Jean-Yves Lacoste: The Appearing of God

The Appearing of God Book Cover The Appearing of God
Jean-Yves Lacoste. Translated by Oliver O'Donovan
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £50.00

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Balliol College, University of Oxford)

Kenosis and Transcendence

Below and Beyond the Appearing of God

Oliver O’Donovan deserves great credit for undertaking the painstaking work of translating Jean-Yves Lacoste’s La phénoménalité de Dieu: not only has relatively little of Lacoste’s work been translated into English compared to that of the other contemporary French authors working within the field of phenomenology of religion (e.g. Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, even Jean-Louis Chrétien); it also appears that the French edition is currently out of print, making this translation the only way most of us can access Lacoste’s nine essays on the way in which God can be brought within the scope of phenomenology. The project Lacoste sets out in these pages can perhaps most easily be understood as an attempt at correlating (paradoxically) God’s divinity with his phenomenality, or indeed his mode of being with his mode of appearing, and is in turn executed by correlating four pairs of related notions: (1) philosophy and theology; (2) transcendence and reduction; (3) experience and eschatology; and, finally, (4) love and knowledge.

Starting with the issue of philosophy and theology. Much ink has been spilled over whether the developments within French phenomenology at the end of the last century constitute an unwarranted theologisation of phenomenology, or rather its careful execution; indeed, the polemic is well-known and still ongoing. In this regard, however, it is worth noting that we are dealing here with a somewhat sui generis figure: at the time of his initial diagnosis of French phenomenology as having taken a ‘theological turn’, Dominique Janicaud explicitly excluded Lacoste from the group of authors who allowed phenomenology to swerve off the road of philosophy until it ended up in the ditch of theology.[1] Nevertheless, Lacoste is not coy about the fact that his reflections do at least attempt “to surmount the division between philosophy and theology” (xi), or “to remove the boundary that has classically divided faith and reason, since its existence was always highly arbitrary” (82). Indeed, upon closer examination—one that is carried out in a sustained dialogue with Kierkegaard throughout the book—, that frontier appears to be missing altogether. As a result, Lacoste seeks to expose “the fluid character of philosophical work” (16), which it has in virtue of the fact that it can ask questions about anything, including divine realities. The point here is not, as Janicaud might put it, that philosophy is colonised or superseded by theology, for Lacoste too is weary of the ditch we risk ending up in if we leave behind philosophy altogether: “Disciplined conceptualization or description from which the philosophical element was eliminated would be bound to run aground” (16), he warns us. However, when a philosophical text, such as Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, deals with divine realities, such as salvation and sin, “we are not,” or no longer at least, “dealing with a philosophy that is merely philosophy, but with a philosophy pushed to the limit of its range, making sense of an eclectic mix of descriptions, hypotheses, and games that make it impossible to say precisely what is going on” (17), whether it is philosophy or indeed theology. It is often in extreme situations, where we are pushed to our limits, that we gain an awareness of what exactly the limits are, and thus only as such do we fully come into our own. Such is equally the case for philosophy and theology, Lacoste suggests: “In the Fragments we find ourselves on the frontiers of philosophy, not only of theology. Precise labelling is simply not allowed at this point, and we had better make up our minds that it doesn’t matter very much. The fluidity of philosophy can be a theoretical advantage as well as a drawback. It is on the frontiers of philosophy, perhaps, that we can learn what is finally at issue in philosophy, and may we not say the same for the frontiers of theology, too?” (18).[2]

Despite Lacoste’s great emphasis on the question of the frontier demarcating philosophy from theology, he also declares that it ultimately does not matter. This is not as unintuitive as it may at first appear: precisely because the frontier is missing, the question of demarcation does not matter. We are simply free to proceed with thinking in all its fluidity, unencumbered by this methodological pseudo-question:

Here and there at the same time, or perhaps still here or already there, we can never be precise about our location. Dare we say that that is not a bad thing? (…) The present enquiries, pursued in ignorance of whether they are philosophical or theological, do not define themselves apart from the two methodological requirements of letting-appear and making-appear. (…) Whether philosophy or theology or both, our enquiry would not deserve the name of enquiry at all, if it did not make up its mind to ignore the frontiers and elicit appearances without prescribing them. To make frontiers is to break things up, and we do better not knowing where we are (x-xi).

