International Journal For Philosophy of Religion 38: 127-143, 1995


Postmodernism and religious reflection



Fordham University


The French philosophers who come most readily to mind when the term postmodernism' is mentioned are not conspicuously pious. By this I do not mean that they follow the admonition of Jesus to do their praying behind closed doors (Matt, 6:5-6). They are a pretty secular lot and seem to be the spiritual grandchildren of Sartre and Camus, whose atheism they presup­pose, often without bothering even to assert it, much less argue for it.

But is does not follow that they are only of negative significance for reli­gious faith, for theology, and for the philosophy of religion. If Sartre's analysis of the Look and of love as the demand to be loved, developed against the background of his account of bad faith and the desire to be God, is one of the great treatises on original sin in the history of theology, it is possible that the writings of Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Lacan, Baudrillard, Deleuze, and others will also turn out to have more to contribute to the life of faith and to reflection on it than we might at first suspect. In fact, I shall argue that postmodern philosophical theology can serve the life of faith as theology in general aspires to do when it understands itself as faith seeking understanding (which is not the same as faith seeking security by going beyond itself to absolute knowledge).

This is not to deny the negative thrust of a thinking that sees itself as standing with Nietzsche in the twilight of the idols, has deep roots in Heidegger's destruction of the history of ontology, and in perhaps its most widely influential form goes under the name of deconstruction. What post­modernism rejects about modernity is its dalliance with the quest for absolute clarity (meaning) and certainty (truth) that, since Plato, has often been seen as the very heart of philosophy itself; more specifically, it is the rejection of the two dominant modern strategies for achieving absolute knowledge, Cartesian immediacy and Hegelian totality.

If we understand by immediacy the mutually naked presence of thought and its object to each other, the paradigm will be the Platonic rendezvous of the soul with the forms in which we approach each object “as far as possi­ble, with the unaided intellect... applying [our] pure and unadulterated thought to the pure and unadulterated object”. In this way we 'contemplate things by themselves with the soul by itself'.1 Neither inference nor inter­pretation separates us from immaculate, infallible intuition. Meister Eckhart reaffirms this mystical mission for philosophy when he says it is the intel­lect that “pulls off the coat from God and perceives him bare, as he is stripped of goodness and being and of all names”. When we free ourselves from images “then the soul's naked being finds the naked, form-less being of the divine unity, which is there a being above being ... how noble is that acceptance, when the soul's being can accept nothing else than the naked unity of God!”2

This beatific vision (or is it voyeurism?) is pure presence, spatial and temporal. The object is totally here and at no distance that might dim or distort our view of it; and that view occurs in a now that needs no reference to a past to which it is essentially indebted or to a future in which it will be completed. This view, in its many variations, is what Derrida calls the meta­physics of presence.

Since French postmodernism is also poststructuralism, it often speaks the language of signifier and signified. This requires us to be a bit more specific by taking into account Frege's distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung. If we think of the signified, these “unadulterated objects” or “things by them­selves” as the referents of our thoughts, postmodernism is the Nietzschean perspectivism that says “there are no facts, only interpretations”.3 If we think of them as the meanings with whose help we refer, postmodernism is the denial that we have any clear and distinct ideas; it becomes the move from the Russell/Whitehead/(early)Wittgenstein dream of a totally unam­biguous, univocal language to the later Wittgenstein's claim that our mean­ings are always muddy, mediated by usages embedded in language games that express whole forms of life, themselves in constant flux.


As the denial of unmediated presence to either meanings or facts postmod­ernism is a critique of the metaphysics of presence. Classical foundational­ism, as an epistemological strategy, is a paradigm of this posture. It is not just the simple claim that some beliefs rest upon or are derived from other beliefs, while other, foundational beliefs, do not have this dependence. It is the stronger claim that (at least some of) our foundational beliefs must be and can be a fundamentum inconcussum, must and can stand on their own in absolute, self-supporting certainty, whether this be by being self-evident, by being evident to the senses, or by being incorrigible.4 (Unfortunately, for most of us it is our kids or our colleagues who are incorrigible, not our beliefs.) Each of these three kinds of belief or judgment is held by those who give it a foundational role to be epistemically immediate, standing alone in a clarity and certainty dependent upon no other.

While classical foundationalism has premodern versions and, in the modern period, empiricist as well as rationalist versions, it seems to be Descartes who is most often the target of anti-foundationalist critiques. As such a critique postmodernism is a vigorous rejection of Cartesian immedi­acy and all its cousins.

