Postmetaphysic Theology: a case study - Jean Luc Marion

Has there in fact been an "end of metaphysics"? What would such an "end" look like? And what could it possibly entail for anyone not particularly instructed or interested in the subject? The more one is eluded by answers to these questions, the more enigmatic or radical postmetaphysic explanatory systems undoubtedly appear. For at the heart of any postmetaphysic attempt at reconstruction or deconstruction, whether literary, social or theological, lies the core conviction that the end of metaphysics has been irrefutably demonstrated through modern continental philosophy.

The import of the end of metaphysics for traditional and contemporary theological systems is the general observation that Western Christianity has historically relied heavily upon metaphysics in forming a view of the nature and necessary attributes of God.

The generally immediate reaction by evangelicals and others to disregard or minimize any claim that philosophy, whether pre- or post-modern, has significantly influenced the development of traditional theology and its central notions about Who or What God is, is usually invoked in discussions regarding the plausible impact which postmetaphysic critiques might hold for traditional Christian theology. This reaction generally glosses over any real consideration of the degree to which Western Christianity is indebted to non-christian philosophical content and methodology, and thus quickly disregards claims that such indebtedness has led to the need for theological revision. More sophisticated evangelical engagements have acknowledged the role and consequence of such a postmetaphysic but do not generally grant the subtlety of its critique of traditional Christian theology's adoption of metaphysics, a denial which results in many popular evangelical analyses of these systems purely in symptomatic terms focusing on relativism or nihilism.

This paper intends to explore the postmetaphysic evaluation of traditional systems and will focus predominantly on its impact upon traditional and constructive theology. The writings of Jean Luc Marion, currently perhaps the foremost pupil of Jacques Derrida as regards the discussion of postmetaphysic theology will be the locus of this discussion. Our aim here is to arrive at a brief but meaningful [a] definition of metaphysics, [b] evaluation of the role and import of metaphysics in traditional Christian theology, and [c] overview of Jean Luc Marion's postmetaphysic approach to theological and hermeneutics.

physics, metaphysics and philosophy

A common error in attempted engagements with postmetaphysic systems is an overgeneralization of what is meant by the term "metaphysics". For example, the erroneous conflation of metaphysics and physics produces claims that such postmetaphysics obstructs any meaningful correspondence between the physical universe and minds and thus suggests that to be suspicious of metaphysics amounts solipsism [1]. A second common, though no less erroneous conflation is that of metaphysics and philosophy wherein any denial of metaphysics is said to entail sheer incoherence among concepts such that one cannot hope to maintain a coherent and lasting framework of ideas in the face of varied experiences. [2]

Specifically, metaphysics is an endeavour which, according to Aquinas, "simultaneously distinguishes the general being and the prime being, separate from matter" [3]. Suarez later defines metaphysics as the science which "makes abstract palpable or material things... and it contemplates on the one hand things that are divine and separated from matter, and on the other common reason of being, which can [both] exist without matter" [4]. Without continuing through the historical development of metaphysics, the central tenets of metaphysics can be seen in these two definitions by Aquinas and Suarez. First, a duality of "being" is posited from which definitions of both "being in general" and "prime being" or what we recognize as the metaphysical category of Being are made. This duality eventually provides the basis for the subdivision of metaphysics into general and special. Second, these dual modes of Being are said to relate to each other "separate from matter" such that abstract qualities are, as Suarez states, attributed to material things or in themselves viewed as substances. Third, knowledge of "prime Being" is grounded in reason's ability to recognize such abstract qualities within "beings in general" and thus the definitions of the metaphysic category of Being are rightly said to be extrapolated from observations of "being in general". Fourth, this extrapolated concept of prime Being may be equated with "God" or the Divine such that God is viewed as Ultimate Being. Fifth and lastly, prime Being and being in general constitute a relationship of ground, cause or reason such that being in general is explained solely in terms of prime Being.

Given this sequence of assumptions, "metaphysics takes the word 'God' to mean essence operating as and through its effects, in such a way that, in metaphysica specialis, it can thus assure a ground for all being in common." [5] It is also clear that this understanding of "God" will only be as meaningful as its foundational metaphysic assumptions are true. It is in this sense that Nietzsche and others, having claimed to demonstrate the implausibility of the claims of metaphysics claimed the death of this "God". [6] It is also in this sense that postmetaphysic theologians currently strive to approach an understanding of God through means other than ontological categories such as Being, and have thus generally exhibited tendencies toward phenomenology and ethics as alternative paradigms.

theology and metaphysics

Two central questions arise for the theologian even before an evaluation of the status of metaphysics becomes necessary. The first is, To what degree is the God of traditional Christian theology to be equated with the "God" of metaphysics? One's answer to this question will undoubtedly involve an analysis and critique of historical theology's use of metaphysically derived notions and extrapolation based on these notions in discussions of God. In attempting an accurate answer to this first question one must determine the degree to which theological formulations draw from either of the two sources of metaphysics and Scripture. Determining this degree of use by theology of metaphysics, however, does not in itself demonstrate whether such use is inappropriate, and thus the second question to be asked is, To what degree is the God of Scripture identifiable with the God of traditional Christian theology? [7] In answering this second question one will need to determine whether claims by (extra-biblical) theological statements regarding God are necessarily derived through the specific conceptual demands of Scripture or whether they arise due to other metaphysic assumptions. If it is found that certain theological statements arise from other considerations, and those considerations are susceptible to reevaluation regarding their plausibility, it is undoubtedly the duty of the theologian to give priority to the content of Scripture when evaluating such statements [8].

