Part III: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

Marion opens chapter three with a wonderful discussion of silence. As Marion observes, the greatest difficulty with silence is understanding what silence says—e.g., there are many and varied silences such as a silence of contempt or a silence of reverence etc. “Silence, precisely because it does not explain itself, exposes itself to an infinite equivocation of meaning” (GWB, p. 54).

It should not come as a surprise to us that we have difficulty in speaking about God, yet what is surprising is our difficulty in keeping silent about God. Marion lists three ways that this failure to keep silent can be taken: (1) as a “pious chattering” – the least interesting; (2) as a discourse of refutation which is not silent in order to silence God. Here one attempts to give an exhaustive definition of “God,” thus providing a definition of an being that is at least possible. Then this definition must undo itself in order to be refuted. This process becomes comprehensible “only if one distinguishes, within the definition of God thus employed, an idol: namely, a representation of God at once inadequate (objectively) and impassable (subjectively) [p. 55]; (3) when keeping silent about God is used as a possible “return to God,” or put more concretely, using God as a figurehead for the promotion of some other purpose or concept. In the last two cases, we have what Marion calls “idolatry of substitution.” That is, a discourse of refutation “presupposes a concept as exhausting the name of God, in order to reject the one by the other.” In the “return to God, “one presupposes that a God guarantees that which another concept signifies more directly, in order to characterize the one through the other” (p. 56).

Marion then enters into a discussion of modernity and how the culmination of Western metaphysics ends in will to power (Nietzsche). Given that our gods are nothing more than the effects of a reactive state of the will to power, we will continue our chatterings. “[W]e will never keep silent, occupied with producing and expressing the thousand and one idols at which the will to power, within and outside of us, will aim as so many goals” (p. 59). Marion concludes the section by saying, “[t]o free silence from its idolatrous dishonor would require nothing less than to free the word ‘God’ from the Being of beings. But can one think outside Being?” (p. 60).

Part II: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

Marion agrees with the basic contours of Heidegger’s critique of onto-theo-logy,[1] which for our purposes may be summarized as follows: (1) God or the divine principle is understood or thought in terms of Being, which means that God or the divine principle is wholly immanent; (2) God or the divine principle functions as both the ground of all beings (as an efficient cause in a univocal kind of way) and thus provides the conceptual foundation for the Being of all beings. Stated slightly differently, God or the divine principle and beings reciprocally ground each other in being; (3) God is both ens realissimum (the supreme or highest being) and the causa sui (self-causing cause).

In an excellent article entitled, “Aquinas, Marion, Analogy, and Esse: A Phenomenology of the Divine Names?”,[2] Derek J. Morrow sheds light on Marion’s current position on Thomas as reflected in his [Marion’s] article, “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-Theo-logy.” As Morrow points out, Marion argues that Thomas escapes all three aspects of Heidegger’s critique as set forth above. Regarding the first point, Marion argues that not Thomas but rather Giles of Rome, Duns Scotus, and particularly Francisco Suarez are the guilty parties. Suarez, e.g., claims that God is the adequate object of the science of metaphysics; whereas Aquinas makes the proper object of metaphysics esse commune. God then factors into the consideration of metaphysics in an indirect way, viz., as the causal principle of common being. For Aquinas in contradistinction from the thinkers mentioned above, God and creatures are not conceived under a common univocal concept of being (“Aquinas, Marion…” pp. 29-30).

Regarding the second point, Marion also exonerates Thomas because of his distinction between esse commune and esse divinum. Here Thomas distinguishes between the two ways that esse can be predicated when referring to common and divine being. As Morrow explains, the esse of common being can be predicated “without addition by means of an abstraction without precision that as such neither excludes nor includes any addition […] Similarly, to predicate esse ‘without addition’ is to predicate being in a manner that abstracts from all generic and specific differences obtaining among beings. Esse in this sense is therefore common to all beings, without thereby excluding their essential differences. Esse divinum, on the other hand, designates the predication of esse ‘without addition’ in a completely different sense: here ‘without addition’ means that God’s esse precludes any addition, in virtue of its simplicity and purity.” In short, because God’s esse is unique, “without addition” is at best predicated analogically (not univocally) of common being and divine being. God’s esse is wholly other than esse commune and is not included in the concept of the latter. Consequently, God is freed from the onto-logic of metaphysics, as he stands outside metaphysics as its principle (“Aquinas, Marion,” p. 30, 31). Though it is the case that Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy conceives God as the efficient cause of common being, Thomas still manages to escape the second aspect of Heidegger’s critique because his understanding of causality in creation is asymmetrical. In other words, God, does not stand in a reciprocal relation to his creation. Rather, the dependency is “one-way”—creation is wholly dependent upon God for its being and intelligibility. Regarding the third point, suffice it to say that for Aquinas, God is the uncaused cause.

