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Vol 40 No 3


Barry Brundell MSC

Gerard Kelly

Thomas Groome

Anthony Gooley

Daniel Ang

John O’Carroll and Chris Fleming



God and phenomenology:
Re-reading Jean-Luc Marion


WHAT CAN MODERN metaphysics say of God? Not much—if we accept the argument of Jean-Luc Marion, the influential French philosopher and Roman Catholic theologian on one side of the channel, and even less if we accept the thesis of his Anglican philosopher interlocutor from the British side of the discussion, John Milbank. Both these writers have been part of a ‘theological turn’ in contemporary theory. Working at the cutting edge of philosophical theology, they offer surprising and important responses to a range of questions that are themselves anything but novel. Our primary focus in this essay is the work of Marion, but we also examine it in relation to that of his ‘cranky ally,’ John Milbank.

Orientation: Metaphysics, Phenomenology and Theology
Beginning with Aristotle—who usually referred to it as ‘first philosophy’—metaphysics is that branch of philosophy which is the study of existence at the most universal, abstract level. It is, Aristotle tells us, the study of esse qua esse [of being as being] (Aristotle 1003a24ff, 1026a13ff. cf. Heidegger 1975, p. 275). As such, it endeavours to investigate both the most general ‘principles of things’ as well as their ‘first causes’ (Aristotle 981b27; cf. Heidegger, p. 275). Both Marion and Milbank reject the modern secular versions of metaphysics, albeit for different reasons. For the latter, the attempt to posit a metaphysics independent of theology leaves it rationally groundless. In this respect, Milbank accepts the critiques of philosophers like Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) because they show—unsurprisingly in his view—that modern metaphysics (and indeed secular modernity as a whole) precisely has no ground. For Marion, too, the claims of metaphysics are to be questioned. His route to this questioning is complex, and takes place via a reinvigorated version of phenomenology.

But here we must take a brief step backwards. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) distinguished famously between phenomena which we can know as they present themselves to us in time and space, and what he called noumena, objects or ideas which we find are conceivable, but are not knowable ‘in themselves’ (Kant A 42/B 59. Cf. A 277/B 333). With Kant’s distinction, we see both a critique of speculative rationalism (metaphysics) and the conceptual preconditions of phenomenology, that branch of philosophical inquiry upon which Marion’s worked is founded. The term ‘phenomenology’ names Edmund Husserl’s (1859-1938) rigorous attempt to describe the way phenomena are disclosed to us in consciousness. Phenomenology literally means the ‘science of phenomena,’ and its ongoing task has been to analyse ‘appearances,’ the how or structure of appearing—what Michel Henry (1922-) has called ‘the essence of manifestation’ (Henry 1973). One way in which Husserl’s philosophy marked itself off from former approaches was by emphasising intentionality as the basis of mental apprehension—we are, that is, always oriented to phenomena. Husserl recommended that we suspend judgement about the metaphysical reality of what manifests to consciousness in order to take up an analysis of the conditions and forms of such appearances (Husserl 1931, pp. 237-45; 1960, pp. 12-13; 1965, p. 96).

Marion: Beyond Idolatry?
In his influential God Without Being [Dieu sans l’être] (1991. Fr. Orig. 1982), Marion works the phenomenological seam of two seemingly related but distinct phenomena: idols and icons. Both appear in consciousness as objects of veneration insofar as they are seen—whether mistakenly or no—as traces or portents of the divine (1991, pp. 7-8). But Marion wishes to make an important distinction: where the idol, he argues, ‘presents itself’ to our gaze and hence allows us to ‘seize hold of it’ (pp. 9-10), the icon cannot be so held, resisting, as it does, full apprehension (p. 17).

Marion’s notion of the ‘idol’ is not hidebound to physical artefacts—to stone statues and the like. (Unlike phenomenalism, phenomenology does not restrict the notion of ‘appearances’ to include only (narrowly) ‘empirical’ or sense-based phenomena.) It is possible to be in the thrall of conceptual idols (p. 16). For Marion, metaphysical idolatry is one temptation to which the philosopher is particularly prone. He contends that one such conceptual idol is the very idea of a describable God. Such idolatry is evinced, for instance, when God, philosophically figured as Being (Gk. ousia), takes precedence over the more biblically grounded notion of God as person (Gk. Hupostasis, Lt. persona).

