Richard Kearney: A Healthy Atheist Moment

January 2016 – Richard Kearney at the Theatre of Change

The Seminar on God and the Human Future will be welcoming guest scholar Richard Kearney of Boston College to their Spring 2016 session in just a couple weeks. Kearney is a public intellectual who emulates the ideal of Westar’s ethic of engagement with the public on issues that matter today. Kearney has contributed to numerous written, radio, and televised programs. Here are just a few free resources by Richard that may be of interest to you:

Richard Kearney defines hermeneutics as being responsible for where we’re speaking from. In a recent Freestyle Christianity podcast (linked above), Kearney shared his story of growing up Irish through a war in which even recently people were killing each other in the name of Christianity. This made him critical and questioning of what it means to be a Christian, although this was tempered by growing up with parents and teachers who were tolerant and ecumenical in their own approach to religion. His education around thinkers who were deeply suspicious of religion, such as Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, added to these life experiences and inspired in him a deep desire to engage with religious and Christian questions.

Even though he did his philosophical training in the atheistic climate of Western Europe, Kearney refuses to ignore the 95 percent of the world who happen to experience religion in a very living way. That commitment runs up against a major obstacle in philosophy, though: The “mystical” is often considered something about which philosophers can’t be clear, so, as the argument goes, they should be silent on the matter.

That didn't stop Kearney: he responded with what he calls “anatheism.” Anatheism is neither dogmatic theism nor dogmatic atheism. Two key elements form the pillars of anatheism. First, there is radical doubt: we must abandon accredited certainties. Second, there is the healthy atheist moment: a moment of giving away, a moment of estrangement that creates a possibility of return and renewal.

Kearney observes that when Jesus cries out, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is experiencing an atheistic moment. At that moment, the all-powerful God, the God of alpha and omega, the omni-God, is exposed as nothing. His understanding of God transforms through the atheistic moment, not in spite of it or without it. There’s no skipping over the doubt. Think of Mary pondering, troubled—that’s her atheist moment. Famously, there is also Abraham bringing his son to the mountain to sacrifice him only to leave behind the sort of God who would demand the blood sacrifice of a son, and embrace instead a God of covenant. There has to be a moment of letting go of the old voice before the new voice can speak.

I encourage you to listen to the two-part interview with Richard Kearney on Freestyle Christianity to learn more about his approach to doubt, hospitality to strangers, the “emptying” of God, some riffs on Nietzsche-as-prophet, and more. Plus, it’s just an interesting conversation!

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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