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).

2 thoughts on “Part III: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry”

  1. Cynthia,

    Thank you again for this intersting post. I have to say that while I agree with what Marion says here to some extent, again I think he over states the case to the point of nearly falsifying his project.

    I agree that much talk of God is “pious chatter” and is uninteresting to a person who is searching for a grand narrative of idolatrous suspicion. Maimonides finds that idle chatter is by no means an unintersting subject, although he, as Marion, despises it and maintains that the only reason we even tolerate (never approve) such chattering is because the prophets and Moses also spoke in this sort of manner. It would have been nice if they had not but we cannot overstep their authority even if it makes no rational sense to us why the people closest to God kept on talking about Him.

    Secondly, I am in a fair amount of agreement that a good deal of talk of God has resulted in the attempt to undo or undermine the meaningfulness of of God’s Truth and His Voice. However, this does not mean that every person who has presented a discourse about God that has ultimately provided occasion for unbelievers and heretics to work their evil was doing this very thing, intentionally or maintaining the idea of God as a conceptual idol, or at least trying to. Even a radically deficient idea or “concept” of God, which all of us do in fact have even if we know and consciously negate and attempt to transcend this concept, does not have to function as an idol. The simple believer, who in Chroistianity is held up as the model of Faith, has a very suspicious and terrible conceptual anthropomorphism in their mind (as we all do, intelligencia included). Thus, I would caution against the not so careful and broad sweeping accusations that Marion is making.

    I also would point out that the history of western metaphysics being, as a whole, characterized in the way that Marion does is nohing less than a culpable and inexcusable oversimplification and misrepresentation. The very idea that all metaphysics and hence all philosophical theology can be thought of as progressive attempts or a continuous project (even if unintentional) to tie the Lord of the Universe to the “Being of beings” is plainly false and shows a desire to tell interesting stories rather than engage one’s predecessors, and even one’s contemporaies. Tre, if you start your project by claiming that the name that metaphysics gives God is “Causa Sui”, then you, in typical modern Enlightenment (and it would seem post-enlightenment) form, take 16th-19th century North Western European thought as defining the whole. I have found few examples of cultural chauvanism so crystal clear and yet so hypocritical (given the so-called enlightened nature of both enlightenment and post enlightenment thought) as this Enlightenment attitude that Marion is employing in force. Any sincere effort to engage the metaphysical texts of many “western” or as I like to think “Mediterranean” culture thinkersand you will find no “Causa Sui”, a God who is defined over against the system of the world. God is always the incomprehensible “Uncaused Cause”. Secondly, one would see that God in no way is called Being in a way that implies He is chain to the Being of being. Rather, what we find is always that God is “He Who Is” and we are they who are not, since we have no being of our own that would ground us and enable us to serve as a definitional starting point for talk of God. God’s Being is not essence, that is certain and is maintained by many ancient and medieval metaphysicians. Rather HIs Being, or rather, why He is “He Who Is” and thus Being Himself and True Being, is that He Exists. He is the Existent One. Yet all HIs describable attributes (they cannot be defined) follow from Being or To-Be, as Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Gregory Palamas both teach.

    Finally, while I am totally in agreement that silence is of the utmost importance for any Christian amd especially for a philosopher or theologian. However, as Thomas chastitzed Maimonides, if the Books of the Holy Scripture themselves speak of God and the Prophets and Apostles, Moses and St. Paul all speak quite a bit, even though they also value silence; if we are to avoid condemning the verbal praise of God (as Maimonides comes close to doing and as Marion also seems to to when they condemn “pious chattering”), if we are to sing a new song to the Lord and tell the world His great Deeds and praise His Holy Name, then I suggest that we should exercise some constraint on this sort of rhetoric. If silence is as golden as he claims, let J. L. Marion lead us by example.

  2. David,

    A quick question, have you read all of GWB or just the first few chapters?


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