Making Sense of 5 Senses the Kearney Way

Mary Magdala Community

Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  —

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

Wauwatosa, Wisconsin

At the beginning of this year, 2020, I chose as my Philosopher buddy, Richard Kearney.  When you google him you discover one of today’s leaders in Continental Philosophy in the tradition of the 3 H’s – Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and in league now with the likes of Christina Gschwandtner, John Caputo, Judith Butler, and so many others.  For the past 35 years Kearney has contributed to the legacy and the relevancy of phenomenology’s quest to speak authoritatively and effectively to the meaning of everyday human experience.

Richard and I met 30 years ago, not that he would remember.  Jean and I were on one of our trips to Ireland and I got the wild idea that I would contact him at University College Dublin (UCD), a new doctoral student seeking guidance.  That’s the place founded by St. John Newman as Catholic University in 1854.  I had read Kearney’s “Wake of Imagination” and was led to deeper thought in its wake.  Naturally, I thought it would be a good thing if Richard would be willing to read what I wrote in my hermeneutic retrieval of social virtue, specifically of piety.  Pretty forward and totally naïve, right?

To my total surprise Richard agreed to meet at UCD and further said, when we met, that he would be happy to read what I wrote.  Sadly, that was not to be – totally my fault.  Over the years I have laid heavy burdens on myself for not keeping my end of the agreement.  I got the doctorate, wrote much that would have benefited from the Professor’s critique, and my life took a path outside of academia (again, on me).

So, as the new year began it felt good to reconnect, in a way, with someone who had offered a kindness to me that I, with regret, did not take up.  Kearney’s path through theopoetics, anatheism, The Guest Book Project (google each one for a fun walk through Wikipedia) has landed him in 2020 on the exploration of what he calls Carnal Hermeneutics (actually begun with book of same title in 2015).  Best I can summarize, as in his own words, carnal hermeneutics (CH) is about making sense of sense.  CH takes the position that there is a language of sense, as in “touch tells it all,” “the nose knows,” “the eyes reveal,” well you get the picture.  Humans, in short, are tactile, sensual people.

Can you believe the irony of beginning in January on a search of meanings of the physical senses and finding oneself in March in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic – with its assault on our bodies, our senses?  Covid with its forced isolations, quarantines, and sensory deprivation.  This physically virulent virus has attacked our bodies.  The corporeal world has become our enemy rather than the site of interconnected, sensual expressions of joy, love, and the taste for creation.

Well, I pressed on.  What the heck, I had already begun with 3 Kearney works, “The God Who May Be,” “Reimagining the Sacred,” and “Anatheism.”  I started “Carnal Hermeneutics” and had “Imagination Now: the Kearney Reader” on back order.  I was committed.

One piece of Richard’s writing that hooked me was his explanation of anatheism.  Best I can think of it, this speaks to the experience I and many (most?) of us have of losing God only to find God again.  The God of our youth, early adulthood – maybe even full-blown adulthood – gets to the point, frankly, of no longer making sense.  Praying to who, for what, because why? As they say, it lost its allure, its meaning, its purpose.  Being human while being told that there is a Creator of all this muck, violence, abandonment – otherwise known as the world – stopped making sense.  Having others screw you over, take advantage of your trust, even being that person myself seemed to be actual reality.  Losing an immature, misguided and waylaid sense of God in such experiences and circumstances – one must say – is fairly common these days.

And now we are all the Old Testament reincarnation of Job asking the question in the midst of covid, “Why evil on good people?”  What’s the sense of that?

To find God again after asking this question is to have anatheistic faith.  This is not an intellectual exercise so much as it is a carnal, sensual experience.  Remember, we say “The Word became flesh!.”  It was God’s desire that the divine become carnalised, as it were, and not for flesh to become spiritualized.

I invite you to take some time to think about that, to appreciate all the messages of unity, intimacy, and connection that our senses experience and make real.  And then, love the creation you are – not child of, but co-creator with God.

Once you have considered the powers of sensual lives, how they are all the evidence we need for rediscovering the Beloved Parent who loves us – loves me, then consider that we are a sacramental people.  We require material stuff – bread and wine, water and oil, fire, and yes, spoken words of reconciliation, love, and peace.  Because our incarnated divine lives make real the presence of Christ we are obliged to break through, for example, the sensory deprivation of Zoom screens where only sight and hearing exist and set before us bread and wine so that we may touch, taste, and smell this sacrament of who we are together.

When Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me” he says it to all of us – not merely to clerics who speak about a God who is lost.  We are priests for one another who speak of God again in a brighter, sensual life.  Our bread and wine, our sacrament, must live in our homes, our hearts, our life together.


A Prayer (JR)

“The Word became flesh.”  To make holy the senses of our body and our being human, creating and desiring God, first you created us and then you became one with us.  May we honor and celebrate our touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and seeing that reveal your glory and your life in us.  We are your co-creators called to transform creation into an eternal dwelling place.

“Do this in memory of me.”  To create sacraments of symbol and grace you challenge each one of us to celebrate the material of the earth and the words of our love and reconciliation.  In your memory we act today to make real your presence in our homes and in our lives.

Holy One, you desired to be one of us and to eat before your death one last meal with your friends.  Let our desires match your own.  Amen.

2 Responses

  1. Michel Kranzke says:

    I have recently begun to read The Phenomenon of Man and The Unbearable Wholeness of Being.
    My thoughts are full of the idea of the evolution of God; how it exposes the falsehoods of my earlier
    years of institutional Catholicism.
    I don’t know, or care where this is leading me, nor do I care. I believe God lives in me and I live in God

  2. Suzanne Moynihan says:

    I love your piece, Jim. What you are speaking of (I think) is a new form of religion/spirituality that is evolving more clearly in our era–the experiential sense of the Divine (beliefs, dogmas are more intellectual). During this pandemic which seems to go on and on and on, your challenge is a healthy one that reminds me of the teachings of mindfulness, to really see, hear, taste, smell, touch and to let those experiences open up a space in our soul.

    Very grateful, as always.

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