As to whether or not traditional Christian theology has made significant use of metaphysic assumptions, one can only answer in the affirmative if the integrity of historical theology is to be maintained. The exemplar of the conflation of metaphysics with theology is undoubtedly Thomas Aquinas who composed and compiled what remains the classic Summa of traditional Christian theology proper. Anti-scholastic sentiments have certainly surfaced in subsequent church history, but no such counter movement has provided a lasting alternative theology which does not assume in most respects Thomas' metaphysic. Thus it is, for example, that Thomas' Five Ways along with the "Ontological argument" remain the fundamental ways through which traditional Christians arrive at and argue for the existence of God. [9] Thomistic formulations also remain foremost in positing divine attributes such as Simplicity, Immutability, Actuality, and Aseity through the fundamental equation of divine Essence and Existence. [10]

As to whether Scripture necessarily lends itself to Thomistic formulations, we will suggest not. Great difficulty is in fact encountered in any attempt to reconcile on the one hand, the God of Scripture who acts, moves, speaks, and emotes in different ways and episodes throughout historical temporality, and on the other, the simple, immutable, fully actualized, fully existent God of Thomistic formulation. No claim here is made regarding whether reconciliation between those concepts demanded by biblical data and metaphysics is humanly possible or not. The claim is simply that upon evaluation it becomes clear that much of the content and category of the Thomistic framework results from a primary adherence to the demands of metaphysics rather than primary adherence to and extrapolation of Scriptural content. Having made this statement, an evaluation of metaphysics as a means of obtaining knowledge of true God, the God of Scripture, must now be offered.

One can approach a critique of metaphysics in a number of ways. These critiques however, generally fall into two related categories, those questioning metaphysics' requirement of real Universals and those questioning its requirement of an explanatory Ground (of being, morality, etc.). Neither means of critique accomplish disproof of the targeted claim of metaphysics, (since disproof of an immaterial formal cause would be impossible) but instead argue against the necessity of the metaphysical explanation. In the case of universals, nonmetaphysic epistemologies and the role of "empirically abstracted concepts" are invoked as a sufficient account of human experience and rationality, as exemplified by Occam, Hobbes, Locke, and much more recently Quine. Ground as required by metaphysics has been argued against through claims that causal relationships remain humanly indeterminable (Hume), that alternative nonmetaphysic explanatory theories suffice as ground (Hegel), or that any reference to a single ground is unnecessary and speculative (Nietzsche).

The theological question which should determine any treatment of metaphysics is this. Does metaphysics, whether through universals or ground, make it possible to conceive that through which God is God? This answer to this question does not derive from an evaluation of whether metaphysics is a necessary or obsolete explanatory tool, but on whether it in fact yields what it claims it can. Is metaphysics a reliable tool for the theologian?

On this question and in regards to the preceding discussion, Heidegger found it necessary to distinguish between Theology and Theiology [11]. Theology, he suggested, is a matter of faith, whereas theiology is necessarily a philosophical endeavor which ultimately lends itself to atheism through an inability to demonstrate its findings as irrefutable. The task of theiology is to obtain insight into the divine, into Dasein or prime Being, through philosophical reflection and as such seeks explanation and definition. These goals of explanation and definition, however, stand in stark opposition to faith and as such could not possibly belong to Theology. Theology stands in a unique relation to God and thus to Dasein, one whose aim is greater faith rather than definition. It is for this reason that Heidegger defines Dasein in terms of possibility rather than Being as such, for the object of faith must remain unrealized lest faith itself disappear. On this Heidegger writes,

Being and God are not identical and I would never attempt to think of the essence of God by means of Being. Some among you perhaps know that I come from theology, that I still guard an old love for it and that I am not without a certain understanding of it. If I were to write a theology - to which I sometimes feel inclined - then the word 'Being' would not occur in it. Faith does not need the thought of Being. When faith has recourse to this thought, it is no longer faith. This is what Luther understood. ...One could not be more reserved than I before every attempt to employ Being to think theologically in what way God is God. Of Being, there is nothing here to expect. I believe that Being can never be thought as the ground and essence of God, but that nevertheless the experience of God and of his manifestedness, to the extent that the latter can indeed meet man, flashes in the dimension of Being, which in no way signifies that Being might be regarded as a possible predicate for God. On this point one would have to establish completely new distinctions and delimitations. [12]

Of import to our discussion is Heidegger's unwillingness to conceptually equate God with Being nor even linguistically employ the term "Being" in discussions of God. This unwillingness clearly derives from what he sees as a diametrical opposition of philosophical definition to faith. According to Heidegger, somewhere along its history theology misunderstood the unique nature of its task and rather than pursuing the "interpretation of the divine word of revelation" or the "interpretation of man's being toward God", it adopted theiology's discussions of the Being of "God". Christian theology does not have to do with "God" in this sense, but with the fact of faith in the Crucified, a fact that only faith receives and conceives. [13] This fact alone is the positum of theology, the "science of faith". The possession of such a positum allows Heidegger to deem theology an ontic science with the same standing as chemistry or mathematics, and distinguishes the ontic sciences from the sole ontological science, philosophy, which alone focuses on the analytic of Dasein, Being itself. Theology, however, remains a unique science which centers, not on a realized object, but on its unrealized relation of faith to God.

