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Beyond theism and atheism: Anatheism

"As the prefix ana suggests, anatheism is about repetition and return," Richard Kearney explains in Anatheism, in which he justifies doubt as the entry point to faith. To get more granular, "There are three basic elements to anatheism: protest, prophecy, and sacrament."

For those who experience it, the aerial view is something like this:

"What comes after God? What follows in the wake of our letting go of God? What emerges out of that night of not-knowing, that moment of abandoning and abandonment? Especially for those who — after ridding themselves of ‘God’ — still seek God?

That is the question I wish to pursue in this volume. And, so doing, I propose the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: those polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history. This third option, this wager of faith beyond faith, I call anatheism. Ana-theos, God after God. Ana-theism: another word for another way of seeking and sounding the things we consider sacred but can never fully fathom or prove. Another idiom for receiving back what we’ve given up as if we were encountering it for the first time. Just as Abraham received back Isaac as gift, having given him up as patriarchal project. In short, another way of returning to a God beyond or beneath the God we thought we possessed."
It is a moment of "freedom of belief" before we choose our path or our side. Even after we take a position, we can always come back to the doorway of doubt, the point of possibility, to reexamine what we believe.

"Anatheism acknowledges the emancipatory force of critical atheism as an integral part of theism, understood as a second faith beyond faith. And it also respects agnostic atheism that remains just that – agnosia, not-knowing — choosing not to make the second move of faith. What anatheism opposes is militant antitheism, which — as in the Reign of Terror or Stalinist persecutions — is just as pernicious as triumphal theism.

Anatheism is a freedom of belief that precedes the choice between theism and atheism as much as it follows in its wake. The choice of faith is never taken once and for all. It needs to be repeated again and again — every time we speak in the name of God or ask God why he has abandoned us. Anatheism performs a drama of decision whenever humans encounter the stranger who, like Rilke’s statue, whispers, “Change your life!” And every moment is a portal through which this stranger may enter."
He writes at length about the ability to embrace the stranger, the Other, and how the openness of the anatheist perspective regarding our understanding of God allows us to be similarly receptive of humans we do not yet understand. Anatheistic "disorientation" implies a readiness to be reoriented, and yet a perpetual willingness to return to disorientation and then be reoriented in a new way.

He also writes about how awareness of the suffering in the world, specifically of the Holocaust, prompts a rejection of "the God of theodicy," that is, a God who obviously exists, can save people, but doesn't...or, probably worse, a God who deliberately plans human suffering as part of a larger design. This kind of theism is barren, since it encourages people to accept suffering and injustice passively and even to defend it as God's will. "Anatheism is not atheism then, but it does agree with enlightened atheism that the God of theodicy is dead."

Rather, the only credible God is one that doesn't have the power to stop our tribal hatreds and cruelties and is consequently waiting for us to learn to approach the Other in peace. Such self-empowerment to create the sanctity we wish to see in the world necessitates an entry point that is a kind of atheism — a healthy, inquisitive, clear-minded skepticism — but does not remain in any rigid ideology, either theist or atheist.

It is from an atheist moment of interiority within the self that we may open out toward the exteriority of the stranger: ‘Only if it starts from me as a separated being and goes as a host to the Other, welcoming the Other as guest, only in this manner can an eternal return within the interiority of the circle of being be escaped. For when I turn to the Other interiority turns into exteriority.’ [John Llewelyn, Emmanuel Levinas: The Genealogy of Ethics (London: Routledge, 1995), 67.] It is in this context that Levinas holds that the gift of Judaism to humanity is atheism — namely, separation from God so as to encounter the other as absolutely other.
He describes the tradition of apophatic theology, which refers to describing God as not-this, not-that, or explicitly refusing to describe God because God cannot be described. To presume to describe God is to exclude certain possibilities. "This is not the last word," he assures us. "It is a cleared space to begin again." It also may be that "the recognition of God as a ‘nothing and nobody’ (ta me onta) enables us to identify with the nothings and nobodies of this world in a movement of loving revolt."

He also attributes to anatheism the fusion of the sacred and secular. He does not mean this specifically in the political arena, but in some other dimensions, such as the sense of duty and virtue and willingness to defend human rights and engage in debate.

Related, from Jamie Howison:

[Walter] Brueggemann provides a helpful framework for describing what is going on here. He sets out a description of the life of faith, but I suspect it is something of a script for life in the human family generally. He writes: I suggest, in a simple schematic fashion, that our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of a. being securely oriented, b. being painfully disoriented, and c. being surprisingly reoriented. Secure orientation, painful disorientation, surprising reorientation; it is a movement that we see played out again and again, both in our own lives and in the great human drama. Perhaps there is not always and everywhere a secure beginning, and clearly the experience of being "surprisingly reoriented" is not universal. For many people, the best they can hope is that they might learn to live with the pain or, perhaps, be sold something that could narcotize them into a proverbially false sense of security. Nevertheless, the people of God must live at least in openness to the surprisingness characteristic of our God.


"The Psalms, the Blues, and the Telling of Truth." Jamie Howison. Quoting Walter Brueggemann, "Praying the Psalms," Winona, Minn.: Saint Mary's Press, 1993. p. 14. Printed in Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. Edited by Raewynne J. Whiteley and Beth Maynard. Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 2003. pp. 32-33.

See also my April 2020 article on Medium, "The Benefits of Doubt."


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