Neither Is nor Is Not, but May Be

I am a bit backlogged, I must confess.  I have finished reading several books over the past few months, and I would like to write about them, some of them more than once, but these are not the kinds of posts that I am able to write in a few minutes, and so I now have a small stack of books on my desk, all awaiting my attention.

At the top of the pile, a book that I finished more than two months ago now, is Richard Kearney‘s The God Who May Be.  It was given to me by Dave Humphrey, either this past Christmas or for my last birthday, I cannot now remember which, and it was a welcome gift, because I had heard a little about Kearney and was wanting to read him for myself.

The book begins with an admirable clarity.  “God neither is nor is not but may be,” Kearney says.  “That is my thesis.”  He argues for this thesis by making what he calls an eschatological reading of several biblical texts, a reading that opposes the onto-theological tradition that understands God in terms of existence or esse, as the God who either is or is not, with a reading that proposes an understanding of God as possibility or posse, as the God who may be.  Kearney articulates the substance of this position more concisely than I ever could, so I will quote him several times, and at length.

“God will be God at the eschaton, ” he says.  “That is what is promised.  But precisely because this promise is just that, a promise, and not an already accomplished possession, there is a free space gaping at the very core of divinity: the space of the possible.  It is this divine gap which renders all things possible which would be otherwise impossible to us – including the kingdom of justice and love.  But because God is posse rather than esse, the promise remains powerless until and unless we respond to it.  Transfiguring the possible into the actual, and thereby enabling the coming kingdom to come into being, is not just something God does for us but also something we do for God.”  In other words, God will come to be, but is not yet.  In the present time, God remains what God may be, remains possibility, and the transformation of this possibility into actuality requires us to respond to what is possible in God.

This response to God’s possibility, in Kearney’s view, becomes our primary responsibility to God.  Our duty is to decide the possibility that is God, again and again, in order that God will be transformed from possibility to actuality.  As he says himself, “It is the divine perhaps, hovering over every just decision or action, that ensures that history is never over and our duty never done.  The posse keeps us on our toes and reminds us that there is nowhere to lay our heads for long.  God depends on us to be.  Without us, no Word can be made flesh.”  Kearney’s claim here is radical.  It makes humanity responsible for the being of God, for the incarnation of God.  It makes God dependent on the decisions of God’s own creations.  It makes the future fundamentally undetermined.  It makes the nature of the coming kingdom of God rely on the decisions made by frail people here and now.

This radical reunderstanding of God and of humanity’s responsibility to God, says Kearney, is the condition of a hope for the future.  “The posse keeps us open to hope,” he says, “even if it is a hope against hope, in other words, the hope that in spite of injustice and despair the posse may become more and more incarnate in esse, transmuting being as it does so into a new heaven and a new earth.”  The hope here is that the God who may be will more and more come actually to be, as we respond to the possibility that God opens in us.  The hope is always that the possibility of love and justice and grace will become ever more the actuality of love and justice and grace.

There is much that I appreciate about Kearney’s argument.  I agree that the God of existence, the God of onto-theology, does not satisfactorily account for the God that is portrayed by the Bible or required by theology or encountered by experience.  I am attracted to the idea that God is a God of possibility rather than existence, and I am attracted even more to the idea that this possibility places an unending responsibility on me to make God be in the world what God desires to be.  I am moved by the hope that is in this possibility.

I am not convinced, however, that Kearney’s idea of God as possibility actually escapes onto-theological existence.  I will not go into the details of my reservations because I am aware that this question is not one that everyone finds compelling, but my main argument would be that Kearney’s understanding of God as possibility that is ideally coming more and more to be, really only defers existence into the future, to the time when it will become actual.  Such possibility escapes existence, perhaps, but only for a time.  It is constantly slipping into existence, moment by moment, and so is already under the sign of existence.  Far from escaping onto-theology, it finds its culmination there, precisely as it moves from possibility into actuality, precisely as humanity makes actual the possible God.

I would suggest that any God who is truly founded in possibility, any God who truly escapes onto-theological existence, is a God whose possibility never becomes actual, either because it remains always still to come, as in Jacques Derrida’s messianism without a messiah, or because it comes to being in such a way that being does not recognize it, as in Jean-Luc Marion’s saturated phenomenon.  As soon as the possibility of God become actual, either now or in the future, either in this time or in some time to come, it becomes subject to onto-theology, to presence, to being, and becomes fraught with all of the problems that this entails.  This means that Kearney is suggesting, not an alternative to existence at all, but merely a teleology that defers the existence of God to a future and coming time, even if this time is only the end of time.

The problem here is not God as possibility.  The problem is that this possibility is being understood as always anticipating an actuality which then becomes the limit and completion of God, becomes the end of God as possibility.  This is why it is necessary, I would suggest, to begin seeing the possibility at the heart of God as a possibility that never require an actuality, at least not in any of the ways that would be available to human understanding, because the purpose of this possibility is not to make itself be at all, but to make us be in its place.  It does not require being.  It requires us to be as its possibility would make us to be.  It is neither what is, nor what is not, nor what may be.  It is what brings us to be as we respond to its possibility.  The responsibility that the possibility of God lays on us is not to make God come to be, which will never be possible in any case, but to bring ourselves to be in the ways that we can only be as we respond to the possibility at the heart of God.

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2 comments
  1. Hey Luke, I have not finished, but there is company, so I will be quick. This is brilliant, I must borrow this from you as soon as possible, likely next month if that works. It is probably the quintessential ideas behind biblical views of heaven ‘that God came here when his people cry out to be free’ and such thoughts like ammilennialism, ‘that if God comes when his people have not been in labour it will be terrible, but if he comes when his people are in labour, it is but a king coming to his kingdom and it shall be gala!’ I wish very much what the God potentiality indicates for such things like creation and resurrection and the implications which lend themselves to gnosticism in the thought. However, it also brings to mind a saying of mine ‘If there is a God it will be alright, and if there is not it doesn’t really matter.’ But this maybe false since the responsibility is to make God be in such a way that not and to matter emensely.’

  2. Curtis,

    What I am actually saying is that God never comes at all, not as being, not as existence, not as presence, not as actuality, but only as possibility. I am saying that God appears in this earthly kingdom only as the possible God, never as the actual God, and that our responsibility is not to define God, not to determine God, not even to comprehend God, but only to be what we become when we respond to the possibility that God is. It is not that God will come to find us labouring or not. It is that God has already come, is right now coming, is always coming again, but that this coming is not something that we can ever humanly know except as possibility.

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