Further, in criticising the ‘God’ posited by metaphysics, Marion is happy to accept even the assault by another philosopher in the Husserlian tradition. In his complex attack on ‘ontotheological’ deification, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) challenges the conventional wisdom that the God of the philosophers is equivalent to the God of the bible. The former gains respectability at the price of being topped and tailed to fit into a metaphysical procrustean bed. God is allowed entry only to the extent that ‘philosophy, of its own accord and by its own nature, requires and determines how the deity enters into it’ (Heidegger 1969, p. 56; cf. pp. 54-72; 1977, pp. 99-105; Marion, 1991, p. 61).

(It bears noting that the term ‘ontotheology’ is usually employed to designate several related notions:

1. The unacknowledged metaphysico-theological basis of western philosophy;
2. The anthropomorphic internalisation of the imago dei or the posited equivalence—beginning with Aristotle—of all beings (or being-in-general) and (the) Divine Being;
3. The erroneously assumed equivalence between the God of the bible with the god of the philosophers.)

Extending Heidegger’s critique (and, to an extent, aspects of Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity itself), Marion argues in God Without Being that even metaphysically fixated Christian apologetics—when it imposes names like ‘causa sui’ [the self-caused] on God—paradoxically obscures what it aspires to name. Marion’s biblically grounded intuition is that an eternal God cannot, in any strict sense, be the cause of ‘itself’—or indeed, any abstract ‘explanatory principle.’ Such efforts will always be in danger of misconstruing what they purport to defend, effacing the ‘mystery of God-as-such’ (Marion, 1991 p. xxi. Cf. p. 16, p. 35, p. 61). Here we are reminded of theologian Henri deLubac’s discussion of the modern ‘rationalistic evaporation’ of God. This God may have indeed evaporated, deLubac argues; ‘but,’ he says ‘it was the rationalist God. A single puff will disperse the vapor. We shall not be disturbed. We shall even breathe more comfortably. The true God…is elsewhere’ (Lubac, 1960, p. 179).

In opposition to the metaphysical tradition, Marion suggests alternate figurations: God-as-charity, as agape, as the good, as gift. Why not, above all, as John reminds us (1 John 4:8), think God as love (Marion, 1991 pp. xx-xxiv)? But we should advance cautiously here; Marion is not simply interested in freeing God of ‘metaphysical’ determinations, but of all determinations (xx-xxi). As such, if certain names take precedence in Marion’s works (like those mentioned above), it is not because they attain perfect correspondence with the divine. Rather, it is because, more than ‘Being,’ they seem to better respect this freedom-from-determination. But how to pull off such a feat? Moreover, is such a demand itself theologically (or philosophically) reasonable? Marion’s response to such questions is to think carefully about the icon—and it is to his conception of the relationship between the idol and the icon to which we now turn.

Icons and Idols
Marion would have our God-talk serve the purposes of ‘iconicity’ rather than ‘idolatry.’ Again, what determines ‘iconicity’ or ‘idolatry’ is not so much the object of the gaze, but the method of looking—it is dependent on the intentional act directed, not the ‘end-point’ of the look, the seeing not the seen: ‘The idol depends on the gaze that it satisfies, since if the gaze did not desire to satisfy itself in the idol, the idol would have no dignity for it’ (God 10, 29-31). Something becomes an idol when the gaze that intends it is satisfied with what it sees, when it petrifies or grinds to a halt on the visible (object); the (idolatrous) gaze admits no beyond (God 10-16).