But it is equally opposed to Hegelian totality. Hegel recognizes that Cartesian immediacies regularly turn out to be mediated. Unlike Spinozistic substances, they are not able to exist by themselves or to be conceived through themselves. Meanings and things occur only in contexts, as parts of larger wholes. The only exception to this rule is the whole of wholes (which already for Spinoza had replaced the Holy of Holies). The only true imme­diacy, then, is the mediated immediacy of the totality, for which there is, indeed, no other.5

But just as there is for postmodernism no Alpha in human knowledge, so there is also no Omega. If we are always too late to stand at the pure origin of any thought, which always turns out already to presuppose something prior,6 we are also always too early to stand at the culmination of all the mediations in which our meanings and our truths are embedded and entan­gled so as to be able to produce the philosophical version of unified field theory or what Hegel calls, simply, The Idea or The System. We always find ourselves, to use a phrase theologians used to like, zwischen den Zeiten.

French postmodernism is not anti-Hegelian in the style of Marx, a mod­ernist who accepts the Hegelian totality as a realistic epistemic and social ideal that could be but unfortunately (and therefore not essentially) hasn't yet been realized. It is anti-Hegelian in the style of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, post-moderns who find it preposterous to think that we could enact any intellectual or social revolution that would generate the realized eschatology assumed by Hegel's theories of cognition and community.


As the denial of Hegelian totality postmodernism is a critique of onto-theo­logy. This is Heidegger's term for a feature of Aristotle's metaphysics that he finds at the heart of a tradition that includes Hegel as a major representa­tive. (Thus it is no accident that his essay, “The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics”, is the conclusion of a seminar on Hegel's Science of Logic.) Aristotle says that “all men suppose what is called wisdom to deal with the first causes and principles of things” (981 b27). The science of being qua being will therefore seek 'the principles and causes of the things that are' (1025b3), and it will do so differently from the special sciences, “because none of these deals generally with being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attributes of this part...” (l003a24). Metaphysics is thus, to use Heidegger’s phrase, “the question about beings as such and as a whole”.7

What is the relation of this science to theology, “the first science [which, in contrast to natural science and mathematics] deals with things which are both separable and immovable [i.e., unchangeable]”? “We answer that ... if there is an immovable substance, the science of this must be prior and must be first philosophy, and universal in this way, because it is first. And it will belong to this to consider being qua being - both what it is and the attributes which belong to it qua being” (l026aI6, 27ff., my emphasis).

Heidegger comments: “Western metaphysics, however, since its begin­ning with the Greeks has eminently been both ontology and theology ... The wholeness of the whole is the unity of all beings that unifies as the gen­erative ground. To those who can read, this means: metaphysics is onto­theology”.8 Metaphysics is ontology because it thinks of the Being of beings 'in the ground-giving unity of what is most general, what is indiffer­ently valid everywhere', and it is theology because it also thinks the Being of beings 'in the unity of the all that accounts for the ground, that is, of the All-Highest ... The essential constitution of metaphysics is based on the unity of beings as such in the universal and that which is highest'.9

To understand how metaphysics is onto-theo-logy it is not sufficient to notice, Heidegger tells us, that 'the deity enters into philosophy'. We must ask the more specific question, 'How does the deity enter into philoso­phy...'. Referring to philosophy”s aspiration for autonomy (which, inciden­tally, might be achieved either through immediacy or totality), he answers that “the deity can come into philosophy only insofar as philosophy, of its own accord and by its own nature, requires and determines that and how the deity enters into it”.10

If philosophy requires that and determines how the deity becomes its partner (or should we say its servant, since we are dealing with a command and not an invitation?), to what end does it issue this subpoena and what stipulations does it place upon the appearance of the deity? The answer is clear. Because philosophy is ontology, the science of being qua being, the question about “beings as such and as a whole” and not one of the special sciences that “cut off a part of being and investigate the attributes of this part”,ll it calls upon the deity to play a decisive role in its project of gather­ing the whole of being into an intelligible totality. God enters philosophy as the “prote arche”: causa prima, ultima ratio, or causa sui12 rather than, say, the cuckolded husband of Hosea or the hen whose chicks refuse to be gath­ered (Matt. 23:37), because philosophy has a task for the deity to perform in its service. Philosophy can stand at the Alpha and Omega points of Being and Truth only with the help of a deity who is presented as Being Itself and Truth Itself but who turns out to be a means to a human, all too human end, the totalizing project of metaphysics as onto-theo-logy.

Being can render itself accessible to human thought's demand for total intelligibility from start (Alpha) to finish (Omega) only if “Being manifests itself as thought”, and according to Heidegger it is the Logos tradition in western metaphysics, culminating in Hegel's Science of Logic, where this announcement of the identity of thought and being most explicitly occurs.13 As the denial of the identity of (human) thought and being, postmodernism is a critique of logocentrism. Postmodernism sees logocentrism as the dis­tinctive hubris of western philosophy, whether this occurs as the appeal to an immediacy prior to language (Husserl) or as the claim to a total mediation after history (Hegel).14

These three terms, the metaphysics of presence, onto-theo-logy, and logo­centrism are bandied about rather loosely in postmodern contexts, often with less attention to their meaning than to their usefulness as Shibboleths for flaunting one's ideo-political correctness and as clubs for bashing “the tradition”. But they can be given reasonably precise meanings, and when they are they turn out to be more or less interchangeable because, while the sense is different in each case, the reference is pretty much the same. They point, in different ways, to the perennial tendency of western philosophy to overvalue its conceptual currency.

