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.

12 thoughts on “Part I: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry”

  1. Great post, I look forward to further entries on this particular work of Marion. I am currently finishing up his prolegomenon to charity which is fantasitc. He is quickly becomming one of my favorite authors…

  2. Cynthia, you might also enjoy Merold Westphal’s article: “Faith as the Overcoming of Ontological Xenophobia,” The Otherness of God, ed. Orrin Summerell, Charlottesville, 1998, 149-72.

    It’s short and beautiful.

  3. Cynthia,

    A good clear post. I have to say that I definitely find Marion’s comments on the difference between and idol and an icon to be very insightful. He very clearly analyzes what it is to look at an icon and see beyond to that Person who is so depicted. I found other parts of his book helpful as well.

    On the other hand, I find some of Marion’s word choice unclear. What does it mean to say that God gives Himself according to the horizon of the gift itself? I am not so sure that at the end of the day, Marion winds up saying anything all that profound in this section, simply because one is well within her or his rights to ask “what gift?” or “what is the Gift?” If the Gift just happens to be To-Be, in that God gives creatures their existence, i.e. creates them, then I should think that Marion is not being as helpful as he could when he comes around to his criticisms of Thomas. If one “is” not, then how can one receive or be part of a gift of any sort? The use of the word “radical” does not mean that we should simply abstain from asking a writer to provide a coherent and meaningful train of thought. His take of God does not seem more radical as meaningless. I do realize that Marion has since abandoned something of what he states in God Without Being as it regards Thomas, but I still find his approach, for example: his equation of all metaphysics with modern metaphysics, as when he states that the metaphysical name for God is “Causa Sui,” indicate his inexperience at the moment in his career when he authored this work. I think there is merit in his work but it requires a process of separating wheat from chaff.

  4. Hi David,

    The next post will interact in more detail with Marion’s current position on Thomas. In the meantime, I would encourage you to read Marion’s article, “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy,” in Mystics: Presence and Aporia eds Michael Kressler and Christian Sheppard, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 2003), pp. 38-74. I will try to address your comment in more detail later this afternoon—after I spend a few hours on my Latin.


  5. Dear Cynthia,

    Very nice post. Would you be able to give any references for those Thomists who went on the offensive against Marion’s early critique of Thomas Aquinas. I’ve often heard of these Thomistic replies, but would be interested to know who did the replying. Many thanks.

  6. Dear Anxietas,

    I had hoped that this post would “bring you back.” Seriously, good to hear from you. Below are two of the English speaking objectors:

    1. K. Schmitz, “The God of Love,” The Thomist 57 (1993): 495-508
    2. D. Burrell, “Reflections on ‘Negative Theology’ in the Light of a Recent Venture to Speak of ‘God Without Being’ in Postmodernism and Christian Philosophy, ed. R.T. Ciapalo (Mishawaka, IN: American Maritain Assoc, 1997), pp. 58-67.



  7. Hi David,

    Returning to your original question, “what does Marion mean when he says that God gives Himself according to the horizon of the gift?” First, it is important to keep in mind that God Without Being is unapologetically a theological work. For a philosophical (i.e., phenomenological) treatment of these themes you would need to read Being Given. With that said though it is true that Marion would agree with Thomas that God’s gives us our being, but perhaps he would say that that is the least of his concerns here. In this work, he is speaking as a Christian believer and is emphasizing that God gives Himself to us, as the Gift of all gifts chiefly through Jesus’ giving of Himself for our sake on the cross (historical event), as well as in our experience of Him in the Eucharist. So when Marion speaks of the “horizon of the gift” he has in mind both the past gift (as historical event) of Jesus’ giving Himself through death on a cross and the present gift of Himself as experienced in the Eucharist (where past, present, and future are brought together in “Eucharistic” time).

    So far from being “meaningless,” Marion is calling for a way of listening to and speaking of God that keeps us mindful of our tendencies to re-make Him in our image (the way of the idol) and instead to embrace an orientation to reality that allows us to be re-made in his image.

    As I said, more specifics on Marion’s relation to Thomas in the next post…


  8. Cynthia,

    Many thanks for the references. I assure you, I never left! I look forward to reading your next post on Marion and Thomas; that’s been a subject of great interest of mine lately.

