“The idol determines the ‘god’ on the basis of the aim, hence of an anterior gaze…The idol is constituted by the thrust of an aim anterior to any possible spectacle, but also by a first visible, where, settling, it attains, without seeing, its invisible mirror, low-water mark of its rise…In other words, the proposition “God is a being” itself appears as an idol because it only returns the aim that, in advance, decides that every possible ‘God,’ present or absent, in one way or another, has to be.”
Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being, (42-44)
I have recently picked up Marion’s book in hopes of moving around the Kantian grip on reality, the metaphysical grip on reality, the systematization of being as a category from which to think all other being and thus drown what we understand as “is” to be found within the grip of metaphysics, particularly ontology. My desire to take this turn and swerve around metaphysics is largely the product of the linguistic turn my own theology took during my seminary years as I immersed myself into the world of Freud, Lacan, Luce Irigaray and the burgeoning discipline of constructive theology. The result has been a perpetual quest for an ever more constructive theology that takes into consideration the structures of faith and religion, the apparatuses that support and occasion what Kristeva calls our “Incredible Need to Believe.” It has been a quest for a credible constructive theology that takes into consideration the transposition of language, the intricate networks of symbolization in which we all participate and the awareness that theology is never understood apart from the language that is created by it, through it and for it. Language, as phenomena, is not so easily ascertained or its origins clearly defined. It is a universal sort of given, or system of meanings that drag us into its games, games that have the trick of not only convincing us of its rules but of also deceiving the users of language (us) into thinking that we actually created the meanings to begin with…or that meaning can even be so loosely attached to the symbols with which we have surrounded ourselves.
With these considerations, my own personal theology took a more linguistic turn; it took a more temporal turn…and I found myself largely being post-metaphysical in relation to thinking theology and faith.
As I was working on my thesis on a reconstrual of incarnation, it slowly began to dawn on me that there is nothing that is inherently meaningful about that concept. The concept, or symbol, incarnation, only means something because of the relation of that symbol to what it signifies, but what it signifies is not forever lost in that lone symbol even though the signified does remain lost forever. When it comes to thinking God it is not a far leap to then think that given the rules of language there is nothing in the symbol “god” or “God” that contains any definition except what is given within the confines of the language games in which it participates. Its definition lies in its anterior/interior relation and this alone requires that when we would formerly broach with certainty “god” that we must now begin to do so with less certainty and less staticity. The move to then begin to think God as bound to symbolization and as a valuation of supreme values (an umbrella concept that unites our search for meaning and purpose within the bounds of what we cannot apprehend), rather than as pure being (whatever that means) meant to take seriously not only the idea of God but the way in which that idea is used. These sorts of considerations led me toward thinking God post-metaphysically.
Post-metaphysical is not a denotation that I was moving into a post-God mentality or what popular parlance would like to so easily toss around as atheism. In fact, God became the problem…and the idea of God is the problem if we will but be honest about God language.
What was more at risk was understanding the idea of God, the language of God and how such was used not only in various theologians, but also in scripture, liturgy and praxis. What function does God serve? For what reasons do we invoke this idea, this word, this person (sic?)? From where does this word, these symbols, the real behind it, the imaginary webs in which it is entrenched…from where does the idea come and to what does it attach in order to associate with any sort of meaning that also has meaning in our lives? The question was never one of losing God, but rather of actually locating what a viable meaning of God is and how it can function in light of linguistic appropriation via structuralism, Freudianism, neo-freudianism, sexuality, etc. When God was free to inhabit the WORD, as the Gospel of John might suggest, the Word became that much more creative but God became that much more difficult.
Through this forest of ubiquity, I found myself already moving into a category of meaning that was thoroughly grounded within, and upon, language. Language is the house in which we all live. It is the incarnation (desublimation?)of transcendence, or meaning, the capsule by which we understand that which cannot be understood. Language is the ex-perience of that which is not apprehendable except via the idiom of the very language in which we understand experience. Language is, then, house in which God resides. Whatever it means to say that God exists apart from language is to say something that is completely without meaning.
