College Quarterly
Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
Reviews The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion
Richard Kearney
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Reviewed by John Hoben

“God neither is nor is not but may be.” With this intriguing hypothesis Richard Kearney begins the introduction to The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion. Kearney undertakes a sophisticated and nuanced hermeneutic examination of several central religious Judeo-Christian texts including the theophany of the burning bush and “God’s pledge in Matthew 10 to make the impossible possible”. Kearney frames his textual hermeneutics within the broader parameters of a number of philosophical traditions which have addressed the radical, ontological and ethical alterity of the divine. He delves into these texts in a way which opens rather than forecloses interpretative possibilities and carves out pertinent questions for philosophical practice.

Kearney provides a thorough background in theological interpretations of the nature of God, in particular those which are heavily influenced by classical Greek metaphysics and their scholastic successors. This “onto-theological” tradition sees God as a final cause or ground and end of Being – a logos of totality, perfection and consummation. This transcendent God of the metaphysicians, according to Kearney, is “Being-itself, timeless, immutable, incorporeal, understood as the subsisting act of all existing”. A God, who, in the words of Aquinas, is “true being…eternal, immutable, simple self-sufficient, and the cause and principle of every creature”. Within this scholastic and Aristotelian tradition, then, “potentiality” is irrevocably contingent upon the actuality of complete, perfect Being.

In contrast, Kearney, takes up an alternative “eschatological reading” of divinity which places “emphasis...on the ethical and dynamic character of God”.

This interpretation, in part, emerges out of a hermeneutic interpretation of the theophany of the burning bush described in Exodus 3:14. While the conventional translation of God’s response to Moses questioning of God’s identity is “I am He who is”, Kearney takes up an alternative exegetical tradition by suggesting the phrase be translated as “I am He who may be” – a response which Kearney interprets as an attempt to elude mankind’s desire to possess the divine and edify the reductive symbolic over the dynamic reality of God. In Kearney’s words, “the Name is both theophanic and performative”… [as] The transfiguring God of the burning bush remains a trace which explodes the present towards the future, a trait which cannot be bordered or possessed”. To Kearney, then, the divine is eschaton or posse: an inexhaustible potential unfolding through being and time.

Consequently, according to Kearney, the incarnation points to a God whose “enfleshing” is not simply an accomplished fact but an ever occurring process. Kearney’s God is a God of “summons”, of “promise…granted unconditionally, as pure gift… [who] is reminding the people that they are free to accept or refuse the gift”. Accordingly, Kearney’s “wager” is that this God-who-may-be is a dynamic God who is neither beyond contemplation nor the reach of human agency. Kearney looks to the Aristotlean concept of the “making mind”, which, like light, says Aristotle, “makes what it shines upon actually visible and thus potentially seen”. Our relation to this divine “posset” is not one which is fixed and preordained. Rather, it is one of possibility and “eschatological play”. It is no less a role than to “supplement and co-accomplish creation”. Significantly, this possibility implies a radical freedom in which the individual “opens…to the infinite empowering-possibilizing of God”.

Interestingly, Kearney also raises the possibility that humanity shares certain aspects of the divine because “[e]ach person embodies a persona...that eschatological aura of ‘possibility’ which eludes but informs a person’s actual presence here and now”. This persona, as an aspect of alterity, is defined by Kearney as “all that in others exceeds my searching gaze, safeguarding their inimitable and unique singularity”. The persona resists appropriation because it is the inexhaustible possibility of alterity which confronts the “I” and intimates the infinite. “God”, says Kearney, “is the other who seeks me out before I seek him, a desire beyond my desire”. Consequently, the persona, he argues, is a summons beyond the ontological into the realm of the ethical.

Kearney’s philosophical hermeneutics challenges our basic assumptions concerning divinity in a way that is simultaneously provocative, creative and critical. It addresses themes of human freedom and responsibility within a framework of alterity, as Kearney finds intimations of the divine in sources as varied and powerful, as Levinas, Husserl, Bloch, Heideigger and Derrida. While finding traces of a radical alterity which is elusive yet potentially transformative in these writers, Kearney ultimately rejects each of these alternative readings of transformative “transcendent” potentiality as deficient. Instead, Kearney’s God-who-may-be is “radically transcendent”, “possibilizes”, “calls and solicits”, and, “unfolds not just as can-be but as should-be”.

Kearney’s approach opens the door for a theological phenomenology which is embodied, active and engaged as humanity faces the paradox of a God whose self limiting incarnation has opened a realm of imaginative play as well as substantive genesis. Kearney rejects a view of human freedom where existential possibility is finite and narrowly inscribed within a God who functions as a final ground and end of all derivative ontological realities. Instead, Kearney argues for a theology of human responsibility which underlies and affords a radical transformative freedom.

Clearly, then, Kearney’s book raises many questions. What is it that makes the divine intelligible? How can we make inferences about an infinite God from merely those aspects of the divine which are perceived by us as finite embodied and temporally situated subjects? If it is possible to engage in a hermeneutics of God, what texts are amenable to such a consideration? Is God’s eschaton realized within each of us individually or is “his” eschatological nature somehow intertwined with an unfolding teleos of history? If the incarnation is always occurring unfolding in time, how do we recognize it and, for that matter, does the experience need to be mediated through either text or tradition? Is faith a form of directed rational inquiry or does is it entail some combination of reflection, longing and performative expectation? All of these questions are, to some degree, immanent in Kearney’s text and as such, his book is indeed a significant element in a larger captivating dialogue.

Nonetheless, one cannot deny that despite the allure of philosophical reflections on the nature of divinity, religion can be a source of bigotry, hatred, prejudice, violence and despair. It indeed sometimes does become, as Marx argued, an opiate to dull the troubled mind and obscure the problems of a challenging world. While Kearney’s project is not to redeem the Judeo Christian tradition, he does suggest a way of reclaiming religion as a sphere of inquiry rooted in human imagination and a desire for transcendence. Undoubtedly, to ignore this dialogue is to irrevocably and prematurely foreclose a deep and challenging aspect of human experience. Above all else, then, the picture Kearney paints of what he calls hermeneutics is a poised and articulate attempt to wrestle with this profound and provocative “maybe”.

John Hoben is a teacher, a lawyer and an award-winning poet, who is currently completing his Ph.D. in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University in Newfoundland. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology