Jason W. Alvis’s new book, The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn, takes insights from Heidegger’s notion of eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren and applies them to the phenomenological study of religion and religious experience. Synthesizing Heidegger’s work with French philosophers who have made influential contributions to the theological turn in phenomenology, Alvis successfully develops an inconspicuous phenomenology which challenges the privileged forms of presentation that hinder our phenomenological and theological thinking. In addition to offering a compelling chronology of the history of 20th century phenomenology and its various twists and turns, this book fruitfully teases out the paradoxical, subversive, and transformative nature of religious experience.
Is God a spectacle? Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? If phenomenology is concerned with phenomena as they appear, while the object of theology is inherently unknowable, then is a “phenomenology of religion” a contradiction in terms? The Inconspicuous God tackles these questions and more, offering a tour de force on the development of phenomenology in Husserl’s writings, Heidegger’s monumental reshaping of phenomenology, and through to the French and theological turns in the later 20th century. Central to Alvis’s project is an attempt to recover, fortify, and ultimately defend Heidegger’s notion of unscheinbarkeit (inconspicuousness) as a way to both breathe life into a phenomenological explanation of religious experience, as well as to challenge critics of phenomenology’s mingling with theology.
Chapter one brings Heidegger’s phenomenology of the inconspicuous into conversation with Jean-Luc Marion’s writings on the paradoxical nature of revelation. Challenging phenomenology’s privileging of precision and clarity, Heidegger observes that what is hidden or covered up is paradoxically integrated into what it is for a phenomenon to appear as a phenomenon. For example, if I’m walking quickly through a crowd I mustn’t focus on what stands right in front of me, for otherwise I would be overwhelmed with information and would be unable to conceive of the pathway to my destination. Instead, I must look to where I’m headed while still being aware of my surroundings enough to not bump into people. The people in the crowd thus become inconspicuously integrated into my frame of vision, presenting useful information while not being fully present to thought. This is brought to a head in Heidegger’s writings on Being—which remains hidden while always closest at hand—eventually leading to his reformulation of phenomenology as no longer loyal to Husserl’s method of unveiling phenomena clearly and distinctly, but now as deformalizing the very distinction between the veiled and the unveiled. For Heidegger, the paradoxical nature of appearance is not something for philosophy to overcome, but is rather something to recognize as irreducibly endemic to the lebenswelt itself.
For Marion, the epitome of paradox is revelation, which he understands as “a phenomenon that phenomenalizes by countering its own modes of givenness.” Similar to Heidegger’s insights into the paradoxical nature of appearing, Marion holds that revelation disrupts the very distinction between that which appears and that which is hidden. His work on saturated phenomena—revelation being the saturated phenomenon par excellence—is characterized by attempting to overcome the dialectic between the visible and the invisible, and as such shares Heidegger’s view that a reliance on this dialectic numbs thinking.
Alvis tries to take the work of these thinkers a step further by indicating two ways an inconspicuous revelation can avoid the dialectic between visibility and invisibility while also providing an opportunity for rich religious experience. First, revelation should be understood as intertwined within the banal fabric of everyday life, not as events that must shock and awe. “Revelation, if it truly is to be shocking, must take place in the most unexpected of places and ways: in the marginal, inconspicuous, and banal.” Second, revelation not only challenges the privileging of visibility over invisibility in presentation, but deformalizes the framing of this distinction itself.
In chapter two, Alvis takes a closer look at what Heidegger might mean by eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren. Drawing from the Zähringen and Parmenides seminars, Alvis attempts to systematize Heidegger’s notion of the inconspicuous and contextualize it with respect to his larger project. As opposed to being a lens through which all phenomena can be viewed or being construed as only a step in the process of phenomenalization, Alvis ultimately finds that the most fecund interpretation of this elusive topic to be that Heidegger had in mind distinct phenomena as being inconspicuous or as appearing inconspicuously. These particular phenomena require a particular phenomenology in order to make them intelligible: a phenomenology of the inconspicuous. While all phenomena can perhaps take on the character of inconspicuousness—as a builder’s hammer becomes inconspicuous in his habitual use of it—certain phenomena are more likely to appear as inconspicuous than others. Alvis’s intended contribution is to show how experiences located in the religious life can represent these distinct phenomena that have a special ability to appear inconspicuously.
Chapter three takes Michel Henry’s writings on “life” in conjunction with Heidegger’s thoughts on “world” in order to challenge the view that the world is a neutral theatre for subjective consciousness. For Heidegger, the world is neither a sum total of neutral data nor something to be overcome, but rather is something intrinsically yet mysteriously tied to the “being open” of Dasein as it lives and endures. The objects I encounter in the world do not merely convey neutral meanings available to all rational agents, but instead tell me something about myself, what I care about, my mood-as-lived, and thus my overall affective involvement in the world at large. Inconspicuousness comes into play as the oscillation between taking-an-object-as-such and taking-an-object-as-indicative-of-involvement-in-the-world. We can learn something about the world not by philosophizing in armchairs but by being affectively involved—living and dwelling—in the inconspicuous clearing opened by Dasein.
Henry takes up this thread of affectivity in his description of “life.” To be living in the world, for Henry, is to be an affective being. We come into the world only after being affectively involved with life. The world is studied by paying attention to the affective interactions that buffer the in-between spaces separating ourselves and the world. Although there is a worry that Henry reinstates a dichotomy between inside and outside—which both Heidegger and Husserl attempted to dispel—Alvis finds that he indeed successfully domesticates life in the immanent.
Combining Heidegger’s “world” with Henry’s “life,” Alvis locates the possibility of experience of the inconspicuous God in the oscillating interval between them. Jesus himself was characterized by a mode of living that was not of this world, teaching his followers the ways in which the ordinary and banal can teach us something about God. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples—in which the paradoxical in-the world/not-of-this-world relation is exemplified—teaches that a dwelling in the world allows participation with the inconspicuous God, while cutting against the invisible-visible paradigm.
Chapter four develops an inconspicuous liturgy alongside Jean-Yves Lacoste’s development of the nonexperience and nonplace of the Absolute. Alvis seeks to correct some of Lacoste’s misconstruals of Heidegger’s project and arrive at an inconspicuous liturgical reduction. For Lacoste, a liturgical reduction entails bracketing away the ‘thesis of the world’ in order to allow the presentation of God to be free from the modes of presentation that characterize our world. This allows the phenomenological appearance of God to be located in the strangely irreducible exterior of consciousness. The world must be put in suspension in order to experience the ‘nonexperience’ of the Absolute. By bracketing a totalizing thesis of the world away from the question of the experience of God, Lacoste allows God to appear as total but not as totalizing.
Alvis finds a similar theme running through Heidegger’s writings on the disclosure of Being to Dasein. Contrary to the early Greek and Husserlian notion of Being as a stable presence that can be ascertained by consciousness, Heidegger’s Being is first disclosed when one finds oneself thrown out into the world, which is the fundamental experience of Dasein. This thrown-openness which characterizes Heideggerian Being exceeds—or, rather, precedes—conscious experience, and as such it entails a fundamental relationship with the nonconscious or the nonexperienceable.
Instead of bracketing the world away completely—which destroys the way Dasein dwells as a ‘worlded’ being—Alvis suggests thinking the world as inconspicuous. Instead of looking for the Absolute by escaping from the world, we should view the world as harboring the potential nonplace and nonexperience about which Lacoste speaks. This allows the inconspicuous God to manifest in the marginalized, dormant, and inconspicuous ‘here’ within our world. The clearing or opening onto the nonplace and nonexperience of the Absolute is found in the uncanny and banal places that, inconspicuously, are most near and familiar to us. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction, therefore, suspends not the world but the spectacles of the world in favor of the Absolute’s indwelling in the inconspicuous and immanent ‘here.’
In chapter five, Alvis follows Jean-Luc Nancy’s investigations on Christian adoration in order to develop a way by which the inconspicuous God can be adored. Adoration is a reflexive activity whereby one sets apart that which is deemed worthy of praise from that which is not. But this can all too easily turn into an idolization of spectacles. What is worthy of praise and adoration, Nancy argues, is not the spectacle which is differentiated from the ordinary, but instead differentiation itself, as the abyss or opening which both appears and withdraws when we set things apart.
However, Alvis argues that a grafting of pure differentiation onto divinity can easily become an idolatrous discourse in our spectacle-dominated world. Divine differentiation, to which an inconspicuous adoration is directed, must be seamlessly incorporated into the marginal and everyday in order to avoid the idol-multiplying simulacrum of divinity that an adoration of pure differentiation creates. An inconspicuous adoration allows for the familiar and immanent around us to be an occasion for glimpsing the Absolute. We can learn something about the inconspicuous God by adoring what is forgotten and rejected as commonplace. What do we adore when we adore the inconspicuous God? Not difference-as-content but instead the non-idolatrous differentiation that overcomes the spectacle/ordinary dichotomy altogether.
Chapter six takes stock of Dominique Janicaud’s critique of Heidegger in order to pin down some of the methodological implications for how evidence should be construed in the context of an inconspicuous phenomenology of religion. A staunch critic of Heidegger, Janicaud thought his notion of unscheinbarkeit was the root of the bad theological turn in phenomenology, which was responsible for unnecessarily complicating phenomenological thinking. Heidegger eschewed Husserl’s privileging of clarity over absence, turned away from his intentionality-rich method, and integrated absence and withdrawal into the substrate of phenomenological thinking, all things Janicaud thought were poisoning phenomenology. But this is due, Alvis argues, to his misunderstanding of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit, which Janicaud seems to think means “inapparent” or “invisible.” Unscheinbarkeit instead should be translated as “inconspicuous,” “lacking in evidence,” or “lacking the ability to be spectacular.” Contra Janicaud, then, “phenomenology of religion” is not an oxymoronic attempt to solder together clarity with absence, but is instead, following Heidegger, the attempt to deformalize the very distinction between clarity and absence in order to allow religious experiences to present themselves in ways which exceed our worldly compartmentalizations.
Alvis then synthesizes the work of William Alston, Merold Westphal, and Anthony Steinbock in order to arrive at an inconspicuous construal of religious evidence. Alvis wants a description of evidence that avoids being reduced to epistemology, that avoids ushering in ontotheology, and finally that avoids ascribing legitimacy to any and all phenomena without explanation or defense. For Alvis, if “religion” refers to the being-open-to an essential relationship between Dasein and a meaning-giving potentiality; and if “experience” describes the process of grasping the particularities in consciousness which become meaningful-for-me; then “religious experience” describes the momentary latching onto intelligible data which is constitutive of the being-openness of Dasein to the meaning-giving potentiality of the Absolute.
Alvis then offers three reasons why the theme of inconspicuousness is keen to describe evidence for religious experiences construed as such. First, the religious experience is inconspicuously integrated into the whole of experience, thus being unable to be extracted from the totality of presentation. Second, religious experience isn’t straightforwardly “provable” because this would assume the Absolute can be wholly conjured when its evidence is offered. Third, the absoluteness or omnipotence of God—to which religious experience points—resists being brought into full clarity, remaining inconspicuous in our attempts to do so.
