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. “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?).
 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.