Idolatry is the result of allowing the human gaze to become the measure of divine being. That is, God is simply equated with what the human gaze has equated with the divine. Importantly, Marion calls this sort of gaze the ‘invisible mirror,’ invisible because its function as mirror is not noticed (God 11-16, esp. 11-13). What it isn’t is a mirror of the divine. This would only be so if the divine happened to fit exactly and without remainder into the confines of the humanly visible. Idolatry, then, is this pre-established harmony of perception—a perfectly symmetrical relation between the subject and the imagined God. As Marion puts it, the idol reveals nothing but ‘a certain low-water mark of the divine,’ the ‘point marked by the frozen gaze’ (14).

Marion contrasts the circularity of the idolatrous gaze with his conception of the icon. In his best-known work, God Without Being, following Derrida’s analysis of writing, Marion puts the name of God himself ‘under erasure’ by writing it as ‘God’ to suggest that while we can conceive of God we cannot fully comprehend him (22-23). For Marion, then, when directed at the icon, the gaze itself is not fulfilled, satiated. The gaze, in this modality, refuses to rest on the visible, except by working to ‘transpierce’ it (God 11).

What can this mean? To transpierce the visible is to attempt to look in a way that transcends its own reflection, or transpierce itself (17). This gaze, in other words, looks beyond all visible things to the invisible because it does not make its own capacity the measure of what it intends. Knowing itself to be inadequate to that at which it aims, it does not equate the intelligible with the divine origin of intelligence, the sensible with the gift of sight. At one level, this is theologically basic. We are often reminded, but are prone to forget, that God’s freedom is without condition. This being the case, even the most orthodox monotheism would affirm that God’s absolute freedom surely also includes freedom from determination (‘The Saturated’; cf. God 10-31). Those who make God in their own image only admire what they themselves have created. We do better to recall that the visible is valuable, but only as a trace. As the old Zen saying goes: ‘When someone points to the moon, do not fix your attention on the finger.’

A Cranky Ally: John Milbank and Irascible Orthodoxy
We now take up the work of John Milbank inasmuch as it relates to a couple of the key issues raised thus far. The relationship between Marion and Milbank is complex. At times, Milbank seems to extol the virtues of the kind of phenomenology Marion has developed; at other times, Milbank appears to reject entirely any kind of philosophical account of the divine as a lapse into metaphysics-as-an-autonomous-science. Yet if we can cut through some of the more detailed critiques, we find there is affinity between the two writers—and we will do our best to show why we see Milbank as Marion’s erudite, yet at times apparently very irascible, ally.

The best way to handle the relationship between the two thinkers is to look, among his many references to Marion, at some of the signal ways in which Milbank engages Marion’s work. Ultimately, for Milbank, Marion’s phenomenology too readily accepts the notion of the autonomy of theoretical reason—of philosophy as a meta-science—a claim Milbank is at pains to challenge in general terms (Milbank, ‘Knowledge’ 21-2, ‘Only Theology’ 36-7, 48-9). Milbank argues that modernist Christian theology from Christian Metz to Jürgen Moltmann has wrongly endorsed a whole web of intellectual frameworks that are, despite appearances and theological intentions, profoundly hostile to Christian revelation.

Milbank’s thesis is based on his celebrated argument that Western secularity is not some bare remainder that could only be properly seen after Christian superstition was stripped away. On the contrary, Milbank contends, the Church itself instituted secularity; the secular (via the notion of the saeculum) is itself theologically constituted, both historically and conceptually. In broad terms, the most forceful and thickly argued version of this thesis is contained in his magisterial Theology and Social Theory (cf. Taylor 31-2). Here and elsewhere, Milbank contends that, far from being an autonomous domain, the ‘secular’ is constituted—and is still parasitic upon—an active relation to that which it supposedly negates: the Christian and the religious (Theology 9).

We want less to take sides between the two thinkers than to seek common ground. It certainly seems true enough that Marion does endorse the vision of an independent phenomenology, but we must immediately also say that in Marion’s hands, this phenomenology is unique as it is one ultimately overwhelmed by revelation (See, for instance, Marion, ‘Metaphysics and Phenomenology’ and Marion and Derrida ‘On the Gift’ 70). Looking at things from a different angle, we may also notice that there are possible problems with Milbank’s characterisation of Marion’s phenomenology (and perhaps even phenomenology itself): we would suggest that it is not necessarily as ‘Scotist’ as Milbank contends—or that phenomenology per se is necessarily possessed of a universal conceit: to ‘see’ essences independent of theological reason (‘Only Theology’ 47-8). We can agree with Milbank that this is certainly a form of phenomenology, one which draws quite close to some works of Husserl’s (see, for instance, Husserl 12). But we can equally point to the fact that other key players in Radical Orthodoxy are seemingly comfortable situating their own work within phenomenology (cf. Ward 47-9).

