The God Who May Be: Richard Kearney’s Possible God

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This semester I was introduced to the work of the philosopher Richard Kearny, and his imagining of God left me breathless and intrigued. According to Richard Kearney, God cannot be God unless humanity enables him to be God. In his book, The God Who May Be, he argues that God is neither a deluded fantasy nor an abstract, subsistent “I am,” directing lives like a omnipotent puppet master. Rather for Kearney, God is revealed “not as a positive fact but as a possibility, something remembered and reached for but never entirely present.”[1] God may be.

In fact, God’s potentiality-to-be is the most divine thing about him.[2] However, the really striking thing about Kearney’s argument is the requisite human response. Every person carries with him or herself the potential to be transfigured and to transfigure God by “making the divine possibility ever more alive.”[3] For instance, God becoming incarnate depended entirely on Mary’s response to this possibility. God saving Israel depended wholly on Moses’ response to the burning bush. In short, God’s future being is dependent on human actions within history. Unlike the God-who-is and the God-who-is-not, the God-who-may-be is a personal God, a divine possibility that requires human response in order to realize divine potential to be.

downloadIn the second chapter of his book, Kearney takes a deeper look at the theophany of the burning bush in Exodus 3:14 and the extraordinary enigma of a God who reveals himself as yet to be revealed.In his reading, Moses asks Elohim for a name and God responds not with a name but with a promise, ehyehasher ’ehyeh. In this way, God is revealed not as a being or a non-being, but as a possibility to be, “A God who refuses to impose on us or abandon us, traversing the present moment while opening onto an ever-coming future.”[4] In making this claim, Kearney relies on a Jewish reading of the name, not as “I am that I am” but rather “I will be what I will be.” This name reveals the God of the past who walked with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God who is committing to future salvation of Israel.[5] However, God’s announcement of presence and willingness to act in Jewish history requires Moses’ response. “The I puts it to the Thou that the promise can be realized only if those who receive it do not betray its potential for the future.”[6] Like Moses, and later the children of Israel, people must respond in order for God to become.

images (1) copyIn the following chapter, Kearney turns to another biblical text of theophany: Jesus’ transfiguration, which allowed the “other” of Christ’s persona to shine through.[7] Kearney muses on the whiteness of Jesus as the radiance of transcendent otherness, a transfigured Christ who goes beyond perception, imagination, and signification. [8] In this brief, terrifying moment on Mount Thabor, the transfigured Christ both re-figured the theophany of the burning bush and pre-figured the final coming of Messiah and the messianic kingdom. Jesus’ transformation on the mount is a preview of the “new creation” and a call to “draw a recreated creation towards God.”[9] The Transfiguration is a divine call to stop what we are doing and to “Listen to him.”[10] Eventually, the historical Jesus left the world to allow the Paraclete, the persona of the infinite Christ, to begin remaking the world, working in and through humanity. According to Matthew 25:40, whatever we do for the least of humanity we do for Christ, transfiguring those around us “according to the Christic icon of the end-to-come.”[11] Therefore, the transfiguration was both a foretaste of what is to come and a promise of possibility, the possibility that all humans can transform and become sons of God.[12]All of humanity has been invited to be transformed in the image of Chirst.[13] As Kearney notes, “The eschatological persona is transfiguring always, in each moment, but always remains to be ultimately transfigured, at the end of time.”[14] The kingdom of God is neither here nor there; it is both partially here and yet to come. We are supposed to partner with the Divine to make that happen.