Moreover, these three tendencies of the tradition are mutually implicative in a fairly strong sense. Once the logocentric subpoena has been issued, compelling reality to adequate itself to human thought, it is all but ine­vitable that various forms of the metaphysics of presence will emerge and that, when these fail, the onto-theo-logical ploy will be employed.15 When postmodernism is described as the critique of metaphysics, the latter term signifies, rather precisely, the confluence of logocentric aspirations with these intuitionist and holistic strategies.

Postmodernism is convinced of the power of negative thinking; and its critique of metaphysics has negative implications for the philosophy of religion. These constraints are not totally new because postmodernism is not as nearly unique as either its proponents or its critics sometimes sup­pose. Its vocabulary, its rhetorical style, and even at least some of its argu­ments (yes, postmodern philosophy offers arguments) may well be distinc­tive. But very similar challenges to philosophical hubris can be found in the writings of such thinkers as Hume and Kant, Marx and Freud, Peirce and Dewey, Quine and Kuhn, Gadamer and Ricoeur, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein.16

This is not to deny, of course, that among these critiques of the claim to absolute knowledge there are important differences. For example, there is the important difference between the hermeneutics of finitude and the hermeneutics of suspicion. The former emphasizes the embeddedness of our concepts and our judgments in the sensible, temporal, linguistic, historico­cultural milieux from which we can never fully extract ourselves by reflec­tion; the latter emphasizes the role of interests and desires, often disrep­utable enough to require repression and denial, in the work of the mind that would like to call itself “Reason”.

Furthermore, Wittgenstein's analysis of finitude differs from Merleau-­Ponty's, just as Marx's suspicion differs from Freud's. So the inclusion of postmodernism in this wider circle of thought should not be construed as the claim that there are no interesting differences among these thinkers, including the postmodernists themselves. For example, Derrida's strongest affinities are with the hermeneutics of finitude, while Foucault's are with the hermeneutics of suspicion.

Pointing to these affinities may seem to take all the steam out of post­modernism. “What”s the big deal?” one might ask. “In this postfoundational­ist era doesn't everyone concede the hermeneutical point, the situated character of human thought? Aren't we all fallibilists, now, anyway?” But that may be a little like saying, “Why should we bother to read Peirce, since we already have Kant?” or “What can Dewey add to what Peirce has already said?” If God is in the details, so is the force of the argument, and a thinker need not be utterly unique in order to be illuminating.

In this case, fallibilism may be too weak a concession. It is possible to acknowledge that confirmation is never final while denying other important parts of the critique postmodernism shares with other philosophies. For example, if one abstracts from speech acts (and their psychological and his­torical conditioning) and from sentences (in a particular language) in order to focus attention on propositions, which are thought to have a kind of time­less, extralinguistic status, one can easily think that at least at the level of meaning, if not of truth, one has transcended the human condition and is able to speak sub specie aeternitatis. The critique of the metaphysics of presence is a powerful resistance to this flight from concreteness and the fallacy of misplaced concreteness that inevitably results.

There is a second sense in which fallibilism may be too weak a conces­sion. If we focus exclusively on its question of truth, we ignore important questions, not only about meaning but also about use. We implicitly deny that our motives as well as our meanings are muddy. A philosophy of reli­gion that situates itself immediately in the heavenly world of propositions immunizes itself all but completely thereby from any concern for the uses to which those propositions are put in the earthly world of daily life. In other words, it isolates itself from the awkward questions raised by the hermeneu­tics of suspicion.

Usually the hermeneutics of suspicion focuses on ways in which Truth is put in the service of the will to power of human groups or individuals. The critique of onto-theo-logy requires us to think in terms of an intellectual will to power. The ontological project of rendering the world fully intelligible to human thought takes on a theological character when God is assigned the role of making this possible. The use of theological discourse that is put in question here is its explanatory use.

In reply to the critiques of Heidegger and Derrida, Kevin Hart explores the possibility of a postmetaphysical theology, one that would break with “all discourses which presuppose a ground”. It would “show that meta­physics obliges us to take God as a ground; it would uncover a sense in which God could be apprehended as a non-ground; and it would show that the conceptions are systematically related”.17

To give up speaking of God as creator of the world would be unthinkable for any theist. But that is not what Hart's proposal requires. It rather requires us to give up the assumption that when we say “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, we have thereby explained the world. If we had an adequate knowledge of who God is and what it means to create, such a statement could count as an explanation; but we could have such knowledge only if we had seen God naked and had been present in eternity when God created the world, i.e., only if we had radically tran­scended the human condition. The kind of postmodern theology Hart envis­ages permits us to say that God is the explanation of the world, but it forbids us to count this as an explanation, a satisfaction of the philosophical demand for intelligibility. The explanans is, if anything, more mysterious than the explanandum. God does not enter into philosophy on the latter's terms. Statements about God as creator will have to find employment else­where than at Onto- Theo-Logy Inc.

