Part VI: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

Section four, “The Indifference to Be,” is perhaps one of the most important sections of chapter three. In light of what he sees as an inherent connection between the Being/being framework and idolatry, Marion attempts to outwit Being by its own rules—which in essence means to outwit onto-theo-logy and the “ontological difference.” The phrase “ontological difference” is a reference to Heidegger and speaks of the difference between Being (as such) and beings. One aspect of the “difference” between Being (as such) and a being is that the former a dynamic process and is therefore not a being, yet the history of Western philosophy on the Heideggarian read has ossified/static-ized Being and made it a being (e.g., pure act, highest cause etc.), which is why Heidegger gives his critique as he does. This dynamic process (Being) reveals itself differently in different epochs and allows particular beings to manifest/appear as the beings that they are. Being as such then seems to provide the condition for the possibility of beings appearing. [This is my understanding of “ontological difference” as used in this context. However, as I have stated before, my knowledge of Heidegger is very basic, and I welcome criticisms and corrections to what I have said here].

In order to outwit Being, that is, to break out of the horizon of Being, we must find a new rule whose difference is not that of “ontological difference” and consequently, whose difference does not refer at all to the horizon of Being (which would involve us in the idolatrous gaze). Ontological difference has a built-in reflexivity and it is this very (idolatrous) reflexivity that Marion wants to avoid. This other difference turns out to be biblical revelation. In other words, Marion employs that which is “foolishness to the Greeks” to outwit the (wordly) logic of Being. E.g., appealing to two texts from St. Paul (Rom 4:7 and 1 Cor 1:26-29) and one from St. Luke (the prodigal son), Marion shows how biblical revelation is indifferent to Being. To elucidate what is meant by this, Marion writes, “one must distinguish, in fact, between two extremely different points. Incontestably, biblical revelation is unaware of ontological difference, the science of Being/beings as such, and hence of the question of Being. But nothing is less accurate than to pretend that it does not speak a word on being, nonbeing and beingness” (p. 86). Marion appeals to these texts because all of them speak about being (or ousia) in one way or another. Though Marion admits that some might be frustrated with his interpretation of these texts, he asks the reader to exercise patience and see his argument through to the end.

For the sake of brevity, I shall engage only one text, viz., Rom 4:17. In this text we read that Abraham was made “the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations,’ facing Him in whom he believed, the God who gives life to the dead and who calls the non-beings as beings” (p. 86). As Marion observes, we see St. Paul seemingly employing the language of the philosophers when he speaks of a movement from non-being to being. The Greeks of course were very much concerned with the possibility or rather impossibility of this transition; however, the transition that Paul has in mind does not depend on any human conception, nor is it solved by a movement of a being from potency to act. Instead, the transition comes to the (non)beings from the outside. As Marion puts it, the transition is an “extrinsic transition” and “does not depend on (non-)beings but on Him who calls them” (p. 87). Of course Marion does not mean that these “dead” individuals do not actually exist. Rather, his emphasis is that in the eyes of the world, they are non-beings. In contrast, God is indifferent to the world’s (ontic) determination of being and nonbeing. God’s call in fact “does not take into consideration the difference between nonbeings and beings” (p. 88)—nonbeings are called as if they were beings.

In the texts from St. Paul that Marion examines, we find that nonbeings (ta mē onta) do not mean that or those who are not, and as a result nonbeings in the context of revelation do not play according to the logic of Being and do not submit to the horizon of Being. (The same of course is true of beings (ta onta). Marion highlights an interesting point in the 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 passage, viz., that the wisdom of the world goes against its own logic. That is, it calls the brethren nonbeings, though strictly speaking they, as humans, exist. But as Paul points out, the “world” contradicts itself because it founds itself or is founded not as a result of the fold of Being but on its own works and therefore boasts in itself before God. So even in spite of itself, the “world” when bedazzled by the light of God, becomes so distracted that it, being revealed as a “forger of itself,” “acknowledges that its funding does not lie in ontological difference, but in the pretension to ‘glorify itself before God’” (p. 94). In the end, what counts here as to the debate between beings and nonbeings has little to do with ontic or ontological difference, but rather with the two opposing boastings—one which is founded on itself and one which boasts in the Lord because of God’s call (p. 94). Consequently, we now see how “being and nonbeing can be divided according to something other than Being” (p. 95).

Later in the chapter (after giving his interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son), Marion identifies this “something” as the “gift.” The “gift” not only outwits the Being game, but it makes possible Being/beings in the first place—it “gives Being/beings” (p. 100). As Marion explains, “[t]he gift crosses Being/being: it meets it, strikes it out with a mark, finally opens it, as a window casement opens, on an instance that remains unspeakable according to the language of Being—supposing that another language might be conceived. To open Being/being to the instance of a gift implies then, at the least, that the gift may decide Being/being. In other words, the gift is not at all laid out according to Being/being, but Being/being is given according to the gift. The gift delivers Being/being. It delivers it in the sense first that the gift gives Being/being and puts it into play, opens it to its sending, as in order to launch it into its destiny. The gift delivers also in that it liberates being from Being or, put another way, Being/being from ontological difference” (p. 101). This gift in fact is inextricably linked with charity/love itself, “which gives and expresses itself as gift” (p. 102). In sum, being is not a being because (the horizon of) Being has provided the condition by which it can become manifest [or said slightly differently, a being is not a being because of the “ontological difference”], rather a being is a being because it has received a gift (e.g. the “call”) from Love Himself.

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.