After his death and resurrection, Christ appeared to his disciples as the transfigured persona. On the road to Emmaus he was not recognized until he broke bread with his disciples. In the closed room in Jerusalem, Christ’s appearance terrifies his disciples, and he tells them to touch his wounds. In John 21:1-14, his fishermen disciples do not recognize Christ until they share fish on the beach. These stories and others remind us that that kingdom is given to the least of these, to “hapless fishermen,” the despairing, and the hungry. They remind us that God “speaks not through monuments of power and pomp but in stories and acts of love and justice, the giving of the least of creatures, the caring for the orphans, widows, and strangers…”[15]


Kearney also uses the text of the Shulamite bride from the Song of Songs as a proof-text of the God-who-may-be. Here we meet the unnamed bride searching for her beloved, whose identity is obscured in mystery. The Shulamite woman goes about the city searching for her beloved and meets instead the sentinels, who symbolize the desire of God. “It is only after the bride has passed the sentinels who found her, that she finds him who her soul loves.”[16] This circle of God seeking us and we seeking him can only become something if we leave our beds and hunt the streets for him. Here again Kearney highlights this element of human action and response as essential to divine identity and ability. God’s divine love cannot find us if we are not out on the streets looking for our beloved.

In the burning bush, the transfiguration, and the search of the Shulamite woman there is always this postponement. God is here, past, and still to come. This is eschatological time; it cannot be reduced to our ideas of beginnings and endings. It allows for a God who may be, a Christ who is yet to come,[17] and a messianic kingdom both now and to be. Heavily woven through this eschatological possibility is a sense of foretaste and partnership. What God may be in our lives hinges on our response to the Divine. Yes, Christ is yet to come, but he is also here working among us to transfigure and transform. The Kingdom is not yet but it will be, and we are partners in actualizing its promise and potential. “God thus empowers our human powerlessness by giving away his power, by possibilizing us and our good actions—so that we may supplement and co-accomplish creation.” We must give up space before God can beget, transfigure, or become incarnate. We must respond to God’s maybe with Mary’s “let it be” or Moses’ “here I am.”

In conclusion, Kearney’s God-who-may-be requires a response, requires people to get up and dance. What would have happened if the lame man in John 5 had simply refused to hear and respond to Jesus’ command to “get up and walk”? If he had dismissed this itinerate preacher from the backwaters of Galilee? chagall-job-comfortedJesus would have been unable to heal him. The possibility of transformation would have remained just possibility because “The Kingdom is possible but we may decide not to accept the invitation.”[18] Kearney’s God calls people to hear and respond, to get off our pallet, stand up, and dance.

The eschatological dance cannot be danced without two partners. To respond to the song of the Creator is to hear the Word which promises a possible world to come, a second creation or recreation of justice and peace, a world which the divine posse is always ready to offer but which can come about only when humanity says yes by joining the dance, entering the play of ongoing genesis, transfiguring the earth. God cannot become fully God, nor the Word fully flesh, until creation becomes a “new heaven and a new earth.”[19]

The God-who-may-be ordains no pre-set course for the world or our lives. God is possibility and therefore we are free to make or break our world. The evil in our society—like the Holocaust, or world hunger, or the abused child trapped by the foster care system—is not the fault of God, rather, it is our responsibility.[20] By losing the all-powerful, timeless, and immutable God of a purely ontological understanding, we gain a dynamic God who remembers and promises and works within the world through us. We must respond hinini—here I am—in order for God to “enter history and blaze the path toward the Kingdom.”[21]





















Works Cited


Cayley, David. “The God Who May Be, Part 1 of 3.” CBC Radio (January 2010). Cited 14 October 2014. Online:

Kearney, Richard. The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2001.

[1] David Cayley, “The God Who May Be, Part 1 of 3,” CBC Radio (January 2010). Cited 14 October 2014. Online:

[2] Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2001), 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Ibid., 39.

[8] Ibid., 42.

[9] Ibid., 41.

[10] Luke 9:31

[11] Ibid., 44.

[12] Kearney, The God Who May Be, 42-43.

[13] Ibid., 45.

[14] Ibid., 46.

[15] Ibid., 51.

[16] Ibid., 54.

[17] Cayley, “The God Who May Be, Part 1 of 3.”

[18] Ibid., 110.

[19] Ibid., 110.

[20] Ibid., 5.

[21] Ibid., 26.


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