Monday, July 25, 2011

Trading in God for Good, part 2 -- Replacing "God" with "Sacred"

           I began to let go of “God,” during my last year at Harvard Divinity School during Tamsin Jones’ class on Modern and Post-Modern Responses to Religion. Jones introduced me to Richard Kearney’s (then-unpublished) Anatheism. The book is an exploration of possibilities for understanding and relating to God after the ‘death of God.’ To me, the basic idea behind post-death-of-God theologies is that a God that can be totally conceptualized is not worthy of the name “God.” If God is the linchpin to your metaphysical theory, then clearly you are treating God as a linchpin, and not as an infinite Other that transcends even the very notion of “being.” The question “Does God exist?” simply makes God an additional item amongst the set of existing things. If God is related to infinitude, then even the word “God” is doing this reality a disservice—it is at the very least grammatically limiting.
Kearney draws on the Abrahamic faiths and post-onto-theological thinkers to propose a surplus/Stranger approach to “God.” The surplus/stranger is that which is outside of our understanding, our sense of the world, our sense of what’s expected. To free God from the limits of our philosophical systems is to allow God to be mysterious, alien, unpredictable, unexpected. By posing God as “the unexpected,” “the extra,” and especially, “the other,” Kearney is committed to seeking/finding God outside of the institutions (and words) in which He is normally encountered. If God is Stranger, then God can (and should) manifest in ways that are not normally labeled “God.”
            Throughout his book, Kearney regularly uses the phrase “the sacred” instead of the word “God.” For me, this was an eye-opening, life-changing piece of rhetoric. “The sacred,” as a term that expresses ‘godliness’ outside of the grammar of a proper noun, is an important step towards freeing God from the tyranny of the word/concept “God.” While Kearney’s anatheism returns again and again to God (“anatheism” literally means “again-theism”), he inspired me to find in “the sacred” my first atheistic substitution for “God.” In “the sacred” I found a powerful new synonym for “what matters” that did not rely on the word “God.” I like to use the word “sacred” in the context of “I hold this as sacred,” or “This is sacred to me,” (read more on my notion of the sacred here). It provides me with the vocabulary to express my ethical orientation towards my experience of the world. It is my new “password”—through unpacking the word “sacred” I discover what I believe matters in life, what I believe is worthy of human care (attention, time, money, energy).
Of course, “sacred” has two notable flaws, which I will work through in the next few posts.
1)      It’s a word primarily associated with religion. Many people will tell me that the very term “sacred secular” is an oxymoron. Can it be separated from its primarily religious context?
2)     Like the word “God,” (and also the word “Good”), “Sacred” is just a sign used by a speaker to point at whatever meaning they invest in it.  The content of “sacred” is entirely up for grabs.

Stay tuned…


  1. Thanks for writing! Not having read Anatheism, I would be interested to hear more about how your use of "the sacred" differs from Kearney's. It seems like you are describing how you really like his term, but not necessarily in the God-context he still seems to be using it. Is it that Kearney is describing something that we can't understand, and your "the sacred" can be understood or articulated somewhat?

  2. Good question! Darn, I haven't read Anatheism in a few years-- guess that's evident in my post, eh? Well, without going back to the book...

    Since Kearney is using sacred an alt-term for God, I think he wants it as an adjective that indicates what is of utmost importance, especially ethically. Drawing on other post-ontotheological thinkers, he sees our obligation towards the stranger (who could be angel or devil) as sacred. I'm not sure what else he'd call sacred.

    I don't know if our views on the sacred differ. Really I just found it powerful that he was using an adjective (sacred) to replace a noun (God), and it made me realize that the word "God" was conceptually and grammatically limiting our capacity as humans to relate to matters of ultimacy.

  3. Thanks! That's really helpful. Your last point I find to be your clearest/most convincing (to me) articulation of the themes in your recent posts: " made me realize that the word 'God' was conceptually and grammatically limiting our capacity as humans to relate to matters of ultimacy." While I would probably argue that the response to that need not be to throw out the word God, but rather might be to add other words/grammatical forms to the mix in addition to the word God, I would venture to say that the point you make here would perhaps be more convincing to God2 lovers then your arguments distinguishing God1 from God2. What do you think?

  4. Thanks for the compliment; I'm really glad with how that last line came out too. And it makes sense that you find it a more convincing approach for attacking God2-- in this post, I am pointing directly at what enabled me to finally make the move beyond God2 theologies.

  5. The fact that God2 theologies did not help me recover belief or relationship with God1 is an important aspect of why they are dissatisfying.

    But what helped me move on from God1, was this whole anatheistic use of the word "sacred." If 'God' is a word pointing at an aspect of ultimate reality, why can't other words do it too?

    My reading of metaphorical theology (mostly Sallie McFague) also helped me get to this point. Metaphorical theology attempts to accept the concept of God as something that is both intensely vague/mysterious, and yet seems to proliferate images, concepts, and associations (even if the God is 'one'). My love of metaphorical theology passed through that brief stage where I wanted to hold a mytho-poetic polytheism party, as a way of celebrating and exploring the diversity of divine images.

    Both metaphorical theology and anatheism helped me recognize that there could, and should, be more to God than "God."

  6. I appreciated your comment on my State of Formation piece, Matthew. I hear your discomfort with these terms (and they surely are discomforting!) and would offer another consideration from my own experience. I was an interfaith chaplain for many years and built many connections and friendships within faith communities. When I left the church and ordination, some were sad, some angry, some yawned. Some are still friends. For communication purposes I continue to use some of the "bridge" terms, though very carefully. At the same time, I "play" with the words and invent new ones or toss the salad of phrases such as "sacred secularity." I think what many of us have learned, and rightly question, is that we are making up terms to express the in-credible nature of the Cosmos. As John Burroughs put it, there is nothing outside, behind or beyond Nature. Our guesswork engendered religions. I admit there is a "fuzziness" to using words like the ones we're discussing. But being human is pretty fuzzy, yes?! Thanks.

  7. Hi Chris: I'm conflicted. I agree that being human is 'fuzzy' and that language generally works for us when we are able to stretch the meaning of our terms. Thus the 'bridge' terms (Thanks for that phrase!) At the same time, many people want rigidity in language, and they can be allergic to certain insider terminology. In my quest for how to speak about 'what's important,' I would love to find something secular that inspires, and does not have to borrow from religion. Currently I'm exploring the possibilities (and limitations) of 'humanism' as a central term. At some point also i want to see what 'wisdom' and 'flourishing' can do for us. Thanks for commenting!