If Thomas is exonerated as to all three aspects of Heidegger’s onto-theo-logy charge, then has not Marion completely revised his original position on Thomas as presented in God Without Being? Here we should recall what Marion states in the preface to the English edition of GWB, viz., his concerns with Thomas “would have to be resituated within the wider theological debate of the divine names (p. xxiii). More specifically, we should turn to what Marion says in chapter three of GWB—“[t]he whole question consists precisely in determining whether a name can be suitable ‘maxime proprie’ to God, if God can have an essence, and (only) finally if this essence can be fixed in the ipsum esse/actus essendi (p. 76). As we recall from our previous post, Thomas marks a departure from the Dionysian tradition when he substitutes ipsum esse for summum bonum as God’s primary name. In “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-Theo-logy,” Marion’s revised critique on the particular issue of the divine names separates Thomas from some of his commentators. That is, while Thomas’ naming of God as ipsum esse is interpreted by Marion in a way that this naming does not result in conceptual idolatry, some of his commentators have appropriated a version of ipsum esse that results in a loss of God’s transcendence.[4]

So how exactly does Marion interpret Thomas’s ipsum esse as a proper first name of God? According to Marion, “the Thomistic esse cannot be understood starting from ontological determinations, whatever they may be, but only starting from its distance with regard to all possible ontology, following instead the claims imposed by the transcendence of God on entity as well as on his own being. […] If esse truly offers the first name of God according to Thomas Aquinas, this thus signifies for him in the first place that God is called esse but as to name only and not as such. For in good theology, the primacy of esse implies especially that it is to be understood, more than any other name, starting from God, and not that God can be conceived starting from esse” (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 61). Marion then proceeds to discuss the many aspects of this “distance.” First, he notes that God’s esse is wholly other than created esse. Second, the divine esse “causes the entities because he causes also their entitativeness (their esse commune), their esse as created.” Yet, here again in order for God’s transcendence to be upheld, we must understand God’s esse as something completely different than created esse—as excluded from created being—“and consequently from all [that] we understand and know under the title of being. Therefore, God without being (at least without this being) could become again a Thomistic thesis (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 62). Third, we must see in God’s esse an excess given its identification by Thomas with (God’s) essence. Again we are confronted with esse which is not like that of any other being, as all other beings are esse/essence composites. Hence, given the uniqueness of God’s esse which is his essence (and which perhaps points to the complete absence of essence understood in the Aristotelian sense of providing a definition) “the excess of the proper esse of God disqualifies all metaphysical (conceptual) meaning of being” (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 62). Lastly, God’s unknowability points us to something beyond a metaphysics of being. “[T]he irreducibility of esse to any essence argues for the impossibility of articulating anything about God in a predicative way and, therefore, of speaking of it discursively or, in a word, of understanding it. Thus this pure esse reveals itself in principle as unknowable as the God it names. God known as unknown—this implies that his esse remains knowable only as unknowable, in sharp contrast to the esse that metaphysics has essentially set in a concept to make it as knowable as possible” (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 63).[4] In short, God’s unknowability cannot be bound by a metaphysics of being and to understand Thomas’ ipsum esse in a non-idolatrous way is to recognize it as such a “distant analogy” with created being that God, however paradoxical it sounds, proves not to be (i.e., as a being “is”). “Esse refers to God only insofar as God may appear as without being. […] The statement ‘God without being’ not only could be understood as fundamentally Thomistic, but it could be that no contemporary interpretation of Thomas Aquinas could retrieve its validity without assuming the unconditional exclusion of esse–therefore without the wise imprudence of such paradoxes” (“Thomas and Onto-theo-logy,” pp. 64-65).

[1] In short, for Heidegger onto-theology characterizes the Western metaphysical tradition and is expressed as an attempt by philosophy to use conceptual systems in order to control and master Being (and God/gods).
[2] Though I do not discuss this here, Morrow argues that according to Marion’s interpretation, Thomas’ doctrine of analogy, as well as the divine names function phenomenologically (not metaphysically) to manifest God as infinite goodness and excessive givenness. [See Derek J. Morrow. “Aquinas, Marion, Analogy, and Esse: A Phenomenology of Divine Names?,” International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 46 (March 2006): 25-42].
[3] In footnote 57, Marion cites E. Gilson as one such commentator. E.g., Gilson writes in “Dieu et l’être,” )Revue Thomiste [1962], reprinted in Constantes philosophiques de la question de l’être [Paris: J. Vrin, 1983], 211, 377), “L’être de Heidegger est le vrai, non parce qu’il se définit contre Dieu, mais parce qu’il se définit comme Dieu, n’étant qu’un autre nom du Dieu judéo-chrétien de l’Exode” (“The Being of Heidegger is the true one, not because it is defined against God, but because it is defined as God, being just another name for the Judeo-Christian God of Exodus”) [“Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 73].
[4] Marion lists the following quotes from St. Thomas as textual support for this interpretation: “Just as the substance of God is unknown, so it is for His esse” (De Potentia, question 7, answer 2, ad 1); “God is known through our ignorance, inasmuch as this is to know God, that we know that we do not know what He is” (In librum De divinis Nominibus VII, 4 [in Opuscula omnia, ed. Mandonnet, 2:534; in Expositio in librum Dionysii de Divinis nominibus, ed. Pera, line 731] ); “The highest and most perfect degree of knowledge in this life is, as Denys said in his book On Mystical Theology (I.3), to be united to God as unknown. “This is what happens when we know about God what He is not, since what he is remains profoundly unknown” (Contra Gentiles III, sec. 49 [see also I, secs. 11 and 12); “With the exception of a revelation of grace we do not, in this life, know about God what He is and therefore that we are united to Him as unknown” (Summa Theologia Ia, q. 12, a. 13, ad 1]) [“Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy,” p. 63, fn. 65].

