God Without Being

“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions. (Blaise Pascal, Pensées 3.233)

Pascal is absolutely correct when he says that reason can do nothing to defend the propositions that God is or that God is not, because both of these propositions subject the idea of God to categories of being that are unsuitable to God. This is partly what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) means when he says, “If I were to write a theology, then the word being would not occur in it.” The idea of God and the idea of being are categorically unsuited to one another. (Heidegger, Four Seminars, GA 15, 436)

Yet, if we must do without the idea of being, how then would we articulate the question of God? Several thinkers have taken up this idea, and though I don’t have room here to do anything like justice to their work, I will briefly touch on two approaches to the question.

In his book God Without Being, French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion (b. 1946) argues that by defining God in terms of being, theology turns the idea of being into an idol. Unfortunately, he says, any other name we might apply to God will also become an idol, because no divine names can comprehend God.

Even so, Marion suggests, we need to shift our attention away from being and toward other divine names, like love, that put the emphasis on God’s activity rather than on our own definition. Love may not be a more essential name for God than being, but these kinds of names are more necessary in this moment, because they disrupt the idolatrous gaze that we have kept on being. They displace our attention away from being.

This displaced attention says nothing essential about God, only something about our belief, and it reveals that theology must come, not from humanity, but from God. The true language of theology is therefore testimony, confession of God before others, as God makes God incarnate in our words. In Marion’s words, “To do theology is not to speak the language of gods or “God”, but to let the Word speak us (or make us speak)…” (Marion 1995[1991]:143)

Richard Kearney (b. 1954) presents a different approach to the question. In The God Who May Be, he suggests that God should be understood as what is promised but not yet accomplished. God is thus always coming to be, is always characterized by possibility, by the divine, perhaps. In this sense, God passes through being but is never fixed in being, never becomes once and for all. (Kearney 2001)

In essence, Marion’s approach is to say that we cannot speak of God according to the category of being (as in the Latin esse “to be”) but only according to provisional and displacing categories like love (as in the Greek agape, to actively show compassion). God neither is nor is not. God loves.

On the other hand, Kearney’s approach says essentially that God should not be understood according to being (esse) but according to possibility (as in the Latin posse, for ability and potential). God neither is nor is not. God is what may be.

The arguments put forward by Marion and Kearney are of course far more complex than this, and there are many others who have contributed to this conversation on the nature of God and being, but hopefully these brief examples serve to show that it does not suffice merely to ask whether God is or is not.

Wagering on God’s existence thus assumes a false dichotomy between being and non-being that does not apply to God.

The human response to this God can never be definitive (this is what God is), only testimonial (this is what God has done). This God is seen and heard, but never definitively incarnated, so we can only ever testify to it. This God’s kingdom always remains to come, so we can only ever work for its possibility, never for its accomplishment.

2 Comments

  1. After reading the article, it seems to suggest that the saying, “God is dead” is equivalent to, “God is yet to be born”. Either way there is no God in “being”, so why would we give credit for things like love to a god that is nowhere and never has been there? To call love by the name of god is not a theology but a worshipping of love.

    It seems like an attempt to hang on to god as a real thing while admitting he is not in reality. God as a verb, or saying god is what we humans accomplish is lovely poetry, but also is a certain retreat of Theism backwards.

    God does not “exist”, but exists. God is not “in reality”, but is real. God is not “knowable”, but Kearney and Marion have knowledge of him. Are these language problems and not philosophy problems? At the worst, are these mere language GAMES?

    Great article, keep up the good work, James and contributors

  2. jeremylukehill

    Jason,

    To say that God cannot be understood according to categories of being is not all to say that God has no reality. It is to insist rigorously on the radical otherness of God. It is to acknowledge that anything of God that might appear in being would not be essential to God, but irremediably provisional, irrecoverably conditional on the limitations, not of God, but of being.

Leave a Reply