This honesty is refreshing and certainly more dignified than, for example, Marion’s frantic but inevitably unsuccessful attempts at securing the exclusively philosophical status of his phenomenology. Essentially, the question of whether he is doing philosophy or theology is uninteresting to Lacoste; the point, rather, is that he is doing phenomenology: “From a phenomenological point of view there is no way of telling,” on what side of the frontier between philosophy and theology these studies fall, precisely because that frontier appears to be missing; yet, there is “probably no need to tell,” for, as phenomenologists, “all we want is a concept fit for the appearance” (ix). Whatever appears deserves to be described as such, without this being framed beforehand according to a frontier that itself does not. Hence, Lacoste concludes: “Phenomenology is frontier-free—it is one of its advantages” (xi).

So, the question for Lacoste then concerns the phenomenality of God, that is to say, the mode of his appearance. This brings us to our second pair of concepts in need of correlation: transcendence and reduction. Whenever one asks how God may be made the theme of phenomenology, someone is bound to pipe up and answer that he simply cannot be, precisely because the divine, as transcendent reality, falls under the reduction, and must thus be excluded from the phenomenologist’s field of view. The phenomenologist would be out of bounds, would have veered off the road and ended up in some kind of ditch, if he were to depend on anything that is not contained within the immanence of consciousness as delivered by phenomenological reduction. Lacoste tackles this challenge by starting from the observation that “a comprehensive experience of an object is possible only if an infinite experience is possible” (21), which of course means that a comprehensive experience is impossible since experience is precisely a function of finitude. It is the adumbrational character of sensory perception that Lacoste uses to argue that there is always already transcendence at the heart of every experience, namely the transcendence of what is not experienced in experience precisely in virtue of its character as experience: “Every perceptual experience,” he says, “invites us to recognize that it is fragmentary, and that what is presented here and now is transcended” (25). Indeed, this is not only true in exceptional cases, but forms a general “law of the logic of experience. Stated briefly, perceptual experience has to do with phenomena and non-phenomena at the same time. More economically still, perception has to do with the unperceived” (22-23). So, God’s transcendence need not, at least not a priori, exclude his phenomenality; for transcendence appears to be a characteristic of all appearing, which always transcends itself as appearance insofar as it appears. As such, “the appearing of God,” especially, “can only be understood in the light of his transcendence of appearing” (38). His mode of appearing involves a movement beyond appearing as such. As a result, Lacoste puts forward the concept of the irreducible, of which phenomenology “can offer no correct description (…) without recognizing its radical externality” (58), without knowing “that it cannot exclude the transcendent reality of what it describes” (60). In short, it forms “an experience that could not be described without acknowledging the irreducibility of everything to do with it: that is the sort of experience which the advent of God to consciousness would need to be” (63). God is such an experience, for he cannot be experienced without this experience being co-extensive with a belief in his existence, he cannot appear without this appearing being co-extensive with a love of God. As such, Lacoste tries to correlate divinity with phenomenality, God’s mode of being with his mode of appearing, and precisely this is a phenomenological question (indeed, strictly so). Hence, he concludes that “phenomenology cannot be faithful to its project without recognizing the irreducible” (58).