Chapter seven investigates the merits of understanding faith through the lens of inconspicuousness. By considering the thought of both Heidegger and Jean-Louis Chrétien, Alvis develops three ways the theme of forgetting supports an inconspicuous faith. First, forgetting as denoticing, which includes a double movement in which one is open to the new while simultaneously recognizing the disclosure of the new in the old that endures. Second, forgetting as counternoticing reincorporates the remembered into a novel context, which allows for a new type of knowledge to manifest. Third, forgetting as covering-over, which includes laminating over that which is remembered, not as anti-remembrance but as counter-remembrance.
Alvis argues that an inconspicuous faith must recognize the importance of forgetting which resists a totalizing grasp onto the object of faith. Instead of a faith in, we should embrace a faith with, which recognizes the interpersonal aspect to religious experience and phenomenological thinking. The inconspicuous God is the most ‘unforgettable’ because it is paradoxically that which most uniquely resists being contained within memory’s grasp, always residing in the inconspicuous peripheries of thought.
In chapter eight, Alvis investigates the aboutness of the inconspicuous God, which includes bracketing away the metaphysical questions “is there a God?” and “what is God’s essential nature” while instead focusing on the phenomenological questions “how is God given?” and “to what forms of presentation does God relate?” Alvis finds Emmanuel Levinas to be an ally in describing how God can be described in a way that doesn’t idolize incomprehensibility while also avoiding the temptation to draw God out into the full clarity of daylight. Levinas negotiates these obstacles by locating God’s incarnate infinity in the multitudinous faces of the inconspicuous others that surround us. We share ethical and social relationships with the foreign faces around us without ever grasping them directly. God’s intelligibility is thus gestured toward through our immanent relationships with others which avoid a totalizing conceptualization.
Keeping in theme with the preceding chapters, Alvis argues that inconspicuousness offers a key to subverting the dichotomies which obfuscate a description of the givenness of God. The intelligibility of God comes about not through locating God in a single pole of light/dark, clear/obscure, presence/withdrawal, but instead by recognizing the unique way in which an experience of the Absolute subverts these categories altogether. Inconspicuous phenomena instead can be given through hiding, surrogating, screening, or being present-at-hand by proxy. To recognize God as inconspicuous entails paying closer attention to the common and marginal, as opportunities for a glimpse into the Absolute which incites wonder. To seek the inconspicuous God is not to search after a hidden essence, but is instead a call to action for paying closer attention to our immanent relationships with the ordinary and with others. A phenomenology of the inconspicuous, at the very least, obliges one to rethink the temptation to quarantine God into either incomprehensibility or a blinding clarity, and instead to become open to the potential for an experience that oscillates between them.
Now I’d like return to the questions that were posed at the beginning of this review in order to expound on how they can be illuminated following some of the insights gained from Alvis’s project. Is God a spectacle? The answer is a clear no for Alvis. God understood as a spectacle—as well as the inversion of this: God understood as pure incomprehensibility—relies upon the assumption that the phenomenality of God must operate according to a dazzling clarity. Associating divinity with spectacularity is to invoke the multiple duplicities—absence/presence, clarity/withdrawal, light/dark—that facilitate an idolatrous obsession with grasping the totality of the Absolute in its infinity.
A phenomenology of the spectacle—which operates according to a privileging of presence and a repression of absence—is problematic for a number of reasons. Spectacles have a shelf life, so a philosophy that idolizes spectacularity soon becomes a discourse of addiction which eventually colonizes all facets of life. By privileging clarity and a totalizing intelligibility, a phenomenology of the spectacle teaches that what is good is that which does not resist domination and what is bad is what avoids conceptualization. This betrays an epistemological pathology that seeks certainty and absolute precision as the ends of philosophical thinking, which thinkers ranging from Nietzsche to Derrida have thoroughly critiqued. Applied to theology, God becomes the greatest spectacle of all and by proxy that which is most able to be domesticated by thought. As all the great thinkers of classical theology knew to be true, a God that can be domesticated by thought is no God at all, but is only a “god”: a powerful yet finite being among beings.
Jesus himself was hardly spectacular in his life. He was a lowly Jewish preacher who disavowed the power of state and sword, lived in a shared community with his disciples, and taught pacifism and tolerance in the face of violence. Those whose faith relies primarily on the mythical spectacles associated with Jesus—miraculous healings and his resurrection—often miss the importance of his life and teachings, as Nietzsche knew to be true. To isolate the spectacle of miracles or resurrections as the core of Christian theology is to necessarily relegate Jesus’s social and political teachings to second-order phenomena, when in fact the reverse is an eminently more faithful portrayal of the Good News brought by Jesus Christ. The force of the New Testament relies not on cheap tricks but on a transformative vision about what humans can become and how they can live as oriented toward a primordial Goodness that shines forth in all things. As Nietzsche knew, an ascetic devotion to metaphysical platitudes—and we should include here the worshipping of divinity-as-spectacle—inevitably tends to turn our heads away from the banalities endemic to worldly being and toward a maddening denial of life.
Instead, the God of a phenomenology of the inconspicuous avoids the totalizing gaze of clarity, while also resisting the void of pure incomprehensibility. God ought to be understood as harboring a potential to be disclosed in the ordinary and banal, among those disavowed and disenfranchised by society. We can glimpse something of the infinite in that which is paradoxically closest to us. An inconspicuous phenomenology thus tarries with the paradoxical nature by which phenomena are disclosed to us. There is always something hidden in a phenomenon’s being presented. Contrariwise, that which most resists conceptualization can be the nearest at hand. The inconspicuous nature of divine phenomenality allows for an experience of the Absolute which paradoxically is revealed through the ordinary and every day.
Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? In considering revelation, the religious lifeworld, liturgy, adoration, evidence, and faith, Alvis consistently finds that these theological themes are animated by a phenomenology that disavows the duplicitous metaphysical categorization by which one would separate phenomena into polarizing categories. The Absolute is paradoxically revealed through the ordinary. Recognizing the affective dwelling of Dasein in the lifeworld resists the polarizing oppositions of inside/outside. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction suspends the spectacles of the world in order to allow for the nonexperience of the infinite in the immanent. By lingering with the rejected and forgotten, we can cultivate an inconspicuous adoration that overcomes the clarity/withdrawal dichotomy. An inconspicuous evidence must recognize the impossibility of bringing divinity into full clarity, and instead must allow God to blend inconspicuously into the entire field of experience. Faith in the inconspicuous God is directed toward that which is unforgettable precisely because it paradoxically resists memory’s grasp. In each case, Alvis shows how invoking a polarizing metaphysics of presence and absence numbs theological thinking, and instead we should recognize the ways in which an experience of the Absolute deformalizes and thus subverts these sorts of distinctions.
Is “phenomenology of religion” an oxymoron? As already alluded to in the summary of chapter six, this phrase only becomes an oxymoron if one adopts a duplicitous metaphysical perspective whereby phenomenology is assumed to be a method of grasping objects with absolute clarity, while religion is assumed to be a discourse directed toward unknowable phenomena. Setting the stage as such certainly would cause problems for how God, as hidden or unknowable, could be brought into the light using a method that privileges clarity. However, following Heidegger, Alvis seeks to deformalize the distinction between clarity and absence that undergirds this problematic.
This confusion in terms also stems back to the misunderstanding of the meaning of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit. As Alvis repeatedly has shown in his book, this word does not mean “absent” or “invisible,” which Heidegger addressed early on in his career. It needs to be understood rather as that which slips conscious grasping while still presenting itself intelligibly. An inconspicuous phenomenology cuts against phenomenality itself and the conditions of experience we typically rely on, paying attention to the ways a phenomenon incorporates absence into its appearance while recognizing the way those phenomena that are ontologically furthest away are paradoxically nearest to us.
I’d like to now pivot into some more critical remarks that hopefully spark further dialogue and academic interest into this fascinating topic. One cannot help but to draw a comparison between a phenomenology of the inconspicuous and the analogia entis (analogy of being) as described in the classical Christian tradition. Both methods seek to accomplish similar goals. The phenomenology of the inconspicuous seeks to offer ways to describe religious experiences that privilege neither clarity nor absence, but instead subvert this distinction altogether. Similarly, the analogia entis seeks to offer ways to understand the relationship between God and creation, which is done by drawing an analogy between the two that eschews both equivocal and univocal predication. While phenomenologists would likely have problems with the analogia entis understood as a totalizing metaphysical system, this largely isn’t what Aquinas and others had in mind when writing about it. Instead, it was a method to temper our knowledge of God and God’s relationship to humanity and to usher in humility before that which escapes complete conceptualization yet is revealed through the immanent.
Similar to the phenomenology of the inconspicuous, the analogia entis seeks to navigate a path between a rationalist philosophy disconnected from history and tradition that seeks to bring everything out into the clarity of light and an individualistic voluntarism that can identify no rational norms nor universal intelligibilities, which ultimately culminates in a nihilistic historicism and relativism. Both also seek to show how something of the infinite Absolute can be gestured at by paying more attention to the immanent and ordinary. Erich Przywara’s celebrated book on the analogia entis endeavored to bring the ancient doctrine into conversation with 20th century phenomenology, especially Heidegger and Husserl. More attention needs to brought to the contact point between this classical doctrine of Christian theology and modern attempts to rethink religious principles in ways like Alvis does in his book.
If nothing else, a phenomenology of the inconspicuous can utilize the scholarship surrounding the analogia entis for understanding how God became understood as a spectacle in the first place, since this was not always the case. As recent commenters like Gavin Hyman have argued, God becomes associated with spectacularity once a univocity of being is adopted in order to understand the relationship between God and man. In order to counteract God or religious experience being understood as spectacles that must shock and awe us, we must learn how the move from analogy to univocity occurred in history and apply this to our current philosophies to safeguard them from hiding a repressed tendency toward idolatrous spectacularity.
In conclusion, Alvis’s book successfully accomplishes its stated goals and is a must read for those interested in both the phenomenological and theological traditions, as well as the ways in which these two traditions can benefit from dialoguing with each other. Alvis provides new avenues for thinking about God and religious precepts which pay homage to Heidegger’s innovations in phenomenology while being true to the salvific story of Jesus. Most of all, Alvis correctly identifies the problems associated with a phenomenology of religion that privileges clarity over other types of presentation. Perhaps Alvis’s greatest lesson is to teach humility before the mundane and ordinary, for the experience of God is revealed through a transformative potentiality present in those overlooked and ordinary phenomena that are closest at hand.
Alvis, Jason W. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hyman, Gavin. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris.
Przywara, Erich. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Edited by Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House.
 Jason W. Alvis. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 33.
 Alvis, The Inconspicuous God, 49.
 Friedrich Nietzsche. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House, 108.
 Erich Przywara. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.
 Gavin Hyman. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris, 49.
Searching for a way to answer Reiner Schürmann’s question “What is to be done at the end of metaphysics?” once “being” is unhinged from God, Joeri Schrijvers discusses perspectives of several thinkers that each considered this question in their own right. His overall goal is to establish how contemporary (and secular) phenomenology of religious life points us towards something that transcends mere finitude. He builds upon his previous work, ‘Ontotheological Turnings’ (2011), in which he showed how metaphysics and its “ontotheological constitution” (Heidegger) are inevitable. In three parts he questions how contemporary thought tries to come to a metaphysics without Christianity (part 1), and whether it can position itself, as John D. Caputo tries to accomplish, as between faith and belief – as a “religion without religion” (part 2). In the third and last part he takes up Heidegger’s legacy and explores how there is something beyond a nihilistic ‘anything goes’. Here he presents what seems the main point of the whole book, namely Ludwig Binswanger’s phenomenology of love as a criticism of Heidegger’s Being and Time and as an approach in which the theological element of a phenomenological approach to life comes to light.
