Public debate on religion follows a depressingly familiar course these days. An equivalent of Godwin’s Law operates whereby the longer an online discussion continues the chances increase that someone will compare belief in God to belief in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or Santa.
The reply to this knock-down argument is very often smug moralising to the effect that atheists have no values and/or are being dishonest about their beliefs.
Thank goodness, then, for Richard Kearney. The philosopher is trying to move the discussion onwards through his writings and The Guestbook Project, which is described as an "experiment" in hospitality and inter-faith dialogue and is sponsored by his employer, Boston College. In his book Anatheism: Returning to God after God, Kearney rejects the notion that we must chose between either theism or atheism. This forms the basis of today's idea: God is a symbol that constantly requires reinterpretation.
What is anatheism?
"It's neither dogmatic theism nor dogmatic atheism but it's an alternative to both of them. The word 'ana' in Greek simply means 'again'. I'm with both the Enlightenment and the French revolution and the atheistic, humanist critique of the God of power and punishment – what I call the omnigod, who also died in Auschwitz – and then I ask, what's left? Can something come back? That's not to invent some new-age god, but can things come back that were there, that needed to crumble for something to be reborn."
And there’s a message here for the ‘new atheists’?
“Yes, there is. Militant dogmatic fundamentalist theism is perfectly mirrored – and not all theism is that, obviously – in the new atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens, who I admire. I think it’s really healthy that they’re out there, particularly in America, challenging the dogmatism of the Tea Party, but their view of God is so restrictive. They don’t allow for any alternative. They
throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Is part of this rethinking the word 'God' itself?
"Absolutely. All I'm saying is that God is a word – Augustine said it before me – for what we hope for. It is a word we use, and has been used by all wisdom traditions to try and connote this thing we hope for, this thing we long for, this surplus of meaning we call mystery.
"The interesting thing is God is a name that is constantly being revised and reinterpreted not only in different religions but within those religions. That's the idea of 'ana', or 'after': God after God after God, and if you ever stop deconstructing God and then reconstructing God, you get an idol. So you've got to see God as a symbol that constantly requires reinterpretation, retrieving, reliving."
But does religious tradition deserve such authority? Should we not just discard it?
"People have tried to do that. Robespierre tried to do that and we got the terror. Stalin tried to do that and we got the religion of the new soviet man and we got the gulags. Hitler tried to do it and we got Auschwitz, the divinisation of the Aryan man and the Germanic gods. So it's actually a disaster to try to create a religion out of nothing.
“The bottom line for me in anatheism is genuine religion begins with the movement from hostility to hospitality, that is to say openness to the impossible stranger. That’s always been the way: Abraham to the strangers; Mary to Gabriel, who was the stranger; Jesus to the Samarian woman to the Phoenician woman.”
A critic might say you're only picking out the nice bits from religious teaching to make it more appetising. Yours is surely a selective reading of the Bible.
"Of course it's selective. It has to be selective, otherwise you're uncritical, you're a dogmatist. I grew up being taught there was one reading, and there are Protestant, evangelical sects that are even stricter than the Catholicism that I learnt.
"I also learned another kind of Catholicism from the Benedictines in Glenstal, which really taught me how to think. And I remember our first religious doctrine class was Fr Andrew Nugent, who said: Now, you are going to read Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, and if you still believe in God we can have a serious conversation, but you've got to begin with atheism.
“Christ on the cross was an atheist when he said: ‘my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ because he had to give up the idea of a god that would come down and save him from the cross. That was an idol. And then he lets go of that god and opens himself to the god of life and love.”
What is your impression of God?
"It is the vulnerable, fragile stranger who knocks and invites us to more life. And there is nothing particularly new about that. It's not some New Age religion. It's the three strangers knocking at Abraham's tent. It's Gabriel knocking at Mary's room. It's – as Jesus says in Matthew 25 – the person who is hungry, the person who is thirsty. Walter Benjamin has a beautiful line where he says we must consider each instant as a portal through which the Messiah must enter. It's always knocking, every moment."
There is an assumption in some of the debate that we will eventually argue ourselves into agreement and so reach consensus on a particular religion, or non-religion. Is this a mistake?
"You will never reach the end point on either of those fronts. In other words, I believe in the equality of all religions but not the sameness. Each religion has a right to express its response to the call – the call is the call to life and the call away from death. What gives life is divine; what does not is non-divine. And what gives life is always new, and therefore it's always strange.
"Now, that [response] is something I believe is a moment – what I call the anatheist moment – that is common to all religions, but every religion approaches it differently and honours it differently. And each religion needs the other to remain different so that it keeps reminding it of the different ways that that response to the call should be honoured. It's like Teilhard de Chardin says: 'Union differentiates'."
ASK A SAGE
Question: Is it the job of science to prove God doesn't exist?
Simone Weil replies: "A science which does not bring us nearer to God is worthless."