Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Worshipping the lizard God

Jean-Luc Marion is a French phenomenologist (that's philosophy which tries to think about the world starting with the way it appears to us), who has written both theology and philosophy (he claims the two are separate for him but, predictably, they're not really). Like Yannaras, he's a 20th century thinker who thinks that apophatic theology in general, and Dionysius the Areopagite in particular, have something to say to the contemporary world, especially in light of Nietzsche and Heidegger. The Idol and Distance: Five Studies is Marion's most sustained engagement with apophatic theology, although he continues to deal with it throughout his work, and gets into some barneys with Jacques Derrida over whose reading of apophatic theology is more right.

Marion thinks that the 'death of God' doesn't mean that God has totally disappeared, but says that God's absence is 'the modern face of his eternal fidelity.' Marion thinks that the way that God the Father gives birth to God the Son is by withdrawing himself, making space for the Son to be born, and God's withdrawal from the world today is meant to make space for us to become sons of God. Marion uses his own version of the ontological argument: any god whose existence can be disproved, any god who can die, can't really be God, and so any proof that God doesn't exist doesn't destroy God but an idolatrous idea of God. God's like a lizard who always escapes our grasp, leaving only his tail behind.

At the heart of Marion's book is a distinction between the idol and the icon. An idol is a face we make for God to show up in: it's our way of controlling what sort of God we encounter, and where and how we encounter the divine. But an icon doesn't try to make God present, it just points beyond itself. The whole point of an icon is that it isn't the thing it represents. Idols can be destroyed by philosophy; icons cannot.

Marion discusses three thinkers who share an interest in distance: Nietzsche, Hölderlin and our old friend Dionysius the Areopagite. He argues that what Nietzsche's work does is to articulate the distance which appears when idolatrous ideas of God stop being plausible. But Nietzsche tries to bridge the gap with his own will to power, another form of idolatry, and so his philosophical project fails and he goes mad (take note, kids: idolatry is dangerous). Hölderlin also recognises the distance between humanity and God, but thinks that the solution is not to overcome the distance but to remain in it, which we do through poetry, which expresses the tension between union and distinction.

Finally, Dionysius offers a similar solution to the distance between humanity and God. Dionysius says that we can't speak about God in predicative language (statements about God like 'God is love', 'God is drunk' etc.), because that sort of language is all about trying to control meaning. Instead, we need to speak about God through prayer and praise, which don't name God but acknowledge our relation to God as recipients of God's gifts, as an expression of love and gratitude. But it's not enough just to praise God: we can receive God's gifts only insofar as we pass them on ("Love is something if you give it away *clap clap* you end up getting more..."). This receiving and giving of God's love maintains the distance between us and God, and mirrors the distance within God in the relations of the persons of the Trinity. The distance between God and the world is an icon of the distance between the Father and the Son. God's gift to us is expressed most fully in the incarnation of Christ, the Word, who gives us the words of Scripture which we then use to praise God. To be a Christian is to accept the words of Scripture as God's gift to us and to praise God with them. To be a Christian is to recognise that everything that exists is a gift of God, and to respond to that gift by giving to others, by generosity.