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Philosophy of Religion

God and the Caducity of Being:
Jean-Luc Marion and Edith Stein on Thinking God

Antonio Calcagno

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ABSTRACT: Jean-Luc Marion claims that God must no longer be thought of in terms of the traditional metaphysical category of Being, for that reduces God to an all too human concept which he calls "Dieu." God must be conceived outside of the ontological difference and outside of the question of Being itself. Marion urges us to think of God as love. We wish to challenge Marion’s claim of the necessity to move au-delà de l’être by arguing that Marion presents a very limited understanding of Being: he interprets the Being of God as causa sui. The thought of Edith Stein will be employed in order to bring out a fuller sense of the metaphysical notion of the Being of God. Stein offers us a rich backdrop against which we can interpret more traditional readings of God as Being, thereby challenging Marion’s claim of the caducity of Being.

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Traditionally, metaphysics was viewed as consisting of three distinct but related components: cosmology, ontology and theology. Cosmology dealt with the being of the natural world conceived as a universe whereas ontology dealt with the being of the particular thing in the cosmos qua its own being. Theology was the investigation of the being of God naturaliter, that is, without exclusively appealing to the truths of Revelation. In his masterful work, God Without Being, Jean-Luc Marion launches a profound challenge to the tradition of metaphysics in general, and more specifically, to the related field of metaphysical theology. Marion claims that God must no longer be thought of in terms of the traditional category "Being", for that reduces God to an all too human concept which he calls "Dieu". In a sense, a violence is done to God and our understanding of God, for we seriously delimit that which by nature is indeterminable. Drawing upon an Heideggerian-inspired notion of the phenomenological Destruktion, Marion maintains that God must be thought outside the ontological difference and outside the very question of Being itself. In so doing, we free ourselves from an idolatry wherein we reduce God to our own all too narrow conceptual schemes. Marion urges us to think God in light of St. John’s pronouncement that "God is love" (1 Jn 4,8). He believes that love has not been thought through in the metaphysical tradition. Thinking ‘love’ through will lead the philosopher to a more accurate understanding of God as unlimited giver/gift.

We wish to challenge Marion’s claim of the necessity to move au-delà de l’être. We shall argue that Marion has presented a very limited understanding of the concept of Being, for he has interpreted the Being of God as causa sui. The thought of Edith Stein will be employed to bring out a fuller sense of the metaphysical notion of the Being of God. Stein, a phenomenologist and able metaphysician, offers us a rich backdrop against which we can interpret more traditional readings of God as Being, thereby challenging Marion’s claim of the caducity of Being.


In order to understand Marion’s argument, it is necessary to present his phenomenology of the idol and the icon. Both idols and icons are not beings, but they indicate a "manner of being of beings."(1) An idol, as the Greek root (eidô—I see) suggests, has to do with vision and the visible. Idols, like the great statue of Athena overlooking the Piraeus of ancient Athens, were designed to be looked at, they are objects upon which we fix our gaze. Their splendour and brilliance command our attention. The idol tries to capture what is unique about a deity. What makes the idol visible, however, is not the idol itself, but our gaze upon it. "Le regard fait l’idole, non l’idole le regard."(2) It is our intentional act of viewing the idol that empowers the idol itself. The divine is anthropomorphisised by our gaze upon the idol, for it is we who decide what to see as unique (das Einzige) to the idol. In other words, we create the divinity. God becomes trapped in our gaze. God becomes a concept in that He/She is seized (capere) by and confined to our own understanding. In so far as God is reduced to our own conceptual categories and understandings, God no longer has Her/His own identity, it is super-imposed. Our concepts of God become idolatrous in that they limit an essentially indeterminable being to our own understanding. God is made a concept, a "Dieu".