Walter Lowe applies the onto-theological label to “any effort or tendency to think of God and the finite order in univocal terms. That would seem simple enough, until one pauses over "tendency". It might well be that a theology which had spoken solemnly and at length about how our language about God is never more than analogical would nevertheless, in practice, tend to use the language univocally”.18 It would do so, for example, when it treated its statements about God as creator as explanations of the world, as articulations of its intelligibility. From our own experience we understand the teleological causality of the artisan in relation to the artifact (as distinct from the mechanical causality of billiard balls). But we face this dilemma: to treat God as the cosmic artisan is to tend toward univocity, to make God fit our human conceptions, while to acknowledge that we do not know how an artisan can produce something, much less everything but itself, from nothing is to acknowledge that our creation talk does not explain. It points to mystery rather than to intelligibility.


If the postmodern critique of religious discourse challenged its truth, it might be hard to see how it could have positive import for religious reflection. We have just seen, however, that on the question of truth it only requires fallibilism while focusing its attention on questions of meaning and use. The possibility of a constructive use, beyond these constraints, emerges the moment we add the names of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to our list of kindred spirits. They were omitted from the earlier list because their affinity for postmodernism is sufficiently strong and evident that in the eyes of many they have become proto-po-mos. They have graduated from being the founding fathers of existentialism to being the unfounding fathers of a post­modernism that is nervous about all father imagery.19

The mention of their names together can serve as a useful reminder that the sophisticated and many layered postmodern critique of the excesses of the tradition is not essentially secular. Kierkegaard can develop it in the attempt to rescue Jerusalem from Athens just as easily as Nietzsche can employ it in the attempt to bury them both on the grounds that “Christianity is Platonism for "the people".20

Heidegger is especially clear about this. He insists that “the onto-theolog­ical character of metaphysics has become questionable for thinking, not be­cause of any kind of atheism, but from the experience of a thinking which has discerned in onto-theo-logy the still unthought unity of the essential nature of metaphysics”. As if to prove his point, he proceeds to make an essentially Pascalian claim. With reference to the god of the philosophers, he writes,

Man can neither pray nor sacrifice to this god. Before the causa sui, man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance before this god.

The god-less thinking which must abandon the god of philosophy, god as causa sui, is thus perhaps closer to the divine God. Here this means only: god-less thinking is more open to Him than onto-theo-logic would like to admit.21

...a confrontation with Christendom is absolutely not in any way an attack against what is Christian, any more than a critique of theology is necessarily a critique of faith.22

Heidegger's point is clear. Logocentrism has demanded that God enter into philosophy as its guarantor or co-signer, a kind of cosmic collateral for its otherwise unsecured borrowings of such cosmic (or are they comic?) titles as Alpha and Omega. Jerusalem has every right and reason to protest this Athenian ploy. What is endangered by postmodernism is not faith, nor even theology, but a certain concordat between Jerusalem and Athens, between the life of faith, including its search for understanding, and a very specific, very ambitious philosophical project that would claim an exclusive copy­right on “Logos” as its logo.

We might think here of Job. He subpoenaed Yahweh to appear on his terms, to answer his questions and silence his critics. In this earliest of post- modem narratives, Yahweh surprises us by answering the subpoena rather than seeking to get it quashed, but only to deconstruct both Job's questions and the whole frame of reference they presuppose. The blinding light of the divine presence (“now my eye sees you” - Job 42:5) shatters the meta­physics of presence; it results in an enlightened blindness that differs from Job's previous condition in that he now understands that he does not under­stand.

The religious traditions that preserve this story in their scriptures have a deep affinity with the learned ignorance of Socrates, as Kierkegaard re­minds us constantly, and with contemporary attempts, however secular their motivation, to resist the Platonizing Aufhebung of Socratic ignorance into speculative gnosticism.

Looked at closely, what postmodern arguments can most accurately be summarized as seeking to show is that we are not God (which is fairly easy) rather than that God is not there (which is considerably harder). If some writers slip back and forth without notice between saying that we are not the Alpha and Omega and saying that there is no Alpha and Omega, they avoid making this an explicit inference, since the non sequitur would be too obvious even for those whose enthusiasm for logic has been cooled down by their suspicions of logocentrism.

