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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.

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Five important questions about the analogy of being

January 20, 2011 6 comments

1. First of all, what is it?  It is not so much a thing as it is a statement about everything creaturely.  It is Erich Przywara’s shorthand for his quite complex understanding of the formal structure of created existence.  As it tends to be used, it can refer not only to Przywara’s understanding of this structure but also to the structure itself.  Thus it is a name both for a theory and for that to which the theory refers. 

It has what one might call a horizontal and a vertical aspect.  In itself, creaturely existence is analogical.  That is to say, it is never identical with itself but is nevertheless not merely nothing.  Such is its incompleteness, its temporality, its provisionality.  Some of what it is definitively is always already present in it, and yet to a perhaps much greater extent what it is definitively still eludes or transcends it.  Przywara expresses this idea in the formula: Sosein in-und-ueber Dasein, essence in-and-beyond existence.  This is the horizontal aspect of the analogy of being.  Or, as Przywara says, it is the inner-creaturely analogy. 

The vertical aspect concerns the creature’s relation with God.  In this case, the transcendence is much more pronounced.  The being of God is infinitely above and yet nevertheless present within creation.  In the final analysis, to say that the creature is not merely nothing is to say that there is some likeness of God that is disclosed in the creature, however limited it may because of our finitude and however effaced it may be because of sin.  However, as soon as one posits such a likeness, Przywara believes it is necessary to remember the dictum of the Fourth Lateran Council, which is in continuity with the ancient Christian tradition of apophasis: namely, that every creaturely similarity with God is surpassed by a still greater–and, indeed, never bridgeable–dissimilarity.

2. What is the warrant for this theory?  Przywara grounds it both in his engagement with the philosophy of Greek antiquity (especially Plato and Aristotle) and also in his interpretation of creaturely existence as it is presented in Christian scripture and tradition (particularly in Augustine and Aquinas).  Thus he finds warrants for it in what have come to be called reason and revelation.  Suppose one rejects the former warrant, with the conviction that it illegitimately imports foreign elements into Christian theology, one must nevertheless contend with the second, which has a certain degree of independence.  One cannot dismiss the analogy of being by denouncing its philosophical foundation, for it is doubly founded, and also demands to be understood as an interpretation of that which God has revealed concerning creation.

3. What is the scope of this theory?  This is in some ways the trickiest question to answer.  For, on the one hand, the theory purports to apply to everything creaturely.  And yet, on the other hand, it says strikingly little.  What it says is precisely this: almost nothing.  To be a creature–in comparison with the fullness of being for which one strives, and especially in comparison with the God who is infinitely above and beyond all things–is to be almost nothing.  But it is necessary to take seriously both parts of this saying.  As radically distant, not only from that which is essential to our own being, but also from the hyperessential reality of God, it is as though–and this is barely an exaggeration–we are nothing at all, mere dust in the wind of the universe.  And yet, creation is precisely such that one can only almost negate it totally, for something remains present within it, even if one manages only to speak of it through a double negation: we are not not

So the analogy of being implicates everything but determines very little about it.  It is, therefore, far from sufficient as an account of what it means to be human, to be Christian, or–for that matter–to be Catholic.  Much more extensive use needs to be made of both reason and revelation to fill out a more adequate picture of things as a whole.  The analogy of being cannot claim any clear sense of priority over other kinds of questions, concerning, for instance, the Trinity, or Christology, the destructive effects of sin, or the life of the church.  It is a principle but not necessarily the first principle.     

4. Is the analogy of being toxic for ecumenical dialogue?  It could be.  To the extent that it tends to polarize groups of Christian thinkers who, otherwise, would have much about which they could agree, it is a dangerous bit of theorizing.  However, remembering its limited scope, its double foundation in reason and revelation, and its insistence on the radical alterity of God may help keep the conversation from veering off track. 

5. Is it possible to hold onto what is central to the analogy of being without recourse to the problematic discourse of being, which has become greatly destabilized in our postmodern age?  In a sense, this may be one of Jean-Luc Marion’s most stunning achievements, but I will have to say more on that later!

Rahner and Marion: a brief dialogue

October 1, 2010 2 comments

It must always be borne in mind that for a really Christian doctrine of the relationship of the world to God, the autonomy of the creature does not grow in inverse but in direct proportion to the degree of the creature’s dependence on, and belonging to, God.

–Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations 5.1, p. 12

The intimacy of man with the divine grows with the gap that distinguishes them, far from diminishing it.  The withdrawal of the divine would perhaps constitute its ultimate form of revelation.

–Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance, p. 80

Creaturely freedom increases with dependence on God.  Communion grows with divine distance.  Is this one thought or two?  In both, the relation between God and creature comes to be characterized through an inversion of the term that is used to describe it.  Moreover, the inverted result acquires a radical authenticity, which is attainable only through this inversion.  If one depends entirely on God, what this actually means is freedom–and precisely freedom in the truest sense of the word, freedom which exposes all worldly alternatives, which seek independence  from God, as shallow or derivative by comparison.  Likewise, if one reveres the distance of God, what this actually allows is communion–and precisely communion of the loftiest sort, a mode of communion which outstrips every spiritual intimacy that has not paid the price of divine distance. 

In addition to this formal likeness–which repeats the rhetorical strategy discernible in Saint Paul’s identification of true wisdom with the foolishness of the cross–one could also suggest that the freedom which Rahner associates with dependence on God is nothing other than the communion which Marion argues is available only in the midst of divine distance.  These two theological statements would, then, not only exhibit a similar (Pauline) structure but would also say very similar things (and, moreover, things of a Pauline sort).  For to depend on God is to rely on the God who withdraws, who is above or beyond all things, who–to use Marion’s language–is approachable only by way of distance, absence, danger.  Likewise, the revelation, the intimacy, the communion with God that opens up within this distance seems to hold within itself the substance of the freedom of which Rahner speaks, insofar as this freedom is not merely the abstract ability to decide but the positive enjoyment of the divine life.   “Dependence” and “distance” both indicate the sometimes extreme difficulty of an earthly existence which seeks to be open to God.  Paul would call this the foolishness of the cross.  “Freedom” and “communion” name the inestimable grace that awaits those who await it.  To bear the cross in the hope of this grace–this, for Paul,  is wisdom. 

I have, of course, been overlooking many of the significant differences between these discourses.  But at times it can be helpful to concentrate on some overlooked similarities.

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Univocity of being–a cliche?

August 22, 2010 1 comment

For those who have taken to heart the works of Jean-Luc Marion–or Martin Heidegger, for that matter–it goes without saying that the history of the concept of being, particularly of the univocal concept of being which begins to gain prominence after Scotus, has been detrimental to theology.  I do not dispute this claim.  But I do wonder to what extent it has, over the years, become a cliche.  At least, it strikes me that more time could be spent thinking about why this claim might be true than simply reiterating it as something obvious. 

It bears remembering, for instance, that for Scotus and Suarez, to say that being is, at least in one respect, univocal is not to imply that God and creatures are the same.  God’s being is infinite, simple, absolute, necessary; ours is finite, composite, relative, contingent.  But the fact that we use the word “being” in each case suggests that something unites these radically dissimilar . . . . what can one even call them?–realities?  beings?–language breaks down here.  But in order to go on speaking, a provision will have to be made, and the concept of being could be read precisely as such a provision. 

But if God and creatures are not the same, then has not God been reduced to an element within a larger horizon, and thereby dethroned?  This objection would also be hard to sustain for Scotus and Suarez, insofar as God is nothing other than the simple fullness of being, upon which all other beings depend.  The same question, moreover, could be repeated with respect to any alternative name that is used theologically: e.g., love, beauty, goodness, grace, holiness, power.  Any divine name comes with the risk of subordinating God to a concept, but this is certainly not Scotus’ or Suarez’s intention, even though they have recourse to concepts. 

Is the problem, then, that scholastic writing in general is not overtly prayerful?  Is it that scholastic theology is divorced from spirituality?  Perhaps.  And yet, how can we be sure that the appearance of such a divorce does not stem from a failure of interpretation on our part?  After all, Suarez was a devout Jesuit; Scotus was a faithful Franciscan.  Arguably, their religiously vowed lives indicate the influence of an admirable spiritual practice.  Who is to say that their theological systems did not emerge out of  daily participation in the liturgy of the hours or (at least in Suarez’s case) the practice of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius? 

I, myself, have a preference for speaking of being in more explicitly analogical terms, because I think that this preserves the God-creature difference more effectively.  And yet, I cannot help but wonder whether a relatively uninformed prejudice has started to inform our assessment of the great representatives of scholasticism.