Part I: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

In this series of posts I interact with selected moments from Jean-Luc Marion’s work, God Without Being. This is not an area of expertise, as I have only read one other book by Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, and a few articles on Marion. However, I find Marion’s work appealing and stimulating on a number of levels, i.e., it speaks to me spiritually, intellectually, aesthetically, and existentially to name a few. Given my limited exposure to Marion (and one of his chief conversation partners, Heidegger), I especially invite dialogue and engagement with those who have studied Marion’s (and Heidegger’s) work in detail.

The Idol and the Icon

In chapter one of God Without Being (GWB), Marion discusses the difference between an idol and an icon. An idol is that which results from conceptually circumscribing that which is beyond conceptualization, viz., God. [“God” in quotation marks indicates a conceptual idol]. The idol in effect becomes a mirror that reflects the human gaze back to itself. “The idol measures the divine to the scope of the gaze of he who then sculpts it” (p. 21). Conceptual knowledge of God is associated with the idol because it limits God to the human gaze, i.e., it measures God by human understanding. In contrast, the icon allows one’s gaze to move beyond the icon (visible) to that which is invisible. “What characterizes the icon painted on wood does not come from the hand of man but from the infinite depth that crosses it—or better, orients it following the intention of a gaze. The essential in the icon … comes to it from elsewhere. […] Contemplating the icon amounts to seeing the visible in the very manner by which the invisible that imparts itself therein envisages the visible—strictly, to exchange our gaze for the gaze that iconistically envisages us” (p. 21).

How Marion’s Thesis Relates to St. Thomas

Before going further, I should note that GWB received a good deal of criticism from various Thomistic quarters when it was first published. As a result, Marion has modified his views somewhat, and in the preface to the English edition he clarifies his position. In the preface, Marion calls into question whether Being is the first and highest of the divine names.[1] “When God offers himself to be contemplated and gives himself to be prayed to, is he concerned primarily with Being? When he appears as and in Jesus Christ, who dies and rises from the dead, is he concerned primarily with Being?” (p. xx). At this point, many Thomists might become rather suspicious—after all doesn’t Thomas consider Being as the first and highest of God’s names? If so, then how does Marion’s thesis relate to Thomas? On the one hand, Marion says that his thesis “confirms the antagonism between the Thomistic esse and the ‘Being’ of nihilism [construed as univocal etc.] by disqualifying the claim of the latter to think God.” On the other hand, certain texts do seem to suggest that God must be liberated from esse in the sense understood by Thomas. Here Marion says that this debate “would have to be resituated within the wider theological debate of the divine names. Though Marion sees Thomas’ substitution of esse for the good as the first divine name as problematic, he does not suggest that Thomas “chains God either to Being or to metaphysics.” The divine esse so transcends the being of creatures—the former’s esse being identical to his essence, whereas the latter are esse/essence composites, whose being is received from God, yet is metaphysically different from God’s being. Hence, no idol is erected, as the Creator/creature distinction is maintained and God’s transcendence is safeguarded. Likewise, for Thomas God is not an object of metaphysics properly speaking—God’s esse is not part of esse commune. The relation of metaphysics and God is one of subordination not inclusion. “God, as principle, subjugates the subjects of philosophy to himself. Consequently, since the subjects of philosophy belong to Being, we must go so far as to conclude that their cause, God, also causes Being itself” (pp. xxiii-xxiv). Marion grants all of the above; however, these debates do not get at a deeper issue, viz., “can the conceptual thought of God (conceptual or rational, not intuitive or ‘mystical’ in the vulgar sense) be developed outside the doctrine of Being (in the metaphysical sense or even in the non-metaphysical sense)? Does God give himself to be known according to the horizon of Being or according to a more radical horizon?” (p. xxiv). According to Marion, God gives himself according to the horizon of the gift itself. It is the approach and reception of this gift that Marion attempts to describe.

In part II, I shall (attempt to) discuss Marion’s engagement with Heidegger and his critique of onto-theo-logy, as well as the ways in which Thomas escapes Heidegger’s charges (or does he?).

[1] For a more detailed explication of Marion’s current position on Thomas see Jean-Luc Marion, “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy,” in Mystics: Presence and Aporia eds Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 2003), pp. 38-74.