Postmodern Love: Humble and Faithful Hospitality

This is the final post of a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post has been drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. Links to previous posts, can be found here.

In the final chapter of Postmodern Apologetics: Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy, Gschwandtner presents Irish philosopher and Boston College professor Richard Kearney’s work as providing an account of “postmodern charity.”  There is much in his thinking about religion, as surveyed by Gschwandtner, that I find highly appealing. 

Kearney takes a more balanced approach to the questions of epistemology and metaphysics than other postmodern theorists such as Heidegger, Caputo, and Derrida.  The critique of modernist certainty and conceptual schemes, he argues, should not lead us to the nihilistic abyss of sheer deconstruction and pure relativism.  In the process of dismantling the pretensions to absolute certainty and control of modernist-style foundationalism (including religious fundamentalism), postmodernism runs the risk of freeing us from one set of idols only to deliver us to another.  Kearney is alive to this danger and he challenges the excesses of many of the thinkers he draws inspiration from as conversation partners.

Kearney’s greatest concern, however, is perhaps not epistemological so much as ethical in nature.  He urges us to embrace the richness and truth that may be found in works of art, narrative, and both in and beyond our own faith traditions because he believes the demands of love and justice require us to engage others from a spirit of genuine hospitality, openness, and dialogue.  He refuses to sacrifice the demands of love and justice on the altar of any private or sectarian piety.  Like many contemporary theologians, Kearney suggests that in a post-Holocaust world we must see God as entering into a dangerous venture of freedom with humanity that in some sense leaves God powerless in the face of evils such as Auschwitz and Dachau.  And he calls attention to the ways in which God’s kingdom can only be incarnated in the present by individuals and communities who actively embody the ways of hospitality, love, and justice in the midst of suffering.  In all of these areas I find myself in warm agreement with Kearney’s project. 

At the same time, I cannot help but wonder whether Kearney’s “anti-metaphysical” phenomenological hermeneutic is robust enough to sustain some of his highest ethical commitments.  Kearney’s goal, we must grasp from the outset, is not to help us recover a more persuasive Christian faith; he explicitly disavows apologetics as being dogmatic and antithetical to open dialogue by definition (280).  It is, rather, to stake out a new, post-orthodox stance that is somehow neither “theistic” nor “atheistic” but “anatheistic.” In his 2006 book, After God, Kearney describes anatheism as a “reopening of that space where we are free to choose between faith and nonfaith.”  He continues:

As such, anatheism is about the option of retrieved belief.  It operates before as well as after the division between theism and atheism, and it makes both possible.  Anatheism, in short, is an invitation to revisit what might be termed a primary scene of religion: the encounter with a radical Stranger who we choose, or don’t choose, to call God (281).

It is difficult to know what precisely Kearney means in this and other passages quoted by Gschwandtner, which in good postmodern fashion are marked by their share of (at least to the uninitiated such as myself) obscure if not impenetrable vocabulary (“ana-phasis”, “acts of quotidian experience where the infinite traverses the infinitesimal”, “diacritical hermeneutics of judgment”, “pluralism and polysemy of alterity”, “divine posse”, “post-metaphysical readings of the possible”, “teratology of the sublime”, etc.).  One thing is clear, however: for Kearney, as Gschwandtner writes, there is no longer any “particular manifestation of ‘God’” that we can confidently place our full faith and devotion in, whether Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, or any other deity of traditional religious belief; all such gods of classical theology are “phenomena of otherness as repressed parts of the human psyche that are projected upon others or the outside instead of being affirmed within ourselves” (269).  In their place we should now embrace what Kearney variously calls the “Post-God” and the pluralistic “God of loving possibility” (274-78).

In his 2001 book, The God Who May Be, Kearney writes: 

Religiously, I would say that if I hail from a Catholic tradition, it is with this proviso: where Catholicism offends love and justice, I prefer to call myself a Judeo-Christian theist; and where this tradition so offends, I prefer to call myself religious in the sense of seeking God in a way that neither excludes other religions nor purports to possess the final truth.  And where the religious so offends, I would call myself a seeker of love and justice tout court (266-67). 

The puzzle that arises from this in many ways attractive but also troubling declaration is why Kearney continues to identify as a Catholic, a theist, or a religious believer at all.  If love and justice are enough, and if these can be adequately grasped and pursued without any reference (“tout court”) to the Triune God of Christian belief, why should Kearney, or we, continue to claim Christianity in even a provisional sense?  To be clear, Kearney does allow that Christianity can be consistent with the “Post-God” of loving possibility he is describing, and he draws heavily on the grammar and vocabulary of Christianity throughout his work.  He writes, “not every notion of the Trinitarian God—not to mention Yahweh or Allah—is a fetish of presence or hyper-essence” (276).  Nevertheless, in his concern for opening a space of dialogue with the Other, Kearney seems to reject the idea (found, for example, in Rene Girard) that Christ is absolutely unique, both necessary and sufficient for a right understanding of what love and justice are.  “[I]f Jerusalem is indeed one way to peace,” Kearney writes, “it is not the only way…Interbeing is the way between” (270).

Statements such as these raise unresolved questions about the relationship between Kearney’s pluralism and the actual person of Christ.  Can we affirm the ethics of “alterity” and still accept the incarnation in its scandalous particularity, in its radical and non-negotiable insistence that the divine has entered history not in any merely symbolic, spiritual, or poetic sense but in the form of a person who makes quite definite demands upon our lives?  Can we acknowledge that goodness and truth may be found in other faith traditions and still bear faithful witness to the story of the God who took on human being, the living God who was incarnated not simply as any person but as a marginalized Jewish peasant who was tortured to death by the Empire and who by his resurrection has made it possible for humans to become partakers of the divine nature and so enter into authentic communion with our former enemies? 

Outside of the unique light that radiates from this story, what will abstractions like “love” and “justice” over time come to mean?  Why, after all, should we choose to call the Stranger “God” as Kearney does if there is no God who has already entered the human story and in so doing made it possible for us to now see the divine in the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and the oppressed in our midst?  Kearney cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier, and Mahatma Gandhi as practical exemplars of the kind of love and justice we ought to aspire toward.  But three of these individuals were deeply committed Christians whose lives were formed not by the rigors of postmodern critical theory but by their participation in the ekklesia of true—even when struggling, doubting, stumbling, and betraying—believers.

In attempting to locate a more epistemologically humble and ethically engaged third way between the Scylla of dogmatic theism and the Charybdis of dogmatic atheism, Kearney challenges us to think more carefully about what it means to be believers in a postmodern age and pluralistic society.  Yet values of humility, charity, hospitality, love, and justice were already fully contained, it seems to this reader, within the classically orthodox “onto-theological” Christian affirmation of God’s character.  It is an open question whether they can be sustained in any kind of coherent and compelling way once we have left all ontological and metaphysical truth claims concerning the personhood and the divinity of Christ behind.

Ronald Osborn is an adjunct professor of international relations at the University of Southern California.

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