This time it’s a piece in the Irish Times, by Joe Humphreys, about a new book by Richard Kearney, who is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. What the article neglects to mention is that Boston College is Catholic.
The subject is familiar – the current discussion of theism and atheism is simplistic and boring; we need something more sophisticated than that. Enter the guy from the Jesuit college.
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.
So you say, but to many millions of people “God” is the opposite of that: not a symbol, and not subject to reinterpretation. It seems absurd to use “God” to mean something radically different from what it has always meant to most people. It’s as if I started using the word “marmalade” to mean “dog.” I’m allowed to do that, but it’s not a very useful thing to do.
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.
But then why not talk about that instead of talking about “God”? Why not just talk about that? Talking about what we hope for could be interesting. Talking about “God” seems to me very uninteresting indeed.
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.
Yes, but if you are selective, you’re agreeing that it’s humans who decide on what morality is and that the bible has no more to do with that than any other book, and the bible becomes just one more book, as it should have been all along. If you’re going to go that far you might as well go the rest of the way.
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.
But why is that god? Why isn’t it itself, instead of being god?
I never understand that.