But wherever postmodern writers slide into this fallacy, however obli­quely, they show, without noticing the irony, how deeply Hegelian they remain. As I have put it elsewhere, the Hegelian assumption is that if the perfection of absolute knowing is real we must be its embodiment, while the postmodern assumption, when it is logically careless, is that since we are not the embodiment of such a perfection it must not be rea1.23 The common ground between postmodernism in this mode and Hegel is that neither is able to take seriously the possibility of a real difference between the human and the divine. If one is sufficiently unhegelian to entertain this possibility seriously, as Kant and Kierkegaard were, one will have opened the door to religious appropriations of postmodern insights.

The work of Jean-Luc Marion emerges through just such a door, but before turning to it I must consider and reply to a potentially fatal objection. “You want to say that postmodern negativity can be put to positive uses, that the critique of the (logocentric) gods of the philosophers opens a space for renewed reflection on the (biblical) God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But postmodernism is utterly fatal to ethics, so it cannot possibly be open to religion. Whatever had to die so that everything would be permitted has died, whether it be God, or the Subject, or Truth, or the System, or the Transcendental Signified, or all of the above. Now postmodernists feel free to play without rules, to make up the world as they go along. No beliefs or practices are better than any others. Postmodernism is nihilism pure and simple.”

Put in the language of Kierkegaard's Judge William, postmodernists “march around existence seven times, blow the trumpet, and then let the whole thing collapse”.24 The charge is that postmodernism is a form of the aesthetic stage so cynical as to be cut off from all contact with the ethical and, a fortiori, with the religious. A standard reply is to call this portrayal a caricature and to insist that only college sophomores, and they only in phi­losophy classes, maintain that all beliefs and practices are equally accept­able. But what if this portrayal is the kind of caricature that makes for good political cartoons, exaggerated, to be sure, and not to be taken literally, but nevertheless recognizable and with a (rather sharp) point?

I believe it is important to distinguish two types of postmodernism, or perhaps two tendencies within it. The above description is a good caricature of one of these but not of the other. Kierkegaard's distinction between Socratic irony and sophistry is helpful here. Both embody an infinite nega­tivity disruptive of the finite status quo. But “sophistry is the everlasting duel of knowledge with the phenomenon in the service of egotism”, while Socratic irony is in the service of the Idea, without becoming the specula­tive claim to possess the Idea.25

Different aspirations can motivate one to become a gadfly, a disturber of the metaphysical peace. Essentially the same “what” is differentiated, in each case, by the “how” with which it keeps company. Kierkegaard puts it this way. “Irony [as infinite negativity] is a healthiness insofar as it rescues the soul from the snares of relativity; it is a sickness insofar as it cannot bear the absolute except in the form of nothing ... “.26 This sickness, whether we call it nihilism or cynicism, is a recognizable tendency in some forms of postmodemism. But other forms exhibit the healthy negativity, and it is important not to identify these as relativism. To seek to rescue a soul or a culture “from the snares of relativity” is to render the relativity of its beliefs and practices as conspicuous as possible and to protest as strongly as possible against the idolatry that takes them to be absolute. But it is not nec­essarily to claim, much less to show, that such relativities are all there is. The angry/frightened labelling of any exposure of relativity as relativism or, in other words, the conflation of Socrates with the sophists, is a defense mechanism of those too deeply wedded to their own absoluteness to be open to self-examination.

Or to the recognition that those who expose human relativity sometimes point to something beyond. Socrates points to the Idea; Kierkegaard's Climacus claims that reality is a system for God even if not for us;27 and Derrida says, “Justice in itself, if such a thing exists, outside or beyond law, is not deconstructible .... Deconstruction is justice”.28 Philosophy as cri­tique is both possible and necessary because the deconstruction of positive laws is the work of a justice that is not a human construction, any more than it is a human possession. If this is the case, the postmodern death of the metaphysically overextended subject may be linked to the rebirth of a meta­physically modest Socratic subject, ignorant by speculative standards, but infinitely responsible. Could this be part of what Jesus meant when he said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39)? Could Derrida have shown us this without intending to?

Just as the rejection of onto-theo-logy is not necessarily the rejection of God or even of every theology, so the critique of philosophical ethics is not necessarily the denial of moral responsibility. Autonomy can be just as much an idol as intelligibility. We can say of postmodernism what Ricoeur says of psychoanalysis. In relation to religion both are iconoclastic, but it is possible that “this ‘destruction’ of religion can be the counterpart of a faith purified of all idolatry.... The question remains open for every man whether the destruction of idols is without remainder...”.29

Among those who believe that after the twilight of these idols there can be a dawn of faith reborn, chastened and cleansed, is Jean-Luc Marion. Because “under the conceptual names of ‘God’ only metaphysical ‘idols’ emerge ... the ‘death of God’ exclusively concerns the failure of the meta­physical concepts of ‘God’; in taking its distance from all metaphysics, it therefore allows the emergence of a God who is free from onto-theo-logy; in short, the ‘death of God’ immediately implies the death of the ‘death of God’,” Marion considers his postmetaphysical theology to be postmodern, and writes, “I remain close to Derrida”.30