In contrast, theiology or onto-theology pursues discourse on "God" and does not require faith when it formulates its divine names. The more precisely theiology attempts to define the divine names, such as Prime Mover, Efficient Cause, Necessary Being, "God as ultimate foundation" (Leibniz), "God as morality" (Kant, Fichte, Nietzsche), "God as causa sui" (Descartes, Spinoza), the more such names lend themselves to the demise of belief in God. For as soon as theiology proposes a precise concept which is historically verifiable and theoretically explanatory, it follows that the same concept can rightly be subjected to criticism according to similar dimensions. The success of theiology ultimately depends on whether or not its concepts are able to compel their audience to belief in God, a status which very few would be willing to grant metaphysics. Instead, Heidegger insists, "a proof for the existence of God can be constructed by means of the most rigorous formal logic and yet prove nothing since a god who must permit his existence to be proved in the first place is ultimately a very ungodly god. The best such proofs of existence can yield is blasphemy". [14]

While retaining Heidegger's critique of theiology and the metaphysic project, Jean Luc Marion claims that the Heidegger's positive thesis regarding theology is inadequate. That Heidegger's theology is an ontic science due to its positum, and possesses a unique relation to Dasein through faith amounts for Marion to "an irreducible ontological dependence" and thus fails to escape the critique aimed at theiology. In addition to the two paths demarcated by Heidegger, namely theology as theiology and theology as faith in Dasein, Marion suggests and pursues a third way, theology without reference to Being.

God without Being: the theology of Jean Luc Marion

the idol and the icon

Throughout the history of humanity's attempt to envisage the divine, the roles of the idol and icon are predominant. The Idol presents itself to man's gaze and purports to be a representation of the divine and thus proposes to offer knowledge pertaining to its otherwise invisible referent. It is the willingness of the gaze to attribute such qualities to the idol rather than any quality of the object itself which accounts for the object's status as idol. For this reason the idolic gaze proceeds no further once the idol is encountered and further pursuit of the divine beyond the idol is stifled. Any discussion of whether the invisible remains invisible or becomes visible belongs to the domain of the idol whose function it is to divide the invisible into that part which is reduced to the visible and another part which is invisible due to the gaze's fixation on the idol. This portion of the invisible is thus invisable.

The icon, however, does not result from a vision of the divine, but instead provokes one. Rather than resulting from the gaze aimed at it, the icon summons sight by allowing the invisible to saturate the visible, but without any attempt or claim of reducing the invisible to the visible icon. The icon attempts to render visible the invisible as such, and thus, strictly speaking, shows nothing. It teaches the gaze to proceed beyond the visible into an infinity whereby something new of the invisible is encountered. Thus the iconic gaze never rests or settles on the icon, but instead rebounds upon the visible into a gaze of the infinite.

Concepts readily act as idols and icons according to the intention and gaze with which they are beheld. Marion deems any philosophical thought expressing a concept of what it then names "God" as functioning precisely as an idol. Just as the idol purports to visually capture a small portion of the divine while limiting the gaze to itself, so also theiological names for "God" purport to reveal God yet only at the expense of limiting the horizon of the gazer's ability to grasp God. To subordinate God to Being such that his existence is said to require Being is for Marion to gaze upon Being as an idol through which we claim to see a portion of the invisible true God. Marion chooses instead to follow the formula set forth in Colossians 1:15 wherein Paul proclaims Christ "the icon [eikon] of the invisible God". What is being claimed here, according to Marion, is that although Christ is the [sole] visible icon of God, God remains invisible, not through our misdirected gaze, but through his being invisible as such. God remains unenvisageable.

Whereas one's intention and gaze determines the idol, the icon causes contemplation of the intention and gaze of the invisible. Just as Descartes' notion of the "idea of God" entails an idea of the infinite which "if it be true, cannot be grasped at all, since the impossibility of being grasped is contained in the formal definition of the infinite" [15], so also the icon obliges the concept to welcome the distance of infinite depth. This distance must be rightly understood as infinite, and thus completely indeterminable by any concept. And yet, it is not even a question of using a concept to determine an essence of God but of using the iconic concept to contemplate and determine the divine intention - that intention whereby invisible God advances into the visible and inscribes himself therein by the very reference of the visible icon.


Here Marion has identified what he believes to be that which optimal, non-idolic, non-metaphysic concepts of God will convey, namely, the divine intention. Rather than seeking theological discourse and hermeneutics within the paradigm of Being and essence, one must approach them with the intent of locating and encountering the intention of God. The only concept Marion finds in Scripture which serves as both name and intention is Love, or as the Apostle John proposes, "God is Agape" (1 John 4:8). Marion views the conceptual content which Agape potentially offers as "unthought enough to free, some day at least, the thought of God from the idolatry of [God as Being]." Agape proves promising in this endeavor for at least two reasons. First, Agape does not suffer from the unthinkable or from an absence of conditions, but rather is reinforced by these absences. Unconditional Love, as we would characterize that of God is love without condition, limit or restriction. It is not fulfilled through being conceptualized, named or comprehended, but rather is fulfilled in giving of itself. In being fulfilled simply in giving of itself, love cannot be thwarted through ignorance or quenched through its refusal. Humanity necessarily responds to this divine Love, since it is given without limit and condition. Humanity has no alternative but to will to receive or refuse such Love.

