Part V: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry
In chapter three, section three, “Being or Else (the Good),” Marion enters the debate concerning the issue of the primary name for God, which St. Thomas claims (based on Ex 3:14) is ens and Dionysius claims is bonum. Marion links agape with bonum because certain texts of the Denys (Dionysius) seem to justify such a connection. Hence, the debate between ens and bonum is likewise a debate between ens and agape (1 John 4:8, ho theos agapē estin). We should here emphasize that when Dionysius privileges Goodness as the first divine name, he is not simply replacing one category for another, which would be to replace one conceptual idol with another. In fact, Goodness as the first name for God speaks against any categorical statement concerning God. As Marion explains, Dionysius “does not pretend that goodness constitutes the proper name of the Requisite [aitia=cause], but that in the apprehension of goodness the dimension is cleared where the very possibility of a categorical statement concerning Gxd ceases to be valid, and where the reversal of denomination into praise become inevitable. To praise the Requisite as such, hence as goodness, amounts to opening distance. Distance neither asks nor tolerates that one fill it but that one traverse it, in an infinite praise that feeds on the impossibility or, better, the impropriety of the category. The first praise, the name of goodness, therefore does not offer any ‘most proper name’ [contra Thomas and ipsum esse as ‘maxime proprie’ name of God] and decidedly abolishes every conceptual idol of ‘God’ in favor of the luminous darkness where Gxd manifests (and not masks) himself, in short, where he gives himself to be envisaged by us” (p. 76).
For the Denys, Gxd is the principle of beings from which both beings and existence itself derives. Moreover, this Gxd gives Being to beings but himself is greater and beyond the gift of Being that he gives. Being is a gift which is disclosed in the act of giving and this act is goodness, a goodness which in fact gives itself. [For the Dionysian tradition, the denomination “Goodness” allows for a Trinitarian vision of God—after all Christ as ultimate gift gives Himself on our behalf]. Moreover, for Dionysius the good is preferred because it extends not only to beings but to non-beings. According to Thomas, Dionysius goes this route because it takes “God” into view not only as efficient cause [the Creator of beings] but also as final cause and hence desirable even by non-beings (p. 78). [Question: Would those versed in the Dionysian tradition help me to understand what is meant by non-beings here?] For Thomas this becomes a question of whether the good indeed “adds” something and becomes primary or not. If not, then ens must be established as primary.
Thomas takes the second path and attempts to establish the primacy of ens. Thomas does this, according to Marion, by introducing a “new point of view”—a point of view that “limits one’s view to the measurements of the ens” and from this certain point of view, the ens becomes a “solid-point.” In other words, though convertible with the other transcendentals (one, good, and true), ens exhibits a primacy because “the ens finds itself comprehended in their [i.e. the transcendentals] comprehension, and not reciprocally.” Ens is both the “first term that falls within the imagination of the understanding,” and the primary and proper object of the intellect and is primarily intelligible because “everything is knowable only inasmuch as it is in actuality” (pp. 79-80).
In addition and somewhat summing up Marion’s point, “[t]he primacy of the ens depends on the primacy of a conception of the human understanding and of the mind of man. The primacy of the ens has nothing absolute or unconditional about it; it relies on another primacy which remains discreetly in the background. But it is this second primacy that one must question, since it alone gives its domination to the ens, to the detriment of the good (and of the Dionysian tradition)” [p. 80]. Ens as an object of the human intellect and hence as a representation seems a prime candidate for an idol. In fact, Marion does not see how Thomas’ doctrine of analogy can uphold God’s transcendence given that the “primacy of ens over the other possible divine names rests on primacy of human conception” (p. 81).
According to Marion, if theology is to be understood as a “science” that proceeds by the apprehension of concepts, then ens will be primary and the human being’s point of view normative as to method. However, if theology wants to be theo-logical, it must “submit all of its concepts, without excepting the ens, to a ‘destruction’ by the doctrine of divine names, at the risk of having to renounce any status as a conceptual ‘science,’ in order, decidedly nonobjectivating, to praise by infinite petitions” (p. 81). Thomas seems to attempt a both/and (maintaining both the primacy of ens as the first conception of the human understanding and a product of the faculty of imagination and a doctrine of divine names), which makes his view (as Marion sees it) idolatrous (see pp. 81-82).
Near the end of the section, Marion asks whether a new path, viz., agapē can “transgress Being” […] Can it manifest itself without passing through Being?” Again, Marion states that he does not want to simply substitute one divine name (goodness or agapē) for another (ens), rather in order to free Gxd from Being he will attempt to show “how the Gxd who gives himself as agapē thus marks his divergence from Being” (p. 83).