Precisely because a comprehensive experience is not possible in virtue of the fact that transcendence characterises all experience, because God transcends his appearing precisely insofar as he comes to appearance, because “experience is tied to inexperience” at all times (118); “we should be satisfied with a radically non-eschatological presence,” or, put differently, “presence is not parousia” (36).[3] This, Lacoste suggests, means we need to correlate experience to eschatology: for it implies, first of all, that the eschaton is not a question of experience, since experience cannot be completely realised by definition (“no experience is comprehensive, no presence can be taken for a parousia, enjoyment must not suppose itself in total possession” (131)); and, secondly, that phenomenology cannot be limited to the present now, for we do have meaningful experiences even if they are only partial (“experience may be wholly truthful without being whole and entire” (150)). The first is a crucial insight, according to Lacoste, for it leads us to “a conclusion of the greatest importance, implying an equally important imperative,” namely, that “God is never ‘given’” (150). It is hard not to read this as a profound critique of Marion’s “realized eschatology” (37) of intuitive givenness and it is worth quoting him at length on this: “But can the infinite be given? The suggestion seems preposterous,” for “‘seeing’ the infinite can only refer to vision of an inchoate character. No act of intuition could focus on infinity entire. Whatever we see, we know that our sight is at the same time and inescapably non-sight. Whatever is given us, we perceive only partially. But the interplay between sight and non-sight implies the promise of one day seeing differently and better. Perception may become richer, nearer to completion, but on no terms can a ‘vision’ of the infinite be thought of as actually complete. (…) Whatever the sense in which we ‘see’ the divine essence, it remains infinitely beyond sight” (148-149). Moreover, Lacoste continues, this thus means the following:

God cannot be given this side of death. If we are minded to stay with the language of vision, we can say that God ‘appears’ in the world without our intuition. There is nothing to be ‘seen.’ Giving makes its gift to faith, and faith cannot have the status of conclusive experience. Within the range of intuition visible things such as Christ’s historical body and his Eucharistic body are known as God’s self-giving only as we distinguish sensory intuition from the acquired intuition of faith. Sensory intuition on its own is misleading. Even when we have trained it to the evidences proper to objects of faith (which are not evidences of a theophany) the gift we perceive has the form of a promise, not to be taken as a last word. The appearance of the risen Christ to his disciples is a gift to sight, but not put at their disposal; it keeps its distance in conjunction with the promise of a definitive return. In the Eucharist Christ is seen through the medium of bread and wine, a medium that leaves us inevitably dissatisfied, desiring eschatological satisfaction which has no place in the world. (…) The infinite can be seen only in finite guise. But finite intuition of the infinite is no mere disappointment, and if we hold our experience of the gracious gift together with our experience of promise, we shall see why (149-150).[4]

This is not a disappointment for there is always the promise of fulfilment, and with promise comes anticipation. Moving on to the second point to be made in relation to eschatology and experience, Lacoste explains that anticipation does not give the eschaton, nor does it bring it to experience; rather, it “merely announces or adumbrates it, giving us no more than a predonation or pre-experience of it” (128). For, even though “experience of the end is ruled out,” since such an experience transcends itself; it is nevertheless as that transcending that “pre-experiences of the end are not. Everyone will agree that God cannot be known in history as he will be known finally, since the eschaton suspends the logic of sacramental presence. But eschatological desire and expectation may take on ‘pre-eschatological’ forms within the limits of the world, which is simply to say that they point us beyond the limits of being-in-the-world while making no pretence to be more than pre-eschatological. The sacrament does not bring the eschaton about; it does serve as a predonation of it” (132). In this context, “anticipation appears without the pretence of a fulfilment, and puts no end within our grasp. Yet it appears as anticipation, as experience uncompleted and promise that draws us on to further experience. So all talk of anticipation must have in view the horizon of an end. The end may be given, the event take place as we anticipated, or it may not; the eschaton is distant” (133). Since “we cannot attribute an eschatological character to any of our present experiences” (168), Lacoste uses his notion of anticipation to develop a reworked phenomenology of time-consciousness. This framework he subsequently applies, in an impressive dialogue with analytic philosophy, to the problem of personal identity, correctly removing it from the metaphysical questioning of substance and placing it firmly within the context of a phenomenological enquiry concerning time.