As an example of a positive appropriation of postmodern negations, I want to look a three features of Marion's theology. The first is its conceptual humility. Walter Lowe has reminded us that it is not enough to acknowl­edge that we cannot speak of God and the created order in univocal terms, and Kevin Hart argues that for postmetaphysical theology apophatic nega­tion is not an addendum or afterthought, but a first principle, “strictly speak­ing, prior to all the statements of positive theology”.31 Both would appreci­ate the Hasidic rebbe who asks his pupil, Moshe, who God is. Though ques­tioned three times, Moshe remains silent, because “I do not know”. To which the rebbe replies, “Do you think I know? But I must say it, for it is so, and therefore I must say it. He is definitely there, and except for Him nothing is definitely there - and this is He”.32

The paradox which the rebbe expresses is the intersection between the theological necessity to say who God is and the theological impossibility of doing so. Marion tries to articulate this paradox with his distinction between the idol and the icon. Both are objects of perception, but the idol brings the gaze to rest on itself, fulfilling its intentions, while the icon points beyond itself, requiring the viewer to “transpierce” what is given toward what is not given. In the visibility of the icon, the invisible remains invisible. Of course, the same object can be an idol to one viewer and an icon to another. The difference resides not in the “what” that is given but in the “how” of its being taken.33

The same analysis can be given to concepts as to images. We create con­ceptual idols when we assume that our theological concepts are adequate to the reality they signify. Only those concepts that “renounce comprehending the inconceivable” are truly theological (p. 22).

Although, strictly speaking, the difference between idol and icon resides in the “how” of usage rather than in the “what” of content, Marion believes that some concepts are open invitations to idolatry, while others have a certain built-in resistance. Foremost in the first category is the concept of being, and he labels his project God Without Being to signify his rejection of both the Thomistic tradition in which Being is the first name of God and the Heideggerian suggestion that Being, or, more precisely, philoso­phy's clarification of Dasein's preunderstanding of the Being of beings, is the horizon within which philosophy properly takes place. He accuses Heidegger of a second idolatry, “beyond the idolatry proper to metaphysics”, and grounded in “the indisputable and essential anteriority of the ontological question over the so-called ontic question of "God". This anteriority suf­fices to establish idolatry” (p. 41).34

Marion fears that being, in both its Thomistic and its Heideggerian forms, is a game with its own rules, and that a theology that tries to think God by thinking being first inevitably compels God to play by human rules (p. 84).35 He wants to replace being with love as gift. This is not to say that our concepts of love or gift are adequate to the reality of God, that with them we pass from analogy to univocity. Even when theology is at its most vigilant, we apprehend God “only in the intermittent halftimes of our idola­tries...” (p. 108). But because love is what gives itself regardless of con­straints erected by the beloved, because even human love overflows our representations of it, because, in other words, love “surpasses all knowl­edge”, we are less likely to fall into conceptual idolatry when we think of God as gift love, as agape (pp. 47-48, 108). We should think being within the horizon of Creation, Redemption, and Eucharist as gift, and not the other way around.

For Marion, conceptual humility is neither an epilogue nor a prologue in which theology reminds itself of the divine ineffability. It is a first principle that first demands theology's autonomy vis-a-vis philosophy, whether it be from an Aristotelian or an Heideggerian thinking of being, and then plays a key role in determining what theology shall say about God. In a manner that Kierkegaard would have appreciated, this “how” seems to bring its own “what” with it.

The second and third features of Marion's theology that I wish to high­light can almost be thought of as corollaries of its fundamental movement from being as being to love as gift. They concern time and language. Tem­porally speaking, theology must be eschatological, since 'no theology will ever be able to attain the first Parousia by an adequate extension of the text to the referent; for that, nothing less than a second Parousia of the Word would be necessary' (p. 157). But this means that reality unfolds 'outside of the available and permanent here and now' (p. 180, his emphasis).

The power of the present is broken, not so much by the critique of meta­physics as by the experience of the Eucharist, where the meaning of the pre­sent derives from gift rather than from adequation. 'The present of the eucharistic gift is not at all temporalized starting from the here and now but as memorial (temporalization starting from the past), then as eschatological announcement (temporalization starting from the future), and finally, and only finally, as dailyness and viaticum (temporalization staring from the present)' (p. 172, his emphasis). For a memorial turning to the past

the event remains less a past fact than a pledge given in the past in order, today still, to appeal to a future ... The Christian Eucharist does not recall to memory the death and the resurrection of Christ - would we be 'Christians' if we had forgotten them? - it relies on an event whose past reality has not disappeared ... in order to ask with insistence - eschato­logical impatience - that Christ return, hence also that his presence govern the future as much as it is rooted in the past ... the Eucharist con­stitutes the first fragment of the new creation. (pp. 172-74)

The metaphysics of presence places an unbearable burden on the present because it understands past and future simply as absence. For eucharistic time, by contrast, 'their two absolutely originary temporalizations deter­mine, as such, this simple interspace that we habitually privilege under the name of the present .... Each instant of the present must befall us as a gift: the day, the hour, the instant, are imparted by charity' (p. 175).36 For eucharistic temporality, no earthly moment can count as seeing God face to face; but if, in this sense God is absent from all our todays, it is even more true that God is present in each of them as the gift that continues to give itself.

