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Marion on excess: why we need both saturation and distance

March 29, 2011 3 comments

Early in his career (Idol and Distance 1977), Marion speaks of distance as a positively determined (but not predicated) divine excess through and toward which we traverse, but which we never abolish, in our prayer and praise.  God is ever greater as  given but more fundamentally as not given.  The difference between traversing and abolishing distance is precisely the gap between the given and the not given.  It is a gap which is denied by predication but respected by prayer/praise.  This is what Marion learns from the mystical theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, but also from Nietzsche, Hoelderlin, Balthasar, and certain passages of Christian scripture.   

Later in his career (e.g., In Excess 2001), Marion shifts focus toward the eidetic possibility of revelation conceived as the “saturated phenomenon par excellence.”  Again, the Dionysian tradition is recalled, but this time divine excess is thought as saturation: i.e., the surplus of intuition over intentionality.  This is a complete inversion of the Kantian (but also Husserlian) understanding of transcendence, according to which intentionality exceeds intuition, the latter being impoverished.  In saturation, it is not that givenness falls short of our ability to grasp it; it is that givenness wildly oustrips our ability to grasp it.  But what warrants our attention for the moment is this: that which makes God ever greater in this revised phenomenological rubric remains, perplexingly, a kind of immanence: immanence, not in the sphere of intentionality, but in the sphere of givenness (for consciousness), which entails possibility, not actuality.  According to Marion, we can say with phenomenological certainty that already within what is given there is given the essential possibility of much more intuition of God than we are able to organize, interpret, or understand. 

Question: having noted the difference and similarity between the two, should one conclude that saturation (because its theorization comes later) supercedes distance?  No. 

The emphasis has to be placed on distance, though not to the exclusion of saturation.  The earlier formulation must be prioritized.  Why?  Because the claim that God is ever greater cannot be translated adequately by a theory of immanence or givenness, however expansive and inverted.  If one thinks divine excess in terms of saturation alone, this suggests a never realizable potential for full understanding already within our consciousness.  It suggests that God is (qua eidetic possibility) already totally given.  It seems necessary to maintain, on the contrary, that however much the givenness of God already exceeds our ability to grasp it, that which is not given of God exceeds it all the more.  In short, the excess of distance exceeds (but does not render meaningless) the excess of saturation. 

Phenomenology perhaps cannot think this thought.  For this one perhaps needs prayer/praise, which, moreover, makes no pretense of bracketing the actuality of God.

Contemplative clouds: a site of solitude or subjectivity?

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

The anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing asserts that his work depends on Dionysius “from beginning to end” (ch. 70).  The influence is obvious, but perhaps not as complete as the Cloud author suggests.  As much as it draws on the patristic tradition of mystical theology, this text already seems to be moving away from it, toward a more proto-modern mode of mysticism and the isolated or buffered subject of modernity which such mysticism foretells. 

Not yet at the extreme of Descartes’ methodological doubt or Husserl’s phenomenological epoche, the contemplative prayer advocated by this English mystic nevertheless involves a certain bracketing.  On the one hand, God is to be sought exclusively through the “cloud of unknowing,” which is a barrier to knowledge that is nevertheless permeable by divine love, or grace.  On the other hand, there is the “cloud of forgetting,” which detaches the contemplative from all sensations, images, and thoughts of people or things existing in the created world (ch. 5).  Now, clouds are not walls.  There is a certain degree of porousness implied by the metaphor.  And yet, the image of these clouds does encourage the prayerful soul to cultivate a profound sense of isolation from concrete reality in order to draw nearer to the God who nevertheless remains ever distant, thinkable only as “nothing” or “all,” approachable only from “nowhere” (chs. 68-9).  The clouds act like buffers, leaving the self prayerful but abstracted.  Soon, the prayers will cease but the abstraction will remain. 