Ways to be theologically Heideggerian (French edition)

February 6, 2010 5 comments

1. Jean-Luc Marion. The general strategy is to move from being to givenness.  First, construe Heidegger primarily as a thinker of being–more precisely, of the ontological difference as it has been concealed in the onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics. Second, accept this analysis but argue that it does not apply to crucial figures in the theological tradition (Dionysius, Bonaventure, Aquinas, et al).  Third, posit a more extensive horizon of givenness (phenomenologically) or grace (theologically), which exposes the conceptually idolatrous limits of Heideggerian thought and makes way for the icon.

2. Jean-Yves Lacoste. Basic approach: subvert world and earth with liturgy and the eschaton.  First, characterize Heidegger in terms of a dialectical tension between two horizons of experience: world (structured by the anxiety of being-toward-death) and earth (structured by dwelling natively in the Fourfold of gods, mortals, earth, and sky).  Second, define liturgy (or being-before-God) as an alternative mode of experience which symbolically subverts the play of world and earth while factically retaining them.  Third, present liturgy as a form of eschatological anticipation which abolishes Heidegger’s equation of the definitive with the initial/originary.

3. Jean-Louis Chretien. In short: take Heidegger’s ideas of language as response to the call of being, as the house of being, and as poetic, and transpose them into a prayerful key.  First, make explicit the religious traditions (Hebrew, Greek, patristic, and medieval) undergirding Heidegger’s theme of the call: it is not just being but God who resounds in language, which is always already a response.  Second, replace the image of a house with that of an ark: the home which speech gives to creatures is a vessel in transit toward God.  Finally, think of hymn as the telos of poetry: the point is not just to disclose being in its truth but to sing the whole of creation to the glory of God.

4. Louis-Marie Chauvet. Identify a homologous relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and Christian sacramental theology, in which the attitude is similar but the object is different.  First, use Heidegger to define metaphysics as a problem affecting humans in general–a problem in which one attempts to grasp presence objectively without acknowledging its inevitable historical, cultural, textual, and bodily arrival, and the absence which this implies.  (It may help to relate Heidegger’s account of metaphysics to a psychoanalytic  theory in which the desire for presence without absence is expressed in terms of a neurotic attachment to the Thing and a refusal to mourn the loss of immanence.)  Second, argue that Christian theology addresses the problem of metaphysics by attending to the fundamental sacramentality of the faith (i.e., its ritual mediation, which is historical, cultural, etc.).  Finally, clarify that the presence/absence which the sacraments mediate is not only of being but of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit, and received by the celebrating church.

Derrida is not a theologian

January 31, 2010 1 comment

Jacques Derrida is not a theologian, at least not a Christian one.  Or if he is a Christian theologian, he is so only to the extent that virtually any thinker in the Western world embraces this vocation simply by speaking the residual languages of Latin Christendom.  But the point is this: if one wants to know what it means to be Christian, look to Christ, not Derrida.  Read the gospels, not Acts of Religion.

And yet, Derrida is a thinker.  There ought to be real theological respect for his perceptive and critical mind.  However, this does not mean unquestioning obedience to his every word, as though he were a definitive source (I’m thinking, here, of Caputo).  Granted, one could look to Derrida as a figure of the prophetic, messianic, and apophatic dimensions of Judeo-Christian tradition.  Like Kierkegaard, he is attentive to the singular obligations which emanate from the other; like Kant, his reflections take place within the horizon of a promise; like Pseudo-Dionysius, he pursues thought to places or non-places beyond being.  But tracking Derrida along these lines is interesting theologically only to the extent that one recognizes the idiosyncratic and atheological ways in which he reconfigures them for use in secular culture.

But what seems more fruitful than Derrida’s positive, secular doublets (which would have to be retheologized anyway, in any finally theological analysis), is the critical light which Derrida shines on a globalizing Christian culture, which, from my perspective, could stand to be a little more self-critical.  For example, Derrida’s contention against Jean-Luc Marion that the Areopagite has not altogether left metaphysics (and the political structures which it supports) behind is something to consider.

Thus, although he is not a theologian, I like Derrida, and I like reading him, and this is why: because, as he himself suggests, the other can teach us important things about ourselves.

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