How must we then deal with this “eschatological reserve” (150), inhibiting us from having an actual and clear experience of God, leaving us with the pre-experience delivered by anticipation? Here, Lacoste suggests, faith comes in; or, for it is coextensive with it, this is where love plays its role. This brings us to our final pair of concepts in need of correlation: knowledge and love, which in this case refers to the knowledge and love of God. In particular, Lacoste wants to expose what he calls “the logic of love,” or its “paradoxical priority over knowledge” (37), when it comes to divine realities. Phenomenology, Lacoste suggests, has traditionally had a bias in favour for what we might call ‘objects of knowledge’, which he describes as “compelling phenomena” (78). These are phenomena that give themselves, and thus impose themselves intuitively: “the object of sight, the intelligible proposition, the reality that cannot be ignored.” However, God is not given, he does not appear as such, and therefore also does not impose himself. Thus, Lacoste suggests, “if there is one thing the object of belief and the object of love have in common, it is the power to go unnoticed” (78). When it comes to divine realities, which are “intelligible only as open to love,” their “appearance takes the form of solicitation or invitation, not coercion. (…) Love would contradict its essence or intention if it used constraint in making its appearance” (75). The phenomenality of love makes an appeal to our freedom: it does not dictate its meaning through the violent imposition of intuition, but instead demands to be loved, inviting us to take a position for or against. What is at stake is “a reality that offers itself without imposing itself, an experience formed in the element of non-self-evidence,” precisely because it requires “a decision to see it” in order to be perceived at all (79). Lacoste illustrates this elegantly as follows: “Nothing is more common than perceiving or understanding without making up our mind. I perceive the ashtray on my desk without making up my mind, I see the conclusion of a logical argument without making up my mind, except that the logic is valid. But when the absolute intervenes, we have to make up our minds,” precisely because its intervention is not of the order of an ordinary appearance, which it always transcends in intervening. Indeed, Lacoste continues, “God does not appear like the Alps, huge and undeniable. He does not appear as the conclusion of an argument we are compelled to admit (…). God appears in such a way that we can make up our mind about him, for or against” (87).

God, that is to say his divinity, does not appear except in love and indeed as love: “He does not appear to be described, since there is nothing to describe, only a man like other men. He does not appear to be thought about, since the aim of his appearance is simply and solely to win man’s love. To make an appearance in order to win love, and for no other reason, the god must be present kenotically. He wills to be loved, not to dazzle. There is appearance, for there is presence, but this is not presence for thought, or even belief” (72). The phenomenality of God is a kenotic phenomenality, one that empties itself out of appearing as appearing. God’s phenomenality is not a question of appearing, but of the decision that sits below (kenosis) and thus its movement beyond (transcendence) appearing. Precisely in this way does Lacoste correlate God’s mode of being (transcendence) with his mode of appearing (inexperience): “God appears in presenting himself to be loved; God appears among the phenomena not subject to Husserl’s ‘eidetic reduction’” (ix).