Finally, the linguistic implications of postmetaphysical theology. The shift from being as being to love as gift means that 'predication must yield praise' (p. 106). And because theology has to be 'celebrated before it is written ... "one must begin by prayer'" (p. 157; cf. 182).37 This does not mean that predication disappears, but rather that it functions differently. When predication originates in prayer and culminates in praise, it is less likely to be captured by the intellectual will to power that, in the service of a logos that has not become flesh or dwelt among us, finds it necessary to explain everything; and when religious reflection subordinates third person predication to second person prayer and praise, it is less likely to be seduced into substituting propositions for speech acts.

Marion's project of thinking God without being is not the only attempt to appropriate the postmodern critique of metaphysics for religious affirma­tion. But it is worthy of careful attention, not only because of the power with which it is carried out, but also because of its (to some) surprising assumption that theological affirmation cannot only thrive in a postmodern world, but can do so, mirabile dictu, in the church.




1.  Phaedo, 65e-66e.

2.   Sermon 9, Quasi stella matutina, in Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), p. 258; and Sermon 83, Renovamini spiritu, in Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries. Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge, O.S.A., and Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p.206.

3.   For Nietzsche's statement of this position, see The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 267. On page 302 Nietzsche rejects the question, 'who then interprets?' by insisting that 'interpretation itself is a form of the will to power'. Cf. The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), ~374, 'Rather has the world become" infinite" for us all over again, inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite inter­pretations' .

4.   I take this very helpful account of classical foundational ism from Nick Wolterstorff. See his 'Can belief in God be rational if it has no foundations', in Faith and Rationality, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983).

5.   Hegel's says that 'mediation consists in having already left a first behind, to go on to a second .... ' Thus immediacy is indeterminacy, because 'determination requires both one and another; but at the beginning we have as yet no other'. To speak of the immediate as standing alone is to signify this 'as yet no other'. See The Encyclopedia Logic, trans. Geraets, Suchting, and Haris (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), ~86 and Addition I thereto.

6.   The deconstruction of Husserl's twentieth century Cartesianism consists in part of confirming this judgment from his own thought, whether it is in terms of his own phe­nomenology of inner time consciousness (Derrida, in Speech and Phenomena) or his own notion of horizon (Levinas, in Totality and Infinity).

7.   'The onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics' (1957), in Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 54; cf. p. 51. Henceforth OTL. Although postmodernism is often characterized as a blanket repudiation of the western tradition, it is better conceived as a critique of central themes in major shapers of that tradition. Thus the critique of the metaphysics of presence targets the intuitionism of Plato and Descartes, while the critique of onto-theo-logy targets a strategy common to Aristotle and Hegel for elevating unity over diversity and identity over difference.

8.   Heidegger, OTL, 54; cf. 59 and 61. In his 1949 introduction to What Is Metaphysics?, Heidegger makes the reference to Aristotle explicit. See 'The way back into the ground of metaphysics', in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: New American Library, 1975).

9.    Heidegger, OTL, 58, 61.

10.  Heidegger, OTL, 55-56.

11.  See the paragraph above that ends with note 7.

12.  Heidegger, OTL, 60.

13.  Heidegger, OTL, 57-60.

14.  Levinas finds major qualifications of the logocentric tendency in the Platonic notion of the Good beyond Being and in the Cartesian notion of an Infinite we can think but not comprehend. See, for example, 'Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite', in Adriaan Peperzak, To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1993), pp. 105-108. In the same spirit, Derridean deconstruction is less a simple repudiation of the tradition than the attempt to read some of its key texts against themselves.

15.  This notion of a subpoena is suggested by Kant, who views the critique of reason as a tribunal (A xi-xii) and knows that the sure path of science involves 'constraining nature to give answer to questions of reason's own determining' (B xiii). Postmodernism is the Kantian insight that even when we assume 'that all our knowledge must conform to objects', we are in fact compelling them to 'conform to our knowledge' (B xvi), and that when we do so we move, to use a misleadingly spatial metaphor, from the noumenal to the phenomenal world.