Thus no human intent or gaze can idolatrously dwell on the possibility and impossibility of access to "God", since God as Agape overflows such notions of access. Unlike the idol, Agape prohibits a limiting or fixing of the gaze of the recipient. For Love does not present itself as an object to be admired and contemplated in and of itself, but rather directs the recipient's gaze to the Giver and Subject of that Love. Love does not pretend to comprehend or embody the invisible but instead gives itself over in order that the intention of the Giver might be encountered by the recipient.

scripture and ontological indifference

It would be quite right to state that Scripture knows nothing of ontological difference and the question of Being. But it is also manifest that it speaks in terms of being, nonbeing and beingness. In pursuit of reference to a difference which is indifferent to ontological difference, Marion examines Romans 4:17, and 1 Corinthians 1:28. [16]

Romans 4:17 "For he is the father of us all, as it is written, 'I have made you the father of many nations' - in the presence of the God in whom you believed, the God who gives life to the dead and who calls the non-beings as beings [kalountos ta me onta hos onta].". Here we are told that the God in whom Abraham believed is He who gives life to the dead and calls the nonbeings as/into being. The question of what Paul here intends with the rather strange notion of "calling nonbeings as beings" is compared by Marion to Aristotle's notion of what would be required for that extreme form of change whereby the nonextant becomes extant. Whereas Aristotle himself doubted that such a transition was in fact possible, Paul here declares it possible in reference to God. It is not the case, of course, that Paul here grasps the form of transition which Aristotle could not, but rather attributes by faith an seeming impossibility to God. Paul's statement also evidences another impossibility, namely, that God calls nonbeings. What could such a call signify to those without being? What does a call to nonbeing "sound" like? This is not a picture of God calling those outside being into His realm of Being, but rather a picture of a God whose call is indifferent to the ontic difference of being and nonbeing. Marion writes,

The ontic difference between being and nonbeing admits no appeal; in the world, it acts irrevocably, without appeal. From elsewhere than the world, God himself lodges an appeal. He appeals to his own indifference against the difference between being and nonbeing. He appeals to his own call. And his call sets this indifference into play so that the call not only calls nonbeings to become beings (hos onta here can have this consecutive and/or final meaning), but he calls the nonbeings as if they were beings. The call does not take into consideration the difference between nonbeings and beings. ...The fundamental ontic difference between what is and what is not becomes indifferent - for everything becomes indifferent before the difference that God marks the world. This is an indifference of ontic difference and not, one should note, its destruction. [17]

In 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 we read, "For consider your call brethren, namely, that there are not among you many wise according to the flesh, nor many powerful, nor many well born. But God chose the foolish things of the world, God chose them to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world God chose to confound the strong, God chose the ignoble things of the world and the contemptible things, and also the non-beings, in order to annul the beings [kai ta me onta, hina ta onta katargese] - in order that no flesh should glorify itself before God."

We have seen in Romans 4:17 God's indifference to the ontic difference as demonstrated in his call to nonbeings. Here, however, we see not only God's call of nonbeings into being, but also his annulment of beings into nonbeing, thus increasing our awareness of the indifference with which God views these ontic categories. What is more, Paul seems to here use nonbeings in reference to the brethren, as a description of the sheer lack of dignity with which the world esteems these believers of low birth. This use of the term nonbeing, rather than demonstrating Paul's misunderstanding of what being and nonbeing imply, portrays the confusion with which the "wise" view the world. Paul refers to the brethren as nonbeing, not in a declaration of their nonbeing, but in a declaration of God's ability to confound the "wise's" notion of being and wisdom. Here Paul's statement points to the fact that from the perspective of God, being and nonbeing have more to do with instances of "the call" and "the world" than with philosophical discourse or Being manifesting itself through ontological difference.

theological hermeneutics

That which theology has to say, that which distinguishes its voice from among the other voices of the world is the fact that Christ alone abolishes the distance between speaker and speech, between sign and referent. For just as Christ speaks the Word of God, he himself is the Word, and thus speaks himself. This is the power and promise of the Christian theology: Christ speaks himself, the Word. Thus any legitimate Christian theology must be conceived as a logos of the Logos, a word of the Word, rather than proposing its own logos about the Logos or allowing its own logos to precede the Logos. "To do theology is not to speak the language of gods or of "God", but to let the Word speak us (or make us speak) in the way that it speaks of and to God. [18]

The Word speaks himself to us, and yet we encounter the original kerygma through a great separation of time and documentary distance. The kerygma now stands fixed in the text of the New Testament wherein is recorded the memories and effects of meanings left upon the witnesses of the event. The text itself does not coincide with the event nor permits us to go back to it, but provides, as it were "a negative of the event which alone constitutes the original". This inability to directly access the event through the text speaks to the gap between sign and referent.

Thus theology deals with a doubled text, one whose sign and referent are the same, namely the Word, and the other whose sign and referent are irrevocably distant. This latter gap proves difficult for hermeneutics in at least two ways. First, for those engaged in scientific exegesis, wherein the text is read purely on the basis of itself under the assumption that it speaks nothing other than historic meaning, the only event possible will consist in the simple encounter of the text by the reader, rather than an encounter with the Word speaking himself. For Marion, the expectation to master the text scientifically precludes in it all utterance of the Word by the Word. Second, for those who view the text as so radically nonfactual that they expect a future event occurring within the reader himself, it will be discovered that the text itself does not produce a new event. This again results in a missed opportunity to allow the Word to speak the Word.

In both these hermeneutics, the gap of sign and referent is embraced and the hermeneutic adapted to compensate. The theological hermeneutic alone claims to speak of the living one and therefore must make the referent itself accessible through means of the text. Theological hermeneutics can follow no other hermeneutic, whether literary, historical or poetic, since all these assume an irrevocable distance between sign and referent. While other hermeneutics fixate on meanings within the text, theology and christian readers desire the advent of the referent himself.

eucharistic hermeneutic

A paradigm for the emergence of the living referent through a serious treatment of Scripture is found by Marion in Luke's account of the Emmaus Road. Here, while two disciples discuss what they know of the kerygma, Jesus fulfills their understanding by speaking himself, the Word through first correctly interpreting Scripture and then participating with them in the Eucharist. Marion focuses upon the fact that it is only after they have broken bread that the disciples eyes are opened as to the identity and hermeneutic of Jesus.