Before ending this review, a word needs to be said about O’Donovan’s English language rendering of Lacoste’s book, for some of the choices he has made in translating it seem at least worth questioning. I wonder, in particular, whether the phenomenological force of Lacoste’s argument is not somewhat blunted by this translation. To be fair to him, O’Donovan admits at the outset that “every translation must have its priorities, and I had better admit that tenderness towards the conventions of the phenomenological school has not been high among mine” (vii). As a result, he does not, for example, reprise the distinct adjectives which English translators of Heidegger have rendered as existential and existentiell, the French equivalents of which Lacoste uses, for he considers it “an inaudible distinction I take to be no more than a mark on paper, not language” (vii). As inelegant as these renderings may be, these concepts nevertheless circulate and are in use as such (as Jean-Luc Nancy might say, they make sense). O’Donovan’s refusal to stick to this convention for the sake of not letting phenomenological terminology get into the way of argumentative clarity then seems to fall over itself at times, for example in the following passage: “Since theology is an ontic science, the relation of man to God will be ontic/idiomorphic (existentiel), not ontological/existential” (98). Does the clarity of Lacoste’s summary of Heidegger’s position benefit from the choice for idiomorphic rather than the more commonplace existentiell? I highly doubt it. It could, perhaps, only do so to a reader who is entirely unfamiliar with Heidegger and thus with this conceptual (not merely semantic) distinction. However, that this book would have many such readers seems unlikely. Especially in this case, where the passage at issue comes from an essay on Heidegger, the Heideggerian terminology is not incidental to the argument, and thus abstracting from that terminology does not serve that argument. The same goes for the general phenomenological terminology found throughout the book: as I explained, Lacoste himself suggests that he is not concerned with classifying these essays as either philosophy or theology; the point, for him, is that they are works of phenomenology. As such, neither is the phenomenological vocabulary incidental to argument, for the argument is a distinctly and explicitly phenomenological one. O’Donovan’s choice not to prioritise this vocabulary in his translation therefore seems odd, not to say entirely unjustified. Perhaps the most significant example of what is lost when we pay insufficient attention to phenomenological terminology is the title: the phrase the appearing of God is by no means the most obvious translation of la phénoménalité de Dieu. The English language has a word for phénoménalité, it is phenomenality. This is, indeed, a piece of phenomenological jargon, but like all subject-specific terminology, it carries a very precise meaning: in this case, phenomenality denotes not so much appearing, but rather the mode of appearing; not the fact or the content, but the how of appearing. Or, as Lacoste puts it himself in the preliminary to the nine essays: “Our problem is simply to describe and distinguish their different ways of appearing” (ix, original emphasis). As such, the choice to present this book as a work on the appearing of God out of a noble desire to avoid overly technical language, does not allow the argument to shine with its true brilliance; rather, it obscures it.[5] In any case, this book is not so much about the appearing of God, for God cannot be said to appear but in a highly qualified sense; rather, it is about the way or the mode of his appearing, namely, kenotically, in and as love.


[1] Dominique Janicaud, ‘The Theological Turn in French Phenomenology’, trans. by B.G. Prusak in Phenomenology and the ‘Theological Turn’: The French Debate (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 1-103.

[2] The influence of Lacoste’s emphasis on the fluidity of thought when it comes to the missing frontier between philosophy and theology on Emmanuel Falque’s dictum that ‘the more we theologise, the better we philosophise’ seems unmistakable here. On this, see Falque’s Passer le Rubicon—Philosophie et théologie: Essai sur les frontiers (Bruxelles: Lessius, 2013); as well as his ‘Phénoménologie et théologie: Nouvelles frontières’ in Études, 404.2 (2006), 201-210.

[3] See also Jean-Yves Lacoste, Présence et parousie (Paris: Ad Solem, 2006).

[4] It is worth noting here that a similar critique of Marion is articulated by Falque and John Caputo. On this, see: Emmanuel Falque, ‘Phénoménologie de l’extraordinaire (J.-L. Marion)’ in Le Combat amoureux (Paris: Hermann, 2014), 137-193; John D. Caputo, ‘The Hyperbolization of Phenomenology: Two Possibilities for Religion in Recent Continental Philosophy’ in Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 67-93. For a commentary on these critiques, see my ‘Givenness and Existence: On the Possibility of a Phenomenological Philosophy of Religion’ in Palgrave Communications 4, Article number 127 (2018), 1-13.

[5] It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the choice for appearing rather than phenomenality was motivated by concerns of the publisher, rather than the translator. One can indeed imagine that this version would sell better and be of interest to a wider audience (particularly in Britain, where phenomenology, insofar as it is practiced here at all today, bears little resemblance to contemporary styles, interests and debates in France). However, if this is indeed the case, one would expect the translator to make the reader aware of the crucial importance of this distinction in his foreword. However, O’Donovan does not do this and indeed seems to simply wash his hands of the entire issue by declaring phenomenological precision not to be a priority in this case.

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