This idea may sound foreign, even difficult, but language is what communicates that which is non-communicable…it is not that by which we grasp what cannot be said. When this is brought into the realm of faith, one is left with the Derridean dictum that there really is “nothing outside the text” and from a biblical perspective one can say with Walter Brueggemann as he does in his Old Testament Theology, “I shall insist, as consistently as I can, that the God of the Old Testament theology as such lives in, with and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other ways.” (66.)
Needless to say, my ideas that there was “being” outside language began to increasingly makes less and less sense, for even the idea of “outside of language” wherein real “being” or “a real being” resided became profusely predicated upon language for its said notation. Thus, traditional metaphysics became esoteric at best, esoteric with an anterior aim, or misleading at worst, as it sought to locate that which is non-localizable within that which is dependent upon infinite “others” for its meaning; infinite rounds of meaning attached elsewhere within concepts that one is to presume as natural givens…as Kantian a priori concepts, if you will. It seemed God needed us to keep speaking as much as our speaking needed God to exist. These two were inseparable. Thus, once God was free to “be” in language (and then outside of ontology) that required a reassessment of what it means for God to “be” at all. I knew that the move past metaphysics was necessary linguistically, but I had not clearly or readily began to think about a rigorous confrontation with ontology.
A subsequent effect of these musings and my theological journey led me precariously to begin to search through nihilistic philosophy for answers. And not just nihilism as a secular practice, but nihilism that is grounded in Christianity and scripture. For every turn to Sarte there was equal turn to Ecclesiastes and tradition. Nihilism is located in the mystics and certain medieval Christian theologians such as Meister Eckhart. And honestly, much of the ideas of nothing, and concepts of God within the realm of nothing, continue to make much more sense to me than metaphysical claims that hold the idea of God hostage to Greco-Roman ideals of being and thus subject our entire idea of God within the Christian canon to these categories.
Where in scripture does it say we must do this and where is “the” biblical ontology located exactly?
Along the way, I ran into a fellow named Paul Tillich. Reading Tillich was a very freeing experience for me for multiple reasons, but one of the chief of these is what Tillich says in volume 1 of his Systematic Theology. He writes, “God does not ex-ist.”
Naturally, Tillich takes a ton of heat for this statement…but usually by those who haven’t read much further than those words. Understood within the context of his 3 volume Systematic Theology it is very clear that the object of Tillich’s Theology is God via dialectical correlation. Now Volume 3 goes into some precarious directions, and it is the densest of the theology, but within volume 1 and 2 the idea that God does not exist is not to suggest that there is no God. It is rather to place what we mean by God, the idea of God, of God as “is,” outside of the category of ex-istence.
This dictum was Tillich’s attempt to not confuse God with being, creator with creation…and for God to exist as all other being exists would be to make God the same as being…and God cannot be being because God has to be that which is the “ground of our being” and thereby situate the idea of God around that which concerns us “ultimately.”
Withstanding the criticisms of Tillich’s positions over the past 50 years since its inception, Tillich is doing a neat metaphysical trick but he did not fully break with metaphysics per se. He wanted to think God outside of being, outside being a created thing, but he continued to think god within the categories of ontology throughout the rest of his theology…so that the climactic event in the life of God, the Christ event, was not an event that left being behind, but rather the Christ event fully embraced being, becoming the New Being. Tillich was not abandoning ontology…he was just repositioning his theology in relation to it, which is why though he may have sounded as if he was moving past Greek metaphysics, he really stays quite comfortable within it strictures.
But this idea of God as outside of existence, thus also outside of idolatry, in conjunction with my Lacanian studies and the backdrop of language via Saussurean linguistics, began to provide more room for thinking God, being and gods relationship to what we mean as being.
This is where Marion comes in.
