemente is Teaching Fellow at Boston College specializing in philosophy of religion and contemporary continental thought. He is author of Out of the Storm: A Novella and is editor (with Richard Kearney) of The Art of Anatheism.


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