For these two disciples, just as for ourselves, the Paschal event no longer belonged to the present or future, but remained only in words and rumors. They did not need instruction as to how to interpret correctly what was being said of the event, but their interpretations lead simply to the meaning of the elapsed event. Despite their understanding of the event in terms of what was being said of it, we are told that their eyes remained unopened to the truth, the Word. (24:16). Jesus then intervenes and begins to interpret and explain the Paschal event through Scripture. Marion finds here the decisive moment for theological hermeneutics wherein Scripture yields its story of the Paschal only when the text is interpreted correctly, as Jesus accomplishes on behalf of the two disciples. But, Marion asks, what human would be able to adequately interpret a human text involving such an unthinkable event? Do we not all fall short of this ability? Did not Christ himself have to interpret Scripture on behalf of the disciples? Marion concedes that all fall short of the ability to arrive at a full understanding of the text apart from the aid of the Living Word himself. For,

"he knows it in fact and in body, not by sight and hearsay. He can aim at the referent since he assures it; he whom no text can speak, because he remains outside the text, the referent (unspeakable Word), transgresses the text to interpret it to us, as an interpreter authorized by his full authority; less explaining the text than explaining himself through it, he goes right through it, sometimes locutor, sometimes referent, saying and said; in short, strictly, he is told in it." [19]

Thus the first principle in Marion's hermeneutic is that the theologian must go beyond the text to the Word, interpreting it from the point of view of the Word. The theologian cannot hope to derive the Word from the text, since the living referent stands outside the text. Thus he does not aim at the text but, through the text, at the event, the Referent. The human theologian then merits the name only if he imitates "the theologian superior to him, our Saviour" [20]

Marion writes,

"The text results, in our words that consign it, from the primordial event of the Word among us; the simple comprehension of the text - the function of the theologian - requires infinitely more than its reading, as informed as one would like; it requires access to the Word through the text. To read the text from the point of view of its writing: from the point of view of the Word. This requirement, as untenable as it may appear (and remains), cannot be avoided. The proof is that as long as the Word does not come in person to interpret to the disciples the texts of the prophets and even the chronicle of the things seen (logoi, Luke 24:17) at Jerusalem, this double text remains unintelligible - strictly, they comprehend nothing of it (anoetoi, Luke 24:25), they do not see what is evident (Luke 24:17)." [21]

Jesus' self-disclosure in Scripture to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus does not culminate until the three participate in a Eucharist together. "Taking bread, he gave thanks" (Luke 24:30), and upon doing so, the disciples' eyes are opened and they not only realize in whose company they had been, but immediately sense the impact of Jesus' hermeneutic and interpretation of Scripture. "and they said to one another, 'did not our hearts burn within us, when he was speaking along the way, when he opened to us the text of the Scriptures?" (Luke 24:32). Thus the hermeneutic and interpretive effort put forth by Jesus is fulfilled within the disciples at the moment of the Eucharist. On this event, Marion writes,

"The Eucharist accomplishes, as its central moment, the hermeneutic. It alone allows the text to pass to its referent, recognized as the nontextual Word of the words. ... The Eucharist alone completes the hermeneutic; the hermeneutic culminates in the Eucharist; the one assures the other its condition of possibility: the intervention in person of the referent of the text as center of its meaning of the Word, outside of the words, to reappropriate them to himself as "what concerns him, ta peri heautou" (24:27)" [22]

To say that the Eucharist fulfills or completes a proper theological hermeneutic undergirds Marion's first principle of hermeneutics: The theologian must go beyond the text to the Word, interpreting it from the point of view of the Word. This demand to go beyond the text clearly stems from Marion's understanding of Christ, the Word, as the Living Referent standing outside and independently of the text. This, of course, is not to say that the text does not speak of and for Christ. But the text does not speak Christ, the Word, in the primary way in which Christ speaks himself as Word. This dynamic clearly requires of the theologian attempting to interpret correctly Scripture, and thus correctly encounter the Word, a spiritual quality which other hermeneutics would not. In fact, given Marion's Eucharistic view whereby Christ alone is qualified to interpret and reveal himself since he alone knows truly of Whom he speaks, we rightly ask, along with Marion, who then is capable of arriving at this correct interpretation of Scripture.

Undoubtedly, no human easily and infallibly encounters and interprets the text, whether we speak here of Marion's or any other hermeneutic. But Marion does provide criteria whereby the theologian may approach a correct interpretation. For Marion, these criteria ground in the necessity for the theologian to be fully participating within the Canonical Community, which for Marion is most fully realized in the Catholic framework. This participation culminates in the Eucharist. Yet as we have seen this participation must also be accompanied by a personal dimension of spirituality wherein the theologian himself can in fact commune with Christ, a communion which alone produces the means to speak the Word. This spirituality is cultivated through Christ-like living, a commitment to the endeavor of bring theology and thus the Church closer to an encounter with the Living Referent, and participation in the commanded Sacraments, not least of which is the Eucharist.

conclusion and critique

It is clear that in many ways Marion has here proposed a Sacramental hermeneutic as a solution to the problem of metaphysics. It would be difficult to describe in terms other than sacramental his identification of the Icon as the paradigm for correct theological thinking and his use of the Eucharist as the necessary compliment to a true interpretation of Scripture. Leaving aside the issue of metaphysics for a moment, we may readily agree that the Sacramental perspective holds many advantages over some of its contemporary competitors.