A good friend of mine, (one who is adept at carrying multiple levels of philosophical inquiry at once) and myself picked up Marion looking for an answer, a response, one that might not relegate itself to pure nihilism but also would be more careful in developing the reason necessary for a firm break with ontology and its onto-theological metaphysics. Before beginning journeys as serious as these I would strongly suggest taking a travel companion. As in the Lord of the Rings, some forests are too dense to walk alone.
What we found in Marion, among the many things there is to find in this wonderfully dense text, was not only an attempt to think about God outside the categories of our ideas of being, but that our very ideas of being our nothing more than Idol/Idle Chatter. While I had formerly thought my speaking about God expressed my truest devotion to the object of my faith, (whatever it is that my idea of faith conjured as God via tradition, reason, experience and text) what Marion argues is that such speech is Idol/Idle chatter that is more akin to blasphemy then holy speech.
In other words, the category of being and its resulting study of ontology are never divorced from the anterior gaze that is in search of a specific quality and idea of being since all these ideas are predicated on our experience of existence, of being. When God is confined to ontology, the idea of God becomes trapped in the projections of the viewer, the experiences of the viewer…and the gaze of the viewer holds the idea of God, which is really an idol, in its gaze; it sees that which captivates it, while simultaneously being the product of such captivating audiences. Lacan might call these residues of the “Mirror Stage.”
So that our idea of God is largely nothing more than an idol, a product of our gaze.
Our gaze toward the concept of God does not loosen God into a mystical reality wherein the invisible becomes visible and propels the viewer into the mystery beyond the visible. On the contrary, via our idolatrous gaze God becomes something that is fashioned after our own ideas, with our own intentions and views of ourselves. The critique of Feuerbach holds firm so long as ontology and categories of being remain the realm of thinking God since the idea God is foreign to this categorys as a means of expression…and such is certainly the case biblically speaking. It is impossible to think God without thinking ourselves; it is impossible to think God without holding such within the contempt of our gaze. Subsequently, it is not entirely self evident that what we mean by God even has to be thought within the category of being…it is only that such has always been the case in western philosophical tradition.
God has been held hostage to being…and thus God has been held as an idol that can be manipulated and take the shape of those that fashion it and speak it…rather than be that which irreducibly alters the one who dares look at it. And this is the difference between an Idol and an Icon.
For Marion, an idol is the product of thinking God within philosophical concepts that are absent revelatory underpinnings. He notes that thinking the being of God has less to do with the symbol God than with the necessity of metaphysics to have a direction for its thinking. And it is this “concept” that holds God in its grip that becomes the idol. It holds the divine within its gaze. It defines it because it apprehends what we mean by God not in comparison to the category of ‘god’ since such a category is excessive but it apprehends it within the category of being that is subject to the rules of philosophical metaphysics. The problem is that this way of thinking God places god within the theoretical space that is only common to being; it is not common to what in Christian tradition we know as revelation.
Revelation is the realm of the divine. Ontology is the realm of being(s). The latter is reductionistic and the former is not.
The idol, ultimately, is that which is defined and articulated within the categories of the one that gazes upon the infinite…it is not something that challenges the gaze into infinity…this is the task of the icon. And might I suggest this is the purpose of using the icon “God” to express our faith.
For Marion, his strong and persistent critique of thinking God with being opens up a rich avenue for understanding God as gift via revelation that is not beholden to being. The idol is the result of a specific vision within the context of a given set of foreign ideas (metaphysics, ontology, being, theory, philosophy, etc). It is the product of our gaze…but the opposite of such Godly restrictors is the icon. The icon is in fact what our speech should reflect if it seeks to be anything but idol/idle chatter.
For Marion, the icon, and here he also introduces his idea of God without being (in other words without idolatry), is not the product of our vision; it provokes vision! It is the space in which our vision becomes saturated with that which is invisible…the visible invisible. It directs the gaze to not stop at its sight, but to lose itself in the infinity of the glory towards which it is directed. For Marion, the task of theology is not to systematize our ideas of God into preconceived theoretical schemas that lose God in our idolatrous gaze. Instead it is to open up theological discourse into the realm of revelation wherein it does not confuse itself with philosophy and can become more fully theology that is rightly provoked by the icon of the glory in which God and its excessive vision is disclosed.