The icon, on the contrary, is not seized by our gaze, but gazes upon us. The icon seeks to make present that which is essentially unpresentable, it seeks to make visible that which is invisible.(3) Unlike the idol, the icon has no real origin. "It defines itself by an origin which is not original."(4) It is useful to recall that in the tradition of iconography, the artist is only a means for the divine to express Itself. The artist is merely the instrument of the divine logos which seeks to articulate itself in images. With the icon, the divine looks at us and we are being gazed upon. In being gazed upon we are privy to that which cannot be seized, to that which lies beyond our conceptual understanding. We are given a presence of the divine.

Marion beautifully develops the difference between icon and idol in order to situate his argument that God, as interpreted by the metaphysical tradition, has been reduced to a conceptual idol. Although poetic in his analysis, one is weary of Marion’s historical acumen, especially his perfunctory views of mediaeval theology and philosophy. Furthermore, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Hegel are quickly read as thinking of God as causa sui: "We admit with Heidegger, but also as an historian of philosophy, that this concept [onto-theology as idolatry] finds its full formulation in modernity (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and even Hegel) with the causa sui."(5) Marion goes on to cite Heidegger and agrees with him in so far as "the Being of the being, in its most fundamental sense, cannot be conceived—if one does indeed wish to go to the most fundamental sense,—but as causa sui."(6) Marion does not justify this reading of modernity and the metaphysical tradition in general. His reading of the concept of God ("Dieu") as causa sui is simply offered as axiomatic.

Marion goes on to say that the legacy of thinking of the being of God as causa sui results in a limited conceptual understanding of God in that God is strictly conceived as a foundation. God is the efficient cause or foundation for His/Her own being. God’s being is so absolutely and universally self-defined as cause or foundation that one cannot help but think or conceive of God in these terms. God’s being becomes self-referential and reduced to a relation of identity. God admits no difference and is conceived as an undifferentiated unity. God’s transcendence becomes severely limited by our concept of God being the source of His/Her own being. The thought behind describing God as causa sui was to create a space wherein God transcends finite human reason, for God is not dependent on any external or human causal agencies. However, in making God so reliant upon Himself/Herself we are left with a God that is essentially unrelated to us except for the fact that we know that God is the cause of Her/His own Being. In our concept of God as causa sui, God becomes unthinkable as He/She really is. We make the idol in our conceptual vision of God.(7)

What is interesting about Marion’s analysis is his insight into the nature of the human mind and its relation to the actual existence of God. The mind, in thinking about things and in trying to understand what things are, has a tendency to categorise things in such a way that often it is difficult for things, people and God "in themselves" to break through our very own conception of things. Marion gives the example of the tendency of philosophers to speak of God’s Being in terms of proofs. In reducing God to conceptual proofs of existence or non-existence, we categorise or give names to God which are essentially restricted to human conceptual understanding. Marion even charges Thomas of doing the same thing in his viae wherein Thomas repeatedly refers to God as "id quod omnes nominunt." In his proofs, Thomas is charged with naming God conceptually, idolatrously.(8) We determine objects, people and God by our own conceptual understanding of them (Kant’s transcendental ego). In a sense, we cannot help but do this. In another sense, we have to be ready to realise that things, especially God, are not necessarily and absolutely determined by our conceptual understanding of them. Things are given to us prior to our conceptually understanding them. Their being is originally unconditioned by our knowledge of them. They have an originary being unto themselves distinct but somehow knowable by us—a givenness.

It is this notion of things given or gifts (don) which is vital for Marion. In order for us to allow God to truly break through our conceptual understanding, in order to move from idol to icon, we must begin to focus on God as the unthinkable, the inconceivable, the unseizable. We do not fix God by our gaze, but God fixes us in His/Her iconic gaze upon us. God gives Herself/Himself to us, makes Her/His invisibility visible. The nature of a gift, which is freely given and being given, cannot be determined by the receiver. Hence, God’s visibility cannot be idolatrously determined by the receiver of the gift. The gift cannot be idolised, for it springs from a source which is not susceptible to our control. While it is true, we can do what we wish with a gift once we receive it, we cannot change the fact that it is given originally in a particular way with a particular content. We may even refuse it, but we cannot change the fact that it is given. The visible gift which the invisible God gives is Herself/Himself, namely, the gift of love (agapè). Marion believes that we must think of God in terms of love, because it is a relatively unexplored area of thought. God metaphysically thought of as agapè remains paradoxically impensé . God the impensable must be thought through the impensé of agapeic love.