Marion's eucharistic hermeneutic finds a place for the communal aspect of interpretation, an aspect which has been greatly emphasized in many contemporary hermeneutical theories. However rather than define this community in overgeneralized terms which, for example suggest that its identity consists of those "possessing a relationship" to God or of those who "view the Bible as Scripture", Marion places the locus of communal identity in participation of the Eucharist. Of course, eucharistic participation falls prey to the same potential for hypocritical abuse as other outward aspects of Christian identity, and thus no one, including Marion, would suggest that such participation is a fail safe test. But this basis of identity is much more meaningful and nearer (if not identical) to the outward criteria of communal identity suggested by Christ himself in Scripture. Thus Marion grounds his understanding of community on a very sure foundation, a foundation which both Christ and Scripture demand of the individual. It is clear that these two witnesses place upon the individual a responsibility to participate in the Eucharist with the understanding that it is done so in order to partake and encounter the Living Christ.

Marion's eucharistic hermeneutic also finds a secure foundation for the spiritual dimension of the text. Although few hermeneutical theories dealing with Scripture deny all or any spiritual or transcendent dimension, few sucessfully posit and explain this dimension in terms which are consistent with Scripture's own witness to its own qualities. The Church ought not locate the unique or "special" revelatory meaning of Scripture in "general revelation", human psychology, nor a general metaphysic of the natural world. Rather it must describe this spiritual dimension which is unique to Scripture in terms which Scripture itself determines.

In this regard Marion's hermeneutic grounds the spiritual dimension of Scripture in the volitional act of Christ himself. It is not the reader who "accomplishes" comprehension, any more than it is the celebrant who "accomplishes" an encounter with Christ through the Eucharist. It is Christ himself, the Word, who speaks to the reader, who encounters the celebrant. Thus in response to the question: "To which readers does Christ speak?" we rightly answer: "Those to whom he wishes". Marion is correct to suggest that such an encounter with the Word and thus such an illumination into a correct interpretation of Scripture will most like occur within those readers who are recognized and approved by the Church Community. Ideally this implies that such interpreters themselves practice an internal Christlike spirituality. Although hypocrites and outsiders may very well grasp the historical referent to which the Scripture speaks, no such exegete will grasp and repeat the divine Word as intended by God.

Marion's hermeneutic also successfully grounds the moral responsibility of the reader. This ground is not derived from other (real) social or communal responsibilities but from a real relationship with the Living Referent. For Marion, this relationship is not primarily an intellectual or conceptual one, but a relationship of Love, Agape. Through the divine Icon, whether we speak of Scripture or Christ himself, we do not conceptually grasp the form of the divine but rather encounter His divine intention, an intention of Agape which intentionally encounters us. Thus this relationship precedes and exceeds the cognitive capacity of the individual and is present even where thought and recognition is not. Such an understanding of Scripture's demand upon and relation to the reader easily accounts for the recognition of an "I-Thou" or "Otherness" quality belonging to the relationship between reader and biblical text.

Despite the very significant strength of Marion's hermeneutic, two questions regarding its applicability emerge. The first and less difficult question raises three issues stemming from Marion's explicit Catholicism and the subsequent potential (or lack thereof) for a Protestant utilization of his perpsective. First, Marion's discussion of the Icon was conducted in general, philosophical terms and thus does not require, in the opinion of this paper, any modification to retain its entire relevance. This full relevance is best supported by Marion's use Colossians 1:15's reference to Christ as Icon. His contrast between the iconic and idolic gaze is also especially poignant and effective without reference to a denominationally-unique perspective.

Second, Marion's insistence on the primary role of the bishop as theologian introduces slightly greater complexity in an attempt at complete reconciliation of perspectives. Although Marion does not provide us explicit grounds for a generous expansion of his use of terms, one might suggest that by bishop, Marion has in mind that office outlined by Paul in letters to Timothy and Titus. It is without question that Marion understands these letter to be at least the origin and foundation for the office of bishop of which he speaks. Whereas Protestants, irregardless of church polity, would continue to embrace the structure outlined by Paul, though undoubtedly with the recognition that such structure pertains exclusively to the local church, Marion's demand that the bishop be recognized as the Church's primary theologian becomes highly useful to both denominations. A certain implicit and spiritual structure is assumed by Protestants whereby the local church is said to discern, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, those from among themselves who may rightly be considered teachers and overseers. It is in fact to such individuals that local churches hand over the significant responsibility of weekly exposition and proclamation of the Word to its congregants. Marion's insistence of the primacy of the bishop may very well amount to the higher spiritual standard to which Scripture holds teachers of the Word and to which local churches hold their pastors and priests. At the very least, we would all hope to say that our ecclesial leaders should be our best and most spiritually reliable exegetes and interpreters.

Third and most complex is Marion's use of the eucharist as a compliment to hermeneutics. This complimentary relationship stems from a similarity, if not identity, in the ways the indivdual is encountered by Christ through each. Marion clearly understands this similarity to entail a transubstantiative view of the eucharist whereby Christ is (volitionally) present within the celebration. The strength and appeal of Marion's hermenuetic derives from the uniformity with which he views these two fundamental aspects of the Church. It becomes very clear that a transubstantiative view of the eucharist does in fact significantly contribute to and undergird one's ability to account for the spiritual dimension of Scripture whereby the reader is said to encounter God's Living Word. But this battle over the nature of the eucharist has been fought (and won?) long ago and one can seriously doubt whether reconciliation is possible on this issue if transubstantiation is a required perspective.