For Marion, revelation via the Eucharist must determine the modes by which we think God and what God is. And as such, revelation can never be proofed in a philosophical system because its content is outside the realm of ideas of being, ideas of ourselves. He writes, “The Christian experience is so completely different that it has no need to enter into competition with philosophy. When theology holds fast to the view that philosophy is foolishness, the mystery and character of revelation will be much better preserved.” (62)
What Marion has done is sever the presumed link between ideas of God and ideas of Being, and thereby he has refashioned what it means to do metaphysics, even questioning the very enterprise itself. What I had come to learn through structuralism and psychoanalytic linguistics, Marion is expressing via his assault on being, his assault on metaphysics and the idol/idle chatter that results when we continue to think about God with being.
In light of Marion one is struck by a shocking conclusion. Most theology and biblical studies is not engaged in an admiration of the holy. They are engaged in an admiration of the idol they have created of the idea of the holy. While we have spent lifetimes talking about God, Marion argues that these lifetimes have really been spent in idol/idle chatter…chatter that is no more closer to its object due to the proximity of its subject. We think we have been talking about God, but in fact we have been talking about the idol and remained idle in the process. And further in the text, he has some difficult words in regard to liturgy and the role that idolatry plays in some of the Churche’s most treasured practices…but I’ll leave that for another post or your own investigation into Marion’s text.
And the really cool trick, in case you were thinking this is a Christian theological bash session (which it is really the opposite) is that atheism is just as busy about idol/idle chatter as theism…only ideas of being linked to the moral God have been replaced with ideas of being with the science God/the God of power…power is the new being and God has become its object. Atheism cannot kill God once God is absent being. All it can accomplish is the eclipse of the moral God since this God is placed within a system of values and predicated upon particular concepts. The Moral God that atheism has declared to kill is only the death of atheisms own idol of the moral God because only that idea can be exhausted. Atheism can only kill concepts of being…but what Marion is proposing is going behind the idolatrous gaze to what is on the other side of the concept…thus he has taken us into the realm of post-metaphysics after ontology.
Marion has taught me much. He has not deviated too far afield from the continental thinkers that have influenced my own theology. As a French theologian, this work is in fact a great conversation with nihilism and its Nietzschean advents. But where Marion has separated himself from the field is in his ideas of faith and reason…and where our idea of God must consequently fit.
For Marion, reason allows room for thinking the concepts of theology, for rigorously defining them in relationship to their revelatory nature. Reason is never the foundation for theology, which is perhaps the nutshell of his critique of being and divine ontology. It is placing God within the arms reach of reason and thus God can become no other than an idol, the product of an anterior aim. Whereas faith, and the way of being provoked by the icon of God, is only rightly understood within the category of revelation. Revelation becomes prehendable via the icons of the Christian faith, providing immeasurable depth beyond the gaze of the other.
In the idol, our gaze stops at its aim. In the icon, our gaze becomes lost in the infinite through the visible glimpse of the invisible. We must think God as icon and not make for ourselves the idol God.
At this point, one might begin to wonder what idea of God we might now have in mind? If our former ways of keeping God within the confines of being leads only to idolatry, to where might we turn for an alternative mode of this iconic understanding?
How about the idea of gift? In absolute giving nothing, not even complete nothingness, can supersede the excess of an absolute gift. And it is this absolute giving that is marked in the Christ event…an event that scripture does not give to us as a proof of being. Scripture does not give it to us as ontology. Scripture simply gives it to us as the apocalypse of gift…visibly invisible and excessive.
In this way, Marion has been pivotal in helping me think past metaphysics and disclosed to me my own idol/idle chatter…even though the temptation toward godly gossip is ever present.