In this book, Schrijvers takes up an important issue that is present in a lot of contemporary thought: How are we to understand atheism – as it cannot be understood as merely a secularisation of originally theological positions. How are we to understand the theological heritage of our present ideologies? To explore this issue he spends a large part of the book reiterating debates between Jean-Luc Nancy and Peter Sloterdijk, between Caputo and Martin Hägglund, and Jean-Luc Marion.
Binswanger on Love
Yet especially interesting is Schrijvers exploration of the infrequently studied work of Binswanger (1891–1966), and Schrijvers’ analysis next of Binswanger in comparison and reaction to the work of Heidegger, Levinas and Nancy. Binswanger was a Swiss psychiatrist who took on Heidegger’s claim of the coming about of being through the relationship with the finiteness of life, but was of the position that “this truth lacks love, the original being-together.” Phenomenology is taken up as not an elitist method of play, but the most faithful approach to being and experience of everyone:
“What Binswanger initiated then is not only a fundamentally egalitarian phenomenology but also and no less importantly an originary coram: an always already being turned toward otherness.” (227)
Schrijvers’ work is both rich by providing a context of contemporary thinkers such as Sloterdijk and Nancy, and their interpretations and positions on the work of Derrida, Levinas. But it seems his real contribution to that field is his inclusion of the philosophy of love as developed by Binswanger. Love is what conditions the possibility of every ontic encounter, which leads Binswanger to consider this phenomenon an example of an “ontology incarnate”. In this ontological encounter, there is a transcendentality that is presented through the passageway that starts with love. Schrijvers posits Binswanger’s theory as a way that is neither « too much nor too little » inclined towards religion – it is not dependent on religion, but does not exclude it.
Despite Schrijvers’ excellent review of contemporary thought and their dependency on canonical thinkers such as Heidegger and Derrida, in the end it is the theological aspect that remains the focus, and the relation of the phenomenology of love is looked at from the question of the task of theology.
Schrijvers looks for a philosophical approach to an ontological and metaphysical account of concepts that have been theologically understood – community, love, being. He traces the contemporary attempts to accomplish this – for instance in the work of Levinas and Nancy. His analysis of movements in the understanding of the Other are closest to the Binswanger, in that according to Schrijvers this understanding gives rise to an ‘incarnational thinking’, where the ontic experience has the capability to be understood as an incarnation of something transcendental.
What is remarkable in Schrijvers’ otherwise thorough work, is the manner in which his analysis is limited to specific authors and therefore working within assumptions that are not questioned. One of those is the reliance on the concept of the position of the Other. A central theme in his work, as in the search for an ontology of being, philosophers have focused on specific ontic encounters with the Other (the kiss, hospitality, giving) through which they attempt to formulate a post-secular understanding of transcendence in modern society. Schrijvers takes on the different positions of Levinas, Derrida and Caputo, and the way Binswanger and Heidegger are attempting to find a measure of the self and in which the phenomenological and anthropological encounter with the Other. But he never moves beyond these interpretations. For instance, he holds on to the underlying assumption of difference between self and the other. Contemporary attempts to answer his fundamental question that refuse to follow in the footsteps of Levinas and Derrida, such as in the work of Bracha Ettinger and Luce Irigaray, are not considered. Thus he falls prey to a rootedness in thinking through difference that is never questioned.
When we take his claim of a search for an answer to the question of the role of the transcendental in a post-secular world serious, we end up disappointed. Many leading contemporary thinkers who have contributed to this field, such Alain Badiou, Hans Jonas, Charles Taylor or Maurice Blanchot, remain untouched. Through this selective choice, Schrijvers takes a very specific and theology-oriented approach, and his work should therefore be seen as a perpetuation of the directions of thought laid out by a particular strand of thinkers.
When we consider his work an overview and reflection on the work of specific thinkers and on how the work of Binswanger expands their view, we can conclude Schrijvers’ work is well-written and thought provoking. He has written an important work tracing the influences and developments of a group of contemporary thinkers and their position on whether ontology can be understood without a theological origin. Is there a solution to the “uncanny poverty” that results from secularisation, and is can this solution be provided by a phenomenology as professed by Derrida, Levinas, Heidegger, and even Binswanger? Yet by putting the focus of his work on contemporary theologians and their relation to theory, his conclusions should be read as a work on these thinkers, and not as a work on the general question Schrijvers poses.
But this doesn’t mean that Schrijvers falls prey to his own remark, that much academic writing is concerned only with “a sterile piling up of publications that nobody really seems to read and that at any rate do not function as vectors for a contemporary debate or catalysts for thinking.” (3) His work is a insightful contribution to the existing literature on this contemporary topic, both as an expansion on the work of several influential thinkers, but also on their limits and their individually unique approaches to the same phenomenon – the quest for a transcendence and its relation to the ontological notion of being.
