As I noted in a previous post, a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology, giving special attention to Dionysius. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found Dionysius a valuable resource in the development of his own theology. In this post, I want to briefly mention some of the ways that Marion incorporates Dionysian thought into his own project. Both Dionysius and Marion are concerned with upholding God’s transcendence and avoiding conceptual idolatry of any sort. For Marion, there are two basic orientations to world: (1) an iconic consciousness or (2) an idolatrous consciousness. As Marion explains, “[t]he idol measures the divine to the scope of the gaze of he who then sculpts it.” Hence, an idol is produced when we attempt to conceptually circumscribe God, which is in essence to limit God to the human gaze. In our attempts to measure God by human understanding, we become trapped in a kind of self-reflexivity in which the idol becomes a mirror that reflects the human gaze back to itself. In contrast, the icon allows one’s gaze to move through the icon (visible) to that which is invisible. That is,
“[w]hat 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.”
Following a Dionysian emphasis on the positive value of symbols, Marion likewise underscores that signs and images are not to be despised, as they can and should be used as contemplative aids in our worship of God. In fact, not only does creation itself function iconically to reveal the invisible things of God through that which is visible (Rom 1:20), but Christ Himself is said to be the Icon of God (Col 1:15). Moreover, given the kind of creatures that we are, it is fitting that we embrace signs and images which simultaneously hide and reveal that which exceeds this, so to speak, “clothing” of the formless.
Marion’s aim is of course to bring us into a more iconic consciousness, which in turn allows God to manifest himself according to his terms (not ours). If we embrace an iconic orientation, then, as Marion puts it, we must abandon any attempt to measure the divine by our own human gaze. Here Marion again seems very much in harmony with Dionysius. That is, for both Marion and Dionysius, there is no concept that adequately captures God. God, who is beyond being, is ipso facto beyond definition, and Marion is at pains to free God from our limiting (idolatrous) gaze. As Robyn Horner observes, Marion both continues within the Dionysian trajectory and also furthers the conversation with his own distinctive contributions. That is, in addition to drawing our attention to conceptual idols, Marion likewise speaks of conceptual icons as a way of thinking God in a non-idolatrous way. This path does not move “through the traditional metaphysical route that focuses on being, but through the mystical route of love.” Marion also adds to the discussion of icons, the idea of our being gazed upon and hence transformed by the other. Instead of a self-reflexive gaze necessitated by the idol, the icon breaks the circle of reflexivity and “gives the invisible to thought, not on the basis of the capacities of the metaphysical ego, but on its own terms.” Contrasting the two gazes, Marion writes that with the icon
“our gaze becomes the optical mirror of that at which it looks only by finding itself more radically looked at: we become a visible mirror of an invisible gaze that subverts us in the measure of its glory. The invisible summons us, ‘face to face, person to person’ (1 Cor. 13:12), through the painted visibility of its incarnation and the factual visibility of our flesh: no longer the visible idol as the invisible mirror of our gaze, but our face as the visible mirror of the invisible. […] It [the icon] transforms us in its glory by allowing this glory to shine on our face as its mirror—but a mirror consumed by that very glory, transfigured with invisibility, and by dint of being saturated beyond itself from that glory, becoming, strictly though imperfectly, the icon of it: visibility of the invisible as such.”
Though the icon indeed “opens distance,” it never claims nor pretends to exhaust God or to produce any kind of comprehensive knowledge of the incomprehensible.