  9. Cynthia,

    Thanks for the clarification. What you say certainly makes sense and I think I can see what you mean. I guess I simply find the style of not-being-clear-when-you are-trying-to-express-a-difficult-point not very accessible. Nontheless, your point makes sense. It does seem, however, that Marion thus equates, to a certain extent, theological discourse with a certain sort of bracketing. What I mean is that for a theological purpose, we say that God gives Himself on the horizon of the Gift (the Eucharist and the Incarnation, etc.). Okay, I am with you so far. This is true and God did give Himself as a paschal victim for our sake and continues to give Himself. My question is that theological speech, on what I a take to be Marion’s model, desires that the explanation stop at this point and to dwell, for the sake of edification, on what it means that God would do this for us, His rebellious creatures. What I take Thomas to be doing is looking at the further, perhaps theoretical, implications of this sort of Divine action and what it says of Him. To be sure, with the advent of certain problematic metaphysical approaches, one may tend to become suspicious of any Being-talk when God is concerned. However, it seems wholly inappropriate and perhaps uncalled for to hurl invective and rather loosley play the idolatry card (a rather steep accusation) when someone attempts to understand what people such as myself (and likely Marion, too) only believe. Yes, it is wrong and misleading to define God in terms of comprehensible being. God is indefinable and only vaguely describable given the triplex via. However, the “Qui Est” the name of God which almost the entire Christian tradition holds as most proper for Him, reveals Him in a way that is not dependent upon His creatures. In other words, the “given” or “gift” is always a relational notion and God is not related to or defined, even provisionaly, by any creature or by His actions towards creatures. It is for this reason that I find Marion’s discourse both perhaps understandable (once you explained it), but at the same time rather unhelpful and perhaps even pretentious. Faith seeks understanding as a matter of course, but Marion’s discourse, for the sake of eradicating real errors, seems to go too far and inhibits understanding.

  10. Hi David,

    Thanks for your comment. Perhaps Marion is trying to “say something” by means of his more poetic, metaphoric and non-linear style. That is, given the limitations of human reason (which many philosophers and theologians at times deny whether explicitly or implicitly—think Hegel or even Siger of Brabant) coupled with Marion’s desire to avoid in his own writings communicating a kind of conceptual idolatry, his writing style makes sense. In other words, Marion is acknowledging by means of his style (and thus communicating) that all our language about God is inadequate. Many Eastern and Russian orthodox writers take a similar approach. Secondly, when you say that “‘Qui Est’ [is] the name of God which almost the entire Christian tradition holds as most proper for Him” are you perhaps overlooking the Greek tradition? Did the Greek Fathers understand “Qui Est” in the context of Biblical revelation and hence Christologic-ly (and Trinitarian-ly) or metaphysically (i.e., obtained in the context of natural theology)?

    I would love to hear from those more versed in the Greek fathers than I on this issue. Arin, are you out there…


  11. Cynthia,

    Sorry I took so long to get back on this question since it appears that the dicussion has moved onward. However, since I was not sure anyone knowledgable in the Greek traditiopn would help us out, I looked up the “He Who Is” in many of the Greek thinkers and found results. To answer your question, I will need to make a couple points. First, yes, it seems the Greek fathers, from the very beginning and onward use the “He Who Is” as the best name for God. Second, this name, they claim, has real implications that shape devotion, theology, and philosophy for the christian. Third, they point out that God is the Really Beingly Being, as opposed to us who have no ground in ourselves. Fourth, they say we participate all our perfections, to include the most important, existence, our very being, from the True Being. Fifth, They talk of about how this participation affects all creatures and peoples, not just believers. Even papgans participate to some extent in God’s fecundity. Sixth, the relation or at least the bridge to Thomas’ “esse” and the “Ipsum Esse Subsistens” can be seen clearly since they claim that God is called Essence not because of any essence but because He is. As St. Gregory Palamas carefully puts it, “When God was conversing with Moses, He did not say, ‘I am the essence’, but ‘I am the One Who is.’ Thus it is not the One Who derives from the essence, but essence which derives from Him, for it is He who contains all being in Himself.” I think that St. Thomas, as well as Gilson in the spirit of “The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy” would whole heartedly concur with this statement by St. Gregory.
    My final note would be, again in the spirit of Gilson, that the radical separation of christology from christian philosophy to the point that if “Qui Est” is a principle or inspiration in the same sense that it is in the other is to destroy or ignore the holistic unity of everything that a Christian does. There is no aspect of life or thought for a Christian that is separated from the Love of God and His revelation to us. Thus, even specifically christian philosophy (which Gilson affirms) can be in a real sense Christological and pointing at, though not expressing, the mysteries of the Divine Trinity. My point is that “He Who Is” provides the same thing for the Greek Fathers and Theologians that Gilson said it did for the Latin Fathers and Theologians, especially St. Thomas. Sure there are differences, but the fact that God is He who Exists and who is above any comprehensible essence and thus this is determinative and normative for all our reflections upon Him.

    For refernce, I suggest Justin, Martry Apol. 1.63; Athenagoras, Leg. 4.6; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.6.2; Clement Alexandria, Prot. 6.69, Paed. 1.8.71; Origen, De Princ. 1.3.6; Greg Nyssa, Life of Moses (the section on the Burning Bush notes 23-25); Greg Palamas, Triad 3. 11.12.

  12. Hi David,

    Thanks for the reference suggestions. I have a work by Palamas that I have been meaning to read for some time now–perhaps I can get to it over Spring break!

    I have some follow up questions, but I will ask you in person, as I am short on time today.


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