The Legacy of Phenomenology in Contemporary Thought
The strength of Schrijvers’ work lies in the careful consideration of the legacy of the phenomenological method through the approaches of Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida and the way these reverberate in what he determines to be the contemporary view, as laid out by the work of Nancy, Caputo and Binswanger. Taking phenomenology to be “a witness to the place and space where meaning originates”, he questions the way the empirical and the ontological are intertwined, and the quasi-transcendental dizziness this leads to. He contemplates the emptiness left by the ‘death of God’ and the prevailing anarchy, in which nothing is sovereign. And he concludes that it is possible to formulate a philosophy of incarnation, in which meaning arises out of matter, but that there remains a lack of meaning. “This is perhaps what needs to be done at the end of metaphysics: recognising that we know that we do not know and that we most often fail to love properly. The human being is a being in default: its ambition surpasses its ability. Coming to terms with such a being in default may be the adequate response to the end of metaphysics: it is to recognise that we all share in this default and this lack and that this “knowing of not knowing” is what turns philosophy, as the love of wisdom, into a wisdom of love: not to overcome the lack, but to love even the lack (of rationality, of ultimate meaning.” (304-305)
Thus Schrijvers follows in the footsteps of a long tradition, looking at the end of metaphysics as a call to start philosophy – as a saying born through and beginning with love, positing language as the domain in which the encounter takes place. His work can be seen as a good introduction and careful reflection on the different perspectives on this position, but his work does not leave the contours of the theory he investigates.
Jean-Luc Marion’s new book Givenness and Revelation is a collection of the four Gifford Lectures Marion delivered in 2014. The book reiterates the concept of a saturated phenomenon as a pure given, which has been a recurrent theme of Marion’s works since God without Being. In Givenness and Revelation, however, the saturated phenomenon is analysed in its tight connection to revelation thought as Trinity and thus provides us with a powerful insight into Marion’s religious thought.
Givenness and Revelation, translated by Stephen E. Lewis, is divided into four main parts, preceded by an Introduction, which describes the guiding thread of the four sections according to the following outline: 1) The Aporia of the Concept of Revelation, which looks into the pre-modern epistemological limitation of the concept of revelation; 2) An Attempt at a Phenomenal Re-Appropriation of Revelation, in which Marion continues the analysis of the epistemological limitations of revelation in its modern understanding and sets the stage for its reinterpretation; 3) Christ as Saturated Phenomenon: The Icon of the Invisible, a section that serves to uncover a new phenomenal logic inspired by the iconic figure of Christ and His Trinitarian manifestation; and 4) A Logic of Manifestation: The Trinity. This final section further develops the Trinitarian aspect of revelation by emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the manifestation of God.
These four parts structure the book in accordance with Marion’s usual method. He begins with a critique, or better yet, a deconstruction of the historical understanding of the concept to be analysed, in this case revelation. Through this deconstruction, the line of thought against which Marion shall argue is identified. At the same time, the historical analysis will pinpoint the possibilities of going beyond metaphysics in order to pave the way for a re-interpretation of the said concept in terms of pure givenness. This propaedeutic part is then followed by a revision of said concept, which grounds itself in a counter-experience. This counter-experience overturns metaphysics in order to assert the priority of a counter-intentionality, i.e. an intentionality which originates in the given and suspends the constitutive power of the subject. In Givenness and Revelation this amounts to the following thesis: God reveals itself through the Son, who gives himself as an Icon. As an icon and through the agency of the Holy Spirit, he completely refers to the Father. God reveals Godself in a Trinitarian way as Trinity. Thus, that which gives itself (Trinity) completely accords with the way of its giving.
This review will adhere to this structure and will analyse first, Marion’s critique of philosophy, and second, his reinterpretation of revelation. Prior to this, however, we shall give an account of the phenomenological considerations that lead to the question concerning revelation.
Setting the Stage
The concept of a counter-experience already makes an appearance in the Introduction, where Marion distinguishes between revealed and natural theology. The former, in opposition to the latter, will accept the logos of the revelation from elsewhere, i.e. from God, and does not impose its own logic on the revelatory phenomenon. This view plays a major role in Givenness and Revelation. In order to avoid an illusionary experience of revelations, Marion introduces the concept of conflict or resistance as a condition for the reception of revelation, albeit not a sufficient condition. Through this conflictual character of revelation, Marion bridges the link between the theological concept of revelation and the phenomenological one of givenness.
Givenness is received as a counter-experience, this being the thesis of both Being Given as well as Negative Certainties. In Givenness and Revelation, however, the very authenticity of revelation depends on a resistance from the one who witnesses it. If revelation turns out to be inauthentic, the resistance and the conflict are resolved within immanence; if, however, the revelation is authentic, resistance will increase to the point at which a resistance from elsewhere is recognized that cannot be subsumed under concepts. Through this resistance coming from elsewhere the counter-experience is received as authentic. This conflictual character is thus inherent to the witnessing of revelation.
This helps Marion to avoid both an idolatrous as well as a fanatical understanding of revelation. Marion argues that revelation retains its revelatory character only as a paradox: “[it is] the visibility of the invisible as such, and which remains so in its very visibility” (5). This highlights the two main lines of thought discussed in Givenness and Revelation: 1) as a paradox, revelation cannot be resolved by our logic and is thus not part of the wisdom of the world; 2) even though not resolved by our logic it still gives itself to reason as pure (non-objectifiable) givenness and imposes its own counter-logic, i.e. the wisdom of God.
Wisdom of the World
Marion begins by analysing the epistemological limitation of revelation through Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of theology. According to Marion, Thomas tries to ground theology as a science of God. In doing so he distinguishes between two kinds of theologies: philosophical theology, which deals with divine things only inasmuch as it infers them as the principles of their mundane and immanent effects, and sacra doctrina, which has revelation or divinity as its immediate object. This would imply, according to Marion, an epistemological hierarchy, in which philosophical theology and sacra doctrina differentiate themselves based solely on the degree in which they know God. Consequently, the sacra doctrina is reduced to the principles of natural reason and loses its revelatory character. Marion states that alternately, in Summa contra Gentiles Thomas introduces a new kind of knowledge to this hierarchy by subordinating sacra doctrina to “the science of the blessed,” i.e. an eschatological knowledge of God, which should provide the required principles to make the sacra doctrina a scientia dei. These principles, however, remain inaccessible due to the eschatological character of the blessed science. Thus the scientific character of sacra doctrina remains unfounded.