While we would agree with Marion’s challenge to metaphysics to think in terms of agapeic love and think through its implications for the givenness of our own lives, we see Marion making three critical errors in his attempt to subvert Being as a viable metaphysical framework within which one can think of God (penser Dieu) . First, even though Marion reads history very narrowly by pointing to God as causa sui , he never carries out the implications of cause and effect in relation to our own being in the world. True, we may think of God as self-caused, but we must not stop solely on the level of knowledge or conceptual understanding. Existential implications of conceiving God as causa sui must be addressed. One cannot radically rupture the ordo essendi and the ordo cognoscendi as Marion does. We know by experience that we are not the cause of our own being. Traditionally, metaphysicians view this as signifying that the being of creatures must have been ultimately caused by a first cause or creator. So, while God is causa sui, She/He is also our efficient cause. We are analogously related to God existentially. God transcends us, but is also immanent. This is articulated in the analogia entis. Like the artist who leaves a trace in his work efficiently executed, so too does God the Creator leave a trace in us as Her/His creatures. Yet God and creatures’ real Beings are not identical in any way. Marion tends to read Thomas’ notion of analogy simply in logical terms, however, the existential implications of thought must be carried out as well. On one hand Marion charges that we idolise God by conceptualising God as causa sui. On the other hand, Marion never carries out the full implications of cause and never relates the fact that the causa sui leaves analogous traces of Her/His Being with in the causata. Again, Marion’s reading of causality is very limited in that he does not examine the full implications of the relation between cause and effect. If we are to think God, we must somehow be related to Him/Her, be it in thinking, love or Being. Moreover, Marion does not carry through the full implications of analogical thinking which attempted to address the idolatrous tendency to conceive of the God of metaphysics as either too transcendent or too immanent qua our own being.

Second, Marion does not do justice to the tradition of metaphysical theology in that he does not emphasise the fact that there are different ways to know God. We are not sure what Marion means by the word "think" (penser). We are not sure from what epistemological background he is approaching the question of concept. What is thinking for Marion? He does suggest in his treatment of the icon that thinking is like contemplation. Edith Stein, in her small essay called Ways to Know God,(9) suggests that there are three principal ways to know God: natural knowledge, Revelation and personal experiences of or encounters with God. The level of natural knowledge denotes the discourse possible within the limits of human reason. Such a discourse de facto will be limited and never pretends to be absolute and universal, as Marion claims it is in his description of God as causa sui. To think of God as love is a revelation given to us by Jesus through John. Marion criticises the natural metaphysical discourse of causa sui as absolute and universal when in fact it is only one level of discourse to be situated within other levels of discourse, including that of Revelation where God is revealed as agapè. That is why the Mediaevals conceived of theology and philosophy as distinct but related—Recall the image of the water of philosophy being transformed into the wine of theology. Thomas would be the first to acknowledge the limits of his viae. In fact he does by using the very phrase of "id quod omnes nominunt" at the end of his proofs. He point to the limits of natural human reason. He turns to Revelation in order to illuminate human understanding. For Thomas and the Mediaevals, there was an hierarchy of knowing, especially as it related to God. One cannot help but wonder if Marion has created an apparent, artificial lacuna in the metaphysical tradition where one need not exist in the first place, for love and being are compatible, but to be thought within the framework of different levels of knowing.