However, let us for a moment look at a very interesting question this particular issue creates, namely, "To what degree does a commemorative understanding of the eucharist impact one's hermeneutic?". The answer is, of course, "significantly". Protestant examples of attempted correlations between hermenuetics and the eucharist are not scarce and often involve a defense of the particular hermeneutic in terms of the (particular) reformer's view of the eucharist. It must be noted that there is no one view of the mass emerging from the reformation, but possibly three distinct views: consubstantiative (Luther), spiritually communicative (Calvin) and symbolic (Zwingli). These three would thus lend themselves equally well to at least three hermeneutic theories. We make this brief digression in an attempt to make the point that Protestant difficulty with Marion's explicitly Catholic formulation of an eucharistic theology cannot stem from his attempt at a meaningful comparison of the spiritual unity of the eucharist and hermeneutics, but rather only from his particular view of the manner and terms through which Christ is communicated. Suffice it to say that given Marion's understanding of the Mass, it is not suprising that he demands a special hermeneutic to fully encounter Scripture, whereas those coming from more symbolic-oriented communities might easily see the sufficiency of a general hermeneutic to explain the phenomena of Scriptural interpretation.

All in all then, it has been shown that Marion's dedication to an explicitly Catholic formulation of Christian phenomena has not disqualified him from use among Protestant theologians. Rather, in all those issues in which Marion's Catholicism is most evident we have found corresponding Scriptural (and Protestant) realities which, if Scripture be taken seriously, ought to serve as the primary considerations for any interpretive endeavour, namely: Christ as Icon, the unique spiritual responsibility of leaders within the Church, and the Church's understanding of the manner in which Christ makes himself accessible to his people.

The second question which arises from Marion's hermeneutic pertains the the validity of his assertion that transubstantiation can in fact be incorporated into his otherwise "non-metaphysical" hermeneutic. It would immediately seem that Marion's dedication to the Catholic framework places him at a disadvantage in any attempt to refute the role of metaphysics in speaking and encountering God. How can one speak of the Mass in traditional terms without relying on metaphysical concepts?

Marion attempts to provide a solution to this apparent contradiction by pointing to the historical precedence of the celebration over the development of metaphysics. The eucharist as instituted by Christ stands prior to the metaphysic descriptions against which Marion and the whole of Continental Philosophy speak. The eucharist is the phenomenon which stands subject to human interpretation, interpretations which most often mirror the wisdom of the day. Marion and his postmetaphysic counterparts need not (and do not) deny the phenomenon in order to overcome the erroneous interpretation. Marion finds evidence for what he deems the "eucharistic present" in the edificatory effect of the eucharistic. He writes,

"we become assimilated through the sacramental body of the Christ to his ecclesiastical body. The materiality that transubstantiation provokes aims only at uniting us, through the Spirit that brings it about, with the spiritual body of Christ constituted by the Church." For this reason, "The eucharistic present is deduced from the real edification of the ecclesiastical body of Christ" [23]

Though time does not here permit, Marion also locates evidence for the eucharistic present in the Gospel's commitment to charity and the mystical "reality" as found in the paradox between our simultaneous participation in the elements and in the sacramental (mystical) body of Christ. [24]

Marion has in the end walked a fine line between innovation and tradition. He finds such innovation required due to his analysis and conclusions regarding the validity of metaphysics as a reliable vehicle for conceptualizing God. He finds tradition required most likely out of a respect and recognition of the superative value of the Lord and Scripture to which the Church lays claim (or claims submission). As far as the relevance in his dedication to tradition to Protestant thinkers and theologians, this paper has concluded that his eucharistic hermeneutic of Scripture remains fully relevant and, if taken seriously, elevates the status of Scripture and the responsibility of the theologian beyond those demanded by general hermeneutics.

As regards his dedication to a postmetaphysic system one can only applaud the precision and clarity of his argument. Those portions of his book which discuss alternatives to metaphysics are clearly apologetic rather than polemic, and thus few readers could be expected to change their perspectives based on this work. However, those who question the validity of metaphysics have recently found themselves bedfellows with an often radical group of thinkers whose theories inevitably deconstruct cherished frameworks alongside the obsolete. In this context Marion's work emerges as a very warm encounter in which the limits of deconstruction's ability and relevance are circumscribed if not at least through a determined and intelligent faith in Christ and his manifestation to the Church both historically and presently.

A determinative evaluation of Marion's theology will require a thorough look into his use of the transubstantive eucharist as well as his arguments in its defense. Though briefly mentioned here, our analysis of his use does not provide even preliminary answers. If Marion's analysis of church history is correct then his system allows for a meaningful circumscription of deconstruction while maintaining its commitment to a postmetaphysic. But if his use of the eucharist is found to lack coherence with the larger postmetaphysic framework he has committed himself to, though briefly warmed by his presence, we quickly find ourself once again in the radical turmoil of deconstruction.



Marion, Jean Luc. God Without Being. Trans. Thomas A Carlson. Univ Chicago Press, 1991.

--------- "Metaphysics and phenomenology: A summary for theologians". Article in The Postmodern God. Graham Ward, ed. Blackwell Publ, 1998.


