There are moments when it can seem as if we’re drowning in words – which isn’t to say that we are somehow becoming incapacitated by the presence of more information. Rather, in a world that is being transformed by access to information, it can be hard to appreciate the power of words, to appreciate what Paul Ricoeur referred to as the “efficacity of speech.” Moreover, that very abundance can also make listening to the Christian message more difficult for those of us intent on doing so. There are, it seems, an endless array of voices clamoring for our attention.

In a collection of essays entitled History and Truth, Ricoeur, without question one of the most important philosophers of the last century, uses the phrase “efficacity of speech” to refer to the clarifying role that language, written or spoken, can play in relation to the central themes of our culture. In the same essay he also acknowledges, as a Christian, the central importance of remaining a “listener to the Christian message.” For it is as a listener that the power of words can change the human heart. He calls this “the refulgent core of our preferences and the positions we embrace.”

Another of Ricoeur’s powerful little essays, “Religion, Atheism, Faith,” embodies the two principles mentioned above. Both the power of speech and act of listening to the Christian message are placed beside one another in the context of evaluating the meaning of atheism. The title is indicative of the course of Ricoeur’s argument. When religion passes through atheism it can emerge as faith. To put it slightly more specifically, when modern religion passes through the critique offered of religion by atheists, it can emerge as a more vital faith.

Such a formulation gives the many possible critiques of religion their due. In a way, it is to acknowledge the power of speech that is not necessarily reflected in the Christian message. Speech remains powerful regardless of any connection to faith. The three critiques Ricoeur focuses on are those by writers he calls “masters of suspicion”: Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Although these men thought that they had provided a knock-out blow to religion, they were wrong. In Ricoeur’s estimation, 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 his recent book Anatheism, Richard Kearney, a former student of Ricoeur’s, picks up on this thread, moves it into a broader domain, and develops it into a contemporary program of engagement. Anatheism, Kearney says echoing Ricoeur’s essay, is a search for God after God, for faith after the dogmatisms of atheism and theism. When Nietzsche’s Zarathustra proclaims God’s death, it is simply the death of the ontotheological God. For Ricoeur, the God of Scripture, the God of the Word, remains.

The prefix ana taken in its etymological sense is an action signifying both a movement away and a return, a repetition. That is, a move away from Zarathustra’s God, back to a God about whom we cannot know too much. We should return, Kearney insists, to the tradition of negative, apophatic, mystical theology espoused by (pseudo-)Dionysius the Aeropagite, Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich. This return, however, is not to a mysticism shrouded in murky darkness, but, as Kearney frames it, a kind of wager in the absence of illusive certainty.

Anatheism is also a kind of call to action. One way of characterizing the anatheist project might be as a kind of attentive listening. 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. In the Christian tradition we might easily recognize this as a philosophical broadening of one part of the Christian message embodied in the Emmaus story. Alternatively, you might even call anatheism a sort of Pauline project. For what Kearney calls for is a faith of hope, love and wonder. “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.” And this faith is profoundly ethical: anatheist faith works to transfigure the world with and for others.

For evangelicals, and indeed Christians more broadly, this has potentially far-reaching ramifications. There is a way in which Christian faith might be opened up and creatively renewed with Kearney’s anatheist project and with Ricoeur’s re-affirmation of faith. To put it in terms a bit more familiar, we might return to the Scriptural injunction to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of hearing Christ’s message. To he who has ears, let him hear.

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

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

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