16.  Even Anselm and Aquinas could be added to this list, for both are quite explicit in denying to themselves what the metaphysics of presence promises. See John F. Wippel, 'Quidditative knowledge of God', in Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1984) and my own 'Onto-theo­logal straw: Reflections of presence and absence' (forthcoming in the proceedings of the American Maritain Association), in which I try to show that the absence Aquinas invokes in rejecting the ontological argument is matched by an absence to which Anselm points in the very midst of celebrating the discovery of that arguments. Even before nominalism, Scholastic theology remains, in Hegelian language, Unhappy Consciousness.

17.  Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 75, 104. I have said 'postmeta­physical' where Hart says 'non-metaphysical' because both Heidegger and Derrida insist, and Hart agrees, that we cannot simply leave metaphysics behind but can at best continually resist its moves. Hart thinks that negative theology is best suited to the task he outlines, but he is aware that it is not the only candidate.

18.  Walter Lowe, Theology and Difference: The Wound of Reason (Bloomington: Indiana University prp." 1993), p. 79.

19. This is most explicit in Lacan. See Eaits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York:

W. W. Norton, 1977), pp. 61-68, 199,217,310-11; Charles E. Scott, 'The pathology of the Father's rule: Lacan and the symbolic order', in Lacan and Theological Discourse, ed. Edith Wyschogrod, David Crownfield, and Carl A. Raschke (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), and Antonio Quinet, 'Schreber 's other', in Psychosis and Sexual Identity : Toward A Post-Analytic View of the Schreber Case, ed. David B. Allison, et al. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988).

20.   Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Random House, 1966), Preface.

21.   Heidegger, OTL, 55, 72.

22.   'The word of Nietzsche: 'God is Dead',' in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 64.

23.   See 'Onto-theo-Iogal straw'.

24.   Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1987), II, 161.

25.   Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 25, 17, and 131. This type of distinc­tion is by no means uncommon. It can be found in Peter Sioterdijk's distinction between cyncism and kynicism, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Micheal Eldred (Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press, 1987); in John D. Caputo's distinction between hetero­morphism and heteronomism, Against Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), Chapter 3; and in Mark C. Taylor's distinction, in a paper presented to the Eastern Division of the APA in December, 1993, between a modernist postmodemism for whom critique and resistance are neither possible nor necessary and a poststructural­ist postmodemism for whom they remain both possible and necessary.

26.   The Concept of Irony, p. 77.

27.   Concluding Uniscientific Postscript, trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1989), I. 118.

28.   Jacques Derrida, 'Force of law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority', in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 14-15. This is why he can say 'Nothing seems to me less outdated than the classical emancipatory ideal' (p. 28). Consistent with his admission that we cannot simply leave metaphysics behind, he acknowledges that we cannot simply jettison the idea of a transcendental signified, no matter how problematic is remains. See Note 17 above.

29.   Paul Ricceur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 230, 235. Two important postmodem cri­tiques of traditional moral philosophy illustrate the point. Charles Scott's The Question of Ethics: Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger (Bloomingon: Indiana University Press, 1990) is very much in the spirit of Nietzsche; John D. Caputo's Against Ethics (Bloomington:

Indiana University Press, 1993) is equally in the spirit of Kierkegaard. On Derrida's reading of Fear and Trembling, see Caputo, 'Instants, secrets, and singularities: Dealing death in Kierkegaard and Derrida', forthcoming in Kierkegaard and Post/Modernism, ed. Martin Matustik and Merold Westphal.

30.   Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. xxi. Cf. pp. 3, 31, and 38. Here 'implies' must be read very weakly in the light of the 'allows' that precedes it. Subsequent page references in the text are to this volume.

31.   See the passage cited in Note 18 above, and Hart, Trespass of the Sign, p. 104.

32.   Maurice Friedman, Touchstones of Reality (New York: Dutton, 1972), p. 16.

33.   God Without Being, Chapter 1. Cf. the difference described above between two ways of saying that God is creator.

34.   Chapters 2 and 3 are largely devoted to this critique of Heidegger.

35.   Cf. pp. 161-62, where Marion distinguishes receiving a gift from giving an explanation, which involves absorbing what is given into a 'rational conceptual system'.

36.  Whatever we should say about episcopal authority, Marion's attempt to derive the authority of bishops from the eucharistic site of theological reflection strikes this Protestant as a non sequitur.

37.   The latter phrase is a quotation from Pseudo-Dionysius. In seeking to differentiate his practice of deconstruction from negative theology, Derrida emphasizes that while apophaticism addresses itself to a 'hyperessential' deity, a God beyond being, in the vocative discourses of prayer and praise, he does not. See 'How to avoid speaking:

Denials', Derrida and Negative Theology, ed. Harold Coward and Toby Foshay (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992).




This essay was rescued from musty library archives by Kevin Cole and uploaded online in September, 2007. Here’s to hoping Dr. Westphal doesn’t mind; it is, after all, opening up his excellent scholarship to a far greater audience (since I’m betting most people don’t have access to old copies of IJFPR).