Vol 40 No 3
THE CHALLENGE OF COMMUNICATION
DRAW THEM WITH THE BONDS OF LOVE: THE PRACTICE OF HEART SPIRITUALITY
A PAPACY COMMUNICATED: POPE JOHN PAUL II
BRINGING LIFE TO FAITH AND FAITH TO LIFE: FOR A SHARED CHRISTIAN PRAXIS
APPROACH AND AGAINST A DETRACTOR
WHAT’S IN A NAME? PART I: ‘MINISTRY’ AND ‘COMMON PRIESTHOOD’
SUSTAINABLE YOUTH MINISTRY: EXPLORING THE ROLE OF THE SPIRIT
O’Carroll and Chris Fleming
GOD AND PHENOMENOLOGY: RE-READING JEAN-LUC MARION
Re-reading Jean-Luc Marion
JOHN O’CARROLL and
WHAT CAN MODERN metaphysics say of God? Not muchif 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 Aristotlewho usually referred to it as first
philosophymetaphysics 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 showunsurprisingly in his viewthat 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
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 Kants distinction,
we see both a critique of speculative rationalism (metaphysics) and the
conceptual preconditions of phenomenology, that branch of philosophical
inquiry upon which Marions worked is founded. The term phenomenology
names Edmund Husserls (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 appearingwhat
Michel Henry (1922-) has called the essence of manifestation
(Henry 1973). One way in which Husserls philosophy marked itself
off from former approaches was by emphasising intentionality as the basis
of mental apprehensionwe 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 lêtre] (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 seenwhether mistakenly
or noas 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
Marions notion of the idol is not hidebound to physical
artefactsto 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
equivalencebeginning with Aristotleof 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 Heideggers critique (and, to an extent, aspects of Nietzsches
attacks on Christianity itself), Marion argues in God Without Being that
even metaphysically fixated Christian apologeticswhen it imposes
names like causa sui [the self-caused] on Godparadoxically
obscures what it aspires to name. Marions biblically grounded intuition
is that an eternal God cannot, in any strict sense, be the cause of itselfor
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 deLubacs
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 Marions 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? Marions response to such questions
is to think carefully about the iconand 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 lookingit 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
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 isnt 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 perceptiona 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 Derridas
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 Gods freedom is
without condition. This being the case, even the most orthodox monotheism
would affirm that Gods 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 writersand we will do our best to show why we see Milbank
as Marions 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 Marions work. Ultimately, for Milbank,
Marions phenomenology too readily accepts the notion of the autonomy
of theoretical reasonof philosophy as a meta-sciencea 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.
Milbanks 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 constitutedand
is still parasitic uponan 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 Marions 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 Milbanks characterisation of Marions
phenomenology (and perhaps even phenomenology itself): we would suggest
that it is not necessarily as Scotist as Milbank contendsor
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
Husserls (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 weve been sketching is now clear. Milbanks
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 Marions 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. Doesnt Milbanksomewhat
like Karl Barth, whom he criticisesalso figure the autonomy of reason
precisely by rejecting it (Milbank Knowledge 32)? Doesnt
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,
Milbanks 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 Milbanks work and Marions 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 appearsoddly enoughas 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 Marions 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 dont 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 Marions 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. Marions contribution has been to show
how, once these insights are put together, the very architecture of knowledgeand
its representationis transformed.
Dr John OCarroll is Lecturer in the School
of Social Science and Liberal Studies, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst
NSW, Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Chris Fleming is Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Languages,
University of Western Sydney, Bankstown Campus NSW, Australia. Email:
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