We hope that the picture we’ve been sketching is now clear. Milbank’s major contentions on the history of the institution of the secular, and its foundation and ongoing reliance on Christian precepts do provide one avenue for framing the way we would view any ‘secular’ modelling of consciousness and knowing. This affects phenomenology itself, including that of the Husserlian tradition both writers seek, in their respective ways, to address. But it is surely also true that Marion’s own extensive analysis of saturated phenomena, of God as icon and idol, are serious and substantial addresses to the problem of the linkage of theology with metaphysics or philosophy. For Milbank to disregard these inroads and analyses is, at best, wilful.

Beyond the work of Marion itself, we find the best evidence for the above contentions in the writings of Milbank himself. Doesn’t Milbank—somewhat like Karl Barth, whom he criticises—also figure the autonomy of reason precisely by rejecting it (Milbank ‘Knowledge’ 32)? Doesn’t Milbank risk confusing a mode of philosophy for philosophy per se? Philosophy, Westphal reminds us, ‘does not speak with a single voice,’ ‘even when seeking to overcome onto-theological metaphysics’ (271). Indeed, Milbank’s critique of the metaphysics of univocity is itself predicated on an alternate metaphysical vision (See, for instance, Milbank, ‘Only Theology’ 44-5; Theology 422-32; Milbank and Pickstock, Truth, 19-59; Pickstock, 3-46; Ward, Cities, Ch. 3). Seen in this way, there are parallels between Milbank’s work and Marion’s diagnosis of modernist ontology as ending in nihilism.

Marion is interesting as a contemporary philosopher for the way in which his work represents both continuity with the philosophical tradition and a probing questioning of it. Continuing the Kantian legacy of using reason to question its own limits, it appears—oddly enough—as at home with contemporary ‘postmodernism’ as with St Thomas. But the ‘postmodern’ tag here should not mislead us; above all, Marion urges us to flee not conceptuality, or conceptual intelligibility per se, but conceptual idolatry. As he reminds us, to question metaphysics or ontology is not equivalent to taking leave of reason or conceptual rigour (Marion, God xxiv, 22-3. cf. 45). Theological hubris is to be avoided not merely because it is inadequate to its object, but because this inadequacy entails a conceptual hubris which makes us the measure and master of divine reality, turning worship into self-praise. Discourse is not to be abandoned but renewed: ‘as joy, celebration, praise’ (God 105-7). For Marion, we must think God as the gift of agape who escapes and overwhelms our attempts to encapsulate Him.

At moments like these in Marion’s work, we find ourselves in powerfully devotional idioms of thought which are also characteristically consistent with a broader argument. How can this be? We certainly don’t find this dimension in Milbank, whose work is rigorously, perhaps excessively, cerebral at every turn. The apparent paradox is resolved by the phenomenological turn in Marion’s work: it allows both orders of knowing to proceed, in a sense, together. Fides et ratio: faith and reason are, indeed, as the famous encyclical from the late Pope Jean-Paul II put it, ‘like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth, and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth…’ (Jean-Paul II, ‘Blessing’). It fell to phenomenology to notice that there are different ways of knowing things, even though our consciousness is, in a certain sense, one. Marion’s contribution has been to show how, once these insights are put together, the very architecture of knowledge—and its representation—is transformed.

Dr John O’Carroll is Lecturer in the School of Social Science and Liberal Studies, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst NSW, Australia. Email: jocarroll@csu.edu.au.
Dr Chris Fleming is Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Languages, University of Western Sydney, Bankstown Campus NSW, Australia. Email: c.fleming@uws.edu.au.

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