Marion draws from this consequence not that Thomas was wrong in his evaluation of revealed theology, but that he brings to light the aporia of theology understood as science. Philosophy has tried to resolve this aporia by emphasizing the epistemological understanding of revelation, while Vatican I and II provide an alternate interpretation of revelation based on biblical texts. Through Suarez, revelation was reduced to a sufficiens propositio and thus Thomas’ hierarchy was inverted, the epistemological account gaining primacy. This line of thought was to be continued and emphasized during the Enlightenment. According to Marion, the epistemological understanding subjects apokalypsis (revelation) to aletheia (truth), which is to be understood in its modern meaning as clear and distinct knowledge. In order to bring revelation to presence as clear and distinct it must be subjected to the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason, which for Marion are the basic principles of metaphysics. This critique is present throughout Marion’s works, stating that through the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason philosophy becomes dependent on ipseity. The entirety of phenomenality is reduced to the constitutive power of the subject.
Against this metaphysical view, Marion invokes Pascal in order to suggest that the will is not preceded by reason, as Descartes argues, but conditions knowing. This reversal of the relation between will and understanding concerns revelation when understood in connection to Augustine. Augustine states that only charity, which has been poured into our souls by the Holy Spirit, can lead us to truth (De trinitate). This is the turning point in Marion’s re-interpreting of revelation, which relies on two main arguments. First, the will to be willing is conditioned and sparked by revelation as the attraction to see the Father in the Son. And second, the will to be willing consists in faith, which conditions and precedes seeing. Only by accepting Jesus as the Son of the Father can we see the Father in the Son. What is at stake here is the conversion of intentionality and knowing the Father starting from the Father, which is only possible if we will the Father by being attracted to the Father through the Son. This is consistent with what Marion calls the logic of love: the hermeneutics of love is received from love itself, thus from elsewhere, and consequently not subjected to a sufficiens proposition (Marion, 1991).
From these considerations Marion draws three conclusions: 1) we can only see revelation through faith, i.e. if we believe; 2) in order to believe we need to will it. The will, however, is “put in operation” by the fact of being drawn by God’s love. Therefore, 3) we can will something only inasmuch as we love said something. Here the will is equated with love, and revelation becomes possible only inasmuch as it is freed from the logic of natural reason and able to impose its own logic, which must start with the will and end up in love again. Marion thus uncovers a new kind of logic in theology, which is not subdued by the logic of natural reason. In order for philosophical logic to come to terms with the logic of love it must turn to phenomenology, as Marion argues. Through phenomenology, phenomena are perceived inasmuch as they give themselves (Marion, 2002). This would allow us to see them based on their own logic of manifestation. This way of giving itself is made apparent in saturated phenomena and all the more so in the figure of Christ, who gives himself in an exceptional way. Christ, as a saturated phenomenon, gives himself from himself and does not abide by the epistemological conditions of experience. He thus contradicts these conditions and is received or seen as non-objectifiable. He therefore gives himself as a paradox, a paradox that neither excludes logic nor is outside logic, but instead extends to the possibility of describing the impossible as a counter-experience.
Wisdom of God
This reversed hermeneutics of the counter-experience is further explained in the case of mysterion, which can be uncovered only by the Father through His giving of Jesus as Son. The reception of such a phenomenon cannot be known or seen directly. In order to see a mysterion the reversal of intentionality is necessary, which implies that the mysterion is seen through the gaze of the Father and not transcendentally constituted as an object. The reversal of intentionality, however, is possible only through the Holy Spirit, who accomplishes the anamorphosis, i.e. a phenomenon becomes visible once we accept its own perspective. Through this acceptance of the perspective from elsewhere the mysterion shall not be known or unveiled but rather will show itself from itself in its uncovering (apokalypsis).
In order to emphasize charity’s coming from elsewhere, Marion relies on a Paulinian description of the power of God as hyperbolic (Eph. 3:18-19). Here the power of God is described as having four dimensions (height, depth, length, breadth), which for Marion signifies that charity cannot manifest itself within our space, as it exceeds it. Instead, it constitutes a “milieu” where we are absorbed in order to be saturated by the power of God: “I must allow myself to be situated in the midst of it, to be encompassed by it to the point of losing myself in it” (71). This losing of myself indicates nothing else than the loss of ipseity or I-intentionality, because our gaze, which constitutes objects in a three-dimensional space, cannot conceive a four-dimensional phenomenon. Therefore, charity or revelation is to be seen through a gaze which is not finite. The only gaze that is not finite, but still part of the world, is that of Christ. The mysterion uncovers itself in the gaze of Christ, who acts as the icon of the Father. He exhausts the invisibility of the Father and brings it to light in the flesh.
This relation between Christ, apokalypsis, and mysterion announces a phenomenological principle – “so much mysterion, so much revelation” – which for Marion fulfils the goal of phenomenology, namely that something gives itself from itself as itself without a doubled representation. Reinterpreting Husserl’s principle of principles, Marion explains this relation as follows: “the phenomenon shows itself in itself and through himself only in as much as it gives itself in and through Himself” (76). In short, the mode of appearance coincides with the mode of givenness. The only phenomenon which lives up to this principle and actualizes it is Christ, as he shows himself absolutely. This, however, is also dependent on the subject becoming a witness, i.e. on accepting the infinite gaze of the Son, which in its turn relies on being drawn by revelation. This appears to be a hermeneutic circle, which Marion recognizes and embraces as it leads to a Trinitarian manifestation of God. This is the turning point for understanding the Trinitarian manifestation of God, which alone can account for the revelation of the Father in the Son, the latter of which acts as the absolute icon based on two hermeneutical steps. The Father is the ground and condition for the giving of Jesus as Christ, i.e. as the Son of the Father. And this implies that Jesus can be seen as the Son of the Father only from the perspective of the Father.
