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.


Jeremy Patterson said...

Two questions:

What book would you say is the best introduction to apophatic theology?

Which work of Marion's is the best introduction to his philosophy-theology?


Marika said...

I reckon for apophatic theology you could start with Denys Turner's 'The Darkness of God'; on Marion I'm afraid I can't help you as 'The Idol and Distance' is the only one of his I've read. It's good, but pretty hard going.

Drewski said...

Jeremy, per your second question: I read Marion's 'Prolegomena to Charity' for my Philosophy senior seminar - it's extremely short, making it all the more dense. He traces his theology of the Gift (deftly described by Marika), phenomenology of compassion (re: the gaze of the Other), and alludes to his further de-iconoclasting work. It ruined me, in all the best possible ways. Try it on for size!

Andrei Dîrlău said...

Marika, I was looking for something on Marion and found your blog. It's fine, I just saw something in your profile about you and getting distracted from failure. I only wish to encourage you. I think you're doing great, there's no failure at all in writing as you are. And also, maybe I can suggest you take a look at Christian Orthodoxy and its icons directly, not through others' perspective. I am a Romanian, I am 55 and I guarantee I know what i'm talking about. I live in a monastery in the mountains of Romania and now and then I come to the city. Believe me, there's more to it than you think, it's worth it. Catholicism and Protestantism aren't the only brands of Christianity. But find out for yourself, not through Milbank etc. I have nothing against him, I've not read him but now I may try. My point is, go to the source.
PS Can you help me find Marion's The Idol and the Distance in English or French in electronic format? If yes, pls drop me a note at, it-s unlikely I'll get to your blog again.
may God bless you and your fine work