Beyond Continents: Eschatological Dimensions in the Philosophy of William James and Richard Kearney

By Symington, Paul | Philosophy Today, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Beyond Continents: Eschatological Dimensions in the Philosophy of William James and Richard Kearney


Symington, Paul, Philosophy Today


Richard Kearney is a contemporary continental philosopher with interests in the divine beyond the onto-theological.1 In The God Who May Be, Kearney is interested in an eschatological hermeneutic of God rather than a traditional metaphysical interpretation. His justification for such a conceptualization of God is drawn from sacred scriptures of various religious faiths-but in this work, predominantly Christian and Jewish. Echoing Heidegger's claim in the introduction to Being and Time that possibility stands higher than actuality,2 Kearney's eschatological hermeneutic yields an onto-eschatological position of God as possibility. That is, God neither is nor is not but may be. Kearney asserts that such an understanding of God most appropriately resolves some abrasive points between theistic and ethical notions. For instance, he suggests that an onto-eschatological conception of God satisfies the problem of theodicy more aptly than a traditional metaphysical understanding of God as First Cause, Unmoved Mover, etc.3 The issue of theodicy is alleviated when God is reinterpreted as becoming possible within and through just human acts. Thus, Kearney's somewhat philosophically iconoclastic interpretation of God has sought to reassert a God who has been subverted and muted by traditional metaphysics in favor of one "more attuned to the original biblical context of meaning."4

Essentially, Kearney's God of onto-eschatologically is onto-temporal. Such a God's very being is realized as he comes meaningfully alongside his beloved ones in an interplay of anticipation and desire into the future. An onto-eschatological God is not reducible to a static creative and giving act that moved once and finally. Rather, an onto-eschatological God is the surprising and donological God of dynamic and regenerative revelation depicted in sacred scriptures, stories and experiences. Such an interpretation seeks to establish a perpetually receptive mindset toward the infinity and movement of God that is beyond metaphysical prejudgments.

William James, not unlike a legion of philosophers, was interested in examining questions of God, ethics and knowledge. Interestingly, as I hope to show, James' position on such issues is quite similar to the results of Keamey's hermeneutic. This is particularly interesting since these thinkers come from quite different philosophical traditions: Kearney from a European phenomenological/ hermeneutical method of thought, and James from an American empirico-pragmatist background. However, as an introductory point of commonality, I believe that attention to the many facts and facets of human experience is responsible for both thinkers bringing out their notions of God and the ethical from the abstracted Absolute or onto-theological. It is their unswerving vigilance to real-time positive effects of the religious in human life on the one hand, and the horrible facts of human atrocity on the other hand, that gives impetus to their conclusion that God's nature exists as possibility.

The particular interest of this essay is to offer a comparison of these philosopher's positions with special interest regarding the nature of the ethical and the divine. Furthermore, by way of this fruitful comparison, I will assert that James' position can serve to philosophically amplify Kearney's interpretation of the divine possible and avoid some problems that Kearney runs up against. Specifically, the amplification flows from what I will call James' eschatological notion of truth (which I will qualify below). I will suggest that given similar approaches to the ethical and the divine between the two thinkers, Kearney can go beyond a long-standing tension between the ontological and eschatological in the contemporary continental tradition. That is, Kearney can supplement his ontological characterization of God as Possest by asserting with James an eschatological conception of truth itself and thereby address the problematic tendency in the contemporary continental context to oppose the ontological with the eschatological. …

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