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By Fanny Howe


The Montréal Review, July 2011


 "Anatheism: Returning to God After God" by Richard Kearney (Columbia University Press, 2011)


Richard Kearney's Anatheism: Returning to God after God (Columbia UP, 2010) investigates the possibility of a God after God (ana-theos). The ana-theist moment is one of creative 'not knowing' signifying a break with former sureties and inviting the forging of new meanings from the most ancient of wisdoms and the most basic of everyday epiphanies. Anatheism refers to an inaugural event lying at the heart of every great religion, a wager between hospitality and hostility to the stranger - the sense of something 'more'. By exploring the void left after the death of God, anatheism opens up new possibilities of returning (ana) to the divine and the sacred with a more liberating and tolerant faith.

Anatheism has received much critical acclaim with Le Monde describing it as a 'courageous, thought-provoking book written with rare honesty and openness of mind', and The New Yorker hailing it as a 'heartfelt, pragmatic and eminently realistic argument about how one might think about God after the disappearance of God'. Since its publication in 2010, Anatheism has been the subject of five international conferences and is to be supplemented with a follow-up volume of conversations on the topic between the author and such leading thinkers as Charles Taylor, Julia Kristeva and James Wood.


Recently I have discovered the term anatheism, which describes my experience with the world we have now.  It was coined by the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney and is circulating in his book by that title.

Anatheism stands for a form of faith that follows the discrediting of religion in the West.  It also follows on discussions between philosophy and theology that overlap at the intersection between double negatives, as in "I didn't see nothing."

Anatheism describes the way we live now, in a time without God as we have known God, and in full awareness of human failings, with a sense of dread and discomposure.  We proceed as the ancients did, either pausing at or turning from daily thresholds.

Immigrants and tourists alike wander through cities and customs, only hoping to pass without notice.  To get by, to get through, with their identity marked innocent.

Anatheism is both faith and unfaith, and develops its own ways to survive and find meaning.  Who is behind the gate?  It is almost mystical in its fixation on strangeness.

Anatheism hovers at the threshold before knocking or entering.  The world from which it comes stands behind it as a remnant of something unknowable and the world before it is lit by threats of annihilation as powerful as love. 

Ana means above, before and again. And with God and theology attached, the ana is both pushing into and pulling away from theology, and doing it again, as the Anabaptists are baptized again.

Atheism is a big part of it, An atheism, immanent in every step or stop in faith, while the body walks on.

Because of the collapse of the godhead, like the statues of Lenin all over Russia, the anatheistic moment is necessarily obedient to chance, humorous and cunning.  It dislikes authority and doesn't mind being unnoticed. 

Its faith seems to be about horizontals-alignments with appointments, different time zones, mysteries of coincidence and accident.

At least this is my noetic understanding of a living anatheism, because I understand lost faith and the haunt of history as much as I love Francis of Assisi and the natural world.

Anatheism takes form after religious faith is understood to be lost-fully and completely.  This time, faith is not lost by the failure of a few to trust what the earth will provide, but by millions of people who have seen what other humans can do to each other, by fundamentalist leaders who are liars and by those who have tracked the way from atom into emptiness, which is called the beginning of everything. 

There is no God like the one Adam recalled in Paradise Lost "placable and mild, bending his ear."

No heaven descending onto earth.

The given God, picked apart and taunted, has been proved to be an impossible child even to those who would have once called themselves agnostic.

That God has been reduced into an offspring with mood swings, an object of scorn and analysis for scientists, something that is no longer safe from the merciless hands of history, it is helpless, now, having been over-described, and drained of its force. 

In other words, ecologically speaking, the entire natural world from our eyes into light-years of stars is the God that we have mutilated while the sun is watching and the clouds float by.

Is it possible that in this negative insight there could be the possibility of a new religious vision and practice, as Kearney would describe it?

Something that is neither pantheist nor pagan, but finds its model and source, of course, in the natural world and how well it functions without us.

Are we beginning to wake up to the feeling that there something behind God.  Something that is nameless, unidentifiable by our senses, something that hovers over the galaxies and outside, an ana-something?

It is more like the space around the Word than the letters of the Word.

From where I stand at least, there is something spectacularly behind, beyond, outside our humanized God.  It is not just spiritual, as in instinctive, it is an original preceding genesis.  It could be insane.

In a moment of extreme atheism, this unknown remains standing. And if it is faced as being still a presence, it's shocking enough to require attention.

Certain artists dedicate their lives to facing it, and we recognize their sacrifice and we are grateful.

Virginia Woolf in 1925 noted that "life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end."

Her vision was that of an early anatheist who has the extreme privilege of a spirit of openness and wants to pass it along.

While the shimmer of a further reality was a millimeter away from her face, she only had words to express what she experienced as surface.

For her, to be open to the open required silence, time and one liness.

Proust and Holderlin, Dickinson and Woolf, all shared this way of seeing both openly and in quiet.

Theirs was a mysticism "exhumed from beliefs," as Michel de Certeau would say.

Many current anatheists are Catholics who resemble the first Protestants, disputing Church dogma, but at the same time dreaming cathedral dreams and protecting the childhood of faith that the Eucharist continues to reenact. 

Anatheism is a description of a deep religious sensibility that exists in spite of theology.  In Kearney's book, one key word is hospitality and another "the stranger".  Both words signal a return to early Scripture, but in the possibility of their reiteration-one kindly, the other terrifying-they still exist.

I suppose if I had a theory of anatheism, my key words would be openness, horror and wonder.  Together these three add up to one, sanity, which can only be cherished when it is lost.


Fanny Howe's most recent collection of poems is Come and See (Graywolf, 2011). She has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Award for Poetry in 2009 and is currently teaching at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.


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