These two steps make way for a conclusion: if we know Jesus as the Son of the Father, we also know the Father, as only from His perspective can Jesus be seen as the Christ. Consequently, and holding true to his status as icon, Jesus never refers to himself but to an Other, which is also the ground for the revelation. This is a first step in constituting a Trinitarian phenomenality. The second step connects tightly to the characteristic of the icon of letting the gaze of the other target the one who witnesses it. The fact that Jesus is given as the Son of the Father to mankind implies that mankind feels itself intended by the intentionality of the Father via the agency of the gift: “In this way the putting of Christ into an icon is accomplished, which properly defines the work of the Spirit” (86). The Spirit is consequently part of the unity of God. According to Marion the very phenomenal function of the Spirit is the accomplishing of the anamorphosis. This is to say, the finite intentionality is replaced by an infinite intentionality, which can in its turn only occur through the grace of the Father. Thus understood, the Spirit is the very act of giving, of the putting into operation of revelation, staying invisible but within visibility.
Having established revelation as a saturated phenomenon which gives itself in a Trinitarian way, Marion can now tackle the problem of Trinity by resorting to phenomenology, in order to show how the inner logic of Trinity is the logic of its manifestation.
Marion seeks to distance himself from the traditional understanding of Trinity, where substance is of priority and relation is secondary, accepting instead the relational shift proposed by Karl Barth and Karl Rahner. Based on their considerations that Trinity and its revelation constitute the basis of the unity and essence of God, Marion seeks to show how the phenomenological manifestation of God, or revelation, entails the primacy of love and communion concerning the essence of God. The phenomenological description of revelation as a saturated phenomenon would support this shift, as it implies that God is to be seen only as He gives Himself. Here, the thesis of the book is clearly formulated: “the Trinity offers not only the content of the uncovering, but also its mode of manifestation” (99). Because God gives Himself in a hyperbolic way, which saturates and surpasses our conceptual experience, and because such a given can only be seen through its own logic, God should be known only as He gives Himself. Considering that He gives Himself as a Trinity or communion, Trinity has primacy in the knowing of God. This is further sustained by Marion’s argument that Trinity reveals itself through Christ as an icon, which means that Christ never refers to himself but to another, and completely to another. This implies that the more he refers to another, i.e. to the Father, the more he appears as an icon and as the Son of God. This further entails that the stronger the communion between Father and Son is, the stronger the unity of God is.
Marion’s Givenness and Revelation provides a Trinitarian account of revelation, which, though based mainly on biblical texts, ends up both redefining theology as revealed theology and realizing the principles of his phenomenology of givenness. This account is consistent with Marion’s earlier description of Christ as the icon of the Father in which the logic of love is accomplished in a Trinitarian way (Marion, 1991: 139-56). Furthermore, the coherence of Givenness and Revelation is also sustained by Marion’s phenomenological developments of the figure Christ as the highest degree of givenness (Marion, 2002). This being said, we turn our attention to three possible inconsistencies of Givenness and Revelation.
Even though Marion’s critique of metaphysics retains the same aspects of going against egology, beingness, and objectivity (Gschwandtner, 2007: 194), one can notice several revisions made to his understanding of Husserl. Whereas in Being Given Husserl’s principle of principles is seen as the limitation of givenness, conditioning it based on a foreseeable indeterminacy, Givenness and Revelation describes revelation as the fulfilment of the same principle. It must then follow either that Marion’s understanding of said principle is inconsistent or that revelation itself is limited. Two additional points may be raised against Marion’s investigation of revelation. First, the question concerning the violation of Husserl’s principle of neutrality – already highlighted by Jones (Jones, 2011) – can also be posed here. Against this, one can argue based on Marion (Marion, 2000) that theology acts purely as an inspiration for phenomenology in constructing a christological philosophy. Second, the reception of revelation and its imposed logic without requiring a hermeneutics coming from the subject may be questioned, as already observed by Shane Mackinlay (Mackinlay, 2010). Against this point one can interpret the constitution of the subject as a witness together with Thomas Alferi (Alferi, 2007: 297), who states that this constitution is a pre-phenomenal one, the phenomenal subject being thus already inscribed within the Trinitarian hermeneutic circle. This latter description of the subject seems to be more consistent with Givenness and Revelation. Furthermore, Marion’s introduction of the concept of resistance in experiencing revelation might provide a further solution to the issue of the subject being too passive.
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Gschwandtner, C. M. (2007). Reading Jean-Luc Marion: Exceeding Metaphysics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Jones, T. (2011). A Genealogy of Marion’s Philosophy of Religion: Apparent Darkness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Mackinlay, S. (2010). Interpreting Excess: Jean-Luc Marion, Saturated Phenomena, and Hermeneutics. New York: Fordham University Press.
Marion, J. (1991). God Without Being: Hors-texte. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Marion, J. (2000). “Eine andere ‘Erste Philosophie’ und die Frage der Gegebenheit.” In Ruf und Gabe: Zum Verhältnis von Phänomenologie und Theologie. Her. J. Marion, J. Wohlmuth. Bonn: Alfter: Borengässer.
Marion, J. (2002). Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Stanford, Ca: Stanford University Press.
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Marion, J. (2016). Givenness and Revelation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.