Finally, Marion does not discuss the possibility of love becoming a concept or an idol. To liberate God from the guillemets of the concept "Dieu" is to appeal to the gift of love. But gifts once freely given cannot be reclaimed, this is the risk that God runs. In giving Her/His gifts, God thought as love may become graspable and delimited. Like Being, love can become a concept. Is this not what Freud achieved when he described love as sublimated sexual drive? Love when conceptually distorted can become a bizarre optic through which to think God. Marion is right when he says that we must move from idol to icon. However, this tendency to idolise is part of human nature and is applicable to both love, Being or anything which falls under the human understanding. Human understanding is fallible, capable of caducity, as opposed to what is given to the understanding, including love and Being. We must not abandon the discourse of Being, but move to a more iconic discourse of Being, namely of Being "made visible" as person, as well as more iconic understanding of love. An iconic discourse, whether of love or Being, would result in an "analogous" discourse wherein both the uniqueness and community of God and person would be cultivated.


Edith Stein in her Habilitationschrift, Endliches und ewiges Sein , offers us an interesting iter to thinking through a possible iconic view of Being. In her analysis of the statement of the book of Exodus where God describes himself as "I am who I am", Stein makes two important points. First, that the Mediaevals understood this pronouncement to mean God was to be conceived as primum ens or purum esse did not mean that God was to be thought of as "Being" alone or that He/She merely exists. Rather, Stein maintains that this pronouncement on the part of God is to be interpreted as God saying that God fully is and admits no non-being (Nichtsein).(10) God is a positivity, a plenitude (Fülle). This notion of fullness is much more in line with the Greek tradition where God is conceived as a plenitudo omnitudinis. God is not simply to be understood as an empty category called Being.

Second, and more importantly, Stein believes that God naming Herself/Himself as "I am" is actually God identifying Himself/Herself as "Sein in Person", Being in Person.(11) God is person, for He/She identifies Herself/Himself with the personal pronoun "I". Stein has offered us an insight into thinking about God in that God becomes personal. Like every person He/She is unique (einmaliges), yet God has chosen to be in relation with human persons in so far as God created us—a fuller understanding of the relation of cause and effect, creator and creature. The tendencies to either anthropomorphisise or make God too "other worldly" must be kept in check. To think God in personal terms is to think God in relation with us human persons, Emmanuel, which means "God with us".(12)

In conceiving God’s Being as fullness and personal, Stein asks us to rethink Marion’s claim of the caducité de l’être . How so? First, she pushes us to think beyond Marion’s limitation of God to causa sui. Second, Stein brings to the fore the drama of personal relationality implicit in the conception of God as cause (Creator). God’s Being is not merely an empty predicate, but one made real and full within God’s self-identification as an "I". One cannot help but wonder, especially given the Cartesian emphasis on the "I", how intimately the divine and human ego relate, particularly as persons. Finally, we see Stein offering a challenge to contemporary metaphysics: To rethink Heidegger’s analysis of the onto-theo-logisation of metaphysics by means of two new iconic images of God as Fülle und Person.

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(1) Jean-Luc Marion, Dieu sans l’être, Paris: Quadridge/Presses Universitaires de France, 1991, p. 15. Translation mine unless otherwise indicated.

(2) Ibid., p. 19.

(3) "L’icône nous regarde- elle nous concerne, en ce qu’elle laisse advenir visiblement l’intention de l’invisible." Ibid., p. 31.

(4) Ibid., p. 33.

(5) Ibid., p. 54.

(6) Ibid.

(7) "...à penser "Dieu" comme une efficience si absolument et universellement fondatrice qu’elle ne puisse elle -même concevoir qu’à partir de l’essence de la fondation, et donc finalement comme le replis de la fondation sure elle-même, la métaphysique se construit bien une appréhension de la transcendence de Dieu, mais sous la figure seulement de l’efficience, de la cause et du fondament...La causa sui n’offre de "Dieu" qu’une idole..." Ibid., pp. 54-55.

(8) Ibid., p. 50.

(9) Edith Stein, Ways to Know God, (tr.) R. Allers, New York: Edith Stein Guild Publications, 1981.

(10) Edith Stein, Endliches und ewiges Sein, Freiburg: Herder, 1986, pp. 311-313.

(11) Ibid., pp. 317-321.

(12) This is our description and not Edith Stein’s.

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