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 Jones introduced me to Richard Kearney’s (then-unpublished) Anatheism.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.