[1] Kevin VanHoozer writes: "According to the non-realist, nothing is naturally given; everything is culturally 'graven'. All the meaningful distinctions that enable us to order our experience - for example, between trees and animals, between trees and other kinds of plants, between one tree and another, between one season and another - all these distinctions reflect not the 'natural order of things' but a cultural-linguistic, man-made order. In short, all the significant distinctions that make a meaningful world out of human experience are, in the final analysis, linguistic creations. The non-realist is an unbeliever for whom words and concepts are nothing more than human contrivances. (Is there a meaning in this text?, 57)

I believe this statement exemplifies a generalized conflation of metaphysics and phenomenology. Simply put, to claim that Derrida, a phenomenologist, sees no phenomenon as "naturally given" is simply not the case. All phenomena are naturally given such that no phenomenon is unnaturally or "metaphysically" given. Thus any interpretive scheme seeking to order natural phenomena in reference to a metaphysic or the non-phenomenological is that which would rightly be called "cultural-linguistic" or "man-made". The exemplar of such metaphysic schemes is Aristotle's taxonomy of being, which perhaps VanHoozer intentionally references in his call for distinctions of "trees from plants" "trees from animals", etc. However, to deny Aristotelian taxonomy differs fundamentally from the claim that the phenomenon of tree cannot be distinguished by the mind from a phenomenon of flower. To attribute this inability to Derrida, and I assume by extension to any postmetaphysic system, not only fails to grant the explanatory power possessed by non-metaphysical systems (such as science), but also greatly exaggerates a metaphysically grounded "realism's" sole possession to the means whereby such distinctions are possible. For example, William Occam, whom I would describe as a theological nominalist would be guilty of denying any role to metaphysics in ordering experience, would consider all interpretive schemes as necessarily human-derived, and would understand all words and concepts as human "contrivances". (This is characteristic of all nominalists.) These facts make him, I believe, neither an "unbeliever" nor unable to propose very complex and adequate accounts whereby men universally think and conceptualize.

[2] Such a claim is easily shown to be invalid through simple reference to non-metaphysic theoretical systems attempting to explain the nature of reality, not least of which is the entire field of theoretical physics. The claim that no coherent and stable explanatory system of ideas can be had without reference to metaphysical categories is plainly and demonstrably false.

[3] Quoted in "Metaphysics and Phenomenology: A Summary for Theologians", p280, Marion, John Luc. Article in The Postmodern God, ed. Graham Ward. Blackwell Publishers. (hereafter PG)

[4] Quoted in PG 280

[5] PG 284.

[6] On this point it is important to point out that the "God" of which Nietzsche proclaims death is solely Kant's "moral God", that is, God as Ground of morality. "At bottom, it is only the moral god that has been overcome." (The Will to Power, sec.55) Kant, though attempting to provide an alternative to earlier metaphysic paradigms, retains their fundamental notion of God as Ground, which Nietzsche targets (and by extension any notion of God as Ground) and refutes, not through disproof of Kant's thesis, but in questioning the necessity of such a ground. If the Ground proves explanatorily unnecessary, Kant's and any similarly founded system is rendered obsolete. Thus it is clear that Nietzsche claims the death of "God as Ground" and thus the "God" of metaphysics as described herein. "To place the seal of Being upon becoming - that is the pinnacle of speculation!" (The Will to Power, sec.617)

[7] Although this appears at first a very radical question, it is in fact simply asking for a Scriptural critique of traditional theological formulations. If we were to assume a significant use of metaphysical assumptions by traditional theologicalical formulations, we could rephrase this question to ask, To what degree is the God of Scripture identifiable with the God of metaphysics? Our answers to both forms of the question should be quite similar if indeed significant reliance upon metaphysics exist. Since we have yet to make this assumption, I have offered the initial form of the question.

[8] One might more simply claim that in the formulation of any statement regarding God, the content of Scripture is to be given priority irrespective of the degree of plausibility granted the second source of consideration.

[9] Upon examination it is evident that all of Aquinas' Five Ways are founded upon assumptions either of God as Ground (Prime Mover, Efficient Cause, Gradation of Qualities, Primary End) or as Prime Being (Necessary/Possible Being). The Ontological argument not only stands on the assumption of God as Prime Being, but relies exclusively on a correspondence between human conceptualization of being in general and the otherwise inconceivable God as Prime Being.

[10] Of course, this is not to say that Thomas has remained unchallenged even among current theological considerations of these attributes. Divine simplicity has recently undergone serious reconsideration among evangelicals perhaps primarily due to Alvin Plantinga's conclusions in "Does God have a Nature?" In regards to simplicity and its consequent demand for immutability, former TEDS professor Bruce Ware posited the Divine Nature, rather than being simple, as comprised of an Intrinsic (and presumably immutable) Nature and an Extrinsic (mutable) Nature, through which God circumvents the immutability question and can be rightly said to act in time. Despite Ware's innovative proposal diverging from Thomistic simplicity, one wonders why there is still need to posit an "Intrinsic nature" if not to satisfy the demands of the remaining Thomistic/traditional structure. To claim that this necessity emerges from consideration of James 1:17's reference to the void of change and variation in God amounts to the very specific interpretation that James here is necessarily speaking exclusively of the Intrinsic Nature, and that despite the same passage's reference to historical actions of God.

[11] Theiology is derived from the Greek "theois" meaning divinity or deity. Paul uses "theios" in Romans 1:20 when speaking of those attributes of God which are manifested to all humanity through the created order. Heidegger employs the term theiology to refer to the human philosophical endeavor to arrive at an understanding of the divine nature. This term may rightly be equated with onto-theology.

[12] Quoted in God Without Being, Marion, John Luc, pp 61-62. Trans. Thomas Carlson. Univ of Chicago Press, 1991. (hereafter GWB)

[13] GWB 65

[14] Heidegger in "Nietzsche", trans Krell, II, p.106. Quoted in GWB, 64.

[15] The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 2.253. Quoted in GWB, 23.

[16] Luke 15:12-32 is also examined but time does not here permit a treatment of it.

[17] GWB 87-88

[18] GWB, 143.

[19] GWB, 148.

[20] Marion here quotes Gregory of Nazianzus. GWB, 148.

[21] GWB, 149.

[22] Ibid

[23] GWB, 179

[24] See GWB, 176-182

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