Anatheism: What Is It, and Do I Have It?

I probably spend more time than I should online following seminary academics.  That’s not just considering their impact on me: sometimes they bite back, especially if they’re of a Reformed background.  In any case a series of events has led me to discover something called anatheism, which is the discovery (for want of a better term) of one Richard Kearney of Boston College.

So how did I get interested in this?  Well, I was asked to find the latest publication of one Austin Williams, a PhD student at Boston College (and probably a protégé of Kearney.) Austin is the son of my church’s pastor, Mark Williams. (I get a whiff from his Twitter feed that Austin is bailing on Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology, of which his father is an adherent.  If that happens, it would be a major triumph for me.)

So I discovered this book review of Richard Kearney’s Anatheistic Wager: Philosophy, Theology, Poetics in Pneuma.  It piqued my interest.  So what, you ask, is anatheism?  The best way to answer that question is to go to the man himself, and he explains it (in a pithier way than many seminary academics manage) in this video.

Rather than get into a full-blown critique of the concept, I’d like to make some observations that perhaps will shed light on the subject and/or engender some conversation.  (The last is a dangerous objective online.)

Most people obtain their faith beliefs while being raised (or discipled for adult converts) in “the system.”  Generally the objective of “the system” is to bring people into some understanding of the faith without going over their head intellectually while at the same time minimizing the possibility that they would challenge what they’re being taught along the way.  (I have this illustration of that process in the Roman Catholic RCIA.)  The problem with this is that eventually, especially when people get to university, they’re confronted with hostile belief systems they aren’t prepared to deal with, which in many cases leads to them bailing on the faith for atheism or even this.

What Kearny is talking about is a moment when we are confronted with a choice (he characterises our response as either hostility or hospitality) between God and atheism, and then those of us who choose God have to make a wager to follow God. (That’s a nice touch for someone who teaches Pascal’s Law to his Fluid Mechanics Laboratory students, but don’t tell the Pope or James Martin.)  Those who get through that, in Kearny’s view, return to “God after God,” thus anatheism.

His first illustration of that is Abraham, who actually has two anatheistic moments: the first when the three visitors come to announce the coming birth of Isaac, and the second when he takes same Isaac to sacrifice.  In both cases he wagers for God, and as Paul reminds us “What then, it may be asked, are we to say about Abraham, the ancestor of our nation? If he was pronounced righteous as the result of obedience, then he has something to boast of. Yes, but not before God. For what are the words of Scripture? ‘Abraham had faith in God, and his faith was regarded by God as righteousness.'” (Romans 4:1-3 TCNT)  That kind of encounter, although seminal in our salvation history, is one that is lacking in the experience of many Christians.

And that leads to the personal part: have I ever experienced this?  In thinking back, yes, at least three times.  The first was at the start, as I mentioned in my dialogue with Ron Krumpos.  The second was my year in prep school which led me to “swim the Tiber.”  (In fairness, I must say that my hapless school chaplain wasn’t alone in forcing this moment; he had a lot of help.)  The third was the experience I had in the Texas A&M Newman Association.  So I guess I have it.  In all of these I should make a qualification: atheism wasn’t really the alternative.  That’s in part because I came from a long line of secular people/Lodge dwellers who didn’t need outright atheism to marginalise religious belief and practice.  To have that kind of experience is good, and does give you a different perspective on your walk with God, but it makes you an outlier in normal local church/parish life.

There are two other observations I’d like to make.

First, I get the impression that Kearney’s idea is that, if more people had this kind of anatheistic experience, they would be less dogmatic in their faith.  I don’t agree with this.  One good example of this is Mohammad, one which Kearney himself brings up.  Another is Pascal, the person who advanced the whole concept of wager in both mathematics and religion.  After his experience he became the most vociferous defender of the Jansenists, much to the regret of the Jesuits.  It helps to have that experience but it doesn’t necessarily dampen the enthusiasm.

Second, I’m not sure how well any theistic concept works in Buddhism which, in the form the Buddha set is down, really has no need for a god.

I’m sure that there are philosophical and theological objections to the way I have presented my observations.  But I don’t believe that it is good that the musings of academics be divorced from the reality of those in the pews that have to endure the sermons of those who emerge from seminary academic.  Kearney has made in interesting contribution to Christian thought, one that deserves further discussion in an age when people are transitioning away from their faith at a significant rate.

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