That having been said, modern subjectivity having been identified for the problematic and contingent occurrence that it is, an open question remains concerning the potential value of this sort of spiritual practice.  The theme of solitude, more positive in connotation, could be developed here.  And it could be pointed out that such cloudily enclosed contemplation is meant to attract others to the grace of God, through the change in spiritual and physical appearance which it brings about in the practioner (ch. 54).  Ultimately, this contemplative prayer is, in its effects, both social and bodily–two qualities which we postmoderns demand.  And yet, ought not these qualities condition prayer itself, and not only its outcomes?  Or ought they not (at least not in the heights of contemplation)?  This question, to me, seems as important and perplexing today, as ever.  Must there be aloneness with the Alone, or is this precisely that which a prayerful encounter with the living God seeks to subvert?

The immediate vision of God

February 15, 2010 8 comments

I got into a conversation with a friend recently about the possibility of seeing God directly, and I surprised myself by taking a directly Dionysian line: that the unmediated vision of God is constitutively impossible. I’ve written about Dionysius’s principle of necessary mediation before, and complained that he offered no philosophical justification for the axiom. But I don’t think that’s true. Dionysius doesn’t justify his idea that mediation has to occur stepwise down an ontological hierarchy, but he does (implicitly) justify the necessity of some form of mediation. I find the latter pretty convincing.

We have to begin from a premise (maybe controversial, I don’t know) that Dionysius just takes for granted: God is absolutely infinite. By absolutely infinite I mean not just infinite in one way, but in every way, simultaneously. To make this thinkable, though, consider one example: God as infinite being. All discrete beings are derived from/created by the divinity as infinite being, but the divinity’s being is not itself discrete. On the contrary, as infinite, God’s being encompasses every discrete being. To use Eckhart’s formula, God is indistinct from all creatures—and distinguished from them precisely in the fact that God alone is indistinct from them. (The distinctio indistinctionis he calls it: the distinction of indistinction. Beautiful, hm?) In trying to “see” God as infinite being, therefore, it makes no sense to look for something “besides” discrete, created being; God is actually seen in created being, though as transcending it. “Negative theology,” such as it exists in Dionysius, is just the name for this paradoxical way of seeing: God is this discrete being but not this discrete being.

An interesting consequence of this is that the “necessary mediation” in our vision of God ends up coinciding with a constant immediacy of vision: that creature’s being really is God’s being (which is not to say it’s not the creature’s own, but that’s another story), unmediated but partial. Just as we can only ever see a limited set of numbers in contemplating an infinite series, but what we’re seeing is not “something besides” the infinite series, so in seeing a limited being (or a limited good, etc.) we are not seeing something besides God. And that necessity of seeing God “in parts,” as it were, is intrinsic to the relation between the infinite and the finite, not a result of sin or some eschatologically surmountable limit. (One would have to explain how sin and historical limitations do affect the nature of our current vision of God, but that won’t alter this structure of mediation.)

The principle of necessary mediation

December 5, 2009 3 comments

One of the aspects of Dionysius’ system I’ve been trying to get handle on is what you can call the principle of necessary mediation: the lower ranks of the hierarchy can only receive the divinity through the higher ranks. The point of the principle, believe it or not, is not to absolutize the place of the bishop or any other church authority. Dionysius’ treatise on the ecclesiastical hierarchy assumes that some such principle is in effect, but it’s not a point of explicit insistence. The point of the principle, rather, is to say that the angels are absolutely necessary in relaying the divine word and the divine activity to human beings—that’s the reason that they, above all other creatures, are fittingly called angels or messengers. If the ecclesiastical hierarchy also works that way, it’s for the precise reason that the ecclesiastical hierarchy ought to be a perfect image of the celestial one.

That doesn’t rule out the possibility that this is all just ideological obfuscation, of course. And the fact that Dionysius offers literally no philosophical defense the principle might lend some credence to that interpretation. (The defense he does offer is scriptural: showing that Ezekiel, Moses, even Jesus only received the divine will through angelic intermediaries.) I’m inclined, though, to think Dionysius is being genuine here, especially since he’s creating this whole concept of hierarchy more or less ex nihilo, and affording himself a relatively low status. But then I’m just left baffled. Why insist on this principle at all? Even if there’s good reason to say that no one has gazed upon divinity directly, that there’s some necessary mediation there, what could possibly be the point of insisting that all communication from God be stepwise? And that not only knowledge of God is so mediated, but that the knowledge of the higher angels is as well?

Posted by Brian Hamilton

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